Friday, July 2, 2021


One of the worst movies of this, or any, year is America: The Motion Picture. It’s an ugly, loud, obnoxious, endlessly puerile, painfully unfunny, repugnantly self-amused experience. The animated picture — stiffly composed in a style that appears copy-pasted from some unholy dated amalgamation of faux-anime and semi-Flash cheapness — is a broad goof on American know-nothing historical ignorance. It turns the revolution into a pastiche of half-remembered names and excessive comic book violence with bold-faced names turned into action figures smashed haphazardly together. Beginning with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) by werewolf Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg), the colonies’ revolution against the British is assembled Avengers style by dumb bro braggart George Washington (Channing Tatum). He wanders the land getting everyone from Samuel Adams (Jason Mantzoukas) and Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn) to to join the cause. Eventually Geronimo and Paul Bunyan show up, too. (The tone is set early when a group shot of founders at Lincoln’s funeral includes MLK and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Okay, that last one made me almost smirk.) This slipshod burlesque is an idiot’s tale told with facile fury and scattershot politics. It’s a queasy mix of lazy liberal bromides (a pile of AK-47s are wheelbarrowed in from Y’all Mart) and conservative bloodlust. At times it’s parodying blind American exceptionalism; other times it just is that. Sometimes it puppets its figures for left-wing critique; other times it’s the worst ahistorical points scoring. But I suppose some of this might go down easier if it landed even one good joke. Most of the time I sat there stupefied that anyone, let alone the marquee names attached, actually spoke the flat, nasty nincompoopery that passed for dialogue in its thinly sketched goofs.

To make matters worse, the movie lacks not only a sense of wit or perspective, but also anything approaching a good or even watchable aesthetic choice. The whole project from Archer alum Matt Thompson and Mortal Kombat screenwriter Dan Callaham has South Park flatness and JibJab movement. Its images are eye-meltingly unpleasant, down to the frequent face-exploding, blood-spurting gore, and the sound is a constant screech of noise and vulgarity. The politics in these awful drawings are roughly similar, a wild mess that’s neither here nor there. This is an unsteady, deeply irritating feature length mix of Adult Swim loopy edginess randomness and sub-Family Guy vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake choked in self-impressed referentiality. (Though, to call the movie sub-Family Guy is like calling a Porta Potty sub-outhouse. And that’s still too flattering.) The movie is as fruitlessly deranged as it is pointlessly exhausting, and as boring as it is convinced its excesses will be entertaining. Instead it’s a movie for anyone who thought the boisterously prejudiced Team America: World Police was too subtle and polite. Of all the problems we have as a country, a lack of vulgar folks willing to treat our history as a choose-your-own-adventure is not one of them.

Far better the dystopia of The Purge to, ahem, attempt a purge of our nation’s ills. In that world, you’ll recall, the New Founding Fathers decreed a yearly holiday where all crime (including murder, the warnings always helpfully remind) is legal. The movies have, at best, been a vibrant stew of high-minded allegorical social commentary smuggled and shouted through low-down exploitation thrills—even if it’s never quite as high or low as it could be. At least they have spirit. They have a keen understanding of the societal breakdown they display, how a free-crime night indulges the worst impulses of the worst among us, and inflicting the most pain on the most vulnerable. The prequel, The First Purge, showed us how the whole thing was manipulated by wealthy conservatives as a way to let the rabid white supremacists and assorted right-wing extremists in their base attack women, the poor, and people of color. Now, with The Forever Purge, the series takes us past the end of The Purge to find die-hard Purgers, calling themselves Real Americans and True Patriots as they mount flags on their trucks and load their machine guns, getting fed up with their limited hours of impunity and just keep the chaos rolling. One neo-Nazi grins at the sound of gunfire; that’s American music, he says. It’s a smart escalation of the stakes, since sunrise is no longer the safety it was in entries past. Now the danger goes and goes, and grows and grows. When will it end? (Maybe the Purgers will storm the capital.) This isn’t only a movie about survival, but about escape from the worst of us.

The movie shifts the setting out of the big cities and into a small rural Texas town full of rich white ranchers (Will Patton, Josh Lucas) and Mexican laborers (Ana de la Reguera, Tenoch Huerta). Eventually, as the rioters start hijacking the city, we follow a sympathetic group of innocents as they try to flee with their lives. There’s horror inherent in the premise, fitting the place the series started, though as it’s aged the scariest aspect is how plausible they’ve started to play, how thin the line between the rhetoric of the Purgers and our actual right-wing rioters and their enablers. There’s even an overt line late in the picture about the pro-Purge party watching the monster of their own creation and indulgence rampage out of their control. Scarily familiar. But Forever tilts more toward action sequences, away from the horror of jump scares and even dialing back on (some) of the gore. Instead the picture favors chases and standoffs and shootouts — the better to match the west of its setting. Screenwriter James DeMonaco, the voice behind every one of these movies, continues to modulate its ideas, build its world, and find new avenues to have it reflect urgent topical concerns while putting its stock characters, and our country, through the wringer. 

Director Everardo Gout dutifully stages the looming menace of the moment — motorcycles roaring up on a dark highway; a theater basement full of staked vampire cosplayers; a border wall as towering trap lit up by break lights — and keeps the proceedings fast-paced and frantic. By the end, Americans are trying to flee violence at home by crossing borders. Cities burn at the hands of folks fed a big lie that killing those who upset them will restore their old sense of hegemonic power. And in the middle a prejudiced rancher grows to respect the Mexicans as they help each other survive. (In action, that’s not quite as pat as that sounds.) Here’s a movie to match our precarious moment (all the more prescient considering its original release date was last summer). It somehow nurtures a small kindling of hope even as it finds increasingly dire reasons to despair. This is a series that makes its political points with shotgun satire and sledgehammer slogans. But, given the tenor of the times, that feels just about right.

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