Monthly Archives: November 2011
by Steve Habrat
While watching and battling to stay awake through the trudging second chapter in the Twilight saga, I came to the realization that New Moon is responsible for all the laughable clichés that have burdened this franchise. Every other scene in this turkey of a film is filled with a shirtless male pouting and explaining to Bella that they can’t be together. I guess they had to have some sort of selling point for New Moon because it certainly wasn’t going to get far on its storyline, performances, or writing, all which fall substantially from the first film. If you’re looking for the culprit, look no further than this film right here. There is no action aside from a fairly entertaining chase sequence in the middle of the film, cheap special effects, and a plotline that can’t quite decide what it wants to be about. To think that there is an army of rabid fans out there for this film truly amazes me after sitting through it. My advice: Stay home and read the book again. What you can imagine in your mind while reading is infinitely more fun than what director Chris Weitz cooked up and severed.
New Moon picks up with lovebirds Bella (Played once again by the stiff Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Played once again by Robert Patinson) openly dating and fairly happy. The film picks up with Edward and his family throwing Bella an 18th birthday party. She is less than enthused, as she suffered a horrible nightmare about growing old a night earlier. At the downer of a party, Bella suffers a paper cut while opening one of her gifts, causing Edward’s brother Jasper (Played by Jackson Rathbone) to attempt to kill her. In response to this event, Edward decides that Bella is not fit for Edward’s world and he leaves Forks with the rest of his vampire clan. Bella slips in to a deep depression and after an empty threat to send her to live with her mother by her Sheriff father Charlie (Played by Billy Burke), Bella agrees to bounce back from the break-up. Bella soon discovers that if she thrill seeks, she will see the apparition of Edward warning her to be careful. She also strikes up a friendship with the perpetually shirtless Jacob Black (Played by Taylor Lautner) which blossoms into hinted romance. Jacob soon starts acting funny and Bella eventually figures out he is a werewolf who is aiming to protect her from a revenge-seeking vampire that aims to kill her.
New Moon has absolutely no focal point whatsoever. It can’t quite decide what it wants its plotline to be causing the film to bounce around with no discipline to speak of. This falls on the shoulders of screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, who botches yet another adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s already rocky novel. One second the film is about the blossoming relationship between Bella and Edward. The next second it’s about Bella and Jacob developing a relationship just so Jacob can pull the same bullshit that Edward did. Then Edward is brooding about something and then so is Jacob. Director Weitz puts no cap on the film at all, never once cutting something out and making a more straightforward film. It actually begins to be unclear on who is upset with whom and who has feelings and treaties with whom. It’s daft! It’s drama for the sake of drama and the furthest thing from art. This lack of narrative structure and flow, for that matter, causes New Moon to collapse on itself.
Further driving New Moon into the ground is the performances from the actors themselves, which actually end up being worse than the first time. Bella is even more pathetic and boy crazy. She’s superficial, feeble, and the furthest thing from a feminist hero. She falls to pieces over every guy she meets and constantly longs for a male crutch. The best bit from Stewart’s performance comes when Bella takes a tumble off of a crotch rocket that she builds with Jacob. She rolls into a giant rock, smashes her noggin, and nearly knocks herself out cold. Jacob rushes over, takes his shirt off (naturally), and wipes the gushing blood from her head. “Are you trying to kill yourself!?”, he asks. She just stares at him and says, “Sorry”. Oh, come on!! She just suffered a serious injury to her head! When Jacob points this out she says, “Oh”. Reconsider you day job, Miss. Rosenberg. Edward is largely absent from the entire project, only showing up in asinine hallucinations. Pattinson must have been instructed to leave his sense of humor in his trailer, as he just stands around and looks like he is in desperate need of a toilet. Lautner is supposed to be playing a real rough and tough killer but the only way Weitz and Rosenberg know how to convey that is by having him consistently taking off his shirt. Billy Burke’s Charlie Swan is a clueless moron, someone who is frustratingly ignorant to everything going on around him. How he hasn’t figured out that werewolves and vampires are running rampant in his town, I will never know. You’re best friends with a pack of them, you imbecile! Michael Sheen pops up at the end of the film as Aro, the leader of the vampire council called the Volturi. He appears amused by all of the nonsense around him and plays Aro with a flamboyant bounce to his step. Everyone else in the film is forgettable, yes, even Dakota Fanning, who is hidden behind red contact lenses.
Where Twilight had some fairly ordinary camerawork, at least it had the good sense to be somewhat eye grabbing. Director Weitz can’t even make the picture he has framed a joy to look at. He stages a nifty chase sequence through the woods set to Thom Yorke’s stuttering single Hearing Damage. This killer sequence boasts the best CGI of the movie, puts some of its characters in harm’s way, and it even kills off a character. How bold of you, New Moon! The rest of the action is a retread of the battle at the end of Twilight only set in Italy. The effects on the werewolves look like they belong in a made-for-T.V. movie on the SyFy channel. The film never visually pops off the screen and instead retreats in to an amber glow that engulfs everything Weitz points his camera at. Maybe he is trying to imply that this entry is much more “rustic”. Your guess is as good as mine.
The crime you will be quick to accuse New Moon of is monotony, but it is also guilty of inanity. It never once asks the viewer to think about anything, never hinting at deeper meanings or motives. The film throws around implied romance every chance it gets but it never gives us anything. There are, once again, a few pecks here and there, but nothing definitive ever comes to a head. This is just filler in between entries, simply introducing us to a new character for women to swoon over. It feels like there is a real story that is ready to be cracked, but it’s not in this film. This is just leftovers from the first entry and ones that have gone moldy. New Moon is also entirely too long and could have helped itself by scaling back. They just cram more and more crap into it, and by crap, I mean Bella, Jacob, and Edward just staring at each other. I guess all I can say is kudos to the author, screenwriter, and director who have made millions of dollars from blind teenagers. Open your eyes and see that New Moon is nothing more than a diversion from the fact that this film is about nothing. Except, well, Lautner’s abs.
New Moon is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Our Idiot Brother
This week, Anti-Film School encourages all of our readers to check out Our Idiot Brother, which comes out on Blu-ray and DVD today. This heartfelt comedy about a big hearted stoner down on his luck is filled with nonstop laughs, wit, and a left of center performance from Paul Rudd. In my eyes, it ranked as one of the best comedies of the summer, a film that was somewhat overlooked by audiences. I was pleasantly surprised with this film and I think many of you will enjoy it. If you want to check out my review of Our Idiot Brother, click here to see my letter grade and analysis. I guarantee that you will just dig this movie, man!
by Steve Habrat
I’m going to remember 2011 as the year that retro dominated at the movies. We have seen multiple releases throughout the year that have embraced a throwback aesthetic, ones that were evocative and nostalgic. They were all quite good too. We’ve had the candy-colored madcap The Green Hornet, 80’s horror nod Insidious, the Goonies/E.T. mash up Super 8, the dreamy pulp and Raider’s of the Lost Ark tribute Captain America, the ultra violent 80’s crime/actioner Drive, the arty silent film wonder The Artist, and we will soon see another Raider’s valentine when The Adventures of Tintin hits theaters. Many have been direct nods to the heyday of special effects and when escapism really dominated. In the late 70’s, Jim Henson’s Muppets took over television and went on to rally a group of loyal fans that have supported them through the years. After a long hiatus and being largely forgotten by pop culture, gargantuan funny guy Jason Segel, who is also said to be a huge fan of the felt critters, penned a fresh new screenplay along with Nicholas Stoller, wrangled director James Bobin and together they have delivered a winning piece of family entertainment that attempts to rally a new generation of fans while also making the adults who so enthusiastically watched their sketch-comedy mischief way back when inebriated with nostalgia of their youth. The Muppets is retro without being retro. It’s hilariously self-aware and willing to crack jokes on their absence. This world isn’t meant for the optimistic band of creatures ranging from the ringleader Kermit the Frog all the way to Sam the Eagle. And trust me, every Muppet you can think of pops up at least once. The movie almost isn’t big enough to contain them all. The best part of all of this is that The Muppets keeps things unadorned, making it even easier to love them.
The Muppets kicks off with the knee-slapping introduction of their newest member, Walter, a happy-go-lucky little puppet that is best buddies with his human brother Gary. The young Gary and Walter live in the perfect community of Smalltown, USA, and they both sit in their matching stripped pajamas and grin over The Muppet Show. Walter becomes a massive fan of Kermit and company, and as life gets tougher for the little Walter, he finds comfort in The Muppet Show. The film speeds forward to present day where the adult Gary (Played by Jason Segel) and Walter still live in Smalltown and are now shacking up together. They are still best buds and still do everything together, even hilarious musical numbers. We also learn that Gary is dating Mary (Played by Amy Adams) and they have been together for ten years. Gary plans a trip to Los Angles in celebration of their anniversary and he invites Walter to tag along to see the Muppet Theater. Mary is less than enthused but she understands how important Walter is to Gary and Gary to Walter. Once they arrive to Los Angles, Walter discovers that the world has left the Muppets behind and moved on. Their theater and studio lie in ruin and there is a plot by an evil oilman named Tex Richman (Played by Chris Cooper) to destroy what is left of their studios in an attempt to drill for oil. Horrified, Walter pleas with Gary and Mary to help him reunite the Muppet gang and help save the Muppet Theater.
It’s easy for us to wave off The Muppets and call it square. It features quirky puppets rather than fancy CGI creatures and, yes, it does seem a bit dated. It’s also heavy with musical numbers, which is also the furthest thing from hip. Yet that is what makes this film so irresistible. It’s simple and old fashioned, with a whole slew of cameos from big Hollywood names. Get ready to double over when Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez shows up and inquisitively asks Kermit if he’s one of the Ninja Turtles. Wait until you see Kermit’s reaction. Oh, and Neil Patrick Harris turns up too to deliver a real zinger. Truth be told, I’ve always been intrigued by the Muppets and how they convey so much emotion. When Kermit is sad, we can see it in his plastic peepers. It does fill you with a sense of wonder. It helps that the puppet work is punctilious and detailed. And yet this film is content with being square and a bit dated. In fact it is delighted by the very implication of it. It gives it fuel to crack joke after joke and believe me, the jokes come fast and furious. It’s a nice balance to Pixar’s films and the bizarre offerings like Alvin and the Chipmunks, where real actors interact with annoying CGI animals (Hollywood is forcing the annoying Chipmunks on audiences AGAIN! They showed the trailer before this film. I guess with every good thing, there has to be a bad.). With The Muppets, at least there is something palpable for the actors to work with.
The actors here all do a fine job playing old fashioned. Segel brings a gee-whiz energy with him and he really seems to be genuinely in awe at what is going on around him. It helps that he has a heart for this sort of thing. Adams steals the shows as Mary, as she just radiates girl-next-door charm. She looks like she stepped out of the 1950’s. Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones turns up as a straight-shooting television executive named Veronica who, in the words of Fozzie Bear, could shoot “a little more curvy”. Cooper’s oilman Tex Richman also provides some big laughs, especially his love of maniacal laughter. He also steals the show with a musical number so bold, I didn’t laugh until after it ended and I could register what had just happened.
The Muppets does have a handful of flaws that knocks it down a letter grade. The director handles some of that cameos carelessly, some are so brief; blink and you may miss them. There are some that shine (Emily Blunt turns up in a nod to The Devil Wears Prada) and some that should have been developed better (Sarah Silverman’s wasted potential as a diner hostess). Some of the Muppets themselves could have used a bit more screen time, but the film desperately tries to fit every single one of them into the film that it is almost overload. I was left wishing for more of daredevil Gonzo and Sam the Eagle. Walter ends up getting lost in the shuffle for about a half hour and it’s a shame because you really do fall in love with him. Every once and a while, it feels slightly unfocused, like a bunch of kids in a candy store.
Despite some minor hiccups, this is one of the best family films of the year. One that is not like Chinese water torture for adults and delivers slapstick laughs for children. I applaud Segel for making retro old-fashioned feel new again and I would gladly go back to the theater to experience all of this again. The film succeeds as a musical, with several numbers that really pop, the best one being shared by Mary and Miss Piggy. The Muppets finds itself on the retro list of 2011, one of the films where everything just clicks and it takes you back. Two of the people I saw it with were fans of the show when it was on and it left them beaming. My generation missed Kermit and Miss Piggy, but it still had me in a good mood after we left the theater. This film isn’t rocket science, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. It left me feeling all warm and felty inside. Who can argue with that?!
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us here at Anti-Film School! We hope you have an awesome Turkey Day. Enjoy the trailer below from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse!
NOTE: Anti-Film School does not claim ownership of this video.
We here at Anti-Film want to encourage you all to go out and pick up the science fiction dazzler Super 8. This wonderful film is not only one of the best of the year, but is a wide-eyed testament to the magic of film, a magic that we here at Anti-Film School love with all of our hearts. Both myself and our own contributor Charles Beall went to the same college and both made our own independent short films, but we always collaborated with each other on these films. We would enthusiastically chat about specific shots we wanted to pull off, debating how to do some tricky lighting, slip in references to the movies that made us fall in love with film and so forth. As cinema lovers, it was a fantastic treat to see a movie that acted as a valentine to creativity and the power of imagination. If you have not read our immensely popular Super 8 review, click here to see what Charles thought of the film. Please go out and pick up this stellar piece of nostalgia. You will not be disappointed and that is our guarantee.
by Steve Habrat
I finally did the impossible. I pushed all my preconceived notions to the side, suspended all my incredulity, ignored my expectations for what a vampire movie should be and I sat through the entire first Twilight film. Sure, I seethed over the constant sensitivity and soft tones, the lack of any horror, and the cheese filled dialogue. I overlooked the plot holes the size of the Grand Canyon and came to the decision that the film is relentlessly average. Teeny director Catherine Hardwicke drenches the film in of-the-moment pop culture references and slang. It’s all tight jeans, indie pop music, mopey sleek, and speedy editing, all tailor made for those who get their eyeliner at Hot Topic. For a film I anticipated to loathe on all levels, I just found it to be like soda that’s gone flat. It needed a little fizz to liven the mood. The setting for the film is absolutely perfect—dreary and humdrum. The film is also grossly misguided in it’s aesthetic, under the impression that it is telling a gritty tale of forbidden love. It’s actually an elaborate soap opera stretched out for two hours and preaching a shallow message to its viewers: love is eternal. Making things worse is the fact that Hardwicke treats the material like child’s play, never aiming high and making anything more ample that would reach a wider audience. This is strictly for the pre-teens.
Everyone is familiar with the story of Twilight whether you like it or not. Clumsy Bella Swan (Played by Kristen Stewart) moves to Forks, Washington to shack up with her stiff sheriff father Charlie (Played by Billy Burke). She quickly makes friends but is mesmerized by a mysterious and brooding boy in her science class. His name is Edward Cullen (Played by Robert Pattinson. Ya know, the guy who makes every girl want to tear their hair out), and he doesn’t take kindly to Bella at first. The two finally strike up a conversation and end up falling for each other. Bella, however, has suspicions about Edward, mostly when he saves her from being seriously injured or killed when she is almost crushed by an out-of-control van. As Edward and Bella’s love affair blossoms, a trio of rabid vampires tears through the woods and kill anyone in their path. This trio consists of James (Played by Cam Gigandet), Victoria (Played by Rachelle Lefevre) and Laurent (Played by Edi Gathegi). Upon meeting Bella, James sets his sights on her and sees her as pure food. Edward and the rest of his eccentric vampire clan scramble to protect her as James closes in and threatens her entire family.
A good majority of Twilight is spent watching Bella and Edward lock eyes, Bella biting her lip, and the star crossed lovers arguing with each other about the fate of their relationship. Edward denies that they can ever be together and that Bella should leave him alone even though he is always the one that seeks her out. You’d think Bella would point this out to him but she inexplicably goes right along with it. Everyone suspects something is strange about Edward, a suspicion that could stem from the fact that he walks around with too much powder on his face. It’s cringe inducing when we first see him. It doesn’t help that Hardwicke has him sitting in front of a stuffed owl with a hulking white wings, making it seem like Edward himself is an angle sent to Bella. While watching it, it’s truly hard to figure out why this material drives girls crazy to the point of hysterics. I can understand the fantasy element here, about your dream man sweeping you off your feet. Seriously, Edward really does this at points, throwing the love drunk Bella on his back as he scampers up a tree like a giant, baby-powder covered monkey. It can only get better, right?
Further frustrating is the love-is-eternal implication that flows forth from the film. It’s chaste to the point of being sickening, all heavy breathes and light pecks between Bella and Edward. For a film that is meant to relish in contemporary portrayal, it’s clueless about teens today. It’s a little too clean and lacking in fun. The bit players are all mostly annoying clichés; the only one who really makes a stand in her character is Anna Kendrick’s Jessica, who has a few good one-liners. I suppose they are good not because they are well written snippets of dialogue, but because Kendrick herself is better than this garbage she finds herself in. This takes me to the dialogue itself, which seems like the screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg pulled dialogue straight from the book itself. I’m sorry but there are just some things that sound better on paper and Stephanie Myers’ dialogue is one of them. It should have stayed in the book and more thought should have gone in to what these kiddies have to say.
But I will be fair here and eat my words. I was quick to label Robert Pattinson overrated and lacking any skill when it came to acting. Throughout the duration of the film, he mostly resorts to staring longingly at Plain Jane Bella, but he is surprisingly self-aware in his character. When he cracks a joke, he flashes a genuine grin, obviously chuckling at the absurdity on display here. It could also mirror his sense of humor over the swarms of teens that go gaga over him. When he says, “Everyone’s looking” and follows it with an impressed grin, I believed his astonishment. Go figure! Who would have thought Pattinson would slap on a few complexities to this thing? The antagonist James is no more of a threat than a month old puppy. It is said that the Cullen clan needs to rip him apart and burn him, which sounds really cool until you realize that Hardwicke will hide the process through trick editing and blurry cinematography. Stewart’s Bella is about what you would expect, radiating a novice approach to acting. She’s not terrible, but there is definitely some room for improvement. It’s hard to blame her because she is still fairly young here.
Truth be told, what Twilight could really use is more of a sense of adventure and dropping the starry-eyed theatrics. Making the villains a bit more sinister and not like they are troupe of homeless hippies would help. Give Bella a bit more confidence and leave the two-left feet shtick on the cutting room floor. Give Edward more to do than just lurking around in the shadows and starring at Bella and no, I don’t mean give him more driving time. It should be noted that I think Edward also stepped out of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, as he can apparently drive like he earns money street racing. Dropping the out-of-place slow motion shots would make a difference and also a better make-up and special effects team would do wonders. Seriously, watching the vamps leap around like Red Bull addicted apes was absurd. There is a smidgeon of potential here, but the film is too vain to even explore it. It couldn’t care less about providing a story worth telling and instead concerns itself with beauty. The only reason for the film version to exist is to exploit Robert Pattinson’s looks. Way to aim high, Twilight. Worse, way to respect yourselves, fans.
Twilight is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
They may not be for everyone, but I have to say that I just love the weed-fueled duo that is Harold and Kumar. I have found their previous adventures to be uproariously funny, strangely heartwarming in their quest for those tiny steamed burgers from White Castle and their relentless quest to clear their names after being accused of being terrorists. Yet their adventures never seemed meaningless, always riffing on stereotypes of all races and confronting every taboo under the sun. Who can forget the preppy girls bathroom game “Battleshits” from Harold and Kumar go to White Castle? Or how about their trek through the ghetto, getting a flat tire, and then fleeing in terror from a group of African Americans who just aim to help in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay? For my money, I prefer the darker second installment to the first, but I still like them both. Now Harold and Kumar are taking on something much bigger than the munchies for greasy burgers and the FBI. They tackle 3D! Oh, and Christmas too. It turns out that their Christmas hijinks are not nearly as funny as you would expect. Sure, they lob every body fluid and giant clay penises out at the audience like it will be going out of style. Sure, it’s raunchier than the last two films combined. So where does A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas go wrong? Well, it just seems like it’s trying too hard to shock us without ever really accomplishing it. I’m sorry but Santa Claus receiving a shotgun blast to the head, tumbling out of the air and then snapping back to reality while exclaiming “WHAT THE FUCK?!” isn’t that funny. It’s also the furthest thing from sophisticated.
A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas has a straight forward set up. It’s been a few years since Harold and Kumar have spoken or seen each other. Harold (Played once again by John Cho) has a cushy office job, has married Maria, the Latino love of his life (Played by Paula Garcés), and lives in modest but upper scale home in a New York City suburb. Kumar (Played once again by Kal Penn) crashes in a dump of an apartment, surrounded in the haze of marijuana smoke. He has just recently broken up with his girlfriend Vanessa (Played by Danneel Ackles), a girl he still is head over heels for. Harold is hosting Maria’s parents for Christmas, a scruffy crew lead by the Christmas fanatic Mr. Perez (Played by the always welcome Danny Trejo). Mr. Perez brings with him a prized Christmas tree that he has been growing for years. After a mysterious package brings Harold and Kumar back together again, they accidentally burn down Mr. Perez’s prized tree, sending them on mad dash through New York City to find a new tree. Their journey leads them to a party thrown by a Russian gangsters virgin daughter, getting a baby stoned on weed, cocaine, and ecstasy, shooting Santa Clause with a shotgun, plotting to rob a church of their Christmas tree, drinking laced eggnog, eating at White Castle again, and crossing paths with the deranged party boy Neil Patrick Harris.
Truth be told, none of the situations that Harold and Kumar find themselves in are all that humorous in this installment. In jokes are made to the other installments and tweaks are made to the story to fit with present day issues. An Occupy Wall Street nod is thrown in, a gag that involves an egging, urinating on the windshield of a car, and human shit used as a projectile. Jabs are made about Asian’s taking pictures by Mr. Perez and so on and so forth. The problem is that the writing doesn’t hit you the way it has in the previous installments, coming across as weak and musty. Nodding to the previous two films is okay, but sometimes it feels like it is stretching it a bit. Worst yet, it’s predictable, a flaw that the first two films seemed to avoid with ease. Here, what is unpredictable lacks a satisfying pay off. This is especially true with the Russian gangster gag, a character that only exists to be an obstacle for the boys to overcome. He is never a genuine nuisance like Rob Corddry’s short fused FBI agent in Escape from Guantanamo Bay.
What also trips up this installment up is the lack of any satire. The previous installments hounded us with satire, bringing to light our hasty judgments of different races and economical standings of some individuals (Who can forget Freakshow?). It quietly slapped us on the wrists while luring out giant belly laughs in the process. It made us stand back and admit to ourselves that we are really shallow and closed off as human beings. Guantanamo Bay was much heavier with these ideas and it dared to get political, I will give it that, but this one lacks it all together. It opts for tributes to popular Christmas films and playing up the 3D add on. There are some nice touches with the rediscovery of friendship and sticking together, typical buddy movie messages that I could find in any given Happy Madison production. The film also tries to encapsulate the spirit of the season, going out of your way to bring happiness, joy, and love, especially to the nagging extended family.
The real treat in A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas is the fact that the entire cast returns to reprise their beloved roles. You can really tell that Cho and Penn enjoy playing the ethnic heroes. Hell, Penn left his White House job to once again play the gutteral Indian stoner. The film seems like the cast had a ball together and the addition of tattooed tough guy Danny Trejo was a pleasant touch. He does ramble off a few zingers throughout the 90-minute run time. Praise should also go to Neil Patrick Harris who narrowly saves the film from stinkville, once again embracing the inappropriate drug and alcohol junkie. The scene where he goes to Heaven is a jewel, especially his interaction with Jesus, who he calls “some hippie”.
I wish moments of A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas would have snowballed into something bigger and much more outrageous. It would have been appropriate for this movie with its winter setting. Instead it is comfortable with just grabbing a few chuckles and dashing off. It’s severely anticlimactic, lacking any big showdown or conflict, which was majorly disappointing. The filmmakers seemed to run out of situations that they could place our protagonists in. It doesn’t miss the opportunity in setting up another installment though and I’ll admit that it does have my interest. I’d gladly see another one of these films and I do hope they punch things up for another round. Wait a couple years and see what the social climate looks like. That seems to be the technique they are running with anyway. Sadly, the high has worn off of this franchise and this installment is crashing hard. Someone get the bong and let it toke up!
by Steve Habrat
Although it is not technically a genre of cinema, the “grind house” film has become something of it’s own breed. I don’t mean the recent underground fascination with them. The fascination with this trashy form of film sparked out of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 cult hit Grindhouse and 2010’s follow up Machete. Or how about this year’s Hobo with a Shotgun? I’m also fairly convinced you’ve seen the commercials for recent video game House of the Dead, which oozes with sleaze and depravity, the type that ran rampant in grind house theaters. The influence from those down and dirty pictures from the late 1960’s to the late 1980’s is everywhere and some do not even realize it. One of the most notorious films that played in “grind houses” was the unflinchingly graphic rape/revenge romp I Spit on Your Grave, a film that is the true definition of the word vile. And yet in a way it’s hard to totally dismiss the film because it puts in overtime to earn the reputation that it has. Released in 1978 and the brainchild of Israeli director Meir Zarchi, I Spit on Your Grave can be viewed from many different angles. It could be seen as a female empowerment flick, a criticism of masculinity, or just gleefully exploitative. Stemming from a movement in cinema that I absolutely love, I Spit on Your Grave was one of the toughest films to get through, featuring a gang rape sequence that is agonizingly long and revealing. It pushes the viewers buttons and after witnessing what our delicate protagonist goes through at the hands of four animalistic hillbillies, you can’t help yourself but root for her to exact revenge on her tormentors. You’ll feel this way even if you loathe the film.
Jennifer Hills (Played by Camille Keaton) is a short story writer who ventures to the country to shack up in an isolated lakefront home to work on her first novel. Jennifer appears to be a much more liberal woman, sporting silky, transparent sundresses that illuminate her near perfect figure, also showing the viewer she is not wearing underwear. She stops off at a rundown gas station and meets three local males. She chats innocently enough with the gas station attendant Johnny (Played by Eron Tabor). She also meets the shirtless duo that is Stanley (Played by Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Played by Gunter Kleemann). After arriving at her secluded getaway, she is greeted by the mentally challenged grocery store delivery boy Matthew (Played by Richard Pace), who is an innocent, friendly virgin. Matthew takes a liking to the flirty Jennifer and he runs off to tell his savage pal Johnny, who encourages Matthew to pursue Jennifer. When Matthew doesn’t, Stanley and Andy pluck her from her home while she sunbathes, drag her out into the woods, and proceed to gang rape and beat her. They then tell Matthew to kill Jennifer. Matthew shakily fakes her death and several weeks later, Jennifer heals and returns to exact revenge on the savages who violated her and terrorized without mercy.
I Spit on Your Grave has to be one of the most hated films ever made, one that enraged critics and audiences upon its release (For a good seething review, check out Roger Ebert’s famous take on the film) and one that still upsets to this day. It stuns me that this film is sold at Best Buy where a younger viewer can easily obtain it. In an interview on the DVD, Zarchi says he was inspired to make this film after his real life experience of stumbling upon a woman who had been raped and aided her in getting help. It’s good to know this tidbit of information, partly because it relieves the viewer of the suspicion that this film was made out of some sick fantasy. Zarchi’s camera does seem infatuated with Keaton’s physique. He shows every angle of every unmentionable; giving the film it’s exploitative ambiance. Any excuse to get her in the nude is fully embraced here. The grind house films were heavily interested in gratuitous nudity and explicit sex, some of these films branded with an X rating. And just like the multiple grind house films before it, it brings along its fair share of gore and voyeuristic violence. One misconception of grind house cinema is that all of these films were hyper violent. This is true to an extent, as some boasted jazzy, hardcore titles that made lots of promises but never really delivered the gore that audience’s lusted for. Two prime examples would be 1978’s Halloween, which was a grind house slasher film that lacked little to no gore and 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which contained very little of the red stuff. I Spit on Your Grave has plenty to satisfy the gore hounds.
Weighed down by infinite amounts of hammy acting, mostly from its male players, Keaton is the one that really brings the fire. She does her best to avoid being reduced to a hot piece of flesh. She’s a broken ass kicker that is ready to bring the wrath of God upon the monsters that crossed her. Her crowning moment comes during the shocking castration scene, where she lures one of the men into a bath with her and while fooling around, she reaches under the bathmat and pulls out a hulking blade and, with one clean cut, severs the man’s own weapon. She then gets out of the tub and leaves the bathroom, locking the door from the outside as he shrieks in pain and at the act done upon him. She then puts on a classical record, sits down and relishes in the agony just behind the bathroom door. She stares off just past the camera, her eyes conveying a cracked soul yet illuminated with the burning flame of revenge. Who could blame her? Later, she burns the man’s clothes and as she does, she is illuminated in red, a color that engulfs the entire project. Dark red has been said to symbolize rage, determination, and wrath, all which Jennifer brings down on the men. Earlier in the film, light red and some pinks dominate, which symbolize friendship, passiveness, and love, which all radiate from Jennifer. The color scheme is very film school, something that would seem at home in a student film, yet it is probably one of the artist qualities that I Spit on Your Grave has.
The men of I Spit on Your Grave are the scum of the earth, even the mentally challenged Matthew. It is revealed that Johnny has a wife and two children, which makes his act even more disgusting than it already was. Even the men that seem honest and true are animals and capable of inflicting horrible acts. Andy and Stanley both leap around the woods like primates, hooting and hollering with glee in their wanton dance. Yet when Jennifer bears down on them, wielding an axe, they both quiver and cry, stammering, “It wasn’t my idea! Johnny made me do it!” The “It wasn’t my idea!” is an excuse thrown around quite a bit in I Spit on Your Grave, saying that men never truly want to own up to their actions. Matthew’s death is the only one leaving us feeling disheartened, as he is a character who is somewhat unaware of his actions and who tried to do the right thing when the gang rape was taking place. It does not excuse all of his behavior, as he stills has blood on his hands too.
I Spit on Your Grave was remade in 2010, further driving the underground fixation with genre trash. The remake of the film never shook me up and was a largely overlooked upon release. A sign of the times if I have ever seen one, highlighting the desensitized attitude that has been driven into American audiences. The 1978 I Spit on Your Grave is still a much more shocking film, partly because the remake has echoes of torture porn and Saw coursing through its dirt caked veins. Love it or hate it, it still marks the viewer, never allowing them to forget what they have seen. I found the film had a major artistic handicap, resorting to said film school techniques, all which prance around and bellow thoughtful. It’s definitely an empowering film to women, even if the excessive violence is up for debate. As a piece of grind house cinema, it ranks among the best of them, wallowing in all the filth that made this genre what it is today.
I Spit on Your Grave 1978 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
by Steve Habrat
After last year’s buddy cop debacle Cop Out, pudgy funny-man director Kevin Smith needed a hit. Cop Out boasted Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, both who are able to draw a fairly large crowd to fill seats in the local theater, and ended up tanking and being largely forgotten soon after it’s release. Rather than enlisting more big actors and trying to make another blockbuster comedy, Smith scales back with Red State, a new horror/thriller that you, the viewer, will feel in the morning, long after you have seen it. Yes, this is the same guy who made Clerks, Dogma, Jersey Girl, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Red State is a hell of a departure from Smith’s other projects, but it also turns out to be one of his best movies, certainly scaring the hell out of you. With Dogma, Smith made clear he has an interest in the subject of religion, and with Red State, he launches a full on assault on radically religious figures, ultra-conservatism, and strangely, masculinity. This film is also evocative of the stock footage of such events as Waco, Texas, where a sinister ultra-religious cult lead by David Koresh engaged in a deadly firefight with FBI officials in 1993. The film brushes against the topic of terrorism as well, pitting Red State in the real realm of horror. The monsters here could be living down the street from you.
Red State focuses on Middle America high school students Travis (Played by Michael Angarano), Jared (Played by Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Played by Nicholas Braun), who plot to answer a sex invitation that Jared received in an online sex chat room. They pile into Travis’ car that very evening and set out to find the 39-year-old Sarah (Played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo), who promises the boys that they will get physical after they have a couple of beers. Turns out, the beers she provides the eager lads are spiked, drugging the teens. Jared soon awakens to find himself at the Five Points Church, which is lead by a radical preacher Abin Cooper (Played by Michael Parks), a fire-and-brimstone preacher who spews his message of hate against homosexuals. The church is also holding a homosexual man they lured in a through a gay chat room. They soon execute the poor man who has been saran wrapped to a cross. After he dies, the man is cut down and several of Cooper’s men dump his body into a cellar where we discover Travis and Billy Ray are bound together. The boys come to the realization that Cooper aims to execute them for their devilish lust. After a string of mishaps and the discovery of military grade weaponry, the local Sheriff Wynan (Played by Stephen Root) enlists the help of ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (Played by John Goodman) to set up a raid on Cooper’s church compound. As the standoff between the agents and Cooper’s congregation escalates and Keenan’s peaceful negotiations fail, the boys are caught with Sarah’s virgin daughter Cheyenne (Played by Kerry Bisché) in the middle of the conflict. Cheyenne begs the boys to help them hide the younger children, who are also hidden in the compound.
Red State does not mince words and it certainly is not cunning about its attacks. It goes right for the throat and I say good for Smith for following through. He makes us absolutely loath the members of the Five Points Church, making me cheer every time an ATF agent picked off one of the gun-toting psychos. This leads to my recognition of the way Smith mounts tension within the film and his expertise in shooting action sequences. He turns a chase scene through the compound into a ferocious and erratic kick to the head. You will be swallowed up by desperation. He can also stage a gunfight, avoiding confusion that some filmmakers fall victim to when they stage a gunfight. Praise should also go to the excellent editing, which is frantic but clear. This is where the film benefits from its smaller budget, as I can’t imagine this film was made for a huge sum of cash.
Smith enlists a handful of smaller actors along with some veterans, all who shine through the buckets of blood, gore, and gun smoke. Melissa Leo plays a horrifically loyal daughter to the heinous Cooper. While sniping ATF agents, he glances over at his machine gun wielding daughter and asks her if she will get him a glass of sweet tea. She proudly dashes off to quench his thirst. Leo excels at playing wicked and domineering, as she yanks and scolds her daughter Cheyenne for defying God. She does the phony hypnotic prayer, which all fanatical Christians in the south are so found of and she does it exceptionally well. Leo is all flaying arms to Christ, shouting “Praise Jesus” as Cooper fear mongers and promotes his message of destruction. Michael Parks is the embodiment of the devil as Cooper, who encourages his family members to march out and take the lives of innocent human beings. Goodman plays a good guy facing some serious moral dilemmas. Goodman conveys genuine horror over the events that play out right before his eyes and he is helpless to stop them. The three boys, Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray are all out to prove their masculinity and enter manhood. They take a backseat to Leo, Goodman, and Parks, but they still hold their own in the film.
Red State has many points to make on its agenda. It argues that under all of the fear mongering preaching made by radicals in Middle America (or anywhere in America, for that matter) has the underlying message of violence. Near the beginning of the film, Cooper’s congregation protests the funeral of a homosexual boy who was found dead in a dumpster behind a gay club. It asks if there is any decency in this world anymore. Would God approve of all this violence? He is supposed to be a peaceful God after all. Red State asks questions about masculinity, particularly the drive in young men to prove themselves sexually. It makes points about ultra-conservatism, sometimes with the role of women within a family. The scene where Cooper asks his daughter to get him some sweet tea would spark some thoughtful conversation in a Women’s Study course. There were moments in the film that were evocative of the documentary Jesus Camp, where radical preacher Becky Fisher discusses the “army of God”. The members of Cooper’s congregation certainly see themselves that way, even if they are fictional creations. And what about the issues of freedom of sexuality? And what gives us the right as human beings to judge other human beings? Red State points out that violence is not the way to solve any of these issues, as the violence will consume the innocent caught in the middle.
The portrait that Smith paints with Red State is scary because it has happened before and we can be certain it will happen again. These are monsters that exist and walk among us brainwashing our children and spewing vitriol to anyone who will stop and listen. Red State is not for all, mostly because of its relentless violence. Yet Red State is articulate and should be seen by those who are open minded. I’d be curious to hear the opinions of those who devout themselves to any certain religion or situate themselves in conservative beliefs. Sitting on the sidelines here, I found the film to be a gut punch that is softened only by it’s silly turn at the end. Smith turns the last fifteen minutes of the film into a comedy routine where the characters spout off with dialogue that would be at home in any of his comedies I have listed above. It saves itself again in the final thirty seconds. For all the intellectuals out there, Red State scares with reality. For movie lovers, Red State is a must-see for a left of center project from Kevin Smith. For me, Red State has left me reeling, swirling with emotions. I’ve felt angry, dismayed, and broken by it. I also don’t view any of these emotions as negative towards the film itself. Praise Red State!
Red State is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and in the Instant Queue on Netflix.
We are happy to announce that throughout the month of December, we will be posting a whole slew of Holiday themed reviews of popular movies that everyone watches while wrapping gifts, sipping eggnog, guzzling Christmas ale, and trimming the tree. You can expect everything from Christmas Vacation, It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, all the way to Black Christmas (Hey–this is Anti-Film School so it should surprise no one!). Given that this time of the year is also heavy with major film releases, this will not be quite like our Halloween special, in which there was a new Holiday themed review daily. There are plenty of big blockbusters all the way to the smaller award hopefuls heading to theaters, so we will have our hands full with those. You can also look forward to a Best of the Year list, which should be available in January. However, do show up for some Christmas madness, and we shall deliver. We hope you show up wearing your ugliest Christmas sweaters. Happy Holidays!