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I am Legend, Atonement, Juno 

Juno ***1/2

Reservations are required for the first 15 minutes of Juno. 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 pure perfection 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 was never foisted upon Judd Apatow’s similarly themed Knocked Up. Yet Diablo Cody’s script places more emphasis on the emotional fallout, with teenagers Juno and Bleeker awkwardly trying to express their feelings for each other 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 hilarious Thank You For Smoking) is understated and never obtrusive; clearly, this is the writer’s dance.

I Am Legend **1/2

Will Smith may be the only one receiving above-the-title star treatment on the new apocalyptic sci-fi yarn I Am Legend, 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 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 The Last Man On Earth and 1971’s unintentionally campy The Omega Man -- it’s certainly the best. As Robert Neville, the scientist who 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.

Atonement ***

This year’s sight-unseen, automatic Oscar entry 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. 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 she 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.

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 also 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 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.

The Kite Runner **

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 this 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. 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 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 US culture (a theme better handled in Mira Nair’s spring release The Namesake), comes to terms with ghosts from his past by traveling back to his homeland to settle 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, and a monotonous performance by Abdalla, who saps all the energy out of crucial scenes.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story **

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. A sendup of music biopics like Walk the Line and Ray, it spends so much time dutifully tracking the clichés inherent in these types of films 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.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ***1/2

This is an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Broadway smash, but it hides its stage roots so thoroughly that it feels like a piece created for the silver screen. In refashioning Sweeney Todd for the movies, Tim Burton and scripter John Logan have presented audiences with a big, bold endeavor 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 looking like a zombie who’s already been buried a couple of times, he sets about planning his revenge. 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. 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 mangled the Italian language. And while neither Depp nor Carter are classically trained singers, both are just fine belting out Sondheim’s tunes.

Charlie Wilson’s War ***

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 indifferent (The Kingdom), have been promoted by studios with all the appeal of a plate of steamed vegetables plopped in front of an 8-year-old. 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 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. 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 (Tom 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. 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.

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