Red State (2011)
Dir. Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith has gone to atypical means to distribute his independent film, Red State, personally touring North America and showing it to audiences. While I admire the outside-the-box methods of the film’s distribution, all that matters in the end is if it’s good or not, and Red State is a silly mess of a movie. Among its’ most detrimental aspects are its’ boring visual style (admittedly it is redundant to attack a Smith film’s visuals, but here it is offensive where in the past there has been enough to excuse it) and utter tonal confusion. The film wants to be, but is never scary, mostly for Smith’s lazy tendency to get distracted from the focus of the film. It has some serious redeemable qualities. I was pleasantly surprised that the film didn’t only target religious fundamentalism, which is a serious issue but could come off as shooting fish in a barrel. The agents who assault the church in the film end up being equally implicated for moral infringement, and even take more innocent lives. Cleverly, guns are the object that unify both sides, and there is sharp wit in having the worst parts of right wing America shooting at each other. There are several really good moments throughout, in particular the climax of the film in which a horn sounds, which to the believers signifies the coming of the rapture. I think Red State works best when it relaxes and isn’t foolishly attempting to be serious. Smith seems far more adept at constructing a sly, twisted satire, and the film was certainly capable of being very good, were he more aware of what it should and shouldn’t be. Still, even a very flawed Red State is Smith’s best in years and a film with a line of such stupid genius as “Patriot Act, bitch” can’t be all that bad.
Fright Night (2011)
Dir. Craig Gillespie
Now that’s what I’m talking about. A Hollywood summer movie with modest ambition that sincerely wants to have some fun. Fright Night, a remake of Tom Holland’s 1985 film, is directed by Craig Gillespie (who made the sub-par Lars and the Real Girl) and written by Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran Marti Noxon, who spent much of the series 2nd in command to Joss Whedon and even took the reigns for a stretch of the penultimate season. This is Noxon’s first produced script (for a feature film) without shared credit and the material certainly isn’t a stretch for her. Fright Night is a tongue-in-cheek vampire film that expresses the coming-of-age struggles of a Suburban teenager. Luckily, Noxon doesn’t do too much retreading (although there is one direct nod to Buffy). Anton Yelchin plays Charley, an ex-geek who is dating one of the prettiest and most popular girls in school, named Amy (Imogen Poots). He lives with his divorced mother, played by Toni Collette. His geek ex-buddy (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) alerts Charley that his neighbour, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is a vampire. The sexually assured, ideal physical specimen that is Jerry is a manifestation of Charley’s sexual anxieties and insecurities. This and his past-geek (outcast) complex likely being social side effects from the absence of a father figure imposes even more symbolism onto Jerry, challenging Charley’s virginal naivete and his feeble hold of being man of the house and oedipal security. Fright Night doesn’t sacrifice fun for themes and vice versa and it’s also not afraid of getting dark. In one surprising scene, Charley and Amy accidentally get separated at a club. Jerry grabs Amy, and, right in front of Charley, turns her into a vampire, having her evocatively suck his blood and then bites her with a sexual ferocity. This is Gillespie’s best achievement in the film. He is not afraid to darkly sexualize the moment, directing Amy to resist but give in to the pressure with orgasmic confusion. Jerry paints his lips with his own blood before they kiss, the next shot being of Amy’s bloody quivering lip. Of course, with the help of a deus ex machina, Charley reclaims Amy, finds his sexual footing and the film closes with the couple on the brink of their first time. Fright Night is far from great but is clever, intelligent, fun and now the summer of 2011, otherwise quite dull, is book-ended, thanks to this and Super 8, by two worthwhile entertainments.
Dir. Asif Kapadia
Senna is a documentary made entirely out of stock footage, but unlike other recent films of this nature, such as The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu & And Everything is Going Fine, the director Asif Kapadia appropriates audio from new interviews to the footage. This is a cheap way out of the bold non-narration, found footage only style that makes the formal choice interesting in the first place. This way, the filmmaker doesn’t have to rely on the images and montage. This makes Senna more of a conventional doc than it may appear at first glance. In spite of being relatively insignificant, Senna still manages to be an engaging film. The story of Ayrton Senna isn’t anymore exciting than any other run-of-the-mill “heroic” athlete tale. There are compelling exceptions, however, such as a subplot involving a rival teammate, four time world champion Alain Prost, which is a wonderful source of drama. A running theme of the film is Senna’s difficulty to cope with the politics of Formula One racing. His struggle illustrates some of the issues with international spectator sports. Value came from his eventual death during a race at the age of 34, which remains the last fatality suffered in the sport (17 years ago), as it helped make the sport safer by instigating changes in Formula One.
The thing that should make Senna fascinating, such as his passion, drive, and faith all feel muted rather than adequately articulated. In some ways, he seems a perfect match for Michael Mann, himself an auto-enthusiast, who surely could capture all of these qualities. Like some of Mann’s characters, Senna’s death comes sooner than most because of the pursuit of his undying passion and unwillingness to compromise. They often say of sports, like auto-racing, that “it’s a game of inches”. Senna’s death, according to one of the interviewees (there is no official assessment of what exactly killed him in the crash) was suffered from a jagged piece of assembly making contact with his head. The film points out that if the piece had been 6 inches higher or lower, it is possibly Senna would have escaped the crash without serious harm. So it seems that life is also a game of inches. Perhaps this offers insight into man’s (and movies’) preoccupations with sports, which boil life down to the simplest elements of struggle/survival/competition and it is in a moment where sport and reality overlap that Senna reminds us of this.
Latcho Drom (1993)
Dir. Tony Gatlif
Opening with consecutive shots of running water and luminous fire, Latcho Drom articulates the elemental power of dance and song. Tony Gatlif’s film, winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in ’93, follows traveling gypsy Romani people on a journey from India to Spain and is made up entirely with successive songs and dances. Aside from a very brief text that introduces the film, Latcho Drom is without exposition, interested only in expressing how vital music is to humanity. What sets the film apart are its’ formal choices, which expressionistically capture each number. It is the best type of documentary, one made not to attempt to provide a factual account of a subject, but one that brings the subject to us using the power of the cinematic. Latcho Drom gets morally heavier as it progresses, as evidence of poverty becomes less avoidable, and one song and accompanying sequence makes direct reference to the holocaust, and specifically Auschwitz, with images of barbed wire and a lamenting widow. However, as the final moments affirm, music can liberate the human spirit and humanity can transcend anything when expressed.