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Red State

I don’t know a single person who doesn’t loathe Fred Phelps, his family and the so-called “church” he runs over in Topeka, Kansas. Democrats and Republicans, Christians and atheists, and everyone in between, they all look at the people who preside at the Westboro Baptist Church and want to puke. It’s an understandable feeling. With protest signs preaching intense hatred (“God Hates Fags”) and praising the deaths of our soldiers fighting overseas (“Thank God For IED’s”), one can’t help but look at them and feel some type of overwhelming emotion; sadness, anger or even a mix of the two. These horrible people are the inspiration for Kevin Smith’s new non-comedy film, Red State, and despite struggling in certain areas, it’s guaranteed to be a cathartic experience for anybody who despises the Phelps family as much as I do.

The movie follows a family by the name of Cooper, a family not unlike the Phelps clan that thinks homosexuals are the bane of society. However, rather than simply picket with outrageous signs (which are meant to be funny, like “Anal Penetration=Eternal Damnation”), they go one step further. They actually kill those who they find impure. After luring a trio of kids, played by Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner, to their area with the promise of sex, the family begins a ritualistic sacrifice, but things go wrong and they find themselves in the middle of a battle with ATF forces, led by agent Joseph Kennan (John Goodman).

Kevin Smith is one of those filmmakers that has never impressed behind the camera, but what he lacked in that area, he always made up for with his sharp writing and quick witted dialogue. Despite being his most technically proficient accomplishment to date, his strengths and weaknesses remain the same in Red State. Similar to last year’s Cop Out, this film features a big action scene late in its runtime and Smith struggles to make it exciting. Aside from the fact that it goes on for far too long, its main problem is that nothing really happens. Most characters simply stand around, occasionally pop their head out to take a shot, then retreat back to cover. The franticness of what a cinematic gunfight should entail is all but missing. For much of its length, Smith rests on a shot reverse shot filming pattern, which isn’t exactly the best way to ramp up the thrills.

However, when the film is quiet, Kevin Smith is at his best. It’s only natural for one to wonder if his knack for writing engrossing dialogue would translate over into more serious movies, but I’m happy to report that it does. Though some jokes still linger, Red State is serious in tone. From an early scene where the head of the Cooper family, played marvelously by Michael Parks, gives a hate filled sermon to the closing scene where Kennan justifies his actions in the aftermath of the conflict in front of a government board, the film oozes stylish dialogue. Smith has announced many times that this is his next to last film as a director (his last being Hit Somebody) and many are upset by the news, but I could care less. It’s when he stops writing that we’ve truly lost a talent.

Now, as much as I love seeing the Phelps-esque family in the film get their comeuppance (though I by no means advocate that happening in real life), it can’t help but feel like they’re an easy target. It sometimes feels like Smith is using them to set-up a greater message, but one never really comes around. For instance, the film may be called Red State, but it lacks a political message, aside from the fact that people who associate themselves with right wing politics tend to be more religious, which is hardly a revelation. The only true point it makes is that religious fundamentalism can be dangerous, which is true, but if you really want to see a scary story about religion run rampant, you need look no further than the terrific documentary, Jesus Camp, or even the maddening exposé on the actual Phelps family, Fall From Grace. Both of those offer more substance and insight into the same topic, but as a twisted, sick companion piece, Red State will do.

Red State receives 3/5


Cop Out

Never before have I walked out of a movie and felt so bad for the people involved in its production. Cop Out is one of those films where you look at the talent and find it hard to believe that they actually think it's good. Kevin Smith, director of such films as Clerks, Mallrats, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, helms this travesty, marking his debut directing a movie not written by him. If Cop Out is any indication, he needs to stick to his own stuff. It's only February, but I'm confident this train wreck will be on my worst of the year list.

The film is a humorous (a word I use very loosely here) take on the buddy cop action picture, akin to movies like 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon. But where those oozed with style and provided laughs despite not necessarily being comedies, Cop Out fails miserably. In what is the worst onscreen pairing since Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in Gigli, Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan play Jimmy and Paul, partners who have been together for nine years. Jimmy's daughter, played by Michelle Trachtenberg, is about to get married and wants a huge wedding, $50,000 huge. Jimmy is expected to pay for it, but he and Paul get suspended for a month without pay after a stakeout goes awry and a clerk at a local store gets murdered. Now, the only way to cough up that cash is to sell a rare baseball card he's had since his childhood. Unfortunately, he is assaulted and robbed of the card, which he quickly finds out is now in the hands of the gang suspected of murdering the store clerk, so he and Paul break the rules, as they always do in these types of movies, and set off to crack the case.

I struggled writing that synopsis. The actual movie isn't quite as clear cut. What I just detailed to you above makes more sense and has a better flow to it than the actual film itself. I left out the unnecessary side story about Paul's wife, played by Rashida Jones, and his suspicion that she's cheating on him. I also left out how inconsequential that opening murder is to the story. I even skipped over Jason Lee's part as Jimmy's daughter's new stepfather who is loaded with money and insists on paying for her wedding, which Jimmy's pride won't allow. Besides, he needs some type of motivation to track down the gang. The ruthless murder of an innocent man plays second fiddle to the recovery of that precious baseball card.

But the story's problems lie with more than just the lunacy of it all. It's told haphazardly, like a first time film student editing random scenes together, interrupting action scenes to interject a scene of exposition in the mix. I edited my college video project tighter than this mess.

Kevin Smith, who is solely responsible for the edit hack job, deserves berating for his poor direction as well. Somebody once said that Smith was the Quentin Tarantino of comedies because he can write amazing dialogue and create endearing characters that we want to spend time with. That is true and is the main reason his movies succeed. His directing skills, on the contrary, have never been anything to note, but you were able to ignore that based on his talent as a writer. This is the first film he has ever directed that he didn't write, which makes the lack of competent direction that much more noticeable. Watching him try to stage an action scene is like watching a cat play with a ball of yarn. Just as the cat swats at the ball, never grabbing hold, Smith reaches out and tries to latch onto something exciting, but never gets there. It doesn't take long for that cat's ball to unravel. Smith's action scenes fall apart even faster.

What really kills Cop Out, however, is its utter lack of laughs. The dialogue is missing that Kevin Smith touch and each and every joke crashes down faster than a fat kid's face into pie. The leads have zero chemistry together and Morgan in particular is insufferable. I'll admit I've never liked the guy, but never has a dislike turned into hatred faster than it did here.

Cop Out is one of the most pointless movies I've seen in a long time and is easily the worst film of the year thus far. It pains me to say this because I adore Smith's previous work, but I've only scratched the surface of its problems. It's shocking how inept this production is and I can only hope that Smith looks back on this with a good heart and realizes what a mistake it turned out to be. If he has gotten to the point where he actually thinks this tripe is funny, then God help the future of comedy. We've lost a real talent.

Cop Out receives 0/5