Friday, March 14, 2008

Movies opening this week

The Band's Visit (Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, dir. Eran Kolirin)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
At this point this movie is probably best known for being disqualified from the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars for having too much of its dialogue in English. That historical footnote aside, it's a lovely and touching little movie about the way that people of different backgrounds can forge connections. I'm as sick as anyone of movies about tensions in the Middle East, and The Band's Visit sidesteps all the heavy commentary while still acknowledging the reality that colors any interactions between Jews and Arabs. Kolirin has a weakness for cutesy shot composition, and bits of the story are relatively predictable. But neither of those elements is overplayed, and the missteps are forgivable given the quality of everything that surrounds them. Opened limited Dec. 7; in Las Vegas this week

Doomsday (Rhona Mitra, Adrian Lester, Malcolm McDowell, Bob Hoskins, dir. Neil Marshall)
Well, this is a serious disappointment. Marshall's 2005 film The Descent was an effective, methodical horror movie, and his 2002 debut Dog Soldiers was a little cheesy but also fairly impressive on a low budget. Maybe finally having some money spoiled him, or maybe he's just lost his way a bit, but this is a loud and incoherent action movie that borrows heavily and indiscriminately from other post-apocalypse films, with one very Mad Max-like biker gang, plus the society of people who've abandoned technology and reverted to medieval living. Into this comes Mitra as a pretty decent bad-ass, but she doesn't get much to do except smirk and punch stuff. The plot doesn't make much sense, although the idea of commandos having to enter a quarantined city to retrieve a cure for a deadly virus is interesting. But Marshall doesn't play out any of the logic of his scenario, instead just staging as many explosions as possible and throwing in tons of gratuitous gore (want to see a cute bunny explode? This movie is for you). His next project is set to be a horror-Western, and that sounds much more promising. Maybe he can redeem himself yet. Wide release

Funny Games (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet, dir. Michael Haneke)
I haven't seen Haneke's 1997 original (it's in my Netflix queue but I didn't have time to get to it before the screening of the new version), but I'm sort of glad about that: By all accounts this is a shot-for-shot, word-for-word remake, and having seen essentially the exact same film a few days or a week beforehand probably would have diluted the experience of seeing the remake. I can see how people would view this version as unnecessary; Slant went so far as to reprint their review of the original almost verbatim (adding only a single clarification) as a review of this new version. But coming into it cold, with only a basic knowledge of the plot, I was blown away by this film's intensity and sadism. It's true that it's not exactly an enjoyable experience, and some might find it entirely too distasteful (the screening rep said after the movie that she felt like she might need to vomit). And I largely grant all the criticisms in the Slant review - the movie is often condescending, it's a bit hypocritical, it's completely guilty of all the things it's critiquing.

But it's so unbelievably effective that it doesn't matter. I can't remember the last time a movie has genuinely disturbed me and even scared me, and I watch plenty of horror movies. Haneke is a stellar craftsman, building unease and suspense with the most mundane events, as Pitt and Corbet's seemingly mild-mannered, preppy-looking psychopaths simply show up at a wealthy family's vacation home asking to borrow some eggs. Things escalate from there, of course, but the egg sequence is so unsettling that it's almost unbearable to imagine what might follow. By keeping the violence almost entirely offscreen, Haneke makes it even more disturbing, and although it's meant as a critique of audience bloodlust, it actually heightens and enhances that same feeling. Haneke's killers are as smugly moralistic as Jigsaw, but much more effective, and the movie too is much scarier than the Saw series because it's so banal, so matter-of-fact. I'm not surprised that critics are divided over this movie, or that many are openly hostile to it. Haneke certainly sets out to make you dislike him, and he does a very good job of it. But whatever his intentions are, even if his tone is sometimes snide, the movie will rattle you and get you thinking. The performances are amazing - Pitt is so purely hateful that he inspires an almost physical reaction, and Watts once again puts everything she has onscreen, especially in an amazing long-take sequence in which her bound and half-naked character attempts simply to get up and walk across the room. It's tough to watch and tougher to embrace, but as far as I'm concerned this is the best movie of the year so far. Limited release

The Living End (Mike Dytri, Craig Gilmore, Darcy Marta, dir. Gregg Araki)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Unlike the last revival that CineVegas brought to town (Godard's Pierrot le Fou), this doesn't seem to be getting much of a release elsewhere around the country in advance of its forthcoming DVD reissue. It's a mildly interesting curiosity for Araki fans or people interested in gay cinema, but otherwise not really worth bothering with, and certainly not necessary to see on a big screen. In Las Vegas this week; on DVD April 29

Never Back Down (Sean Faris, Amber Heard, Cam Gigandet, Djimon Hounsou, dir. Jeff Wadlow)
And here's probably the worst movie of the year so far, a brain-dead, poorly acted, predictable, annoying teen drama that attempts to capitalize on the success of mixed martial arts in a way that no doubt offends serious fans of the sport (which doesn't include me, but still, they surely deserve better). As many, many reviews note, it just rips off the plot of The Karate Kid, only without any heart or positive message. Wadlow directs with millions of quick cuts and fills the soundtrack with awful, blaring hard rock and hip-hop (the only thing possibly worse than Soulja Boy's "Crank Dat" is ... the "Crank Dat" rock remix!). The dialogue is terrible, the acting is weak, and the message is repugnant (hooray for violence solving everything, uniting your family and getting you the girl). MMA fans would be better off watching real fighters, or at least waiting for David Mamet's take on the subject in Redbelt, coming soon. Wide release

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