Conservative documentary filmmaker, and modern-day snake oil salesman, Dinesh D’Souza is, for all intents and purposes, stuck. His series of “alternative fact” disingenuous documentaries stretching back to 2012 have lambasted a cavalcade of conservative political targets, many of them grossly exaggerated, relying upon a core audience of ticket-buyers who were essentially looking for a vaguely academic cover for their crackpot theories that would otherwise bring them scorn at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Then in November of 2016 Donald Trump miraculously won the presidency and the Republican Party now controlled both houses of Congress. D’Souza no longer had “anti-colonialist with daddy issues” Obama or “Saul Alinsky demonic disciple” Hillary Clinton to kick around any longer. D’Souza’s last documentary, 2016’s Hillary’s America, barely even touched upon Trump, possibly because even D’Souza thought Trump was not destined to see the Oval Office unless part of a public tour.
D’Souza used to represent the loony fringe, but now a member of that conspiracy-minded, anti-intellectual underbelly has ascended all the way to the presidency. D’Souza’s debased theories aren’t just parroted by the trolls of the Internet any longer, the president now repeats them verbatim. In an unexpected manner, D’Souza had catapulted to being mainstream, and now I don’t think he knows what to do with himself, his platform of agitation against the powers that be trying to reshape the “real America,” and his future as a huckster. With Republicans presently in charge of the government, whom will D’Souza complain is thwarting the “real patriots” (I apologize, I’m going to go through a year’s supply of air quotes with this review, I can already sense it) from making American great again? His latest pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-documentary Death of a Nation portends his struggle (a subtle reference? You be the judge, dear reader).
Donald Trump is president of the United States. This is an inescapable fact. But even with all that executive power he seems to be stymied by the threat of radical liberalism, or so argues D’Souza. The Democrats are aligned with none other than Hitler (oh, we’ll be getting to that claim later) and they are poised to lead this country into ruin. “How do nations die?” D’Souza solemnly intones, as is his custom for his voice over narration. “Tell a lie big enough, and tell it frequently enough, and it will be believed.” Astonishingly, he’s using that old Hitler claim NOT to refer to a president who has, as of this review’s writing, lied over 6,500 times since his 2017 inauguration according to the running record by The Washington Post, a.k.a. “fake news.” Over the course of an hour and forty minutes, D’Souza attempts to recycle a flawed thesis from his other alarmist movies about how the Democratic Party is destroying the foundations of the country, conveniently ignoring their minority status and most of objective reality.
Once again, D’Souza falls back to a crooked mirror of historical distortion in an attempt to defend racism, xenophobia, and general incompetence, this time connected to that of President Trump. For D’Souza, it’s not Trump who is racist, but the Democrats are the real racists. It’s not Trump who is sexist, but the Democrats are the real sexists. He trotted out this “nuh uh” line of defense with Hillary’s America where he shoddily sought to recast 150 years of historical policy to declare the Democrats the real racists. With his new film, D’Souza doubles down on the same flimsy claims that he stripped free of supportive context, you know, like the fact that both parties were racist for decades because your average American just so happened to be racist. D’Souza declares that the party of Lincoln is still the one black voters should be supporting, blithely ignoring more pertinent examples of policy for the last fifty years. D’Souza’s rhetorical contortions are strained to the breaking point and amount to him saying African-Americans should support the GOP because Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and Woodrow Wilson was racist. What’s the better track record for civil rights, the last 50 years or the middle of the nineteenth century? D’Souza even denies the existence of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” despite the fact that we have LITERAL audio recordings of Nixon and aides discussing this strategy in detail and by name. Too often the only way to believe much of D’Souza’s flaccid arguments is by performing your own homemade lobotomy.
D’Souza ties himself into knots trying to mitigate the racism of our current Commander in Chief, a man who called Nazis “very fine people,” has re-tweeted anti-Semitic tweets, who frequently refers to Hispanic immigrants and asylum-seekers as an “invasion,” refers to African and Caribbean countries as “shit holes,” and consistently goes after African-American critics in much more personal terms, castigating their intelligence, referring to them as “dogs,” and all the things a not-so racist person probably would refrain from doing. “We knew we weren’t electing a choir boy,” D’Souza intones, his feeble attempt to hand wave away all the personal failings and possible criminal activities of the president. It’s the same broad excuse that the White House press office has exhorted, that in electing Trump as president that the voters (never mind it wasn’t a majority of voters) have declared their general apathy to any number of scandals that arise (“Look, the voters made their voice known when they elected Trump and don’t care how many babies he eats on live television…”). You can’t separate the two; you can’t approve the policies but disapprove of the man. You can’t choose to ignore who he fundamentally is, which is likely why D’Souza ignores as much of Trump’s actual words and deeds as possible.
The epitome of D’Souza’s slimy, bad faith arguments, and a fuller picture at the depths he will lower himself, is when he directly declares that Adolf Hitler was really a liberal. Wow. That’s bold. Ignore Hitler’s antisemitism, anti-communist, anti-homosexual actions, castigation of foreigners as evil and stealing work from “real proud Germans,” rescinding of personal liberties, an independent press, and checks and balances, and his general anti-democratic policies, you still have a man whose ideology was built upon white supremacy and a racist belief in genetic superiority. Does that sound more like Bernie Sanders or like Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Charlottesville rally where, according to our president, “very fine people” chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” and ultimately killed a woman protesting their presence? D’Souza interviews white nationalist/neo-Nazi, Richard Spencer, and D’Souza even tries to somehow label him and the “Unite the Right” marchers of Charlottesville as liberals. They are self-described Nazis!
I would ordinarily chalk up D’Souza’s slimy re-litigation of labels as another sign of his moral repugnance and move along, but this is deserving of additional attention. This isn’t just academic. We have a genuine spike in hate crimes targeting Jewish citizens, most recently a Pittsburgh synagogue where a man murdered a dozen under the belief that Jews, with the thanks of conservative boogeyman George Soros, were funding the migrant caravan (“invasion”). This is but one example of a mentally distraught, angry, and dangerous individual resorting to violence having been fed on a stream of twisted lies and racist rhetoric meant to agitate and divide. It was only a month ago that explosives were sent throughout the mail with the attempt to eliminate Trump’s perceived enemies. D’Souza and his ilk are not simply harmless kooks bilking a willing audience in search of some veneer of prestige for its baser inclinations. This stuff is serious now. When elevated to the platform presented through Trump’s presidency, these words can have serious consequences. I’m not applying a one-to-one system of blame, as every person is responsible for his or her own direct actions. However, D’Souza is knowingly stoking fires and accelerating resentment within his core, secluded audience. When D’Souza plays fast and loose with the history around Hitler, at turns mitigating the man’s actions as well as smearing modern-day political figures with the hackiest guilt-by-association tactics, he is doing the work of the white nationalists for them.
It makes it harder to watch and merely criticize Death of a Nation as a work of film. I could critique its poor production values, insistence on including footage of D’Souza walking around important locations and looking forlorn, as well as its corny insistence on stock footage meant to represent a beer ad’s rendition of what constitutes America. I could rightfully complain that once again D’Souza brings things to a halt so he can showcase his wife singing. I could make fun of the stodgy dramatic recreations. I could write an entire essay on the logical fallacy and open insult of comparing Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, let alone smashing their faces together as the key poster art. I could laugh at D’Souza crediting himself as playing some small part for electing Trump. I could complain of D’Souza’s tortured, leaning style with interview subjects, desperately trying to coax them into saying the hidden phrase he’s in search of. The careful way he handles Spencer is bizarre, as if he didn’t want to upset the white nationalists who might buy tickets. The technical merits of this movie are beyond the point, not that there was much merit to them to begin with. It’s all about his fallacious arguments.
A funny thing happened weeks before the release of this movie in the summer of 2018. President Trump officially pardoned Dinesh D’Souza for his federal campaign finance crimes, sparing him a felonious record (though the rub is to accept a pardon one must accept guilt too). Is it possible that this entire film project was conceived as a means of flattering Trump and working forward the possibility of a pardon for its filmmaker? After three movies of disingenuous gambits, I wouldn’t put anything past D’Souza. He is, after all, the same man whose 1995 book declared the end of racism yet he routinely tweets racist missives (try and find some innocent meaning in his reference to Obama as a “grown up Trayvon”). Death of a Nation is what D’Souza plans to do with his mighty megaphone, and it turns out it’s blame others and fall back on the same old bromides for his reactionary base. I’m sure in two more years he’ll be fired up again to warn us all about the dire threat not re-electing Trump will pose to our nation, but hopefully by that time the nation will have tuned him out for good.
Nate’s Grade: F
Conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza is a man that has been uncharacteristically good to me, personally. He’s made two utterly abysmal political documentaries that are hatchet jobs and were my worst films of 2012 and 2014. However, the man has been a boon for me as far as my own exposure. My reviews for his 2012 and 2014 polemics exploded and became e-mail forwards. They were quoted in message boards, progressive websites, and all over. I still to this day have people that randomly message me to pat me on the back for my rational and methodical take-downs of this charlatan. I wouldn’t say I was looking forward to D’Souza’s next would-be documentary feature but I knew it would likely contend for the worst movie of that year and that I would profit from extra website hits and plaudits. Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party is the underwhelming Return of the Jedi of D’Souza’s trilogy of bad movies. They all exist in a galaxy far, far away from our own reality. Then again D’Souza has been catering to an alternate reality for the majority of his huckster career.
My first problem is that D’Souza tries to rewrite his own history (he has so much experience rewriting others’ history) and pretend that he’s a First Amendment victim instead of a man who knowingly violated federal campaign finance laws. He purposely donated $20,000 under a false name to skirt finance laws and lied about it to the FEC, and as a result was charged with a felony and served eight months in a halfway house. Even D’Souza said, “I knew that causing a campaign contribution to be made in the name of another was wrong and something the law forbids. I deeply regret my conduct.” However, in his own movie, his twists the facts to present himself as a free speech martyr facing a tyrannical president. “If you make a film criticizing the most powerful man in the world, “D’Souza intones with extra ominous relish, “Expect the empire to strike back.” I don’t think Obama needs to worry about a movie that made $30 million total. D’Souza’s deflecting his guilt as an act of imperial censorship and retribution, and not, you know, him committing a crime and pleading guilty. The fictional recreation of his halfway house experiences are resoundingly hilarious for how tone deaf yet ultra serious they are, as if D’Souza had to scrap for survival. What halfway house is also populated with murderers and rapists? I wish we had a scene of D’Souza giving himself a homemade tattoo from an electric toothbrush. His slimy misstatement of his own felonious failings sets the stage for his third cinematic expose that fails to advance a coherent, rhetorically sound case for his crackpot and disingenuous premises.
Let’s tackle the man’s core argument and what gives his movie its subtitle: the secret history of the Democratic Party as one of blanket racism and oppression. D’Souza tries to make the leap that the Democratic Party is the biggest gang around, exploiting the vulnerable and naïve for nefarious, avaricious gain. He says the Democrats are planning to steal nothing less than American itself. His argument is that the Democrats have been conning the American public, and especially their contingent of minority and poor voters. He cites evidence that he feels is damning, though once again selectively removes context because it would undermine, or in many cases obliterate, his supposed point. D’Souza has to reach all the way back to the 1820s for his broadsides. Did you know that Andrew Jackson was responsible for the forced relocation of Native Americans, and, I hope you’re sitting down, that he was one of the first Democrats? Did you know that following the Civil War many Southerners resisted Reconstruction and joined the Ku Klux Klan and were Democrats? Did you know President Woodrow Wilson was such a fan of the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation, a film glamorizing the rise of the KKK, that he screened it at the White House? D’Souza feels like he’s stumbled upon his moral keystroke but he forgets that it wasn’t just the Democratic Party that was filled with racists during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth; the majority of America held racist views. To somehow suggest that those who registered as Republicans were immune from the casual racism of everyday society is preposterous. Case in point: at the time the Supreme Court rendered its verdict on the Loving case (tasteful movie coming soon), striking down miscegenation laws banning interracial marriage, a full three fourths of the American public disapproved. This was 1967, and the clear majority of the American public still held what could be charitably described as racially intolerant views. In the case of Birth of a Nation, an unquestionably repugnant movie, D’Souza is knowingly removing the fact that it was a groundbreaking piece of cinema and a global blockbuster. It wasn’t just President Wilson that enjoyed this newfangled moving picture, it was many, and it just so happened a majority of those people, Republican or Democrat, were racist.
D’Souza tries connecting the dots in a conspiratorial manner that demands painting mustaches on every former living Democrat just so they would have something to sufficiently twirl as they laugh maniacally. Jackson was apparently the progenitor of having slaves on plantations, as if this could be attributed to one person. D’Souza’s indictment of Jackson and abrupt empathy for the downtrodden Native Americans is in sharp contrast with his previous abhorrent documentary. In that movie, he argued that the Native Americans weren’t really doing much with their land anyway, that the pioneers were the ones who made it valuable, and that what happened to them should not be considered genocide. I don’t believe D’Souza’s phony crocodile tears over the Trail of Tears. If he’s going to decry Andrew Jackson for being a slave owner then why not the Founding Fathers as well? Why not George Washington? Because that would confuse his already confused argument. With D’Souza, the KKK wasn’t a grassroots organization of disaffected and angry Southern white men; no, it was a purposeful political arm of the Democratic Party. Wilson wasn’t just a fan of a popular movie; he and his cabinet were directly inspired to harass African-Americans. For him, the Democrats built ghettos, made sure to stuff them with immigrants, and wouldn’t allow them to leave. For him, Margaret Sanger wasn’t fighting for contraception for women’s health and equality but so she could stop black people from reproducing. For the record, Sanger spoke to whoever would listen to her cause, which did include the Klan at one point. For D’Souza, Planned Parenthood exists to wipe out minorities, and he even makes use of those undercover videos by conservative activists that got the activists charged with criminal activity, not Planned Parenthood, which was cleared for all outrageous charges. Everywhere he looks, D’Souza sees widespread conspiracy and the intent to do maximum harm. The shrill partisan attacks are amplified to the point that any points are muted. Not too many are going to defend Andrew Jackson to this day, but what about recent history, eh?
It’s not long before you start to notice a hard cap on all of D’Souza’s historical anecdotes. They all seem to end just about the time of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which is by no means a coincidence. When President Johnson signed the bill into law he said that the Democratic Party had likely lost the South for a generation. Almost sixty years later, I think he undershot that estimate. The party of Lincoln is no longer the party of Lincoln, judging by their policies and candidates. D’Souza has to reach back more than half a century to posit his case that the Democrats are the real party of racists. This line of argument is somewhat tainted with the 2016 Republican presidential nominee refuses to recant his excoriation of the exonerated Central Park Five, tells African-Americans they’re “living in hell,” and far too frequently retweets ugly messages from white supremacist groups. Which political history is more relevant to today, the actions of the last 30 years or over 200 years ago? The Republican Party doesn’t get a free pass because at one time certain members supported abolition and women’s suffrage. D’Souza even says, “As the South became less racist, they became more Republican.” Huh? The parties have held the same names for hundreds of years but their policies and platforms have shifted along with the nation and culture. To pretend that Democrats or Republicans today follow the exact same policies from hundreds of years prior is intellectually dishonest and thoroughly facile, which sums up the host of D’Souza’s feeble arguments.
D’Souza’s grandstanding and myopic personal crusade gets in the way of his larger message. You could easily construct a documentary about Hilary Clinton being unlikable or hard to trust. She is often her worst enemy and her penchant for secrecy can be reasonably unnerving. You can make an anti-Hillary doc without resorting to ad hominem attacks and worse. There are legitimate critiques over the Clinton Foundation and its lack of transparency, but D’Souza can’t help himself. He shouldn’t have to utilize bracingly absurd, offensive propaganda imagery like a young Hillary watching the bombs of the 1960s with unseemly fascination, the slow-motion horrors reflecting onto her youthful glasses, a fascination to her calculated expression. He shouldn’t have to resort to such incendiary charges like, “Now we know why Hillary let all those emergency Benghazi calls go. She couldn’t make a buck off of them.” Excuse me? She let Americans die because she couldn’t pad her wallet? “Hillary’s plan was to take over the institutions of government,” D’Souza intones, as if she was a Manchurian candidate who activated instead of a young political activist in law school. The main argument D’Souza musters against Hillary, well after 75 minutes of movie, is that her husband was a serial philanderer. In what may be the most outlandish accusation of the whole movie, D’Souza says that her husband’s infidelity is her fault and that “in many ways she orchestrated all of this.” Just take in that statement. It might take a while. Let it settle in. She “used his addiction to make him dependent on her.” Bill Clinton’s indiscretions have been well documented and are worth another examination in modern light, but this is new. And then this icky nugget took my breath away: “Bill, after all, is in a long line of Democratic ‘plantation owners’ who took power over women in their control.” We had earlier seen Andrew Jackson in bed with his slave, though again other Founding Fathers are left out of this charge, like Jefferson, because it would dilute the message. The level of projection and armchair psychology is staggering and often without coherent evidence.
The shady tactics and paranoid fear-mongering feel rather played out the third time around. Conservative boogeymen are thrown out there (Sanger, Alinsky, Daley, Chicago in general) but it feels like D’Souza cannot even be bothered to properly lambaste them. It’s like he’s checking the boxes of conservative agita and expecting that he doesn’t need to explain anything because of course Saul Alinsky was connected to Al Capone and ipso facto Hillary Clinton is a criminal. He sets them up and chiefly moves along, propelled by some other point that never fully materializes. He purposely blurs the line between archival footage and interview recordings and slanted fictional recreations. There’s a strange recreation where Obama’s father visits his classroom to present an African perspective on culture, including a spear and tales of killing lions. Why does the documentary even require a scene like this? D’Souza only deigns to say Obama learned how to “pitch” from his father. It’s an odious dog whistle to its core audience to remember that Obama is an “other.” There’s another strange moment when a fantasy Hillary leans into the ear of a dissatisfied man to whisper, “They are rich because they steal from you.” As the star of his trilogy of lunacy, D’Souza is the hysterically nonplussed face of his own madness. His interviews often set up his subjects with leaning questions and confirmation bias. It’s as productive as watching D’Souza interview himself, especially when there are perhaps only four interview subjects total, half of them partisans. D’Souza puts himself as the head of his own story of discovery as he wanders around and looks wide-eyed and forlorn over the symbols of America’s greatness, like a field of wheat he solemnly touches. It feels like D’Souza is going through the paces of what his audience is expecting and serves it up without mental taxation. The movie even ends on three straight musical performances, including one by D’Souza’s new wife, that sum up America’s greatness through stock footage montage of patriotism clichés.
Hillary’s America wants to spare the nation at a critical moment in history, but D’Souza’s agitprop will only appeal to the converted or at least those viewers with an alarmingly low quotient for intellectual curiosity. “They can’t take America from us without our consent,” D’Souza rallies his crowd into mobilization (as a felon, he has lost his right to vote in the meantime). The reason I very much wanted to review this movie specifically today is because it’s Election Day and the country has been given a very stark choice. People talk about the deep divides in this country, and it’s men like D’Souza that are stirring those divisions, placating and agitating their audiences, and knowingly distorting facts and reality in a shameless attempt to milk money from the hapless. Here is a man who said Obama never truly lived the “black experience” because his mother was white. Here is a man who tried to mitigate the horrors of slavery in his previous documentary and termed it “theft of labor.” Here is a man who believes Christianity literally invented compassion. Here is a man who states that no Republicans owned slaves. He is not a man who tells truth to power but a man who willfully distorts the historical record in order to make people feel better about unhinged political takes that have no bearing in reality. It is people like D’Souza that have lead the way for the coronation of Donald Trump, and it should be people like D’Souza who are put to blame when that experiment crumbles. He couldn’t be an effective propagandist if he tried, and it really doesn’t feel like he’s even trying. Maybe at some level D’Souza is admitting defeat or at least sees the writing on the wall. He’s been on the wrong side of history and eventually history will judge him as well. Meanwhile, Hillary’s America is a disaster of a movie and the worst film of 2016.
Nate’s Grade: F
Sometimes as a critic I seek out the worst of the worst so you don’t have to, America. And you really owe me big time for sitting through all 100 torturous minutes of the regretful-in-every-aspect horror… “comedy,” Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence. I’ll confess that horror is a genre I’ve grown to enjoy and I genuinely liked the first Centipede film, finding its premise near ingenious and that writer/director Tom Six developed his horror grotesquerie in a way that turned it into an accessible survival thriller with some gonzo edges. The sequel was pretty repulsive and the third film, with the hopeful promise of being the “final sequence,” is even worse. This is a horrifying endurance test not unlike Tom Green’s abysmal lone directorial affront, Freddy Got Fingered. It is that bad. Scenes just seem to go on and on and exist for no purpose. It’s like Dieter Laser was just told to do whatever he wanted as long as he yelled as loud as he could and based his performance after the Looney Tunes cast. It’s cheap vulgarity masquerading as edgy provocation; it’s transparently lazy and insufferable. It’s not funny no matter how weird or loud or garish or bloody or dumb it gets. The premise is basically an insane prison warden (Laser) is going to create his own human centipede, the biggest ever, linking over 100 inmates. Ignoring the escalation of all the Centipede sequels, it’s a facile plot device and it doesn’t even happen until the very end. Until that awful reveal, you will have to endure, no a better word is survive, extended “comedy” bits like Laser sticking his tongue out and roaring in orgasm while his secretary (Bree Olsen) is forced to felate him while others are in the room. The movie is trying so hard to be shocking and irreverent that you can see all the pained efforts. It’s tedious and boring. Human Centipede 3 is 100 minutes of pathetic flop sweat that could more or less end with the throwaway punchline, “The Aristocrats!”
Nate’s Grade: F
Conservative author and political speaker Dinesh D’Souza struck gold with his last documentary, 2016: Obama’s America. The 2012 film struck a chord with enough moviegoers to earn over $33 million at the box-office, and it earned my own hallowed award for Worst Film of 2012, a puerile character hit-piece that only served as agitprop. My in depth review even got picked up by other outlets and message boards and became something of an e-mail forward itself. So when D’Souza announced his follow-up, America: Imagine a World Without Her, I knew I would have plenty to write about. It’s not as overtly risible as 2016 but its true intent is possibly even more sinister. Let me assure you, dear reader, that I go into every movie to objectively critique what works, what doesn’t and why. I would welcome a conservative counterpart to Michael Moore, but Dinesh D’Souza is not that filmmaker, not by a long shot.
The film begins with an interesting “what if” scenario questioning what might have happened in history if George Washington had fallen on the battlefield and America had lost its revolution for independence. American monuments are turned to dust and ominous music pervades. However, instead of following through on this slice of alternative history, D’Souza switches gears immediately and points toward a new goal. He wants to change what he sees as a “shame America” narrative, fostered by the likes of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and the “blame America first” crowd of liberal and academic nogoodniks. To do so, D’Souza seeks out to reclaim America’s past, which amounts to defending or mitigating the famous sins of America’s past. D’Souza’s demonstrably shaky logic disputing America’s past ills only takes a modicum of critical thinking skills to see it for the intellectually facile, dishonest, disingenuous, morally bankrupt rhetoric of a charlatan. Allow me to examine D’Souza’s rebuttal of the five reported thefts he examines in the film.
1) “Theft of land from Native Americans.” This one seems pretty obvious. They were here first. American settlers, as well as other nations, came, conquered, and Manifest Destinied the continent. D’Souza tries to argue that the Native Americans themselves would engage in war and take over other tribes’ territories; therefore their original claim to the land is nil. Also, the land is only valuable because of what the new owners built on that land. I guess America’s national parks have no inherent value then. It almost ends up transforming into a rhetorical line that the Native Americans didn’t know how best to use their own land, so they didn’t deserve it. The worst part of this segment, besides breezing over the Trail of Tears and countless broken treaties, is that D’Souza has the temerity to dispute the semantics of “genocide.” See, D’Souza opines that with genocide there has to be intent to do harm, and Europeans simply bringing along deadly infections the natives had no immunity for cannot count. Never mind the whole smallpox blankets episode, America’s earliest form of biological warfare, which was intentional. D’Souza then compares the decimation of the Native Americans via disease to the Black Plague. “We don’t call that genocide,” he smugly asserts. Let me provide a more fitting analogy: if Turkey had invaded the European continent, bringing with it the Bubonic Plague, and then purposely spread it to the natives to eliminate them, while claiming the land as Turkey’s own, establishing settlements, and forcing the weakened Europeans into small unobtrusive clusters, well maybe we would accurately call that by all accounts genocide.
2) “Theft of labor of Africans.” First, re-read that sentence and really let D’Souza’s slimy word choice sink in. “Theft of labor” is what we’re calling slavery now? How about theft of life, theft of rights, theft of future, theft of family, theft of dignity, theft of their basic humanity? This rebuttal is curious because at the outset D’Souza admits, “Yes, slavery was theft.” Everything referenced after this point cannot alter this declaration, meaning the rest of this segment is all about mitigating the terror of slavery. D’Souza says the United States didn’t invent slavery, and that even Africans would enslave one another. He literally uses the “everybody else was doing it too” argument children use to get away with misdeeds. He even tries to turn it around as a positive, enthusiastically informing us that America is the only country to fight a war to end slavery and that makes us a special place. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way would be to celebrate other countries that didn’t require bloody wars to come to a consensus that owning other people as property was morally repugnant. Then D’Souza flouts anomalous examples to try and muddy the disgraceful practice of slavery. There were black slave owners, yes, because these people still exist in a crooked system. What does the existence of black slave owners prove? D’Souza’s unsourced claim that there were as many black slave owners as white slave owners is so obviously dishonest that it takes your breath away. But even if it were true, which it is most assuredly not, what does it prove? Is D’Souza trying to say blacks are just as complicit in slavery? Then he adds that white indentured servants worked alongside many slaves and they had it rough too. Indentured servants were still seen as people with human rights. There is no comparison to slavery. The end.
3) “Theft of land from Mexico.” This one is given even shorter shrift, mostly boiling down to a simplistic analysis of how lousy life is in Mexico. The United States gained much of the western states after annexing them from Mexico. D’Souza reasons that after the war we had all of Mexico and we only took half, so that should be acceptable. “I wonder how many of those in Mexico wish we had kept all of their country,” he intones.
4) “Theft of independence with foreign policy.” I forget the exact wording on this one, but really it just amounts to the American wars and conflicts in the last 50 years. Tackling Vietnam, D’Souza offers a straw man that has never existed in mainstream thought: that we went to war in Vietnam to take over their land as imperialists. The war in Vietnam was a result of the domino theory in thwarting the spread of communism, not to take over Asia. On top of this, let’s ignore the Gulf of Tonkin incident that was manufactured as a rationale to escalate a war in South Vietnam. All D’Souza does is interview one P.O.W. veteran who says he went to war to spread democracy. That’s fine, but one man’s experience is anecdotal and not indicative of the whole, let alone of the military command. D’Souza then says we gave back Iraq to the Iraqis and didn’t ask for anything in return, except, you know, permanent military bases that they objected to. Wars aren’t just fought for territory, they can be fought for profit by powerful interests; just look at the military industrial complex run amok. And yet, weirdly, D’Souza never combats Noam Chomsky’s listing of all the American-assisted coups across the globe, from Iran (1953) to Chile (1973) to Brazil (1964) to Guatemala (1954) and others. In 2011, documents over the Iran coup were declassified and admitted CIA involvement as “an act of U.S. foreign policy conceived and approved by the highest levels of government.”
5) “Theft of wealth by capitalism.” D’Souza actually comes to the defense of Wall Street, lamenting that America’s wealthy are under unfair attack from the unwashed masses. First, D’Souza conflates a critique of unregulated, Laissez-faire capitalism with capitalism itself. There are socialists and communists and others of similar ideology out there, but the mainstream left is not arguing for the wholesale destruction of the economic system of this country. A lack of oversight and unchecked greed and fraternal collusion lead to the financial meltdown of 2008, bringing the world to the brink of economic ruin because of the bad bets of Wall Street. Instead, D’Souza stages a silly example of himself running a fast food restaurant, complete with himself playing all of the workers and with a comical (?) Indian accent. He flatly contends that it costs the consumer more money to make a hamburger at home than to buy one from his restaurant, ipso facto “the American people are not being ripped off.” This is D’Souza’s insufficient summary of capitalism, ignoring the 2008 financial crises, ignoring the robber barons, ignoring strike-busting, ignoring the reasons the unions had to be formed in the first place because of dangerous, unfit working conditions that would still exist without intervention. Thomas Piketty wrote a 700-page book on the history of capitalism that has become an unexpected runaway bestseller. He studied hundreds of years of documents of all sorts and concluded that return on capital is higher than the growth rate of the economy, meaning the rich get a bigger part of the pie as time goes on. Economic inequality is hitting record rates not seen since the Great Depression, but somehow for D’Souza this is Obama’s failings and not those of the enshrined 1%, a.k.a. the “job creators.”
Each of these segments runs less than 10 minutes and D’Souza seems to brush through them with little effort as if the man can’t be bothered to knock down his own poorly reasoned straw men. Every claim that D’Souza makes is lacking in substantive facts. He has little evidence to support his slanted and mischaracterized claims. I only recall him ever once citing a source as he worked through his rebuttal of America’s past transgressions. That’s because D’Souza’s assertions don’t hold up under any trace amount of intellectual scrutiny, which is why he often defers to emotional appeals and anomalous anecdotes (Hey, a black woman became the first female millionaire selling hair products, therefore all ex-slaves could have prospered in this country if they only worked hard, never mind Jim Crow and all that). We watch re-enactments of the P.O.W. being tortured in Vietnam, and obviously our empathy goes out to this man, but that doesn’t erase a million dead Vietnamese and 55,000 fallen Americans. There is an absurd amount of historical re-enactments in America, to pad out its running time given the paucity of its argument, but mostly to fall back upon unfettered emotional appeals. D’Souza relies on the symbols of patriotism and actors portraying great figures from history, notably Abe Lincoln, to persuade his audience about the unimpeachable history of America rather than the integrity of his unsubstantiated and spurious claims.
D’Souza doesn’t even bother to cover his obvious biases with his interview subjects. He asks Michael Eric Dyson why the re-election of Obama doesn’t mean “the end of racism” (forgetting that half of the country did not vote for the man, and no, this does not mean every non-Obama vote was a racist). He props extremist Ward Churchill as the face of modern liberalism, referencing his comparison of 9/11 victims to Eichmann, and prompting him to justify dropping an atomic bomb on American soil as retribution. D’Souza then spends the duration of an interview with a Mexican-American student by asking him what the American Dream means to him. His interview subjects are also rarely identified onscreen, nor does D’Souza disclose such pertinent facts like the talking heads belonging to prominent conservative think tanks, ones that have lined his own pockets. There’s also a noticeable lack of follow-up questions. D’Souza’s interview style is also haltingly slow and modulated, as if speaking slower is the same as being reflective. But my favorite interview by far begins with these magical words: “Senator Ted Cruz, why did the Mexican-American War take place?” Oh my.
America lacks a general workable thesis to hold its claims and counter-claims together, which is something at least 2016 had going for it. This may be because the film’s possible real intent is only revealed in the closing twenty minutes, and it amounts to a plea not elect Hilary Clinton to the White House. D’Souza’s last effort to stop Obama’s re-election didn’t work out, even though he claims his ridiculous assertions have come true (the debt hasn’t doubled since 2012 and Israel has yet to become the “United States of Islam” as well). D’Souza enjoys reasserting conservative bogeymen, which is why we get more references to Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright, and especially Saul Alinsky. Until a few years ago, I doubt anyone even knew who this man was but now D’Souza, and others, have pinned him as the ultimate political bogeyman, contorting America from beyond the grave. That’s because his disciples are living out Alinsky’s anti-capitalist dogma, chief among them Obama and Hilary Clinton. There is a goofy re-enactment where a young Clinton is introduced to Alinsky in a high school cafeteria, and the scene is played with such ominous music and lighting that it’s meant to convey a sit-down with none other than the devil (Alinksy is quoted as taking organizational tips from Lucifer, so you make the connection, audience). Hilary wrote her college thesis on the guy even. However, when she graduated she turned down working for the guy and instead became a lawyer, so… I don’t know what. Hilariously, the Alinsky re-enactments are bursting with overwrought menace including one incomprehensible scene of Alinsky sitting in his car and scoping out school children for likely nefarious purposes. “Alinksy would love Obamacare,” D’Souza notes, which makes little sense considering the ACA is all about providing new clients to private industry. As a socialist, I imagine Alsinky would have preferred the public option found in every other Western nation.
It’s these kind of broad generalizations, armchair psychological projection, and guilt-by-association pleas that typify D’Souza’s documentaries. Last time he said Obama’s “anti-colonialist” views were all because he wanted to appeal to an absent father he saw a couple of times in his life. Now D’Souza is warning us that Hilary Clinton is doing the same but trying to appease the ghost of Alinsky, a man she turned down working for way back when.
The real question is WHY would anyone even pose arguments to mitigate the horrors of slavery and genocide? What morally charitable rationale can even be created to try and argue that these horrors were not as bad as history has thoroughly documented? D’Souza says he wants to take control of the “shame America” narrative, but in doing so he’s whitewashing and mitigating this country’s mistakes just to make, what, his core audience of conservatives feel better about themselves? In this, I must quote my critical colleague Ben Bailey, himself paraphrasing a quote from Al Franken: “Franken once observed that, while liberals and conservatives both love America, they love it in different ways. Liberals love America like an adult loves their parents, seeing them not just as mom and dad but as complex individuals with strengths and flaws. Conservatives love America like a baby loves his mommy, who in the child’s eyes can do no wrong, and anyone who says so is a lying bastard.” Patriotism does not mean turning a blind eye toward your country’s mistakes, past and current, nor does it make the ignorant more patriotic than the educated that accept their country’s past, warts and all, and pledge to ensure that those same mistakes are never repeated. Now, slavery isn’t exactly likely to return any time soon to this country, but the core tenets that enshrined slavery were looking at others as subhuman, as undeserving of equality, rigging a system to deny people fair opportunities, a true lack of empathy for the hardships of others. These traits still exist today and can still be found in modern domestic and foreign legislation.
As a movie, America: Imagine a World Without Her is also a failure. It’s a political polemic that preaches to the faithful, assuaging any feelings of guilt they may have had over the past sins of our country, and yet D’Souza doesn’t even offer a vigorous or even competent attempt to do just that. Unless you are already converted to D’Souza’s worldview, you are unlikely to be persuaded by this crackpot expose. The film lacks corroborating evidence for its outrageous claims and rebuttals, conveniently ignoring a larger context in many cases because it would disprove D’Souza’s disingenuous claims, that is, when D’Souza isn’t inadvertently disproving his own claims. History is written by the winners and Zinn wanted to show history from the point of view of the oppressed, the disadvantaged, and the lower classes that typically get lost amidst the resuscitation of kings, generals, and Great Men of Industry. D’Souza’s view seems to be, yeah history is written by the winners, so stop whining minorities and suck it up. After all, the Native Americans get to open casinos, so how bad off can they be? Here’s the thing: most people, liberals and conservative and everyone else, don’t feel guilt per se about Native American genocide or slavery, mostly because we were not alive and responsible. I feel no more guilt over these issues than I do over the other numerous acts of genocide, slavery, and general horror that populate the far-away past. But civilization is a constant work in progress and the responsibility of every citizen is to try and make this world better than it was before. The past informs our actions and our understanding of the world and us. Nobody except the fringe thinks America is a pit of unrepentant evil that has done the world nothing but harm. It has been a force for good but it’s also made mistakes, but to quote Stannis Baratheon, “The bad does not wash out the good, nor does the good wash out the bad.” We all love our country but just because some recognize certain inconvenient historical facts don’t make them any less patriotic.
With all of this exhaustively analyzed, allow me one more moment of examination, borrowing some of the armchair psychological speculation that D’Souza likes to primarily trade in. It appears that D’Souza has a healthy opinion of himself bordering on obsessive narcissism. He cheerily lets us know his past film ranks as the number two highest-grossing political documentary of all time, omitting who owns the number one spot and by a large margin. His name is listed SIX times in the opening credits, including credits for having written the source book, writing the screenplay, and “creating and narrating” the film. Much of the film involves D’Souza in his turtlenecks strolling along national monuments and looking forlorn. He is the star of the film. But there’s also the problem that D’Souza pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance fraud, posing as third parties to continue making campaign donations in 2012. D’Souza admits, “I made a mistake. No man is above the law,” but he frames his guilt as martyrdom. D’Souza makes himself seem like the “latest victim to be targeted by the White House,” instead of, you know, a man who broke the law and got caught. He argues the White House, using the NSA and the (debunked) IRS scandal, are out to silence dissent, abusing whatever measures they have at their disposal (never mind that Bush began the wiretap surveillance program). I propose that America is nothing more than a cover for D’Souza’s conviction and to save face amidst impending jail time. It’s a 90-minute excuse not for America’s misdeeds but for D’Souza’s.
Nate’s Grade: F
Vince Offer is best known as the successful pitchman for infomercial products like the Sham Wow and the Slap Chop. He’s less known as an amateur comedian. In 1999, he co-wrote and directed The Underground Comedy Movie, pooling all the favors he must have accrued with celebrities and struggling L.A. comics. You’d think after one resounding dud people would know better, but alas Offer and his friends have funded another sketch comedy movie, InAPPropriate Comedy. You see the title refers to the joke delivery system, namely Offer’s finger hitting apps on a tablet to start sketches. And if that inept setup doesn’t seem like a insightful indicator for the misery that is to follow, then allow me to confirm that InAPPropriate Comedy may be the least funny comedy I’ve ever seen.
I’m not saying that ALL people who find some measurable level of enjoyment from InAPPropriate Comedy are racist, homophobic, and sexist, but chances are, if you are all three things, you’ll probably enjoy the comedic abyss that is InAPPropriate Comedy. For the purposes of truly showcasing how comically bankrupt this enterprise is, overdosing on witless shock value and groan-worthy stereotypes, I will quickly dictate exactly what you get in this movie, sketch-wise. It’s really only about four reoccurring segments.
-Before the meat of the comedy begins we’re treated to the lamest, more obvious 127 Hours parody and the sight of tough-guy bikers riding around on bicycles. Does that mental image automatically make you laugh? If so, you’re in luck.
-A parody of Dirty Harry called “Flirty Harry” where Oscar-winner Adrien Brody is a cop who speaks in nothing but overblown gay-centric double entendres (GAY JOKE #1). Is that half-assed twist on the name worth an entire ongoing series? It’s like you took one of the parody names from MAD magazine and then just called it a day. The second time around, Flirty Harry stops a robber and we see him in pink pants. He’s wearing pink pants. How could that not be hysterical? (GAY JOKE #2) The third segment doesn’t want to waste any time, so now Flirty Harry is getting his nails done at an Asian salon. You better believe these women are portrayed as nattering, horrendous, screeching caricatures (GAY JOKE #3, RACIST JOKE #1, SEXIST JOKE #1). Then Harry shoots a guy in the ass (GAY JOKE #4). Adrien Brody, why?
-The next ongoing sketch is a parody of MTV’s Jackass, and this one, with about as much wit as you’d expect, is called Blackass. It’s about a group of obnoxious, ignorant, lazy, foul-mouthed, angry black males engaging in rude and offensive behavior. These segments may be the most offensive in the whole movie because it is wall-to-wall negative stereotypes; the joke is that black men are not to be trusted and will harass white people, especially white women. The first time we see Blackass it has our characters running from the police. One of them even has a giant boombox over his shoulder because people still do that, right? (RACIST JOKE #2). These guys dress and behave exactly like the harmful misrepresentation your elderly grandmother has about black people. The sad part is that the festering stereotype of the black male up to no good can have serious and tragic consequences, coloring people’s judgments and assumptions.
Stepping down from the soapbox, the first segment involves the Blackass crew falling into a vat of raw sewage. The second segment involves them playing joust in shopping carts with lances made to resemble giant black penises (RACIST JOKE #3). The third involves the Blackass crew as the world’s worst babysitters, threatening a white woman in the process (RACIST JOKE #4). You see black people are terrible fathers, so this movie would argue. They talk about welfare checks and carry around 40s of malt liquor. The fourth segment has one of the Blackass guys and his white girlfriend antagonizing another couple in a hot tub before having anal sex (RACIST JOKE #5, SEXIST JOKE #2). The fifth segment has one of the Blackass guys in an abortion clinic waiting room. He harasses a young couple and offers to abort their pregnancy for cheap with a coat hanger (RACIST JOKE #6). The last segment involves the gang trying to lure a mouse by putting cheese on one of their penises. While it’s the closest in conception to an actual Jackass stunt, it’s still unfunny and much of the humor seems to rest on the enormous size of African-American phalluses (RACIST JOKE #7). Crap, I forgot about another segment where the guys blindfold a dude and have him get run over by a rhino. I don’t even get this one.
-The longest and most painful of the reoccurring sketches is a parody of The Amazing Race dubbed The Amazing Racist. You might expect it to have something to do with the popular reality TV competition, perhaps people competing to see who is the bigger racist, racism across color, or even forcing two racists of different ethnicity to team up in competitions. Nope. It’s just co-writer Ari Shaffir and his unending improvisation. The first segment has him rant in front of the U.S.-Mexico border, and then he harangues a gas station owner and assumes any Hispanic present is an illegal alien (RACIST JOKE #8). The next involves him as an insulting driving instructor for Asian drivers (RACIST JOKE #9). The next involves him wandering a predominantly Jewish supermarket trying to gather signatures to apologize for killing Jesus (RACIST JOKE #10). The next segment involves Shaffir entreating black passerbyes on a beach to take a boat ride back to Africa (RACIST JOKE #11). Finally, Shaffir is abandoned in a Middle Eastern territory with armed Arabs. I guess it’s supposed to count as comeuppance but it sure doesn’t feel it. There’s a post-credit sequence where Shaffir is trying to lure Jews into a box to ship to Hitler from the future (RACIST JOKE #12). I later learned that the hidden camera aspect of Shaffir’s bits is another fallacy. The people onscreen are all actors, which makes The Amazing Racist even less amazing. It feels like Offer and Shaffir watched Borat and thought they could replicate what they saw.
-The only other repeating segment is a pair of film critics that specialize in reviewing pornography. The idea on itself actually has the most potential out of everything Offer throws onscreen. It’s got recognizable faces; Michelle Rodriguez and Rob Schneider are the critics. Their reviews, however, are just another excuse to make more racist and gay jokes. A porn they review is called “Sushi Mama” and it features two Asians engaging in over-the-top, badly dubbed sex (RACIST JOKE #13). Another porn they review is weirdly a parody of Swan Lake, with guys dancing around in tutus and eventually humping and ejaculating on a helpless victim (GAY JOKE #5).
There are two other sketches that have the luxury of not being repeat offenders, so to speak. Lord knows what Offer and company saw in the others. One involves Schneider as a sleazy therapist aroused by his client’s vigorous sexual history (SEXIST JOKE #3). Another is called “Things You’ll Never See” and purports that hot ladies would never date someone poor because all good-looking women care about is money (SEXIST JOKE #4). I haven’t even mentioned how all of these sketches are supposed to take place, literally, inside Lindsay Lohan’s vagina (SEXIST JOKE #5). It’s a nonsensical framing device. We zoom out in the end, meaning that Lohan has a treasure trove of unfunny sketches stuffed in her special place. She should probably consult an OBGYN.
And that’s it! That’s the movie, all 75 wretched, horrendous, soul-draining minutes. Did any of that, on the surface, seem funny to you, or, like most people with active senses of humor, did it seem overwhelmingly lazy and poorly thought out? The biggest problem with InAPPropriate Comedy is that it’s trying to be more inappropriate than funny. It’s confused shock value for actual humor. Having a troika of irresponsible black males playing into demoralizing stereotypes and fears isn’t comedy. Having a guy make fun of Asian drivers isn’t a sketch. Having a gay cop make forced double entendres isn’t a sketch. There’s no development here, no escalation, no twisting of the premise, no nothing. All Offer and his motley crew of comedic imbeciles do is take a one-joke premise and pummel it into submission, making the laborious sketches feel even longer. It just so happens that most of their one-joke ideas aren’t even ideas so much as mean slights against minorities, women, and gay people. There is no ironic distance to the joke telling; they are merely just being crushingly racist, sexist, and homophobic.
I am by no means a comedy prude. I love a terrific vulgar joke as much as the next guy. I think when comedy is concerned that nothing is off limits. You can make anything, no matter how horrific and offensive, funny under the right circumstances, but it takes work and able skill. The problem with Offer’s movie is that there is no consideration to context, setup, developments, let alone surprise. You’ll see every dreadful joke coming before it arrives. That’s because all this movie does is trade in pained, outdated stereotypes. The scenes themselves feel like improv jags that just go on endlessly, like Offer was trying to replicate the process of a Judd Apatow comedy. His faulty reasoning may have been if people just say enough offensive things long enough, then something has to arrive at funny. Comedy doesn’t work like that, and as a comedy writer I find it personally insulting. This is just rampant and pointless vulgarity without any parameters, no point of view, nothing to mask the fact that it’s just cheap shock value. What are the jokes here? Asians are bad drivers? Black men are reckless? Women are superficial? Do these sound like jokes or merely groundless insults? If you removed all the ostensibly offensive elements, there would be nothing to this movie whatsoever.
As a longtime detractor of the duo Friedberg and Seltzer, the men responsible for cinematic crimes against humanity like Epic Movie (my worst film of 2007) and Meet the Spartans (my worst film of 2008), I’m torn. Friedberg/Seltzer don’t so much create jokes as they do lame pop-culture references with built-in expiration dates (go on, try and watch one of their past movies and see if you recall everything). Whatever jokes they do foster are mostly broad slapstick, but it could be classified, no matter how charitably, as a joke. After watching Offer’s InAPPropriate Comedy, I may have second thoughts about the intensity of my screeds against Friedberg and Seltzer. Their movies are still terrible, still the cannibalistic, cinematic watery discharge I dubbed them, but Offer’s comedy may even be worse. There’s no way any of InAPPropriate Comedy could ever be funny. It’s so obvious and desperate that it confuses offense for smashing taboos. This is a black hole of funny, where funny cannot escape and instead gets smashed down to an atomic level. How could anyone making this find it even remotely funny? If I see a worse movie in 2013 than InAPPropriate Comedy, it will make me reevaluate the existence of a loving God.
Nate’s Grade: F
Dinesh D’Souza, noted conservative pundit and author, has risen to mainstream attention thanks to his documentary 2016: Obama’s America, a little movie making some big noise at the box-office. Co-written and directed by John Sullivan (Ben Stein’s Expelled), the film rationalizes that the American people don’t really know the true Barack Obama. D’Souza uses Obama’s own words from his best-selling memoir Dreams From My Father to try and decipher who the president is deep down, and D’Souza theorizes that the most powerful man in the world is really just trying to appeal to an absentee father. D’Souza visits the globe and promises to shed light on the “real” Obama, or, at least, the “real” Obama that fits into the narrative of a narrow political polemic.
After viewing 2016: Obama’s America, I am at a loss for words. This won’t last long, trust me.
This pseudo-documentary is such an intellectually dishonest, disingenuous, feeble-minded character attack, relying on heavy amounts of guilt-by-association, armchair psychology, factual whitewashing, leaps in logic, and ugly race-baited visual associations to remind its public that Obama is an “other.” I tried to be as objective as possible assessing D’Souza’s takedown on America’s first black president. I tried to analyze his rhetoric, his process of laying the case for his outlandish, paranoid claims. I tried to remove all personal politics from my assessment, and I still will attempt to keep them at bay, to simply review this as a “film.” What Obama’s America truly aspires to be is the evidence that your crackpot uncle cites as proof that his dismissive opinion of the president, that he’s not to be trusted, that he’s trying to destroy the country from the inside out, is correct. In this fashion, D’Souza is trying to give cover for the crackpots.
Let’s start with D’Souza’s fundamental thesis that supposes that Obama’s entire motivation is to live out the ideals of his father. He’s trying to impress his absent father. I cannot buy this broad generalization, and D’Souza keeps returning to it like he’s the only one who can see this obvious conclusion. I find it hard to believe that the father Obama saw once in his life is really the guiding force of his worldviews. Therefore, the more information D’Souza spills about Obama’s father the more he’s repeating the same conjecture without making any concrete connection. He interviews friends of Barack Sr. in Kenya and asks for their views of President Obama, a man they’ve never known. There is a litany of interview subjects with tenuous connection to Obama, most are always a step or two or more removed from the man himself. We get his mother’s college professor and Obama’s half-brother living in Kenya. That’s about as close as the movie gets. Often the interview subjects will disintegrate into weak hearsay (“I interviewed a guy who knew his father, so I guess I have some credibility.”). I also found it odd how when his interview subjects refer to his radical father, they keep repeating the name “Barack,” and not specifying senior or father. It happens so often that the intended association is quite transparent. Here’s a clue you’re dealing with a crank: D’Souza tries to make hay out of the fact that Obama’s book is titled “Dreams FROM My Father” and not “Dreams OF My Father.” Rarely has one preposition been given such (half-assed) psychological insight. The fact that the movie purports to get at the “real Obama,” and this is the scraps it offers, robs the movie of any desperately desired insight or credibility.
The movie, especially the first 20 minutes, is also the story of D’Souza and his personal journey of why he feels America is the greatest land of them all. Just because the man was born the same year as Obama, got married the same year, and comes from a foreign country (though Obama is an American citizen who only spent four years abroad, but I digress), doesn’t mean somehow D’Souza has been given such psychic insight into the mind of Obama. Like Michael Moore, D’Souza inserts himself and his life story into his narrative when it’s not essential.
This would also work as an excellent case study in psychological projection. Since we don’t get people close to Obama, we get lots and lots of conjecture and people offering their “esteemed” analysis of the man. These so-called experts do what the man’s worst critics do, which is ignore the reality of Obama and project their radical interpretation of the man. An even-keeled centrist is a boring narrative, so now he becomes a Marxist, a socialist, a leftist radical, an enemy of the American way of life. This just doesn’t jibe with a pesky thing known as the facts. If Obama is really the socialist he’s labeled, then he’s a horrible socialist. No public option? Recycling the Republican health care plan from the 1990s, including the mandate? Relaxing more gun control laws than Bush did in his entire presidency? Stepping up record numbers of drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Does that sound like a guy who’s “weirdly sympathetic to jihadists”?
D’Souza and his interview subjects even take the step of saying that Obama’s even-keeled style is really just a front, that deep down he’s a raging black man just like failed presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The reason we don’t see this font of anger is because, and here’s the ingenious part, Obama knows how to manipulate us all! He’s secretly hiding his surplus of radical anger through emotional pragmatism. Not only that, Obama is manipulating race relations to lull us into complacency, because he knows white America wants to be assuaged of feeling racist, so we’ll appreciate and advance an African-American man of merit. Excuse me? Does that make sense to anyone, that instead of just being, you know, a pragmatist, Obama is secretly exploiting white guilt to advance, because otherwise how would this man become president unless we were all duped? None of that holds together. D’Souza’s 2010 book was called The Roots of Obama’s Rage (he also penned the 1995 book The End of Racism, so I guess he was just a little early on that one). The fact that two years, or less, into his presidency, D’Souza is ready to lambaste the man as “rageful” makes me think that D’Souza just cannot perceive objective reality like the rest of us.
D’Souza and company also take any opportunity to de-legitimize the man’s accomplishments. Obama didn’t win the presidency because he was an eloquent, charismatic, intelligent, and compelling political figure, not to mention that he got ten million more votes than John McCain. Could Obama have achieved the historic because of his accomplishments? According to this movie, Obama won the 2008 presidential election because of one thing: he was black. You see foolish reader, America as a nation wanted to assuage any collective white guilt over the transgressions of our ancestors, so we all (myself included) voted for the man as a declarative statement once and for all that we are not racist. Maybe a handful of people were motivated by such a ludicrous notion, but all 69.5 million Obama voters? This is not the film’s only simplistic generalization. We also have a psychological expert on what an absentee father does to a child. This is not a unique situation in our culture, nor is it one that prescribes a catchall response. Just because one person grows up without a father does not mean they will rigidly follow the same path in life; there are too many variables to prescribe one fate.
The most telling moment occurs when D’Souza visits Kenya to trace Obama’s father’s life. He interviews the president’s half-brother and tries to needle him that his distant, famous relative is callous. “Why hasn’t he helped you out here?” D’Souza presses. “He has a family of his own. I can take care of myself,” the half-brother reasons, adding, “He’s got other issues to take care of.” This is the only member of Obama’s actual extended family that D’Souza manages to snag an interview with, and he shuts down his line of inquiry pretty succinctly. Later, the man gives some rather hostile views of Israel, which is meant to signal that any possible points he made should be invalidated.
Then there’s just the disingenuous and petty digs that omit key clarifying facts. D’Souza keeps railing against Obama as an anti-colonialist. First off, who in this day and age is going to champion colonialism, a system where the strong take from the weak? And why is colonialism even a relevant prism for the twenty-first century? Again, D’Souza offers little evidence to tie his theories to the man he’s critiquing. One of his key pieces of evidence is that Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill back to England. For D’Souza, this is a sign of his distaste for Churchill as a colonialist. However, the facts are that the bust was on loan and scheduled to return to England anyway, before Obama took office, and there’s another bust of Churchill that remains in the president’s private offices. What an inconvenience the actual facts make. I’d like to share my friend and PSP colleague Ben Bailey’s thoughts on this specific matter:
“Little known fact I just learn from the Obama 2016 documentary: The bust of Winston Churchill that used to be kept in the White House was actually a magical artifact that protected this country from socialism as long as it was in America. Naturally, the Anti-Colonialist Obama’s first action upon taking office was to send that shit back. The other bust of Churchill that still resides in the White House does not have any magical powers, so it was kept.”
D’Souza also hammers home the notion that Obama opposes the British rule of the Falkland Islands, a tiny group of islands off Argentina’s coast. Another casual fact-checking venture proves this is false. The U.S. refused to endorse a declaration of Argentina’s claim of ownership. And these are just the petty examples of D’Souza’s argument approaching snide, dickish territory.
There are also the demonstrably false assertions, like Obama’s desire to destroy America’s superpower standing. D’Souza likes to obfuscate the eight years of Bush, speeding over him quickly in a timeline, lumping the national debt explosion under “Bush and Obama.” Conservative pundits like to lambaste the president for the dour economy, which has improved over the past four years, but they also conveniently forget the mess the man inherited. To ignore eight years of policies that helped lead to near financial ruin, two wars that Bush also left off budgets and Obama did not, among other things, is to remove all context. It’s like setting your house on fire and then blaming the next guy for trying to put it out: “Why haven’t you fixed everything yet, pal?” Record debt and financial ruination did not suddenly appear one day in January 2009 when a Democrat took office, despite what some choose to believe. Forgetting the eight tumultuous years of Bush, and their far-reaching complications, is a disservice to history and an ignorant understanding of how we got where we are now.
Then there’s D’Souza’s dangerous assertion that Obama wants to weaken this country by cutting defense spending and our number of nuclear warheads. Anyone that talks about seriously reducing debt and the deficit and doesn’t offer slashing defense spending, a huge part of the pie, is simply not committed to their goal. Like not one dollar of defense spending is wasteful, and any cuts would endanger the security of American life? We’re drawing down two wars; do we need to keep spending like they’re still active? Also, Obama wants to reduce the world’s nuclear arms, and what’s so wrong with that? How many warheads do you need? Are 1,500 warheads not enough to blow up the world ten times over? The notion that any reduction in arms or spending accompanies “weakness” is fanciful. Obama doesn’t want to weaken this country by reducing America’s nuclear stockpile while the world continues to wield these weapons. He wants to reduce all the world’s nuclear arms to zero, an ambition D’Souza callously dismisses as fantasy. You know who also wanted to reduce nuclear weapons to zero? Ronald Reagan, D’Souza’s hero. As per his 1984 speech: “My dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.” Even Superman was for limiting nuclear arms!
Now, as a piece of pure agitprop, Obama’s America suffers as well. D’Souza is no conservative alternative to Michael Moore, an expert at crafting a cohesive message with needlessly duplicitous measures. There is no subtext here; it’s all text. There are literally slasher movie violin shrieks on the soundtrack when D’Souza and an interview subject discuss the debt under Obama. There’s the image of thorn-covered vines covering the Middle East, threatening Israel to become the “United States of Islam.” There is no connecting of the dots, there’s only wide conjecture and baseless fear mongering. What this movie becomes is one long string of codes and buzzwords and dog whistles, meant to elicit a certain response from its likely audience. How many times does the phrase “Third World” need to be repeated? D’Souza even tries to turn Hawaii as a stalwart of radicalism with ONE interview from a guy who makes unsubstantiated claims. D’Souza also reminds the audience, as a wink to the birthers out there, that Obama’s birth was reported in two Hawaiian newspapers. What other purpose is there to mention this ordinary fact other than to appeal to the birthers in a coded manner? There’s a lot of juxtaposition between foreign cultures, Kenya, Indonesia, but what about the fact that Obama spent a far majority of his life in the United States? The man spent four years in Indonesia, and D’Souza makes it sound like this was the central formation of the man’s worldviews, not as he grew into maturity, went to college, and practiced law. Surely Obama became the man he was when he was seven years old, just like the rest of us.
D’Souza collects a conservative rogue’s gallery of people who must have had tantamount influence on Obama, including old targets like Bill Ayers and Rev. Wright. This is a continuation of guilt by association, a common tactic in 2008. Obama’s half-brother in Kenya talks about the West’s need to “tame Israel,” so D’Souza relies on us to make the connection just like with his father. If Obama’s family thinks this way, surely the son they have seen so rarely must be in lockstep? Because nobody ever differed in political views from his or her family.
2016: Obama’s America, which hilariously predicts the end of the American empire circa 2016 (I guess a Republican president won’t be able to fix things), is a documentary that will convert no one. It’s constructed entirely to reinforce the alarmist notions of the president’s most fringe detractors. D’Souza doesn’t deal with facts because they get in the way of his exaggerated narrative of a fictional Obama, a man who is destroying our country in a quest to prove himself to his absentee ghost of a father. There’s plenty of logical inconsistencies, conjecture, and psychological projection and little evidence besides the expert opinions of people who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew Obama Sr. There’s plenty of unintentional comedy to be had, however, like a ludicrous racism-is-dead visual reenactment where a black man is upset because people at a bar are purposely giving him the cold shoulder (racists!). A minute later, they come out with a birthday cake and everyone in the bar, including the tattooed biker dude, erupts in applause for the heralded black man (see how wrong you were, world?). The basic assertion that Obama’s presidency is his attempt to live out his father’s ideals doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It marginalizes a complex, educated man, saying he’s just a daddy’s boy, just like the film marginalizes the president’s historic election by saying it was simply an outpouring of white guilt (what about non-white people?).
I repeat: this pseudo-documentary is such an intellectually dishonest, disingenuous, feeble-minded character attack. It’s slimy, snide, petty, and wallows in conjecture and fear mongering. When the denizens in my theater applauded by film’s end, I felt a great sadness wash over me. If these people thought this appalling film was effective, was compelling, was informative, and was accurate, then I fear what prism these people choose to view the world through. Because 2016: Obama’s America isn’t just a horrid example of propaganda, it’s also the worst movie of the year, bar none.
Nate’s Grade: F
I was anticipating bad, I was anticipating outlandishly bad, but nothing can prepare you for how stunning and jaw-droppingly awful Adam Sandler’s reported comedy Jack and Jill truly is. The movie swept the Razzie Awards in all categories this year, a historic feat. Sandler plays a rich ad exec and his braying, boorish twin sister, who Al Pacino, in a strangely committed performance as himself, falls in love with for no discernible reason. I’ve seen my fair share of craptacular cinema, and yet this movie is bad on a rarely seen level of human tragedy; it feels like the movie came from a different dimension, where they had no concepts of human relations, reactions, expectations, or senses of humor. It feels like you’re watching a cultural artifact of a civilization in decline. I haven’t been a fan of Sandler’s brand of naughty-yet-safe humor for a while, but this movie is weirdly cruel to all sorts of people, like Mexicans, atheists, adopted kids, Jews, and human beings with working senses of humor. The quality of comedy includes gems like, “Play twister with your sister,” and, “These chimichangas are making a run for the border.” The rampant and nakedly transparent product placement for Carnival Cruise and Dunkin’ Donuts is obscene. This is a charmless, witless film, and when it tries to wring actual emotion out of its daft scenario, the whole enterprise just implodes. Jack and Jill is so odious, torturous, reprehensibly bad that it feels like one of the joke movies that Sandler made in 2009’s Funny People. You feel like the entire movie is one long joke put on by a contemptuous Sandler. I think my good pal Eric Muller had it right; we’re on the tail end of Sandler’s deal with the devil. Jack and Jill is why the terrorists hate us.
Nate’s Grade: F
Here’s a lesson for you. Not all elevens are the same. Case in point, the apocalyptic horror film 11/11/11, picking this eleven-friendly doomsday. That’s because there are two movies released in 2011 that have this exact same concept. The other movie was written and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, the man behind three Saw films and Repo: The Genetic Opera. That one, actually released on 11/11/2011, has a bit more publicity to its numerological case. The only thing separating the two movies is their choice of numerical separation. You see there’s the direct-to-DVD 11/11/11 and the theatrically released, Bousman-directed 11-11-11. It’s dashes or slashes, folks. I’d have to imagine that the dashes movie is better than this, the slashes movie, just on Bousman. But then again, expecting a better movie from the guy behind the middle section of the Saw franchise might be asking for too much. Still, I’d have to assume that a blind monkey could make a movie better than 11/11/11, a horror movie that could only scare you with how bad it is.
The basic plot is that a family moves into a new home. Jack Vales (Jon Briddell) is teaching a college course, taking over for a professor who killed himself. The professor’s widow just happens to live next door, and she’s batty. Melissa (Erin Coker) has found out that she’s pregnant again. The town’s doctors are keeping her sedated an awful lot. Then there’s 10-year-old Nathan “Nat” (Hayden Byerly) who is turning eleven on November 11, 2011, and it seems like everybody wants to celebrate. The neighbor lady knows the truth: on that date (Veteran’s Day?) the gates of hell will open and Nat is the key. The boy must be stopped, though there is a whole nest of Satanists trying to arrange events so that Nat does bring about the end of the world as we know it.
To call this movie low-rent is a disservice to grungy pornographers, exploitation peddlers, and inept amateur filmmakers. This movie is pathetic on just about every conceivable metric of filmmaking. First off, the premise is vague. We have this magical date looming, but what exactly happens? We’re told later that hell will open and maybe it’s the apocalypse or the rise of Satan or whatever. The kid, Nat, which by the way is the most annoying nick-name for somebody named Nathan (what was wrong with “Nate”?), is never made clear what role he will take. He’s the key to this whole deal but is Satan going to take over his body, as we see when he does some dastardly “no no” activities, or is Satan going to use him to release himself from hell? It’s never made clear, like much in the film, so the screenwriters make sure to cover their bases. Nat’s a demon child. Nat’s possessed. Nat’s scared of what’s under his bed. Nat’s mute. Nat can see into the future. Nat’s everything you need him to be. You’ll watch this movie constantly scratching your head, trying to get a feel for the rules or the boundaries of the narrative, grasping for nothing.
What you will be able to identify is the stupidity, which this movie has a never-ending supply of. Let’s tackle this numerological boogeyman thing head on. The shaky premise of 11/11/11 is that on that fated day the devil will rise up and… something. I’ll let the crazy old neighbor lady explain it best: “11 is God’s perfect number. One plus zero equals one [Editors note: Then shouldn’t one be the perfect number?]. Eleven is Satan’s number, it shows his arrogance, one more than God. Don’t you see? 11! Your son must die!” Well, I don’t need to hear anything else, pass the sacrificial blade this way. So I guess 666 just became passé and now 11 has become the new Satanic number of choice. Has anyone ever heard about this change? You know what, I’ll even go with this stupid idea. Let’s say what she said is true, so why does that mean that the year 2011 is the ultimate date of Armageddon? What about 1911, or 1811, or the first year 11 AD, or, God help us all, the year 1111? If eleven is Satan’s favorite integer then he missed a golden opportunity with that savory Middle Ages palindrome. Never mind the fact that our calendar is actually years off, but I’ll just assume that 11/11/11 takes place on its stated date even if people don’t know when that was. As a result of this numerological fanaticism, we’ll see lots and lots of clocks with some form of 11, like the very appearance of this number is meant to fashion fathomless dread. Oh no, the clock says it’s 11:40! Oh no, the clock says it’s 3:11! The clock face you dread the most is your own watch indicating that this movie is still not over. I thought we covered this numbers-are-evil nonsense with The Number 23. Once again, we have characters bending over backwards to try and make numbers fit into a pre-ordained pattern, supposedly enlightening us on all the spooky coincidences. So we have a character saying stuff like, “Flight 92 on September 11. 9 plus 2 equals 11.” Let me try: Wal-Mart has a special on PopTarts for $3.99. If you buy two, now 2 times 4 is 8, plus 10, divided by 8, times .5, and take the square root of who gives a shit?
What else is stupid in this movie? Where do I start? The conspiracy of Satanists feels like a terrible rip-off of Rosemary’s Baby, as these people form the worst neighborhood watch imaginable. They’re scheming to get Nat to unlock the End of Days, so they all do their checking up on the Vales family and eliminate any neighbors who say too much. This cozy little neighborhood is replete with death, including the fact that the Vales home was the scene of a massacre. One skittish neighbor informs Jack and Melissa that somebody had an “accident” on the block. “Is he okay?” Melissa asks. “Well, he fell and got impaled on his fence. So, I’d say… no.” I kid you not, that’s his exact wording. This skittish neighbor is also murdered later. This band of secret Satanists includes the new Vales nanny, Denise (Aurelia Scheppers, looking like a poutier Denise Richards). This new nanny murdered the other prospective nannies, which is one way to move ahead of the competition. This nanny is bad news. She teaches Nat all sorts of bad behavior, from frying butterflies with glass to hurling rocks at joggers. And the dumb kid does it with glee, making me lose all interest in whether or not he is Satan’s seed/host/whatever. Then Denise gives the kid a birthday present – an old, spooky-looking comb. To demonstrate, in case Nat is unfamiliar with comb technology, she drags the teeth across her arm and draws blood. Then she gives it over to him to do the same. What? What kid is like, “Oh, wow, a way to ritualistically injure myself? That’s the best birthday present an eleven-year-old could want.” I’m pretty sure the kid would have liked an Xbox over a strange demonic comb. And wouldn’t you know it, this comb makes a return appearance when our Satanic neighborhood watch collects to conduct their business in, I kid you not, a station wagon parked on the side of the street. It’s literally a station wagon with eight or nine people crammed in it, and it’s there all hours of the day.
Then there’s our crazy neighbor lady, whose name I can’t even recall. The screenwriters want us to distrust her from the beginning, and that’s fairly easy when we see how weirdly creepy she’s behaving. She’s obsessed with luring young Nat into her shed, and she keeps offering promises of toy trains, glasses of (poison) lemonade, and promises of cool, fun things. If only she knew a comb was all it would take. This woman is trying to lure Nat with all the verve of a child molester. She’s frantic to kill Nat, even calling Jack at work to lecture him on the necessity of killing his son. Why does the Satanic neighborhood watch let this woman slide on by when they kill any other neighbor for the slightest slip-up? Anyway, this woman just so happens to have a machete in her shed and you can imagine what happens from there.
One more scene of ridiculousness, please indulge me. After Jack sees his son covered in bloody scratches, he accuses the nanny and has her arrested. In a scene of great hilarity for myself, we cut to a scene where the cop and nanny are already in the home, and Denise is dressed like she’s going out for a night on the town, and she’s twirling her hair in her fingertips. The image is so absurd. She gets arrested and thrown into the cop car. “You’re going to regret this,” she warns. Then, magically, wasps come out of a crevice in the side door and the car fills up with a swarm. The cop tries swatting them away and drives headfirst into a telephone pole. I need to note that the editing is so bad in this scene, cutting back and forth between the cop swatting and the car swerving, that the shots never match, so it seems like the longest reaction shots. The car crashes and mysteriously this has caused Denise to magically remove her handcuffs. She strolls out of the car, down the street, and then the car takes its cue and promptly explodes. If this wasn’t dumb enough, we then see different shots of characters around the block reacting to the explosion, heard over and over. One of the Satanic neighbors, still sitting in the damn station wagon, has adept hearing: “That must have been that cop car.” You see, her sense of hearing is so sharp that she can distinguish the make, model, and employability of the car via explosion. Just imagine how useful/useless she’d be in a Michael Bay movie.
If 11/11/11 was just a supremely dumb movie it might work as camp, but it’s also inept as a scary movie. I don’t think director/co-writer Keith Allan could find an interesting looking shot if it held up a giant “11” sign. There is nothing scary about this movie whatsoever. All the shots of things with 11, it just doesn’t work, yet Allan keeps hitting it ad infinitum, mistakenly believing that while not effective on attempt 51, perhaps it will become effective on attempts 52-68. There’s a scene where Jack is standing watch at his son’s bed and the camera takes turns focusing on every stupid stuffed animal in the room, and Allan’s brilliant idea is to play a sound of the animal as we see its stuffed iteration. The stuffed bear is followed by a bear growl, etc. The fact that this series of animal noises continues for over a minute shows that Allan has no concept of what can scare or even what can entertain. His handling of actors is atrocious, as every single actor just bounces around the place, unmoored, unsure of what direction to take, so they take the wildest one. The actors are either monotone and flat or over-the-top, never believable for a second. Then there’s the “gotcha” ending which makes no sense considering Melissa is only three months pregnant and very much incapable of giving birth to a child, even if that unborn child is an unholy demonic terror.
11/11/11 is a date that will live in infamy, birthing this laughably awful, painfully ridiculous, atrociously inept movie, even by low-budget direct-to-DVD standards. The only entertainment you’ll find with this movie is the derisive sort, yukking it up over the unintended comedy bonanza that awaits. The movie is vague, silly, and overwhelmingly dumb, beholden to an inane numbers conspiracy that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I know my expectations should be kept at the minimum when dealing with this kind of movie, but that doesn’t mean I just ignore and excuse every artistic blunder, especially when I feel assaulted by them. 11/11/11 did bring on the apocalypse, and every audience member has left to go to a better place – the bathroom. Bousman should take some comfort knowing that the production house behind this movie, The Asylum, is somewhat notorious for rip-offs. I give you The Asylum releases: Battle of Los Angeles, Paranormal Entity, Transmoprhers, and The Day the Earth Stopped. 11/11/11 can hold one more numerical distinction: it’s the worst film of 2011.
Nate’s Grade: F
After Last Season is a little movie that most people wrongly mistook for a joke. Writer/director Mark Region pulled off something rarely witnessed in modern movies: he put together a low budget movie all on his own and got it released nationally. The movie even has a Quicktime trailer on Apple’s website. It was released last summer in only four cities for a limited trial run, which explains why nobody has every heard of Region’s creative opus. It also might have to do with the fact that After Last Season is so appallingly terrible that the distributor reportedly called the theaters to advise burning the film prints rather than returning them. Naturally, given my cinematic tastes for the finest trash and my keen knowledge of the baddest of bads, I instantly had to see this film for myself. The website After Last Season boasts an Amazon.com customer review (nary a good sign of accomplishment) saying that the movie is unlike any you have ever seen. There’s a good reason for that. After Last Season approaches a near Manos level of ineptitude. That should speak volumes.
The plot, as can best be described, involves a university conducting scientific experiments. Sarah (Peggy McClellen) and Matthew (Jason Kulas) are interns conducting their own investigation into a recent string of murders. They have access to a device that allows the connection of minds, and so Sarah and Matthew link brains and get caught in the wavelengths of the campus killer, who now begins to target them. This plot synopsis is actually too kind and might mislead some into thinking the movie has drama or action or suspense. What really happens are characters who you don’t know doing things that aren’t fully explained followed by unexplained location changes where the whole process repeats itself. You haven’t lived until you’ve listened to Sarah’s roommates engage in senseless conversations about going to the North Market.
When I say that this movie is awful, I really mean it with all sincerity. This movie is so awful, so off-the-charts painful to watch that there is not an ounce of derisive fun to be had. After Last Season does not fall into that coveted category of “so bad it’s good,” no, this movie is simply disastrously, regrettably, incomprehensibly bad. I would not recommend it to my friends or enemies. From a plot standpoint, there’s about 15 minutes of stuff stretched out to a short but far too long length of 93 minutes. The opening 10 minutes concern characters explaining how an MRI machine operates. It’s like Region once wrote a paper on an MRI machine and wanted everybody to know the work put into it. The characters just keep rehashing the ins and outs of this machine, and the machine is clearly made of cardboard and in the middle of somebody’s living room (is it unusual for a metallic ceiling fan to be placed directly above a Magnetic Resonating Imaging machine?). Then there’s a 30-minute stretch in the middle that is nothing more than two people sitting across a table and dreaming about geometric shapes. 30 minutes! I doubt that I even have the ability to adequately explain the amount of mind-numbing torture that this sequence was. My friend Eric and I just kept looking at one another with hopeful expressions, silently pleading, “Will our pain and suffering soon be over?” 30 freaking minutes! One third of the entire movie is like watching somebody’s annoying screensaver from 1987. I can’t wait for the sequel where it looks like a bunch of windows are flying.
The rest of the script isn’t filled with intriguing character dynamics or challenging drama. It’s almost completely built from non-related scenes with non-identified characters having frivolous conversations about nothing. Most of the dialogue is driven by linked non-sequitors, which prompted me to repeatedly yell at the screen, “Why the hell was that important?” Characters will drone on in useless babble, never once circling a subject that seems to be related to the plot at hand. The small group of actors (you will be amazed that the end credits lists over 15 characters) feels like people awaiting an execution. True, the pitiful direction leaves them unmoored, fighting to find meaning in anything they say, but these people just suck at acting. The general range of acting goes from impassive monotone to somewhat less impassive monotone. It’s the acting equivalent of rounding up random people at the bus station and hoping for a miracle.
I have seen low budget productions before but this movie looks like it was made for the cost of a lottery ticket. For whatever reason, the current info has the budget at five million but there’s no way in hell that can be true (some producer must have ran off with like the whole sum minus twenty bucks). Reportedly the movie cost $40,000, which I can believe barely, and the special effects cost 4.95 million dollars, which I find baffling. The sets are all overly lit basements disguised by the clever decorative abilities of pegboards and sheets of paper. There are scenes where actual paper is taped to the walls like it was shingles, just like what a child might devise as a means of decoration. There’s even a supposed college class that takes place in this same low-rent location, which means that this particular university is really struggling for endowment funds. This utilitarian approach to locations is what I’d expect from a public access show or a student’s video project. These locations make it seem like every person is one moment away from being gutted by a serial killer just off screen. Did Region have only one abandoned office basement to work with? The visitations by the ghost/mind spirit/whatever are just as bad. We have the embarrassment of watching plastic tubs being pulled across the floor with fishing line. Having a low budget should force Region to be more creative with his use of resources, to work around his limitations. Instead, he just continually shines a bright light illuminating every possible limitation in the movie.
From a technical standpoint, After Last Season is an abysmal entry. It fails not just because of its lack of funds but it fails because Region lacks any filmmaking ability whatsoever. Sure, apparently the man was able to pose actors, have them recite lines, and keep the cameras running, but I expect more from my movies than the same criteria I have for family vacation videos. Region’s directorial style is, ostensibly, to have no discernible visual sensibility at all. Actors will routinely be cut out from the camera frame or the spatial relations will be completely out of whack, allowing for tremendous space above heads or showing the actor’s complete body except the upper half of the face. Characters will be bunched in one tiny section of the screen, or Region will suddenly cut back and forth between two different shots that conflict from a geographic standpoint; they don’t visually match up. There isn’t a single shot anywhere in After Last Season that couldn’t have been credited to a tripod for complete creative inspiration.
Here’s a terrific example of how creatively bankrupt this movie is, and no, I will restrain from making reference to the sheets of paper as decoration. The website for After Last Season actually touts its use of special effects. What special effects, you may very reasonably be asking yourself. Evidently, several scenes had less background coverage, so the special effects gurus took a sample background object and copied it to cover the space (like taking one sheet and making a wall out of them). Okay, fine, except that this special effects wizardry doesn’t always work. The website itself even showcases a scene where Sarah goes in for her job interview and on the right hand side we can see the special effect trick of covering up the empty space. However, the left side is completely untouched, leaving exposed all the set shortcomings and extension cords. Why cover one side but not the other? Too expensive? Here’s the best question of all. Why spend any money whatsoever on lame special effects when you could have simply zoomed in so that the two characters filled the screen? That’s a much more cost-effective option and wouldn’t break the perilous illusion of the movie. It is examples like this that condemn Region as an artist with zero creative ingenuity.
Now it’s at this point where I have to call into question the integrity of After Last Season. Was this entire project created on purpose to be terrible, and if so, does it even make a difference? Is a bad movie more acceptable if it’s intentional or unintentional? From my perspective, you cannot intentionally make a campy movie. The derisive pleasure must come from the fact that the filmmakers thought they were making compelling cinema at some point. If After Last Season is fake (I hesitate to use that word given its connotation) then it’s an even bigger waste of time (Update: I just read online interviews with Region, and the movie is for real). As it stands, the movie is technically inept on every level of filmmaking with a bad script, bad actors, bad pacing, bad direction, bad sets, bad sound coverage, bad “special effects,” and really bad editing. If Region was dreaming of creating a midnight-movie sensation like The Room then he missed the mark. This movie isn’t any fun whatsoever to watch because there’s not enough going on to make laugh at. With The Room, every scene had like eight things wrong with it; that film was a 1000 brushstrokes of bad. With After Last Season, it’s the same forehead-smacking flaws repeated ad nauseam. There’s no derisive joy to be had here, folks.
I’m not shocked that something as unrepentantly bad as After Last Season exists. There is plenty of crap on the Internet and in this modern age of user media, there’s no shortage of poorly executed ideas finding a wider audience. It’s the same with the infamous 1979 blotch on cinema, Caligula. I’m not surprised that something so debased and wildly salacious exists, what shocks me is that a movie with incest, bestiality, necrophilia, hard-core sex scenes, and gallons of blood would star such a celebrated cast of thespians like John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Malcolm McDowell, and Helen Mirren (though if you’ve seen Zardoz you know that Mirren wasn’t too picky in those days). What shocks me is not that Caligula exists but the level of involvement and exposure. What truly shocks me is that After Last Season got a theatrical release over the likes of thousands of other movies fighting for a release. Yes, this only played on four screens in four different cities, but how does anybody justify After Last Season even being in the same consideration of cinematic art? I am faint to even refer to this as a movie. It almost seems like a social experiment with disturbing psychological implications. After Last Season isn’t a movie so much as an endurance test of how much pointless garbage a person can consume before they relentlessly cry, “Enough! You have officially destroyed my soul!” I never thought I’d say these words, but After Last Season makes The Room look competent. Your apology letter is in the mail, Tommy Wiseau.
Nate’s Grade: F
Ben Stein is best known as the monotone teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but the man has also been a speechwriter for Nixon, a game show host, and popular figure of deadpanned irony. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed follows Stein as he travels across the world interviewing scientists, authors, professors, and others about what he sees as a disservice to science and America. “Big Science,” as he refers, is so heavily entrenched in the theory of evolution and the teachings of Charles Darwin that they are unwilling to even broach alternative approaches. Intelligent Design believes that life is far too complicated to occur randomly, and thus must have been created by some powerful supernatural designer. The teaching of evolution is still seen as a controversial subject and I.D. proponents want their theory to be given equal time.
Stein tries to skew his argument into one about freedom. The Constitution calls for the freedom of speech and our nation is built upon the bedrock of being a marketplace of ideas. Stein compares the resistance in the scientific community to Intelligence Design to the Berlin Wall, and he argues that I.D. proponents just want to open up the dialogue. Detractors warn that I.D. is just Creationism in sheep’s clothing, and indeed the U.S. courts have ruled the same way. The problem with Intelligent Design is that it can’t really apply to science. Science can only test what exists in the natural world, and religion by definition deals with the supernatural and thus can’t be tested. It’s one thing to say, “The sky is blue because God made it so,” but what else do you do with that as a scientist? Where do you go from there as a teacher? Science textbooks would be awfully thin, since you would just need one sentence to sum up all of existence. Evolution begins with the start of life and no one has a strong feel for how life began, but I.D. runs into the same wall if you think about it. Saying, “God created life” leads to the question, “How was God created?” and now we’re back where we started. Personally, I don’t see why evolution and religion have to be seen as forces that cancel each other out.
Ignoring the subject matter, Expelled just doesn’t even work effectively as an expose documentary. The movie continuously jumps to old newsreel footage as a visual resource even for mundane conversations. It happens again and again. Either the filmmakers thought their audience had ADD or was too stupid to sit through an interview without several jump cuts to visual reference points. Some of the clips are fun in a goofy retro way but the whole decision comes across like a narrative crutch and it makes Expelled feel erratic. Stein doesn’t try very hard to disguise his interview style, which includes him leading his interview subjects and lobbing softball questions like, “Intelligent Design is just Creationism, right,” and the audacious, “What was the purpose of the concentration camps?” I think it is telling that the interview subjects are not given lengthy reactions and are not pressed into actually presenting what Intelligent Design proof that exists. In contrast, the evolutionary scientists interviewed are intercut with clips of Nazis and Communists soldiers. I don’t even think Michael Moore would have chosen to go that obvious.
While I’m on the subject of Moore, Stein follows some similar ambush tactics and they are obvious and obnoxious. Stein tries to walk into the Smithsonian Center to get a statement as to why a prominent scientist was released and ends up getting kicked out. Did he expect anything different? Portions of Expelled come across as transparently staged, and upon some research I have learned that some were indeed staged. The film opens and closes with Stein addressing a full crowd of college students. They erupt in rapturous applause by the end of his speech and give the man a standing ovation. That crowd was nothing more than paid extras and Stein has never traveled the college circuit to speak on Intelligent Design. The scientists that were interviewed were also misinformed and told that they were being filmed for a documentary called Crossroads about the “intersection of science and religion.” The evolution scientists interviewed were then barred from free public screenings. That should tell you something.
Scientists being blacklisted by their peers seems rather unfair, but the movie takes their subjects strictly at face value. I am convinced there is more to the story than Expelled lets on. One woman off-handedly mentioned the phrase, and that was all, and was let go. I want to know more, but the film apparently doesn’t. Stein even cuts her interview off and dubs his own voice over as she continues her story. I would have appreciated some interviews with scientists who believe in evolution and God. Given that approximately 99.97 percent of life scientists believe in the theory of evolution, so statistically there must be a healthy slew of scientists who happen to be Christians that believe in the existence of evolution.
The film is heavy-handed propaganda, sure, but man oh man does it just take an ugly turn in its last third. Ben Stein eventually makes the leap from evolution to… wait for it… Nazism and the extermination of those less desirable. Stein and some of his interview subjects are making the case that Hitler was directly influenced by the tenets of evolution and that he used Darwin’s template to snuff out Jews, Gypsies, gays, the handicapped, and all those holding back the human race with their inferior genetics. There are many steps removed from Darwin to Hitler, but Stein is laying the blame of the Holocaust at the feet of Darwin’s ideas. Arguably, exterminating an inferior race could be applied to the idea of natural selection (though forcibly killing millions doesn’t seem very natural to me) but people were killing each other long before Darwin was ever born. Before Darwin, there was still genocide in the name of eliminating those deemed inferior, and mostly it was performed with the justification of religion. Surely historically religion has been the motivator for more death than Darwin (count the Crusades and the Inquisition). Even specifically Jews have been persecuted and put to mass death centuries before Darwin. And what about all the countries in the world that have embraced evolution as science and not gassed millions of people? But Stein persists in trying to attach the Holocaust and Nazism to evolution. To me, this is like blaming The Catcher in the Rye for shooting John Lennon in the head. Darwin posited ideas and cannot be blamed for others perverting those ideas for their own gain. The film also glosses over the fact that it was Herbert Spencer who introduced the phrase “survival of the fittest,”
And yet after spending a good deal of time linking Darwin and the Holocaust, Stein throws out this caveat: “But I know that Darwinism doesn’t automatically lead to Nazism.” Expelled is filled with other such contradictions. It argues that science and, specifically, evolution does not disqualify the existence of God, and to this I agree whole-heartedly. Science provides the “how” in life and religion can provide the “why” for people. Science does not disqualify God and vice versa; however, Expelled then trumps interview after interview of scientists that explain how evolution turned them into atheists. Huh? The film presses the irritating and confusing point that evolution will turn everyone into a bunch of atheists, but this conflicts with one of the film’s central points on the roles of religion and science. Stein never goes into great detail in this area and ignores the fact that a majority of the American public is both religious and believes in evolution.
Expelled starts to become an ideological dartboard by the end of its experience. Stein says evolution is responsible for eugenics, which lead to the idea of population control, which lead to Margaret Sanger founding Planned Parenthood. My reaction is: so? Planned Parenthood promotes safe sex and performs legal abortions, yes, but they have nothing to do with eugenics and religion. Henry Ford and Walt Disney were also believers in eugenics. But the interview subjects all seem to repeat the phrase “euthanasia and abortion” like it was a talking point they were handed. The exact phrasing is so precise for several interview subjects that it seems deceptive. Why does this matter at all in a movie reportedly about Intelligence Design?
I cannot honestly see anyone being converted by Expelled. Skeptics and believers in evolution will fail to be swayed, and for the large Christian community the film is courting, well it will be preaching to the choir. I just discovered that there’s a website called expelledexposed.com intent to hold Stein’s film to review. I’m a firm believer in evolution and that Intelligent Design is religion; yeah they don’t specify “who” but how many I.D. proponents were the same ones pushing Creationism in schools earlier? If they stick to the tenets of Intelligent Design then I’d like them to accept the Raelians in their camp (Raelians believe that aliens seeded our planet). Expelled never makes the case for why Intelligent Design should be taught, merely that it is unfair to exclude it from the classroom. The movie presents contradictions, logic fallacies, and some disconcerting guilt-by-association arguments that border on exploitation. Even though I disagree with its ideology, from a filmmaking standpoint it falls apart. The topic of evolution’s relationship to religion deserves a thoughtful and intelligent movie. This is not it.
Nate’s Grade: F