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Wednesday, October 18

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Airbags

Hey everyone.

I deeply apologize, but my travels to Austin for "Butt Numb-a-Thon 9: Big Trouble at Butt Numb-a-Thon" forced me to miss the only film opening this week that I care about: Alvin and the Chipmunks. So there will be no review of the Jason Lee vehicle with the three cute little CGI chipmunks singing today's popular tunes and a few Chipmunks classics. Sorry, folks. Instead, you'll have to select from one of the following paltry offerings.


I Am Legend

It's rare that Will Smith isn't carrying whatever film he's starring in. But with I Am Legend, he's really a one-man show, performing almost entirely without other actors to play off of or tell jokes to. So it's to his credit that this film works for the most part as both an action film and a contemplative look at what happens to a person not only cut off from the world, but also smart enough to know that he may never see another human being again. Based on the acclaimed Richard Matheson novel of the same name, I Am Legend is a smaller film than you might imagine.

Despite the setting of an abandoned Manhattan island and the occasional attack by dogs or humans infected with a rabies-like virus that has essentially killed off the world's population, the bulk of the film's running time centers on Smith's Robert Neville, a military scientist who knows how this situation came to be and is determined to dedicate the rest of his life to researching how to reverse the effects of what was apparently a drug meant to cure cancer. He and his uninfected dog drive through empty streets looking for wildlife (mostly deer) to kill for food, and he's got what appears to be a fairly solid system for going through his day. For example, he is literally working his way through the nearby video store one movie at a time. He has set up mannequins along his route that he pretends are people he can talk to. And, sometimes he searches for hives of infected humans (that act a lot like vampires) so he can snatch some up for his experiments. Any infected creature can't survive in the sunlight, which means he has multiple alarms set on his watch to warn him when it's time to head back home and lock himself in.

Rather than turn this story into a full-blown action offering, director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) holds back for much of the film. He's more interested in having us watch Neville slowly lose his mind as he has recurring nightmares (in the form of flashbacks) about how this all started and the last time he saw his family (his wife, played by Salli Richardson, and daughter, played by Willow Smith) alive during a dramatic evacuation of New York City. He spends several hours a day in an underground lab, working with rats and once-human subjects trying to cure this disease, but there comes a point where you wonder why he's bothering since most of the world's population is dead. He's doing it, of course, because if he doesn't try, he'll probably kill himself.

It isn't until the final third of the film that Smith and Lawrence hit the action button, and all hell breaks loose. There's more than a hint that at least one of these creatures has enough intelligence to rally and organize the masses against Neville, and that feels a bit like cheating, but at that point, it doesn't matter. The creatures are scary as shit. Their look and the sound of their howling still haunts me. The way their mouths open in ways that aren't anatomically possible really creeped me out. By the time Neville finds two more humans to interact with, it almost seems like an unnecessary injection into his life. But when you see the end, you'll understand why their inclusion was important.

I Am Legend is going to surprise a lot of people expecting non-stop action or perhaps more humor from Smith, but I'm guessing Smith paid attention to the folks who criticized what he did to I, Robot. Here, he's playing it straight for the most part. He finds moments of humor, but much of the time the laughs are the nervous kind or the type found around gallows. There are moments of true terror here, like a sequence involving Neville's dog running into a dark building chasing a deer and he reluctantly goes in after it. There also is genuine sadness at work here, but I found observing his day-to-day living as fascinating as anything else in the film. This is one of the few films I've seen recently that successfully blends a small, art-house feel with a bigger budget and a sprinkling of special effects. The ending may leave people a bit miffed, but it was appropriate considering what comes before it. I Am Legend is a surprisingly satisfying science-fiction work that stays true to the tone of the book, while not being afraid to add a little zing in an effort to get the heart rate racing.


Juno

As a preface to this review, I have to tell a little story. About a month ago I was fortunate to sit down and interview the star of this magnificent, funny, touching splendor of a movie, Ellen Page, and the film's writer, Diablo Cody, who is not only guaranteed an Oscar nomination—she seems pretty certain to win it. We talked at length about Ellen's rising career and Diablo's path from famous blogger to autobiographer to screenwriter. We talked about her next screenplay, a female-centric horror film set to be produced by Juno director Jason Reitman, and all sorts of fun details and insight about Juno itself.

Sadly, you will never read that interview because while I and a couple hundred of my nearest and dearest friends sat in the new Alamo Drafthouse Ritz Theatre last weekend for Butt Numb-a-Thon 9, someone broke into the car holding my luggage and swiped not only my laptop but also the tape of the interview. I'd brought both to Austin, hoping to catch up on a little work during my downtime in the days leading up to BNAT, and I'd even started transcribing this interview. As you may have read back in August, this hasn't been my greatest year as far as property loss goes; this incident was the capper. But interview or not (and trust me, there are dozens of fine interviews floating around with Cody and Page), Juno is simply one of the most charming and relevant films of the year, and it arises from one the finest screenplays in a very long time.

Juno is one of those movies you like almost instantly, and if you don't, you will after about 10 minutes. There's a rhythm and a cadence to the dialog and the flow of the plot that somehow manages to feel both organic and unlike anything in the natural world. Diablo Cody's screenplay is loaded with what a lot of people are calling "hipster" speak, but the fact is most changes or additions to pop culture and the English language are borne out of teen culture. There are times during the film where I felt Cody was making slight but necessary (to tell her story) adjustments to the English language. This story of a high school girl named Juno (Ellen Page of Hard Candy and X-Men 3) who gets pregnant and decides to give her baby away for adoption has the makings of a heartwarming cautionary tale, and that's certainly part of the proceedings. But Juno is more concerned with creating rich, likeable characters who add layer upon layer of fascinating depth to this film.

There are no villains here (fellow students glaring at the pregnant Juno are about as bad as things get), which doesn't mean that our heroine escapes a few stern but loving lectures about responsibility from her father (the unflappable J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney, in a role that should make every screenwriter rethink the evil stepmom cliché). After she gets pregnant after a one-night-stand with her best friend Paulie Bleeker (Superbad's Michael Cera), Juno first considers abortion. In what might be the funniest scene ever set in an abortion clinic, that idea goes out the window in favor of adoption. After skimming the Penny Saver ads, Juno and her friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) locate a nice suburban couple (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) who cannot have children. Their first meeting is painfully awkward, and Cody makes it clear which of the two would-be parents we're supposed to like more. But what might surprise you is the sophistication the story has as our loyalties to certain characters shift along with Juno, who becomes unlikely friends with Bateman's character, Mark, a commercial jingle writer who wants to be a rock star and watch horror movies all day. Garner's uptight Vanessa clearly wants this child more than Mark, but we feel strongly they'll both make great parents.

If ever there was the perfect blending of actor and screenplay, Page breathes life into her character in a way that will instantly make you feel she's playing herself, including the way she deals with the quirky Paulie, who is clearly in love with her but lacks the personality to deal with her mood swings or his own feelings. Always having Paulie dressed in baggy yellow track shorts and a headband makes him seem like a nerd, but the truth is that he's just a slightly nervous and extremely sweet kid. Juno's cynicism and wiser-than-her-years attitude and delivery may put some people off, but I have a hard time understanding that. She's aware that she's different, and it sometimes troubles her. When she's first telling her parents about her pregnancy, she admits she doesn't know what kind of kid she is yet. It's a rare moment when her guard is down and she's not searching for the next clever thing to say, and it's the first of what turns into many warm and touching moments in Juno.

Director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) adds some nice visual touches to Juno, borrowing ever so slightly from the straightforward camera angles of Wes Anderson. But what he wisely does is not to let the filmmaking interfere with this perfect script. He concentrates on the performances, which are all absolutely flawless. When I look back at all of the films I saw in 2007, I can't think of a better collection of actors synching up so effortlessly with the screenplay. Nearly every actor is required to be both funny and emotionally vulnerable in some truly tough scenes, especially a few near the end, and everybody nails it. The person who truly shocked me was Jennifer Garner, whose character seems, at first, to be the most one-dimensional. She keeps an immaculate home, always dresses pretty, has perfect skin, puts down her husband's need to rock and is driven to over-prepare for this child. We're never meant to hate her, but we understand she's the square to Bateman's cool-guy, who watches gory Herschell Gordon Lewis horror films and listens to Sonic Youth. All I'll say is don't get too attached to your preconceptions about anyone in this film.

Juno is such a good film that it makes you mad at other films for not trying as hard to be this spectacular. And it's one of those rare films that can't be oversold or over hyped. I'd been hearing about Juno for quite a while before I finally saw it, and I'd convinced myself it couldn't be as good as everyone said. It's better. And if you're one of those people who resists seeing a movie because everybody says it's soooo good, then a) you're an idiot, and b) in this case, this rumors are true. You'll walk out of Juno feeling better about yourself for having seen it and better about the world for allowing a film like this to get made.


The Kite Runner

As much as we'd like all films about childhood friends to be heartwarming, sweet and innocent, in real life such stories aren't always possible. Based on the acclaimed novel by Khaled Hosseini (and adapted beautifully by David Benioff), The Kite Runner concerns two Afghan friends, Amir and Hassan. Amir is the son of a rich man, and Hassan is the family's servant's son, but the two are constant companions. They compete in the cutthroat sport of kite running, in which a two-person team sets out to knock down other kites from the sky. It's actually exciting to watch. Obviously the film is set in pre-Taliban Afghanistan, since the Taliban outlawed kite flying, among other things.

While other stories about children would focus on what bonds these two boys together (and that's here to a degree), The Kite Runner concentrates on what tears these good friends apart. The smaller but more ferocious Hassan gets into a fight with older boys, one of whom rapes him while Amir watches and does nothing. Hassan is not aware that Amir witnessed this awful attack, but Amir's unspoken guilt essentially tears apart their friendship shortly before Amir's family decides to move to America as the Russians move in.

Amir (played by Khalid Abdalla, who I believe played one of the terrorists in United 93) grows up to become a successful writer, but he is plagued by the remembrance and an overwhelming sense of concern for Hassan's whereabouts in the aftermath of both the Russian invasion and the installation of the Taliban as the ruling power in their country. He receives a letter from someone in Afghanistan regarding Hassan and immediately makes the journey back home. He discovers that Hassan has a son who has been kidnapped by the Taliban, and Amir makes it his mission to go undercover and rescue the boy.

The Kite Runner is just one harrowing story after another through Amir's life as both a coward and a hero for his friend. There are several moments in this film that are almost too emotionally painful to watch. Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball; Stranger Than Fiction; and the next Bond flick) pulls no punches in telling this magnificent story that is as much tale of redemption as it is celebration of youthful bonds. The two child actors playing Amir and Hassan are tremendous, and Abdalla's work is award-worthy, to be sure. Although far from your conventional feel-good film, The Kite Runner provides an honest and devastating look at the realities of its characters' lives and makes us care about them more than I could ever imagine. Only those with coal-encrusted hearts can resist the impact this film delivers.


Starting Out in the Evening

Some people found writer-director Andrew Wagner's first feature, The Talent Given Us, one of the most obnoxious films ever made. I was one of those people, which does not mean I didn't find the film a compelling work; it just drove me slightly crazy. Dialing things down a notch, Wagner has constructed a poetic and somber piece about an elderly writer named Leonard Schiller (the glorious Frank Langella), who long ago wrote a masterpiece of a novel and followed that up with lesser works and eventually writer's block. He regularly attends cocktail parties and other social events where he and other New York intellectuals discuss the arts in general, and writing specifically. Leonard has a daughter (Lili Taylor) who loves him but throws herself at a man (Adrian Lester) who has no interest in commitment. When they broke up years earlier, it almost drove her insane. But most of the time, Leonard goes through his daily routine, attempting to write what he believes may be his comeback novel.

Enter Amber (Lauren Ambrose), a student attempting to write her Master's thesis on Schiller's work and life. She's willing to write the dissertation on her own, but she approaches Leonard in the hopes of doing a series of interviews with him. Since it seems unlikely that any critical analysis of his work will ever be written by a professional, Leonard sees this as his last shot at some form of immortality and agrees. Amber is pretty, smart and wants nothing more than to talk about him for hours on end, so why wouldn't Leonard feel incredibly flattered and fall a bit in love? And make no mistake: Amber is equally enamored with Leonard both as a writer and an emotional being. She views their relationship as a means to uncover what happened in his life to make his work suffer and seem less truthful, while he simply likes the idea of this young intellect being so interested in him.

Langella is a god here, and he transforms Leonard into equal parts proud and pathetic. There is nothing inherently noble about Leonard's feelings for this college student, but Langella infuses the character with a fragile kind of dignity that seems so believable that you never question the would-be love affair. Ambose plays Amber with just the perfect overly ambitious quality; she's not quite a stalker but, given slightly different circumstances, the capacity is there. She's a user, and I think she's always aware that her thesis will crucify Leonard's later work to a degree, especially when she uncovers his life's greatest regret and the turning point in his artistic output. Starting Out in the Evening is that rare creation about those with high IQs, even as it reveals that they are just as capable as the rest of us of doing dumb and thoughtless things. More importantly, it's such a rare and meaningful treat to watch these fine actors do their collective thing without distractions or compromise. I didn't see that much this year, but you shouldn't miss a shot at watching it happen. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


The Walker

Woody Harrelson has always been one of those actors that I like keeping an eye on. After injecting some much needed humor into No Country for Old Men, he creates one of the most interesting and nuanced roles of his career, that of Carter Page III, a D.C. gossip collector and friend/escort to many of the city's female high-society types. With his well-trimmed moustache and a variety of suave hair pieces, Carter finds himself mixed up in a murder investigation while helping a senator's wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) keep her involvement in the matter from the police. As much as the film is about the killing, writer-director Paul (Autofocus) Schrader is clearly more interested in Carter's story and his thrilling mix of mostly elderly socialite friends. Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin and Mary Beth Hurt are among the ladies he plays cards with and trades secrets concerning the D.C. elite.

While it's no secret that Carter is gay (his younger partner is played by German-born Moritz Bleibtreu of Run Lola Run), even this small hint of scandal surrounding his involvement in this case has his long-time friends running for the hills. There's an almost-chilling scene in which Bacall explains to Carter why he's being ostracized; she's so polite about it that you almost don't notice how shallow and cruel she's being. The situation isn't helped by the fact that Carter's father was a well-respected political figure, and every senator Carter comes into contact with (especially Ned Beatty as Tomlin's husband) makes him feel like that much more of a disappointment.

As the writer of such films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Mosquito Coast, it comes as no surprise that Schrader has a real gift for dialog, and Harrelson's portrait of a man watching his hard-earned reputation and lifestyle slip away before his eyes is crushing. At its core, the film is about a man just beyond his prime, but who has been able to deny it because of the company he keeps. When the friends disappear, the fragile nature of his status shows itself. Harrelson is so good here that you can forgive the film its flaws. Willem Dafoe shows up briefly as Thomas's senator husband who barely manages to hide his contempt for Carter as he threatens to have him investigated for the murder if he breathes a word of his wife's involvement. It's a tricky story that is matched by beautifully layered performances by all the actors. The Walker is one of those small treasures that sneaks out at the end of the year, hoping for a little critical recognition but usually getting lost in the public eye. But I implore you to seek this one out if you're looking for something out of the ordinary. It opens today at the AMC Pipers Alley Theater.


The Perfect Holiday

I will go see Terrence Howard in anything. I find the guy fascinating to watch even in bad movies. But even my endurance level has been tested this year with some of Howard's role choices. While he gave great performances earlier in the year with The Brave One and The Hunting Party, Howard has followed that up with three shitty performances in three even-shittier movies in the last three weeks: August Rush, Awake and now an extended cameo in The Perfect Holiday, which features the worst Terrence Howard performance he is capable of giving. That being said, his 2008 slate is looking pretty good, led by Iron Man and Dido Montiel's Fighting, so maybe we can just chalk up 2007 as the year Terrence Howard learned it was okay to say "No" to some roles. If only he'd learned a little earlier…

The month of December is a strange time for films. While most end-of-year offerings are hoping for a little awards consideration as they bombard us with gloom and doom, period costumes and/or all manner of serious subjects, we inevitably get two or three truly dumb holiday films, and this year is no exception. Since November, we've seen Fred Claus (probably the best of the bunch, but that's not saying much), This Christmas and the foulest of the lot, The Perfect Holiday. I'm still trying to wrap my brain around who exactly this film was made for. The all-black cast would seem to answer that question, except I can't imagine a child or adult of any racial or ethnic persuasion enjoying this dopey movie. But the single worst thing about the film is producer Queen Latifah's god-awful narration. If any other actor is more in love with the sound of her own voice, I'd like to meet her. Just because she produced the film doesn't mean she has to appear on screen to run the proceedings. She plays a character called Mrs. Christmas, who's about as happy and motherly as you can be as she watches over the characters in this film and occasionally guides the action to a more pleasant outcome. Howard plays her "evil" sidekick, Bah Humbug, who tries to undo the goodness Latifah is lavishing upon the characters. He doesn't really speak as much as he grunts and mumbles his way through the proceedings, and I'm convinced he knew what he was doing was craptastic.

But the strange thing is that the movie isn't about these two. They're meant to be comic relief to the main story about struggling musician Benjamin (Morris Chestnut), who takes a holiday job as a mall Santa, where he meets Nancy (Gabrielle Union) and her two kids. When Nancy meets Benjamin without the Santa suit on, she doesn't realize it's the same person (apparently she's blind and dumb, but the film doesn't specifically get into any medical conditions she might have), so Benjamin passes himself off as a successful songwriter. Nancy's ex-husband is superstar hip-hop artist J-Jizzy (Charlie Murphy), who uses his kids as props for his new holiday CD promotional efforts and is generally a self-centered jerk. The usually funny comedian Katt Williams plays his unfunny manager. What I've told you so far is pretty much all I remember about the movie, other than its lame attempt at slapstick and physical comedy toward the end of the film. The movie adds nothing to the holiday movie genre, black film or quality art at all. The jokes are broad and fall flat without fail. I like Murphy and Williams, but they're only as good as their material, and the material for The Perfect Holiday sucks (interesting fact: it took four people to write this movie; hard to believe).

Director Lance Rivera previously dazzled me with his equally uninspired The Cookout a few years back, but The Perfect Holiday might be worse because it assumes that people turn off their brains at the movies in December. I think quite the opposite is true: people expect to be challenged emotionally by most of what they see. And this type of pandering is made all the more tedious by terrible acting, lame writing and clichés and stereotypes piled on top of one another. Happy holidays; here's a turd!

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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