Reel Life review: "God Bless America"
Bobcat Goldthwait's acidic black comedy "God Bless America" napalms everything that's gone wrong with our great country, and supplies a sizable list of them in no particular order:
Demeaning televised talent contests. Self-centered, biased news commentators. Reality TV shows glorifying despicable behavior. News shows exploiting human tragedy. The list goes on.
A depressed, divorced Syracuse man named Frank (Joel Murray, Bill's little bro) stands in for Goldthwait as he shakes his fist at an increasingly crass, dumbed-down society where stupidity and ignorance are rewarded with fame and fortune.
Frank's young daughter won't see him unless he brings her a present. He's fired from his job for giving flowers to a sad co-worker. Then a doctor tells him he's got an incurable tumor -- in between phone calls to his wife to discuss color selection on a purchase.
Tired of living in a world where shallow people pass off jingoistic phrases as conversation, ridicule the weak, celebrate selfishness and take joy in the pain of others, Frank decides to put a gun in his mouth. Then, he decides he'd rather kill stupid people instead.
His first hit -- a narcissistic high school girl -- is witnessed by Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who shares Frank's hatred of people who say "actually" or "literally" all the time. She joins Frank to become a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde dedicated to eradicating worthless Americans, including a right-wing TV commenter.
"God Bless America" quickly defaults on its promising premise as Frank and Roxy begin knocking off anyone who offends them in increasingly violent ways. Soon, we're just watching two egomaniacs who've decided their own brand of crazy is superior to everyone else's.
Murray is wonderfully cast as a frazzled middle-class everyman; Barr is adorable as the daughter Frank probably wishes he had.
The movie's best rant comes from Roxy, who attacks Lemont native Diablo Cody for her insufferable dialogue in "Juno."
"She's the first stripper to ever have too much self confidence!" Roxy rails. Cody couldn't have written that line any better.
"God Bless America" opens at the Century Centre, Chicago. Rated R for extreme violence, language. 104 minutes. ★ ★
A brush with Barnabas
In 1969, I went to see a production of "Dial M For Murder" at the Little Theater on the Square in downstate Sullivan. The star: Jonathan Frid, alias vampire Barnabas Collins from ABC's hot weekday horror soap "Dark Shadows."
He played the villain, of course. Guy Little, who ran the theater, popped in as a cop.
At the end of this final production of the play, Frid took the stage and thanked us for coming.
Then he produced a menacing set of fanged dentures. He said he normally puts them in at the end of every show, but this night he would forego the ritual. We were very disappointed.
I never got to speak with Frid that night. I was just a high school sophomore among his many fans. But Frid did autograph my program. I still have it.
Meanwhile, I periodically listen to Robert Colbert's superbly creepy music to "Dark Shadows" by going to youtube.com and searching for "Dark Shadows Music." You'll find the tracks from the original TV record album there.
Frid died April 13, exactly four weeks ago in Ontario, Canada, after suffering a fall. He was 87.
Reel Life review: "In the Family"
The story of "In the Family" unfolds as a series of shots at the kitchen table. First, we see Chip enjoying a boisterous meal with his two dads, Cody and Joey.
Later, we watch Joey and Chip quietly dining following Cody's death in an auto accident.
Later, a lonely Joey sits at the table. Chip has been taken from him by Cody's sister, now his legal guardian, because Cody never updated his will to name his life partner Joey as his executor or as Chip's legal father.
At an intimidating 169 minutes, Patrick Wang's domestic drama "In the Family" is slightly bloated, frustrating and in love with its own gentle rhythm and oh-so-patient pacing.
Yet, I was never bored by this sincere and striking movie because every frame possesses its own beating heart. Wang plays Joey, and he carries 95 percent of this story without succumbing to clichés, acting tricks or pandering to an imagined audience.
Flashbacks fills us in on how Joey met Cody (Trevor St. John) and how they fell into a relationship following Cody's wife's death.
"In the Family" traces Joey's struggle to keep Chip (a delightfully spontaneous performance by Sebastian Banes) by using a very odd visual style. The framing is off-kilter, so sometimes we only see Joey conversing with another person out of frame. Or watch Joey teach a class without actually seeing the students. Or see only half the faces of two people talking at each end of the frame.
I first found this to be incredibly irritating. After a while, this became part of Wang's directorial debut narrative, and irritation gave way to curiosity as I began to wonder how Wang would compose and execute his next shot.
"In the Family" is one of the best family stories I've ever seen, a movie in which an attorney's experience and wisdom are respected, and the human capacity for civility, companionship and love are affirmed.
"In the Family" opens at the Wilmette Theater this weekend, then at the LaGrange Theater on May 18. Not rated, but suitable for general audiences. 169 minutes. ★ ★ ★ ½
Reel Life review: "Sound of My Voice"
Zal Batmangli's digital-shot indie drama "Sound of My Voice" feels like the opening episode in a planned movie franchise promising to answer all the questions this teaser movie poses.
This rather short feature consists of 10 chapters (it was originally conceived as an Internet serial) centering around a documentary filmmaking couple determined to expose a cult leader.
Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) are blindfolded and taken to a secret house where they must scrub down in the shower and wear robes to meet enigmatic Maggie (producer, co-writer Brit Marling).
A luminous blonde being, Maggie claims to be from the future, and she instructs her small group of devotees in how to handle the apocalypse she says is coming.
"She's a con artist," Peter keeps reminding Lorna and himself. Yet, Maggie's empathic powers prove to be potent, and Peter's relationship with Lorna begins to crack under Maggie's pressure.
"Sound of My Voice" is a terrific example of how filmmakers can construct an involving, intelligent movie (or Web serial) on a severely limited budget, without calling attention to it.
Marling, Denham and Vicius share a combustible chemistry in a quasi-romantic triangle that winds up leaving us desperately and surprisingly wanting more.
"Sound of My Voice" opens at the Century Centre and River East in Chicago, and at the Evanston Century 12. Rated R for language, drug use. 86 minutes. ★ ★ ★
• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!