Friday, June 25, 2004

Capsule Movie Reviews: Damning Saved!, Killing Bill, and Maiming Mommie

Here are a few small flicks still sputtering about, all of which remind us that so-called "independent" cinema can be as dull, crass and silly as any summer blockbuster.

Saved!: Jesus will have you hot or cold, but this fatally muddled ensemble comedy, set in a Christian high school, can't make up its mind. It claims outwardly to be pro-religion and anti-hypocrisy -- an inoffensive stance, since even the most devout Christian souls oppose hypocrisy. But since every religious character is either a secret hypocrite or a raving one, and all unbelievers are essentially sincere, the film comes off as a de facto attack on religion, and on Christianity in particular.

The main thing Saved! seems to hold against Christianity is that it is frequently restrictive: It says "Thou Shalt Not," when it really needs to say "Let's Do It." In this film, as with most contemporary Hollywood drama, individual urges and impulses serve as a higher law to which all other systems must conform, religion not excepted. Faith and morality serve only to keep the characters from acting on their good feelings (or from acknowledging that they have already acted on them), a situation which inevitably leads to hypocrisy, which Saved! safely deplores. Yet the radical relativism the film touts in its stead leads to some astonishing absurdities at the climax: Teen pregnancy and single motherhood are waved away as if they posed no problems for those involved, adultery is deemed okay as long as the participants are truly in love, homosexual relationships must be tolerated regardless of religious objections, and so forth.

That I was offended by the film's apparently casual acceptance of homosexual relationships may surprise some regular readers of this blog. As most of you already know, I advocate Gay equality in the strongest terms possible, including same-sex marriage. But that doesn't make this film's mealy-mouthed message of tolerance and acceptance any less idiotic or insulting. Saved! equates homosexuality with other "problem issues" like adultery and teen pregnancy, stating that we simply have to accept all of the above if we want to be good people. In doing so, the film confirms the worst fears of anti-Gay activists, who frequently claim that GLBT people want to destroy faith, values, morality and religion in one fell swoop.

I also have more than a quibble over one major plot point. Actress-singer Mandy Moore plays Hillary Faye; she leads a Christian-fundamentalist version of the "Plastics" in Mean Girls. Moore is so cartoonish in the role that she obliterates any trace of audience sympathy, which is a shame since of all the film's characters she most deserves our sympathy. When the film's anti-religious protagonists humiliate Hillary publicly (and viciously) twice, you might expect the filmmakers to raise at least the possibility that if the presence of religion cannot guarantee humility or humanity, neither can its absence. No fear of that, gentle reader. The agnostics are always the good guys, and the Christians the bad guys, regardless of how either side actually behaves.

There are some nice performances from Macaulay Culkin, Jena Malone, and especially Martin Donovan; and it's pretty clear that writers Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban understand the milieu of Christian education in a general way. But these virtues can't atone for its most basic flaw: This film, which claims to be pro-religion and anti-hypocrisy, is actually anti-religion and pro-hypocrisy. Nothing can save Saved!.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2: The Saturday-night escapism of Kill Bill Vol. 1 degenerates into Sunday-morning domestic drama. Naturally, the talky, forty-five minute denouement of Vol. 2 turns on a custody dispute -- and by titling his film Kill Bill, director Quentin Tarantino has indicated that the outcome won't be pretty. Comrade-in-arms Bilious Young Fogey has referred to this film as "Kramer Vs. Kramer with samurai swords."

If only it were. Whatever its faults, Kramer Vs. Kramer at least gave weight to both sides of its custody battle; it depicted the mother as something less than a saint, and the father as something more than a boor. Kill Bill Vol. 2, however, fetishizes motherhood so thoroughly, and gives the title character so little credit for his years of single fatherhood, that one can't help suspecting a rather sinister anti-male agenda behind the story as a whole. It's no secret that Hollywood's attitudes toward masculinity skew negative. Maleness is notoriously difficult to control, and in Hollywod features is usually tempered -- or neutered -- by the love of a good woman. In the action flick, fighting becomes socially acceptable only when women practice the art, and when women kill men, it's viewed as a sort of legitimate feminist revenge. Meanwhile, in the "chick flick," male characters are accessories at best, and downright evil at worst. The message in both genres is ironically similar: Maleness must be contained, so that femininity may be liberated.

Even in the anti-male miasma of most American entertainment, the misandry of Kill Bill stands out. Here, the only way to contain maleness is to kill it outright. Since the men are all old, fat, and sadistic (perfect emblems of The Patriarchy, n'est-ce pas?), it's up to women to do the killing themselves. I suppose it could be considered a sign of progress, or at least of equal opportunity, that the sisters of Kill Bill off each other on film, too. Still, I wish Kill Bill could have offered at least one sympathetic male character.

Die, Mommie, Die!: The cinematic humiliation of cult drag performer Charles Busch continues apace with this dismal homage to Hollywood melodramas. First-time director Mark Rucker recreates the mise-en-scene of "women's pictures" well enough, especially given his limited budget. Unfortunately, Die, Mommie, Die doesn't know whether it wants to skewer the great weepies (like John Waters's Polyester) or take them seriously (like Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven). The result is either a comedy without laughs, or a kitschy drama that never quite connects -- and for the life of me, I can't figure out which.

Most of the performances are strangely out of sync with the florid material, but Jason Priestley finds just the right level of awfulness as a bisexual gigolo. Priestley's bad acting is the best thing in the film.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Back from Arkansas

I returned to Charlottesville yesterday, after a full week with parents and relatives in Arkansas. The drive back was enjoyable: I saw the new Harry Potter movie in IMAX (which is a good way to see the thing), visited a few historic sites in northern Tennessee, and stayed at a few cheap interstate motels. As for the blog, I feel a bit out of practice, and have yet to regain my "voice." So I've spent today revising a few posts from last week, as a sort of warm-up exercise. Regular posts should resume tomorrow.

Conversations with Blake: A waggish reader asks if, in our recent talk about "Iwaq," Blake and I might have also discussed "Abu Gwabe." I'll admit I found the remark amusing. Blake, you see, is only seven years old. How do you explain torture and obscenity to a second-grader?

Of course Blake and I didn't mention Abu Ghraib. We wouldn't have talked about Iraq, either, except that my cousin brought the subject up all by himself. Bad enough, you might say, that even seven-year-olds are aware of war and terrorism. For what it's worth, I'm inclined to agree; I'd prefer America's children to remain ignorant of horror and death. But in the end, all my valiant objections aren't worth a tinker's damn. Whether the rest of us like it or not, children know.

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