Pulp Fiction (1994)
by Steve Habrat
Fresh off the success of the indie smash Reservoir Dogs and the vibrant script for True Romance, Quentin Tarantino returned to the big screen with a film that is widely considered the best film in his catalogue. To this day, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction remains a funky fresh blast of hilarious pop culture small talk and teeth-rattling violence. Reservoir Dogs certainly introduced the world to the Tarantino style of filmmaking but Pulp Fiction is the film that opened the copycat floodgates. Drawing inspiration from pulp magazines that dominated from the late 1800s until the 1950s, Pulp Fiction is certainly a film that is worthy of all the praise that is still handed to it. It holds up to multiple viewings, the jokes land every single time, it finds John Travolta giving one of the best performances of his career, it features dialogue that still makes my head spin with delight, and it still makes me jump when old Marvin gets his noggin blown to pieces. To this day, I still find myself rediscovering little moments that I have missed or forgotten about as the years pass. Yet what makes the film so great is the way that Tarantino irons out his characters, letting them really open up to the viewer and becoming almost like long lost friends. You genuinely feel like you are hanging out at Jack Rabbit Slims with these cats. And then there is the narrative, a jumbled collection of puzzle pieces that are reluctant to reveal themselves fully to us.
Pulp Fiction introduces us to a number of thugs, lowlifes, and small time crooks, who all collide at some point in the two and a half hours it is on the screen. We meet two hitmen, Vincent Vega (Played by John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who are sent by booming mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Played by Ving Rhames) to retrieve a mysterious briefcase from a trio of low-level crooks. These two hitmen meet an aging boxer named Butch Coolidge (Played by Bruce Willis), who has a price on his head after he refuses to throw a fight that Marsellus Wallace payed him to throw, a duo of jittery thieves who go by the named Pumpkin (Played by Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Played by Amanda Plummer), the junkie wife of Marsellus, Mia Wallace (Played by Uma Thurman), a hot shot problem solver named Winston Wolf (Played by Harvey Kietel), and three sadistic redneck freaks, Zed (Played by Peter Greene), Maynard (Played by Duane Whitaker), and the Gimp (Played by Stephen Hibbert), who enjoy kidnapping strangers and then sodomizing them. What plays out is a number of gruesome showdowns, hilarious exchanges, and plenty of drooling over a glowing briefcase.
While every single moment of Pulp Fiction is juicy, Tarantino spins a web of moments that are consistently in competition with one another. Ask anyone who has seen the film to name their favorite moment for you and I promise that everyone will answer differently. There is the dance number in Jack Rabbit Slims, where Thurman and Travolta boogie down to win a twist trophy (Travolta still has the moves). There is the adrenaline shot to the heart to revive the overdosing Thurman that will have you watching through cracked fingers. We also have the sequence where Willis and Rhames stumble upon a trio of sodomizing maniacs, only to fight back with a samurai sword. Or how about the scene where poor Marvin “accidentally” gets shot in the head as Jules and Vincent debate a miracle that just happened moments earlier? While connecting the plot points is a blast, it’s the thoughtful sequences connecting everything together that are ultimately more fun to talk about. Personally, my favorite moment is the sequence where Vince and Mia chow down at Jack Rabbit Slims, talking about awkward pauses on dates, debating how good a five dollar milkshake is, evaluating Buddy Holly on his skills as a waiter, and finally getting up to participate in the twist competition. And I just love Thurman as she draws that dotted line square. It’s a pop culture loaded scene that really springs to life. Plus, it comes with a Vanilla Coke!
As always, I have to discuss the performances, which are the heart and soul of Pulp Fiction. Everyone just loves Jackson’s Bible quoting hitman Jules, a real spitfire with a jheri curl. His exchanges with Travolta’s drawling Vincent Vega will have you chuckling through the first half hour or so of the film. Travolta, meanwhile, hasn’t felt this alive in a role since Grease. In a way, you almost feel like Travolta was born to play the role of Vince and I must say that he really disappears into the character, a rarity for Mr. Travolta. And then there is Rhames as Marsellus Wallace, the furious mob boss who will be your friend one minute and your worst enemy the next. Willis is the underdog here as the scrappy boxer who will stop at nothing to get his father’s prized watch back even if it means risking his life. The sequence where he comes up against the three sodomizing devils will really leave a mark. Thurman shows up only a half hour but she becomes the face of Pulp Fiction. She is crazy, sexy, cool as she calls Vince “Daddy-O” and shouts “I say goddamn. Goddamn!” while powdering her nose. Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are hysterical as two thieves who think they’re tough but quickly realize they are nothing when put up against Jules and Vincent. Harvey Keitel and Quentin Tarantino round out the cast later in the film as two problem solvers trying to help out our two lovable and blood drenched hitmen. Christopher Walken also gets a very fine cameo but the less you know about him, the funnier it is.
As Pulp Fiction coasts along on the surf guitars that rumble over the soundtrack, you begin to realize that the film is all about conversations. Sure, all of these conversations are basically references to other crime flicks and forgotten exploitation cinema but they all just seem so effortless. It is dialogue that just rolls off the tongue and will have you and your buddies quoting it for days. I suppose that you could describe the overall big picture here as effortless and suave. It never seems to be trying too hard and yet it is maddeningly cool. No character seems like they are just taking up space and there is no one scene that feels like it is dragging on too long. The first time I saw the film, I was a bit thrown off with Butch’s sequence in the middle of the film but this stretch has really grown on me after seeing the film as many times as I have over the years. I also love the way Tarantino really allows the soundtrack to shine. You can just visualize Tarantino at a jukebox sorting through these surf rock ditties and tapping his toes along to the beat. Overall, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear as Pulp Fiction rounds the home stretch and reveals how all of these characters are connected. You’ll glow as Tarantino skips through sleaze land and pays tribute to all of his interests in some way, shape, or form. Believe me when I say you will fall in love with Pulp Fiction, a hyperactive and playful masterpiece that still manages to be one step ahead of all the copycats. Oh, and feel free to leave your thoughts about what is in that mysterious suitcase.
Pulp Fiction is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
by Steve Habrat
In 1992, the world was introduced to a jive talking video store clerk turned screenwriter, director, and actor. He made the uptight film snobs squirm (he still does) with the way he borrowed from 70’s trash cinema and made those searching high and low for a sleazy thrill giddy with delight. His name is Quentin Tarantino and the film that shot him into stardom was the bloody crime caper Reservoir Dogs, a film that has to rank as one of the best films from the 90’s. Extremely controversial with its violence (Wes Craven reportedly walked out of a screening of the film) and unapologetically funny (the analysis of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’) even if it is incredibly crass, Reservoir Dogs is a smoothing talking throwback that doesn’t hide the fact that it is borrowing from forgotten cinema. Reservoir Dogs is a film that sucks the viewer in instantly; ripe with fast-talking criminals dressed in too-cool-for-school suits and black Wayfarers. Classic tunes from the 70’s blare over the soundtrack as these crooks, who look more like a 50’s rock n’ roll band than a bunch of jewelry thieves, strut in slow motion through a parking lot. It’s the sequence that is the epitome of cool, my dear readers, and it merely is setting the stage. That is the best way I can describe Reservoir Dogs, as a super cool caper that has the power to disturb and tickle, sometimes at the same time. I should also note that the film is incredibly influential, despite what some may say.
Reservoir Dogs introduces us to six thugs, Mr. White (Played by Harvey Keitel), Mr. Blonde (Played by Michael Madsen), Mr. Orange (Played by Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Played by Steve Buscemi), Mr. Brown (Played by Quentin Tarantino), and Mr. Blue (Played by Eddie Bunker), who are all gearing up for the perfect heist. They find a leader in Joe Cabot (Played by Lawrence Tierney), a cranky and gravelly-voiced gangster, and his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie (Played by Chris Penn). Together, they plan to rob a jewelry store and it appears they have every angle covered. But something goes horribly wrong and the heist becomes a scene of stomach-churning carnage. Four of the thugs escape to a hideout where they begin to suspect that one member of the group may be an undercover police officer. Meanwhile, the police are gathering outside the hideout, ready to take the group down by any means necessary.
The overall setup of Reservoir Dogs is a pretty simple one but the film sets itself apart by never showing the viewer the heist. We only see the chaotic aftermath of it, allowing our imaginations to run wild. The small budget prevented Tarantino from showing us the heist but the dialogue is pretty graphic in its description to the point where I wasn’t sure I even WANTED to see it. The aftermath is disturbing, with Mr. Orange severely wounded by a gunshot to the gut, an injury that has him bleeding all over the joint. He squirms and shrieks in pain as Mr. White tries desperately to reassure him that he isn’t going to die. Meanwhile, two other group members were wasted in a hail of gunfire and we learn that the psychotic Mr. Blonde executed a handful of innocent civilians (one being only a young nineteen year old). If the bickering and the withering Mr. Orange isn’t enough to upset the viewer, Tarantino then delivers a terrifying and darkly comedic torture sequence that finds Mr. Blonde slashing a captured cop up with a blade and then hacking his ear off. It is a sequence that reportedly made Mr. Madsen a little queasy when he was filming it, especially when the cop adlibbed “I got a little kid at home!” Mr. Tarantino goes for the throat and he never even flinches while doing it.
Savagery aside, Reservoir Dogs is loaded with explosive performances from almost everyone involved. It is constant tug of war between Madsen’s Mr. Blonde, a psychopath who enjoys torturing his victims before he puts them out of their misery and Keitel’s Mr. White, a fatherly figure who isn’t afraid to get a little nasty himself when his back is against the wall. Madsen steals the show with his steely glares and you’d never guess that he got a queasy tummy while filming the notorious torture sequence. And then there is Buscemi, a smart but wimpy gangster who smells something rotten in the group. Buscemi is the king when it comes to playing oily low lives like this and I have to say Reservoir Dogs finds one of his best performances. Roth sends chills down your spine as the wounded Mr. Orange, really doing a lot with a role that demands he lay on the ground and bleed out. It never gets any easier to watch him shriek in pain in the back of a car and wither around in agony. All I can say is I hope I never, ever get shot in the gut. Penn and Tierney bring plenty of hotshot swagger as “Nice Guy” Eddie and Joe Cabot. Tierney is especially intense as Joe, the glaring don who does put up with any shenanigans or backtalk for his team. Tarantino and Bunker do well with the small roles they have but I would have liked to see a bit more from their characters, especially Mr. Blue. Tarantino gives rich back-stories for the thugs yet he leaves out ones for Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue, which doesn’t really make any sense to me. The only theory I have is possibly the tiny budget prevented him from doing anything further with the characters.
Reservoir Dogs is the film that introduced the world to the “Tarantino style” of filmmaking, which includes drawn out conversations and colorful exchanges between the characters, use of ironic music, nonstop film references, and chilling bursts of violence. Some say that this style has ruined film (mostly film professors that are steaming mad over the fact that Tarantino never went to film school and educated himself on film by taking trips to the local grindhouse) and made it unoriginal considering that Tarantino enjoys nabbing his favorite scenes from old exploitation cinema and stitching them all together. I have to disagree that his work is unoriginal considering that he fashions these references into unique creations that could only come from Tarantino’s mind. I really don’t think anyone else could have made Reservoir Dogs as likable as it is and trust me; this film contains some seriously shocking moments that make it a tough pill to swallow. Overall, Reservoir Dogs is maddeningly simple, wickedly funny, and waiting to spring one hell of a twist on the viewer near the end of the film (trust me, the reveal is really awesome). It is best going into the film with as little knowledge of the film as possible and it is one that you won’t soon forget after you’ve seen it. Good luck listening to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ the same way ever again.
Reservoir Dogs is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Killing Them Softly (2012)
by Steve Habrat
I can’t really say that I’ve ever left a crime thriller with my stomach in a knot. I didn’t know it was possible for the crime thriller genre, which seems to be stuck on repeat and incapable of surprises, was fully capable of coming up with something that would truly shake me to my core. Well, along comes director Andrew Dominik’s black-as-night Killing Them Softly, a darkly comedic and politically charged look at the underbelly of society. Set against the economic meltdown of 2008 and hanging its head while John McCain, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush utter reassurances that America will get back on track, Killing Them Softly possess an icy apocalyptic feel as the camera pans across abandoned strip malls, rotting homes, and trigger happy ghettos. It certainly is the ugliest crime thriller ever made and a rabid dog of a movie, one that is furiously chewing through the leash that is containing it to the point where its gums are bleeding. Yet for all the savagery on display, Killing Them Softly has some chilling moments of rich character development, especially in Brad Pitt’s cool-as-a-cucumber Jackie Cogan, a hitman who seethes as McCain, Bush, and Obama reassure us all that America is one community. With an ensemble cast, a doomed atmosphere, razor sharp humor, and one of the coolest soundtracks around (a jaw-dropping beating is followed up by the cheery ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ by Jack Hylton & His Orchestra), Killing Them Softly will make you feel like you’re sitting on a block of ice.
Set in 2008, Killing Them Softly picks up with three low-level thugs, Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Played by Vincent Curatola), Frankie (Played by Scoot McNairy), and Russell (Played by Ben Mendelsohn), robbing a mob controlled poker game that is watched over by hot shot gangster Markie Trattman (Played by Ray Liotta). It turns out that a few years earlier, Markie set up an inside job, robbed his own poker game, and then drunkenly admitted to doing it in front of a room full of gangsters. Since Markie is so well liked, the thugs decided to laugh it off and forgive him. Squirrel, Frankie, and Russell spot an opportunity to pull the robbery off in the hope that the mob will just blame it all on Markie. The plan appears to work for a small stretch of time but the mob isn’t so eager to let this one go. They bring in cool and calculating hitman Jackie Cogan (Played by Brad Pitt), who quickly determines that Markie wasn’t the one behind the robbery. He convinces the mob’s lawyer Driver (Played by Richard Jenkins) to allow him to bring in another bitter and unhinged hitman known as Mickey (Played by James Gandolfini) to help him smoke out the amateurs behind the job. When not dealing with personal demons, Jackie and Mickey slowly get to the bottom of the robbery and leave a trail of dead bodies in their wake.
Based on the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is about as character driven as they come. There are drawn out moments of dialogue as these scumbags sit around in cluttered offices and smoky hotel rooms sipping beers, smoking cigarettes, shooting junk, and droning on about their failed love lives, why they detest feelings, and, yes, sexual intercourse with animals. It’s all very gross, pathetic, and profanity laced but Dominik cleverly writes it and he manages to get a few chuckles even if you are rolling your eyes in disgust. When the conversations turn to murder, things get really tense and prickly, with an unshakable sense of realism that almost shellshocks the viewer. Driver explains that they don’t want one of their guys hurt, just roughed up a little so he’ll talk. Pitt’s numbed Cogan laughs in his face and tells him the mob has gotten soft and then wonders allowed about what has happened to America. It’s in these moments that Killing Them Softly really takes hold of the viewer, churning the stomachs of those who thought they had been desensitized to this sort of material. Hell, I thought I was but I was scared stiff when Pitt explains that he hates killing up close because of the emotion. Trust me, it’s a conversation that settles like a brick in the bottom of your stomach.
Then again, maybe it is Pitt who is just really good at selling this chillingly bleak cynicism. He is a man who stares out at a boarded up America wasting away in the shadow of an Obama “Change” billboard, blowing cigarette smoke at it almost like mockery. He faintly grins as President Bush nervously rambles on about the financial situation in America and ponders how it should be dealt with. Pitt’s Cogan is angry, fed up, and driven simply by money. He is so detached that he doesn’t even flinch when he stops his car in a rough part of town and overhears a group of street thugs arguing and fighting over territory. He doesn’t jump when gunshots ring out and one of them falls to the ground in a heap. He is almost like a plague in a muscle car; spreading his searing and sobering philosophy that America isn’t one community that is in this situation together, but just a business where everyone is on their own. He’s a cynical force with his hand out for the money he was promised and God help the person who doesn’t pay up. If he isn’t careful, he may wind up with a Best Actor Oscar for that earth shaking speech he gives in the closing moments of the film. It’s honestly a performance I couldn’t pull away from and that I won’t soon forget. Pitt is THAT good!
While Pitt steals the movie, the other performers do their best to keep up. Liotta is absolutely fantastic as Trattman, a man who is silky smooth during his poker games but a whimpering, bloody mess when he has the tar kicked and beaten out of him in a rainstorm. This particular sequence where two mob enforcers rough him up has to rank as one of the most violent and startlingly beatings I have ever seen in a motion picture (Those with a weak stomach may want to shut your eyes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.). Jenkins is a brooding force as he tries to reason with Pitt’s Cogan. They share a number of conversations that point out that times are tough for mobsters too. Gandolfini shows up as the bitter Mickey, an overweight hitman who sucks down martinis and beers like he may never get another one in his life and verbally abuses hookers who shrug him off. He may be able to intimidate a waiter but is unable to stand up to his wife who is constantly threatening him with a divorce. Scoot McNairy’s Frankie is all nervous gulps as he slowly realizes that he may not make it out of this situation alive and Ben Mendelsohn is on point as the sweaty junkie Russell, who is constantly stumbling around in a junk-induced haze.
In the end, Killing Them Softly is a barebones film about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other. It’s shockingly pessimistic as it wears its frustrations on its blood soaked sleeve. At times, the sound bites of Bush, McCain, and Obama are a bit distracting and heavy handed, leaving the viewer wishing for a much more subtle approach to the politics. The film also has some incredibly unnerving and ironic use of music. I think I was the only person in the audience who laughed when Dominik follows up Liotta’s savage beating with ‘Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ and Pitt guns down a poor gangster to Ketty Lester’s haunting ‘Love Letters.’ While I can see many being disappointed with Killing Them Softly, walking away wondering just what the big deal was, I just so rattled by the whole experience and how real it truly felt. It never felt sensationalized and it lacked the typical gloss that Hollywood applies to films as gritty as this. It doesn’t go down easy and I really admired that. Approach Killing Them Softly, one of the strongest motion pictures of 2012, with extreme caution.
by Steve Habrat
Did you ever think that Ben “Gigli” Affleck would become a respected Hollywood director who now has three great films under his directing belt? Yeah, I would have never guessed that either, especially after also seeing Reindeer Games and Daredevil. I thought he was doomed for the bargain bin but over the years, he slowly climbed onto the A-list by carefully choosing roles that would repair the damage done to his career by J. Lo and J. Gar. I was seriously impressed with his 2010 Boston heist thriller The Town and left wondering what Mr. Affleck would deliver to us next. Now we have his political/hostage thriller and Hollywood send up Argo, which is based on recently declassified events. Vacillating between chuckle-worthy jabs at Hollywood and their big budget copycat projects and knee-jerking suspense set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Affleck smoothly explores jaw-dropping history (with tweaks here and there) while measuring out a pinch of nostalgia for cinema buffs (that retro Warner Bros. logo stamped on the beginning of the movie). Basically, Argo is one of the best films of the year, a real crowd pleaser brimming with starry-eyed jingoism and unmatchable performances that all deserve to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They sort of owe Affleck one, especially after overlooking The Town for a Best Picture nomination.
Argo begins on November 4th, 1979, with militants storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran after the U.S. provided shelter for the recently deposed Shah. All the employees inside the embassy are taken hostage but six lucky ones manage to escape to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Played by Victor Garber). With the group’s safety in question, the U.S. State Department begins devising ways to pull the group out without getting them killed. The State Department calls in Tony Mendez (Played by Ben Affleck), a CIA specialist who has had experience in getting people out of nasty situations. One evening while watching Battle of the Planet of the Apes with his son, Mendez gets the idea to use the story that the group is actually a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called Argo. After finally convincing his cranky supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Played by Bryan Cranston), the two get in contact with Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (Played by John Goodman) and sleazy film producer Lester Siegel (Played by Alan Arkin) to help them create a fake movie. As Mendez and his team race to make the Star Wars knockoff seem as authentic as possible, the militants begin to suspect that some of the employees escaped right before the embassy was stormed and they set out to track down every last escapee.
While Argo never does much to really shake the viewer out of the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before in thrillers past, Affleck still gets a free pass with the idea that these events really took place (you can’t deny real life heroics). He may manipulate here and there for effect and granted, it works for dramatics, but it is such a crazy slice of reality that you easily ignore the predictable beat. And while the thrills may be familiar, they feel like they are cranked up to eleven. Affleck’s previous films had plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments and hold-your-breath action and Argo is no different. You’ll tense up every time the film leaves U.S. soil and ventures into chaotic Tehran. Affleck never misses a moment to capture the agony and fear that those six Americans were feeling as they waited for a way out of their extremely dangerous situation. And just wait until the end escape; with Affleck and the shaky six as they march through an airport loaded with steely-eyed guards sniffing out Americans. These scenes are the work of someone who truly understands suspense and how to put the viewer through the ringer. Affleck breaks up this suspense with witty moments of hilarity as Arkin and Goodman deadpan about the Hollywood studio system. The comic moments are a much-needed break from the somber warnings of life and death (bodies hang from cranes in the streets of Tehran, a grim reminder that the stakes are high) and give the film a flamboyant quirk.
Further making Argo a must-see are the performances from the main players, all of which are Oscar worthy, in my humble opinion. Affleck has never been better as the weary CIA escape artist Mendez, who rarely sees his son and turns to a bottle of hard liquor when things aren’t going quite his way. Cranston is his usual rock hard self as he O’Donnell, Mendez’s boss who can unleash fury like you wouldn’t believe when the chips are down. I’m still amazed that Cranston quietly flies under the A-list radar but he manages to do it. I just wonder when this guy is going to explode. Goodman is fantastic as make-up artist Chambers, who squints through oversized glasses and burns through lines like, “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!” It is a dream come true when he is paired up with Arkin as the smart aleck film producer Siegel. Arkin doesn’t stray from his usual cranky demeanor and it fits perfectly when he declares, “If I’m gonna make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!” His best moment comes when he snarls, “Argo fuck yourself!” Kyle Chandler (King Kong, Super 8) also drops by and really sizzles as Hamilton Jordan, the Chief of Staff to Jimmy Carter. He’s another one, along with Cranston, who is on the verge of really breaking out but just stays low-key.
Argo never ceases to amaze considering all the different styles that Affleck blends together throughout its two-hour runtime. The scenes where Mendez and his team sit inside earth toned government offices and suck on Pall Malls seem like they were ripped out of any political drama from the 1970’s. There is a warm affection for classic science fiction and forgotten B-movies from the mangy days of Hollywood, when trash was king. There is a chilling urgency and grainy realism to the scenes where the Iranian revolutionaries rock the gates to the U.S. embassy before storming over and breaking in. It’s all a bit too unsettling, especially with recently events in Benghazi filling the evening news. Yet nothing clashes in this liberally charged plea for peaceful approaches to violent conflicts. It is a virtually flawless film that leaves you stunned that this outlandish idea actually saved the lives of six Americans. Politics aside, Argo is certainly going to be an awards season darling when the race for Best Picture begins. It is astonishingly consistent (not one scene seems wasted or useless), staggeringly hopeful even in its darkest moments, and beautifully acted at every turn. I can’t wait to see what Affleck does next.
Red State (2011)
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.
In Time (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Imagine if Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan got together and decided they were going to make a futuristic version of Robin Hood set against a Clockwork Orange-esque wasteland. The new techno thriller In Time, directed by Andrew Niccol, has a lot on its mind and plenty to say. Unfortunately, it’s reduced to rambling, off on a tangent and showing no signs of stopping. To be fair, In Time has an interesting premise; a few original bursts here and there that save it from being disposable filler at the local theater. The film exhaustively tells us that time is precious, blah, blah, blah. Well my time is precious too and this film was given way too much time to peer down at me from it’s soap box and preach. That is what In Time was built for—to preach. Lucky enough, the film had the good fortune to be made and released during the Occupy Wall Street protests, which is another element that works in it’s favor. For as ambitious as this film is, it never obtains the epic, morose scope that Nolan produces or the multilayered psychology Kubrick gave us.
In Time shows us a world where humans stop aging at twenty-five. Once they hit the said age, a digital clock on their forearm begins ticking and humans have to earn more time to survive. Rather than money, your job pays you in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, etc. Time is also used as the currency, where the more time you have, the longer you live. The world is also divided up into time zones, where a sinister police force called the “Timkeepers” can monitor how much time is in the specific zone. These time zones also separate the wealthy from the poor. Will Salas (Played by Justin Timberlake) comes from the slum Dayton, where one evening while visiting a seedy bar, stumbles across a wealthy man Henry Hamilton (Played by Matt Bomer) with a hundred years on his clock buying drinks for the crowd. A group of local gangsters called “Minutemen” set their eyes on him and threaten his life. Will narrowly saves Henry and hides him in a local warehouse where Henry explains to Will that he is one hundred and five years old and no longer feels the desire to live. While Will sleeps, Henry transfers all of his time to Will, making Will wealthy over night. Henry commits suicide and Will is captured on surveillance for suspicious behavior in the wake of the suicide. That evening, Will’s mother Rachel (Played by Olivia Wilde) does not have enough time on her for a bus ride and is forced to walk home. While desperately trying to reach Will for more time, her clock runs out and she dies in front of Will. Will sets out to drain the wealthy of as much time as he can, along the way meeting wealthy timelender Phillipe Weis and his beautiful daughter Sylvia (Played by Amanda Seyfried). Will is also being pursued by a relentless timekeeper named Raymond Leon (Played by Cillian Murphy).
Not an easy film to sum up, In Time does have a webbed storyline, but that’s not its problem. The film is often condescending, always assuming the viewer lacks the intelligence to follow what is going on. It’s under the impression that we can’t put together its unconcealed political message. It then drives its point home with such force, you almost want to shout “ENOUGH!” The film empties its narrative quickly, leaving the well dry for the last forty minutes of the movie. It’s just run, check in to hotel, steal more time, chase, repeat. There are characters that are not fleshed out enough, cramming them in at the beginning and then tossing them out the second Will meets Phillipe and Sylvia. I’m all for an intelligent thriller/blockbuster, but In Time thinks it’s a bit too smart. It also seems to demand that we take it seriously, but it’s difficult when the film is burdened with hammy acting.
After the film ended, one of my friends that accompanied me to our showing said he doesn’t think Justin Timberlake is capable of carrying an entire movie. He’s not a seasoned pro yet. I couldn’t agree more with this statement. He’s still an amateur in the acting game and trying to carry a film like this couldn’t have been the easiest task for him. When his mother bites the dust, Timberlake drops to his knees, wailing, and looks slightly like he is smack in the middle of a violent bowel movement. I didn’t buy his anguish and it’s unintentionally funny. This is not to say he doesn’t wield any talent, but he needs to stick to supporting roles until he really sharpens his acting a bit. He sometimes slips into overdramatics, attempting to embody the ominous hero but coming up short. He has yet to shake his pretty boy image.
The rest of the cast of In Time does an ample job with what they have to work with. Wilde does a reputable job for the little she is given as Will’s mother. I sometimes think she is capable of more than she produces, sometimes being reduced to just a pretty face and nothing more. You can’t help but bat an eye at some of the films she chooses to star in. Seyfried does fine work, working with something far more substantial than Twilight wannabe turds like Red Riding Hood. The vet here in all the sci-fi techno babble is Cillian Murphy as Raymond Leon. Murphy is a truly gifted actor that is always just below the radar. I wish he would get another major leading man role, as he always knocks it out of the park when he is in front of the camera (Seriously, just look at 28 Days Later, Red Eye, Batman Begins, and Inception!). Murphy does a good majority of the heavy lifting, even if he does look like he raided the wardrobe of The Matrix.
At the end of the day, In Time is an average thought provoking attack on capitalism and class rank. It also slips in some existential hooey but it’s fairly elementary and you will be just waving it off. Reluctant to embrace what it truly is, which is simply a futuristic Robin Hood thriller with some minor ideas and dressed in all black, it’s a decent little ride. You won’t be taking any of it home with you, replaying any major action sequences in your head, or raving about any performance outside of Murphy’s. You will be left wondering how Timberlake’s Salas magically morphs from desperate kid in the ghetto to ass-kicking superhero. Don’t concern yourself with it too much, you’ll never be told. In Time is uneven and bumpy, making me wish that I didn’t invest forty minutes of my time in the final act. If you’re in the market for a film in which all the actors and actresses look pretty, look no further than In Time.