Saturday, May 12, 2012

Film Review - God Bless America

A biographer once commented, “We idolize people who we want to imitate,” If that’s the case, mainstream America is worse off than one could ever imagine. Judging by the still-skyrocketing ratings for the Kardashians (they got renewed again) and other trashy reality shows, America is so dumbed down there’s nowhere left to go but down “the road” described in Cormac McCathy’s bleak novel.

Such scenarios have attracted the ire of director Bobcat  Goldthwait, former screechy-voiced standup comedian and director of the cult favorite Shakes the Clown.  With the satire God Bless America, Goldthwait has created another quirky underground film. This one, however, deals with subject matter more serious than inebriated clowns.

Disenfranchised loner Frank (Joel Murray) is divorced from his wife, estranged from his daughter, and has just lost his job at an insurance company   After being diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, Frank sets out to off himself in front of the TV. He sees a My Super Sweet 16 type show  as spoiled brat Chloe bitches at he parents for not buying her an Escalade for her birthday. Frank, disgusted by this arrogant display, and all the oafish behavior he has encountered, snaps, like the blue-collar version of William Holden in Network.  He’s got a reason to live now, and he sets out to rid the world of awful brat Chloe and other boorish types. While offing Chloe, he encounters her droll classmate Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) , and the two set forth on a cross country mission to eradicate a slew of rude and crude poseurs.

Frank and Roxy’s relationship is completely platonic, with Frank even expressing disdain for Nabokov and America’s fascination with slutty teen girls. God Bless America is half thinking man’s film, half bloody black comedy. Under  Goldthwait’s direction, it achieves its objective (despite some uneven pacing) - to make people think. As in his previous directorial efforts, Goldthwait has the nerve to commit certain on-camera atrocities other directors would never consider. Frank confronts his tacky neighbors in a way that will leave you going “Umm, I didn’t just see that, did I?”

God Bless America pursues the same territory as Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, albeit in a real-time setting. The harmless nimrods of Idiocracy have been replaced by an American landscape inhabited by plenty of crass morons, mostly unseen. Frank and Roxy’s conversations are as much a part of the film as the gunplay. Frank attempts to explain the base nature of the American Superstarz show to a brain-dead fellow employee near the film’s beginning. His diatribe goes on too long, but it’s cathartic to hear a film character express the disgust many of us have felt since reality and (no) talent TV shows took over the airwaves.

Frank and Roxy track down another member of their hit list, a conservative radio talk show host,.“Why do you have to be so rude to people?”  Roxy says. The specter of self-absorption and rudeness is the enemy here.  God Bless America isn’t a politically-driven revenge fantasy. Even though a few of Frank and Roxy’s targets are conservative, it’s more about the lack of civility used in expressing the beliefs than the beliefs themselves. Other targets include people who talk on their cell phones in movie theaters, rude drivers, and the Westboro Baptist Church. The body count isn’t as large as you might expect from the ominous pic of the gun-toting duo on the movie's poster.  Frank and Roxy are the smart person’s Bonnie and Clyde. The violence is ultimately balanced by the articulate self-awareness of the lead characters. A slap-happy bloodfest this is not. Isn’t that the behavior the film is protesting? The movie is not without its twists and turns, but I won’t reveal any spoilers here.

After taking umbrage at the way a William Hung type character is being treated on the American Superstarz show, Frank and Roxy head to Hollywood to exact revenge.  This sets up the film’s climax in the belly of the beast where they come face-to face with the faux American Idol’s washed-up judges and hypocritical audience.

God Bless Americas theatrical release is  playing in a handful of art house theaters across the country. It’s playing at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles til May 17th.  God Bless America is a not so gentle reminder that we are in a pop culture Dark Ages. It’s about time more people stand up and actively create a Renaissance - just not with firearms.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Music Review: Sci-Fi Romance: The Ghost of John Henry

The Ghost of John Henry, the second album by L.A. indie-folk band Sci-Fi Romance, is a different listening experience, one that puts your mind, as well your ears, to work.. Singer/songwriter Vance Kotrla has crafted a concept album based on the folk legend of John Henry. The story of the steel-drivin' railroad worker who emerged victorious against a steam hammer, only to die for his efforts, has been recounted by many artists, from Big Bill Broonzy to Johnny Cash, but this is the first steam-folk treatment.

 The ten songs on John Henry combine bare-bones acoustic music and stark imagery to bring the folk tale to life, transforming the legend into a human being on a complex emotional journey. The battle pitting man versus machine is an ongoing one. John Henry’s courageous race against the steam hammer isn’t really that different than modern man’s love/hate relationship with technology.

Sci-Fi Romance's ambitious project colors in the legend with a musical storyline that’s simultaneously humane and ominous. Kotrla’s evocative baritone expresses this torment without becoming overblown. Kurt Bloom’s drumming and Jody Stark’s plaintive cello strike just the right balance with the somber guitar and Johnnie Kotrla's bass.  The rigorous production by Jaron Luksa, engineer for the Dresden Dolls and Amanda Palmer, ties it all together.

This bittersweet concept album may sound monotonous to people weaned only on the jumpy melodies of pop-rock. John Henry is an acquired taste for such folks, but well worth the effort. While the album seems to have been written and recorded to flow as a unified whole, a few of the songs do shine as solo pieces. “We Used to Sing”, the most commercial-sounding of all the tracks, has a lively pace. It's a bit like a Steve Goodman composition, though not quite as spry. In the first “Broken World”, Kotrla sings, "It’s a broken world/But in the cracks, there’s beauty,”  This could serve as the album’s mantra. 

The Ghost of John Henry carries Sci-Fi Romance into new territory.  Kotrla has made it a point to explore challenging subject matter and John Henry is no exception. It will be interesting to see where Sci-Fi Romance goes next.

Listen to the MP3 for Steam Drill Blues here.
Band Website: Sci-Fi Romance
My review of ..and surrender my body to the flames, the first album by Sci-Fi Romance