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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Cinema Autopsy on the 83rd Academy Awards winners

1 March 2011
The King's Speech

The King's Speech

Wow. Did I do a terrible job this year with my Academy Award predictions. I got a total of seven categories right and none of them were exactly radically or surprising results that demonstrate any sense of insight on my behalf. A full list of all the winners is on the official Oscars nominees and winners page and here are the ones that I picked:

Writing (Adapted Screenplay): The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin)
Actress in a Leading Role: Black Swan (Natalie Portman)
Actor in a Supporting Role: The Fighter (Christian Bale)
Animated Feature Film: Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
Music (Original Score): The Social Network (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
Sound Editing: Inception (Richard King)
Visual Effects: Inception (Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb)

How did I not predict The King’s Speech as the film that would clean up in several major awards including Best Motion Picture, Directing, Actor in a Leading Role, and Writing (Original Screenplay)? I even acknowledged that it is exactly the sort of  film that is destined for Academy Award glory as did the people who left comments on my predictions post. Regardless, The King’s Speech is still an excellent piece of cinema that was crafted by several talented people who deserve their acclaim.

Colin Firth in The King's Speech

Colin Firth in The King's Speech

Writer David Seidler, who based a lot of the film on his own experiences getting treatment for his stutter, gave a wonderful acceptance speech as did director Tom Hooper, whom I was lucky enough to interview a couple of months ago. However, it was best male actor winner Colin Firth who was the highlight of the night for me. He somehow managed to be funny, sincere, grateful and humble all at the same time, reenforcing how much I’ve come to like and admire him over the past few years. Firth has always been a wonderful screen presence but he’s really come into his own with The King’s Speech and what I like to call his grief trilogy: And When Did You Last See Your Father?, Genova and A Single Man.

Overall I was actually really pleased with the outcome of many of the awards despite being so off the mark with my predictions. It was terrific seeing Inception getting several of the key technical awards including Cinematography. While I was hoping Inception was also going to get Music (Original Score) I was still very pleased The Social Network won, not just because I had predicted it but because it is a great score and seeing Trent Reznor accepting the award was a tremendous rush for 16-year-old me.

Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in The Fighter

Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in The Fighter

Alice in Wonderland winning Art direction and Costume design was completely unexpected but I was thrilled that the Academy were finally recognising films in these categories that display innovation and imagination over films that simply reproduce the past. It was also very pleasing to see the under appreciated Melissa Leo win Actress in a Supporting Role for The Fighter. I was especially thrilled that the excellent films Inside Job and In a Better World (review to come) respectively won Documentary Feature and Foreign Language Film despite my predictions that they would not.

However, one of the biggest unexpected treats was seeing the marvellous Australian film The Lost Thing win the Animated Short award. Not only is it a magnificent film but on a personal note I am just so proud to have been on the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival short film jury that gave it the Grand Prix for Best Short Film award, which first made it eligible for an Academy Award. Of course The Lost Thing would have succeeded regardless of my presence on that jury, but still, it’s nice to have that tiny bit of early contact with an Academy Award winning film!

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Fighter (2010)

31 January 2011
The Fighter: “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dick "Dicky" Eklund (Christian Bale)

“Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dick "Dicky" Eklund (Christian Bale)

Mark Wahlberg teams up once more with Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees director David O. Russell to play real life boxer “Irish” Micky Ward. Before turning pro Micky struggled to live up to his potential while under the dubious guidance of his overbearing mother (Melissa Leo) and his brother Dick “Dicky” Eklund (Christian Bale), a former professional boxer and crack addict.

The excitingly edited and choreographed boxing is complemented by the film’s slick cinematography, which give the domestic scenes several energetic flourishes without compromising its gritty urban aesthetic. The battle for Micky’s heart and loyalty outside of the ring provides most of the drama with Micky’s new girlfriend (Amy Adams) attempting to pull him away from the manipulative control that Dicky and his mother have over him.

Situated somewhere between the crowd-pleasing melodrama of Rocky and the psychological character study of Raging Bull, The Fighter is an enjoyable underdog-triumphs-over-adversity story that demonstrates once again just how cinematic a sport boxing is. Adams is sensational in a tougher role than audiences are used to seeing her in while Wahlberg and Bale deliver their best performances in several years.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 372, 2011

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Frozen River (2008)

17 February 2009

frozen_river_12-low-resRay Eddy is a middle-aged woman whose gambling addict husband has just skipped town, abandoning her and her two children right before Christmas. Ray’s part time job does not pay nearly enough to cover day-to-day expenses let alone Christmas presents. While trying to track down her husband, Ray inadvertently becomes part of a people smuggling operation when she crosses paths with Lila, an American Indian woman from the nearby Mohawk reservation. Lila is also a mother who is struggling to make money so the pair reluctantly become partners, hiding illegal immigrants in the boot of Ray’s car to then drive them across the border from Canada to the USA. Frozen River is a decent independent film from debut writer/director Courtney Hunt. Despite initially looking like it will be a bleak exercise in socio-realist misery, Frozen River is an engaging and tense series of crisis points where the potential for tragedy is always around the corner.

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