Sunday, January 27, 2008

Movie I Watched This Week

Bunch of stuff I didn't get around to reviewing. Here's a quick round-up.


Stallone's update/farewell of his most beloved, legendary franchise, Rocky Balboa tried to pretend all the silly, cartoonish sequels never happened and return to the plain-spoken sincerity of the original film. I figured he'd probably do the same thing with his John Rambo character - return to the melancholy grit of First Blood and banish all that nonsense about traipsing around Afghanistan out of the canon.

But the new Rambo feels just as cartoonish as Rambo III ("Rambo Goes Mujahideen!"). And because, like Rambo the Third, it's also about Rambo intervening in a real life war, so it's just as inappropriate.

Did I say the film was inappropriate? Well, I'm going to say it a few more times. Because Stallone's set the film in the genuinely war-torn nation of Burma and demonstrates a Gibsonian tendency to linger on and fetishize abhorrent, disgusting images of brutal violence. I may have seen a few more movies that contain more close-up shots of individual acts of violence than Rambo (Ichi the Killer?), but I can't easily recall the last film that had this amount of violence against children or this many bodies exploding.

Rambo, who now operates a boat-and-snake-hunting service in Thailand, is hired by some naive but well-meaning missionaries, including Rita from "Dexter" (Julie Benz), to take them into Burma to help some oppressed villagers. He doesn't want to, but Rita from "Dexter" is persuasive. These scenes feature intensely cornball dialogue. Rocky Balboa, by virtue of being something of a likable simpleton, can sometimes deliver a line that would sound ridiculous coming out of the mouth of any other sane human. But Stallone kind of writes every character like he or she is Rocky; everything's folksy, sentimental, mawkish and utterly sincere.

Once we arrive in Burma, the movie is essentially a carnage promo reel. Think "Satan's Screen Saver." The Burmese army enters villages, rapes women and children, and generally just turns every living thing into CG-enhanced red goo, much of which is splattered directly into the camera. Then we get some scenes of Rambo laying waste to the bad guys, and then the film's over.

Stallone's obviously been watching his directors for his entire career, and he definitely knows his way around an action scene. (He's a bit klutzy with CGI, particularly when using it to show us grenades exploding peaceful villagers in close-up). The final showdown in the film can't help but remind older viewers of the heydey of '80s action, when almost every film concluded with a massive, explosion-heavy, machine gun-enhanced faceoff between the forces of good and evil. Many of these films were even set in Asian jungles! It's exciting and even "fun" on that level; it's hard not to root for Rambo when he's doing that snarly yell thing while pumping lead into 50+ dudes at once.

But I can't really put any kind of stamp of approval on such a simple-minded and inappropriate (there's that word again) appropriation of a real-life conflict. People are actually being murdered every day by a repressive regime in Burma. Is a massacre across the world really an ideal subject for a silly, simple-minded action movie? When Paul Verhoeven makes a movie in which a guy explodes thousands of people for fun, he at least has the taste to set it in space or Nazi Germany.


Teeth has exactly one joke. One. If you think the very notion of a woman with teeth in her vagina, that she can use to defend herself from rapists and perverts, is funny, you will love this movie. I probably would have fallen into this category for the vast majority of my teen years, particularly those teen years before I had actually seen or interacted with vaginas. (Which was, let's be honest, most of them).

Because I wasn't laughing hysterically at all the talk of pee-pees and hoo-hoos, Mitchell Lichtenstein's debut feature grew old pretty quick. Unsure if it's supposed to be a send-up of teen abstinence education, a gross-out comedy/horror midnight movie or a cerebral Cronenberg-style mindfuck, it is none of these things. It's really not much of a feature at all; more like a series of sequences in which Dawn (Jess Weixler) encounters a man, slowly begins to trust him, and eventually cuts off his penis with her vagina.

Audiences likely to be pleased at the sight of a severed penis on screen, naturally, will find a lot to like about Teeth. It may have the highest severed-penis-count of any American film ever made. I'm not saying you couldn't make a good movie which featured numerous loving close-ups on severed penises, but I am saying that you've got to give me something else aside from the mutilated gonads. The movie's just not funny enough to be a comedy, not clever enough to be a satire, not scary enough to be a horror movie, and doesn't bring any kind of original insight into the already-warmed-over subject of the vagina dentata. So it's reduced to, essentially, the level of schtick. "How will this guy's penis get cut off?"

It's a shame, because Jess Weixler gives a way better performance than the movie deserves. She was so good in the opening sequences, in which Dawn's firmly-held (huh huh) belief in abstinence is challenged by the arrival of a cute young Christian named Tobey (Hale Appleman), I wish Lichtenstein had just made this movie (sort of like Election but with virgins) instead of all the adolescent vag humor.

Otto Preminger Films

Went last night to the Egyptian to see a double-feature of Otto Preminger films: Bunny Lake is Missing and The 13th Letter. In between the two features, Foster Hirsch interviewed Bunny Lake is Missing star Carol Lynley in a showing of pompous asskissery worthy of James Lipton himself. Hirsch is an esteemed author and film professor, but honestly, this was among the most vacuous "Q&A" sessions I have ever attended. He's written an entire book on Preminger, yet his insights made me want to smack my forehead in the exaggerated style of a Tex Avery wolf, each and every time.

In one scene of Bunny Lake, a TV in a pub is playing a performance from psychedelic '60s favorites The Zombies, and Hirsch pointed out that "all the customers in the pub...look like zombies." Um, no they don't, they look like customers in a pub. This is the exact kind of thing I used to hate in film classes. Stupid, "pithy" little observations that don't provide any kind of real insight into the film or filmmaker and serve only to call attention to the observer's cleverness.

He also referred to the second film, the well-shot and acted but ultimately forgettable The 13th Letter, as a film noir even though it demonstrates not one of the genre's defining characteristics. A melodrama set in a small village mainly shot amidst bright afternoons starring a wholesome and stalwart doctor defending his good name from letters that besmirch his reputation? How is that film noir?

But enough about this guy.

Bunny Lake is Missing is brilliantly shot and amazing for about 90 minutes. According to Hirsch, Preminger hated the original ending of the novel on which it's based, and it took him 10 years to get the new ending right. (Hirsch never told us how the book ends, however. He must be some great professor.) Anyway, Preminger never did get that ending right.

Ann (Lynley) and her daughter Bunny have just arrived in London and moved into their new flat. Ann drops Bunny of at school in the morning, begins unpacking and running some errands, but when she goes to pick the child up, no one has seen her. Ann's brother (Keir Dullea) and a police inspector (Laurence Olivier) are called in, but strangely, there seems to be no record whatsoever of the child's existence at all. Is Ann insane? Did she invent Bunny? Or is someone trying to make it look that way?

It seems like a few movies have used this same kind of set-up, and none of them ever figures out how to make it work. Flightplan recently used the gimmick and its ending was an epic disaster. Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes is similar as well, and though it fares better than Flightplan, I still wouldn't rank it with The Master's better work.

Still, it's intriguing for the vast majority of Bunny Lake, as the mysteries begin to pile up and The Inspector begins to scrutinize the odd behavior of Ann and her brother.

Preminger has set the film in a London that's spectacularly creepy and unsettling. Everyone has an unctuous manner, a bad attitude. The men are smarmy and the woman are cold. Preminger used actual locations, not sets, and he and cinematographer Denys Coop delight in lighting and exploring peculiar cavernous as Ann continues her relentless search for Bunny. Two sequences in particular stand out: Ann's fleet escape from a dank, factory-like hospital and her search through a doll "hospital" for tangible proof of Bunny's corporeal existence.

So the movie's not Laura or Angel Face, but it's still incredibly solid. Terrific, even, until that ending, which somewhat resembles classic '60s thrillers like Psycho or Peeping Tom but just lands with a thud. Probably because it doesn't fit with the rest of the film. Or maybe because it makes no sense and is stupid.

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