Friday, August 15, 2008

Movies opening this week

Listen to me chat about these movies, plus new releases on DVD, in this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast, with guest T.R. Witcher, associate editor of Las Vegas Weekly. (I know I said last week I was going to try to make these things shorter, but this one is, er, slightly longer. Less awkward, though, I think. Feedback welcome.)

American Teen (documentary, dir. Nanette Burstein)
A lot of criticism has been thrown at this movie for being staged or contrived or somehow not real, which seems misguided to me. All documentaries are contrived or manipulated in some way; unvarnished reality is not exactly possible without invisible hidden cameras that no one is aware of. Burstein spent a year filming many students and whittled her footage down to the most interesting people and the most interesting events in their lives, which seems like a sensible strategy to me. She crafted what she had to make it into an entertaining movie that will hold people's attention, and in that sense I think it's a success. Even if some things have been massaged a bit, it's not fiction, and it gets to genuine emotional truths. Comparisons to superficial reality shows like The Hills are not fair; the insights here aren't new or groundbreaking, but they are more heartfelt and genuine than what you find on vapid reality TV. MTV shows like True Life and Made offer similarly packaged but honest glimpses into the lives of young people, and I think that saying this movie is on par with those is not an insult. Opened limited July 25; in Las Vegas this week

Man on Wire (documentary, dir. James Marsh)
And, speaking of fakery in documentaries, here's one of the most acclaimed movies of the year (fiction or nonfiction), which is full of re-enactments. Again, I don't have a problem with documentarians using whatever method best tells their story, although here the re-enactments seem superfluous to me, especially since the main subject, tightrope-walker Philippe Petit, tells the story so well on his own, bouncing around and almost re-enacting things himself. The story of how he walked a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 is so fascinating that it's pretty much impossible to screw up, but the presentation here is often lacking. A greater scope would have helped to understand the larger meaning of the event, and some of the more grandiose devices could have been toned down. But when Marsh just lets the subjects talk, it's engrossing and exciting. Opened limited July 25; in Las Vegas this week

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (voices of Matt Lanter, Ashley Eckstein, James Arnold Taylor, dir. Dave Filoni)
I've never been a big Star Wars fanatic, so I didn't have a whole lot invested in the quality of this movie, but even so I was disappointed. I didn't much care for any of the prequels, but this is even worse: All of the stilted dialogue and wooden acting, along with a complete lack of urgency or consequence to the plot, mediocre animation, and some incredibly lame new characters. The teen-girl Jedi who presumably will be a big part of the spinoff TV series is gratingly spunky, and I sort of stared in disbelieve the entire time at Jabba the Hutt's uncle Ziro, who's portrayed as a mincing drag queen, complete with heavy makeup, feathers and flamboyant speech patterns that recall (apparently on purpose) Truman Capote. George Lucas' complete cluelessness about what his audience wants, or even just what makes for good storytelling, is all on display right there. Wide release

Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, dir. Ben Stiller)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I've got a whole essay in next week's Weekly about actors changing their ethnic appearance for movies, so I feel like I've already said everything I can about this movie. But controversy aside, it's very funny and more complex than it appears on the surface. The world certainly didn't need another Hollywood satire, but this one actually has something to say and really understands the way actors think. It's clever and effective, and even surprisingly deep at times. Wide release

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, dir. Woody Allen)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The relative merits of late-period Allen have been debated endlessly and tiresomely (Steven Zeitchik points out how often critics refer to the director's latest movies as a "return to form," and Karina Longworth offers a good defense of continuing to take Allen seriously), so all I want to say is that this is a good movie, regardless of the period it comes from. It's not Allen's best work, but it's at least in the top half or so, and for someone as prolific and talented as he is, that's a compliment. It's fun to watch, insightful (if deeply cynical) about love, and vibrant in a way that the work of a 72-year-old isn't necessarily expected to be. Cruz is fabulous, Johansson seems at home in an Allen movie for the first time, and Hall handles the female version of the Allen-surrogate role very well. It's the kind of summer movie I'd like to see more of: Not a giant expensive blockbuster or a joke-a-minute comedy, but not some dour drama, either. Just a nice time at the movies with a bunch of people who really know what they're doing. Wide release

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