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Pregnant with Possibility 

A look at the season's naughty and nice releases

MEET THE PARENTS: Pregnant teen Juno (Ellen Page, right) plans to hand her baby over to yuppie couple Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman) in Juno. - DOANE GREGORY / FOX SEARCHLIGHT
  • Doane Gregory / Fox Searchlight
  • MEET THE PARENTS: Pregnant teen Juno (Ellen Page, right) plans to hand her baby over to yuppie couple Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman) in Juno.

RESERVATIONS ARE required for the first 15 minutes of Juno (***1/2 out of four). And by reservations, I don't mean the type involving a phone call and the expected number in your party; I mean reservations as in the withholding of expectations and opinions, as this indie effort takes a moment to get its bearings. Yet after a rocky opening that almost drowns in its own attempt to be hip, this movie is pure bliss.

Ellen Page, who already revealed herself as an actress to watch in Hard Candy, is perfection plus as the title character, a spunky and verbose teen who finds herself pregnant after a dalliance with sweet classmate Paulie Bleeker (Superbad's Michael Cera). After briefly considering an abortion, Juno elects to have the baby and place it up for adoption, a decision supported by her dad (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man's J. Jonah Jameson) and stepmom (Allison Janney). After careful research, she decides on the adoptive parents: Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), a tightly wound businesswoman who wants a child in the worst way, and Mark (Jason Bateman), a TV jingle composer whose tendency to live in the past makes him an ideal friend to Juno (they both share a love for gore flicks and bicker over musical tastes). But Juno's idea of how everything should proceed smoothly doesn't exactly pan out, and her sarcastic front falters in the face of fear and uncertainty, revealing the child underneath.

Perhaps because it's written by a woman -- and a former stripper and phone-sex operator at that -- Juno is already receiving the sort of knee-jerk backlash that tellingly was never foisted upon Judd Apatow's similarly themed summer comedy Knocked Up. Yet Diablo Cody's script is more balanced than Apatow's: The laughs are plentiful in both, but Cody places a bit more emphasis on the emotional fallout, with teenagers Juno and Bleeker awkwardly trying to express their feelings for each other (and sometimes failing in that way only teenagers can topple) and Vanessa's anxiety almost palpable as she constantly worries that Juno might change her mind about handing over the baby (Garner is excellent in her best film role to date).

The direction by Jason Reitman (also responsible for last year's winning Thank You For Smoking) is understated and never obtrusive; clearly, this is the writer's dance. Cody's dialogue may not always be believable (how many 16-year-old girls reference Dario Argento, let alone Soupy Sales and Seabiscuit?), but its intelligence and quirky humor qualify as music to the ears of moviegoers tired of monosyllabic snorts and witless banter. And speaking of music, the soundtrack is a keeper as well, with eccentric tunes that complement the action. Kicking up a fuss (much like Juno's unborn child), this is easily one of the year's best releases.

BLADE RUNNER: Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) lets his fingers do the stalking in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. - LEAH GALLO / DREAMWORKS & WARNER BROS.
  • Leah Gallo / DreamWorks & Warner Bros.
  • BLADE RUNNER: Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) lets his fingers do the stalking in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (***1/2) is an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 Broadway smash, but it hides its stage roots so thoroughly that it often feels like a piece created exclusively for the silver screen. There's no trace of the claustrophobic (and often limiting) theatricality that has marred other stage-to-screen transfers, though that's hardly a surprise given that Tim Burton remains one of modern cinema's most visually adept filmmakers. In refashioning Sweeney Todd for the movies, he and scripter John Logan have presented audiences with a big, bold musical that functions as an upscale slasher film: It's bloody but also bloody good, with the gore tempered by the melancholy love stories that dominate the proceedings.

Burton's go-to guy, Johnny Depp, delivers a haunted performance as Benjamin Barker, a sweet-natured barber who's falsely imprisoned by a lecherous judge (Alan Rickman) who covets Barker's wife. Fifteen years later, Barker returns to London a changed man: Now calling himself Sweeney Todd and physically looking like a zombie who's already been buried a couple of times, he sets about planning his revenge on the judge. He's aided in his efforts by Nellie Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a lonely widow whose love for Todd will clearly remain unrequited. As partners-in-crime, however, they're matched beautifully: A crazed Todd slits the throats of all who sit in his barber's chair, while Mrs. Lovett grinds up the corpses to use in her increasingly popular meat pies.

Burton's decision to stylize the film to within an inch of its life was a sound one, resulting in a visual feast that dazzles even through the setting's necessary grime. And his most theatrical flourish is to retain a Grand Guignol sense of the melodramatic, with the gory scenes tempered by the fact that the blood looks less than authentic (it's the bright-red variety employed in many a Hammer horror flick from decades past).

The blandness of the actors portraying the story's young lovebirds, Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisner, is a debit, but as compensation, there's Borat himself, Sacha Baron Cohen, cast as a charlatan named Pirelli -- perhaps not since Eric Rhodes played Alberto Beddini in the Astaire-Rogers classic Top Hat has an actor so deliberately hammed up the Italian language. And while neither Depp nor Carter are classically trained singers, both are just fine belting out Sondheim's tunes. More importantly, they provide this rousing musical with the emotional heft necessary to prevent it from merely becoming an exercise in Gothic chic.

WARTIME POLITICS and motion pictures don't mix -- at least not in 2007, when all movies in this vein have tanked at the box office. Of course, it hasn't helped that all recent films of this nature, whether good (In the Valley of Elah), bad (Lions for Lambs, Rendition) or controversial (The Kingdom, Redacted), have been promoted by parent studios with all the appeal of a plate of steamed vegetables being plopped in front of an 8-year-old (i.e. "It's Good For You" cinema). Purists will balk (rightly so, in some cases) at the notion that any work of art should be watered down for mass consumption, but it's a simple fact that audiences hit the multiplexes to attend a movie, not a lecture.

So trust that canny old lion Mike Nichols to remember how to do it right. Charlie Wilson's War (***) is sterling entertainment punched across with enough glitz to sell it but not too much to bury it. Aided by a big-name cast and a sharp script by Aaron Sorkin (adapting George Crile's nonfiction book), Nichols has crafted a winning if occasionally facile work whose level of intelligence is measured by how much (or how little) each individual viewer wants to put into it. Minimum-effort audiences, therefore, will be happy to roll with the jokes and the engaging central performance by Tom Hanks. Those digging a little deeper will recognize its merit in sniffing out that snatch of history that somewhat serves as the missing link between the fall of Communism and the rise of Middle Eastern terrorism.

Kicking off in the 1980s, it follows Texas Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks), a blustery politician not above lounging in Vegas hot tubs with busty strippers, as he becomes interested in Afghanistan's ineffectual attempts to oust the invading Soviet army. Charlie's spurred to take action at the insistence of his politically savvy friend Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, little more than serviceable), a born-again right-wing millionaire who also hails from the Lone Star State. Charlie does his best, but it isn't until he teams up with prickly CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman, marvelous) that the ball gets rolling and the Afghans are able to defend themselves with U.S. aid.

But at what cost to the future? Charlie Wilson's War doesn't answer its own question, preferring instead to let viewers mull over the response. But while they do so, they can enjoy the sparkling film presented before them, which manages to be part satire and part screwball comedy. No Supreme Court tampering is necessary this time around: Charlie Wilson's War is an outright winner.

TWISTED SISTER: Cecilia (Keira Knightley) will soon find her life destroyed by younger sibling Briony (Saoirse Ronan, front) in Atonement. - ALEX BAILEY / FOCUS FEATURES
  • Alex Bailey / Focus Features
  • TWISTED SISTER: Cecilia (Keira Knightley) will soon find her life destroyed by younger sibling Briony (Saoirse Ronan, front) in Atonement.

THIS YEAR'S sight-unseen, automatic Oscar entry, Atonement (***), mostly lives up to its lofty expectations, even if it doesn't possess the sweeping emotion that provided other British period pieces like Sense and Sensibility and The Remains of the Day with their enduring resonance. If a finger must be pointed, it would most likely fall in the direction of director Joe Wright, who previously teamed with his muse Keira Knightley on 2005's breezy adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Here, it's Ian McEwan's beloved novel that gets tastefully brought to the screen, via a literate screenplay by Dangerous Liaisons adapter Christopher Hampton. Knightley essays the role of Cecilia, who finds herself attracted to the family servant's upwardly mobile son Robbie (James McAvoy). But Cecilia's precocious younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) has also developed a crush (albeit a more chaste one) on Robbie, and Briony grows jealous as she witnesses events that she feels attests to the bond between the lovers. Eventually, Briony uses a tragedy that occurs on the estate grounds as a way to get back at Robbie, not comprehending the long-term implications of her actions. It's only when she herself has grown up (and played at this point by Romola Garai) that she's able to grasp the magnitude of what she did -- and work on setting matters right.

Knightley's role doesn't allow her to flourish as she did under Wright's direction in Pride and Prejudice, which is fine, since this is Briony's story and McAvoy's film. As solemnly played by Ronan, the teenage Briony comes off as a bad seed writ large, with an IQ that, coupled with her naivety, makes her especially dangerous. It's a memorable performance in the best-written role, yet it's the excellent McAvoy who injects the proceedings with a notable degree of compassion: We ache for Robbie throughout this tale, and McAvoy expertly conveys the feelings and frustrations of a man who dared to dream outside his station in life, only to watch as his desires go up in flames.

It's a shame that the denouement doesn't completely provide us with the emotional catharsis we require. Providing a clever, bittersweet twist, it affects the head more than the heart, and reveals a certain measure of clinical execution on the part of Wright. It caps the film with a slow simmer, when nothing less than a full blaze will suffice.

MEAN STREETS: Robert Neville (Will Smith) and Sam hit the road to escape from murderous mutants in I Am Legend. - BARRY WETCHER / WARNER BROS.
  • Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.
  • MEAN STREETS: Robert Neville (Will Smith) and Sam hit the road to escape from murderous mutants in I Am Legend.

WILL SMITH may be the only one receiving above-the-title star treatment on the new apocalyptic sci-fi yarn I Am Legend (**1/2), but he's hardly the one who runs away with the film. In fact, pretty much everything in this picture -- the other actors, the FX work, even the art direction -- is shown up by Abbey, who delivers a terrific performance which in a perfect world would be up for an Academy Award in a couple of months. Granted, there's the small technicality that Abbey's a dog -- a German shepherd, to be exact -- but still ...

Empathy for an on-screen animal is nothing new, but the preview audience's reaction to Samantha, the trusty companion to Will Smith's last man on earth, ranks among the most vocal I've ever heard. And why not? Abbey (and Kona, also listed in the credits as playing Samantha; perhaps Abbey's stunt double?) is a wonderfully expressive animal, and once the canine's screen time decreases in the picture's second half, the rapport between man and his best friend -- a reassuring motif in a movie about a world that otherwise has gone to hell -- dissipates to make room for the usual testy relations between frightened humans as well as their attempts to ward off the evil entities that reside in the darkness outside.

I Am Legend is based on Richard Matheson's novel of the same name, and while it's not the first theatrical version of the time-honored tale -- there's also 1964's OK The Last Man On Earth, starring Vincent Price, and 1971's unintentionally campy The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston -- it's certainly the best. As Robert Neville, the scientist who initially appears to be the sole survivor in New York City after a virus has wiped out most of humankind, Smith brings the right mix of vigor and vulnerability to the part, and director Francis Lawrence maintains a fair amount of tension as long as Neville (and audience members) can't size up the shadowy menace. But once the bloodthirsty creatures show themselves, they're disappointingly conventional (at least by CGI zombie standards), and the film has trouble continuing its momentum through a lackluster final half-hour. Still, Abbey makes this worth seeing. Not to mix animal kingdom catchphrases, but this dog really is the cat's meow.

THE POSTER for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (**) states it's "From The Guy Who Brought You Knocked Up And Superbad," but really, it feels more like it's "From The Guy Who Brought You Anchorman And Talladega Nights."

Yes, Judd Apatow is one of the co-writers (sharing scripting duties with director Jake Kasdan), but that savory mix of satire and sentiment that worked well in his two summer hits is largely missing here; instead, we get the broad laughs and easy targets more at home in films headlining Will Ferrell. That's not a bad thing in itself -- Talladega Nights was pretty funny -- but the problem with Walk Hard is that genuine laughs are few and far between. A send-up of music biopics like Walk the Line and Ray, it spends so much time dutifully tracking the clichés inherent in these types of films -- and then offering mostly predictable comic riffs on these clichés -- that a certain by-the-numbers stagnation begins to settle in.

Still, that's not to say that some moments don't connect: A sequence involving The Beatles demands to be seen if only for the opportunity to catch Jack Black cast as Paul McCartney(!), and I love the string of scenes in which Dewey (John C. Reilly) gets introduced to increasingly harsher drugs. And for a soundtrack that's meant to send up actual country, rock and R&B hits, the songs are a surprisingly durable bunch that will doubtless play just fine away from the movie theater while blaring from an iPod or car CD player. For a novelty Christmas gift, it's not a bad way to go.

THERE HAVE BEEN exemplary movies imported out of the Middle East and the surrounding region for well over a decade now (Iran's Offside is a recent example), which is perhaps why The Kite Runner (**), a U.S.-born-and-bred adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's bestseller by European-raised, Hollywood-sanctioned director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball) never exudes the raw, authentic power that such a story demands. Of course, some of the faults in this film, primarily set in Afghanistan, might be traced back to its source material (I haven't read the book), but it's hard to feel as if we're watching "life as lived" when it's surrounded by artificial production values and an absurd climactic coincidence that's an affront to the dignity of writing.

A tale that spans decades as well as continents, The Kite Runner initially centers on the friendship between well-to-do but wimpy Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and the family servant's son, loyal and courageous Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada). Hassan is forever protecting Amir, but Amir fails to do likewise when a local bully rapes young Hassan. This incidence causes a rift in their relationship, a development that turns even more rancorous before Amir and his father (excellent Homayoun Ershadi) bolt for the United States to escape the Soviet invasion.

Told in flashbacks and flash-forwards, the movie explains how an adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla), long assimilated into U.S. culture (a theme better handled in Mira Nair's spring release The Namesake), comes to terms with the ghosts from his past, specifically by traveling back to his homeland to settle his affairs with Hassan -- a trek that ends up pitting him against the Taliban. Alas, the harshness of the material frequently finds itself neutered by a schematic storyline, an overreliance on all-too-obvious CGI effects in the kite-flying scenes (are we watching a movie or a video game?), and a monotonous performance by Abdalla, who saps all the energy out of crucial scenes. Well-meaning but rarely hard-hitting, The Kite Runner never quite manages to take off.

JUST SMOTHER ME NOW: Dave Seville (Jason Lee) and Theodore in Alvin and the Chipmunks - RHYTHM & HUES / TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
  • Rhythm & Hues / Twentieth Century Fox
  • JUST SMOTHER ME NOW: Dave Seville (Jason Lee) and Theodore in Alvin and the Chipmunks

CONSIDERING THAT my family owned the 45 single for "The Chipmunk Song," I must have listened to that novelty hit dozens of times during my formative years. Decades later, I haven't really felt a burning desire to revisit the tune, and certainly not when it's played in the service of something as lamentable as the new holiday film Alvin and the Chipmunks (*).

About the best one can say about this occasionally rancid but mostly just dull film is that it's not as excruciating as Garfield: The Movie, another ill-conceived project that placed CGI animals in the real world. Here, Jason Lee is the hapless human who serves as the sacrificial-career lamb: He plays Dave, a failed songwriter who has trouble getting close to anyone, including a predictably va-va-voomish girlfriend (Cameron Richardson). But along come our all-talking, all-singing chipmunk siblings -- Alvin, Simon and Theodore -- to not only help him produce a smash single but also teach him the importance of friendship and family. The requisite villainy rears its head in the form of Dave's old college chum Ian (David Cross), now a record company mogul who decides to work the 'munks into the ground via world tours and the like.

The three rodents' lines are spoken by Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler and Jesse McCartney, but their voices are so digitally altered that they might as well be lip-synched by Hillary, Barack and Mitt. Then again, that speaks to the whole impersonal tone of the project, which has so little regard for the brand name's nostalgic factor that it updates the concept by briefly putting the trio in rappers' outfits in one scene and allowing Simon to eat Theodore's turd in another. Desperately conceived on every level, this forlorn family film amounts to little more than celluloid roadkill.

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