Winter Movie Preview: Let It Show

    12-7: The Golden Compass

    In the void left behind by “Lord of the Rings,”
    fantasy-adventure “The Golden Compass” arrives just in time to submerge kids
    and kids-at-heart in another children’s-novel-turned-movie trilogy. This time,
    the mystical land is more familiar as an alternate-universe Oxford, where
    people’s souls physically manifest themselves as animals. The heroine, Lyra
    Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) must rescue her friend from the claws
    of villainous “gobblers,” using her trusty Alethiometer (a truth-telling
    gadget) and balls of steel to hunt for, of all things, dust. Throw in witches,
    talking polar bears and Nicole Kidman and you have one hell of a thrilling
    fantasy epic. And though there has been some grumbling about the film’s quality
    of special effects (not to mention the God-killing subtext), the lively pace
    and quirky storyline compensate for a shoddy-looking critter or junior theology
    lesson.

    — Autumn Schuster


    12-7: Atonement

    Atonement” is exactly what it was intended to be: a World
    War II uber-melodrama about love and lies, and the most belligerent Oscar bid
    since “Forrest Gump.” It’s brilliantly written, beautifully filmed, sublimely
    acted, courageously directed and guaranteed to take home every single
    gold-plated Mr. Clean that the Academy can press out. It’s so good it will
    almost make you sick.

    James McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland”) and Keira
    Knightly are the grotesquely attractive lovebirds, who journey through a
    physically and emotionally deteriorated 1940s Europe as the war rages and hope
    begins to fade. Before the war, the two would have lived happily ever after if
    it weren’t for a sheltered, naive little girl, who jealously accuses Robbie
    (McAvoy) of a crime, not understanding the consequences and eventually
    regretting her allegation. Cue the title, as she spends the rest of her life
    searching for a way to make things right amid the strains of war, with Robbie
    as a soldier struggling to find his way home and his Cecilia (Knightly) as a
    nurse heading toward the front, all hell breaking loose in the meantime.

    Not much more can be said without ruining your holiday trip
    to the cinema. Suffice to say, people die and Santa Claus isn’t real. Even
    after an endless summer of wrist-splitters like “Surf’s Up” and “Pirates,”
    there’s something to be said for the Hollywood system if it can so
    intentionally garner this much talent in one place and produce a masterpiece of
    such astounding caliber. If only it would do so more often.

    — Josh Christensen


    12-14: Alvin & the Chipmunks

    Hip-hop may claim the chipmunk sound effect as its own, but
    the founders of the movement were none other than Alvin and his two bros Simon
    and Theodore. It all started when Dave (Jason Lee), a failed musician, found
    the wily chipmunks causing a ruckus in his cupboard, and made a deal to adopt
    them only if they’d sing on his next album to impress his boss Ian (David
    Cross).

    The plot gets deeper, but going into detail would spoil the
    twists. Tim Hill, Hollywood director of “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties” fame,
    takes command of the 3-D animal actors as well as their 1-D human counterparts.
    Fingers crossed for a “Marmaduke” movie with Ted Danson.

    — Chris Kokiousis


    12-14: I am Legend

    The year 2009: Will Smith is Earth’s last man. No, this
    isn’t Malcolm X’s dream finally realized, it’s this winter’s leading sci-fi
    plotline.

    American cinema’s fourth run at the classic 1954 Richard
    Matheson novel plops us into an apocalypse where Smith, a virologist turned
    one-man-army, grapples with day-to-day survival after a self-made infection
    morphs all humanity into cannibals. Smith spends his nine-to-five collecting
    food, working out his pecs and touring a desolate New York City. Come night,
    Smith and his dog try to outlive their hunters, a vampire-like breed bent on
    bloodlust.

    Originally, director Francis Lawrence was hot on the music
    video circuit, where “Legend’s” one-man-saves-the-world motif was Justin
    Timberlake’s one-dude-saves-the-dance-floor. While “Rock Your Body” and “I’m a
    Slave 4 You” credits are typically resume killers, Hollywood has a way of
    turning shit to success; Lawrence made his feature-film leap with
    “Constantine,” Keanu Reeves’ comic-based foray into the dark arts.

    Director aside, “Legend’s” main draw is its visuals. Come
    Oscar season, the film could be sporting some heavy gold for its tech work,
    which generates flesh-eating humanoids en masse to take a chomp out of Smith’s
    fleeing ass. Also included: cinema’s most sweeping, awing annihilation of an
    American landmark. Forget the Golden Gate’s destruction at Magneto’s hands in
    “X-Men: The Last Stand” and all that tripod mess in “War of the Worlds,”
    “Legend’s” missile attack on Brooklyn Bridge stands a cut above in visual
    wonder and thrill.

    — Charles Nguyen


    12-21: Margot at the Wedding

    On the heels of his acclaimed divorce downer-comedy “The
    Squid and the Whale,” director Noah Baumbach returns with another talky expose
    on the family unit, “Margot at the Wedding.”

    Margot (Nicole Kidman), a narcissistic writer who draws upon
    her own twisted family dynamics, shares an inferiority complex with her
    betrothed sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Meanwhile groom-to-be Malcolm
    (Jack Black) loves Pauline dearly but is rebuked by Margot, branded the type of
    awkward putz the sisters rejected in high school. Hilarity ensues as the
    neurotic sisters jab at each other with the worst intentions. Go if you like
    biting exchanges between wasps, or if you’re into Jack Black shtick.

    — Chris Kokiousis


    12-21: Juno

    When tiny Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) decides to break the
    news of impending fatherhood to lug-nut Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), there’s
    only one way she knows how: She moves an entire living room set to his front
    lawn and greets him before a morning jog, sitting atop the very chair where
    they performed the deed, stove-top pipe clenched in her mouth. Such is the
    charm of Jason Reitman’s (“Thank You For Smoking”) sophomore effort, a film so
    sugary sweet and drenched in cute bitterness you’ll swear a trip to the
    dentist’s office has long been overdue. For filmgoers who have drawers devoted
    to multi-colored scarves, or who cried during the last Shins album, your annual
    indie messiah has arrived.

    The encounter between the one-time lovers is only the tip of
    the iceberg for Juno’s unwanted venture into early adulthood. Knowingly
    incapable of raising a little one, she opts to hand the baby over to Vanessa
    (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), a couple who scream suburbia. As
    the seasons drift by, Juno gets bigger, the teasing gets worse and her sources
    of comfort slowly disappear, leaving only best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) and
    her almost too-understanding parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney). She
    also finds a confidante in Mark, whose similar taste in punk music and B-horror
    flicks reveals a new image of him, as well as hidden tension between the
    married W.A.S.P.s

    But what will capture you, dear populist hipsters, is
    Reitman’s attention to character detail, from Paulie’s addiction to tic-tacs to
    Juno’s obscure reference to her unborn child as a “sea monkey.” It seeps all
    the way into the dialogue, laced with verbal oddities like “Wizards!” to
    indicate Paulie’s deep awe, or Juno shouting “Thundercats Ho!” to imply her
    water has broken. Half the fun is waiting to hear what absurd thing will be
    uttered next. This seamlessly combines with the chilly Michigan neighborhood
    the characters inhabit, every color of the land so stark that the environment
    changes with the characters.

    The film owes more than its fair share to predecessors like
    “I Heart Huckabees” and granddaddy “Rushmore,” which is probably not a
    discredit to Reitman, whose “Smoking” two years prior proves he’s more than a
    style-stealer — yet the signal from audiences is that they’ve already grouped
    “Juno” into the grotesque genre of “quirky comedy.” It’s a shame, since “Juno”
    is a fine film — albeit not a new initiate into the classic cinematic canon,
    like “Rushmore,” but deserving far more credit than another predictable marketing
    label slapped across its forehead. And yet after the sudden success of “Little
    Miss Sunshine,” every studio and thrift-store stock girl wants to buy in on the
    next big thing, and it looks like festival-darling “Juno” is the latest
    casualty. Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “Once you label me, you negate me,” so do
    this enjoyable slice of 2007 a favor — stop the branding and let it bask in its
    own fleeting beauty.

    — Chris Mertan


    12-21: Walk Hard

    After “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” the armies of Judd Apatow
    try to go three for three with “Walk Hard,” a blitzkrieg strike on popular
    musician biopics. The “Spinal Tap” offspring parodies Hollywood rags-to-riches
    narratives, following the fictional Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) through a
    traumatic childhood, backup-singer affair and rock-star demise, brought on by
    his addiction to every drug under the sun. Witnessing John Lennon (Paul Rudd)
    call Paul McCartney (Jack Black) “a fat cunt” will likely be worth all ten
    bucks.

    — Jeff Wang


    12-21: Charlie Wilson’s War

    How do Americans conduct politics, and how do Americans
    conduct war? “Charlie Wilson’s War” has the same answer for both questions:
    with charisma. And with Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman
    behind the masks of the power players involved, the charisma is palpable.

    If you’re not a poli-sci major, you likely know next to
    nothing about U.S. involvement in the Russia-Afghanistan war of the 1980s. Or
    even that Russia was ever in Afghanistan, or that our covert involvement helped
    us in the Cold War. But neither did Charlie Wilson (Hanks) — that is, until
    political operator Joanne Herring (Roberts) got a hold of him.

    Before that, Wilson was just like any other coke-snorting,
    whisky-guzzling, womanizing congressman. Sure, he’s still a guileless
    son-of-a-bitch when the movie’s over, but his accomplishments in the meantime —
    with the help of CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) — is
    astounding. Wilson wheels and deals with foreign dignitaries in a thick Texan
    drawl, building a tenuous alliance to buy and distribute Russian weapons for
    Afghan insurgents while keeping domestic scandals under wraps. Gust makes
    deadpan remarks as Wilson sips booze, surrounded by his army of gorgeous
    secretaries. Although Roberts may be just another wide-eyed starlet who takes
    up screen time, Hanks and Hoffman are masters of the acting craft, and their
    scenes together are the heart of the film.

    But “Charlie Wilson’s War” isn’t just about cocaine and
    strippers, fast-talking congressmen and low-cut blouses. As witty as the
    characters are, their story teaches a tragic lesson about the way our country
    conducts itself in the world, and about the consequences of our
    shortsightedness.

    — Josh Christensen


    12-21: Sweeney Todd

    Director Tim Burton puts scissors back into the hands of
    Johnny Depp, this time with a barber’s smock in the screen adaptation of
    Stephen Sondheim’s powerhouse musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet
    Street.” As an unjustly imprisoned man, Depp’s Todd submits to the madness and
    grief of losing his loved ones and vows to use his barbershop upon escape to
    exact bloody revenge. Recycling what seems to be half the “Harry Potter” cast,
    “Todd” features Alan Rickman (the evil Judge Turpin), Helena Bonham Carter
    (partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett) and Timothy Spall (slimy henchman Beadle
    Bamford) alongside the man who polished the role of the nobly immoral antihero
    as Captain Jack Sparrow. Full of entrancingly horrific imagery and armed with
    an experienced cast, “Todd” is poised to be another prized addition to the
    Burton/Depp wall of fame, right between “Corpse Bride” and “Edward
    Scissorhands.”

    — Neda Salamat


    12-25: The Great Debaters

    Everyone knows how smoothly eggnog goes down, especially
    with some Denzel Washington: that cheek-to-cheek grin; that curdled intensity;
    that cock-eyed stare; that timbre-rattling cackle are all holiday mainstays as
    much as Santa’s fat ass.

    This year, America’s storied tradition of
    “Christmas-then-a-movie” flaunts its expected pomp and tinsel with Washington’s
    latest vehicle, the unabashedly uplifting “The Great Debaters,” which follows a
    group of quick-lipped kids through Jim Crow-era racism. The budding upstarts
    don’t lack in heart, but need Denzel-caliber direction to beat out their
    highbrow competitors at Harvard.

    Washington’s return to the director’s seat, after a terrific
    directing/acting turn in the expertly tenderized “Antwone Fisher,” jumpstarts
    what could otherwise be a holiday-day yawn. Naysayers envision another
    “Remember the Titans,” and it’s not that far a stretch: “fight for your right
    to play football” turns into “fight for your right to debate,” and both see
    Denzel doing the father-figure thing against a civil-rights-movement backdrop.
    But only in “Debaters” will audiences get Denzel laying verbal whoop-ass on
    snooty ivy-leaguers — surely a new way to enjoy Christmas.

    — Charles Nguyen



    12-25: Youth Without Yout
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    We thought that influential “Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now”
    director Francis Ford Coppola had ended his career with “Jack” back in 1996.
    But now, Coppola steps off his Napa Valley vineyard to tell the story of an
    aging professor’s life-awakening hours before the onset of World War II. That
    the professor is played by the finest of character actors, Tim Roth (“Pulp
    Fiction”), makes Coppola’s stab at cinematic resuscitation all the more
    curious. Whispers surrounding “Youth” say Coppola’s in fine (if slightly
    flawed) form. While he may not have rediscovered his own youth, he’s at least
    set the moviemaking wheels back in motion.

    — Chris Mertan

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