Saturday, September 10, 2011

Movie Reviews- Red State, Let's Do it Again, Cherish and more

Red State                 
I had virtually given up on Kevin Smith as a director. I thought his muse had left him. On a lark I decided to watch his movie Red State on VOD. It was described as a horror movie.
It wasn't a horror movie.
But it is Smith's best film since Clerks or Chasing Amy. Smith has matured as a director and writer. I'm not saying this movie is Oscar material but it does have an Oscar winning performer (Melissa Leo) in it. The story's strength surprised me. And at just under 90 minutes there's no flab here.

It is Smith's vision of what would happen if Rev. Fred Phelps, he of the "God hates homosexuals" and "I'm glad your son is dead" fame, had decided to "start using the Second Amendment and not just the First" as one of the film's characters puts it.
Three desperately horny high school boys (are there any other kind?) are surfing the net to find free sex. They come across a local solicitation from an older woman who agrees to simultaneously service all three boys. Excited, the trio pile into one of their parent's cars and burn rubber to the agreed destination....
Upon arriving they are less than impressed with the attitude, age and demeanor of the woman, Sarah (Melissa Leo), but decide to proceed anyway. However Sarah has different plans. The boys drink drugged beer and find themselves tied up in the basement of genially deranged preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), Sarah's father, who sends his followers (mostly children, in-laws or older grandkids) out into the world to kidnap or entice homosexuals and fornicators for "God's punishment". And "God's punishment" is more painful and permanent than just forcible Bible reading. I like Parks' work here. Leo's role is large enough that it's not just a supporting role.
This film could have gone down The Texas Chainsaw Massacre road. Smartly it doesn't do that. The Coopers and friends are not cartoon villains. Some are seemingly rational or even nice people whose profoundly different worldview may only become apparent after a longer conversation. Some are too young to know any better. The film pivots neatly to introduce melancholy ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman-when did he get so old??) who is summoned by the sheriff to handle the situation. Keenan's supervisors are very wary of another media frenzy ala Waco or Ruby Ridge and give Keenan orders which will cause him and the audience to question just who the good guys are here.

I like Smith's writing here. Most of his trademark sarcasm, gratuitous profanity and proud cynicism is muted. Smith has some interesting questions to raise about religious fundamentalism AND the incredible (excessive?) legal and physical power of the Federal government. There is a romantic element to this last which works as entertainment value but may disturb viewers afterwards. Often no matter how wrong someone may be we have a reflexive sympathy for the underdog. Smith cannily exploits this tendency. Bottom line, your arms are too short to box with God OR the Federal government. Thomas Jefferson had some things to say about this which may be the subject of a future post.  In terms of looks and sound, this film does have a few overly talky scenes-it is after all a Kevin Smith film, but that is the only obvious link between this film and the rest of his work.  And even those scenes work as Parks gets most of them.

If I didn't know better I would have said Smith was brought in to produce, not direct the film because the camera work and the acting are so very very different than what one would normally associate with a Kevin Smith film. There are a few Rob Zombie and even Tarantino flourishes but ultimately this is a very sincere, painfully earnest film. It makes an unsuccessful shout out to No Country for Old Men that is too derivative and doesn't fit but that aside it was a pretty good movie. Kevin Pollak, Stephen Root, Michael Angarano and Kerry Bishe also star.
****Some current and former members of the Westboro Baptist Church were invited to a screening of this film. You can read their thoughts about it here.

Let's Do It Again
Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier starred in a trio of  seventies comedic movies together, Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again and A Piece of The Action. These were pretty enjoyable films in which the director (Poitier) had just as much fun demolishing the squeaky clean image of Cosby and especially Poitier, as he did in putting together zany story lines and parodying then current movies-check out Belafonte's Godfather impression in Uptown Saturday Night. Anyway I expect that most readers have seen Let's Do It Again. I think it is the funniest of that film triad. 
Let's Do it Again examines the adventures of two working class rogues, Billy Foster (Bill Cosby) and Clyde Williams (Sidney Poitier) who, learning that their Masonic-like local lodge is in danger of being foreclosed upon, take it upon themselves to hypnotize a boxing contender to believe he can win a match against the champ. They then bet everything on the contender.

This contender, Bootney Farnsworth (Jimmie Walker) is laughably out of shape, undersized and scared. No one thinks he will win against 40th Street Black. When he does win and Foster and Williams clean up financially they come to the attention of two feuding crime organizations, one led by the defiantly old school Kansas City Mack (John Amos-seems like he should have had more leading man roles) and the other overseen by the quite modern and supercool Biggie Smalls (Calvin Lockhart). Foster and Williams, along with their wives (Denise Nicholas and Lee Chamberlin) have to bluff, bribe and scam their way out of this jam, while trying not to get caught in a shooting war between these two groups, who as mentioned, really don't like each other.

This film's dialogue is pretty funny, such as when Kansas City Mack , fuming about Smalls' inroads into his territory muses that maybe he should get "some college educated (insert slur)" like Smalls, or when Foster and his wife, playfully flirting after the first successful hustle talk about the fact that Mr. Foster will need to bring a big hammer to bust the block of Mrs. Foster. The film's primary hilarity though comes from the simple ridiculousness of seeing Poitier and Cosby attempt to come off like gangsters, circa 1975. They were laughing at themselves as much as the audience was I'm sure. This is one seventies film that has aged pretty well. Again, John Amos almost stole the show here. Jayne Kennedy had a quite impressive cameo.


In a very weird warped sort of way this is a romantic comedy. Cherish stars Robin Tunney, Nora Dunn, Tim Blake Nelson and Jason Priestly. A young San Francisco computer animator, Zoe (Robin Tunney) is a bit of a social loser and 80's music geek who is bullied by her coolly stylish boss (Liz Phair). Zoe rarely goes out on dates and when she does men tend not to ask for a second one. After crashing a work party Zoe is carjacked by a stalker who runs over a police officer, killing him.

No one believes the inebriated Zoe when she rants about the mysterious stalker. She is forced into house arrest while she waits for trial-at which she is expected to be convicted and sent away for quite some time. Arriving to set up this detention is the pensive and shy Daly (Tim Blake Nelson), who is about as socially inept as Zoe. But he does take his job seriously and sets up the electronic tether on Zoe's ankle.

Now confined to her apartment the scatterbrained Zoe must try to figure out who the real killer was. She also learns some interesting things about life in her area and her neighbors, one of whom Max (Ricardo Gil), a wheelchair bound man, becomes a good friend.
But as her trial date approaches a newly determined and focused Zoe finds that as she attempts to do detective work she's flirting and possibly falling in love with the decidedly unglamorous Daly. And the feeling might be mutual.

This was a good movie. The director (Finn Taylor) did not initially intend to focus so much on the romance between Daly and Zoe. He found that Tunney and Nelson had such good chemistry together that he altered the storyline to focus more on them. Thus there are some abrupt thematic shifts from time to time that don't really work but all in all I liked this film. The goggle eyed Tunney does a great job as Zoe, a woman who talks to cover up her own fear of being alone while Nelson's character hides his own fears under silence. Obviously the soundtrack is chock full of eighties (and some seventies) pop music. 

Dead Snow
This is a Norwegian zombie horror movie. Dead Snow is subtitled for American audiences. It has a fair amount of influence from Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson in that it deftly combines moments of horror with sardonic humor. It is very violent and scary in some spots. So if you liked Dead Alive or Evil Dead you may enjoy this film. If zombie movies bore you or you can't stand the sight of blood you can just skip this one.
Some Norwegian medical students/youth travel to a remote cabin to relax, ski, get laid, drink and generally carouse. However as it turns out this cabin was also the HQ of a lost Waffen SS battalion that evidently refused to surrender in the waning days of WW2. Bound to the area via sorcery (how is not really explained and isn't that important for these type of films) these Nazi zombies can generally only be awakened via a really dumb act (which I won't reveal) but suffice it to say that of course these students do the really dumb act.

The zombies awake and violence commences. Again this film has a lot of humor and in-joke references to other movies. Some references have become so common that they're tropes now. Whether it's two heroes surrounded by bad guys, who in a last stand of hopeless defiance tell them to "BRING IT!!!" or it's a couple so intent on carnal actions that neither notices danger until it's too late or the comedic heroic doofus who arrives to save the day but inadvertently makes things far worse, the viewer will recognize a lot of common tropes and writing techniques. What makes the film worthwhile, at least for the horror fan, is inventive special effects, great outdoors locations, and an bent sense of humor about the absurdity of the situation. One minute you're drinking beer and having fun; the next you're trying to use a chainsaw like a Viking battleaxe..


Nobody panic. I have a plan.
This movie, written and directed by Joss Whedon, was based on his cancelled tv show Firefly. It features most of the same actors. It is set in our universe many years in the future. This movie was slightly ahead of its time in having well defined female characters and actually even having black people, though some critics still accused it of falling into cliches.

A young teen girl River Tam (Summer Glau) is trapped in some sort of psy-ops government facility. She is being mind tortured. She is broken out by her super-protective older brother Simon Tam (Sean Maher) a two-fisted and deceptively mild looking doctor who tends to go berserk if anyone insults or tries to harm little sis. He's been searching for her for years and doesn't intend to lose her now.  Simon has arranged passage for his sister and himself aboard the spaceship Serenity.

Serenity is captained by the somewhat moral and highly individualistic Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), called Mal by all. Mal is a disillusioned veteran of a recent civil war in which the plucky freedom loving individualists got the s*** stomped out of them by the current ruling statist totalitarians, The Alliance. Now the Han Soloish Mal and his crew of veterans, misfits and mercenaries eke out a living as smugglers-although since Mal still has some morals, it's implied they aren't THAT good at it. Making up his crew are his fellow veteran and loyal second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres), her husband the nervous  ship pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), the sweet and desperately horny ship mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and the brutish and ambitious gun-obsessed mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin). The sociopathic Jayne is the sort of man who when asked why he didn't sell out his boss will only grunt "The money wasn't good enough". When the worried boss asks him what happens when the money IS good enough Jayne casually responds, "Well that will be an interesting day, won't it?"  

No more running. I aim to misbehave
None of these people are happy to travel with Simon and especially River-who is to say the least somewhat unsettling. They are less pleased when they find out that The Alliance, spearheaded by the mysterious Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is looking for River. As far as he is concerned she is government property and he wants her back. The Operative is a totally pragmatic man. He feels that River is key to building a better world, one without sin, one in which there is no place for such as him. And if that means he needs to kill or torture a number of people-especially Mal's friends- to bring that world about, he's perfectly fine with that. The story gets very interesting when Mal and his crew discover the hard way that the waifish River possesses some rather unusual and deadly skills. The Alliance did something to her...

Do you know what your sin is?
The movie has some obvious Star Wars antecedents but the villains are not as cut and dry. The Operative is affably evil but his intentions may be good. Even the most brutish villains of the story, The Reavers, a race of subhuman creatures who live to rape, kill and eat people (and not necessarily in that order) could invoke pity as much as hate and fear. It's a fun movie and likely has film's all time most definitive scene of a woman kicking butt and taking names. It's sci-fi but really it's just a Western transposed into a sci-fi genre. Entertaining stuff-especially on a Saturday afternoon.

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