This Film is Not Quite Honest

Make no mistake: You should check out Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. It covers an important issue (important, at least, to anyone who cares about the art of cinema), the control that the MPAA’s rating board has on what we see on American screens. Dick has a strong opinion, and he makes the case in a funny, entertaining way. I recommend it without reservations.

Well, almost. This Michael Moore-influenced doc needs to be taken with a very large grain of salt. Dick stacks the deck, leaving no real room for opinions other than his own. He strongly believes, and I agree with him, that the MPAA hurts foreign and American independent films by its eagerness to smack anything it deems too sexual with the commercially-unacceptable NC-17 rating. One filmmaker after another describes the ridiculous objections made by this anonymous but powerful group of people. (Dick really hates the anonymous character of this panel. Much of the film involves a private detective, hired by Dick, identifying and outing the people who rate the movies.)

But Dick omits a lot of information. We’re shown unacceptably NC-17 shots from Boys Don’t Cry and The Cooler, but never told how these films were altered to get their eventual Rs. There’s little historical perspective, and none that goes back to the pre-ratings days when the MPAA practiced out-and-out censorship that would make today’s PG-rated movies unacceptable. Nor does he acknowledge that the real problem lies not in the MPAA’s willingness to rate films NC-17, but in American society’s villainization of that designation. If Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, and several of the larger theater chains stopped banning NC-17 films, the problem with the MPAA would go away.

Dick’s movie contains one very big error. At least I hope it was an error. But I’m a Cheerleader director Jamie Babbit compares a masturbation scene that caused problems for her independent comedy’s R rating with a more graphic one in the trailer (that’s right, the trailer) of studio comedy American Pie. The problem is that American Pie’s trailer never goes beyond suggesting that someone soon will or just did the deed. Dick compounds the problem by showing, as Babbit talks, a masturbation scene from the unrated DVD of American Pie–one cut from the R-rated theatrical version. In other words, he “proves– that the MPAA is too easy on studio films with a shot that a studio had to cut to satisfy the MPAA.

The last section of the movie concerns Dick’s struggles to get an R rating for This Film is not Yet Rated. When it gets an NC-17, he demands an appeal, then makes much of how poorly he’s treated during the appeal process. Well, duh. Leaving aside the fact that his entire movie is an attack on their organization, no one could reasonably believe that he thought he could get any other rating. Besides, the movie is filled clips that got other movies NC-17 ratings (or would have if they hadn’t been cut). Besides, his title pretty much tells you that he’s going to release it unrated.

Well, that’s probably the worst I’ve ever said about a movie I liked. I’ll try to stick below to praising the good films and only panning the bad ones.

Not Recommended: Head Trauma, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday, 11:30. This low-budget horror flick succeeds in sustaining a creepy atmosphere, but that’s the limit of its success. There’s nothing original, nothing entertaining, and nothing truly scary. The story, about weird goings on in a condemned house that the owner wants to restore, doesn’t go anywhere, and none of the characters are people worth spending 84 minutes with. The whole thing would have been worth it if the ending satisfied, but it doesn’t. Because of its last-minute billing, Head Trauma isn’t on the Red Vic’s printed schedule or web site, but the theater’s managers assure me that it will be shown these two evenings.

Recommended: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aquarius, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you probably already love it. Part of the theater’s Midnight Madness series.

Recommended: Only Angels Have Wings, Stanford, Friday through Monday. Cary Grant heads a team of mail plane pilots in a remote corner of South America. There’s little plot here, just a study of men who routinely fly under very dangerous conditions, and how they cope with death as an every-day part of life. The only non-comedy out of the five films that Grant made for director Howard Hawks. Double-billed with Bringing Up Baby to show us just how versatile Hawks and Grant were.

Recommended: Bringing Up Baby, Stanford, Friday through Monday. How does one define a screwball comedy? You could say it’s a romantic comedy with glamorous movie stars behaving like broad, slapstick comedians. You could point out that screwballs are usually set amongst the excessively wealthy, and often explore class barriers. Or you could simply show Howard Hawks’ frivolous and hilarious tale about a mild-mannered paleontologist (Cary Grant), a ditzy heiress (Katharine Hepburn), and a tame leopard (a tame leopard). On a double-bill with Only Angels Have Wings.

Recommended: Stolen Life, Grand Lake, Oakland, Friday through Tuesday. An emotionally stunted teenage girl leaves her loveless home for college, then makes a really bad romantic decision that will ruin her life. That’s not a particularly new story, but Xun Zhou, who is in almost every scene as well as narrating the picture, plays the lead with such depth and conviction that she overcomes the melodramatic contrivances in Liao Yimei’s screenplay. Stolen Life also offers a view of modern China that few Americans get to see. Still part of the Global Lens festival.

Not Recommended: Zen Noir, Lumiere, opens Friday for one-week run. It starts semi-promising as a broad, very funny parody, placing a 40’s-style detective in a Buddhist monastery. But you can only take that sort of thing so far. (Full disclosure: I know something about noir parody. My own hard-boiled computer consultant, Mac Rowe, pops up frequently in my humor column, Gigglebytes.) When the gags run out of steam very early on, writer/director Marc Rosenbush turns to serious Buddhist philosophizing. But there’s not much spirituality to be found when the characters and environment are at Naked Gun reality levels. The result isn’t funny or meaningful, and even at 71 minutes, Zen Noir is way too long.

Recommended: This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Lumiere and Shattuck for one-week run. Who decides which films get an R rating and which have their chances of commercial success blown by an NC-17? Kirby Dick sets out to find the answer in a documentary clearly inspired by Michael Moore (in other words, it’s funny, the director is the central character, and it’s unabashedly partisan). Dick hired a private detective to discover the raters’ identities (which the MPAA doesn’t disclose), and mixes the sleuthing story with relevant interviews, mostly with filmmakers who’ve tangled with the rating system. There’s plenty to chew on here, and it all goes down easily with plenty of comedy–plus steamy scenes from other movies. But the effect is diluted somewhat by the strong bias and factual errors.

Not Recommended: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Elmwood, opens Friday. Yet another bad sequel to a good movie. Whereas the original Pirates of the Caribbean tread lightly over its silly story, this one takes itself seriously. But as there’s nothing serious about the shallow and meaningless story, so the dark imagery and poor attempts at character development just get in the way of the fun. Worse yet, it ends with a cliffhanger; no one is supposed to see Dead Man’s Chest and skip the third installment. Two good action scenes aren’t enough to justify an otherwise dreary 2 ½-hours.

Recommended: An Inconvenient Truth, Parkway, opening Friday; Red Vic, Sunday through Tuesday. If Al Gore had been this charming and funny in the 2000 election, the world would be a better place. Basically a concert film of a multimedia slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth explains the science and dangers of global warming in a manner so clear, concise, and entertaining that it can enthrall a ten-year-old (and I know because I saw it with one). I’m generally skeptical about political documentaries as a force for good, but if it’s possible for a movie to have a major, positive effect on the human race, this is the one.

Recommended, with Reservations: Serenity, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Ever hear of a science fiction TV series called Firefly? Like many superb, original shows that somehow made it onto a weekly network schedule, Firefly failed to find an audience and soon died. This big-screen spin-off is a gift from the series’ creators to the handful of people who saw the show and wanted more. But if you’ve never seen Firefly, skip the movie and rent the complete series DVD.