Big Screen Review: Red State

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The Pitch: Assault On Parish 13.

The Review: Chances are, even before you start reading this review, you’ve made your mind up about whether you’re going to see Red State, and probably even if you’re going to enjoy it. Because Kevin Smith makes a certain kind of film, with ripe dialogue that has an honesty that at its most extreme becomes a form of cinematic Asperger’s syndrome. Even when he’s diverged a little from his original themes and settings with the religious discourse of Dogma or the unlikely porno making-of Zack and Miri, pretty much those same dialogue staples and that same directorial style stay in place. The most adventurous camera work in any of his films up to now has probably been a dance number in Clerks 2, and even that wasn’t exactly revolutionary. Maybe it’s the feeling that his movies never surprised people that’s driven Smith to attempt something completely different, although after the critical beating handed to Cop Out you could forgive him for wanting to retreat back into his old style and to be as familiar as possible.

And for the first few minutes, that appears to be exactly what he’s done. A school setting, three young men discussing an unusual proposition, all of which appears to be very familiar, but it’s what that proposition leads to which is unfamiliar. The three (of whom Michael Angarano is probably the most familiar face) soon end up in the clutches of a Westboro Baptist Church-like group, having been lured in by Melissa Leo’s middle-aged stooge. She’s the wife of the group’s leader, Michael Parks, who has a very specific plan in mind for those who deviate from society’s norms, and even the intervention of the local law enforcement (led by Stephen Root’s cowardly sheriff) won’t get in his way.

Smith has advertised this as a horror movie, maybe as an attempt to distinguish it from his earlier efforts, but anyone expecting a gory slasher will be sadly disappointed. His interest here is in psychological horror, particularly in an extended early sequence where Parks’ preacher lays out his mission statement while his young captives await their fate. Audiences are likely to be divided into two groups at this point: those that buy into the psychological horror of the sequence and the youngsters’ potential demise, or those that are bored rigid for a man standing and preaching for a significant chunk of the running time. Anyone lost to the film at this point is unlikely to be redeemed by what follows, although it does stray away completely from the horror genre of any kind and most of the second half is more siege movie than anything else. Unlike some of his previous work, though, Smith is a little less judgemental here, using the religious devices purely to drive the plot, rather than to generate debate.

There’s a good cast assembled, who are all on form, and as well as Parks, Leo and Angarano there’s John Goodman and Kevin Pollak as a couple of ATF officers who quickly end up out of their depth. Despite the varied themes, Smith never completely releases his hold on his own particular writing style, and even to the end the dialogue and settings are unmistakeably Kevin Smith. What is a revelation here, though, is Kevin Smith the director. Shot with the RED digital camera system, the visual style is bleached out, the camera is more active than in any of his previous efforts, and the overall sense of composition and the action shots elevate the whole film at least a couple of notches. It’s a little rough around the edges, and maybe the digital technology allowed Smith to edit it a little too quickly, but this could be his best film since Dogma, and if it’s an example of what he’s still capable of, let’s hope that talk of his retirement is unfounded.

Why see it at the cinema: The stark digital photography and the dramatic siege sequences are worth hunting out on the big screen; it’s also worth being in the cinema for the ending, which is likely to surprise and amuse Smith fans in equal measure and will benefit greatly from a cinema with a good sound system.

The Score: 8/10

Review: Agora

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The Pitch: Particle Man: The Movie.

The Review: The battle between science and religion has occupied and fascinated man for centuries. Similarly, the battles between religions have defined our culture and our environment on almost more occasions that you can count. But there’s still something to be said about a film which is willing to look at such clashes through modern eyes. Not only Spain’s highest grossing movie of 2009, but a source of controversy with the Catholic church in Spain (maybe not unsurprisingly), this takes historical events and uses them to highlight the divides between people and their often dramatic effects. Any film willing to tackle this part of history is almost inflammatory by default, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an era worth exploring.

Agora feels in some respects like an old-fashioned swords and sandals epic, and indeed was filmed in some of the same locations as Gladiator and Troy. But there are only occasional flourishes of violence, although it must be said that when they come, director Alejandro Amenábar doesn’t skimp on the details. This is a sumptuous film visually, the camera regularly panning and swooping over the streets to capture the action when it comes, and the CGI-augmented zoom-ins from space to Alexandria are especially impressive, giving a true sense of the scale of events.

But any film must stand or fall on its script and its performances, and thankfully Agora delivers on both counts. The script is divided into tracking two historical periods, and the gap between the two allows us to see the effect of changing attitudes on the characters and their world, while examining different aspects of the conflicts in both. Rachel Weisz is completely believable as Hypatia, the scientist who favours philosophy over religion and Michael Lonsdale as her father brings instant gravitas to proceedings. The rest of the cast are less prominent, but there is solid support across the board and the tone never wavers.

People are inspired, sometimes to great rights or wrongs, by their passions or beliefs, and sometimes their judgement can be clouded. As such, I think it’s only fair to point out when writing this review that I am both a mathematician (my subject of study at university) and a Christian (other religions are available). So this film will maybe have appealed to me more on both those counts. But there is still plenty to enjoy here, even if you’re an agnostic biologist. The messages from the film, about the importance of morality regardless of belief and the willingness to question yourself are still relevant to all of us. Not only are movies with this kind of scale done well uncommon, but also movies prepared to engage the mind as well as the heart aren’t as common as they maybe should be. So for efforts like this, we should be truly thankful.

Why see it at the cinema: To be able to absorb in full every last detail of the perfectly realised world of 4th century Egypt, and to take in the stunning sights and sounds at their best.

The Score: 9/10

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