God Bless America [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Magnolia Pictures
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (7th September 2012).
The Film

“My name is Frank. That's not important. The important question is: who are you? America has become a cruel and vicious place. We reward the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest. We no longer have any common sense of decency. No sense of shame. There is no right and wrong. The worst qualities in people are looked up to and celebrated. Lying and spreading fear is fine as long as you make money doing it. We've become a nation of slogan-saying, bile-spewing hatemongers. We've lost our kindness. We've lost our soul. What have we become? We take the weakest in our society; we hold them up to be ridiculed, laughed at for our sport and entertainment. Laughed at to the point where they would literally rather kill themselves than live with us anymore.”

I admit a tiny bit of my faith in humanity was restored recently by the announcement that MTV was canceling “Jersey Shore” (2009-2012). For a brief flicker of a moment, I felt hope for the future. Then I thought about it some more. I came down from that glorious high of happiness, slowly, and then crashed with a sudden realization: Snooki, The Situation, and any other thing on that seriously stupid show has been on the airwaves for six freaking seasons, and the damage is done. And so, I wept. (Figuratively, or internally, or whatever, of course, so there were no actual tears, but I digress…) Then, I thought of another terrible truth: just because the increasingly orange Guido’s (and that one awful, even oranger, Guidette) won’t be on their show anymore, doesn’t mean they’re suddenly gone forever. And, no doubt, MTV will still have a dozen other shows of the same ilk on throughout the week anyway, even after those Jersey idiots disappear (sadly, probably not into thin air). Lets not forget, there are several other cable networks with equally atrocious, soul-crushingly stupid, vomit-inducingly-volatile programs in constant rotation 24-7, too. Perhaps most distressing of all was my sudden recognition that all these shows are unspeakably popular, and many, many, many people watch them… a fair few even like them. Frankly, it just might be enough to make someone want to put a gun in their mouth. Or, at least to empathize with those who do.

I decidedly cannot say the same thing with those other mentally fragile people who turn the gun in the other direction, and actually shoot up movie theaters, which is a thing far more unnerving than even the spine-tinglingly terrifying fact Snooki is now a mother. But, and I want everyone to comprehend this with perfect clarity, I can totally understand what would drive someone—like comedian-turned-director/writer Bobcat Goldthwait, whose last film “World’s Greatest Dad” (2009) was a divisive and dark satire, which looks totally tame in light of what he’s done now—to make a movie about characters who do exactly that (and why he wants them to be seen as the “good guys”, in some wickedly warped way), in the service of satire. Such is the case, at least in part, with “God Bless America”, Goldthwait’s newest film, in which a divorced, recently jobless, possibly-terminally-ill man named Frank (superbly portrayed by the underrated Joel Murray) and his plutonic teenaged partner Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) travel cross country, leaving the lifeless bodies of the “not nice” in their wake.

Do they shoot up a movie theater at one point? Yes. (And Frank sits in the dark with a gun in his mouth more than once, too.) And, in light of recent events—and other similarly chilling kill-sprees in the news—some of what unfolds over the course of “God Bless…” is kind of uncomfortable to even fathom, let alone watch (and to come away entertained by said watching probably seems utterly unthinkable). Yet, Goldthwait’s keen sense of who and what he is as an artist—a social commentator—and the sharp satirical wit by which he does his commentating, gives “God Bless America” a strange watchability, for lack of a better word.

“It's not nice to laugh at someone who's not all there. It's the same type of freak-show distraction that comes along every time a mighty empire starts collapsing. ‘American Superstarz’ is the new Coliseum and I won't participate in watching a show where the weak are torn apart every week for our entertainment. I'm done, really. Everything is so ‘cool’ now. I just want it all to stop. I mean nobody talks about anything anymore. They just regurgitate everything they see on TV, or hear on the radio or watch on the web. When was the last time you had a real conversation with someone without somebody texting or looking at a screen or a monitor over your head? You know, a conversation about something that wasn't celebrities, gossip, sports, or pop politics. You know, something important, something personal.”

Frank and Roxy do what they do, not for the notoriety of doing so, or anything like that. But because, they believe they are bettering man by ridding the world of the worst people. It’s a deluded fantasy—a fever-dream come to nightmarish life; a point that Goldthwait addresses in clever, if twisted, surrealistic ways—and, such as it is, Frank and Roxy fail to grasp that they too are terrible people. But the fantasy feeds the narrative. A narrative where anonymity is key, and the unlikely duo are very careful not to draw attention to themselves by doing stupid things like playing dress up in clown costumes (the closest they get to that is a sort of Clyde Barrow, Patty Hearst thing, which Frank quickly makes them give up for the bland blendability of a Hawaiian shirt or grandpa sweater, and generic teen girl clothes for Roxy. You know, touristy stuff).

Quickly, and usually efficiently, the duo kills the people who, in their eyes, deserve it. Their victims are of all sorts. The people in the theater who wouldn’t get off their cell phones and let them enjoy a movie. The asshole that took up two parking spaces because he felt entitled to both of them. The bratty star of “Sweet Sixteen”—a fictitious show within the world of the film; a perfect parody of MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” (2005-Present)—who screams at her parents when they get her a Lexus, when she wanted an Escalade. And, to come full circle, why not, the parents of that girl, for raising such an insufferable creature, too? The probable, if exactly not proven, pedophile. The Fred Phelps-ian preacher, and the members of his Westboro-esque congregation, protesting funerals with signs that read “God Hates Fags”. The judges and the audience members, and even some of the contestants, of the film’s “American Idol” (2002-Present) or “X-Factor” (2011-Present) stand-in, “American Superstarz”, for perpetuating the worst aspects of an obsessive, increasingly worthless, media-minded society. Above all else, they chose these targets because not a single one of them was “nice” or had any decency.

“I wish I was a super-genius inventor and could come up with a way to make a telephone into an explosive device that was triggered by the ‘American Superstarz’ voting number. The battery could explode and leave a mark on the face, so I could know who to avoid talking to before they even talked.”

This is not “Falling Down” (1993), or even “Natural Born Killers” (1994), although thematically, and even stylistically, “God Bless America” is similar to both in the most basic sense. Goldthwait notes those two pictures and explicitly explains why his is neither in the supplements (he calls “Falling Down” a typical white-guy-angry-at-ethnic-people movie). No, the filmmaker sees his film as more of Sidney Lumet’s “Network” (1976) meets Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973), which is probably more accurate than not. And while it’s not exactly Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967)—which Goldthwait aptly describes as a bunch of hippies (playing at) shooting cops—it is pretty much the ultimate “liberal with a gun” revenge picture. A conundrum, wrapped in an enigma. Layers upon layers are at work here, but what it mostly boils down to is this: “God Bless America” is two hours in which all of Goldthwait’s anger and frustration, and the condemnations and criticisms he has for modern American society, is funneled through his script and his camera. It’s the most violent fantasy the director and writer—a real-life pacifist and vegetarian (“I don’t even support killing animals, how can I be okay with killing people”, he ponders in the extras on this disc)—can conjure up in response to his total befuddlement at a mighty civilization gone morally, and more importantly, socially and intellectually, corrupt.

Structurally, “God Bless America” is a simple road picture. It’s an odd romantic comedy in a way, too—one between strictly platonic, psychopathic, friends, whom just so happen to be a middle-aged man and a teenaged girl (and yes, their dynamic is one of the many uncomfortable things present in the picture, open to whatever interpretation you wish). It’s a social critique—one that satirizes the media, and points the finger-gun at loudmouth news commentators, early morning radio show shock-jocks, and fanatical religious extremists, and endlessly lampoons reality TV. All easy targets, I guess, but ones worthy of Goldthwait’s wrath all the same, in my opinion. At times, the film is little more than Murray channeling Goldthwait in soliloquized monologue, screaming about the stupification of America, and the total lack of etiquette and culture in modern times. At others, the film seems to be a strange meta-exploration unto itself; a movie that is a critique of a morally corrupt, celebrity obsessed, culture, through the eyes of a pair of morally corrupt, pop culture obsessed, killers that the audience is manipulated to root for. In a way, “God Bless America” is almost an encapsulation of everything that Goldthwait is rallying against.

The film is kind of stupidly brilliant in its muddled logic. On one hand, Roxy and Frank are walking around blowing the heads off of those who they constantly claim are “not nice”, while simultaneously committing horrendous crimes, thus no longer being nice themselves. We want them to do it, to “win” and get away with it, only because the other people are so awful. But shouldn’t we really be wishing them dead as well? And shouldn’t Frank and Roxy want to kill themselves (and do they, in the end?); after all, they are exactly what they hate, right? They complain about famous “celebrities” undeserved of the fame, people who watch reality TV and like Diablo Cody movies, and mostly those who just aren’t nice. Yet, the two endlessly talk about the greatness of Alice Cooper, argue about which version of “Star Trek” was best, and Roxy seems to be continually disappointed when they aren’t the latest news story getting all the attention, and is overjoyed when they are. Is this yet another layer? Is Goldthwait making yet more commentary—that these characters, through which he executes his wildest fantasies, are just the end product of a society that has completely cracked? Are they the inevitable result of the rise of rudeness and total collapse of civilized society? It’s an interesting question—and one of the film’s many layers—that Goldthwait may or may not have intended to ask or answer. (He admits, in the extras, his creative process is pretty free form, and he likes to just throw it all out there for the fun, and hopefully a greater theme sticks out in the aftermath).

“Oh, I get, and I am offended. Not because I've got a problem with bitter, predictable, whiny, millionaire disk jockeys complaining about celebrities or how tough their life is, while I live in an apartment with paper-thin walls next to a couple of Neanderthals who, instead of a baby, decided to give birth to some kind of nocturnal civil defense air-raid siren that goes off every fuckin' night like it's Pearl Harbor. I'm not offended that they act like it's my responsibility to protect their rights to pick on the weak like pack animals, or that we're supposed to support their freedom of speech when they don't give a f**k about yours or mine... I would defend their freedom of speech if I thought it was in jeopardy. I would defend their freedom of speech to tell uninspired, bigoted, blowjob, gay bashing, racist, rape jokes all under the guise of being edgy, but that's not the edge. That's what sells. They couldn't possibly pander any harder, or be more commercially mainstream, because this is the ‘Oh no, you didn't say that!’ generation, where a shocking comment has more weight than the truth. No one has any shame anymore, and we're supposed to celebrate it. I saw a woman throw a used tampon at another woman last night on network television, a network that bills itself as ‘Today's Woman's Channel’. Kids beat each other blind and post it on Youtube. I mean, do you remember when eating rats and maggots on ‘Survivor’ was shocking? It all seems so quaint now. I'm sure the girls from ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ are gonna have their own dating show on VH-1 any day now. I mean, why have a civilization anymore if we no longer are interested in being civilized?”

I have a little of the same fed-up mentality in me (“no way”, exclaims the reader with a sarcastic lilt). A little, well, yeah, you could call it vitriolous hate for—or, more correctly, angered aggravation towards—a society where “TL; DR” constitutes an appropriate response even to a well-reasoned-and-researched post on an Internet forum—a place, which, mind you, encourages the exchange of information, communication (words, text, pictures) as a means to engage with others simply by its mere existence; and that is it’s sole purpose, to facilitate discussion. Where dimwitted dolts tweet “#YOLO”, as though its worthy of expressing even in text, or worse yet, shout it at the top of the lungs before doing something that will hopefully prove natural selection once and for all. A society that is seemingly becoming increasingly anti-intellectualist, despite the fact that now, more than ever before, information previously only available to life-long academics is but a click or two away (and pretty much anything you want to know, you can). A society in which a disagreement constitutes almost treasonous dissent, and it’s not about anything other than proving the other guy wrong (even if, in a way, he might be right—at least partly). Where some actually admire the detestable, diseased, degenerates who occupy the idiot box for no reason other than, well… they are on the TV (“and, secretly, I want to be too”, goes the thought process, I guess.) A society where people willfully spout things like “I don’t read”, as if it’s a badge of honor, and say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about”, and then don’t seek out and inform themselves once their ignorance has been exposed. And where pop culture and those so-called pop politics really do overshadow actual culture and actual politics. And yet, as much as I hate it, I’m totally complacent.

In the supplements, Goldthwait admits that as much as he hates talk radio, as much as he is disgusted by the mind-numbing nature of television, and finds the inundation of pop culture in American lives revolting, he listens, he watches, and he absorbs as much crap as sanely, humanly, possible, because, well, that’s life. Especially in the 21st century. Especially in western society. Especially in the United States of America. (Perhaps it’s always been like this. And the ubiquity of, well, everything, and our constant interconnectedness—that somehow makes us more distant—just more easily exposes something that was always been there; a part of the human experience and a feature of culture since the first society formed many moons ago. I don’t know.) And he’s a filmmaker—a mechanic, and a mechanism, of mass media—so he’s part of the problem. And probably, as a critic of something as ultimately superfluous as Blu-ray discs, I’m part of the overall problem, not part of the solution, and, at the very least, definitely not an inactive third party free of all guilt, too.

Which is, I think, why I connected, not with the characters—that are exactly as deplorable, actually, exponentially even more so, than the latest “reality” TV star—but with “God Bless America’s” creator. I totally get the frustration that drove Bobcat Goldthwait to create this film. And I appreciate what he’s tried to do, and why. And I totally accept that, at the end of the day, despite the fact all of this pent-up rage bursts forth in ultra-violent wave after wave of what can only be described as the antithesis of political correctness for more than 100 minutes, “God Bless America” is really just a movie meant to make you laugh.

The primary purpose—some might say the sole purpose—of satire is smart, truthful, social critique. But that is not its only purpose. Good satire is also funny. Great satire is not just funny; it’s hilarious. And “God Bless America” is certainly all of that. At least I think so. I have no idea if anyone else will agree. But I hope someone does. (Otherwise… I got problems, man).

Is “God Bless America” believable in the slightest? No. It’s fantasy that asks for a greater suspension of disbelief than… well, than “Star Trek”, Kirk or Picard versions. But, then again, it’s just a movie. And an imperfect movie—that is sometimes too muddled by its layers-upon-layers (as intriguing as those layers may be, they can be troubling)—at that. Still, if nothing else, “God Bless America” will be a film that sticks with you. Maybe not even on the level of the social criticism, but instead because of the pair of truly terrific performances that carry the picture to its end. Joel Murray, the quieter brother of the more famous Bill, is a pro at playing broken men like Frank (he played the ultimately-suicidal Eddie on the first season of the American remake of “Shameless” (2011-Present), and continues to reprise his role as sad drunk Freddy Rumsen on “Mad Men” (2007-Present) whenever Matt Weiner calls). Usually a supporting player, it’s truly a delight to see him front and center in the spotlight, as the star for once. Certainly, it’s a surprise to see him headlining—even Murray thought Goldthwait wanted him for a small side part when he was sent the script—but a genuinely pleasant one. Murray’s just great in this. And newcomer Tara Lynne Barr is both bubbly and brusque as Roxy, and she plays perfectly off of Murray. Truly, their rat-a-tat rapport is worth the price of admission alone. Even if you don’t come away with much from “God Bless America’s” difficult-to-digest premise, surely you’ll at least find the performances to be worthy of praise.

Video

“Our cinematographer, uh, Bradley—uh, I don’t even know his real name, cause I only called him Moonbeam the entire time. Stonesifner. Yeah, he, uh, allegedly, liked pot. So, if any of these shots seem out of focus, it’s cause our cinematographer was super stoned.” – director/writer Bobcat Goldthwait, in the commentary.

Truthfully, focus isn’t an issue (although a few other problems keep “God Bless America” from attaining perfection). In fact, the 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 high definition transfer is mostly tack-sharp, full of wonderful panoramic images that showcase immense detail. High or not, Stonesifner framed the film quite nicely, and effectively employed roving steadicam, lots of slo-mo and, conversely, chaotic and choppy fast-shutter-speed material to up the visual interest and better articulate the underlying layers of the film. Color, too, is praiseworthy, with primaries—particularly blood-splattering reds, and the yellow of Frank’s Chevy Camaro—popping with vibrancy. Contrast is tight, with deep blacks, clean white highlights, and a solid middle range, giving the film depth, but remaining quite conventional and lifelike in overall appearance. Generally speaking, “God Bless America” is a bright, boldly hued, very attractive picture to look at.

Unfortunately, quite a few would-be insignificant (could-be overlooked) flaws add up over the runtime and knock the final video score down a peg or two. Shot digitally with the Arri Alexa, the digital-to-digital transfer is spotless, free of damage and most other issues—like edge enhancement, serious compression artifacts, or an overwhelming amount of noise—are kept in check. However, a handful of moments do show faint sensor noise, others suffer from aliasing (the seatbacks in the movie theater scene shimmer something awful), select scenes struggle with posterization and feature faint glimpses of slightly banded sky, and there’s even an instance of severe rolling shutter in the film’s climax at the “American Superstarz” taping. (A long shot outside the taping also features noticeable chromatic aberration.) Do these problems ruin an otherwise excellent presentation? No, not really. But they’re troublesome enough to distract when they occur, and, taken as a whole, they keep the disc from getting a higher score.

Audio

In stark contrast to the outlandish, loud, explosive and handgun-happy nature of Goldthwait’s nutso characters and narrative, Magnolia/Magnet’s English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (48kHz/24-bit) is quite tame. Technically sound, the lossless track features clean and precise dialogue, fine fidelity in the infrequently heard music and score, and a sparing but well-balanced use of effects in the full surround field. The film is just very specific in its use of these elements. Although light on explosions—in fact, the one explosion that would’ve occurred in the film is foiled by clumsiness and bad luck in a truly hilarious scene—the film is obviously peppered with gunshots. These brief exchanges of gunfire don’t really pack the wallop, though. Goldthwait hasn’t gone all Michael Mann and pumped up the loudness to realistic levels, or used live fire weapons. Even in the most “action oriented” scenes, more often then not, the soundtrack is quiet. Much of the film is just Murray soliloquizing with no backing music or any sort of effects. The peculiar qualities of this technically-sound mix is just another one of the weird artistic quirks of “God Bless America”—perhaps in part perpetuated by the low-budget nature of the project—and it takes some time getting used to. The disc includes optional subtitles in English and Spanish.

Extras

Magnolia/Magnet equips “God Bless America’s” with a decent-sized arsenal of bonus material, which hits the sweet spot between quality and quantity. The disc is not exactly overflowing with content, but the included audio commentary, making-of documentary, round-table interview featurette, and deleted scenes are all quite good and definitely worth your time. Also included are several lesser extras—an odd outtakes reel, a music video, an EPK featurette for the film from HDNet, and the flick’s theatrical trailer. The usual suite of authoring niceties including BD-LIVE connectivity, bookmarking and resume playback are also available.

First up is an audio commentary with Bobcat Goldthwait, Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr. The track is a very easy listen. There’s discussion of how the project came together, how certain sequences were achieved and the story behind certain scenes, and talk of the characters, the script, the tone… pretty much everything you’d want to know, and expect to learn from a commentary track. You also kind of get a sense of what it’s like inside Goldthwait’s head, and what drives a man to write something like this (he wrote it as a gift to his wife after witnessing one too many farting-elephant commercials on TV, apparently.). Murray and Barr tame the very vocal director—who had a habit of going off on stream-of-consciousness tangents in the commentary on “World’s Greatest Dad”—so that his rants are at least more focused, and have the input from two other equally enthusiastic people. “God Bless America” has a very good commentary, in part because, even when it isn’t especially informative, the track is still quite funny.

“Behind the Scenes: Killing with Kindness” (1.78:1/2.40:1 variable 1080p, 27 minutes 34 seconds) is a surprisingly comprehensive making-of documentary, directed by Bobcat’s daughter Tasha Goldthwait. Despite the seemingly brief runtime, this is a thorough examination of the production, featuring—once again—the director/writer and his stars Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr. Many others make an appearance throughout the piece, talking about the origins of the project, the characters and their relationships, the overall message and tone of the film, the cinematography, and whether or not the film is “right” in its depiction of our society’s downward spiral. Plenty of fly-on-the-wall BTS material is included as well, intercut with talking head interviews from the cast and crew.

“God Bless TV: Deleted Scenes” (1.78:1 1080p, 5 minutes) is a hilarious collection of deleted scenes from the fictional TV series and news programs seen in the film. Highlights include “Jersey Shore-tees” (a disgusting mash-up of “Jersey Shore” and “Toddlers and Tiaras”(2009-Present)) and much, much more of the “Sweet Sixteen” show.

Be sure to check out one of the most disconcerting gag reels ever conceived in outtakes (1.78:1 1080p, 2 minutes 29 seconds). Eerily free of almost all laughs, I’m sure Goldthwait had his hand in this one. It’s like the exact opposite of the usual studio-sanctioned blooper reel. Odd and uncomfortable—highlights include lots of slate-clapping and a mute Joel Murray staring directly into the camera for 30 seconds—this is weirdly more hilarious than most reels on even the funniest comedies out there. Creepy too, but that kinda works, I guess.

“Interview with Bobcat Goldthwait, Joel Murray, and Tara Lynne Barr” (1.78:1 1080p, 27 minutes 42 seconds) is a featurette with the disc’s three big players. They discuss making “God Bless America”, offering insight into the script and the characters, while also discussing their careers and just generally joke around. The interview is conducted in roundtable format, with an unseen moderator guiding the conversation with questions that are meant to refocus the trio when they get too off topic.

“HDNET: A Look at ‘God Bless America’” (1.78:1/2.40:1 variable 1080p, 4 minutes 54 seconds) is a promo-y EPK featurette. Basically, it’s an extended trailer, which ran between programs on HDNet and HDNet Movies, the cable broadcast arms of Mark Cuban’s Magnolia media empire. With the other, more worthwhile, features on the disc, the canned interviews with Goldthwait, Murray and Barr—and a seemingly endless barrage of film clips—this superficial piece is totally skippable.

A music video for “Roxy and Frank (Gold Bless America)” (1080p, 3 minutes 2 seconds) by Mike Carano is also included. The video is choppily cut up with footage of Carano singing and playing his acoustic guitar in the recording studio with publicity stills, BTS photographs (taken by Carano) and even some on-set camcorder footage.

The film’s theatrical trailer (2.40:1 1080p, 2 minutes 21 seconds) has been included.

The disc also includes the following pre-menu bonus trailers for:

- “Marley” (1.78:1 1080p, 1 minute 57 seconds) on Blu-ray and DVD.
- “Take This Waltz” (1.78:1 1080p, 2 minutes 30 seconds) on Blu-ray and DVD.
- “The Hunter” (2.40:1 1080p, 2 minutes 24 seconds) on Blu-ray and DVD.
- “Apartment 143” (1.85:1 1080p, 2 minutes 14 seconds) on Blu-ray and DVD.
- "HDNet" promo (1080i, 1 minute 2 seconds).

Packaging

“God Bless America” blasts its way onto Blu-ray courtesy Magnolia Home Entertainment and the distributor’s subsidiary, Magnet Releasing. The dual-layered BD-50 release is packaged in an Elite keepcase (of the non-eco variety). The disc is locked to region A.

Overall

You have been warned: “God Bless America” is the blackest of black comedies. Dark. Like really, really, really dark. Twisted. Not for the faint of heart. Whatever cliché you can think of in the same vein, probably applies. However, “God Bless America” remains a bold artistic statement, and a scathing satire, from an increasingly interesting filmmaker with something to say, to the very end. The film will certainly leave its mark. “God Bless…” is crazy. It’s wrong, and also sort of brilliant. The film is as funny as it is politically incorrect; so, yeah, it’s hilarious in—and I can’t stress this enough—an exceedingly wicked and warped way. Murray is exceptional in the part of Frank, and for that alone the film is worth seeing. But, definitely, it is not a film for everyone. The blu-ray is good all around, with pleasing (if not perfect) video, satisfying-if-somewhat-reserved audio, and quite a few interesting extras, earning above average scores from me in all categories. Recommended.

The Film: B+ Video: B Audio: B Extras: B Overall: B

 


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