RED STATE

By R. David

Writer/director Kevin Smith has made a career out of crafting irreverent and explicitly honest comedies like “Clerks”, “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma” (to cite the best of his works).  His latest film, “Red State”, a thriller depicting the evils of fanatical fundamentalism, is his first true stab at topical drama.  There is some of his trademark humor, but it is subtle and often pitch black.  No hollerings of “Snootchie Bootchies!” here.  His ardent supporters, who have long championed Smith as a genius wordsmith who is underrated simply because he works in the comedy milieu and his frank and explicit language is not well-suited for mainstream audiences, will no doubt take “Red State” as an opportunity to suggest he has finally fulfilled the promise of his talent.  Smith has written and directed a movie that deals with serious, heavy issues – political, religious, moral – without any of the bodily fluid, sex, and pop culture jokes (particularly “Star Wars” and comic books; his go-to entrainment fetish objects) that are typically the focal points of all his films.  For Smith, as well as his fans, the hope is that “Red State” will be a watershed moment for his detractors, as well as a reintroduction to former fans who have written him off as a one trick pony who has spent the later half of his career simply recycling the same shtick.  I’m sure Smith would also like “Red State” to stir enough debate to get people talking about all of the hot-button issues the film tackles, as well as talking about Smith as a truly great writer and director.

Smith’s strong suite has always been his dialog.  Honest, realistic, refreshing, explicit, shocking, and almost always very funny, it is always the best thing about any of his films (and in the case of some of his worst, the lone saving grace; I’m looking at you “Mallrats”).  As a director though, Smith is generally barely adequate.  There is something quaint about a guy who is willing to just set up a camera and let the actors and dialog do the heavy lifting, not getting in the way of a scene with a bunch of showy camera moves.  This works in a movie like “Clerks” or “Chasing Amy” where the intent of the film is essentially to have the audience eavesdropping on all the different characters’ conversations and relationships.  However, in his more ambitious Hollywood fare (“Dogma”, “Jersey Girl”, “Cop Out”), Smith’s utter lack of knowledge – or interest – in how to set up shots and move the camera sticks out like a sore thumb.  It may give those films sort of an “indy vibe” (whatever that’s worth), but it makes the production look strictly like amateur hour.  Smith would be smart to keep writing, but tap other directors to tackle his more ambitious projects.  One of the biggest head-scratchers about “Cop-Out” was the fact that Smith directed the film, but somebody else wrote it.  That’s like having Steven Spielberg write a movie for Stephen King to direct.

One of the most fascinating things about “Red State” is that it is clearly the work of Smith at professional crossroads.  It was made and distributed outside of the typical Hollywood channels, it is clearly a small budget affair, and there is plenty of profanity and in-your-face dialog.  In many ways, this is Smith going back to his roots.  But “Red State” is also topical, serious, dark, violent and unsettling.  Smith’s films have always been romances at heart.  No matter how much conflict his characters may endure, in the end Smith’s films all prove to be feel-good comedies.  There is nothing in the look, feel or tone of “Red State” to suggest it was made by the same writer/director who has made an entire career out of irreverent larks like “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”.  It has more in common with a 70s grindhouse exercise or a throwback like Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects” than anything Smith has ever done.

That’s a pretty big departure, especially for a guy with as fervent and loyal a fanbase as Smith. But the gamble pays off.  “Red State”, besides being a breath of fresh air for Smith, is a pretty ambitious, effective and well-made movie by any measure.  While it starts out a bit obvious and heavy-handed and sporting some tedious dialog, “Red State eventually settles into a nicely claustrophobic groove, with Smith successfully delivering an issue movie that also functions as a wickedly entertaining thriller.  For a film all about religious and political soap-boxing, the film never feels too preachy or over-sold.

Things begin with three small-town teens who, anxious to loose their virginity, answer an on-line ad promising them a four-way with an aging trailer park prostitute (Melissa Leo).  She tells them she wants them all to be at least two beers deep before she will be comfortable letting them all take a run at her.  They are only too happy to oblige her request.  The beer is drugged though, and the next thing the kids know they’re waking up caged and bounded and gagged in the 5-Points church, a cultish compound run by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks).  Cooper is a fire-and brimstone preacher who makes the gay-hating, rapture-welcoming Fred Phelps clan in Alabama look like the Mormons.  Rather than simply protest the evils of homosexuality and fornication, Cooper and his followers have decided to act as the hammer of God and start dolling out death sentences.  They are also stockpiling automatic weapons, preparing for the day when they will unleash God’s vengeance on the masses.

Parks, a Tarantino favorite, is terrific as Cooper.  Audiences who recall him from the “Kill Bill” films and “From Dusk Till Dawn” know just how creepy and effective his soft, raspy, menacing vocal inclinations can be.  Like many of the most frightening movie villains, Parks exudes a eerie calm, suggesting he has no emotional attachment, doubt or fear to appeal to.  John Goodman, playing an ATF agent tracking Cooper, is nearly as good in a performance that requires the exact opposite approach.  He is all emotion.  His character is rarely calm, always shouting, and constantly doubting and questioning his motivations and the tasks he is asked to carry out by his superiors.  The two men meet in a standoff outside the Five Points compound and here Smith adds yet another layer of commentary as the situation recalls the Waco, Texas Branch Dividians debacle of 20 years ago.

That’s the basic outline of “Red State’s” premise, but as anyone who is a fan of a particular screenwriter knows, the basic beats of the plot are really less interesting than the commentary, dialog, and situations that occur along the way.  Smith the writer does not disappoint here.  Though there are times where he is perhaps being too self-indulgent (he let’s Parks go through a full-on sermon in one scene, and though it’s presumably a tactic to build suspense as the three boys’ lives hang in the balance, it goes on far too long; also the film could have nixed the on-the-nose commentary about the Five Pointers from the high school class and their teacher near the beginning of the film), he somehow keeps all the balls he’s juggling in the air; tackling organized religion, homophobia, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and dangers of the media and the government in times of crisis all with equal gusto.  Smith doesn’t short change any of his issues, but he doesn’t get tangled up in them either.  The film is surprisingly quite deftly written and very straightforward for a movie dealing with issues that are anything but.  And of course there is a lot of clever and often funny dialog (“Take the children outside, it’s about to get mighty grown-up in here.”).

The real surprise in ‘Red State” though is Smith the director.  The movie not only looks like it was shot by a guy with some vision for once, but it actually has a distinctive look and a vibe going for it.  It may not be one that Smith has invented – you’ll recognize it’s grungy, grimy, almost docudrama-like shooting style from other thrillers – but it works as a breath of fresh air for one of his films.  It is also completely effective here and perfectly suited to the material.  The look of the film, like the subtle nuances in Parks voice, is one of the effects that makes it so unsettling, beyond any of the shock and awe moments (of which there are a few).

“Red State” isn’t perfect.  Smith overplays his hand and overreaches in various ways. But the movie has such an energy and establishes an almost perfect tone and pace (after a slightly rocky start) that it’s hard not to become completely enraptured by it.  And of course there is the fact that this is not only the best Kevin Smith movie in a long time, but the most unique film he has ever made and certainly his best work behind the camera.

He might be 20 years into his career, but Kevin Smith is a director to keep your eye on.

3 and a half stars out of 4.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY

FX, Wednesdays, 10/9p.m.

By R.  David

Three episodes in and American Horror Story just keeps getting better.  And crazier.

The pilot was an attention-getter, with its gothic setting, arresting visuals, and ominous textures.  But as with any television show, the series must prove itself to be more than a one-trick pony.  Viewers need a reason to return week after week.  This isn’t an easy task for any show, but especially one in the horror genre.  What was scary once, is not going to continue to deliver chills if recycled week after week.  Going in I was a bit trepidations about AHS for this very reason.  An old fashioned haunted house tale mixed with the FX network’s penchant for button and boundary-pushing drama (The Shield, Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck) guaranteed that I would watch, but I would quickly lose interest in a show that simply aimed to scare by having different creepy-looking things pop out of closets week after week.

Oh me of little faith.

Though still in its infancy, it seems the writers have already figured out a few ways to keep AHS from lapsing into traditional spook-house fare.  Each episode has begun with a flashback of sorts to one of the many nasty bits from the damned home’s history.  These opening scenes, a prelude of sorts to the show proper, set the tone and theme for the rest of the episode as well as providing valuable backstory and pieces to the larger puzzle that AHS seems to be crafting.  With each outing, the show looks more and more to be a overarching mystery.  There are little clues, red herrings, and questions sprinkled throughout each episode, leading the viewer to believe this may prove to be a show where attention to detail will be rewarded, ala something like Lost.

These openers also go a long toward fulfilling the “Horror” promise of the title.  The main characters in the show (so far, at least) don’t typically run afoul of the ghosts who haunt the house in obvious and straightforward ways.  The haunting is subtle, leaving them to questioning if what they are seeing is real.  The ghosts get in these peoples’ heads and mess around.  Already suspicious and resentful of each other, they turn on their family, friends, and employees when given even the slightest reason; and the characters can’t decide if it’s all real or a manifestation of their own guilt and rage.

This approach, as opposed to non-stop shock and awe, is necessary of course because otherwise all you would have week after week is bloody ghost battle after bloody ghost battle, until the show would inevitably – and quickly – become more comical than Ghostbusters.  The characters must continue to question what is going on both in their home and their heads in order for the show to remain intriguing for the long haul and create a mounting sense of dread.

But the flashback sequences are anything-goes affairs where each week the writers can think up whatever crazy, horrific, bloody scenario they want to see thrown up on the screen.  There needn’t be any rules here because the outcome doesn’t affect the main story and, frankly, the crazier and more horrific the past instances, the more we care about these characters who must shoulder the weight and consequences of those past events in the present.

If you aren’t yet familiar with the AHS, Dylan McDermott stars as Ben, a Psychiatrist who’s wife, Vivien (Connie Brighton), caught him having affair shortly after she lost their second pregnancy.  He blamed the trauma of the miscarriage and her coping by retreating inward as his reason for straying.  They agree to work on salvaging their marriage, but away from the distractions and temptations of city life.  With their teenage daughter, they retreat to a sprawling colonial-era mansion on the outskirts of L.A.  There they meet a host of creepy types – a cold and calculating next door neighbor (Jessica Lange, in a brava performance), an elderly maid who appears to Ben as a young and sexy temptress, a badly burned convicted murderer and former owner of the home, Ben’s newest patient, a teenager with murderous fantasies who sets his sights on Ben’s daughter – and their basement and attic each house a treasure trove of disturbing objects and buried secrets.  And that hardly scratches the surface of all that unfolds in this wildly inventive, unhinged and entertaining new series.

I could go on for pages with the specifics of each character, theories on what’s really going on and where the show is headed; and explain all the frightful craziness that has already taken place in just the first few episodes, but I’d rather you watch it for yourself because so far AHS has proved to be one of the best shows of the new television season.  It was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, the guys who brought us the equally twisted and audacious “Nip/Tuck”.  It is a genuine concern that “Nip/Tuck” jumped the shark pretty quickly after a stellar first season.  The seasons that followed got more crazy and outlandish but seemed to sacrifice any connection to reality in the bargain.  It also became completely devoid of surprises, suspense and anything resembling the breath of fresh it air that it was when it first premiered.  Plots were recycled repeatedly and the show seemed to lose all direction and ambition.  The characters that we should have grown to care more about with each season instead grew increasingly tiresome, pathetic and off-putting.  By the end there was no one to care about or root for (a similar fate seems to be befalling their other current TV hit, Glee, now only in season 3).

AHS could very easily fall into the same trap.  Any show that is based on a gimmick or embraces style over substance has to work extra hard to keep itself fresh and exciting.  But if Murphy and Falcheck can continue to find ways to keep the drama and scares fresh, the events grounded in some sort of reality so what these people are going through actually means something to the viewer, and the show from lapsing into self-parody and soapy melodrama, American Horror Story might just be crazy enough to work.

MONEYBALL

By R. David

Published September 23, 2011

If there were still any doubt, “Moneyball” proves Arron Sorkin can craft a wholly entertaining film from any subject. Though co-written with Steve Zaillian and Stan Chervin, “Moneyball” bears the Sorkin stamp of crackling dialog and swaggering attitude. Much as his Oscar-winning script for “The Social Network” did for a movie about Facebook, his sharp and extremely kinetic screenplay for “Moneyball” makes what will no doubt be referenced as “that new baseball movie with Brad Pitt” a far more interesting and entertaining film than it otherwise might have been.

Though a traditional biopic on the surface, “Moneyball” hits all the necessary beats of it’s true events basis, but it also becomes more of character study of Billy Beane (Pitt), a pro ball player in his youth who could never live up to his promise in the big leagues, turned GM of the Oakland A’s. His team is underfunded and unable to buy the necessary talent to win championships the way, say, the Yankees can. The year is 2001 and the A’s have just lost out on a trip to the World Series. He sees no way to ensure a second chance in the up-coming season, as all of his star players have been gobbled up by franchises with far deeper pockets than the A’s can compete with. On the advice of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale grad turned MLB stat-cruncher, Beane attempts a radical strategy of accumulating under-valued players who may not have the flash and superhero capabilities of the all-stars, but are able to hit, get on base and play to their individual strengths. Their plan, which Beane likens to “dealers at the blackjack table”, is simply to get on base and score runs over the long haul. Beane’s team of coaches, managers and scouts is not easily convinced. He loses a long-time scout and butts heads endlessly with coach Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffamn), but he is a committed, determined, and stubborn man. He will stand by the courage of his convictions even if it means the end of his career. The way Beane sees it, they simply have nothing to loose. Business as usual wasn’t working, and it certainly wasn’t working for him. Unfulfilled and frustrated in his job, Beane wants to turn the A’s franchise around as much for his own sense of worth as he does to win a championship. Probably more.

“Moneyball” is not simply the story of how Oakland started that 2002 season with a ragtag team of misfits and 11 loses in a row before accomplishing a 20-game winning streak, a new American League record; though that would have made for a perfectly captivating story on its own. No, the film is about Beane’s determination and frustration, and his disgust with the politics of baseball and the tole they were taking on underfunded teams and unappreciated players. The film is also, at its core, about how a business is run successfully by taking into account concepts such as risk VS reward. It’s about learning to work the system and how far you can – how far you are willing – to push the boundaries of tradition in order to make a difference. Just as the story of Facebook was merely the canvas on which all the legal, emotional, and interpersonal dynamics of “The Social Network” played out, the story of the A’s 2002 season really serves as the backdrop for a character study of Beane and the tale of how he and Brand saw through a plan just crazy enough to work, and the impact their radical way of thinking had on the business of baseball.

Pitt and Hill are both perfectly cast. Hill may surprise more people because he has previously only – for the most part – stared in raunchy comedies, but its Pitt who is something of a revelation here. To me he’s always struck the same note of smirk and smolder in any role. Whatever character he’s playing, he’s always Brad Pitt. The Billy Beane character doesn’t exactly throw Pitt outside of his comfort zone: Beane, as presented here, he’s a cocksure charmer, at least that’s how he projects himself on the surface, which is more or less the Pitt brand. But Beane is tormented beneath his confident, roguish exterior. Not to the point of Oscar-baiting melodrama though, which a lesser film might have pushed for. Pitt finds a way of conveying to the audience Beane’s fear and vulnerability while playing it cool. It’s an understated, but multi-layered performance that ranks among his best. The film around him goes through some of the sport flick and biopic motions, but again, the sharp script transcends genre conventions and trappings. It’s also no dead-serious, somber drama. “Moneyball” is a rousing, often very funny crowd-pleaser. It offers something for those who think they know the story, as well as novices and even those who could care less about baseball. The film is more than a than a simple account of the A’s 2002 season or a rumination on the sport itself.

Well written, performed, and extremely entertaining – and take it from someone who is the furthest thing from a big baseball fan – “Moneyball” is one of the year’s best films.

3 and a half stars out of 4

TUCKER AND DALE VS EVIL

By R. David

Published September 30, 2011

Like 2004s “Shaun of the Dead”, “Tucker & Dale VS. Evil” is not just a mere spoof of genre horror flicks, but a clever and original comedy in its own right. Unlike the average horror movie spoof, the film is not simply a string of scenes and dialog from other films, stitched together and played for laughs, with a bunch of random jabs at other films and pop culture targets; rather writers Eli Craig (who also directs) and Morgan Jurgenson – as Simon Peg and Nick Frost did with “Shaun” – use some of the genre conventions as a canvas to stage an original and very funny film all their own. Where “Shaun” tackled zombie flick conventions, “Tucker” takes on college-kids-in-the-remote-woods-with-a-killer-on-the-loose fare like “Wrong Turn” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.

Tucker and Dale are redneck best friends renovating their recently-purchased, dilapidated vacation cabin deep in the West Virginian mountains. They are mistaken for stupid, backwood, hillbilly killers by a bunch of obnoxious frat boys and their girlfriends, vacationing at a nearby cabin. Tucker and Dale save one of the girls from drowning, loading her unconscious body into their boat as her friends look on, who assume she is being kidnapped. Her friends attempt to come to her rescue, Tucker and Dale attempt to explain themselves, but as the misunderstandings and unfortunate coincidences continue to compound, so does the body count.

“Tucker & Dale” starts out a little obvious, trying to milk laughs out of gags like the college kids being horrified that they forgot beer and Tucker and Dale getting pulled over by the cops while one’s head is stuck in the other’s lap. Thankfully, the film has smarter ideas up it’s sleeve. “Tucker & Dale’s” true appeal is largely found in the way the script, rather than just mocking all the obvious targets of the slasher genre, takes care to come up with convincing ways to move the action and story along. No one could really blame the college kids – as unappealing as they may be – for assuming the worst of these two (especially if they’ve ever seen a horror movie in their lives), and as Tucker and Dale try disarm each disaster that the kids bring on themselves, there are plausible circumstances that result in them only getting in deeper of their heads. This also leads to Tucker and Dale essentially becoming the victims as they attempt to protect themselves from the vengeful kids, which is another clever twist on the genre.

Add to all this plenty of hilarious dialog and one-liners, spot-on deadpan performances from the two leads, and some very funny, outsized gross-out gags as each character meets their unfortunate end, and you have one of the year’s better, more spirited and – yes, despite some bloody moments – good-natured comedies in “Tucker & Dale VS. Evil”. A pleasant surprise.

3 stars out of 4

(Now playing in limited release and available On-demand.)

KILLER ELITE

By R. David

Published September 23, 2011

“Killer Elite” takes place in 1980, which is fitting because the film looks like something leftover from the Regan era. Based on the true story – though something tells me there is a lot of leeway implied in that word “based” here – of a Cold War hitman named Danny (Jason Statham) who is forced into doing one last job (is there ever any other kind in these sort of films?) when his mentor/partner (Robert DeNiro) is kidnapped by a dying Arab sheik looking to avenge the death of his three sons killed many years earlier (why the wait?). So Danny sets out to kill the three British agents responsible for the sons’ deaths, which puts Clive Owen, a former British SIS agent now working for some sort of underground military society, on his tail, who makes it his mission to stop Danny from reaching his targets at any cost.

 

There’s a lot going on in “Killer Elite”. Too Much. Some of it is very good. The film comes out of the gate with a great opening sequence and some strong work by DeNiro, who is unfortunately underused here. He has been taking paycheck roles for at least a decade now and most movie fans have probably wished to see less of him so he stops tarnishing his legendary reputation. Here is one film where fans will want to see more of him. All three leads are strong, though Statham is really just going through the “A Jason Statham Movie” motions, but there are some good scenes with him and his crew planning and executing (no pun intended) their targets.

Unfortunately, the plot is needlessly complicated, the film is way too talky for something that plays out typically and predictably for the genre, the dialog is cliched with many characters speaking in cheesy, soundbites (“Killing’s the easy part, living with it’s hard,” “I’m done with killing.” “Maybe killing ain’t done with you.”), and even at a relatively brisk 105 minutes, the film drags, a few well-staged action sequences not withstanding.

20 years ago films like “Killer Elite” were a dime a dozen. I’m not sure anyone has exactly been clamoring for a revival in the interim. But such is the case with most Jason Statham films. He’s good actor when he wants to be and has the necessary action hero chops, but he needs to stop making films that feel like they got lost in theaters on their way directly to DVD, or that’s exactly where they’ll start ending up.

2 stars out of 4

STRAW DOGS (2011)

By R. David

Published September 16, 2011

Like a lot of legendary films from the 70s, if you watch Sam Peckinpah’s original “Straw Dogs” (1971) for the first time today, you’re likely to wonder what all the fuss was about. Granted, it is a different time for film-making and one has to make allowances for the look and feel of a film made 40 years ago. But like a lot of Peckinpah’s films, “Dogs” has a reputation for being controversial; a surreal and haunting exploration into the human psyche and what drives meek men to unimaginable violence. Or so some will say. Though one expects the the look, style, dialog, and fashions to be outdated, anyone seeking out “Straw Dogs” would still assume it to live up to it’s reputation as being a startling and effective psychological thriller. But I fear most will be disappointed. The film became notorious for its violence at the time, though it is tame by today’s standards. Some critics will argue it is still effective, but anyone coming of age in a time of films like “Saw” and “Hostel” will disagree. Not that a film needs to verge on “torture porn” to be effective in its violence, but seen today, “Straw Dogs” is more of a curiosity than a film anyone is likely to say stirred their soul. You can feel the weighty subtext bubbling beneath the surface in many scenes (the notorious rape sequence, for instance, which divided viewers as to whether or not Susan George was enjoying herself and caused all kinds of outcry because of its ambiguity), but the film is so plodding and awkwardly staged, with many endless scenes that go nowhere, that it feels as though none of those dichotomies are ever truly explored.

Perhaps it is a case of “you had to be there at the time,” but I simply did not find the original “Straw Dogs” to be very effective, despite admiring it’s intentions.  40 years later, as the Hollywood remake machine continues to pillage any film it can get its hands on, “Straw Dogs” seems as good a candidate as any for an update. Even if you are in the camp that holds the original as a classic, you have to agree that it’s not likely to have the same effect on today’s generation. Call them too desensitized to violence or simply too easily distracted to grasp the subtext of the Peckinpah original, but they could probably use their own exploration of what drives typically mild mannered people to violent extremes. Unfortunately, “Straw Dogs” 2.0 is not that film.

James Marsdan and Kate Bosworth star as David and Amy, a Hollywood screenwriter and struggling actress wife who retreat to Amy’s hometown so David can work on his next project free of city-life distractions. Foolishly, he immediately hires Amy’s old flame Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) and his gang of good-old-boy ne’er-do-wells to makes some repairs to their home. Charlie not only develops a fixation on reclaiming Amy, but resents David’s seeming lack of manliness and his condescending attempts to fit in with locals he clearly thinks he is better than. As the two begin to clash, Amy too wonders if her husband has what it takes to defend her – or himself – from Charlie’s bullying, which escalates from intimidating stares to sick pranks, to rape, to murderous assault.

Everything about the original film has been updated here to take place in the 21st century (and in rural Southern America, as opposed to the English countryside setting of the original), except for the structure of the film, key scenes and entire lines of dialog. There’s not much point in remaking a film if you are going to do it virtually shot for shot (hasn’t director Rod Lurie ever seen Gus Van Sant’s much-maligned “Psycho” retread?). Worse yet, the film skimps where it counts, rather than ratcheting up the tension. The rape sequence is not only less graphic, but it is almost completely robbed of the original’s controversial subtext.  And about that rape scene; though we are supposed to be repelled by what is transpiring, how many woman in the audience are likely to be thinking about anything other than how enticing “True Blood” hunk Skarsgard looks slowly peeling off his sweaty work shirt to reveal his chiseled abs? Is this a rape scene in a gritty visceral drama, or something lifted from a late night Cinemax thriller? At the very least it takes away from the effectiveness of the scene, at worst it exploits it and turns it into a form of titillation (that is of course until Skarsgard’s meaner, less attractive and bearded friend takes a turn, then female viewers are free to recoil in the horror of such an experience). The same goes for the beat-for-beat finale; where David is forced to be as vicious as his attackers in order to protect himself and his wife. The original film used this slow-build to violence to question whether man is violent by nature or simply violent when given no other alternative. The remake is less concerned with such things. Sure the film shows David will spring into action when his life is threatened, but it never seems as though there is any question that he will. Too, the climatic violence is brutal, but not shockingly so, and it plays out more like the typical action climax of any horror film where the tormented protagonists turn the tables on their monstrous assailants.

Throw in a bunch of Down-South cliches and redneck caricatures, and you have film that is not only completely uninspired and derivative of its source material, but one that fails to ape the complexities and fearlessness of it despite stealing nearly everything else. I had misgivings about the original “Straw Dogs,” but at least it tried to explore some ideas, whatever its level of success. The remake has been streamlined and sanitized to better ensure mass consumption; which just makes it look and feel like every other movie of this type.

2 stars out of 4.

DRIVE

By R. David

Published September 16, 2011

“Drive” is a film likely to divide audiences. While critics have overwhelmingly showered it with praise (it is currently recommended by 93% of the nation’s critics, according to rottentomatoes.com), I suspect Joe Moviegoer will not know what to make of it. And make no mistake, “Drive” is a peculiar, and at times off-putting, film. Director Nicolas Winding Refn seems to be shooting for a film that represents some sort of fever dream. There is a languid, almost aloof air to much of the dialog and interactions. Characters spend long stretches of time simply gazing or smiling at each other, while in other instances, the camera zooms in, the lighting dims and two people will simply take a siesta from the action around them and disappear into their own little world. Just when “Drive” threatens to become too artsy or to crossover into some bizarre alternate reality, there are jarring acts of violence and real world conflict that dropkick the film – and the audience – back to reality. That is the point, I suppose; to make the violence and danger that much more impactful. But as these sort of existential films tend to do, “Drive” teeters on pretentious, and for many it will cross the line. Either you’re all in for this one, or its one big WTF of a movie.

Ryan Gosling stars as a strong/silent-type driver; stunt cars by day, getaway cars by night. The film gets off to a terrific start, immediately plunging the audience into a ride-along on one of his capers as he demonstrates both his deft handling of his vehicle and his ability to allude the cops. Then he meets the single mom next door (Carey Mulligan) and the film bogs down in a lot of standard stuff with the thick-skinned loner getting to know the wounded, vulnerable girl. They don’t so much interact as seem to orbit around one another. The writer and director would no doubt suggest more is being said with what is left unsaid, but their strange, silent interactions are pretty hard to take seriously. But then Mulligan’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isacc), is released from prison and some people from his past immediately threaten the whole family. Gosling agrees to be his driver for a pawn shop heist that will supposedly rid them all of danger, but that’s where things get really dicey, as double crosses and dead bodies start to pile up.

Once Gosling takes the job to protect Standard, “Drive” really takes off. And so does Gosling. I suppose its the intent of the film that up until this point Gosling has been silent, awkward and in some cases seemingly catatonic in his interactions and conversations with others, because it is that much more effective and imposing when he loses his cool and starts doling out threats and punches. There is a brilliant, bloody scene in a motel room that is more or less the dividing line between the flimsy, artsy-fartsy romance the film was threatening to become, and the Tarantinoesque shocker it wants to be at its heart.

The action sequences and tense showdowns in “Drive” are really its saving graces. The other aforementioned film-making tricks as presented might have worked in the hands of a more capable director.  Here, though you see what Refn is going for, it never feels organic, but rather like someone grabbing you by the collar and saying, “See?! See?! Look what I can do! Did you see what I just did there?! Get it?!” Such is not the case with the action sequences though. Refn takes some of the same chances – presenting them in unique ways – but with these scenes he is much more successful. They have an ugly and visceral realness that is appropriate to the tone of the film while also shattering the audiences sense of security that this film might flinch away when it comes to the ugliness of all this violence. These moments – and really the entire back half of the film – are good enough on their own to warrant a recommendation.

As are all the performances. Though Gosling is asked to act and react oddly early on, he pulls off the switch to tough guy convincingly. It’s not the Oscar-worthy performance some have suggested, but he equates himself admirably. Mulligan doesn’t have much to do here, but she is adequate in a stock role. And there are some juicy performances from Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks and “Sons of Anarchy’s” Ron Pearlman, each obviously relishing their hard-boiled dialog and posturing. And though I feel Refn overplays his hand with showy first half hour or so, there are worse things than being ambitious and not quite hitting the mark.

Too strange for some, too violent for others, “Drive” is essentially niche film. But that’s really just another way of saying it is a cult classic in waiting.

3 stars out of 4.

CONTAGION

By R. David

Published September 9, 2011

A decade ago, the poster for “Contagion,” Warner Bros.’ new biomedical thriller about the spread of one of those deadly viruses mankind has never dealt with before, would have sent me screaming in the other direction. Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet were some the most boring and overrated new stars – who made some of the most boring and overrated movies – of the late-90s and early-00s (“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” anyone?).

Paltrow still pops up in uber-dreck once in a while (like her recent guest spot on “Glee”, for instance), but she has been sidelined from staring roles in major films for over half a decade raising a child, so she is not nearly as over-exposed as she was at the beginning of the aughts. Law has been all but forgotten about in terms of big-screen stardom (except for the 4 or 5 people who caught him in last years “Repo Men” perhaps), and Damon has actually matured into a good actor, choosing to work in ambitious (if not always fully successful) films with quality directors and co-stars (like Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” last year), instead of simply cashing-in for the big paydays with cheap blockbuster fare. Only Winslet continues to make off-putting, manipulative, would-be high-brow Oscar-bait with each role she selects. But hey, you can’t have everything.

Seeing all these once (and in some cases, still) pretentious stars sign on for a very “Hollywood” thriller like “Contagion”, directed no less by Steven Soderbergh, a man who jumps across the line of pretentious art house realism and silly Hollywood blockbusters seemingly with each alternating project, is undeniably intriguing. Will it be the smartest, most original movie about a killer virus ever, or will it be boring, ponderous, metaphorical schlock? Surprise! The answer is C.  For the most part “Contagion” is really just more of the same old killer virus, how do we stop it, race against the clock stuff. Not that it doesn’t try to raise the bar a bit by lessening the all the gung-ho action sequences that usual resolve the conflicts in these sorts of films, but considering the cast and the director, it is a a bit disappointing to see such a conventional genre film result from their collective efforts. With a few more explosions, you’d essentially have an “Outbreak” reboot, and that may not have been such a bad idea seeing as how “Contagion” initially feels like it’s biding its time, building tension, but ultimately could use a shot of adrenaline. It’s one thing if you are ultimately going to take your film in a different direction, but if things are going to play out as they generally do in these kinds of films, at least have the decency to ratchet up the tension and pay it off with something other than some vague soap-boxing about the pharmaceutical industry and some equally halfhearted human emotional drama.

Things start off with Paltrow as a business woman who returns home from Tokyo with what she and her husband (Damon) assume is the flu. Within days the virus kills her and her young son who she has infected. Soon Paltrow’s entire town starts reporting cases of the virus and people begin dying. Enter biomedical engineers/infectious disease control experts Lawrence Fishburn and Kate Winslet who are charged with figuring out where the virus came from and how to stop it. They have their work cutout for them though because whatever the virus is is already a full-blown global pandemic, killing people all over the world

Damon does not contract the virus and is determined to keep his daughter from becoming exposed. His story arc of a father stopping at nothing to protect his child in the midst of a societal breakdown as fear and disease destroy the human population should be the emotional center of the film. But there is simply too much going on in “Contagion” and it is never able to devote enough time to any one of the stories it has spinning like so many plates in the air. If this cast and director were indeed committed to making a killer virus thriller that bucks the usual genre conventions, simply focusing on Damon and his daughter and the human threats they face in their very own community from the paranoia and fear the virus inspires in people and their actions, would probably have been the way to do it. Instead, the movie wants to be all things to all people and cover all the virus-movie ground possible. So we get globe-hoping sequences of Marion Cotillard (still not giving in to that whole speaking-understandable-English fad that’s sweeping the country) studying the supposed origin of the virus only to be taken hostage for the cure by threatening but sympathetic natives (“this is all that’s left of my village… and they will survive!”) and scenes with Law as a internet blogger who assumes there is a simple herbal cure for this thing but the greedy drug pushers that really run things would rather people die until they can market a manufactured cure (or is he simply exploiting this tragedy for his own financial gain?), among other characters, relationships, issues and idea that are all suggested and tossed into the ring, but never really explored.

“Contagion” has a terrific sense of style and atmosphere (I loved the opening shot: “Day 2″ is plastered across an image of a pasty Paltrow, already sweating and coughing, suggesting to the viewer that we are already in danger and behind the 8 ball), and for a while at least succeeds in building a sense of impending doom. But as the military gets involved and more people start dying the film has no idea what to do except show the usual shots of abandoned small towns, shallow graves overflowing with the infected, high school gymnasiums that have become makeshift triage units, and guys in lab coats staring into microscopes and speaking in a lot of scientific jargon. Some of the characters are worried about national security, others plausible deniability and others just about themselves and their families. It’s the Hollywood Virus Thriller Playbook and “Contagion” runs it play for play.

I guess you can’t really have this sort of film without all those scenes and characters. After all, those are all things that would more than likely happen if a situation like the one in films like this were to occur. But do we need to see a story like this presented from that angle yet again? “Contagion” looked to be something more, or at least different. But despite good ideas and good performances, it’s just more of the same.

2 stars out of 4.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK

By R. David

Published August 26, 2011

Who says there’s no truth in advertising? “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” couldn’t have a more bluntly appropriate title. The film is a predictable, cliche-ridden, utterly by-the-numbers thriller; which is disappointing since the film was written and Produced by Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) who’s films, if nothing else, are always ambitious and original. It’s telling that the film is not directed by him, although it might as well be since the look, feel and overall vibe of the proceedings bare his stamp. Unfortunately, his trademark atmosphere is about all “Dark” has going for it. The story itself and the scares, or lack there of, are standard haunted house movie stuff; so well-worn that there might as well be pop-up skeletons in the closet doors. And the one truly good gotcha! moment is spoiled because it is not only used in the trailer, but the film’s entire ad campaign has more or less been based around it.

An architect (Guy Pierce), his estranged young daughter (Bailee Madison), and his interior designer girlfriend (Katie Holmes) move into a Gothic mansion hoping to restore it and score the cover of Architectural Digest for their efforts. But shucks, a bunch of murderous fairies who feast on the teeth of children have haunted this place for years, so dad says, “Well we better turn around and get the ef outta here,” end of movie. Nah, of course not. Nobody believes the little girl when she tells them marauding tooth faeries are coming after her; which they do, apparently, because she fits the horror movie mold of a kid who’s kinda depressed, rebellious, spends her down time in a possessed-like state drawing spiraling black circles, and is all around just emo enough that she’s curious about them until she discovers they’re scary, at which point she realizes she probably shouldn’t have opened the boiler room furnace for the whispering voices she heard coming out of it. If only there was some way she might have known that would turn out to be a bad idea before hand… The father assumes she is crazy, because that’s what parents in these movies always do. They even bring in a psychiatrist to check her out. No kidding. They don’t just talk about doing it, there is actually a scene with a psychiatrist (give the filmmakers credit, the film may wallow in cliches, but at least they are committed to leaving no cliche unused; I didn’t even mention the gruff groundskeeper who seems to know more than he is telling about the old spooky joint). The girlfriend though starts to believe her because someone has to go to the library and discover all the backstory on the old spooky house for the audience, and the kid is too young to drive. But the girlfriend doesn’t believe her until just about the time Dad has the people from Architectural Digest come to the house for the all-important dinner that will make or break his career (because, as he reminds us several times, “I sank every penny I got into this house!”). Needless to say, things don’t go well at the dinner, unless being attacked by tooth fairies from hell (or the boiler room anyway) is your idea of a quality cocktail hour.

This take on “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”, which is a remake of fairly well-regarded 1970s TV movie, is dumb, predictable, boring and ridiculous. We see too much of the “monsters”, to the point that – pretty quickly – they’re no longer scary, and at the end – after following the horror movie playbook note for note the whole way through – the movie throws one final, cheap, obvious cliche at the audience: Leaving the door open for a sequel. Now that’s the scariest thing in the whole movie.

1 and a half stars out of 4.

30 MINUTES OR LESS

By R. David

Published August 26, 2011

Despite its silly premise and a trailer that basically warns of nothing more than a rude, crude action comedy, “30 Minutes or Less” has such a strong pedigree going in that it’s a shame the film turns out to be such a run of the mill comedic shoot-‘em-up. Jesse Eisenberg is hot off the heals of his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Social Network” (and really, he’s been doing solid work for a long time), he is reuniting with his “Zombieland” director Reuben Fleischer for a similar lowbrow genre mash-up, Aziz Ansari is currently one of the funniest supporting characters on network TV and has a hugely funny stand-up routine, and Danny McBride is a master of the clueless, meat-head, deadpan delivery (even if he seems to be inching towards over-exposure and one trick pony status with each new project that has him always playing the same character). Add all that up and “30 Minutes or Less” should be hilarious, slam-bang entertainment. Yet, curiously, the film never finds its groove.

Eisenberg plays a mid-20s slacker who works as a pizza delivery boy for a boss he hates rather than living up to his full potential (as always seems to be the case).  Ansari is his childhood best friend who is trying to grow up, taking a job as a responsible school teacher, something that drives a wedge between the two.  So does the fact that Eisenberg is crushing on Ansari’s sister, which drives Ansari crazy, for no real reason other than the fact that these sort of films demand that no matter how good of friends two characters are, they draw the line at the idea of becoming brothers-in-law.  Meanwhile, the son of a former military lottery winner (McBride) and his doofus pal (Nick Swardson) have concocted a plot to murder dear old Dad (Fred Ward) and steal his lotto winnings in order to realize their dream of opening up a tanning salon that will in actuality be a front for their prostitution ring (yup).  But before they can cash-in on Dad’s bank account they need some cash to pay a hitman to do their dirty work.  So, naturally, they kidnap Eisenberg, strap a bomb to his chest and force him to rob a bank.  If all of this wasn’t far-out enough, the film also wants to juggle Eisenberg and Ansari patching up their relationship, as well as Eisenberg getting the girl, telling off his boss, and realizing his true potential.

In another – better executed – film, this all might have been just crazy enough to work.  But “30 Minutes or Less” is a curiously lifeless affair.  It’s as if the writers thought their far-out premise and talented cast were enough to result in hilarity that they didn’t bother to write anything of comedic substance.  None of the characters have the zippy rapport that Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson carried off so effortlessly in “Zombieland”, and Fleischer can’t find the breezy tone of that film here either. The film shucks and jives awkwardly from stoner comedy, to violent action flick, to bromance, to rom com, never convincingly or successfully pulling off any of one those. Given the talent on display here, one would think they could wring some laughs out of even the sloppiest of material, but with few exceptions, this movie is strictly amateur hour. Everyone forgot to bring their A-game and is just going through the motions.

All that said, “30 Minutes or Less” is disappointing, but it’s hardly the worst comedy you’re likely to come across. At it least it has a certain manic energy and barreling momentum going for it (and a mercifully short running time of just over 80 minutes). A few of the jokes hit and the cast can’t help get in a few line readings and reaction shots that earn laughs. No one should rush out and see this by any means, but the raunchy zaniness might be enough for some to warrant giving
“30 minutes or Less” a shot when it hits Cinemax in a few months.

2 stars out of 4.