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This Week's New Releases

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In the Shadow of the Moon

Sydney White

dir. Joe Nussbaum

This update of Snow White transposes the old fairy tale onto a college campus. The evil witch is a sorority queen, her magic mirror is a "hot or not" website, the prince is president of his frat, the seven dwarfs are seven dorks, and Amanda Bynes is Sydney White, an incoming freshman who dreams of following her dead mother's footsteps and becoming a Kappa sister. Evil sorority head Rachel Witchburn (Sara Paxton) foils Sydney's attempt to pledge, and she is taken in by the seven dorks, who live in a rundown house at the end of Greek Row, a blemish that Rachel plots to remove.

Sydney is supposed to be a dork herself and a tomboy—she was raised by her widower father, a plumber, and so lacks the feminine influence necessary to make her graceful and proper. She reads comic books and knows how to use a hammer. When she gets flustered, she rambles with a weird, possibly North Dakotan affect. She also wears an awful lot of lip gloss for a tomboy. We're supposed to be charmed by her unconvincing stammering, doughy troll-doll face, and closely set cross-eyes, but the only really charming thing here is, occasionally, the seven dorks, who fall somewhere in between Revenge of the Nerds caricature and Freaks and Geeks sincerity (the latter's Samm Levine essentially reprises his role as Neal Schweiber here). There's the horny virgin dork, the allergic-to-everything dork, the angry blogger dork, the neurotic mute dork, the beanpole scientist dork, the gay Boy Scout dork, and one dork whose only qualification seems to be that he's Nigerian.

There's the predictable romance, a school election, and a nonsensical climactic speech about how We're All Dorks—even the bully football players and the conventionally attractive sorority sisters. Bynes is as cloying a heroine as you'd expect, but at least the dorks are cute. ERIC GRANDY

In the Shadow of the Moon

dir. David Sington

If you're in the mood to nitpick, I suppose you could go to town on In the Shadow of the Moon, the new highly touted, Ron Howard–presented documentary about the Apollo space program. The construction stays firmly within the standard doc foul lines (footage of Vietnam accompanied by fuzz-rock guitar? still?), the talking-head sequences occasionally drag, and the shots of the infinite don't have quite the same mind-blowing grandeur of the earlier IMAX mainstay For All Mankind. Does this stuff take away from the film's overall wonderfulness? Not really, no. Bolstered by interviews with the decidedly regular-guy astronauts themselves, this is simply champion entertainment, with an appeal that goes beyond mere Tang-craving nostalgia.

Working without a voiceover narrator, director David Sington wisely trusts the participants to tell the tale. The reclusive Neil Armstrong is conspicuous by his absence, but recollections by the likes of Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, and Edgar Mitchell paint a vivid picture of the agony, ecstasy, and occasional boredom of going where no man had gone before. (Michael Collins, aka the man who stayed behind in the ship while Armstrong and Aldrin got to touch the moon's surface, comes off here as a genuine American hero, both self-effacing and wryly hilarious. Give this man a talk show.)

These priceless firsthand recollections aside, what ultimately makes the film a must-see is perhaps just its simple evocation of an era when the country could do something without its people having a good reason to be suspicious, or immediately trying to spot the seams. At a time when our space program is mostly distinguished by its tragedies, we may need this more than we know. For 90 minutes, at least, the gee-whiz pioneer spirit proves alive and well. ANDREW WRIGHT

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

dir. Jim Brown

This is a straightforward hagiography of Pete Seeger, that guy who played the banjo with Woodie Guthrie and became a famous folk icon. Some representative facts: Seeger got a ukulele when he was 8 years old and, according to his brother, "was always a showoff; he loved to play his ukulele and sing for people." Seeger got a scholarship to Harvard University but joined the young Communists, spent too much time organizing and singing and protesting, let his grades slip, and got booted out. Seeger was working for the Library of Congress when he met Woodie Guthrie and quit his job to play with his hero. Guthrie's guitar bore the slogan: "This machine kills Fascists." Seeger's banjo bears the slogan: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."

In 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but refused to answer questions about his beliefs or politics or voting record, saying: "I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." He was cited for contempt of Congress and blacklisted, which kept him off broadcast TV (a major problem for a musician at that time) for around 17 years.

Seeger left his first commercially successful band, the Weavers, because he didn't want to record an ad for a tobacco company.

And so on. Pete Seeger is produced by Toshi Seeger, his wife, and is a mostly uncritical portrait of a man who, admittedly, didn't do much worth criticizing. He was an early environmentalist and civil rights activist and never pretended Stalin was an okay guy. He didn't drink, didn't smoke, built himself and his family a log cabin on the Hudson River, and was the hardworking, principled Johnny Appleseed of the American folk-music revival. Like I said: straightforward hagiography. BRENDAN KILEY

Across the Universe

dir. Julie Taymor

This may be blasphemous for a music critic to admit, but I never really got into the Beatles. Sure, I know (and like) their music, and I respect their historical significance, but I was never what you would call a fan. The Beatles are the pop music of my parents’ generation, and mine has its own, thanks. So, the question is: Do you have to be a Beatles fan (or, worse, a baby boomer) to appreciate Across the Universe, Julie Taymor’s new musical scripted primarily out of Beatles songs? Of course not—all you need is drugs.

Across the Universe is full of pretty people (notably a McCartney-ish Jim Sturgess as Jude and Marilyn Manson’s girlfriend as Lucy), stylish sets, cool costumes, and some fun choreography. The visual effects aim for psychedelia but come off as green-screen cheese, more goofy than trippy. The plot—lovers in turbulent times—is thin and utilitarian. It’s all one joint short of a lark.

In an attempt to encompass the whole of the 1960s, the movie relies on cliché. Lucy falls in with an SDS-like group (cue “Revolution,” “Helter Skelter”) that, of course, evolves into the Weathermen with the obvious explosive result. Lucy’s brother is drafted to serve in the Vietnam War (cue Uncle Sam singing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” with the “She” being a fucking STATUE OF LIBERTY being carried through a miniature jungle on the backs of American soldiers—heavy, indeed). And analogues of Jimi Hendrix (Martin Luther) and merry prankster Ken Kesey (Bono) are tacked on for good measure.

The script does as little as necessary to move the pretty people from one well-designed setting to the next, sometimes struggling to fit the plot to the lyrics (in one particularly ludicrous scene, the bohemian gang coaxes Prudence out of a closet by singing, duh, “Dear Prudence”). When the gang stages its triumphant rooftop reunion (I know), singing “Hey Jude,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “All You Need Is Love,” the only affection you’ll feel is for the songs, not the people singing them. ERIC GRANDY

 

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