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Witty 'Juno' soars above the usual melodrama; 'Missed Call' horrifies

Previews

Just in time for a possible Academy Awards nomination, Atonement opens locally Friday, Jan. 11. Based on the fine 2001 novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as young lovers whose relationship is torn asunder by the false accusations of a younger sister (played by Saoirse Ronan at age 13, later by Romola Garai). Beginning in 1935 in the British countryside, the story extends past WWII as the younger sister finds atonement hard to come by. Rated R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality. 140 m. At the Broadway.

The controversial film The Kite Runner is a coming-of-age story set in Afghanistan. Based on the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini, the story follows Afghan refugee Amir (Khalid Abdalla, United 93) who returns as an adult to his native country to help a friend and to recover his own childhood. The film’s release was pushed back, presumably to protect the young actors because of the film’s depiction of a child rape. Rated PG-13 for strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence and brief strong language. 132 m. At the Minor.

In a change of pace, The Bucket List is a geezer buddy comedy starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who escape from a hospital cancer ward to take off on a final fling to complete the things they’ve never gotten around to (the “bucket list”). I assume the film rests on the by-play between the two stars. Rated PG-13 for language, including a sexual reference. 107 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

In I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven), who also co-wrote, gives us a riff on the life of Bob Dylan where a variety of actors, including Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger and Richard Gere, play various visions of Dylan (although none of the incarnations are actually called Dylan). Clearly not a standard biopic. Rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity. 135 m. At the Minor.

In the Name of the King, whose tagline is “A Dungeon Siege Tale,” is apparently based on a PC game franchise. German director Uwe Boll brings us a fantasy story about Farmer, who seeks revenge on the Kings, who seem to have kidnapped his wife and killed his son. I mean, what’s a guy to do? Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences. 160 m. At the Broadway.

First Sunday is a comedy starring Ice Cube (who also produced) as a petty criminal who has to turn to robbery to pay off a debt. As the film’s title suggests, the caper involves a church. Rated PG-13 for language, some sexual humor and brief drug references. 108 m. At The Movies.

The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie is an animated family comedy aimed primarily toward a young audience about three “veggie pals” who want to put on a pirate play and find themselves back in the 17th century. It must be January. Rated G. 95 m. At The Movies.

The “Films of Bette Davis” Eureka Library series continues on Tuesday, Jan. 15, with the 1941 film The Little Foxes, based on the play by Lillian Hellman, who also wrote the screenplay, about a vicious rich family in the South. Hosted by Charlie Myers, the free presentation begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Branch meeting room. Call 269-1905 for more information.

Reviews

JUNO: I have often complained about the poor quality of Hollywood films in this column, so when an effective film does come out of the commercial industry I am happy to acknowledge it. Juno is such a film. Additionally, I have probably been even harsher about the lousy scripts in many of the films I see. The script for Juno, in contrast, is both witty and very well written in every aspect.

Of course, good lines on the page need a competent interpreter to bring them to life and Canadian actor Ellen Page, who plays the title character, is well beyond mere competency; she deserves all the accolades she has received for this role. Director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) and the cast have taken a story that might have been just another teen cautionary tale and elevated it to something much better.

The story itself is straightforward. Sixteen-year-old Juno finds herself pregnant from a one-time sexual experience with classmate Paulie (a fine Michael Cera from Superbad), whom she sort of likes. The narrative, then, is about the decisions she makes in regard to being pregnant.

You may have seen this film before, but you haven’t seen it as developed here. Page’s performance is a wonderful combination of sarcastic humor, matter-of-fact acceptance of her condition and nicely underplayed scenes. In fact, the whole film is more effective because the whole cast underplays what could have been an exercise in standard melodrama and stereotyped characters.

Juno decides to have the baby, and with the help of her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), she finds an ad in a mall flyer for a couple wishing to adopt. The story then develops as a complex interplay between the couple (a solid Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), Juno’s father (a very good J.K. Simmons from TV’s The Closer) and stepmother (Allison Janney, The West Wing; Hairspray) and classmate Paulie.

It’s nice to see a film where a teen character is the protagonist and the adult characters are also so well developed and well played. But Juno is clearly the character that provides the cement that holds this narrative together, and Page is magnificent both with comedy and serious moments. She has fine scenes with virtually every character in the story, and these scenes show her ability to tune her performance to the specific demands of each scene while never losing sight of the whole.

As Juno notes at one point in the film, she is dealing with situations way beyond her maturity level. As a result, she goes on a journey that leads to a deeper understanding of who she is at this stage of her young life. Along the way, individual situations play out somewhat unexpectedly. The prospective adoptive couple is not who they first seem to be, the parents are unobtrusively supportive and Juno discovers that relationships may be complicated and treacherous but ultimately worthwhile. This is one journey that I was privileged to share. Juno is not a great film — just a very solid, very well made one. Recommended. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and language. 102 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

ONE MISSED CALL: It’s January, the month where studios traditionally dump their trash on the market. Leading the pack is the Japanese rip-off horror film One Missed Call, a remake of 2003’s Chakushin Ari. This film is not the worse film I’ve seen in this genre and it’s not as though there wasn’t some attempt to produce a decent film. After all, the screenplay is written by the competent midlevel crime writer Andrew Klavan. Too bad someone didn’t think to hire some good midlevel actors or even an average director.

Of course, most of the actors don’t stick around long enough for their presence to be noted anyway. How much talent does it take to look horrified and scream? The auditions probably resembled the shipboard one in the original King Kong where Fay Wray is urged to tilt her head way up, look terrified and scream.

One Missed Call is firmly in theRing sub-subgenre of horror films, except that Naomi Watts is nowhere to be seen. Here, the gimmick that propels the plot is that after one comely co-ed dies, her cell phone mysteriously calls the next victim with a date and time stamp indicating the moment of her demise. The calls mysteriously disappear from the cell phone after being made, and nothing seems to stop them, including removing the batteries from the phones or smashing them. As usual, the viewer gets to see one victim after another done in until the story is down to our final girl (and a sympathetic detective whose sister was one of the victims).

The film abounds in dark, atmospheric lighting and cutesy point-of-view shots. Story coherence is a missing extra, but then who cares about narrative in a horror film? The ending suggests a possible sequel, but as I was one of three people at the screening I attended, I’m not sure this phone will keep ringing. For fanatic and undiscriminating horror film fans only. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and terror, frightening images, some sexual material and thematic elements. 97 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

Continuing

ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM.Title says it all. Rated R. 94 m. At The Movies.

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS.Based on the 1950s cartoon series about chipmunks Alvin, Simon and Theodore, who sing in three-part harmony. Rated PG. 91 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR.Charlie Wilson, a bachelor/playboy Texas congressman living it up in the 1980s, fights an uphill battle to support Afghan rebels battling Russians. Rated R. 102 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

ENCHANTED.A fairytale princess changes her views on life and love after being thrust into present-day New York City by an evil queen. Rated PG. 108 m. At The Movies.

GOLDEN COMPASS.A young girl’s epic quest set in a world where people’s souls manifest themselves as animals, talking bears fight wars and Gyptians and witches coexist. Rated PG-13. 113 m. At The Movies.

GREAT DEBATERS.A brilliant, but volatile debate team coach at an all-black college in the Jim Crow South molds a group of underdog students into an elite debate team. Rated PG-13. 127 m. At the Broadway.

I AM LEGEND.Robert Neville, a brilliant scientist, is the one man left alive after a terrible, manmade virus sweeps New York City, but he is not alone. Rated PG-13. 114 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS.A man, Ben, follows an international chain of clues to prove his great-grandfather’s innocence when a page from the diary of John Wilkes Booth surfaces implicating Ben’s ancestor in Abraham Lincoln’s death. Rated PG. 124 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy touches on themes as varied as the Bible and this morning’s headlines. Rated R. 123 m. At the Broadway and the Minor.

P.S. I LOVE YOU.A beautiful, smart woman loses the love of her life and then clings to his letters he wrote to help guide her through both her grief and her new future. Rated PG-13. At the Broadway.

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY.The tale of larger-than-life musician and songwriter Dewey Cox’s crazy life is an up-and-down-again story of marriages, famous friends and drug addictions. Rated R. 96 m. At The Movies.

WATER HORSE: LEGEND OF THE DEEP.A young boy finds an enchanted egg, which holds the amazing, mythical creature of Scottish lore, the “water horse.” Rated PG. 112 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

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