In the Shadow of the Moon looks at heroism with clear eyes. Elsewhere, the National get their gloom on, and Superbad isn't quite as super-great as everyone says.
I'm behind on my movies, behind on my albums. So the rest of the year will be an action-packed attempt to catch up. In the Shadow of the Moon is as good a place as any to start.
In the Shadow of the Moon (ThinkFilm)
Any film entering the marketplace with “Ron Howard Presents” attached to it tips its hand to being slightly rah-rah, occasionally touchy-feely. But once this documentary, directed by David Sington, moves us past the obligations of explaining yet again what was going on during The Sixties – cue the hippie footage – the film achieves something Howard’s Apollo 13 couldn’t: It makes the cynical actually understand and appreciate the sheer impossibility of our early astronauts’ mission. The wealth of astronauts from the era who speak on camera helps, of course, and so does the genuinely stirring score. But it’s not the heroism on display that gets to you, it’s the ordinariness of these men. Not a one of them seems particularly inspiring, brilliant, or extraordinary in terms of interview subjects, but what they achieved in getting America to the moon sure was. In a sneaky way, the film argues that these guys became heroes by not acting like the heroes we imagine these days – they’re colorful but not flashy, hard-working but quiet about it. The movie never really comes out and says it, so I will: America hasn’t lost its enterprising spirit, but it sure has lost its ability to recognize those worthy of admiring.
2 Days in Paris (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Julie Delpy’s directorial debut gets awfully close to fulfilling its mission of making a romantic comedy that isn’t utterly predictable at every turn. And for a good long while, it reminded me of what it was like to be young and see something like Husbands and Wives or LA Story and marvel at the complexities of grownup love, how it was conducted by flawed adults whose real-world lives raised the stakes and lessened their chances for a happy ending. Delpy doesn’t fully achieve her mission – although she manages to sneak in some great observations about French men, American men, American men’s biases against the French, and French stereotypes that might actually be true along the way. And throughout she dances along the edges of that bewildering complexity – and she does it without ripping off the Before Sunrise/Sunset structure. And what can one say about Adam Goldberg other than this is a breakthrough role as Delpy’s intellectual, pessimistic boyfriend and that I hope it opens the door for many similar portrayals in the next five years?
Deep Water (IFC Films)
An interesting companion piece to In the Shadow of the Moon, another documentary about a foolhardy quest, except this one ends in tragedy. Directors Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell tell us about a man named Donald Crowhurst who, pitted against his fellow Englishmen, decided to cross the earth by boat at the height of Beatlemania. The testing-your-personal-limits genre is not necessarily popular, and when one encounters such a film, it’s hard not to watch and wonder: Gee, maybe my limits aren’t being tested right now here in the theater, but it’s sure better than risking a hand to frostbite or a leg to a shark. Deep Water doesn’t quite circumvent that inherent problem, but the movie does go out of its way to explain how a challenging situation got even worse thanks to some truly poor personal decisions made by Crowhurst. I don’t consider him a hero or a martyr – more like a cautionary tale. The movie and I differ on that point, and that has made all the difference.
Sunshine (Fox Searchlight)
Put away the 2001 comparisons and try this one on for size: 2010. Yeah, the '80s sequel – all gleaming special effects and cool visuals with a techy edge. Danny Boyle's a better filmmaker than Peter Hyams, so his epic sci-fi adventure has way more soul, but it's also positively exciting and terrifying. And it's at its absolute best when it makes no goddamn sense whatsoever – which is the third act that everybody else hates but I think is one of the purest visceral experiences I've had since .... yup, 28 Days Later. Much like The Fountain, this is sci-fi with massive pretensions that doesn't get all the way to where it's going but its audacity is so stunning that, trust me, you sound petty if you just dismiss it out of hand.
Rescue Dawn (MGM)
Werner Herzog is such a genius or a weirdo that he manages to make a totally unfashionable Vietnam war movie that's so captivating that you barely have time to note that you've seen most all this before. But, then again, that's part of the appeal: Rescue Dawn doesn't try to rise above its modest war/great-escape trappings, and therefore is so true to itself that you accept it on its own terms. There is one oddball factor: Christian Bale, whose reluctant hero is so mundane that, for once, you actually buy that old Hollywood conceit about a regular guy who does extraordinary things once he saw combat.
Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) (City Light Pictures)
This documentary about the corruption in high- and low-society Brazil touches on themes better expressed in other recent films: Ghosts of Cite Soleil, Cocaine Cowboys, Darwin's Nightmare, City of God. I wish the filmmaker would make it clear that terrible politicians and horrible crime aren't just some interesting curiosities that happen in other places – it's a worldwide problem. But the movie captures the angst and paranoia inherent in being surrounded by crime and reminds you that, really, there are worse places in the world to live than Bush's America.
I give up. Though Apatow is solely the producer of this teen-sex romp, it's got his fingerprints all over it – in other words, the things I don't like about his movies. Again, we have a terrific concept that's so terrific nobody bothers to complain if it's got little follow-through. (We're supposed to find the story so hilarious that it's not supposed to matter when the movie moves into a completely unbelievable realm about halfway in.) And don't worry that the story stops making sense and a few totally unrealistic characters get thrown into the mix – it's the jokes that matter, right? I laughed plenty and liked the performances – Michael Cera in particular is fantastic – but a wonderfully universal tale about being unpopular and horny and looking out into the adult world turns into one more stupid comedy that eventually relocates its heart but a bit too late.
Bright Eyes, Cassadaga (Saddle Creek)
Like a lot of other annoying young people (both in real life and in our art) Conor Oberst is getting more tolerable and a lot more interesting as he sheds his baby-fat preciousness and discovers rich veins of empathy, humility and fragility within himself. This may not have as many good songs as I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning did – although, frankly, it’s a little too close to call – but as Oberst continues to send his heart out to those around him, his songwriting gets subtler without sacrificing its very big country/indie-pop hooks. He worries about his career but couches it in universal terms so that anybody with a bummer job can relate. The abortion song at the end is astoundingly sad without seeming TMI or exploitative. What he knows about black children in terrible inner-city schools is debatable – probably as much as you or me – but now that he’s stopped braying his lyrics, he feels like someone whose more outlandish similes and metaphors you’re willing to take at face value.
The National, Boxer (Beggars Banquet)
When they connect, it’s astounding. “Mistaken for Strangers” nails a tough riff to a lyric about alienation Interpol should be swiping right now. “Gospel” imagines domesticity with an uncertain mix of envy and fear – is it a happy ending for a wandering soul or a perpetual banality? That those songs nearly bookend the record is the problem. Good tunes present themselves here and there in the middle, but too often Matt Berninger’s voice drones in that albino-British way that convinces nonbelievers they don’t need to pay attention while his band plays moody mid-tempo until you grind your teeth and hope for some Slayer. If the two aforementioned tracks grab ya, try “Fake Empire,” “Slow Show” and “Start a War” next. If you’re unmoved, proceed immediately to Reign in Blood.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.