dir. Jason Reitman
"It's amazing there's saps that actually cry at this," quips 16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) as she gazes at the murky images of an ultrasound. The fuzzy glob is her own unexpected pregnancy, the product of a spontaneous quickie with her best friend and longtime crusher Paul Bleeker (the always brilliant Michael Cera). She has chosen to give the baby up for adoption, and her willed detachment from the situation is telling; wise beyond her years and far too clever for her own good, she spends her life hiding behind a thick coat of irony. To Juno, being knocked up isn't a life-changing event, but rather, just another of life's stupid situations. And the sooner it's over with, the better.
Written by first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody, Juno shares many of the same traits as its hero. The dialogue crackles but risks never allowing the audience in; characters threaten to remain buried beneath a mound of quirks, or worse, descend into easy parody. The film could have easily crumbled into an overwritten mess, but what rescues it from aren't-I-clever self-indulgence is the humanity allowed each character. When Juno first meets her child's would-be adoptive parents, the very boring Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), Vanessa tells her she finds pregnancy beautiful. "Well, you're lucky it's not you," Juno quickly fires back, and it's the genuine pain and confusion on Vanessa's face—and the fact that director Jason Reitman has taken time to show it—that helps elevate the film above its hipster trappings. Cynicism is easy, but Juno, despite its barrage of clever one-liners, doesn't take the easy way out. It's simply one of the sharpest, funniest, sweetest films to come along in a long while. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
The Kite Runner
dir. Marc Foster
The Kite Runner cleaves to an age-old tradition, and I'm not talking about classical Asian folktales. Rather, this tradition entails exotic fiction being anointed by the mass media for middle-class consumption (in this case, by Oprah), the appropriation of its third world iconography by Hollywood hacks (fortunate son Marc Foster), and the thorough schmaltzing of an entire cultural identity—the conversion of a very real legacy of injustice and suffering into a palatable cineplex evening for American middle-agers who don't like Judd Apatow and don't understand actual imported movies.
The Memoirs of a Geisha ordeal (another enervating DreamWorks buy-up) comes to mind, but instead of shooting for glamorous sex as filtered through the vibe of a high-end L.A. massage parlor, Foster's film envisions Afghan life to have the melodramatic simplicity of a kebob-house raga, or, more pertinently, American TV shorthand and stereotype. To be fair, Khaled Hosseini's bestseller had sell-me-on-Santa-Monica-Boulevard all over it; every story beat is either old-world nostalgia or contrived cliché. The movie ramps up the curdles, whether limning the cartoonish travails of its 9-year-old protagonists in pre-Soviet-invasion Kabul (Hassan's a tough low-caste kid, Amir's his pussified upper-middle-class pal), or the efforts, 22 years later, of the grown-up, Americanized wimp to rectify his guilt by returning home to the realm of the Taliban. To boot, a pivotal rape scene is timidly abbreviated, and the climactic rescue from a just-plain-evil bully-mullah plays like something out of an Indiana Jones ripoff.
Overshot, overscored, overdigitized, and underthought, The Kite Runner pales by comparison to recent films made in Afghanistan, Kurdistan, and Iran by indigenous filmmakers, simply in how unconvincingly and patronizingly it paints the country and the culture. The casting of the Scottish-born, stunningly dull, baby-ass-faced Khalid Abdalla as the grown Amir serves only to backlight the movie's empty head and mushy heart. The happiest grace note is in the casting, as an amusingly overdressed patriarch, of Homayoun Ershadi, whom too few of us will remember as Abbas Kiarostami's architect friend and the iconic star of his Taste of Cherry—a real visit, for anyone who's interested, to a southwest Asia you can believe. MICHAEL ATKINSON
I Am Legend
dir. Francis Lawrence
The signs were ominous, certainly. Another horror remake? Of a story already immortalized by the likes of Vincent Price and Chuck Heston? (In 1964's The Last Man on Earth and 1971's jut-jawed, so-camp-it's-back-to-straight The Omega Man, respectively.) And it's written by the guy responsible for Batman & Robin? And A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code and I, Robot and oh god stop me now? All that said, somehow, I Am Legend turns out to be a largely terrific, meanly gripping movie, anchored by a central performance from Will Smith at his most serious-minded. I'm as shocked as you are.
Akiva Goldsman's script stays remarkably faithful to Richard Matheson's seminal techno-horror source material: In the not-too-distant future, a New York scientist stands as the last unmarked survivor of a man-made plague that has killed half the world and changed everyone else into nocturnal albino flesh eaters. Director Francis Lawrence does some impressive work on both the large scale—the depiction of a moldering NYC is shuddery and wild—and the small. (An early, extended set piece lit only by flashlight is a genuinely freaky achievement.)
But, and this is a big but, the whole enterprise is nearly upended by the use of some noticeably lousy CGI effects. Not only does this decision smack of tech-addled laziness (can't Hollywood be bothered to find a real lion anymore?), but it also threatens to upset the whole ingenious premise of Matheson's novel: Rather than telling the story of a lone soul stalking and hiding from the remnants of society (in effect becoming a vampire), here it comes across as a guy being harassed by a bunch of googly-eyed, rubber-legged Colorforms. This rather revolting development can't wholly wreck the movie's accomplishments, but it does significantly compromise the otherwise stellar atmosphere. Ditch the computers, slather some greasepaint on some extras, and we'd be talking a minor classic. ANDREW WRIGHT
Starting Out in the Evening
dir. Andrew Wagner
The professor is old. His health is poor. He has written four novels. All are out of print. He has one marriage behind him. This marriage produced an only child, a daughter. His daughter is about to turn 40. She has no children and wants one before it's too late. She has a lover who wants no children. The professor dislikes his daughter's lover. The lover, however, admires the professor's last novel, The Lost City. The professor's work has another admirer—a young woman. The young woman is a graduate student. The young woman entered his life from out of the blue. His forgotten books give meaning to her existence. She looks up to him. She is writing a book about him. She wants to revive his career. She has pretty eyes and fresh lips. She will do anything he wants her to do.
The professor of this story is Frank Langella; his daughter is Lili Taylor; his daughter's lover is Adrian Lester; and his young admirer is Lauren Ambrose. As a work of cinema, Starting Out in the Evening is bland. The camera's movements are entirely controlled by the steady pace of the story; not once does the cinematographer wander or look at something that is outside of the plot. The movie's score is too sweet and sentimental, and the set designs and colors are mild.
Yet this is a great film. The reason is Frank Langella's performance. He doesn't just carry the movie; he is the movie. And this was not an easy achievement. For one, the film has two terrific actors (Lili Taylor and Lauren Ambrose), and, for two, the subject matter is tired. This is Love and Death on Long Island; this is Gods and Monsters; this is the same old story. But John Hurt is in Love and Death on Long Island, and Ian McKellen is in Gods and Monsters. With Starting Out in the Evening, all that Langella is in person—his traits, air, and manner—is not in this performance: All we see is the heaviness and sadness of an old writer who has run out of time and words. CHARLES MUDEDE
dir. Bille August
Nestled deep within Bad Movie Land, there exists a stratum of Very Important Films whose weighty subject material all but triple-dog dares a viewer to voice a critical objection. How, after all, do you casually dis a movie about the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima? Or the splatterific last hours of Jesus? Or anything directed by Sir Richard Attenborough?
Goodbye Bafana, the based-on-fact recounting of the nearly three-decade relationship between Nelson Mandela and his pro-apartheid jailer, possesses a moral force field that disintegrates within the first 15 minutes. Dull as dirt and preachy as hell, it does a severe disservice to a truly great history.
Based on prison guard James Gregory's memoir, the narrative begins with the proudly racist Gregory (Joseph Fiennes) being dispatched in the mid-'60s to work on Robben Island, a notoriously cruel blacks-only prison designated for political terrorists. While carrying out his assignment to censor all incoming and outgoing mail, his duties draw him closer and closer to the galvanizing figure and political views of Mandela (Dennis Haysbert). Lessons are learned.
For a movie with ample running time (118 minutes), director Bille August (The House of the Spirits) can't wait to turn over his cards—Fiennes's radical xenophobe sees the light after approximately one and a half meetings with his captive. After that, all that's left is an interminable montage of different prisons, hackneyed sermons, and period-appropriate hairstyles. There are a few decent moments scattered here and there (mostly involving Diane Kruger as Fiennes's shrewish wife), but overall this is just another well-meaning, dopily prosaic movie of the sort that often gets a mercy nomination thrown its way. If The Birth of a Nation was history written by lightning, as Woodrow Wilson once famously opined, then this is like, I don't know, history written by dew or something. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. Paul Schrader
The third in a trilogy that began with American Gigolo and Light Sleeper, The Walker is worse than disappointing: It's one embarrassment after another. Director Paul Schrader raids his own work for inspiration, planting loving references to his previous movies in settings like a gay man's chinoiserie-plastered boudoir. His star Woody Harrelson makes a sad grab for credibility by playing a swishy homosexual (never works, Woody), and a parade of grand dames (Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin, and—is she over the Hollywood hill already?—Kristin Scott Thomas) go slumming in the kind of roles actresses of a certain age are forced to accept.
Carter Page III (drawl-lisped by Harrelson) is the grandson of a Virginia plantation owner and son of a senator, but his own career basically amounts to babysitting. He's the designated social escort for a trio of Washington wives whose husbands are too busy to take them to the opera, with a part-time gig as passer-on of real-estate gossip. When one of his canasta partners discovers her secret lobbyist lover dead at home, Carter agrees to pretend he found the body. What follows is the dullest police investigation I've ever seen, the cheesiest foot race in the history of cinema, and more of that god-awful accent.
Harrelson has decided that his character should sound like Robert E. Lee with a metronome strapped to his tongue—he sounds like no Virginian born after 1930 that anyone has ever heard. His occupation feels dated, too, probably because it was modeled on an associate of Nancy Reagan's. And his taste in interior decor belongs to no era I can identify. All of which makes the movie's references to current politics, including an art studio full of crudely manipulated photographs from Abu Ghraib, feel desperately thin. Just thinking about this movie makes me depressed. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Michael Traeger
A soft satire about a would-be pornographer in small-town America, The Amateurs has such a lame premise that you can't help but wonder how it got made at all. When you consider the multiple titles and distributors and directors it's been associated with, and the fact that it was ultimately directed by its screenwriter, Michael Traeger—well, Traeger clearly has enough willpower for five men. He scares me.
Jeff Bridges plays a greasy-haired divorcé prone to disastrous moneymaking plots (the last, his folksy voiceover informs us, was a vitamin-selling pyramid scheme). But his loser friends, including Tim Blake Nelson as a lovesick schmuck and Ted Danson as a closeted gay, jump at every new venture. Perusing a range of sexually suggestive advertisements in the local paper—not actual porn, mind you, that would ruin his character's affable image and the movie's R rating—Bridges hits on his best idea yet: He and his buddies will make an amateur pornographic film. Speaking a childish argot, where "scrum" means "fuck" and "babaloos" "breasts," the production team recruits strippers and promiscuous ice-cream scoopers and lesbian "bed store" employees while rejecting a trio of black factory workers (for insufficient size) and a sad redheaded "gal" (because Tim Blake Nelson is "in love with her").
The Amateurs is a disaster on so many levels, but perhaps the worst is the way it awkwardly critiques its characters' ideas about race (the size thing) and homosexuality ("We're not very discriminating," proclaims one of the buddies in a post–coming out group hug, "idiots, screwups, homos—we'll be friends with anybody") while blithely herding its female characters into the neat and mutually exclusive categories of sluts and mothers. ANNIE WAGNER
The Perfect Holiday
dir. Lance Rivera
Are you looking for love this Christmas? Are you hella divorced and sad? And tell me, how do you feel about fat suits? Totally turned on? I thought so. Well, you're in for a treat, lady, because: "This Christmas, the perfect man just happens to be Santa."
That mind-blowing tagline belongs to The Perfect Holiday, a movie about a nice, lonely gal named Nancy (Gabrielle Union). Nancy is one of those movie moms: "She's so busy being everything for everybody, there's nobody left for herself!" Boo hoo, right? Right. Because Nancy lives in a fancy mansion with three not-at-all- troublesome baby children, and Nancy's "job" consists of cashing hefty checks from her P. Diddy-ish ex-husband and going to the mall to visit hot Santa. Nancy. SERIOUSLY. What is so stressful?
The Perfect Holiday opens with some animated credits in which cartoon Terrence Howard (grinchy!) repeatedly attempts to murder cartoon Queen Latifah (jolly!), using a saw, a blowtorch, and some sort of military defoliant. Then Latifah coaxes "the first snowflake of the season" into her giant mouth. "Come on, li'l fella!" she says. "Mmmm, buttery, supple, and with a clean finish. Just like Christmas is supposed to taste!" Um, ick.
It turns out that hot Santa (Morris Chestnut, created in a lab out of fairy dust and handsome juice) is not only hot, he also gives scarves to the homeless and croons gentle holiday melodies filled with heart. And after a little hint-hint from Nancy's baby kid, hot Santa goes a-wooing. Is any of this making sense?
At this point, because I cannot stop thinking about it, I need to tell you that Nancy's ex, a rapper or something, goes by the name J. JIZZY. He has a clothing line called "Jizzy Gear." Jizzy. Gear. Excuse me, man. Look at your gear. Your gear is covered with jizz. Why did you buy that gear? IT'S JIZZY GEAR! This Christmas, the perfect man just happens to be—eeeeeeeeeew! SANTA, I THINK YOU GOT SOMETHING ON YOUR GEAR. LINDY WEST
Romance & Cigarettes
dir. John Turturro
Remember when video recorders had just been invented and kids across the United States spent afternoons together in backyards making movies? The films were forgettable, but the kids had fun—those afternoons were about process, not product.
Romance & Cigarettes has that sprawling hey-my-dad's-got-a-barn-let's-make-a-movie feeling, but with a budget and the kind of movie people you usually like—it was written and directed by John Turturro, produced by Joel and Ethan Cohen, and stars James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, Eddie Izzard, Amy Sedaris, and so on. But, for all that potential, Romance & Cigarettes is anemic.
A sort of musical—the actors sing along to famous songs by James Brown, Tom Jones, and others—the story concerns an adulterer (Gandolfini), his outraged wife (Sarandon), and his lewd redheaded mistress (Winslet). Puerility is its distinguishing characteristic. When Sarandon finds out Gandolfini is cheating, she tells her daughter: "Your father has gone on a beaver diet." Gandolfini later notes to the same daughter, apropos of nothing, "It takes me an hour plus coffee and a cigarette to evacuate in the morning." When Gandolfini tells Winslet their affair is over, she claws at his pants, begging, "Let me suck you before you leave." He has to throw her in a nearby lake to keep her mouth off his (self-described) "dinosaur balls." All of which would fine—maybe even fun—if Romance & Cigarettes were funny. Or smart. Or anything besides puerile.
It is lewd but not erotic, bizarre but not surprising, experimental but not interesting, and its actors are criminally misused. Early on, we've had enough of Sarandon's blustery overacting and Gandolfini's chronic congestion, but between them, Sedaris and Izzard speak only about 15 words. There's no excuse for that. BRENDAN KILEY