Sara Vilkomerson’s Guide To This Week’s Movies: Back to Reality

thirdstringer 4 Sara Vilkomerson’s Guide To This Week’s Movies: Back to RealityIt was quite a Bat-tacular weekend, wasn’t it? Not surprising us in the least, but apparently still shocking to some, was that everyone went bat#@$% over The Dark Knight, which raked in a massive amount of moulah last weekend (158.3 million), setting all sorts of records—best first night, best three-day non-holiday-weekend, best performance for a movie with the word “Dark” in the title, etc.—and in general charting its course to world domination. Isn’t it nice to see this happen with a really good movie for a change?

 

THE BATMAN WILL no doubt take No. 1 this weekend (and the next, probably, too), but if it’s nonfantasy cinema you’re looking for, you’re in luck, as everyone seems to be releasing their documentaries right now. First up, there’s American Teen, from director Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture). Ms. Burstein spent one entire academic year chronicling the lives of a handful of high schoolers from Warsaw, Ind., and the results are so cringe-inducing they could make John Hughes cry. Among her subjects are the archetypes familiar to anyone who has seen The Breakfast Club or Mean Girls: the popular and cruel queen bee (who has a bit of a rage problem, wants to go to Notre Dame and uses technology for evil); the band geek who plays a lot of video games and just wants to find love; the weird girl (read: arty, wears vintage) who has no idea she’s going to grow up and be superhot; and the jock who gets too much pressure from his dad to get a basketball scholarship. But if these are familiar types, it’s because there’s an eternal truth to them: High school really sucks. So when the cute jock falls for the slightly depressive alterna-girl and tries to bring her to the cool-kids party, we know it’s doomed, but these kids have probably never even seen Pretty in Pink—how could they know? Ms. Burstein has infused her film with an ever-rare authenticity and manages to see beyond each kid’s stereotype to the complicated screwed-up adolescent they are (and we were). American Teen is compelling, and never condescending. Take your teen.

American Teen opens Friday at Lincoln Square and Landmark Sunshine cinemas.

 

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO THINK about the twin towers without getting a twist in the gut. But James Marsh’s new film, Man on Wire, manages to take our minds beyond Sept. 11 to the summer of 1974, when French street performer Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the just-completed World Trade Center, a good quarter-mile above the ground. It’s dizzying to even think about, but Mr. Marsh has a great subject in the boyish—and we have to think, kind of bananas—Mr. Petit. In interviews, the Frenchman goes into an almost trancelike state while talking about his dream of walking between the two buildings (it began for him before construction on the towers was even completed). Before hitting New York City, Mr. Petit performed similar tricks on Notre Dame Cathedral and Sydney Harbour Bridge—more artistic spectacle than simple daredevil in his black cat-burgler getup and graceful turns on the wire. As the film traces how he plotted his Word Trade Center walk, it starts to feel almost like a heist movie, as Mr. Petit and his cronies map out each minute detail over the course of months (hearing them recount the time they were almost caught by a guard will leave you breathless). We’re never crazy about those weird black-and-white dramatic reenactments, but we’ll forgive them in this film, as the actual archival footage and photographs more than make up for it.

Man on Wire opens Friday at Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine cinemas.

 

AND FROM NEW YORK CITY we head south, where it turns out that the oldest Mardi Gras celebration is not in New Orleans, but in Mobile, Ala., where they have been celebrating since 1703. But also since the dawn of time or parade floats, there have been two different celebrations: one for the white pedigreed families, and the other for the black. To say each group takes this tradition seriously can in no way convey the absolute nuttiness and frenzy that filmmaker Margaret Brown has captured in The Order of Myths. Ms. Brown is a daughter of Mobile herself—her mother was the white Mardi Gras queen in 1966, and her grandfather Dwain Luce is a member of the two oldest mystical organizations (highly secretive and involving silly costumes), the Order of Myths and the Strikers Independent Society. Ms. Brown chronicles the frisson of excitement that leads up to the actual Mardi Gras—the elaborate luncheons, ceremonies, and attention to glitter-on-trains. It’s always treacherous territory to ask people to talk on camera about segregation, especially a white Southerner wearing a Mardi Gras mask who needs subtitles because his accent is so thick, but Ms. Brown does so unflinchingly. Much of her attention is focused on the “royalty”—the queens of the all-white Mobile Carnival Association and the all-black Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association. Helen Meaher—whose grandmother was a Mardi Gras Queen in the ’30s and whose family tree stretches back to the slave trade—is selected for the one; Stefannie Lucas, who figures she has spent the cost of a car on preparations, for the other. But the person we were most obsessed with was Brittain Youngblood (true name!), who was not selected as queen but for the court, and who repeatedly describes herself as the “liberal” Southerner. Watching her chat with her mother’s kitchen staff is extremely embarrassing, and possibly more effective at revealing some lasting truths about race relations than anything else in Ms. Brown’s film.

The Order of Myths opens Friday at IFC Film Center.

 

AND FINALLY, there’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Their documentary CSNY: Déjà Vu is directed by Neil Young, who apparently also goes by the name Bernard Shakey. (Who knew?!) The film is described as a “provocative glimpse behind the scenes of one of the most controversial rock tours of recent times,” when the band reunited in 2006 for the Freedom of Speech Tour. But, if these guys managed to bring together a feeling of unity back in the ’70s, this tour brought about some mixed results, as certain fans—who showed up expecting some sing-a-long to “Wooden Ships”—were displeased at the band’s political messages. Mr. Young arranged for the footage to be shot by war journalist Mike Cerre, fresh from being embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq; here he embeds himself on the tour bus instead, and the film often ends up looking more like a segment on the evening news than a documentary. Still, it’s fun to see these four guys back together, hair a little grayer, paunches a bit more pronounced (though, weirdly, David Crosby looks exactly the same), fighting and harmonizing just like the old times.

CSNY: Deja Vu opens at the Angelika New York.

svilkomerson@observer.com