Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Spring Breakers": A dark, twisted success.

It would be tempting for anyone to judge "Spring Breakers" sight unseen for any number of reasons. Squeaky clean ex-Disney girls vamping it up on spring break, James Franco as a Scarface-idolizing gangster (complete with grill), directed by a guy who makes borderline unwatchable trash.

The best thing you can do before watching "Spring Breakers" is to immediately let go of any of those preconceptions (or any others) and just take it all in. And believe me, there's a lot.

What "Spring Breakers" truly is is a fable. It's about bored young people turning to over-stimulation to "find themselves" and getting in over their heads, big time. It's a generation raised on rap music and movies like "Scarface" that glamorize criminality, who covet the "play hard" lifestyle--"Spring break forever", as the film's mantra goes--but are woefully unprepared for its consequences. And it is by far one of the most gut-wrenching, riveting movies I've seen in a long time.

Sure, there's titilation, in the form of dizzying montages of hard partying, drinking and drug use, and all sorts of lewd acts, but it serves a purpose: to draw you into the world our lead characters get sucked into. This is the gateway, the entrance to the rabbit hole of temptation and stimulation, where more is never enough until it's too much. The movie really kicks into gear when the girls at the center of the story are bailed out by rapper/drug dealer named Alien (James Franco at his best), who takes the girls under his wing and into his world. Events earlier in the movie make their path pretty clear, but it's not until the film's harrowing conclusion that they--and we--learn how far "too far" truly is.

While it would have been interesting to see the film's moral center have more of an impact on its climax (let's just say it disappears about halfway through), "Spring Breakers" will keep you riveted until it fades to black. It has the potential to be this generation's "Natural Born Killers", with a message arguably more relatable and impactful than that film had. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how Harmony Korine has taken his inclination to push boundaries and shock and disturb (see "Gummo"--or better yet, don't) and apply an actual narrative to it, to wild success. This is a movie whose visuals and message will stick with you for a long time. "Spring Breakers" is a shocking, disturbing, exhilarating, twisted ride, and one absolutely worth taking.
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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"Halloween" as archetype.

I've never been a particularly big fan of horror movies. I will watch some "scary" movies but I'm rather picky. I also rarely watch older movies that, as a self-proclaimed movie buff, I am somehow obligated to see. Both of which somehow culminated in me going to a theater to watch the original "Halloween" tonight.

I have to be honest: surface-wise, as a movie, it wasn't great. The acting was bad and it wasn't all that scary. (not to mention the presentation, which amounted to a DVD being projected onto most of the screen, was substandard.) But then I decided instead to view it as an archetype for modern horror films, and suddenly it became a lot more interesting. The reason this movie, released just eight days before I was born, may have seemed predictable was that John Carpenter had created the blueprint for the slasher film. All of the horror cliches laughingly lampooned and deconstructed in "Scream" were present because this was where they came from. And that made me appreciate it more. In the end watching "Halloween" was a rather enlightening and fun experience--when viewed through nearly 34 years of history. BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop

Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Top 10 (okay, 12) Movies of 2011.

I'm just going to say this upfront: 2011 was not a great year for movies.

Don't get me wrong, I saw a lot of good movies this year.  Some were even very good.  But great is really pushing it.  I can't imagine going back and watching even my top three movies on this years list as much as I have my three favorites from last year: "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World", "Inception" and "The Social Network".  That's not to say there weren't stand outs this year.  So for the few of you who actually care, I give you my top 10 (okay, I cheated; there's 12, and you'll see why) movies of 2011.  By the way this entry was written while listening to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's stellar, atmospheric soundtrack to "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", my pick for soundtrack of the year even if the movie failed to crack my top 12 (though it was close.)  Here we go...

10. "Contagion"
If there's one thing Steven Soderbergh does well, its assemble a compelling all-star cast who brings their A-game, and then tell a great story with them.  ("Traffic" and "Ocean's Eleven" are other great examples of this.)  "Contagion" is a fantastically well-made, this-could-happen story that isn't afraid to show the darkest side of contagious disease (including the fact that even the heroes are vulnerable), while making the very emotional human elements seem that much less cheesy in the process.

9. "Captain America: The First Avenger"
Few would argue that 2011 was "the year of the superhero movie".  And while many of them were so-so at best ("Thor"), or very pretty messes at worst ("Green Lantern"), the one that stood above them all was the one least like any of the others before or since.  "Captain America" could have just been more ramp-up for 2012's highly anticipated "Avengers" movie; instead it took arguably the least interesting member of the crew and made him the centerpiece of a good old-fashioned WWII adventure flick.  The good guys are virtuous but just flawed enough, the bad guys unmistakably evil, and the love interest is both disarmingly beautiful (there was an audible gasp from every man in the theater when she showed up in the red dress) and take no prisoners tough.  "Captain America" is refreshingly retro and a whole lot of fun.

8. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"/"Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol"/"Fast Five"
A movie (note I did not say film) need not always be a sweeping artistic statement or emotional motivator.  Sometimes, it just needs to be about two hours of solid entertainment, with a simple but intriguing plot that pays just enough (but not much) heed to the laws of physics and common sense.  The three movies listed here all deserve equal mention because simply put, they nailed it.  Each was a fantastic example of pure popcorn action, with plenty of dazzling, loud, exciting sequences between them.  Whether it was Tom Cruise scaling the world's largest building with literally one hand, a thrilling chase through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, or the nearly complete destruction of the city of Chicago (the year's best action sequence in a close race), there was no shortage of good over the top mindless action in 2011.

7. "The Muppets"
I have to confess that "Transformers" earned a slot here largely for nostalgic reasons.  The same can be said for "The Muppets", though there are so many other reasons why Kermit and company deserve to be here.  It's simply sweet, good-natured, feel-good comedy that knows it doesn't need to stoop to negativity or cheap innuendo to keep the audience following.  The tone is absolutely spot on, while the songs (many written by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords) fit in seamlessly.  "The Muppets" is the Muppets done right.

6. "Midnight in Paris"
Believe it or not I don't think I have ever seen another Woody Allen film in its entirety, so I judge "Midnight in Paris" on its own merits.  And what it is transcends the stifling "romantic comedy" label and becomes something much more.  It is a sweet, heartfelt fantasy that, by the time it reveals itself as the cautionary tale about living in the past that it is, has already got you fully invested in Owen Wilson's character and his adventures living his wildest daydreams.  "Midnight in Paris" is a true feel good movie.

5. "Moneyball"
Purists may balk at exactly how "true" this story is, just as they'd argue whether sabermetrics undermine the game of baseball.  But true or otherwise, this depiction of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beene and his revolutionary system of building a team based on once-obscure statistics is riveting even if you don't know--or care--about baseball.  Brad Pitt's typically charismatic performance, Aaron' Sorkin's signature snappy dialogue and some particularly heartfelt flashbacks to Beene's own ill-fated MLB career make "Moneyball" far more interesting, and even exciting, than a movie about baseball statistical analysis has any right to be.

4. "50/50"
While we're on the subject of "true story" movies, this one in particular, about a talented young writer and his dealings with cancer, was shamefully underseen.  It is that rare movie that is hilariously raunchy one minute and genuinely moving the next, and is never unrealistic or over the top in being so.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives what is in my opinion the year's best performance (yeah, I said it: better than Brad Pitt), heading up a talented cast that rises to the occasion and makes a fantastic story even better.  Do not miss this movie when it finally comes out on DVD.

3. "Hugo"
"Hugo" is a movie for people who love movies.  Like, LOVE movies.  And not just love, but respect the history of, going back to the earliest days of the cinema.  Every scene, every performance,every set piece is a thing of beauty, seamlessly weaving the story of film making pioneer George Meilies into a heartwarming story about friendship and discovery.  All of this plus arguably the best use of live action 3D to date from Martin Scorcese, who certainly knows a thing or two about film making himself.  If you can still find a theater showing it in 3D, make the trip immediately and experience it for yourself.

2. "Attack The Block"
"Attack The Block" is everything a great sci-fi action horror comedy should be, at about 3/4 of the running time and 1/10 of the budget.  This British import about a gang of hooligan South London teens who must defend their "block" (think low income housing project) against mysterious but deadly alien invaders is a fully formed cult classic and one of the most purely fun movie experiences in years.  Its characters are realistic and multi-dimensional, its message is never heavy-handed, and the excitement and tension build to a thrilling climax at an exhilarating pace.  "Attack The Block" is quite possibly the most purely fun movie of this year.

1. "Bridesmaids"
This movie was dismissed very early on as a "female 'Hangover'", with even its advertising emphasizing the movie's raunchy hard-R-rated humor (of which there is plenty.)  What it didn't always show was the kind of movie "Bridesmaids" actually was, exposing how truly inaccurate the comparison is.  At its heart "Bridesmaids" is a very relatable story about taking the next step in life and friendship, and how to move on and discover what your own individual path is.  Sure, it's often catch-your-breath hilarious (particularly Melissa McCarthy, who owns every scene she appears in even without saying a word), but the heart on display in every scene of this movie put it head and shoulders above the rest of this year's offerings.  Without a doubt the year's best movie by any definition of the word.

This completes my list of the best of what 2011 had to offer at the movies.  Feel free to disagree with any or every item on this list; after all, it is entirely a matter of personal preference.  While this year the truly great offerings may have been sparse, the quality of them made up for it.  We can only hope that 2012 is an equally rewarding year at the movies, if not more so.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Join the Cult; "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"/"Attack the Block".

Anyone even remotely familiar with movies has to be aware of the concept of the "cult" movie. The idea of a "cult" movie is one that may not necessarily have been financially successful in theaters (in fact, typically not at all), but one that slowly and organically grew it's audience over the years thanks to home video and repeated showings on television. They are typically considered to be films somewhat outside the mainstream, or largely ignored by it, but passionately loved by a smaller group of fans. They tend to be categorized as what many call "genre films" (which is to say, pretty much anything not considered traditional drama but can still be categorized; horror, sci-fi and even action and comedy can be considered genre films.) They can be monster movies from the 50's and 60's, smaller-scale comedies that grew in status by word of mouth ("Office Space" and "Wet Hot American Summer" are great recent examples), or traditional communal experiences that transcend the movie itself, such as recent "bad movie" success "The Room" or arguably the most famous cult movie of all time, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show". The common thread is that all of those movies have a deep, passionate community of fans who who support exciting and interesting films despite whether or not they broke box office records.

It has even gotten to where newer films are examined for their potential to attract cults of their own. While this seems to fly in the face of what defines a cult movie--i.e. finding it's audience organically--it is not hard to see when a film has all the right elements to join the ranks. There are two recent examples that stand out, one so recent in fact that much of the US has yet to see it. Still, both films rightfully earn their place in the discussion of what could potentially make a cult film. But we'll start with a film from last summer that seems to hit all the right notes.

"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" (2010)

"Scott Pilgrim" is, at it's very heart, a clever and very well done independent film surrounded by big budget action and special effects. The title character is a young, unemployed bass player (a perfectly cast Michael Cera, slightly against type but flawless in the part) who falls for his literal dream girl, only to find he must defeat her seven increasingly dangerous exes in mortal combat (or should I say "Mortal Kombat", as there is a very heavy video game influence throughout.) Scott's conflicts with his band and a couple of his own exes frame this story of his battle not only for true love, but for confidence, motivation and self-respect.

The film is based on a popular series of graphic novels, and had attracted quite a buzz in certain corners of the Internet months before it was released. It was co-written and directed by Edgar Wright, a cult favorite in his own right who also made "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz". The box office performance didn't live up to the hype, and despite the buzz it failed to make back it's budget and quickly faded from theaters.

Word of mouth has steadily increased since it's release last year, as the film has started to become a favorite at midnight movie houses and summer festivals, not to mention frequent airings on HBO. And it is a film that truly deserves to be loved and noticed. It is a true audio-visual wonder, with bright popping colors, spectacular cinematography and special effects, and sometimes bizarre but brilliantly choreographed fight sequences. None of this takes away from any of the performances, as Cera is evenly matched by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his sexy, aloof dream girl Ramona Flowers, Kieran Culkin as his scene-stealing snarky gay roommate Wallace, and a top flight supporting cast of friends, band mates, and of course evil exes. It is a unique, exhilarating experience that deserves all of the attention it is finally starting to get, and then some.

Detractors of "Scott Pilgrim" often say that the film seems like a "forced" cult movie. They call it a carefully styled and calculated to fit the accepted stereotypes and appeal to a certain audience, who caught on quickly and allowed the film to deservedly fail. Watching the film, especially if you're lucky enough to do so with an audience, should immediately alleviate those accusations. Despite everything going on in the film, it has a genuine heart and very relatable characters with very realistic reactions to the insane world around them. It is smart, exciting, engaging and funny like few films are. It not only deserves it's place at the table, but also an even bigger audience and a greater share of attention.

Edgar Wright also serves as a producer on a new film with serious cult potential that is slowly making it's way across America now, riding a wave of well-earned buzz. This film is the surprise British hit "Attack the Block".

"Attack the Block" (2011)

"Attack the Block" is set in a place that is pretty bleak to begin with: the slums and housing projects of poor, gloomy South London. It starts with a group of teenagers--obviously tough-acting kids--mugging a pretty young nurse. Soon after they make a startling discovery: a creature unlike any they've ever seen. As they bring their findings home to their building (referred to as "the block"; the thickly-accented characters speak enough South London slang that a translator is nearly necessary), they discover that this creature did not arrive here alone, and that they must unite it save their home from this mysterious menace--even if it means an awkward reunion with the woman they mugged, who it turns out is a neighbor in their own building.

"Attack the Block" deserves every four-star review, rave and accolade thrown at it. It's certainly not a perfect movie, but it is absolutely an exciting and engaging one. The film rises on the strength of it's talented young cast of mostly unknown, led brilliantly by John Boyega as soft-spoken but ultimately charismatic Moses, who steps up and becomes the effective and cool-headed born leader the gang so desperately needed. The creatures, seen primarily and glowing blue fangs against jet black fur, are effectively terrifying, but the very realistic performances elevate the fear and suspense to an even greater level. It is an excellent and exhilarating film that gets right where the similarly themed "Super 8" stumbled, keeping the story and action moving at a fast, measured pace (the film clocks in at just under 90 minutes) while making us care about, and ultimately root for, these scared but resourceful kids. Also, it's just a hell of a lot of fun. Keep an eye on this film as it slowly rolls out across America this summer and fall, as it is one of the year's most satisfying moviegoing experiences to date.

Cult films attract the attention they do because of their ability to connect with a passionate audience. While both of these films have yet to attain the lofty cult status of a "Rocky Horror" or even an "Office Space", they still deserve to be seen. Both are fun, exciting and unique experiences worthy of attracting passionate cults of their own. While you wait for "Attack the Block" to attack your block, give "Scott Pilgrim" a try. Hopefully you too will join the cult. BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The past and future of film criticism/"Super 8" and "The Tree of Life"

It seems a bit curious, even ironic, that I would write a blog entry that is in any way critical of film critics.  That is basically what this whole thing is, after all.  Like many who love watching movies, I'd have to say that "professional film critic" would be among my top five dream jobs.  Getting paid to watch movies and talk about them?  I could totally do that.  And like many who dream of such a position, I'd fancy myself as "the people's critic", one who truly hears the voices of the masses and related to them on a level that your average critic, believed to be a beret-wearing art snob who'd rather watch four-hour German avant-garde films over Hollywood blockbusters, never possibly could.  But does the stereotype, and the environment it flourished in, still hold true?  Is film criticism yet another facet of both pop culture and every day life that has been rendered obsolete and subsequently redefined by the Internet?

The fact that I have this blog at all leads one to realize that it has.  Film critics were once a select few, an elite group of revered, highly trained journalists considered among the best of the best at what they do.  Their names still resonate today with those who love movies: Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin, Rex Reed.  Now the Internet has put that power in the hands of anyone who chooses to use it.  It makes it possible for an average 32-year-old guy from the suburbs of Detroit, MI, and millions or perhaps billions like me, to share their opinions with the world.  Social networking has even taken it to the next level.  When in the past you had to wait a day or two after a movie's release for reviews to hit, as people would await the trusted word of those few who were the first to see movie, now people are tweeting their 140 character or less reviews before they have even left their theater seat, as the credits have only begun to roll on the first showing of the day.  Instantaneous word of mouth has been enough to float or sink a movie.  And while most tweets certainly do not pack the journalistic punch of the reviews of old (though I'm sure Kael's famous line from her "Star Wars" review, "A Cracker Jack box that's all prizes", would have gotten plenty of retweets), they have shifted the power of spreading the word into the hands of the most powerful people in the film industry: the general public.

That said, you can still open your newspaper (or the Entertainment page on your newspaper's website, as it were) on Friday morning to see how their resident critic (or whichever one they syndicate) felt about that week's newest releases.  And plenty of people still put a lot of stock in these reviews, if the popularity of websites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic is any indication.  In the end people still trust their own instincts when deciding what movie they'd like to go see, but would never turn down a little professional guidance to direct them toward the best way to spend their movie going dollar.

This past weekend, I saw two very different movies with one very large common factor: both films are highly critically acclaimed.  One film, "Super 8", is this week's entry in the Hollywood summer blockbuster sweepstakes, a large-budgeted (though not star-packed) sci-fi drama tale that is seemingly calculated to the perfect summer movie.  It has been garnering As and 4 star reviews from critics all over the country. The other film I saw, "The Tree of Life", is a highly anticipated but smaller, more artistic film that features top talent like Brad Pitt and Sean Penn but is far from a conventional film, yet seems tailor made to satisfy the sensibilities of the "film critic as art snob" stereotype.

"Super 8" (2011)

A big deal has been made of preserving the mysteries in this particular film, so I'll attempt to speak in generalities/commonly know facts when describing the film.  It centers on a group of kids around the age of 12-13 in a small Ohio factory town in 1979 that spend their youth making monster movies with their Super 8 movie camera.  They accidentally manage to film a train crash containing top secret US Air Force cargo, and are cryptically told never to speak of it.  This, of course, is when strange things start happening in their town, and to their group of friends, as they struggle to uncover the truth about what was really on the train, and what it truly wants.

This is a film that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve.  A big deal has been made about how "Spielberg-ian" the movie is; it should be noted that the man who directly or indirectly gave us many of the films that inspired this one (notably "ET", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "The Goonies") also produced "Super 8".  And the influence is very welcome; the kids (mostly unknowns) are perfectly cast, give spot-on performances and are clearly the best part of the movie.  Coming of age and dealing with personal/family tragedies are recurring themes throughout Spielberg's directing or producing work.  But there is much of director/writer J.J. Abrams here as well.  The man who gave us "Lost" and "Alias" has woven plenty of mystery and conspiracy into "Super 8".  And while it's an interesting angle to take, it sets the movie up for some serious pacing issues.  Abrams is obviously used to the freedom a TV series provides in the way of a lack of time constraint, allowing multi-leveled mysteries to unfold organically and at a measured pace.  But while "Lost" could spend 6 years and 144 hours setting up and revealing its mysteries, a movie typically has only two.  Here is "Super 8"'s fatal flaw: it is too slow to reveal its secrets, and by the time it starts to truly explain itself, more than an hour into it's hour and 51 minute run time, you wonder how interested you still are in knowing what the movie has to say.  It's still a very good and entertaining movie, and with its worst flaws it is still a better and richer experience than the average Hollywood blockbuster.  But if Abrams had spent a little less time paying homage to the movies he loved, and more time advancing his own story at a satisfying pace, he might have come a lot closer to achieving the magic he was so obviously striving for.

"The Tree of Life" (2011)

"The Tree of Life" sits at the other end of the spectrum, quite far away from filmmaking conventions in general and sitting much closer to, for lack of a better term, art.  It is difficult to describe exactly what the film is, as there is only a loose narrative story woven into it.  At its center lies a tale about the choices we make in life and what path, morally good or bad, they lead us down, eventually shaping us into the people we are.  This is presented to us between some of the most strikingly beautiful imagery ever filmed, montages of images of nature and the passage of time that are equally breathtaking and a bit irritating.  (A more cynical person could make a pretty great drinking game based on the number of low angle shots of trees and buildings or whispered, dramatic voice-overs.)  The whole thing just feels a bit forced: designed in all the right ways to purposely coax awe and emotion out of the viewer.  The problem with this scam is that it works almost flawlessly.  The film is at its best in the moments when it does focus on its central narrative, particularly when the teenage character of Jack (played as an adult in some scenes by Sean Penn, though the young actor playing him as a teenager is superb.)  Jack is a young man growing up in an unnamed Texas suburb in the late 50s/early 60s.  And while the narrative parts of the story show us his whole childhood and hint at his obviously troubled adulthood, watching him as a teenager is this movie's most rewarding experience.  We see Jack interacting with his polar opposite parents: his almost stereotypically stern but caring father (Brad Pitt), who seems to follow the film's "path of nature", and his loving, passive, nearly angelic mother (Jessica Chastain), an obvious follower of the "path of grace".  (These two paths, and which we as people choose to follow, are the central point of the film.)  We see Jack trying to find for himself which path to follow, making moral choices, often not the best ones, along the way.  The audience can actually see how the consequences of his choices and the influence of each parent begin to mold him.  A slightly overlong, vague but beautiful ending sequence reveals to us, at possible risk of spoiling anything (though really, this isn't the kind of movie that can be "spoiled" anyway), that our lives are continually shaped and changed by the choices we make and the ideals we follow.

Watching "The Tree of Life", you kind of want to dislike it in a way.  The whole affair looks like it was carefully crafted to be the perfect stereotypical "art film".  A cynical person would love to see the film collapse under the weight of its own pretentiousness, and how obviously it wants to Be Important and Make a Statement about Life.  It naturally gets a bit heavy-handed at times, hinting at religious overtones but never outright giving into them.  It is quite a bit bloated with artsy tricks, but the moments that connect do resonate, whether you necessarily want them to or not.

So to sum it all up, did either of these two very different but equally acclaimed live up to the rapturous critical hype they both received?  Not exactly.  Were they worthwhile experiences with enough good in them to make them worth watching?  Absolutely.  Not every movie can be as great or as terrible as the world wants it to be, but that makes them no less worthy of being seen.

But what are you listening to me for?  Make the decision on your own.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fight For Your Life; "Bridesmaids".

Today I was talking to a female friend of mine on the phone.  I told her I had just gotten back from seeing "Bridesmaids", for what turned out to be the second time.  She sounded surprised that I had seen it, since she thought it looked like a "chick flick" and even she had no interest in it.  But there's truly a lot going on in the movie, which the commercials that feature the bridesmaid's crazy antics don't bring entirely to light.

"Bridesmaids" (2011)

For starters, yes, the movie is very funny.  Hysterically funny.  One of the funniest I've seen in a long time.  Funny enough to, yes, transcend gender barriers and entertain the guys too, much like how many women I know love "The Hangover" or "The 40-Year-Old Virgin".  But I consider "The Hangover" to be kind of an unfair comparison.  If one must be made, I found it to be closer in tone and style to another comedy from a couple of years back that I enjoyed, "I Love You, Man".  Both that movie and "Bridesmaids" deal with more than just crazy antics (not to diminish any of the sticking points of "The Hangover", all of which it nailed in my opinion.)  They were both about friendships, relationships, and coming to terms with being in your 30s and figuring out What It's All About.

"Bridesmaids" takes a slightly backwards approach to the subject compared to "I Love You, Man".  Despite the plural title it is very much the story of Annie (Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote the movie), whose best friend since childhood, Lillian (Maya Rudolph) has gotten engaged and made her the maid of honor.  It's already a pretty difficult time in her life (a failed business, roommates and a job she hates, being a booty call for a handsome, rich jerk who wants nothing to do with her outside the bedroom.)  But when Annie meets the other bridesmaids, particularly wealthy, beautiful, perfect Helen (Rose Byrne, playing the part so sweet that it's impossible to hate her no matter how much you know you should), she begins to question her role in Lillian's future life, as well as the direction of her own.  As one disatrous (but hilarious) turn of events after another unfolds, Annie's self-confidence and sanity hang in the balance.

Despite most of the main characters being female there are universal themes that resonate throughout "Bridesmaids".  One major one is taking stock of your life.  As someone who is over 30 and attempting to start my life over, and aware of how few real friends I have left and how difficult it is to make new ones, this hit home with me in a big way.  This theme was what stuck with me, beyond the big and occasionally awkward laughs.  There's one particularly telling scene in which one of the other bridemaids, Megan (Melissa McCarthy, this movie's secret weapon) literally wrestles with an extremely down in the dumps Annie, commanding her to "fight for your shitty life".  Megan just wanted Annie to believe that life is something not to be given up on, but to be appreciated and fought for, to work up the nerve to face life's challenges head on, and most of all to remember that the people she has in her life do care and will always support and fight for her.  I think that's something many people forget when they reach low points in their life, I know I certainly do.

It maybe noble at best, or completely off the rails at worst, to hope that this theme will resonate with most people who see it as much as it did me; I suppose I (and perhaps the filmmakers) can only hope that it does.  But I think this movie is really going to surprise people who were expecting a "chick flick" or a "female 'Hangover'", and possibly even inspire a few people to work out of the bad hand life may have dealt them and to fight for their shitty lives too.  I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that "Bridesmaids" is the movie to beat for funniest of the year, but I'll go one further and, dare I say, call it potentially one of the best.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Red State"/The Passion of the Clerk.

Apologies for my complete and total neglect of this blog.  I'll start with a little follow-up: The grand experiment has all but been abandoned only three movies in.  It was a noble one, and perhaps far more ambitious than I anticipated.  I'll still try to watch some of the films I rarely watch from my collection, and I will still keep this blog going, however infrequently, should any movie blog-suitable events occur in my life.  Which segues quite nicely into this entry.

I got a call from my sister one day in mid-February saying excitedly that she'd gotten us tickets to attend an early screening of Kevin Smith's new movie "Red State"in Ann Arbor, MI, which would be followed by a Q&A with Smith.  Needless to say, I was pretty excited about this.  I have been a fan of Kevin Smith ever since I first saw "Clerks" on video in July 1995.  At the time I worked at a movie theater (the AMC Southland 4 in Taylor, MI, which has since been closed, reopened, closed again, and then gutted and converted to a Borders) and therefore related well to the customer service humor.  (It's also worth noting I have a twisted sense of humor.)  Within a couple of months time my badly dubbed VHS copy of the movie had been passed around and forced upon so many of my friends and co-workers that it literally became unwatchable.  I anxiously anticipated the release of "Mallrats" (though I was not technically old enough to see it), and eventually saw it three times in theatres (the first, on opening day, I was the only person in the theater.)  I quickly became a fan of the unique voice present throughout Smith's films, even those that were not part of the semi-loose narrative known as "The Askew-niverse".  His films are relatable and down to earth, as raunchy as is required to be true to its characters, and even at their most ridiculous had a very grounded sense of reality and even somewhat of a moral lesson to be learned.  In other words, smart hard-hitting stuff disguised as slacker humor and "dick and fart jokes."  I've seen every film he's made since, and while I didn't necessarily love them all I appreciated the statement each of them made, and the voice that connected them all.  Which brings me to his latest film.

"Red State" (2011)

The basic premise behind "Red State", or at least what it first appears to be, is three teenage boys answering an Internet ad promising them sex.  They end up being kidnapped by members of the Five Points Church, an ultra conservative group with some pretty unique ideas about cleansing the world of sin.  The inspiration behind them is the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, but the congregation of Five Points don't settle for just holding signs at funerals, they take matters into their own hands.  The film takes somewhat of a surprising turn when an investigation of a car accident spirals into an ATF raid on the church's compound, leading to a climactic battle between "good" and "evil".

"Red State" is very different in tone and content from Smith's previous work, and yet it strangely never feels out of place with it.  Moral and religious discussion has always been present in his films, but with the possible exception of "Dogma" it has never been more prevalent or hard-hitting than it is here.  "Red State" has been described as being a "horror" film, though viewers of the film realize that the terror comes not from suspense but from discomfort, in that you truly believe that somewhere in the country even a group as out there as Five Points truly can, and perhaps does, exist.  (And not even necessarily the Phelps family of the Westboro church, who exist in this film's universe.)  That is a pretty chilling thought indeed.  But there is so much more going on in "Red State", much of it dealing with making the right moral decisions at the bleakest of times.  There is plenty of Smith's trademark humor here, to lighten the mood just enough to feel for its characters and somewhat understand the complexities of being on both sides of a major moral argument.  The Cooper family and the congregation of Five Points are clearly the "villains" of this film, though they are presented not necessarily as monsters but as people who stand firm and passionate behind their beliefs and would be willing to kill or even die for them.  Likewise, our "heroes", the ATF agents who conduct the raid on the compound, realize they are staring down evil but still question the morality behind what they do.  This is what "Red State" is truly about: what truly defines the concepts of "good" and "evil", and when is it okay to make exceptions to the rules?

The message of "Red State" is lifted even higher by the two primary performances in this film.  Michael Parks plays Abin Cooper, the family patriarch and leader of the Five Points church. And he plays the part brilliantly, with a fiery passion for his work and a cold but almost charming demeanor that recalls some of the great screen villains of recent memory, from Hans Landa in "Inglorious Basterds" to Lots-o-Huggin Bear in "Toy Story 3".  At the other extreme is ATF agent Joseph Kennan, played exceptionally by John Goodman.  He provides the film with both its humorous and ultimately its moral center.  Both actors own every scene they appear in, and raise up the great performances around them (there are simply too many to single any more out) that much more.

In order to keep things spoiler free, I won't go into too much detail about the ending, except to say that while the climax is slightly less, well, climactic than it could have been, the ends do tie up nicely and the last few lines of dialogue close the movie (and its message) out perfectly.  While different in tone than his previous work, "Red State" is undeniably a Kevin Smith movie in every way.  It feels like a definitive statement, perhaps even a swan song of sorts (indeed, he has announced that it will be his second-to-last film), full to the brim with all sorts of moral questions that will have audiences talking about this film for years to come, and perhaps re-examining their own morals and beliefs.  "Red State" is truly, without exaggeration, Kevin Smith's finest hour-and-a-half.

The film was followed by a Q&A session with Smith, for which he is nearly as famous for as he is for being a filmmaker.  He certainly didn't disappoint on this particular night, spending as much as half an hour answering a single question.  He spoke at great length not only about his past but his future after being a filmmaker, which he plans to devote to recording various podcasts (which he already does at his website, and starting his own Internet radio station this May.  His devoted audience, myself included, hung on every word, relishing the opportunity to hear the self-described storyteller cover all elements of his life and career, fitting so many long and interesting stories into two fast-moving hours.  Few filmmakers have as close and direct of a connection with their fans as Smith does, and his fans obviously appreciate his frank and open discussions.

The evening as a whole was a satisfying and thrilling experience for fans of Kevin Smith, and of the art of film making in general.  At a time when many filmmakers and studios spend exorbitant amounts of money making and marketing what amounts to be pretty but hollow commercials or rehashes of proven commodities, it's refreshing to see a filmmaker who bucks the system and brings his work directly to the fans, and feels a passion so deep for what he does that anyone who gets close enough, fan or otherwise, can see and admire it.  If Kevin Smith should ever read this, I'd thank him for sharing his passion and his voice with us at a time when the average moviegoer so seldom gets to see or hear such things from filmmakers.  And I, like the rest of his fans, look forward to seeing what the future holds for him and all of us.  Bravo.