Film review – Red State (2011)

17 October 2011
Red State:  Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks)

Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks)

The three teenage boys on their way to have sex with a woman one of them met online initially appear to be typical Kevin Smith characters. They are likeable, a bit dorky and joking about sex. However, in Red State their bravado and antics are offset by the presence of the Five Points Church, an ultra extremist, right-wing Christian group whose activities include picketing the funeral of a recently murdered homosexual classmate. Before too long the boys run afoul of the Church, lead by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) with his daughter Sarah (Melissa Leo) by his side. The confrontation becomes increasingly bleak and nasty when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) turns up, lead by Special Agent Keenan (John Goodman).

Not since Dogma (1999) has writer/director Kevin Smith so overtly tackled the role of religion in contemporary society. While Dogma was something of a fantasy film that combined heavy doses of Smith trademark scatological and sexual humour, Red State is a gritty fusion of horror, action and social commentary. A lot of Smith’s style of humour is still present, but this time the irreverent sex jokes carry far more sinister undertones in the context of the film’s examination of extreme Christian fundamentalism and government-sanctioned violence.

Red State: Sarah (Melissa Leo)

Sarah (Melissa Leo)

In Red State Smith, who is openly Catholic, is expressing real fury at the way religion has been perverted by extremist fringe organisations and then been given a sort of legitimacy in parts of conservative America, despite their resemblance to terrorist groups. The Five Points Church are so extremist that even the real-life Westboro Baptist Church are mentioned in the film as opposing them, even though Smith has clearly modelled Abin Cooper and his flock on Fred Phelps and his religious inspired church. However, just when it seemed like Red State could be easily summed up as a film about religious violence and hate crimes, it becomes a film about a siege with the actions of the fictional ATF characters allegedly mirroring those of the actual ATF during the 1993 Waco siege. Red State then also becomes a savage critique of how government agencies ruthlessly handle situations such as Waco, which resulted in large loss of life.

The shifting sympathies, unpredictable narrative and tonal shifts make Red State gripping yet unsettling viewing. Moments of humour are shattered by violence, every death is surprising and shocking, and the film continually shifts focus in unexpected yet intriguing ways. Moments of sudden panicked action are captured through a handheld camera to further add to the films edgy realism. Blasts of gunfire are not cool or exciting but disturbing and intrusive. Rarely has a film been so filled with guns and yet left the audience feeling so cold and sickened by their presence and the damage they do.

Red State: Special Agent Keenan (John Goodman)

Special Agent Keenan (John Goodman)

While the almost radical narrative shifts make it difficult to pick who the film’s protagonist is, at the centre of all the carnage is the terrifyingly charismatic Pastor Abin Cooper. He is first introduced delivering a lengthy sermon about the supposed evils of homosexuality. The scene is perhaps overlong, but it still hammers home the absurd rationalisations that can be made against same-sex couples through very inventive, selective and hateful interpretations of the Bible. It’s horrifying yet riveting viewing that showcases some of Smith’s best writing. For a director who has so frequently included light-hearted references to homosexuality in his films, Red State feels like a concerted effort to seriously confront the destructive nature of homophobia. It even feels like something of an apology in the way that it has been suggested that Schindler’s List could partly be seen as Steven Spielberg’s apology for being so flippant in his portrayal of Nazis as comic book style villains in his early films.

Whatever the motivations for making Red State, the results are complex, politically charged and radical. There are many of us who were ready to dismiss Smith as a has-been who was perhaps not ever as talented or clever as we had originally been led to believe. With this film he proves us completely wrong and in this case it is good to be wrong. Red State indicates a new level of boldness in Smith, resulting in his best film to date.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Cop Out (2010)

17 March 2010

Jimmy Monroe (Bruce Willis) and Paul Hodges (Tracy Morgan)

In the very first scene in Cop Out long-term loose-cannon police partners Jimmy Monroe (Bruce Willis) and Paul Hodges (Tracy Morgan) discuss the nature of famous cop film homages. The conversation introduces an element of self-awareness, which is very quickly capitalised on with a throwaway reference to Die Hard, and alerts the viewer that Cop Out wants to be regarded as a homage to 1980s cop buddy films such as Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hrs and Lethal Weapon. The combination of overacting, cheesy electronic music, stereotypical Mexican drug lord villains and weak plot about recovering a baseball card certainly all suggest that Cop Out could work as a post-modern pastiche. However, there are far too many instances when director Kevin Smith actually appears to believe that the mediocre script is funny in its own right. Unfortunately, it’s mostly not.

This is the first time that Smith has directed somebody else’s script and it’s an odd thing for Smith to do considering that directing is not his forte and his strength has always been in his writing. His directorial presence in Cop Out can be felt and many of the gags do feel like the sort of thing he would write himself but too much of the film falls flat. Sometimes Cop Out feels like a clever student film (what Smith does best) and sometimes it just feels like a badly directed B-movie.

Dave (Seann William Scott)

Bruce Willis spends most of his time looking bemused by it all while Smith unwisely gives Tracy Morgan free-reign and the results are a lot of frequently annoying shouted tirades. There are some moments of genuine hilarity, courtesy of an 11-year-old car thief and Seann William Scott once again doing his trademark lovable smartass routine as a thief. But mostly your laughs will be more nervous giggles from hoping that the clunky dialogue and lame gags are intentionally inane.

A good homage, or even a good affectionate parody, is a combination of genuine love and respect from the filmmaker for the films being referenced with a heightened awareness of the conventions of the genre and an ability to do something new and fresh. Scream and Shaun of the Dead are examples of when this worked for the horror genre. Smith obviously loves the 1980s cop films that he is referencing but with Cop Out he’s done nothing innovative or particularly entertaining with his expression of that love. Cop Out could have been an American equivalent of Hot Fuzz but it instead feels like an anachronistic forgotten film that you once owned on VHS.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

21 February 2009
Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks)

Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks)

Zack and Miri Make a Porno delivers exactly what you would expect from a film by writer/director Kevin Smith about a pair of platonic long-term friends who decide to make a porn film in order to get themselves out of debt. The mildly amusing scenario allows Smith ample opportunities for his slightly contrived yet often funny pushing-the-envelope-of-taste humour. Zack was written for and is played by Seth Rogen (Pineapple Express, Knocked Up) as exactly the same type of lovable, crass man-child character that Rogen plays so well. Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Role Models) as Miri is also wonderful and has real chemistry with Rogen. A real strength of the film is that amongst all the comically graphic sex scenes, the scene where Zack and Miri have sex is unexpectedly sweet and sincere. This of course allows Smith to delve into his other favourite mode of getting all deep and meaningful about the nature of friendship and love.

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DVD review – Comic Book: The Movie (2004), Region 4, Force Entertainment

13 September 2005

Film adaptations of comic books are at the peak of their popularity since 1989’s Batman revived the genre. Films as diverse as Spider-Man, Batman Begins, Sin City and American Splendor are achieving critical acclaim and packed houses. A documentary on this cultural phenomenon would have been welcomed, which is why it is so unfortunate that Comic Book: The Movie, directed and starring Mark Hamill (Star Wars’s Luke Skywalker), is an embarrassingly amateurish 2004 mockumentary. 

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