Friday, December 21, 2007

Movies opening this week

It's a movie overload in anticipation of Christmas, and in anticipation of nothing opening for the next two weeks.

Charlie Wilson's War (Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, dir. Mike Nichols)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It's entirely possible that my positive reaction to this movie came mostly from my fatigue with overly serious Iraq-war dramas, but I think at the very least it proves that Aaron Sorkin is best when he writes overtly about politics. This is so much more entertaining than Studio 60 ever was, because Sorkin doesn't have to pretend to be interested in anything other than Washington. He eventually gets as heavy-handed as always, but Nichols keeps things lively, and at the end I would have been happy to see a new Sorkin TV series about a Charlie Wilson-esque hard-drinking, womanizing congressman who always cuts through the bullshit. I think that's a pretty good sign. Wide release

The Great Debaters (Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker, dir. Denzel Washington)
Undoubtedly the most interesting thing about this movie is that it stars Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker and a young actor named Denzel Whitaker. Otherwise, it's much like Washington's first effort as a director, Antwone Fisher, in that it's overbearing, predictable, bland and trying too hard to be inspirational. It fictionalizes the heck out of the true story of the first champion debate team from an all-black college in order to hit the requisite Hollywood beats, runs through a litany of predictable elements and is populated entirely with one-dimensional characters. This is especially disappointing given that both Washington's character, debate coach Melvin Tolson, and Denzel Whitaker's young debater James Farmer Jr. seem to have lived incredibly interesting, varied lives that are only hinted at here in the standard "what happened to these people next" title cards at the end of the movie. Also, I'm no expert on debate, but every time the team wins a match, they do so by shamelessly appealing to sentiment as the score swells in the background. I was always under the impression that the whole enterprise was about logic. Then again, when was a movie like this ever concerned with logic? Wide release, on Tuesday

Juno (Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, dir. Jason Reitman)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
There's been some pretty heated debate recently among critics about this movie, and I'm sort of burnt out on it already. As one fellow critic pointed out to me, if this was just a little indie movie released in March, there wouldn't be such attention and intense argument over its relative merits. I liked the movie overall, and I stand by my positive review, but I do think the awards attention has been a little out of proportion to the actual quality on display, and that screenwriter Diablo Cody could easily become annoying if she buys into her own hype too much and relies on her "clever" dialogue over strong storytelling. But for now, ignore the hype and the backlash, and this is a perfectly entertaining and sometimes touching little movie. Opened limited Dec. 5; wide release on Tuesday

The Kite Runner (Khalid Abdalla, Zekeria Ebrahimi, Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, Homayoun Ershadi, dir. Marc Forster)
I saw this movie a couple of months ago to prepare for the interview I did with star Abdalla, and it's already pretty much faded from memory. It's admirable that it sheds some light on an area of the world that doesn't get much attention in America, and does so with a story focused more on family than on terrorism, but strip away the multicultural veneer and it's not a particularly engaging story. The middle portion is the same immigrant narrative we've seen so many times (and was done better earlier this year in The Namesake), and the last third has some pretty silly melodrama and Dickensian coincidences. The first segment, then, with the two characters as young boys growing up in Kabul, is the best, at least when it's quiet and contemplative rather than sensationalistic (the rape scene, no matter how tasteful, is the beginning of the movie's tip into histrionics). I haven't read the book, but I imagine it handles all of this with a little more subtlety and grace, and that probably makes the story easier to buy into. Opened limited Dec. 14; in Las Vegas this week

Margot at the Wedding (Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, Zane Pais, dir. Noah Baumbach)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The reviews on this have been very mixed, with even many of the positive ones not particularly enthusiastic, but it was one of my favorite movies of the year. I liked it even more than the universally praised The Squid and the Whale, because of a lot of things that people haven't liked about it - its unlikeable characters, its pessimism, its lack of resolution. Kidman is perfect in these roles as distant, emotionally unavailable ice queens, and she's great here, as is Leigh, a severely underappreciated actress. Unlike his pal Wes Anderson, who slathers his family dramas in excessive quirkiness while blunting their emotional force, Baumbach seems to be working harder and harder to expose the raw hurt and insecurity behind so many family interactions, and to lay bare all the resentments that we'd like others never to know about, and I find it both fascinating and highly respectable. Opened limited Nov. 16; in Las Vegas this week

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, dir. Tim Burton)
Having never seen the Sondheim musical on stage, I can't speak to the success of this movie as an adaptation, but most people seem to think the transition went pretty well. And I liked it overall as a movie, even if Depp and the rest of the main cast don't exactly have strong singing voices. Burton de-emphasizes vocal theatrics and focuses on character, and the actors do a good job of conveying the dark nastiness of their roles. I still don't quite see this as Burton's best film in years, though, as many have said; to me it just seems like so much of his recent work, a decent adaptation given the Tim Burton spin, but not nearly as original or exciting as the stuff he did early in his career. Wide release

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell, dir. Jake Kasdan)
This to me is conclusive proof that critics will just give Judd Apatow a free pass on anything. This movie is better certainly than something like Epic Movie, but it's still a rather obvious, wan and repetitive parody of an easy target. The parade of cameos from comedy all-stars is occasionally amusing (the scene with Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long doing the world's worst Beatles impressions is the funniest thing in the movie), but most of them don't do much other than prove how connected Apatow is. Kasdan directs anonymously, and the movie suffers from a lack of access to the biggest strength of Apatow films: improvisation. Parodying the conventions of the biopic requires a much more rigid structure, and there's not nearly as much manic energy here as there is in other Apatow productions. The songs are often great, spot-on parodies, but what comes in between them is uneven at best. Wide release

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