Now that we've turned the page over to 2008, I can complete my Holiday TicketStub Roundup -- stay tuned for my Top Five of '07, I'm still deciding.
* Atonement: Ladies, the English Patient of the new millenium has arrived. With the same sepia-toned historical detail, Atonement also makes an impenetrable (for me) book into a sweeping movie tromancedy. Keira Knightley smolders and James McAvoy hunks it up as the starcrossed, mis-classed lovers in prewar Britain. The doomed trio is completed by young Saoirse Ronan as Bryony, a precocious, sheltered bookworm of a little sister with the fevered imagination to match. When she accidentally interrupts two very different interludes on one fateful night at her parents' sumptuous country estate, all hell breaks loose, just as it soon will across Europe. Recrimination and war separate the sisters as well as the lovers, and as the story flickers back and forth through battles and bombing, then finally far ahead in time, we wonder whether it's forever. I won't give away Ian McEwan's much-discussed twist, nor the delightful cameo, but suffice to say it's a multi-hankie finale. Blood, grime, tears, privation of body and soul -- all made misty through the fictional lens, but still -- add heft to the story, saving it from melodrama for the most part. The film drapes and reveals like the incredible green silk gown Keira wears in the pivotal scene -- lovely to behold, more surface than substance...but sometimes that's we're in the mood for. The production design is the movie, and the excellent sound and score (sometimes one in the same) set the perfect mood. Not a classic, but a well-wrought trifle, like a diamond hairpin that falls carelessly to the carpet. (B+)
* Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story: A goofy take on the crusty "music legend" biopic, a la Walk the Line, Ray, Dreamgirls, La Bamba, The Doors, Great Balls of Fire, The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner's Daughter, etc etc etc. A usual-suspects cast from the Acme Apatow Co. stable take a run at all the sacred cow setpieces of the genre, from hardscrabble boyhood to the drug-addled wastrel phase to the penitent golden years, with chuckleworthy results. John C. Reilly uses his comedy and vocal chops, a nice bonus, and is backed up by the ultimate straightman sideman in Tim Meadows, who owns the funniest sequence as the "do as I say, not as I do" guy. The laughs succeed for the most part on cleverness, and the cast's willingness to play along -- Reilly and Meadows are good at this, along with Kristen Wiig, but Jenna Fischer is a little too plodding and earnest to be this type of funny, and some of the other bit players get tiresome. The spoof music is spot-on, and there are a few loopy moments that stand out, but an hour after the ending you'll just remember a couple good lines...like a decent SNL skit, really. Brilliant Beatles send-up (including animation!) makes up for the inexplicable arrival of Eddie Vedder, who may be the Sean Penn of music and actually willing to poke fun at himself a bit? Also, I'm not sure if I'm puzzled or thankful that Will Ferrell did not appear. (B-)
* I Am Legend: My personal surprise hit of the year! I like Will Smith and was willing to watch him fight off animated ghouls for 90 minutes, but this film far, far exceeded my expectations. It shook off its dated scifi premise (it's a remake of a Charlton Heston movie, for pete's sake!) and managed to take its place alongside some of the best speculative storytelling of any kind -- think CastAway, Jurassic Park, The Road and The Little Prince. What sets it apart is restraint, in how the story was told and in the production values themselves, not to mention in Smith's performance, and that was such a treat. The no-name director thankfully shows just enough of what's happened to the world through careful flashbacks to keep us guessing. I hereby assign this dude to adapt Girlfriend In A Coma, posthaste. This was the opposite of a Michael Bay blockbuster, thank god (we watched Transformers the same weekend and just had to laugh at its bloated...everything). Don't get me wrong, it's a spooky thriller too -- set in a grim near future after 99% of humanity is dead or mutated by a killer vaccine, there are some ghouls and they're nasty. But there's also the bewildering quiet of an empty, crumbling Manhattan, where Smith holes up in a fortified townhouse with his trusty pup, a lot of firepower and bottled tomato sauce, some liberated artworks from the Metropolitan Museum, and all his regrets. He seems to be totally alone, and it's going on four years so the edges are starting to fray. There's wild deer running through Times Square, people, never mind the zombies. The digital enhancements are convincing, such that the night scenes set at South Street Seaport, lit only by moonlight, were as creepy and surreal to me as the WTC collapse, something that's never supposed to happen -- for it's been many decades since the East River was lit by anything but an all-pervasive electric glow. That glow has gone out, and Smith hangs on by a slim thread, busying himself with routines and talking to his dog...and don't they sometimes give out canine costar Oscars? Abbey deserves one for sure. Smith himself makes it all look easy. It's so difficult to carry a whole movie like this, to be in every single scene, always alone, and make us believe you and believe in you. Smith delivers another great performance: assured enough to freak out, macho enough to outwit some baddies, human enough to be a bit funny and compelling. Legendary, you might say. (A)
* The Golden Compass: Mostly, a big mess. A delightful lead performance by Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, the daring young heroine, cannot save this tricky adaptation from logorrhea, ADHD, and finally, irrelevance. I am a huge fan of the His Dark Materials trilogy, so my expectations for this were skeptically low. I left the theater even more frustrated than I imagined, because there were flashes of great creativity and characterization here...they just weren't properly showcased or developed. Clearly Chris Weitz was out of his depth, and I can only hope that the bipolar pacing, clumsy score, and gratingly didactic tone were the fault of studio pressure to compress a subtle allegory into a 90-minute family feature. What a mistake -- they should've held out for Guillermo del Toro or Julie Taymor, someone with an uncompromising artistic vision. The source material deserved better, as did the towering slush pile of adult actors and voice talent. If you're going to cast Kathy Bates, Sam Elliott, and Daniel Craig, give them more than a few lines! Talk about Harry Potter envy. Nicole Kidman was very good as the shimmeringly sinister Mrs. Coulter, though it's hard not to rise above a catch-all supporting cast imported wholesale from the BBC (including Derek effing Jacobi!). The animated animals were sublime, but some of the setpieces were overcooked -- who decided to lard on those endless steampunk fantasy shots? The "dust" effect was cool, and wisely used, so why couldn't they lop out all those expository speeches and just show how this universe works, instead of always telling? The storycraft here (or lack thereof) makes Star Wars look like a minimalist Zen masterpiece. I don't know whether I'm irritated or relieved that there won't be sequels to this...shame on you, New Line! (C-)
* There Will Be Blood: There will indeed. Thundering like a runaway boulder into a year of mostly mediocre Hollywood offerings, this film is a welcome anachronism -- a long, carefully hewn, perfectly cast character study that grapples with ancient themes of power, brotherhood, succession, and greed. Sounds like The Godfather, right? A dash of that, a measure of Citizen Kane, a sprinkling of Giants In The Earth, sure. But this is less an all-American saga than a primitive, prehistorical one, despite its strong polemical points about our own troubled times. Daniel Day-Lewis is a marvel as Daniel Plainview, a flinty hands-on oilman with a pathological thirst for success, on his own terms. The movie opens down a hole, where he's methodically chinking at the rock with a pick-axe. A long, wordless sequence shows us the lengths to which he will go to strike the vein. What might be a prison punishment to others is Plainview's metier -- he is most at home in the dirt, sleuthing and claiming the riches below, though he's ill-equipped to enjoy or share them topside. Day-Lewis plays him like a crusty old Greek god, Cronus perhaps, not a bronzed hero but a cunning beast, certainly not a man. Plainview acquires land, oil, and a son -- the wide-eyed Dillon Freasier, who stands by like a mute Jiminy Cricket. When Plainview is tipped off to a potential gusher at a remote goat farm, the troubles begin -- he brings his usual smooth sales pitch, but is stymied by a stubborn young preacher, Eli Sunday. Paul Dano takes this role with zest -- he actually gets into fisticuffs with Day-Lewis, watch out kid! These two duel until the final scene as the oil begins to flow, and with it a host of challenges and setbacks. Like with any homicide -- in this case, of the earth itself -- something always goes awry. Paul Thomas Anderson uses his stylist's eye here to animate the blank terrain. People's faces are smudged with dust, smeared with oil, lit by fire...but give little away. Dano's preacher leads his meager congregation like a lightning strike with holly roller flair, and while Plainview wobbles a bit under that glare, in the end he rebuffs religion like he does everything else. The film posits some unanswerable questions: which is more powerful, faith or commerce? What bonds hold a father and son together, or brother and brother? How do you find something buried underground, whether its silver, oil, or what they represent: the past? And most importantly, once you dig it up, are you prepared to deal with the consequences? Heavy stuff, and Anderson is up to the task. He deftly deflects the original socialist evangelizing of Upton Sinclair onto the characters themselves, rather than directly on the viewer or our blood-soaked, globalized, uber-capitalist society. He's taken a muckraking book and turned it into a psychodrama -- the muck he rakes is symbolized by the oil onscreen, but it really lies much deeper than that. In the end, there's nothing for the idealistic preacher to do but enter the lion's den, and the lion is Daniel. Absolutely stunning. This film crunches up No Country For Old Men and spits it out like a cherry pit. A note about the avant-garde-y score: Nat found it intolerable and intrusive; I didn't enjoy it exactly, but I liked how it was used to prod the audience rather than fade into the background. You've been warned. (A+)