Sep 12, 2011

[REVIEW] @ThatKevinSmith - Red State

NOTE: There are some spoilers in the review below.  Nothing major, but you might want to avoid it if you are wanting to be 100% spoiler free for your viewing of the movie.

When I first heard that Kevin Smith was making a horror film called "Red State", I thought, first of all, that the Religious Right in this country was going to feast on Kevin yet again.  When Smith did the film "Dogma", there were many Catholics and members of the Religious Right in America that took offense to just the little tidbits they had heard about it.  Mind you, they hadn't seen the movie, and were more than likely just repeating things they heard on Fox News or their faith based radio stations, but they were outraged, I tell you.

I saw Dogma in the theater when I was homeless and living in Bellingham Washington.  A friend asked if I wanted to go and so since it was a movie and he was paying, I was all in.  After seeing it, I GUESS I could see that there might be some things that people would take offense to, but I think if you take it as a whole, it's not really that offensive.

I viewed Dogma as less an attack on the Catholic Church or Christianity in general as it was a reminder of the hypocrisies that Smith viewed in his own faith.   He had serious issues with aspects of his faith, as I'm sure many of us do, and he used his medium that he worked in to point those out, while also creating an entertaining film.

With Red State, just based on the name I knew would stir up trouble, at least politically.  And then when I heard it was going to be allegedly based on the Westboro Baptist Church I was thinking, "Man, that Kevin Smith is a masochist".   As more and more info came out about the movie, I was intrigued.  He was self financing and self distributing the movie, as well as taking it on a cross country tour of movie screenings and Q&A's.   This is definitely not the leit motif of movie making.

And people naturally I suppose bucked that decision, with some seemingly calling him arrogant, others calling him a liar (after he said he would auction off the rights to distribute the film, and then bought them himself for a dollar), but I think these people are simply looking for reasons to be mad.  I have a little bit of that in me, admittedly, where sometimes it feels like I'm not happy unless I'm pissed off about something.

And some of these people DEFINITELY feel like they have a bug up their ass and just need to vent about someone, because some of the things being said bordered on obsessive, and the ensuing negative reviews seemed to be less about the movie being good or bad, but rather their own feelings about the director.

So I was interested in this movie from the beginning, but I'm not a horror movie fan.  I can count on one hand the number of horror movies that I have truly enjoyed over the years (Frailty, Haute Tension, Ginger Snaps, Hannibal Rising, so I wasn't as gung ho as normal for Smith's films, but he had built up enough cred with me that I was going to see it regardless.

One thing I noticed about the posters and the trailers, was that the director credit was Kevin's twitter account @ThatKevinSmith. I think that's appropriate, because I am sure a lot of people will be seeing the poster or seeing the trailers for it, particularly the redband trailer, and utter those exact words. "Wait... THAT Kevin Smith?"

This is virgin territory for Smith, who has made his career by creating comedy films that had a pretty set demographic that it was aiming for.   With Red State, Smith has stepped out of the shadow that he had cast for himself, and decided to try something new.   The great ones, whether actors, directors, musicians, artists, writers, or whatever have all done this.  Stepped out of the comfort zone that they have created for themselves, and ventured out into the great unknown.   Much like Truman Burbank, tearing through the wall that was the limitations of his world, despite not knowing what was on that other side awaiting him, Smith has ventured out from the safe haven that is the comedy genre.

And in the process he has done something remarkable: As is the case often when someone just has the balls to step out and try something unexpected, he succeeded.  He's created a film that is really difficult to categorize.  It's classified as a "Horror" film, and Smith himself has referred to it as so, and yet it's not your typical straightforward horror film.  There are the horror elements to it, namely the unsuspecting teens trying to get their rocks off, only to find themselves in terrorizing circumstances, yet that's where the similarities to other horror films end.

However, Smith has said it is a horror film, and some of the negative reviewers keep pointing to various things and saying "this isn't a horror film".  I think it is one, in a way, however the reason people seem to have a problem with this is that to be fair it's not a horror film in the traditional sense.   This isn't a slasher film, or a movie that features people being hunted down by a killer or killers taking them out one at a time, before finally being killed at the end by the one or two survivors.

When we think of "horror movie" we think of Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the torture porn type showings of Saw or Hostel. Maybe you think of the zombie or vampire or werewolf fares, or even Jaws.  These are traditionally viewed as "horror" films.This is a horror film, just not in the traditional sense.  And let's be honest here folks: Is there anything traditional about Red State?  From it's creation, to marketing, to distribution, to the cross country viewings with Q&A's, there's really nothing traditional about how Kevin has gone about this whole deal.   So it stands to reason that his movie wouldn't conform to what most people traditionally consider a horror movie.

The reason I think it's a horror movie is that, to me, the very best horror, has always been psychological.  I was never into the more shock value type so-called torture porn movies, because I think those sacrificed actual terror and scares for blood and gore, which isn't scary to me it's just dumb.

This, though is not that.  This is an intelligent movie about some truly horrific people.  The fact that we know about the Phelps' and their deranged church adds to the fact.  This isn't a movie just about some random creation of the writer's mind.  This isn't a group of people who have no basis in reality that we can simply write off as imaginary.  This is a group of people, The Coopers, who are very much a product of a real problem in our society, and that is extreme fundamentalists. 

And I think the true horror aspect to this is similar to how I felt when watching the brilliant film Frailty, which was directed by Bill Paxton.  In that film you're watching something unfold that feels real.  You're not watching zombies or werewolves or vampires or inbred hillbillies that love to rape and kill you (not necessarily in that order).  You're watching something that is highly relateable in the sense that you know there are people like this in the world.

The fact that there are people who believe that God has ordained them to kill people in His name is terrifying to me.  And what makes Abin Cooper and his kin the most dangerous and terrifying to me is how seemingly normal they are one minute, and how utterly despicable they are the next.

You watch this and think "Oh my God, these people sing the same songs we sang in church.  They read the same verses we read in church.  That church looks like churches I've been in".   And the kick in the head that you get when you really think about it is that here are people who while singing the same songs and reading the same verses are getting something COMPLETELY different than you are.

And that drives home the idea of religious fundamentalist extremists.  These people take and co-opt an entire religion and twist it to fit their own demented ideas.   If you want to find something in the Bible that will advocate any number of horrible things, you can.  Same with the Quran and any other religious text.  There are other verses that perhaps contradict with them, however all you need is that one verse. There's a verse that says "An Eye for an Eye", which many proponents of the death penalty use to justify it.  Yet there's also verses that talk about not repaying evil with evil, and that God has decreed that vengeance is HIS, not ours.  

And often people will abuse and misuse the Bible to fit their own prejudices.   It's like that saying, "You know you've created God in your own image, when He hates all the same people that you do."With so many translations over the years, with so many things being written down hundreds of years AFTER it happened, I would imagine that using the Bible to discriminate or justify discrimination or worse against a group of people would not be the wisest thing to do.  And yet that's exactly what happens in this world.

And that is what the Phelps' do in Kansas, and that is what the Five Pointers do in Red State.   Now the movie makes sure to throw in a couple lines distancing itself from the idea that Smith is drawing a direct comparison between the mostly verbal Phelps family and the bloodthirsty psychotic Cooper family.   And I don't think the Phelps family is out there killing people, but it is interesting as this film basically takes what the Phelps say and follows it to it's natural conclusion. 

If you are talking about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as the Phelps do, and you quote scripture about how it's an abomination and punishable by death, then it's only natural to question whether you believe that they SHOULD be put to death. In Red State, the Coopers actually do this, and from the way they disposed of their victim in the beginning of the movie, I have to think they've been at this awhile. 

So the basic story of the movie involves essentially three storylines.  The first storyline involves three best friends in high school who decide to answer an online ad for a woman who wants to have sex with all three of them at the same time. That leads into the second storyline which centers around the Five Point Church that have violently anti-homosexual stances and their means of dealing with what they see as "wickedness" and as a result of this, and an incident involving the three friends, that leads into the third aspect, which is the Waco style siege that takes place with John Goodman's ATF task force outside the gates, and Michael Parks & Melissa Leo and the Five Pointers inside the church.

A criticism that I've seen leveled at the movie is that it is a thinly veiled propaganda about the government and how they wanna kill everyone. I think these people are missing the point.  It's explicitly stated in the film why they decided to take the measures they do, and I thought it was fairly obvious, and that was the lack of media.  The nearest news station was 100 miles away, and the local paper printed weekly.  

I'm not a crazy anti-government nut, and I'm not a conspiracy theorist at all.  That said, does anyone reading this think that if the government was outside a compound with people they viewed as domestic terrorists (or any kind of terrorists) inside, and there was ZERO media to report what they do, that there would be a concern over how to make sure things don't go to shit?   I think that in this day and age of cell phone cameras and blogs and social media, that those in power have to take all that into consideration before making a move.

Every decision is weighed with the blowback if the general public gets wind of it and sees it.   Think about the reaction to the siege at the Koresh compound in Waco Texas.  Think about the uproar in the media about how that was handled.  Now, seeing how that played out, it is easy to see why those in power are hesitant to do things that would get them portrayed as loose cannons or blood thirsty or uncaring of innocent lives.

More current, look at some of the leaked information that has come out due to Wikileaks and Anonymous.  You have some soldiers overseas who have done some horrific things, because they think nobody will ever know.  How would they, right?  But things always have a way of coming out.  Sins always have a way of being exposed, and when you slaughter an entire village of people for no reason, you do it because you don't think people will ever find out. If you have cameras in your face you're not going to do that. Because there will be repercussions.

Which is why we've seen numerous instances of police officers arresting and jailing citizens who videotape them with their cellphones or cameras as they are arresting people.  None of the police officers want their actions second guessed and held up for public viewing, especially with the rash of police brutality claims and instances of police using violent unnecessary force against unarmed suspects.

And that's how I viewed Red State and how Goodman's team handled it, and I liked how Goodman clearly stated he was not in favor of it and wanted documentation stating clearly what he was being asked to do, in case there was repercussions.  I did laugh when he demanded a text or an email.  Technology, eh?

There were a few things I didn't like about the movie, but nothing major or altering my view of it.  I think the dialogue in the beginning, in the classroom, seemed a bit...I don't know.  It just didn't feel or sound right.  It was as if they were preaching to us instead of having a natural conversation.  Perhaps that was just me, but that didn't really mesh well.  I thought once that scene was done though, it was pretty smooth sailing.

I thought Stephen Root's character was a tad bit over the top, specifically with how he acted around Goodman's character and how he basically came off as a Keystone Cop. 

The performances were impressive nearly all around though, starting with Michael Parks and Melissa Leo who were both incredible.  Parks was both charming and terrifying as the leader of the church, Abin Cooper, and has been named as a potential Oscar nominee.  Previous Oscar winner Leo, as his daughter, was mostly just scary as shit.   Jennifer Schwalbach, who is married to the director, turned in a solid performance as well as Esther, one of the church members who appears to be handy with an assault weapon.

Outside of the church, John Goodman is really good as the leader of the ATF agents that are parked outside the gates of the compound, and Kevin Pollack provides some nice one liners, specifically his reaction to Goodman's money quote about the gigantic cross that's towering over them.   I was also surprised to see Kevin Alejandro (currently on this season of True Blood) whose character was clearly someone who while they didn't like what they had to do, they were more than willing to go one million percent in doing it.  That took me by surprise, I admit.

Also the three teens I had never seen them in anything before (although I know I recognize Kyle Gallner from something), but they were all very believable and their acting was pretty good. There's a specific scene partway through it where one of the teens is running down a hallway, and Smith used the old "shaky cam" directly in front of the actor.  I usually don't care for this, but it was used very effectively in this film.

Final note on the acting, The deputy who went to investigate the car accident up near the compound, was hilarious, only because it was funny to me who it was.  I'm not going to ruin that, because as soon as I heard his voice I was like "I know that guy...I know that voice", but couldn't place it.  Then when I saw his face I just laughed.  He was good as well in his two or three scenes.

Kevin has talked about how he thinks this is his best movie he's ever made. While this isn't my favorite film that he's done (Chasing Amy), I do think that overall it's a very good film that is completely different than anything he has done before.  And for that, he needs to get some credit.  It's very easy to stay in that comfort zone and not step out, but Smith didn't do that.

He's talked about how his next film "Hit Somebody" is going to be his final movie that he is going to do.  I'm disappointed in that, but at the end of the day it's his decision.  I've seen many people criticize him for this and either call him an idiot or a liar.  I think those people fall into the category that Jay Smooth spoke of (to a degree) in relation to the fans and the artists and how the Fans get this sense of entitlement over the artist.

Everyone wants a piece of you, and they have developed a large sense of entitlement to where it's almost as if they feel that the artist OWES them, the fans, more work.  And the idea of someone walking away after having a successful career is foreign to them. 

I say good for Kevin.  The amount of shit he's taken from people online is way greater than it should be, considering the great entertainment that he's given us over nearly twenty years.  We've seen his filmmaking grow from a single camera black and white flick with almost no action and all dialogue, to genuine works of greatness, such as Chasing Amy, and now to creating something completely opposite of what people would expect.

Finally I've seen people ripping Kevin for this movie and stating how it's "flopped" because it didn't make his seemingly normal $30 million gross at the box office, and that this somehow means that the movie is trash as well.  These people are either intentionally missing the point in an attempt to malign him, or they just are not really knowing what they are talking about.

The movie was intentionally made outside of the Hollywood machine, so to speak.  He financed it all himself, he took it around the country exhibiting it himself in various theaters, while giving Q&A's afterwards, and it was mostly released (intentionally) on VOD.  So you can't compare this to any of his other films, or to compare it to the regular way of putting out movies to say whether or not it was a success or failure.  They made their money back, and a lot of people seemed to like it. 

Which I suppose is what matters the most.

Below are some of Kevin's comments about how the movie WAS a success, despite what some naysayers would tell you.

Over the course of the 15 shows of the Red State USA Tour, we made almost one million dollars from ticket and merchandise sales. A few times, we had the highest per screen average in the country. We started out with a record-making show at Radio City Music Hall and went on to average 1100 people per screening. Had we booked ourselves into smaller houses, we could’ve SOLD OUT every show; but being in the larger houses cost us nothing extra.

You take what we made on the tour, you add that to the $1.5mil we’ve pulled in from foreign sales thus far (with a few big territories yet to sell). Add to that $3mil we’re on the verge of closing for all North American distribution rights excluding theatrical (which means VOD/HomeVideo/PayTV/Streaming).

The flick cost $5mil to make, but $4mil after the California tax incentive. One of the only things Jon and I promised the Red State investors in exchange for letting us handle American theatrical distribution ourselves was that their $4mil would be covered as soon as possible – something very few other production entities can promise or even offer. Invest a million dollars in almost any production, and you rarely if ever get your money back within five years, let alone the one year it’s looking like it’s gonna take for our guys to make their money back.

Add up all those figures above and you’ll notice our gains are higher than our spending. And without any dopey marketing figures to have to recoup, once we close the aforementioned deals (which Jonn Sloss & LawCo are working to close as we speak), simple math dictates Red State is in the black – long before any wide release. That’s music to the ears of any investor who only put up their money in September.

Y’know what else is kinda sweet? Those $3million in deals I was talking about? That only materialized because our little movie went out and performed well. See, any idiot can lie and write hyperbolically (and high scholastically) about a movie’s future and its maker’s sanity all they want at 20,000 feet. But in the real world, when movie and maker put asses in seats and money in the bank – all without spending anything on marketing? I don’t know what the technical business term is for it, but I’m pretty sure it’s not “imploding”.

Below you can watch the Red Band Trailer to Red State, which is currently viewable on Amazon's Video on Demand, and will be released on Bluray and DVD on October 19th.

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