It's hard to define exactly what actor/comedian/musician Tim Heidecker does — the deliberate result of a Dead Sea-dry sense of humor that can make even his most committed supporters feel like they're not always in on the joke — but if anything binds his various projects together it might be a consistent effort to explore the value of absurdity in an increasingly absurd world. You can see it in “The Comedy,” a semi-improvised satire in which Heidecker gave one of the decade's great performances as a trust fund man-child who gets unmoored between irony and entropy. You can hear it on albums like “Too Dumb for Suicide: Tim Heidecker's Trump Songs,” in which he mocks our reality TV president in order to grapple with the futility of mocking our reality TV president.
And you can watch it darken and metastasize for hours and hours and hours on end as part of the ever-expanding “On Cinema” universe, which started as one giant subtweet of a movie review podcast before it grew to encompass 11 seasons of a television show, a five-hour fake murder trial, and now a feature-length film in which Heidecker campaigns to become the San Bernardino County District Attorney in order to get revenge on the man who rightly tried him for his role in an EDM concert where 18 people vaped themselves to death.
That may not make a ton of sense to anyone who didn't watch Tim's Electric Sun Desert Musical Festival go disastrously wrong in season nine of “On Cinema at the Cinema,” but “Mister America” — the new mockumentary about Heidecker's malicious political campaign — doesn't really seem to care. The movie is extremely fine with being a fans-only affair, but the fact is that Heidecker's comedy thrives in the liminal space between what's supposed to be funny and what's not, and the one thing he can't afford to do is stop to explain the joke. Besides, we all live at a time when a thin-skinned bully redoubled his efforts to take over the world after a comedian made fun of him at a fancy dinner party, so it's not like anyone is going to be all that starved for context. “Mister America” might be a much tougher sit for the uninitiated than it is for all the TimHeads out there, but even those who don't enjoy this half-baked stunt of a movie should be able to appreciate how sardonically it smudges the thin line between freedom and chaos.
Directed by “Nathan for You” vet Eric Notarnicola, whose TV work has elevated “Borat”-style comedy to cringe-worthy new s, “Mister America” uses both professional actors and random people in a way that helpfully destabilizes the entire project, while less helpfully making you wish that Heidecker had just entered the San Bernardino DA race for real. The comedian continues his “On Cinema” performance as an outrageously arrogant version of himself, an ego monster with a Trumpian gift for transmuting ignorance into anger.
It's equal parts funny and frightening to watch him accost strangers for their signatures, as he runs his campaign with all the social grace of a serial killer. In one scene, Heidecker barges into a family restaurant and asks a tableful of patrons if they're potential voters “I just want to know that I'm not wasting my time”. A later moment that feels like a tepid rehash of “The Comedy” finds him walking into a barbershop and lecturing two young men of color about how great their neighborhood was “in the good old days.”
Aside from a climactic rally where it becomes hard to suss fact from fiction, the funniest and/or most pointed stuff in “Mister America” tends to come from people who are part of the charade. Terri Parks is low-key hilarious as useless campaign manager Toni Newman, a former jury member on Heidecker's murder trial and the one dissenting vote that prevented him from spending the rest of his life in jail. Don Pecchia gets a few good moments as Heidecker's nemesis Vincent Rosetti, a totally baffled civil servant who can't help but insist that everyone in America — even cartoonish asshats who are clearly motivated by personal vendettas — has the right to run for office even if that means our democracy is always one megalomaniacal idiot away from becoming a circus.
And, of course, it's only a matter of time before Heidecker's “On Cinema at the Cinema” co-host Gregg Turkington shows up wearing a promotional hat from the misbegotten Guy Pearce vehicle “The Time Machine.” His scenes sprinkle in some of that classic “On Cinema at the Cinema” flavor, as Turkington provides a little backstory for Heidecker neophytes in between reminding us about his “Ant-Man” cameo, dumpster-diving for an old VHS copy of the Steve Martin/Queen Latifah vehicle “Bringing Down the House,” and bragging that he was one of the first 300 people to ever see Clint Eastwood's “Sully.”
All of this stuff pulls focus away from the local election, but Heidecker’s name isn't actually on the ballot anyway. He may have the grievance to become a major political force, but he lacks the money and the fool's gold charisma that some people are able to buy with it he campaigns on a promise to end 100 percent of crime in San Bernardino County, but the racism underlying that message is maybe too subtle to excite white voters. It's amusing that he lives in his hotel war room, and that his grassroots efforts amount to asking local businesses to hang anti-Rosetti signs that read “We have a rat problem,” but the overall inertia of the film's narrative makes it hard to sustain any real comic momentum from one gag to the next.
On the other hand, “Mister America” is the kind of comedy that can pivot from lethargic to legendary on the turn of a dime if only for a minute or two; a scene where Heidecker absentmindedly vapes his own toxic product is proof enough of that. And given how normalized this kind of character has become in these dumb times, that part can also be seen as a convenient metaphor for the entire movie. When the world is on fire, why go out of your way to suck up the smoke? When absurdism has become our day-to-day reality, what are absurdists supposed to do?
For Heidecker, one answer seems to be to make documentaries. A genuine attempt would have been preferable to this ersatz parody, but “Mister America” is real enough when it needs to be. One screaming “constituent” yells at our hero as he retreats from a campaign stop gone wrong: “Tim Heidecker is a fucking murderer! You know he killed those kids and he's going to fucking burn for it!” Cowardly speed-walking away, Heidecker shouts over his shoulder: “You'll vote for me!”
I’ve been in a spot where the young Yoko Atsuko Maeda was or maybe still in it: an existential anxiety about your prospects. For anyone who has ever done film production before, you know that small filmmaking roles can be a gateway to your desired grander opportunity. At this point in her life, Yoko is disillusioned with her position as a host of a reality travel show trailed by a trifling all-male crew in Uzbekistan. At first, Yoko treats her position like an unwanted obligation since she has been pining for better—or something she calls “better.” Now she fears she may be in stasis rather than moving forward toward her desired destination.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth encapsulates one woman’s blossoming from a reserved drone into a willing participant with Maeda’s subtle dynamism from a perpetually placid and pouty countenance to a focused visage.
Yoko’s stint in Uzbekistan takes off on undignified starts. When the camera rolls, she has to perform a bubbly persona—at odds with her current morose mood—that doesn’t pop enough for the director. The fishermen they film with also call her bad luck, since she is a woman, and their first shoot was reliant on them making a catch and the fishermen welcoming her. Her concerns and needs, while not ignored, are secondary in the production. When she is forced to endure an intense theme park ride, a crewmember checks on the camera before looking at her blatantly nauseated expression—then she is ordered to endure two more takes of the ride. To complicate matters, she cannot speak the Uzbekistan language and relies on a translator, which can be troublesome when she’s out alone and interacting with the locals. Along with it, she witnesses the deleterious effect of a production that doesn’t seem to be realizing its full potential, eavesdropping on the crew’s mulling over the quality of the footage. Obstacles are inevitable in any production.
On her break days, Yoko navigates the anxieties of traveling in a foreign country as she walks through the city alone, not for sightseeing but to buy supplies. She pushes away aggressive vendors—who profile her as a tourist and thus a potential customer—and breaks into a run when she walks past groups of strangers in an alleyway. However, she eases up in this strange environment, finding bits of enchantment, and getting lost in it, such as a penned goat on her encounter. Halfway through the film, does the story bring her desires to light as she wanders alone into an opera house and imagines herself on the stage. She voices this insecurity to her crewmember, who assures her there that her current station could still be a gateway for her singing aspirations.
The longer she stays in Uzbekistan, the more she feels attuned, even if she isn’t completely embracing the new world around her. She begins adding her two cents and pitching her ideas. One pitch comes through, her decision to liberate the penned goat she came across. They film her freeing the goat into the expanse, only for the owner to attempt to reclaim the goat. So they pay the original owners to let it wander, but she is more aware that the goat is more at risk when set free. Spoilers: the goat will return, and in a way that strikes the heart, and she accepts it as a sign from the universe that all will be well.
Kurosawa stacks a twist or two that may seem over-the-top, but they somehow compliment Yoko’s transformation. After a harrowing chase scene at the of Yoko’s anxiety, she doesn’t realize she has a paradigm shift. When there comes a moment a terror is resolved and she says, “The people here are nice and the country is nice” and means it. By that time, she has evolved in her potential as much as she evolved her perspective in a foreign place.
The film twirls into musical territory at two moments, the final a-la Sound of Music. For a film shot naturalistically, it manages to earn these sparks of spontaneity. Some questions linger after her final song of exuberance. Has she made peace with the elements given to her? Is she still optimistic she’ll reach her initial dream, just in a way she never expected? Either way, she knows she’ll be fine.
“I’m having trouble looking in the mirror lately,” says Henry Brogan Will Smith, one of the world’s best assassins. He’s spent a large chunk of his career bumping off bad guys for the government, but now he wants to hang up his guns and retire at the ripe old age of 51. He’s tired of killing people, and for the first time in his deadly career, he’s actually starting to grow what might be considered a conscience. But if Henry thought looking in the mirror was hard, just wait until he comes face to face with a new enemy: himself.
A younger, cloned Henry played by a digitally de-aged Smith has come calling, setting the stage for a big Will Smith vs. Will Smith action extravaganza wrapped-up in a package called Gemini Man. All the pieces are there, and those pieces rest in the able hands of director Ang Lee. So why is the end result so curiously lifeless? At some point, Lee got too caught up with the tech at work here and forgot to focus on a moving narrative. The end result is more video game than movie.
Digitally de-aging is becoming more and more prevalent. Marvel has been doing it for a few years now, perfecting things with a perfectly de-aged Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel. Martin Scorsese’s upcoming The Irishman uses similar tech to de-age Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino – with mostly successful results there are one or two scenes where the effect seems off. Gemini Man wants to take things to a whole new level, so much so that Lee has been insistent on stating that this isn’t a “digitally de-aged” Will Smith – it’s a full CGI creation. Smith may have been his own stand-in, but his younger version is de-aged in body as well as face.
Smith has been in the limelight for decades, and we know exactly what he looked like as a younger man from his Fresh Prince days. So when the young Smith – nicknamed Junior – finally pops-up about a half-hour into the movie the result is momentarily stunning. It really looks like a young Will Smith has teleported from the past into this movie.
But then Junior starts talking – and the effect is completely blown. Because while the FX wizards Lee has worked with are able to master Smith’s resting face, they never quite get the knack to show it in motion. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of motion here. Henry and Junior are constantly sparring, fighting, and bickering, which means the digital Smith has a lot of action and acting to do. But every time he moves his mouth or blinks his eyes, there’s an eerie, uncanny quality at play. He starts to look less like a living, breathing human and more like a video game character – or even the lead character in this year’s Alita: Battle Angel. Alita never looked fully real in that movie, but it worked in that context – after all, she’s a cyborg. But Smith’s Junior is supposed to be flesh and blood.
None of this is Smith’s fault. The actor does the best he can with the clunky, humorless script from David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke. Smith has always had charisma to burn, and Lee was wise to cast him here, because Gemini Man has to coast almost entirely on that charisma. He brings a rough weariness to Henry and a conflicted tenderness to Junior that still manages to shine through all that damn CGI.
Along his journey, Henry is aided by Danny Zakarweski Mary Elizabeth Winstead, another agent accidentally caught up in this mess. There was a time when Winstead’s character would be little more than a tag-along – a hapless, helpless female character that Smith would have to save over and over again. But Gemini Man makes the smart choice of having Winstead’s Danny be more than able to handle herself, and she gets to kick as much ass as Smith. Progress!
Henry and Danny are also helped by Henry’s old pal Baron, a woefully underwritten character saved by a lively, if underused, Benedict Wong. Baron is more plot device than character – he exists because he knows how to fly a plane, and the story requires Henry to fly all over Europe at the drop of a hat. You keep waiting for the character to have a big moment to shine – but it never comes.
All of this cloning and mayhem has been orchestrated by Clay Varris, an evil government spy played by a sleepy, bored Clive Owen. There’s a lot of talk about how twisted and cold-hearted Varris is, but Owen plays him so low-key and lifeless that he makes for an ultimately drab villain. Varris’ plan to eliminate Henry begins to take on all the trappings of a Bourne sequel, where he bickers with other government agents behind-the-scenes about who to kill next. It’s all so boring that you might want to go ahead and take a bathroom break during these scenes.
The only time Gemini Man really comes alive is during its big action scenes. Lee stages many of these in brightly lit locals, all the better to highlight the High Frame Rate he shot the film in – a technique which looks like big-screen motion smoothing, and one which filmmakers should strop trying to make happen. There are several big set pieces including a motorcycle chase where the two Smiths are literally chucking their bikes at each other. But even these action scenes falter, particularly when Lee has his characters pull off the impossible. On more than one occasion Junior’s acrobatics make him look more like a rubber doll than a human being, and one specific moment where Henry does the world’s most powerful push-up – one that literally launches his entire body off the ground as if it were a spring – is so damn silly looking that it’s surprising it made it into the final film.
The video game comparisons come into play here, too. Not only do many of the action scenes get bogged down in digital nonsense, Lee often cuts to POV shots with the camera mounted on the barrel of whatever gun Henry happens to be holding, thus moving the camera along with the weapon. The end result looks exactly like a moment lifted from a first-person shooter game.
Lee is a daring filmmaker and deserves credit for trying new things visually with Gemini Man. But it would’ve been better off for everyone if he had stopped to think about the story as well. There’s a lot of psychological material to mine from this premise – a man literally coming face to face with himself. But Gemini Man only gives that material a cursory glance, and then it’s on to the next action scene drowning in digital drudgery. There’s nothing wrong with a middle-of-the-road action pic, but you can tell Gemini Man wants to be something much bigger, and better. It isn’t.
Emerging actors Jake Ryan and John Tui headline Sam Kelly’s debut feature, set in the world of New Zealand street gangs.
New Zealand is, quite bafflingly, viewed as some kind of magical wonderland, covered in lush greenery and populated by happy hobbits. In reality, New Zealand is like any other developed nation, populated by rich and poor, advantaged and underprivileged, the mainstream and outcasts. Writer-director Sam Kelly pulls the cover off New Zealand's gang culture in his first feature film, Savage. One part examination of a criminal subculture and one part dissection of masculinity and how it's defined, the pic is going to draw immediate comparisons to the former FX series Sons of Anarchy — which would be inaccurate as well as entirely unfair.
Savage will also recall Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors for the social tapestry of a marginalized group it weaves. Shifting back and forth among three watershed moments in the protagonist's life, Kelly draws an emotional roadmap detailing one man's life and how he got from A to B. Savage is primed for a long festival run, and English-language territories should take an interest in its fresh perspective.
Savage begins in 1989 with patched-in gang member Danny Australian actor Jake Ryan, also known as “Damage,” punishing a mate for a theft. It's a brutal introduction to his brutal life, and it continues later that same evening when he reports back to the club president, Moses John Tui, Solo: A Star Wars Story. Moses is clinging to power — rival Tug the charismatic Alex Raivaru is nipping at his heels — but there's always time for some drinks and some women. It's during a clumsy encounter with a well-heeled, sexually confident woman that Danny explains that his facial tattoos, his mask, are there so that she can see who he really is. It's an ironic statement, and one that prompts Danny to recall his life to this point.
In too many circumstances, flashbacks can be clunky, intrusive asides that take viewers out of a film, but in Savage they actually have a hand in crafting a richer portrait of how a boy transforms from 9-year-old Danny, son of a devoutly Christian and abusive farmer, to juvenile convict in 1965 to Damage, sergeant in the burgeoning Savages gang in 1972.
Kelly's script was inspired by real street-gang history, and the world of Savage couldn't be farther from the trendy, postcard-ready cafe culture of Wellington where the film was shot if it tried. Kelly and director of photography James L. Brown capture the casual violence and still uneasy white-Maori coexistence with a raw, unfiltered, dark tone that lends the pic a veracity it might not enjoy with cleaner images. Not surprisingly, Danny looks most out of his element in the bright light of day.
But Kelly wisely makes Danny and Moses' friendship and their growth or not the real story, and Ryan and Tui's completely believable, naturalistic dynamic serves as the movie's emotional anchor. Savage's strongest moments involve the two just having a beer and talking about their shared pasts and possible futures, revealing a great deal more about both men than any gang fight does.
It also makes a reconnection between Danny and his brother Liam Seth Flynn all the more gutting when Danny begins to struggle with the lure of a lost family and freedom from gang life versus loyalty to his oldest friend, someone who provided a haven when he needed one. It becomes obvious that Danny's tattoos are actually just a public face for a more sensitive man who might, on the third go, make a radically different choice.
Production company: Domino Films Cast: Jake Ryan, John Tui, Chelsea Crayford, Alex Raivaru, Olly Presling, James Matama, Haanz Fa'Avae Jackson, Lotina Pome'e, Poroaki McDonald, Jack Parker, Seth Flynn, Dominic Ona-Ariki Director-screenwriter: Sam Kelly Producer: Vicky Pope Executive producers: William Watson, Billy Trotter, Brian Kelly Director of photography: James L. Brown Production designer: Chris Elliott Costume designer: Bob Buck Editor: Peter Roberts Music: Arli Liberman Casting: Yvette Reid, Miranda Rivers Venue: Busan International Film Festival World sales: Film Constellation
Actor Will McFadden directs himself in the story of a white man whose white wife gives birth to a black baby.
If discussions of race in America often hit brick walls when the points turn personal " I'm not a racist, it's all those cops/landlords/Trump voters...", fiction can sometimes find cracks in the mortar, showing how a decent, relatable character can be part of the problem. That's the case with Will McFadden's Doubting Thomas, which starts with a dicey-sounding premise — a white couple has a black child, and the wife swears it's not the result of an affair — but handles it with more grace than one expects in microbudget cinema. Imperfect but admirable for a serious approach that doesn't stumble over into off-putting earnestness, it's a debut with more on its mind than giving its writer/director a plum job as an actor as well.
McFadden plays Tom, a successful lawyer who's expecting his first child with wife Jen Sarah Butler. So serious about his responsibility that sometimes he's the one who finds himself alone at Lamaze class, he nevertheless misses his wife's delivery — he's off chasing a hoodlum who stole her purse, and dealing with the cops afterward.
So when he arrives at the hospital, where his best friend Ron Jamie Hector has given Jen a ride, Ron knows something he doesn't: Jen's baby is unmistakably an African-American. Ron is black as well, but the two men are such close friends that the obvious hypothesis isn't the first one addressed: Well before anyone suggests Jen might've slept with Ron, husband and wife have settled uneasily on the idea of some recessive gene in their DNA. Maybe somebody way back in the family tree was black, and this is nature's way of informing them.
Neither new parent is quite satisfied with that explanation predictably, Tom finds it harder to accept than Jen, but that doesn't keep them from being indignant when friends and strangers leap to natural conclusions: that, for instance, the couple adopted a child from Africa, or used a sperm donor. In a variation of that revolting ritual in which young parents assume other people's reproductive choices are their business, curious women assail Jen at a party, amplifying her unease. But soon enough, Tom has segued from obsessive web searches about genetics and childbirth stats to terms like "signs that my wife is cheating on me." And Ron, a bachelor who has always made himself at home in his married friend's house, is the prime suspect.
Rather than push hard into the narrative questions it raises, the film's midsection focuses largely on attitudes and acceptance. Does it change a white person's self-concept to give birth to a non-white child? How far back in your genealogy would you have to go for an ancestor of another race not to impact your identity? Why does it even matter?
Wisely, McFadden avoids nailing things down too tightly here, being content to show the shaky ground his characters stand on. As it unfolds, the drama's scripting is uneven, with some motivations more convincingly drawn than others and perhaps a few too many mentions of the big "Albright case" that Tom's supposed to be focused on at work. But the film is open-ended enough to acknowledge that the remedies for unacknowledged prejudice are neither easy nor clearly identified. And if one obviously well-intentioned man has this much trouble, heaven help the country that produced him.
Production company: Long Way Home Cast: Will McFadden, Sarah Butler, Jamie Hector, Melora Walters, James Morrison Director: Will McFadden Screenwriters: Will McFadden, Joseph Campbell Producers: Casey Morris, Laura Jane Salvato, Mark Sayre Director of photography: Phil Parmet Production designer: Stephanie Spiegel Costume designer: Cate Adams Editor: Mark Sayre Composer: David Majzlin Casting directors: Liz Lewis, Angela Mickey
An elderly Indian woman decides to live for herself in director Kislay’s debut feature.
Oppressive obligations and societal expectations are at the heart of debuting director Kislay's Just Like That, an indictment of the dismissiveness with which India treats elderly women after their duties as wives and mothers have been discharged.
Premiering in Busan's New Currents competition section, Just Like That has a clear-eyed, singular focus that ties its various, seemingly unrelated threads together for a larger comment on a woman's lack of agency in a society that still undervalues them. Beautifully shot and acted, with only a few novice filmmaker missteps we don't really need the family history inserts, Just Like That will slot in nicely in festival line-ups, and could garner some arthouse attention in Asia-Pacific as well as urban markets overseas.
After 52 years of marriage, the newly widowed Mrs. Sharma Mohini Sharma has decided to start living for herself and not, as is expected, act the good widow and move in with her son, Virendra Harish Khanna and his wife Sonia Sadhna Singh. She starts going out for ice cream, getting beauty treatments, learning the craft of doll-making with help from a local tailor and, most shockingly, controlling her own money: She opens her first bank account.
Despite pressure from Virendra to “shift” downstairs so that the financially strapped family can rent out the upper floor, she stubbornly resists falling in line. To make matters worse, she strikes up a friendship with a young woman who works in the salon she starts frequenting, Sugandhi Trimala Adhikari, and the Muslim man, Ali Mohammed Iqbal, who's teaching her to sew. Before long, Mrs. Sharma is the gossip of small Allahabad and she still winds up forced to sacrifice her independence.
Director Kislay has a light touch, and illustrates Mrs. Sharma's position with a clever combination of alienating images vividly and colorfully shot by Saumyananda Sahi that put her outside the crowd and a layered soundscape by Gautam Nair that insinuates the world into her new life. Crowded compositions often see Mrs. Sharma physically pushed to the edge of the frame, as if she's an insignificant afterthought, and ambient city noises become louder and clearer as she goes about her business of re-experiencing the world. It's a subtle effect — it gets duller and quieter when she's forced to give up her new life — but one that drives home Kislay's point.
Ahead of a disheartening, but not entirely pessimistic, ending, Kislay laces Just Like That with grace notes that highlight how unbending the rules can be — Mrs. Sharma's grandson Vicky Shiram Sharma starts exerting entitled male control over his sister Vinny Saumya Jhakmola when he finds out she might have a boyfriend — and how rocking the boat can have dire consequences; Ali's livelihood and life are all threatened at one point for simply befriending a curious, friendly Hindu widow.
This is an intimate film that relies on understanding how Mrs. Sharma goes from feeling utterly liberated to feeling trapped all over again. In the lead, Sharma shoulders the burden of making those feelings real with grace, nimbly jumping between satisfied curiosity and resignation.