Friday, 30 September 2011

Red State

The Five Points Trinity Church is an independent Christian church known for their extreme views on homosexuality and regularly protest at funerals, while they all reside in their own fenced-off sanctuary known as Cooper’s Dell. Meanwhile, three high school kids are all looking to get laid. Jared finds a woman on the internet who says she’ll sleep with him, Travis and Billy Ray all at the same time. They go to meet her in a trailer in the woods, but as they prepare for their sexual awakening, they all pass out, and wake up to find themselves deep in the heart of Cooper’s Dell...

I am, unashamedly, a MASSIVE Kevin Smith fan. I’ve seen all of his films and own all but a couple of them on DVD. I follow him on Twitter. I’m an avid listener to the Smodcast Podcast Network of podcasts. I even find the time to listen to Smodcast Internet Radio every day to listen to him and his wife do his live daily breakfast show... at 4pm. So, naturally, I’ve followed the creation and conception of this film, his most radically different to date, from the faux-auction publicity stunt at Sundance to the Westboro Baptist Church protests to the self-distribution release to the Red State Q&A tour. This month, the film was released on VOD in America and finally received a proper cinematic release both here and the US. Well thank the lord I’ve finally seen it, because it is epic.

I won’t lie; I’ve been looking forward to this film the most this year. This was the 2011 film I wanted to see, more than Green Lantern or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I am still eagerly awaiting), and my God has this lived up to the hype. This film is, for lack of a better word, insane. It is the most un-Kevin Smith ‘Kevin Smith’ film yet. It starts off like a proper Kevin Smith film, mind, with teenagers looking for sex, but then the film turns into a real drama focusing on the Five Points Trinity Church, a church with scarily similar views to those of the Phelps family from the Westboro Baptist Church. Then, it turns again into a gun-wielding, bullet spraying action film for the final third before rounding things up neatly. I’ll try not to spoil this as much as I can, because the less you know about the plot going into this, the more surprised you will be by this. As soon as you think you know where it’s going, it flips your expectations on their head and takes you somewhere completely different.

At the core of this are two scarily phenomenal performances from the two leads: Michael Parks and Melissa Leo. Leo filmed this before she won her Oscar, so that wasn’t in her head, allowing her to focus on giving a fantastic performance as the creepy and devoted Sarah Cooper. However, the stand out is Parks as Abin Cooper, head of the church. He delivers every line with conviction and realism that you believe in the character and you believe he truly believes in the religious dogma he constantly spouts. In particular, at one point, Parks delivers a near 10 minute monologue which is just incredible to watch. John Goodman turns up as ATF agent Keenan and does well in a well-written, realistic role. Kerry Bishé also does well in her role as a member of the Cooper clan, as does a mute Ralph Garman and an intimidating James Parks. The kids all do well but aren’t anything truly special, and besides, it’s the Cooper’s Dell clan who all steal the show.

At the centre of this film is a sharply written script by Smith, something which was lacking from his last outing Cop Out, the first and only film where Smith was a director for hire. It’s a satire that clearly takes its cues from the Phelps’, but it’s also a horror as Smith takes it in a far more extreme direction whilst still retaining utterances of classic Smith dialogue and jokes about pussy and sex. There are an ungodly number of fucks used in the film, as every character seems intent on repeating it over and over again as if to overstate the importance of each scene, whether it’s through fright or frustration or liberation of self. Don’t let that fool you though; listen past the profanities and you’ll hear some smart dialogue delivered by master technicians. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s pointed, and at times it’s downright scary. Most of all, it’s engrossing and engaging. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it for a second, you end up not wanting to in fear you’ll miss something because Smith throws everything but the kitchen sink at you for the short 88 minutes it takes him to tell the story.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few faults with is. The editing is all over the place, with the faster rapid cuts seeming unnecessary and don’t fit in the film, but the slower edits with longer shots between cuts add to the tension and suspense and work well. It does seem to rush through its events quickly given the running time, there could have been a lot more time spent on certain scenes throughout the film. Also, while some of the characters are fully developed, most aren’t, and a lot of them aren’t given any dialogue, and just go through the film mute, which is an odd choice, given Smith’s particular way with words. In most other cases, I’d let little hang ups like this spoil my enjoyment of a movie, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed Red State despite all of this, which shows just how good a film this truly is.

Overall, I realise I say this as a completely biased Kevin Smith fan, but my god is this good. It is so unexpected, and that’s what makes this so good. Considering his back catalogue, this film has comes out of absolutely nowhere and surprised even the most hardened fans of his like myself. Considering I’ve been keeping up to date with the production of this film, I probably knew what to expect more than others, but it still surprised me as to where it went and how it went about it. I’ll also say that it’ll be a crime if Michael Parks at the very least isn’t considered for top awards for his performance here; it’s truly an outstanding piece of work from both him and Smith. Smith has well and truly pulled it out the bag, and given that this is due to be his second to last film, I can only hope that the kind of quality he’s produced here carries forward onto Hit Somebody, his planned last movie. There are faults with the film, it doesn’t explore the issues raised but rather exploits them for its own means, but it earns a stellar review by subverting my expectations constantly and by being his best film in years, possibly even ever. I urge you to watch this for yourselves and be converted.

Rating: *****

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Change-Up

Dave and Mitch have been friends since childhood, but their lives have gone in different directions; Dave is a family man, married with kids, and working hard as a lawyer, whereas Mitch is living a hedonistic lifestyle, sleeping with various women and only occasionally working with any kind if responsibility. One night, while peeing into a fountain after a drunken night out, they both wish they had each others' lives. They wake up the next morning to find their wishes have come true, and the hilarity ensues from there...

The age/body swap is a staple of the comedy genre. Seriously, do you realise how many times it's been done in various formats? Freaky Friday (3 times), Big, 17 Again, 18 Again!, Vice Versa, 13 Going On 30, even Being John Malkovich... The list goes on and on. My point is it's been done multiple times, so for a film like this to come out and work, it's going to have to be original. The Change-Up promises something original: The American Pie route. We've been promised the most disgusting, extreme, gross-out age/body swap comedy of all time! So, is it a gross-out film? At times, yes, yes it is, they've gotten that right. So has that made this an original piece of work within the genre? Absolutely not.

The Change-Up is so formulaic that you know exactly where it's going right from the start. There are no surprises or shocks in this, and adding lots of poo and urine jokes does not make it original, it just shows how lazy the writers were, looking to grab some of that Hangover revenue that's become so lucrative over the last few years (which is hardly surprising, given this was actually written by the writers of The Hangover). In the first two minutes, poor Jason Bateman gets covered in baby crap. That's the level we're at, people. This film is pretty uninventive and has 'pay day' written all over it. It's a real shame for Bateman, who's really let himself down by getting involved with a film like this after appearing in the fairly decent Horrible Bosses earlier in the year; it seemed as if he'd left films like this and The Switch behind, but alas not, and he deserves a lot better than this.

Speaking of Bateman, he does well in a complicated role. He spends most of the films playing Ryan Reynolds playing Reynolds' character, much as Reynolds spends the film playing Bateman playing Bateman's character. It all gets complicated when you try and explain/think about it, but once the characters are established at the start of the film as polar opposites, it becomes an easier task to follow just who exactly is playing who and when. All this means Bateman gets to play against type for the film, playing the wildcard rather than the straight guy, and he does OK with it but it doesn't feel like a natural performance, it feels as forced as it looks and shows why he's better playing the straight guy. Reynolds, however, does well in both roles, playing the wildcard well initially and then playing the straight guy very well, picking up on Bateman's usual mannerisms and portraying them on screen near-perfectly.

No-one said this was a clever film, but we were promised laughs. It does raise a few to be fair, but they are few and far between, which is mildly disappointing but not entirely surprising. Honestly, an alarmingly large percentage of the film only serves to make the viewer uncomfortable in watching it because of how unfunny it is. There's no real inventiveness either, the film covers a lot of old ground and doesn't do anything with it, doesn't put a funny or inventive twist on it and just disappoints. I feel kind of dirty having laughed at some of the jokes the film offers up - I'm disappointed in myself for stooping so low. It's real low-rent humour, but it could have been so much worse. It's certainly not on par with, say, The Hangover Part II, but it's still nowhere near the levels Bridesmaids or even Horrible Bosses reached earlier this year.

Overall, it is a disappointment, but an entirely unsurprising disappointment. This never looked like a great film, not even a good film, and it's not, so you only have yourself to blame when you leave the cinema feeling dirty, ashamed and disappointed. There's a couple of laughs, and on paper it's an interesting notion to see Reynolds and Bateman play against type, but put into practice and it really doesn't work. The film never really gets off the ground; it stays at one level and adamantly refuses to reach for anything higher or more intelligent. It's puerile, gross, disgusting, unintelligent, uninventive... The list goes on and on. Much like the list of age/body swap comedies this unfortunately joins. If you've chosen to watch this over any of the far superior films out this month, nay this week, then shame on you, you deserve exactly what you get with this.

Rating: **

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Fright Night

Charley Brewster is an ordinary kid growing up in Las Vegas with a girlfriend and hanging out with the cool kids. Then, a mysterious stranger called Jerry moves in next door. Charley’s former friend, Ed, tells Charley he believes Jerry is a vampire responsible for the disappearance of a number of fellow students, but Charley doesn’t believe him. However, the next day, Ed himself disappears, and Charley begins to believe. After a close encounter with Jerry, Charley searches out the one man who he thinks will be able to help him defeat Jerry: Vegas magician and self-styled ‘vampire expert’ Peter Vincent...

It’s only September. Surely a vampire movie like this is being released a month too early. Nevertheless, Fright Night is a 3D remake of the 1985 original of the same name. As to why exactly this was remade is unclear, but the original was certainly well received at the time and it seems as if today’s movie market is giving licence to any filmmaker who wants to resurrect any successful 1980’s horror franchise, whether it be with a reboot or remake or belated sequel (A Nightmare on Elm Street, anyone?) and so, here we are. So can it justify its resurrection after more than 20 years of lying dormant? Can it hold a place in today’s busy film industry? Surprisingly, yes, yes it can.

Fright Night is predicated on the notion that the concept of the horror/vampire film should be self-knowing and aware of its absurdity, and Fright Night has its tongue firmly in its cheek. That’s probably what makes this film work; it knows it’s a silly concept and never truly takes itself seriously. The acting is over the top from all involved (seriously, there’s more ham on display here than on the deli counter at Tesco’s) and it manages to engage its audience well from start to finish, providing a nice entertaining 100 minute motion picture that never drags its feet and says everything it wants and needs to say within its time limit. There’s even a clever, self-knowing nod to the original when Chris Sarandon pops up in a cameo appearance. It’s all in good fun, honest!

As far as the acting goes, it’s all pretty good, again surprisingly so. Colin Farrell plays the 400 year old vampire Jerry and does so with plenty of sickening charm and brooding seriousness. It’s a ridiculous performance, but fits well within the film, so it’s hard to tell if Farrell has adapted his style to suit the film or whether he played his role with lashings of ham and cheese completely by accident. Same goes for David Tennant playing Peter Vincent. He plays Vincent with aplomb, recalling The Doctor in sheer ludicrousness with the over the top character, delivering a performance which matches the character perfectly and really brings him to life. Anton Yelchin plays the protagonist Charley, and does OK with what is a disappointingly uninteresting character. Imogen Poots has the best anme I’ve heard in a while, but is insignificant and flat. Christopher Mintz-Plasse does well playing the same character he’s played in several film now, and certainly produces a surprise.

What makes this film watchable is the sharp script, which is self-knowing and referential to the vampire film canon, making references to Twilight and proving/dispelling various vampire myths in order to fit around the plot. It plays with its concept nicely and never slips into anything too serious, aside from the mild peril the protagonists are placed in while fighting Jerry. The most disappointing thing about this film? It was shot in 3D. At least it was actually shot in 3D and not converted in post-production, but the 3D is so unnecessary. I saw it in 2D and it was dark enough as it was, which is understandable given that this is a vampire film, therefore most of the action has to take place at night and in the dark. Even watching it in 2D, you can see which parts were designed to use the 3D technology, and it’s all cheap and nasty effects which add absolutely nothing to the plot. If you can watch this in 2D, do it, stay away from the glasses.

Overall, it’s not too bad and certainly justifies its resurrection. As long as there aren’t any sequels, this will be a fine addition to the franchise; I just can’t see how they could make a good, justifiable sequel given the events of this film. It’s entertaining, full of funny performances and is certainly worth paying to see on a Friday night as long as it’s the 2D version. Unfortunately, this is another case of 3D spoiling what could have been a great film. As it is, 3D viewers will walk away feeling cheated and that’s the real shame. There is a good film behind the gimmick, and the sooner this particular gimmick disappears the better, as it will give films like this a better chance of succeeding.

Rating: ***1/2