Red State (Kevin Smith, USA)

Something strange has happened to Kevin Smith.  His past as a purveyor of foul mouthed slacker comedies does not prepare the audience in any way for what unfolds in this difficult, brutal and uncompromising film.

The film starts simply enough as what seems like another teen horror movie when three horny teenage boys head off to meet a mysterious woman for sex after contacting her through the internet. Things take a turn for the worse when the trio then find themselves at the mercy of a Westboro Baptist Church style right wing fundamentalist Christian group and are imprisoned in their fortified compound.  Michael Parks is terrifying as the hate fuelled bigot and leader of the 5 Points Church, Abin Cooper.  There is something worryingly believable in his conviction and faith that makes us all too aware of the real power that charismatic “men of god” can have over their flock.

After briefly flirting with the promise of some Hostel style torture porn the film changes tack again as the authorities become involved and a Waco-esque siege situation develops.  It is here that the film really comes into it’s own as a bold and daring piece of cinema.  John Goodman (on blistering form) plays grizzled ATF agent, Joseph Keenan, who is forced to deal with some very difficult orders that throw a harsh spotlight on the American government’s approach to homeland security and the controversial Patriot Act.

Visually Smith also shows a hitherto unseen stylistic vision.  His camera is a restless, prowling and invasive presence at times uncomfortably close to it’s subjects.  At times I found myself wondering if this was not directed by some other Kevin Smith such is the stylistic and thematic shift in this impressive work.

Red State poses some very difficult questions about faith, government and modern American society in general and offers no easy answers.  The final third of the film will leave you reeling and wondering who you are supposed to be rooting for.  This is fierce, angry and questioning cinema of the kind that no one expected Kevin Smith capable of making.  It’s not perfect and it’s certainly not fun but it’s an essential piece of cinema that is guaranteed to polarise audiences.

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The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call – New Orleans (Werner Herzog, USA 2009)

FROM THE CANS OF SAND ARCHIVES

For a significant portion of Herzog’s brilliant TBL:PoCNO (as it will henceforth be known) I was unsure whether I was watching a work of genius or the most preposterous piece of garbage I had ever watched.  Similarly I was unable to decide whether it was the performance of Nicholas Cage’s career or he was simply a retard.  On reflection I think that “work of genius” and “performance of his career” are probably closest to the truth.

Do not watch TBL:PoCNO if you are expecting a retread of Abel Ferrara’s bleak 1992 masterpiece from which this film gets it’s name.  In fact you are probably best served ignoring the words “Bad Lieutenant” entirely as they only serve to confuse and confound your expectations of it.  The film bears little resemblance to Ferrara’s film in terms of aim, style or tone and the name is only there because the producer allegedly wanted to create a franchise.  My love (though I’m not sure if that is the correct term to be honest) for Ferrara’s film is what caused my initial confusion when watching TBL:PoCNO as i was unsure as to whether I should be taking Herzog’s with the same level of seriousness.  It wasn’t until about half way through the film that I realised I was watching a parody of mainstream Hollywood crime cinema and it’s cliches.  The final realisation of the film’s aim as parody coming in the fantastic scene towards the end where several storylines gain closure in a parade of ridiculousness.

This is Cage’s film all the way though and it is a joy to watch him chewing his way through this madness and for some reason turning into Jimmy Stewart half way through the film.  It is not a subtle performance and if you are not a fan of Nicholas Cage then chances are you will hate him even more after watching him in this.  For those of us who enjoy his work, particularly his early, edgier roles, then TBL:PoCNO is truly a treat.

Whilst I absolutely loved this film by the time it had finished it is perhaps difficult to truly recommend it.  Most people will probably find it ridiculous, over the top and nonsensical.  For me though sometimes that is recommendation enough!


Touchstones #1 – Blue Velvet

Touchstones is a series about those films that have played a pivotal role in shaping the contributors to Stranger Than Paradise.  Those films that opened up a doorway into a new genre, director or movement.  Films that have stuck with us over the years as being responsible for our passion and love of cinema.  The aim is not to analyse or provide any major insight into these particular films but to share their importance and impact on our cinematic lives.

In many ways Blue Velvet is the gateway film for me.  It is absolutely the film that showed me the light and made me realise that there was a world out there that was a million miles away from the mainstream American cinema that I had previously been exposed to.  Somewhat bizarrely I have 80’s thrash metal giants Anthrax to thank for introducing me to this film and therefore setting me on the journey that has led to both the creation of this blog and my career as a film and media teacher.  Anthrax’s 1988 album State Of Euphoria contains the track Now It’s Dark and I remember reading in an interview how the song was inspired by Blue Velvet and specifically the character of Frank Booth.  The interview talked about how Frank was the most terrifying character in cinema and made Freddy Krueger look like Mary Poppins.  In hindsight comparing Blue Velvet to Nightmare On Elm Street seems somewhat ridiculous and inaccurate but it was enough to perk the interest of one horror film obsessed teenage metalhead!

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that my 15 year old self sat down to watch this potentially terrifying film and my god was it terrifying!  Not terrifying in the way I was expecting but terrifying in a whole new strange, violent, sexual and all together more adult way than I had ever experienced before.  The opening scene alone was enough to tell me I was in for a brand new experience.  The slow motion shot of the fireman waving from the fire truck has stuck in my head ever since I first saw it and might be one of my favourite moments in cinema (strange the things that stay with you isn’t it!).  In fact I remember when I worked in a factory in the early 90’s that me and a friend used to get one of the engineers to reenact the scene on a forklift truck as he bore a passing resemblance to the fireman!

The thing that really disconcerts about that opening scene though is when Jeffrey’s dad has the stroke.  The sense of creeping dread that recurs throughout the majority of Lynch’s work is perfectly captured in this one short sequence.  The cuts from Jeffrey’s dad to the tap and hose accompanied by a rumbling drum roll just ramp up the tension to an unbearable level.  I think it’s the use of sound that does it but there is something about it that really puts me on edge.  When Mr. Beaumont does finally succumb to his stroke his pained writhings are, for some reason, made all the more unsettling by the piece of string that he is lying under.  It’s these little touches that really get to me in this film.  Last of all it is the final shot of this sequence that finishes me off.  The slow zoom into the grass to reveal the crawling bugs underneath the surface accompanied by that same swelling, throbbing, unidentified noise that gets under your skin and lets you know (indeed feel as it is such a visceral sound) that things are not right.

Needless to say Blue Velvet continued to astound my impressionable young mind (as it still does today) and after it finished all I could do was sit there in stunned silence knowing that somehow my life had been irrevocably changed by watching this film.  I think Blue Velvet was probably the first film that induced that sense of shock and deep contemplation that follows all great films.  That ten or twenty minutes where you just sit there unable to speak whilst you process what you have just witnessed.

I don’t want to go into anymore detailed analysis other than to say that Anthrax were absolutely right about Frank Booth and the world he inhabits.  Blue Velvet and Lumberton is a terrifying, funny, magical place that has absolutely altered my life and one that I return to on a regular basis always finding something fresh to discover.  So thank you Anthrax for pointing me in the direction my life has taken!


Movie Dance Scenes #1

FROM THE ARCHIVES OF MY EARLIER CANS OF SAND BLOG

For some reason there is something about dance scenes in movies that really makes me smile.  I’m not talking about musicals (although there is a place in my heart for a well choreographed chorus number!), I’m talking about standard films that just happen to contain scenes where characters have a little boogie.  In honour of this little fetish of mine I have decided to introduce this somewhat occasional series of blog posts.

What better place to start than with my favourite movie dance scene ever from what is possibly my favourite movie ever; Terence Malick’s masterpiece Badlands.  I don’t really want to say too much about the film itself as other people have probably done so a lot better than I ever could.  The dance scene is just one of many treats that force me to come back to this film time and time again.

The opening close up of Kit and Holly’s feet as Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange” blares out of their radio is just perfect and brings a huge grin to my face every time I see it.  This is two people dancing just for fun and the whole scene captures their wide/wild-eyed innocence perfectly.  We then cut to a mid-shot of Holly swaying to the music and as the vocal comes in Kit appears shuffling across screen looking cool as fuck with his hands on his hips, white t-shirt and James Dean quiff bouncing to the beat.  Martin Sheen is an absolute badass in this scene, who wouldn’t want to be him?