Friday, December 01, 2006

Movies opening this week

Jesus Camp (documentary, dir. Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I do sort of miss the days when not every documentary was pushing a political agenda, but this is probably one of the least egregious offenders, since at least it does document an interesting phenomenon and paint portraits of some real people in the process, even if its ultimate purpose may be to demonize those people. Ewing and Grady do such a good job, for the most part, of standing back and letting their subjects speak for themselves that it's disappointing when they have to cut away to some heavy-handed "context" from a liberal radio host or canned news reports about Samuel Alito. It's almost like you have to make sure to foreground your political agenda, whatever it may be, in order to sell a documentary these days, and that's too bad. Opened limited Sept. 15; in Las Vegas this week

The Nativity Story (Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Shohreh Aghdashloo, dir. Catherine Hardwicke)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm not sure why I've ended up reviewing all the religious movies lately, since I am the precise opposite of a religious person, but I did find it enlightening to see both this and Jesus Camp in the same week. It's too bad that the two modes of dealing with Christianity in cinema seem to be either walking on eggshells (as here) or launching attacks (as in Jesus Camp), with very little in between. A smart, complex film about real people who happened to have deep religious beliefs would be fascinating to see, but I think any filmmaker interested in Christianity feels either burdened by the opportunity to represent their entire religion (and thus given over to sweeping, boring piety) or liberated to unleash their pent-up anger at same (thus giving us vitriolic, if sometimes accurate, attack films). I suspect that if Christianity becomes less of a rarity within mainstream cinema, eventually a filmmaker of faith will come along who simply wants to tell a good story, and doesn't have the burdens of any sort of community on his or her shoulders, and then we'll finally get a truly worthwhile film. Wide release

Turistas (Josh Duhamel, Olivia Wilde, Melissa George, dir. John Stockwell)
I really wish John Stockwell would make better movies and thus validate my faith in him as the "stealth auteur" of current disposable Hollywood cinema after his work on Crazy/Beautiful and Blue Crush, but this one is a complete mess. At least Into the Blue, which was ludicrous and poorly acted, looked great, and Stockwell's visual sense, his travel-photography eye for beautiful scenery, was one of the main things that made his earlier movies work. You could have turned off the sound on Into the Blue and still enjoyed it (or, rather, enjoyed it even more). So the biggest disappointment here is perhaps that not only is this movie poorly paced, badly acted, not scary and full of undeveloped characters and social commentary, but it also looks like shit. Actually, the first maybe half-hour or so has some nice shots of the Brazilian coast that evoke Stockwell's earlier work and cement his obvious love for photographing beaches and oceans (this is his third film in a row to take place primarily along a coastline). But the latter part, especially the murky chases through the dark jungle and the long, long climax in underwater caves (something you'd think that Stockwell would excel at - and the film even has a separate cinematographer credited with the underwater photography) is ugly and impossible to follow, with storytelling suffering not in sacrifice to the imagery, but along with it. Stockwell also seems ill-suited to the horror genre, and as with Into the Blue, I felt like there were glimmers of the kind of thing he does well (laid-back, character-focused comedic dramas about young pretty people) before the genre story kicked in and got in the way. Wide release

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