Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Red State

I'd been hearing about Kevin Smith's Red State for a few years, I guess ever since word got out that he was trying to get it made. I enjoy Smith's films, for the most part, and the idea of his doing something different than the talky relationshippy stuff he's best known for was intriguing to me. Then of course Sundance happened and everyone was up in arms over the circus and presentation of Smith's fake bidding war over selling the film that ended in him buying it himself for $20 and announcing he was "four-walling" it (i.e., taking it on the road for one-night engagements instead of releasing it in a bunch of theaters at once). I thought very seriously about going to the NYC date back in March, but ultimately decided I could wait until it got its wider release in October. I'm very glad I kept an eye out for the release, because as it turns out the regular theater release was a one-night-only event in a hand full of theaters, to be followed by a Q&A with Smith beamed to all the theaters from the New Beverly in LA. And even though I'd been anxious to see this film for several months, I *almost* didn't go and even paused to rethink once I got to the theater and found out that tickets were a good deal more than usual. After all, it's going to be on VOD and DVD in just a few weeks. But I'm really glad I decided to see it with an audience.

Because it's quite good.

Red State

This movie employs a rather brilliant take on the classic three-act structure. Each act could be its own unique movie. We start with a tried-and-true teen horror movie set-up. Three teenage boys (led by Kyle Gallner, who many of you might know as Cassidy or "Beaver" from Veronica Mars) find this prostitution website, where women (and probably men, too) post naked pictures of themselves (with the face obscured) and name their price for some you-know-what. The boys can't really take a trip to New York or Los Angeles, where most of these girls are from, but there's one woman from a small town nearby. One of the boys has been emailing with her and she's agreed to "do" them all at once. The kids have some thoughts about the fact that she's 38, but they decide to go for it. They get to the woman's home (a trailer) and drink some warm-up beers, but they've clearly been drugged and before they can get their clothes off, they're unconscious.

The ringleader wakes up in a cage to find that he's part of an "object lesson" in a church service and now we're in a "captured by lunatics" horror movie (such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Behind the pulpit is Reverend Abin Cooper (played by the amazing Michael Parks, whose praises I have sung before), and we're treated to a roughly fifteen-minute real-time sermon about how godless the world is and how all the sinners are going to hell, especially the gays, who are the agents of the devil himself here on earth, says Cooper. It should be noted that we've heard this man's name and seen his face before this scene. He and his family are seen protesting outside the funeral of a murdered gay man (a la Westboro and the Phelps family), and he's the topic of a brief conversation in our doomed trio's history class. Apparently, Cooper and his family are so bonkers that even a neo-Nazi group has distanced themselves from them. We also hear later on that he and his "Five Points" church are worse than the Westboro lot, who are admittedly annoying but at least don't carry guns like the Cooper clan. The Five Points congregation consists entirely of family - around twenty-five people in all, including some small children - and that for this reason it has been impossible for the FBI to do any undercover infiltration.

I wondered how the people around me felt about sitting through the sermon. Fifteen minutes is about right (maybe a bit shorter) time frame for most of the sermons I've heard in my lifetime, having gone to church regularly for most of that time. Smith, having been raised Catholic, is probably drawing from similar experience. I'd say a congregation like this is used to much longer sermons, but you can only spend so much time with this kind of thing in a movie, especially when the content is so abhorrent. It was frankly chilling for me to watch the congregation in a scene - again, content MOST CERTAINLY aside - that I have experienced many, many times in my life. All the nodding and "amen"s and things that I have always felt were (or at least could be) meaningful expressions of real worship ... to see them distorted like this and used as an earnest response to what is such a blatant perversion of God's word was, to me, the most frightening part of the film. And then, of course, a woman takes the kiddoes out to have their lessons because, as Cooper says, "it's about to get grown-up in here." I just love it when people use that word and "adult" to describe things that really, really aren't.

The first "grown-up" object lesson involves a gay man who has been plastic-wrapped to a big cross and gagged (whaddup, blasphemy!) before being shot in the top of the head with a tricked-out handgun. The ringleader's two buddies, meanwhile, manage to cut themselves free and try to escape. Emphasis on the word "try." It is here that the film morphs into its third incarnation - a hostage scenario and feds-to-the-rescue climax. What was supposed to be a simple in-and-out mission for a handful of BATF agents has become the Waco Siege of 1993, with Cooper and his crew completely unconcerned about dying, because dying just means they get to go to heaven (um, don't count your chickens, dudes). The conflict ends more peaceably than it should, mostly thanks to a mysterious loud noise that the Coopers think is the Trumpet of the Lord announcing the return of Christ. The agent in charge (played by John Goodman) brings the remaining family members in and explains the rest of the story, including his decision to disobey direct orders, to his superiors.

I don't know what this film's detractors were expecting, or if they were just so disgusted at the Sundance media circus that they were prejudiced against the film itself, but I think it's a dang fine movie. Something you absolutely would not expect from Kevin Smith, but which just as absolutely fits his style, especially with regard to writing. Acting, across the board, is great, even from the guys playing the teenage victims (the kinds of characters that sadly do not get parts as good as these written for them - I don't mean they're all DeNiro in Taxi Driver, but for horror movie victims, they're surprisingly layered). Goodman is wonderful in his role, but the real standouts are Michael Parks and (Oscar-winner) Melissa Leo. Leo's character is the one who lures the boys in the first place, and it's horrifying to see her calmly sitting next to her husband in church, like she was just doing God's will by drugging those kids and tying them up. Parks, though, is an absolute revelation (*rimshot*) as the patriarch and preacher. I've been a fan of his since for several years now, and he's a great "character actor" who doesn't often get a lot to do in the films he's in. It's great to see him step up and be the lead here.

There's a part of me that's sad that here's yet another movie where religious people (the only religious people in the story, in fact) are crazy murdering lunatics. On the other hand, it makes me even sadder that people like this really do exist. There's not much in the world that's more disgusting than a group of so-called Christians standing outside a funeral and basically saying "nah-nah-nee-boo-boo" to a dead person that they clearly couldn't have cared less about trying to reach.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


"I used to produce movies in the 80s. Kind of action films, sexy stuff ... one producer called them European."

Albert Brooks, in the quote above, might as well have been describing the film he was currently in - Nicolas Winding Refn's sleek and stylish Drive. I had only seen one of Winding Refn's films before this, which was 2009's Bronson and which also incidentally announced to the world that Tom Hardy was made of awesome. I thought the film was interesting, epecially style-wise, but I wasn't in love with it like a lot of my movie nerd friends were, and I wondered if I would have responded differently if I had seen it with a bunch of them in a proper theater instead of by myself on my laptop. I was, however, completely excited about Drive after hearing about it from Cannes back in May.

I'd been counting down the days to seeing this, and had more than I wanted in adventure trying to lay eyes on it this weekend. I could have seen it first thing Friday morning, after work, and was tempted to do just that - such was my chomping at the bit. But I decided to make it a rare evening viewing - rare because it costs more than twice as much as AMC's morning screenings, and because it's difficult to find a showtime that's convenient with my work hours. It was important to me to see it with a good audience. I'd even put together a playlist with the film's (AMAZING) soundtrack and a bunch of 1980s songs that I thought had a similar chilly, urban vibe. There was some drama at the theater that night, and I was forced to wait another 24 hours, which drove me crazy. I was pretty exhausted by the time I hit the cinema and the movie was going to have to be pretty danged good to keep me awake.

Far from being pretty danged good, it was flipping awesome. Hands down, my favorite film of the year so far.

The film opens with a pulsing music track and credits that look like they were scrawled on a mirror in shocking pink lipstick. We meet Ryan Gosling's character, whose name we never learn (he is simply "the Driver"), and he's laying out the rules for his "getaway" services. If you've seen the trailer, you've heard this schpiel - his clients have him for five minutes. Whatever happens in that five minute window, he will get you out of there. If something goes wrong before the clock starts or after the five minutes is up, you're on your own. He speaks very directly and succinctly, and you get the feeling you should listen to him closely, because he's not the kind of person who repeats himself. We see him on a job like this, and where another movie would show you all manner of metal objects weaving in out of each other in furious pursuit and flight, Winding Refn starts slow, putting the focus on Gosling's face instead, and you can see the wheels turning behind his eyes. When the volume gets turned up, though, it's exhilirating. But even as the chase kicks up several notches, we still mostly stay on Gosling and watch as he shifts strategies (could I get any more automobile metaphors in here?) and tries to elude the police.

The Driver doesn't just do getaways; he's also a stunt driver for movies and does some work in a garage. He's kind of a genius with cars, and his boss Shannon (played by Bryan Cranston) tries to get him into racecar driving, with the help of crime boss Bernie (in a knockout performance by Albert Brooks, who is about the last person you'd imagine being as great as he is in a role like this). He also becomes involved (though not romantically - at least at first) with his neighbor Irene (the always excellent Carey Mulligan), who struggles as a waitress at Denny's while her husband is in prison. You can sense that the Driver likes to keep people at a distance, but his relationship with Irene is what sets the bulk of the film's action in motion. We see a man who is initially very reserved and calm (comparisons to Steve McQueen in Bullitt and Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver are not far off the mark here) become violent and scary in the defense of the innocent.

Nowhere in the film is this better crystalized than in what may be the centerpiece of the entire film, "The Elevator Scene." The Driver is going to walk Irene out of their apartment building, and they get into an elevator with a third person. We already know that the Driver is in danger, but when he looks sidelong at the stranger in the elevator, he spots a concealed gun and shit's officially real. But rather than ratchet up the adrenaline right away, the film slows down a bit and the Driver pushes Irene protectively behind him. He turns around and kisses her, presumably knowing that after what's about to happen this may be his only chance, and then proceeds to beat and kick the man to death as she looks on, part horrified, part exhilirated.

The film is quite violent, but what I love about it is that it doesn't fetishize the violence. There are cool weapons (I love that you rarely see a gun in this movie) but it doesn't wallow in the horror-show. What it does tend to linger on are the moments just before the violence occurs. I kept thinking, after this movie, about the Solozzo scene in The Godfather - that moment the camera seems to stay a bit too long on Al Pacino's face and you see, plain as day, the change that turns Michael Corleone from war hero to future crime boss, just before he guns down Solozzo and McCluskey. There's an especially operatic scene in Drive when Gosling's character dons one of his movie diguises (a rubber head mask) and goes to take out the penultimate baddie. The music choice here is inspired - the main theme from a film called Farewell Uncle Tom, which I saw at BNAT in 2007 and which is the most offensive movie I have ever seen, despite some excellent filmmaking elements, including the music. And for the length of the song - about three minutes (an eternity in movie time) - the Driver simply drives to where he's going and then looks through a window at his prey. You know for a certainty, just from the actor's eyes, that someone is about to die, probably painfully, because that's just what time it is.

This movie has been compared to early Michael Mann (think Thief or Manhunter) and William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. It even has a similar feel to Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, a vintage hit from BNAT last year, and the camera work was apparently inspired by Melville's work. The plot is not anything earth-shattering - typical biolerplate stuff - but plot is not what makes this movie extraodrinary. Style and love of cinema make this film something special. (And speaking of style, this movie gave me an intense desire to own a satin jacket and a pair of driving gloves - and I don't even drive anymore!)

Drive has the trappings of all those fantastic car movies of the 60s and 70s, the flash of 80s neo-noir, and the sensibility of a dark fairy tale. I don't see anything happening on the Oscar front for this movie - perhaps a supporting nod for Brooks (I'd be overjoyed if Gosling were recognized, but I don't dare hold my breath), but that's not because it's not great. It's absolutely fantastic. This was originally developed as a $60 million blockbuster starring Hugh Jackman. Nothing against Hugh, but I'm so glad *this* movie is what got made instead.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


[Cue obligatory sing-along with Scandal's 1980s hit "The Warrior" because I'm just that dorky.]

This is a movie I probably wouldn't have seen had it not been for very enthusiastic responses coming out of an Ain't It Cool screening. I put it off a little while (hence my lateness) because fight movies aren't typically my thing, unless they are largely about something else (such as Million Dollar Baby). As such, I feel like I could have skipped this one. That's not to say it's a bad movie, but it's just not my kind of movie. I also have to say that the fact that the director also made Miracle was not a selling point for me. "Inspirational" "sports" films are rarely my cup of tea.

That's not to say that Warrior is a bad movie or that there weren't things I enjoyed about it, because it's not and there certainly were. I thought the performances all around were really great. Nick Nolte, I thought, was especially strong in a pretty thankless, generic role. The fight choreography was incredible, and the ending was surprisingly suspenseful.

It was an interesting decision to leave the abuse backstory mostly off-page, with only a few references here and there, but it doesn't do the characters any favors. The brothers seem less sympathetic, because we never see what they suffered at the hands of their father. Nick Nolte's character passes 1000 days of sobriety (and then falls off the wagon briefly), but we can't be invested in it because we haven't seen what he was like when he was a drunk and a wife/child-beater. And the one time we see him drunk he's just kind of sad, not scary like we've been told he used to be. It's just hard to get invested in a family's history when you're only allowed to hear about it.

Another thing I found a bit strange was a handful of shots of people watching the "Sparta" tournament on television. There were crowd scenes in the actual arena, sure, but all the reaction shots of people watching were of people just by themselves, which felt a bit unnatural (until the end, of course, when the students are watching the final fights at the drive-in). You want, when you watch scenes like that, to be inspired to jump up and cheer yourself, and I just wasn't feeling it, and it didn't feel like the movie was even interested in arousing that response.

I did like the (somewhat) suspense of the ending, because all the way through the tournament you're cheering for both brothers. I say somewhat because if you've seen the trailer you already know that they end up fighting each other in the final. You want to see them both win, and they both have very sympathetic stories, but I found myself wondering who to root for in the end. It didn't take long to figure out who the winner *had* to be, from a narrative standpoint, and I guess you could imagine that the winner could have shared a bit of the prize money with the other brother. I wondered how that all worked out as the credits rolled, but I was kind of relieved the movie didn't show it to us.

I sort of giggled at the big confrontation scene on the beach, because it looks like both brothers randomly decided to go walking on the beach and just happened to come across each other. That scene is probably the strongest in the movie, and I'm so glad they got all that out there and didn't have a bunch of dialogue in the actual fight. There's almost none there, which is perfect, until the very end. It got a bit weird at that point - there's just something about two men rolling around with their legs around each other saying "I love you." :P

Thursday, September 1, 2011

10 Movies I'm Pumped to See This Fall

It's that time of year again! Entertainment Weekly has released its Fall Movie Preview issue, and it is time to plan the season! I had to remove the cover of this year's, though, because I couldn't look at it (Bella and Edward, blech!). I don't have the energy or the time to do a full rundown of everything, like I've done in the past, but I've still carefully calendared it all, as is my yearly ritual. And here are the ten films I'm *MOST* anticipating this fall. I say most, because there's plenty more I'm looking forward to. Just these a bit more than others.

Perhaps I should be sad that of these ten films, only one has a female as the lead character, and perhaps it's just as sad that that same film is alone among the ten that was *written* by a woman (and as for directed by a chick - pssht, forget it). It certainly does seem like a Mandom-y fall for movies. But I'd rather think about the wealth of Ryan Gosling and George Clooney on this list.

10. Moneyball - Not a baseball movie, but more a business movie set in the world of baseball, based on the book about how the Oakland A's management reinvented how they chose players. Written by rock star screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (not a co-write, but a shared credit). Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

9. J. Edgar - Eastwood directs DiCaprio in a movie about America's original G-man. Written by Dustin Lance Black, one of my new screenwriting heroes who won an Oscar a couple years ago for Milk.

8. Hugo - No, not a book about the youngest child of Ron and Hermione Weasley. :P I read the book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret) last year, and while I enjoyed it, it didn't grab me as a piece of narrative. But the idea of making it a film actually excited me. Especially since it was a book about the magic and love of the cinema and was being made into a movie by perhaps the greatest cinematic enthusiast making movies - Martin Scorsese. Add to that the fact that Chloe "Hit Girl" Moretz is in it as well, and it's a must see.

7. The Descendants- Alexander Payne's first directing job since Sideways back in 2004. His films are always such a sublime mix of comedy and tragedy, and I'm intrigued by the fact that he's directing George Clooney. Though not as intrigued as I am by Clooney playing a middle aged suburban dad whose wife was cheating on him. How do you cheat on Clooney?

6. The Muppets - This is supposedly a return to the kind of Muppet movie we know and love. My favorite is still The Muppets Take Manhattan, and I've never seen what is a lot of people's favorite (Muppet Christmas Carol - yes, I KNOW), but I'm jazzed for this. The Muppets have kind of become cool again in the past couple of years (though they were always cool to me), and the fact that Jason Segel co-wrote it with his Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller makes me hopeful this will be magic. (If you wonder why, watch the last few minutes of Marshall, which feature a puppet musical about Dracula which is out of this world.)

5. Young Adult - Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, who previously worked together on Juno (for which Cody won an Oscar), are reteaming for a story about a successful YA writer who goes nuts when her high school sweetheart has a kid. As excited as I am about this, I'm a little nervous about the "message" behind it. I don't really like Cody's description of the main character as "living like an adolescent in her 30s" and "living that kind of selfish, childish life." Is your life somehow worthless if you're not married with kids and a house full of Pottery Barn furniture? Kind of daring this one to piss me off, in a way, but Cody's writing is always funny and heartfelt. I'm also kind of in love with that recent picture of Charlize Theron in sweatpants and a Hello Kitty shirt. Accurate picture of a lot of YA writers? Probably.

4. The Ides of March - The latest directorial effort of George Clooney, who also acts in the film, playing a presidential contender. Ryan Gosling plays his ... Robert Gibbs, I guess? I'm fascinated by Clooney's work as a director, as well as his recent choices in acting roles. Count me in.

3. The Artist - I've heard all kinds of amazing things about this one, though it seems like the most difficult film in the world to sell (to audiences and Oscar voters alike). It's black and white, it's French, it has no big name Hollywood stars, and it has almost no dialogue (it's being described as a silent film). It does, however, have the Weinsteins behind it, who have placed it in a prominent place in their release schedule - Thanksgiving week (which is, incidentally, the "King's Speech" slot). It was also a huge crowd favorite at Cannes. This is supposedly "the one to beat" this year.

2. Drive - I've heard great things about this since Cannes (where it took Best Director prize), and every piece of the promotion I see makes me more pumped to see it. There's something "Kiss Me Deadly" (the movie, not the song - wait, the song too) about it. Noir and a kind of 1980s vibe. Actually counting the days to this one.

1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - This is like the best cast list I've ever seen, and may be Gary Oldman's chance at his first nomination (how is that possible?!). Directed by Tomas Alfredson, who made the beautiful Swedish-language vampire love story Let the Right One In (not to be confused with the lesser, though still, good, American remake). I'm not familiar with the John le Carre novel on which this is based, but perhaps I should become so. So pumped for this. You lucky Brits get it in September, but it won't come out here until November 18 December 9.