Hidden Netflix Gems – Red State

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

I am always excited to see my favorite filmmakers stretch beyond what they normally produce and explore other genres. For that reason, I applaud Kevin Smith for stepping away from the talky, visually underwhelming comedies for which he is known with his latest film, Red State, a nasty, tense, visceral thriller that, while satirical and occasionally funny, is miles away from a comedy.

Red State is a cinematic middle finger to the vicious, hateful Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, an organization best known for the highly tasteful and respectable practice of protesting funerals in order to garner controversy. Though Phelps is eventually mentioned by name in the film’s narrative, his overt fictional surrogate is one Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a malevolent, fire-and-brimstone preacher who looks a bit like a more diminutive Kris Kristofferson with eyeglasses. Cooper and his followers regularly hold demonstrations in which they hold up signs offering such charming sentiments as “Anal Penetration = Eternal Damnation.”

As the film begins, it tricks the audience into expecting the kind of lame teen sex comedy that detractors of Smith’s Mallrats or Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back might expect from him. High school students Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) receive an invitation for group sex from a mysterious woman Jarod met on a sex chat site. Being the horny teen boys that they are, they borrow a car from Travis’s parents and head out to the trailer home of the woman, whose name just so happens to be Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). Of course, Cooper is a common name and the boys are way too horny to think twice about it, nor do they seem disturbed by her insistence that they chug a couple of beers before getting down to the “devil’s business,” so of course they are quickly drugged into unconsciousness and wake up in a world of horror. The boys soon find out the hard way that the Coopers hate not only homosexuals, but any type of “deviant” sexuality or immorality, which includes teen boys curious about group sex with an older woman.

One of the things that works so well about Smith veering so sharply away from the type of film for which he is known is how unpredictable the film quickly becomes. We assume from the start of the film that Travis is the main protagonist, but quickly find that no one is safe in this nasty, uncompromising movie. Likewise, ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) doesn’t show up until the beginning of the film’s second act, at which point he becomes the main protagonist. Goodman is excellent in the film, but the true star of the show is undoubtedly Michael Parks as Abin. He manages to be hateful enough to boil the viewer’s blood while simultaneously displaying the kind of natural charisma that makes his followers’ hero-worship all too believable.

Throughout his career, Smith has been criticized for a lack of visual style as a director, and he seems to have taken this particular criticism to heart. In some of his later period films, he seems to have been actively trying to step up to this challenge, but this is the first film I’ve seen from him that really knocks the visual style out of the park. This is easily my favorite Smith film since Chasing Amy, a film that Smith claims he made for his gay brother to make up for a shortage of gay characters in romantic comedies, and that same sympathy for issues of civil rights for homosexuals is at the heart of this one. Part torture-porn, part action movie and part satire, Red State is a very mature work for Smith, a film that shows his tremendous growth as a writer and filmmaker without being pretentious about it.

  

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BLU-RAY REVIEW: Red State

Kevin Smith’s first foray into the horror genre has been a long time in the making, but after finally watching “Red State” (which could have been titled “Why You Shouldn’t Troll for Sex on the Internet”), it’s easy to see why he had so much trouble securing financing in the first place. And no, it’s not because the film is especially violent or controversial – it’s just not very good. The whole thing is a half-baked idea at best, filled with characters so inconsequential that they don’t even deserve to be given names. Though the film starts out with a fairly promising setup – three teenagers are lured to the small town of Cooper’s Dell with the promise of sex, only to become the latest victims of a crazy religious cult – it quickly abandons the horror angle and devolves into a more generic action-thriller.

The fact that Smith promoted “Red State” as a horror movie may reek of false advertising to some, but it’s hardly the only sting of disappointment that you’ll experience from the film. The unpredictable detour that takes place at the end of the first act isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s very poorly executed, due in large part to the paper-thin story. There’s just not a whole lot to the movie apart from the initial setup, an unnecessarily long sermon delivered by Michael Parks’ zealous cult leader, and an even longer climactic shootout that might have seemed ridiculous if the film hadn’t already lost all credibility. The only saving grace is John Goodman as an ATF agent assigned to bring down the cult, but that’s mostly because he gets all the good lines. If there’s one thing to be grateful for, it’s that the movie clocks in at a brisk 88 minutes, because there aren’t many other reasons why you’d want to subject yourself to “Red State” beyond sheer curiosity.

Click to buy “Red State”

  

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Non-Oscar movie news

As I write this the announcement of the 2010 Academy Award nominations is literally only a few hours away — and I’ll most certainly be discussing them tomorrow — but this late bird has some other worms to catch, starting with goings on up in Park City.

* Yes, Kevin Smith and the premiere of his long planned “Red State” is the talk of the geek movie blogosphere today. Sundance can be a real circus and Smith was, I gather, both ringmaster and clown as he jokingly joined the protest staged by the detestable, publicity loving, Westboro Baptist Church who apparently noticed that Smith was attacking them. That was followed by a 26 minute pre-screening talkathon — which I’ve yet to bring myself to watch, though I’ve read the highlights — in which he announced his plans to distribute the film himself.

As for the response to the movie goes, the reviews have been extremely interesting. The fact of the matter is that Smith has so gone on out of his way to attack film critics, it’s kind of hard for any of us to have an opinion of one of his films that isn’t colored by the silliness at this point. No surprise, then, that reaction has been dramatically mixed. Not everyone even agrees if it’s actually a horror film or a religious-themed thriller. Sort of a more violent and bloody, less musical, version of the 1973 “The Wicker Man.”

Avatar* Speaking of talented makers of entertaining but highly imperfect films whose need to communicate can often place them at cross-purposes with themselves, James Cameron has told Entertainment Weekly that he’s working on the screenplays for two “Avatar” sequels with the intent of releasing them over Christmas of 2014 and 2015. To his credit, I think, Cameron says he’ll donate some portion of films’ grosses to environmental charities, who can use all the help they can get, considering our planet seems to be melting right at the moment.

* And speaking of directors who at times have worked at cross-purposes with themselves, no one has ever done so in grander fashion than the late Orson Welles. It’s starting to look like his legendary unfinished 1970s project, “The Other Side of the Wind,” may finally get a release of some sort. Because Welles never edited most of it, there’s a school of thought that the film should be released only in unedited form. This is one of the more stupid schools of thought I’ve encountered. Thank goodness, DVDs can make the unedited rushes available to anyone who wants to imagine how the man might have edited the film itself, but rushes are not a movie.

As far as other “lost” Welles films, Kevin Jagernauth mentions a miraculous restoration of his badly truncated, “The Magnificent Ambersons.” I’d settle for a decent restoration/re-release of his Shakespearian opus, “Chimes at Midnight.”

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* Chris Hemsworth — aka Mighty Thor, God of Thunder — has seen the Avengers script by Joss Whedon and, guess what, he thinks its “incredible.” Ordinarily, I’d be skeptical of a star’s good opinion of his own movie, but this Browncoat needs it to be incredible. It better be incredible. No pressure, though.

* Another Sundance sale. For what sounds like a small but intense love story, “Like Crazy” fetched a relatively big price.

* Sam Raimi is still chatting up the possibility of some kind “Evil Dead” reboot.

* An item left over from last week relating to another kind of evil dead: Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles’ “The Dictator” based on a novel claimed by an obscure author you might have heard named Saddam Hussein. This is one movie I really have to see.

* I really enjoyed interviewing Morgan Spurlock and he was as nice as could be, but he failed to mention anything about his latest, very clever sounding stunt-documentary “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” which has been getting great press at Sundance. Jerkface.

  

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Trailer: Kevin Smith’s “Red State”

Like every godfearing critic, I’ve been a bit ticked with Kevin Smith lately for reasons I don’t feel like going into right now but which I’ll refer to briefly as “silly, needless tantrums” — even though I actually enjoy his films more often than not. On the other hand, I’ve been curious about his upcoming “Red State,” a horror tale inspired by the genuinely evil Fred Phelps of the beyond extreme, hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church. Since this was Smith, I wondered if this would be more of a satirical horror comedy or something more serious and really different from past films. A very brief teaser trailer is out, and I think I might have my answer — just in time for the holidays!

I agree with Kevin Jagernauth. This really does look unlike anything we’ve seen from Mr. Smith. Definitely interesting.

  

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Cameron attacks Beck! Beck attacks Cameron! Kevin Smith attacks me (and every other critic in the world)!! MI:4 gets jiggy with directorial possibilities!!!! It’s auteurs gone wild!

I was honestly going to take tonight off to focus on some other stuff I need to get done but then Kevin Smith, James Cameron and, er, Glenn Beck — yes, you heard me, Glenn freaking Beck, have made that impossible.  Between the three of them, I could probably do five thousand words alone. Just let’s say there’s a whole lotta lameness going on. On the other hand, Michael Bay is actually making as much sense as Cameron these days. It’s a weird world we live in. And that’s not all,  to wit…

James Cameron
* In a massive example of what this liberal feels falls under the category of “dude, I’m not sure you’re helping,” while talking to the press, James Cameron launched into a somewhat humourous expletive filled tirade against Glenn Beck, the newest and by far the looniest resident of the Fox News asylum. Naturally, this was grist for the mill of John Nolte over at Andrew Breitbart’s frequently even more unhinged far right film blog, Big Hollywood.

Now, it would probably take me the aforementioned five thousands words to explain why the vast majority of what Nolte ordinarily writes is, I believe objectively and factually, complete horse puckey. However, here there is a definite kernel of truth in noting that Cameron’s decision to release an initially stripped down “Avatar” single disc with zero extras on Earth Day, naturally to be followed by more deluxe editions in the future, doesn’t exactly fit in with the environmentalist message of the film or Cameron’s claims to be not too terribly concerned with making scads of money. Though, to be fair, Fox — owned by Rupert Murdoch — does have something to say here as well.

Of course, Glenn Beck has responded and, watching said response, during the first half I was thinking: “Good work, James Cameron, you’ve given Glen f–king Beck a chance to look sane.” But, fortunately for my view of the universe, Beck’s need to over-dramatize, even in an attempt at humor, prevented him from looking too stable or stable at all.

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Steven Zeitchik of the oh-so-liberal (in comparison to Big Hollywood) L.A. Times provides the video and some context involving Cameron’s involvement in a 2007 documentary touching on the historical reality of the New Testament. Big Hollywood provides the same video and some very different context on the same film. I simply don’t have the time to investigate that one right now.

Three things I’m sure of, however: 1. One of these men is a gifted egomaniac; 2. the other is a former “Morning Zoo” shock jock who has found the only job on the planet requiring even less intelligence and sense of responsibility; 3. the best way to turn the public off the entire issue of the environment is for James Cameron and Glenn Beck to have a debate about it.

Read the rest of this entry »

  

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