Friday, October 12, 2007

Movies opening this week

All of a sudden it's become very busy at local theaters, as we get ready for awards season. Most of these movies are worth taking the time to see, provided they stay in theaters for more than a week.

Across the Universe (Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, dir. Julie Taymor)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm a casual Beatles fan at best, but I've been looking forward to this film for a while since I really like Taymor's past work (Titus, Frida) and she makes films so infrequently. Although I'd read plenty of bad reviews (Robert Wilonsky called it "unwatchable" on Ebert & Roeper), I still had high hopes and ended up mildly disappointed. This seems like Taymor reaching for the mainstream and not quite making it, although it may just be that she needed a better screenplay. There are some really awful moments - mostly involving Bono's cameo as a Timothy Leary-esque drug guru - but some really nice ones as well, and those made me long for what this maybe could have been without the bland storyline. I also think that Taymor would do well with a completely original musical, something not tied to existing songs, where she could just let her imagination run free. Clearly that's what she does best. Opened limited Sept. 14; in Las Vegas this week

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, dir. Andrew Dominik)
It's interesting to hear about the way Warner Bros. has been mistreating this movie, because as difficult as it is I think it could be a genuine Oscar contender with the right backing (and still might be). It was dropped in Vegas theaters with virtually no warning, no screenings for the press (we were lucky we were able to squeeze in a review from an out-of-town writer in Las Vegas Weekly, and our counterparts at Las Vegas CityLife were not able to get one at all, nor did the major daily critic review the movie) and no advertising. Nevertheless, the Friday-afternoon showing I went to was fairly well-attended, although I heard some grumbling from people on the way out about how slow and uneventful the movie was.

And it certainly is slow, and far from action-packed considering it's a movie about a famous outlaw. There's a train robbery in the first 20 minutes or so, and then the rest of the 160-minute film is spent with James and his associates brooding, arguing and trying to outsmart each other, not very effectively. The weird, sort of symbiotic relationship between James (Pitt) and Ford (Affleck) is built up slowly and methodically, and Dominik takes the time to let the audience get to know each man (although James remains something of an enigma). The movie is more Ford's story, and Affleck does an excellent job conveying the man's naivete and hero-worship that turns sour when his idol is not everything Ford hoped he'd be. The copious narration (one of many Malick-like touches) can be a little overdone, but it mostly serves to fill in useful and insightful information. The cinematography is stunning, and many of the little moments (especially with Schneider's fairly minor member of the gang) are really masterful, adding up to a whole that is not as perfect as some have made it out to be, but certainly one of the best movies of the year and deserving of a much better treatment than it's getting from the studio. Opened limited Sept. 21; in Las Vegas this week

Manda Bala (documentary, dir. Jason Kohn)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was so relieved to see a documentary that made an effort to be cinematic that I almost didn't care what this movie was about. The subject matter is pretty fascinating, though, even if it focuses narrowly on certain aspects of life in Brazil and leaves out others, and is yet another documentary about institutional corruption of some kind. Kohn makes valid points in an interesting way, and offers a glimpse into a society that is like ours in many ways, but really alien in a lot of others. Opened limited Aug. 17; in Las Vegas this week

Michael Clayton (George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, dir. Tony Gilroy)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
If I read one more review describing this as "finally, a movie for grown-ups!" I think I am going to scream. This is not the savior of the multiplex; lots of movies for "grown-ups" open every week, and are easy to find if you know where to look. Do we really need the Clooney Seal of Approval to go feel "sophisticated" at the movies? Anyway, that bullshit (which is no fault of the film itself) aside, this is a good, solid thriller with strong performances and an excellent pace. Gilroy, who was involved in writing all three Bourne movies, is a stellar craftsman, and knows how to put together a story. All the talk about this being a "grown-up" movie is just a condescending way of saying that it doesn't talk down to its audience. Something that many entertainment journalists clearly have not learned. Wide release

We Own the Night (Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes, dir. James Gray)
Here's another movie pitched at adults who never go to theaters, but it's not nearly as successful. A limp crime thriller with serious third-act credibility problems, it has a few nice moments of suspense but falls flat on believable character development and interesting performances. Phoenix looks half-asleep much of the time, and Wahlberg has much less screen time than you'd guess from the advertising - not that he does much with it anyway. A disappointing misfire that feels far too familiar and played out. Wide release

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