Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: "Red State", a film by Kevin Smith

(Fan Poster by Scott Macumber/PixelBoom Designs)
I had the pleasure of seeing "Red State" in Austin on 3/28/2011 and thought I'd write up a review. Now, I’m going to admit right up front that my review is tainted. I am a fan of Kevin Smith. Not just as a film maker, but as a person, and that colors the way I feel about his work. I mean, how can you not root for someone that calls himself “Fatty McNofly” and does not mind making himself the butt of his own jokes? He embraces who he is with a zeal that I admire and wish I could emulate. 

I also appreciate how he never left his friends behind. He has put so many of his childhood friends to work both in front of and behind the camera, and he has given many of them a platform to be heard via his SMODcast network (in some instances probably saving their lives). And now, if SMODcast Pictures works the way he hopes, he is going to extend that same helping hand to the independent film making community at large by providing a home for independent movies that could find no succor elsewhere (but with the caveat that you must provide proof that you have been turned down by EVERYONE else before they will distribute your film. As he said in his post screening Q&A, you don’t want SMODcast Pictures to release your film; you go to them because you HAVE TO.)

Wow, I’m kind of rambling like the man himself. Let me get back on track and get to the review of “Red State”. Understand that I’m not going to go into a lot of spoilers or discuss specific scenes at length. I’m going to provide an overall impression of the film so as to not spoil the fun come October 19th, when the film goes into wide release. Now, on to it…

First, a brief synopsis: “Red State” begins with three boys doing what boys do best… trying to get laid. They have a “date” set up with someone they met online, but not everything is as it seems when they arrive at her trailer to “get up to the Devil’s business.” They are soon trapped in the middle of a situation that escalates beyond their wildest fears. There is a lot going on in the film including murder, foot chases, and a firefight with the ATF.

If you are at all familiar with his work you can read that synopsis and see that “Red State” is a wild departure for Kevin Smith. Yes, there are laughs. Yes, there are dick jokes (one involving a reference to Coke can-sized penises that really tickled the Austin crowd). But there is also suspense, drama and plenty of violence. As a matter of fact, after about the 15-minute mark there are very few laughs and way more of the other stuff.

The look of the film, as a whole, is also new for Mr. Smith. If you are a fan of his, you’ve probably noticed that most of his films use a very bright, almost cartoony, color palette (especially evident in Mallrats and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back). But here, the look is austere and bleak. It’s very washed-out, and the palette consists mostly of earth-tones. It works very well and really helps set the mood.

Also, gone is the patented “Kevin Smith 2-shot”. David Klein, the director of photography for this film (as well as many others for Kevin Smith) was let loose, and boy did he take advantage. The camera work is very dynamic, and at times downright unsettling. There are scenes where characters are running through a claustrophobic basement, with the audience seemingly perched right on their chest, peering into their faces and seeing their fear in a very personal way. And at one point a character runs up the stairs in a bid for freedom and the camera spins and turns upside down, making a scary moment worse by introducing dizziness. It was very effective in conveying the uncertainty in their adrenaline fueled rush to escape, and David Klein is sure to see tons of doors open up for him in the industry.

Kevin Smith has said many times that he is not so much a director as he is an editor, and that on this film he let his actors act while he mainly tried to stay out of their way. He was confident in his cast to deliver the goods (which they do) and instead of telling them what to do, he kept his eyes open, watching for moments that he wanted to capture, always doing so with his editors cap firmly in place. You can really see that in this film, as the editing is tight and the performances don’t feel steered or forced in any way. (On a side note: apparently the editor’s cap never comes off, as several minutes were trimmed after the Sundance screenings. I never saw that cut, but I did listen to Mr. Smith’s “Red State of the Union” podcast. On there he showed several clips to his in-house audience that listeners didn’t get to see, but did get to hear. Watching the film I noticed one cut right away… Michael Parks as the big baddie Abin Cooper is delivering his sermon and gets an “Amen” from his flock, including a prominent one from a very little girl named Melanie. In the scene as I heard it on the ”Red State of the Union” podcast, Cooper directly addresses this little girl after her “Amen” and talks to her for a minute. This dialog was cut from the film when I saw it.)

That provides a nice segue for discussing the cast. Michael Parks, as I mentioned, plays Abin Cooper, the maniacal leader of the Five Points Baptist Church. Mr. Parks’ career for the past few years has mainly been as a character actor, playing various roles mostly for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, with his most memorable being as the sheriff at the beginning of “Kill Bill”. He lets loose as Pastor Cooper, and really digs in deep. He is very convincing, and about the only complaint I have is that he at times talks with such a low growl that I had difficulty understanding him. But it works for his character so it’s okay. I’m sure he’s going to see more work after this, and if not it’s criminal. He really is very good.

Pastor Cooper's flock is populated by Melissa Leo, who plays his daughter Sarah, Ralph Garman as her husband Caleb, and Kerry Bishé as their daughter Cheyenne. Also in this twisted family tree are Jennifer Schwalbach, Betty Aberlin, James Parks, Gary Sievers, and a gaggle of kids playing various grandchildren to the crazy Abin Cooper. All of these actors acquit themselves well, but I’d like to take a second to recognize Kerry Bishé.

I fear that when this film sees wide release, her performance will be overshadowed by Michael Parks (or possibly Melissa Leo due to her recent Oscar win). This is very sad because the character of Cheyenne is a tough sell on the audience, but she actually made this person who might have been seen as nothing more than evil actually seem human. While watching I found myself hoping that she’d succeed in getting the “babies” out of the house and manage to get away from her mom and grandfather. She succeeded in garnering sympathy from me even as she was talking about the “Zionist media” and spouting hate, because I got the fact that she was brainwashed and I felt sorry for her. Ms. Bishé did a wonderful job that I hope isn’t overlooked.

The three young men that provide the catalyst for the story are played by Michael Angarano as Travis, Kyle Gallner as Jarod, and Nicholas Braun as Billy Ray. All three of them are very good, with special note going to Kyle Gallner. He had the most challenging role of the three and very easily went from horny, to terrified, to angry during his character arc. If he can escape the “brooding youth” roles I can really see him making something of himself as an actor. He reminds me a lot of a young Joaquin Phoenix.

I’d briefly like to mention Stephen Root, who plays the “sheriff with a secret”. He is known mostly for his comedic work on shows such as “Talk Radio”, but he is really good in this. He has one moment in particular when his world seems to be crashing around him and it is painful to watch. He pulls it off beautifully, and with nothing more than facial expressions we see him go from scared and desperate to realizing there just may be something he can do about his situation. It was really something to watch.

Now, last but certainly not least are Kevin Pollak and John Goodman. They play ATF agents tasked with serving a search warrant on the Cooper clan, who are being investigated for trying to purchase automatic weapons. Needless to say it doesn’t go as planned and a bloodbath ensues.

Kevin Pollak’s role is a small one, but he takes advantage of his time. He’s very funny and provides some levity in an otherwise dark part of the film. Hopefully there’ll be more meat on the bone for him in “Hit Somebody”, Kevin Smith’s next film.

John Goodman, on the other hand, has a very big role. He plays Joseph Keenan, the man in charge of the ATF group serving the warrant. His job is tough, and it’s made even tougher when his superiors hand down an order he doesn’t agree with. Mr. Goodman brings a lot of sympathy to this role as he plays the audiences conscience, and he handles that responsibility well. He also is tasked with summing the whole thing up at the end in a classic, dialog-heavy Kevin Smith scene, and he dispenses the dialog easily and conversationally. He’s really very good in this and I look forward to seeing him in the next film, as well.

“Red State” is a fun ride. It plays VERY fast and seemed like it was over as soon as it began. It is edited so tightly with no air left in it, and this just adds to the claustrophobia and stress the audience feels. As you’re watching it you get the impression that you can’t look away or you might miss something, even as things are happening you don’t want to see.

Kevin Smith really stepped outside his comfort zone on this and it pays off in a big way. I hate that he isn’t going to explore this territory again because I’d really like to see what he could do next time, but it’s not to be. I’ll have to enjoy this one, and plan to do just that when it’s released theatrically later this year, and then again (repeatedly) when it’s released on Blu-Ray. 

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Sorry for not having a new review up yet. I have my kids for the summer, so much of my time is spent with them. It's not often I have them for long stretches and I'm taking advantage of it.

I'll be back soon with my review of "Divine Misfortune" but A. Lee Martinez. Until then, my friends...

Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" by Seth Grahame-Smith

Okay readers, I know you’ve both been wondering when my second review would come along. I apologize for the delay, but a note from my doctor proves it was for a good reason. And if you’re willing to forgive me I think you’ll find future installments will arrive with more frequency.

Anyway, on to the matter at hand. My latest review is of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” by Seth Grahame-Smith, who came on the scene in 2009 with “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. The genre-bending “Pride” spearheaded a new sub-genre in which public domain novels like “Pride and Prejudice” are combined with horror and action genre elements like zombies, ninjas, sea monsters, etc. It's an interesting idea, and one that has seemingly resonated with readers.

To say his first novel was a success would be an understatement, but in the interest of full-disclosure I must admit that I have not read it. Jane Austen just isn’t my thing. Sorry. But I do like historical non-fiction, so when I saw “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” staring at me from the shelf at Borders I had to get it. (I actually ended up buying it for my iPhone Kindle app so I could save a few bucks... You know how it is.)

As I understood it from the jacket description, the book was a memoir supposedly written by Abraham Lincoln. I assumed that it was, like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” before it, a mash-up novel, this time using an actual Lincoln memoir. I could not have been more wrong.

When I started reading I was surprised to find that the story began in modern times. The narrator (who is Grahame-Smith) is the proprietor of a small store in a small town. He is a frustrated novelist who originally took the job at the store intending to write a novel and then move on to fame and fortune, but that dream never materialized and he has become stuck in the rut that is his life.

Enter Henry, a resident of the town that becomes somewhat of a regular at the store. He and the author exchange only pleasantries for a time, but for reasons that are never really explained Henry chooses the author to be the recipient of a collection of journals supposedly written by Abraham Lincoln. What Henry wants is for the author to novelize the contents of these journals and get the word out that not only was Abraham Lincoln one of our greatest presidents, but he was also a vampire killing bad-ass!

From this point on the book becomes what reads like a biography interspersed with passages from the Lincoln memoirs. Some passages are first-person from Lincoln’s perspective, others are third-person. You get used to it after a while, but to be honest I found this format somewhat off-putting. I really think the story would have benefited from the author choosing a perspective and sticking to it for the duration. It may work for others, but for me, I say no thanks.

Anyway, the story moves from a young Abraham watching his mother die as a result of his father’s dealings with a vampire to Lincoln’s ascension to the White House. I could go into detail and tell you about the in-between stuff, but to be honest it was the same basic setup over and over: Abraham getting a letter from the mysterious “H.” telling him of a vampire that “deserves it sooner”, a bit of stalking the intended target, and then the attack on the vampire that may succeed or fail. And between these passages comes a lot of exposition about not wanting to kill vampires any more, falling in love, people in Abraham’s life dying and him or his wife sulking. It really is that simple and it gets old about half way through the book.

I’m guessing Grahame-Smith knew that his story was growing tiresome at about two-thirds of the way through because he chooses at that point to change the game and retire Lincoln from vampire hunting. Yes, you read that right... In a book entitled “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”, the titular character retires from the titular profession and the book becomes about the politics of vapiric involvement in the Civil War. Sounds thrilling, I know. At first the change was welcome, but it wore out it’s welcome very quickly and I actually put the book down for two weeks with about a quarter to go before I made myself finish it.

I’ve read that they are giving this novel the Hollywood treatment, and even though I’ve spent the majority of this review complaining, I think it’ll make a great movie. It will benefit greatly from the inevitable pruning and condensing that takes place when converting a book into a screenplay. As a book it is overly long and boring, but as a film (if the correct adjustments are made) it could be exciting and fun.

I hate to say it, but I don’t recommend this book. I know you’ve already deduced that, but as this is a book review I kind of have to spell it out. It is very uneven and seems to begin as one idea and ends as another. It never returns to the story of Henry and the author/store proprietor, which I found very disappointing, and the ending left a real bad taste in my mouth. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say that it has someone becoming something I don’t believe for a second (within the framework of the story) they would ever allow themselves to be.

In my opinion you’d be best served skipping this book unless you have a hankering to be bored. Wait for the movie to come out and watch it instead. At least then if you don’t like it you’ve only wasted, at most, about two hours of your time.

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That’s it for this week, kiddos. Tune in next time when I review “Divine Misfortune” by A. Lee Martinez. Hopefully I’ll have more positive things to say about it than my last selection.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Review: "Horns" by Joe Hill

My first review... Wow. It feels so important somehow. Kind of like, I don't know, a new beginning or something (cue dramatic, swelling music and fuzzy-lens close-up). It's just so... so... damn special! *sniff

Moving on...

Today I am reviewing "Horns" by Joe Hill. Like most people, I was introduced to this author by reading his first novel, "Heart-Shaped Box" which, to be honest, I initially had no interest in reading. I knew that Hill was the son of Stephen King, who I am not a fan of (*ahem* too many flashbacks), and I was worried that their styles would be similar. Because of this, every time I visited my local Half Price Books, I tried my best to ignore the end cap they had filled with copies of this book.

This went on for a couple of months until one day I was trying in vain to find a book to read and found myself in front of that end cap. I debated with myself for a minute or two and then made a decision. I picked up a copy, read the dust jacket again, and took the plunge.

Let me tell you, I'm very glad I did. It was wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed reading "Heart-Shaped Box", and it suffered only a little bit from the patented King "flashback-info-dump-itis". Joe Hill had earned himself a new fan.

Flash forward to a couple months ago. I was unaware that a new Joe Hill book was forthcoming, so needless to say I was very excited when I walked into my local Borders and saw "Horns" staring at me from a table display. I promptly ditched any idea of buying anything else, grabbed a copy and checked out. (Well, after going over to the magazine racks and pawing through the European version of Maxim, that is...)

When I got home I couldn't wait to start reading so I dove right in, and honestly I was caught a little off guard. For the first few chapters it seemed like "Horns" might be a comedy because it read very light and fast, and the interactions between Ig (the main character) and the various people he encounters (none of whom seem to notice the little horn-nubs sprouting from his forehead) really had me laughing. I honestly thought Joe Hill had completely shifted gears from his first novel. And he had, but not in the way I first thought.

Let me explain: "Heart-Shaped Box" is a horror novel. It may be funny in places, but Joe kept the creep-factor high, and there was more than one night I had to keep reading so I could come to a spot that didn't leave me feeling too spooked. It's not jump-out-at-ya scary, but it had many sections that left me feeling very uneasy (much like "The Exorcist" ... I still get chills!)

"Horns", on the other hand, is not what I would call horror. If I had to classify it, I think I would label it as "a dramedy dressed up in a Halloween costume". It has genre elements, but they are not the main focus. Sure, the novel gets it's name from the fact that the protagonist has newly formed horns growing from his forehead, but the horns are just a genre conceit Hill used more to direct the participation of the other characters than as a horrific element.

So while Mr. Hill kept his conversational, easy to read style, he used it to much different effect in his sophomore effort. Instead of finding ways to scare us or make us uneasy, he chose to make us think about life, about perceptions, and about loss. He used his genre conceit to force us to look inside and really think about how it is we treat other people and the myriad ways we find to separate ourselves from everyone else.

All that said, there are horrific elements in this book. There are secrets, there is anger, and there is murder. But beyond that there is heartache, loss, and redemption. I actually choked-up towards the end a couple of times.

I'm purposefully not revealing more about the plot here. You can go and read a synopsis anywhere. What I want you to take from this is not what the dust jacket says the book is about, but what it is, in its heart, really trying to say. And that, my friends, is this: Life is fleeting, as is the love we feel while we are here. Don't take either for granted and make every day count. The currency of time is too precious a commodity to be wasted.

"Horns" is a very good book, and I highly recommend it. I love it because it IS different from "Heart-Shaped Box". I hope Joe Hill continues to push the boundaries of genre fiction and continues to explore the human condition in this way. He really is a unique talent.

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I hope you enjoyed reading my first review as much as I enjoyed writing it. Don't forget to comment if you want to agree or disagree with anything I said. I love discussion.

My next entry will be a review of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" by Seth Grahame-Smith. See you then!

Welcome to my blog!

All of the below also appears in the "About This Blog" section of this site, but I thought it might serve well as my first post. Having said that, welcome to Genre Vive! I hope you enjoy your visit.

   My name is Scott Macumber. I am a full-time IT Analyst, graphic designer, husband and father. As you can imagine I don't have a lot of free time! But in the free time I DO have, I love nothing more than relaxing with a good book ... Getting lost in a world and spending some time away from my real life. I like to view reading as a mental vacation whose destination can be as close as my backyard or as far away as another planet.

   With that in mind, I thought it might be nice to have a place where I could share my opinion on some of these "vacation destinations" so that others might be able to choose their trips more wisely. Buying books can be a daunting task. You never know if you're going to like it until you're well into reading it, and you know that you can't trust the blurbs on the cover because, obviously, they were picked and placed there to entice you.

   I personally find reviews most helpful when deciding what to read, and especially if I have read other books a particular reviewer has shined me on to. That way I know if our tastes are in line and if I typically agree with their choices.

   But, to be honest, I don't usually agree with the "average" reviewer. You know the type ... snooty, thinks they know more than you, over educated and takes themselves WAY too seriously. They don't seem like the average reader. And that's where I come in.

   I am, for the most part, the average reader; I've not been to school for this, I don't have a degree in English Literature, and I won't emasculate a book just because it may not follow all the "rules". What I am is honest, concise, and very very picky. If I have been reading a book and didn't finish it because I didn't like it I will still review it ... It may be a short review, but I'll be honest with you that I put it down for whatever reason.

   I genuinely hope you get something out of your time here. Maybe you'll agree with me and maybe you won't. Either way is fine (and I'd love to hear your opinions, ESPECIALLY if they differ from mine). So dig in and take a look. Who knows, maybe you'll find something you like!