Monday, March 31, 2008

Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2007, Jamie Babbit)

There's always been a certain amount of sex appeal inherent in activism. In young people especially, activism is a turn-on, as it combines two of their biggest sweet spots- idealism and breaking the rules. There's a great film to made about this idea, but for now the best example I can think of is Bruce La Bruce's The Raspberry Reich, in which a German terrorist cell doesn't even come close to accomplishing their goals because the members are too busy balling each other. More conventional is Itty Bitty Titty Committee, which comes armed with a truckload of Angry Feminist talking points- body image issues, phallic imagery, etc.- and then promptly turns them into what's basically a lesbian sitcom. A big part of the problem is that Babbit is clearly on the kids' side, making practically every character who doesn't agree with them a cartoon, unworthy of being taken seriously. I mean, hey, I don't like boob jobs either, but they're such an easy target, even without the inflated bottle-blonde bimbo working alongside our heroine (Melonie Diaz) at the plastic surgeon's office. Practically the only character who gets to offer a dissenting opinion is Courtney (Melanie Mayron), but her pragmatic solutions are eventually shoved aside in favor of her dissolving relationship with the younger, more idealistic Sadie (Nicole Vicius). And of course, there's some bed-hopping drama which derails- albeit temporarily- the gang's plans. Babbit's style is somewhat less oppressive than in 1999's dire ...But I'm a Cheerleader!, but she's retained her overeagerness to please the audience, which dulls any edge the film might have had. Likewise, aside from a choice cameo by Melanie Lynskey, the acting is fairly mediocre, with none of the actors making much of an impression. Truth be told, I'm surprised this review is as long as it is, given that I've already sort of forgotten this harmless but inconsequential movie already. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Snow Angels (2007, David Gordon Green)

One of the key conversations in this film comes just after high schooler Arthur (Michael Angarano) discovers the body of a young girl. After he finishes talking to the police, his mother takes him aside and warns him not to allow this tragedy to cause him to bottle up his feelings. What makes this conversation interesting is the way Green parallels Arthur's life with that of the older Glenn (Sam Rockwell), an alcoholic who turned to Christ after a failed suicide attempt, whose biggest problem may be the freedom with which he pours out his feelings. Glenn is not shy about giving of himself, whether others want it or not- one can sense the unvarnished sincerity of his intentions even when he's at his most threatening. Green's film, his fourth, is his most plot-bound to date, but he has retained his knack for balancing sometimes wildly different tones in order to keep the audience from slipping too far into melodrama. He also, for the most part, manages to coax natural and assured performances from his cast, particularly Angarano and of course Rockwell, who continues to be awesome. The weak link is Kate Beckinsale, who just can't drop her actorly primness to make the role work- she's fine when she's doing the Good Mom thing, but whenever she loses her cool one can see her straining. But the bigger problem comes from the film's construction itself. While Green creates some additional levels of interest in the story by contrasting his adult characters with the younger ones, this also leads to an overly deterministic dichotomy which basically shows the young people as happy and full of promise and the adults as damaged and hopeless. Of course, with age comes disappointment, but it all felt too neat to me, not to mention too nostalgic about the magic of youth. Still, Snow Angels is a worthy addition to an already-promising career, and if nothing else it'll make a nice contrast to this summer's much broader and more audience-pleasing Pineapple Express, which I don't think I have to tell you is going to be so awesome. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Band's Visit (2007, Eran Kolirin)

Not much to report, alas- aside from the culture-clash element, The Band's Visit is pretty much your basic festival-friendly foreign comedy with a heart. Early scenes of incongruous Egyptians in powder blue uniforms looking out of place in an arid Israeli town give way to scenes in which they try to bridge the gap with their unlikely new friends. There are a few inspired spots, but just as often the movie retreats into "look-at-these-backwards-small-towners" gags, as when one of the band members tags along with some locals to a roller disco. The film only really takes on a life of its own when the principal duo- Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz- are onscreen. The actors have an unforced rapport between them, Gabai with his courtly nobility, Elkabetz with her knack for cutting through the bullshit. Unlike the rest of the film, their moments together are filled with genuine feeling, which makes it all the more disappointing when Kolirin cuts away to, say, the sweaty local who waits by the pay phone for his girlfriend to call. The Band's Visit is no better or worse than the hundreds of other films like it, and for all the outcry over its being disqualified for Oscar consideration by the foreign-language branch, I think the publicity may have raised its profile with audiences, because on its own is really nothing special. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Funny Games U.S. (2007, Michael Haneke)

If nothing else, Funny Games U.S. constitutes a bold experiment in form even Gus Van Sant couldn't have managed, with Haneke leveraging his Caché, uh, cachet to make a movie that's pretty much a carbon copy of his 1997 succes de scandale, aside from the cast. But while others will question the viability of this experiment, I think it works in the same way Van Sant's remake of Psycho couldn't quite manage, by replicating an already-existing template, and in doing so to emphasize what made that film (and by extension this one) work so well. It's clear now that Haneke made Funny Games as an anti-thriller, by shoving the familiar, comforting tropes of the genre through the proverbial wood chipper. The reason why thrillers (good and bad) are so popular with audiences is that, while they provide vicarious excitement and shocks in the moment, they do so in a tried-and-true framework that allows audiences to relax in the idea that nothing truly disturbing will happen. Some characters may die, others will certainly suffer, but the bad guys will get theirs in the end at the hands of someone we like. In short, the thriller genre has an established set of rules that the films almost always adhere to. Time and again, Haneke subverts our genre-driven expectations, which decades of clichéd offerings have ingrained in our minds. For example, the film begins with us in Naomi Watts' corner, so we expect her to be the film's protagonist, but that's not the case. What I think has most audiences up in arms about Funny Games is, like No Country for Old Men, the baddie isn't on a level playing field with the rest of the story. But whereas Chigurh differed from his surroundings by being a spectral, possibly supernatural presence, Paul (Michael Pitt in the remake) lords over the story in Funny Games and dictates where it goes. Not content to play by the rules that have been set down for him, he makes rules of his own, sometimes revealing new ones or changing the existing ones as necessary. What's more, Haneke pulls a bait-and-switch in the film's point of view, moving the audience from Watts' perspective to Pitt's once he arrives on the scene for real. In doing so, he turns the audience into co-conspirators with Paul and his partner in crime Peter (the chillingly earnest Brady Corbet), at several points making this explicit by having Pitt turn to the camera and ask questions like "do you think that's enough?" It's these provocations that keep Funny Games (both this version and its Austrian predecessor) from being classics- such intellectual, audience-baiting gamesmanship feels cheap and sort of tacky, compared to the sly deconstruction of the thriller mechanism that Haneke pulls off for most of the film. Funny Games is at its most potent when Haneke seems to promise the usual thrills, only to withhold them from us- not just the famous "rewind" scene, but also the film's lack of explicit violence. In addition, for all the humiliations vested upon Naomi Watts' character, there really isn't much that happens to her for most of the film that doesn't also happen to the more traditional "action heroine" in Doomsday, who is tortured twice, both times while wearing a form-fitting tank top that prominently shows off her cleavage. By contrast, Watts' character is forced to strip by her captors, but Haneke withholds even that from the audience, as if to ask us why we would want to see T&A from a character who's so clearly traumatized. In addition, there's a 10-minutes stationary shot of a stripped-to-her-underwear, trussed-up Watts struggling to free herself from her constraints that might have come off as shameless if not for the courage with which she embues the character. We really feel for her and hope for the best for her in spite of what we fear the film has in store, which makes her pitiable (yet almost offhandedly casual) fate hit like a sudden blow to the head. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Doomsday (2008, Neil Marshall)

A few years ago, Marshall won the love of horror fans with his scary girls-in-a-cave chiller The Descent. However, those expecting the elemental terror of that film will be sorely disappointed in his follow-up project. Doomsday is a futuristic thriller set in the aftermath of an epidemic that has ravaged Scotland, causing the British government to quarantine that entire country. Decades later, Scotland has become a wasteland, but when the virus rears its ugly head in London, the British government sends a team of soldiers behind the wall to locate a cure. It's not a particularly inspired storyline, and Marshall seems to realize this, as the movie is largely memorable for the random directions he takes. It's one thing that, after arriving in Glasgow, Maj. Sinclair (played by Rhona Mitra) and her team find a band of cannibalistic punks who look like a roving band of extras from The Road Warrior. But then the movie takes a bizarre, Uwe Boll-esque turn after Mitra and company run afoul of a reclusive doctor (Malcolm MacDowell) who lives in a castle and leads a band of warriors who wear armor and ride horses. Finally, Marshall senses that he's backed himself into a corner, so a shiny new Bentley materializes more or less from thin air, and the movie morphs once again, this time into a Cuisinart-edited, shaky-cammed sub-Michael Bay actioner, as Mitra and friends race back to the wall. Trouble is, it's somewhat less fun than it sounds, since although it's odd it's never endearingly crazy enough to truly entertain. In addition, Maj. Sinclair isn't a very compelling hero, because although we're given some background to the character (her mother gave her up so she would escape the original virus), she never really seems to be motivated by anything other than the need to keep the plot moving forward. She's little more than an action figure- even the fact that she lost one of her eyes as a child seems mostly like an excuse for her to have a snazzy robotic one- and while I suppose it's encouraging that movies have progressed enough to have action heroines as one-dimensional as their male counterparts, that doesn't make her all that interesting to watch. Still, if you liked Dog Soldiers (Marshall's pre-Descent film) more than I did, perhaps you'll dig this one too. And David O'Hara's line readings are, as in The Departed, still fascinatingly weird. Rating: 4 out of 10.