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DECEMBER 2007

JUNO: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, J. K. Simmons, Allison Janney (Directed by Jason Reitman; Written by Diablo Cody; Fox Searchlight) Juno MacGruff (Ellen Page), a cool, been-there-done-that teenager figures it’s time to give sex a twirl. Unfortunately, neither she nor the nerd of her choice (Michael Cera) gives a thought to the conceivable consequences of their by-the-numbers experiment. So, faster than you can say condoms are for ninnies, they find themselves parents-to-be. Naturally, Juno does what any sensible 16-year-old would do. She systematically searches for a childless couple to adopt her baby. When she meets the Lorings (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), it looks as if she’s found the perfect candidates. But has she? Directed by Jason Reitman, who wrote and directed last year’s sleeper “Thank You For Smoking,” this offbeat comedy-drama pleased audiences at the Toronto and St. Louis film festivals. Now Playing

ATONEMENT: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Vanessa Redgrave, Romolo Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn, Juno Temple (Directed by Joe Wright; Written by Christopher Hampton; Focus Features) In the wake of her frantic yet flimsy contributions to the achingly trivial “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, Keira Knightley apparently decided it was time to get serious. So she took on the challenge of playing the tormented Cecilia Tallis in “Atonement,” Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel. This heavy-duty drama has been directed by Joe Wright, who, in 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice,” helped Knightley reveal the wit and vulnerability beneath her glossy, high-fashion façade. Her spirited portrait of Emma Bennet earned an Oscar nomination, and the fact that “Atonement” was selected to open the 2007 Venice Film Festival suggests she may well be among the Best Actress nominees when the next batch of Oscars are handed out on the night of February 24, 2008. Keira--or, rather, Cecilia Tallis, the heroine of McEwan’s 2002 Booker Prize winner--is a privileged member of a prominent 1930s British family who is home from Cambridge in the summer of 1935 with handsome classmate Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the Tallis’ cleaning woman who has risen to the enviable position of Cecilia’s lover. Witnessing an intimate exchange between the two, Cecilia’s dangerously imaginative 13-year-old sister Briony contrives a story so shocking that it results in the imprisonment of Robbie. Life soon becomes a nightmare for the Tallis clan and for those unfortunate enough to have been part of their not-so-charmed circle. Their anguish endures through many stages and does not end until the dawning of the 21st century. So who plays the deceitful Briony? Saoirse Ronan, at the time of the big lie; Romola Garai, at the age of 18; and , blessing of blessings, Vanessa Redgrave as the older, presumably wiser, Briony. For the Variety review of "Atonement," click here; to read about more new movies based on books, click here. Now Playing

THE GOLDEN COMPASS: Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, Dakota Blue Richards, Simon McBurney, Eric Bana, Sam Elliott, Kevin Bacon, John Hurt, Tom Courtenay (Written and directed by Chris Weitz; New Line Cinema) With visions of a “Lord of the Rings”-like triple play swirling in their brains, the people at New Line Cinema purchased Philip Pullman’s sci-fi, mythical, demon-crammed trilogy “His Dark Materials.” The brilliant Sam Mendes was said to be New Line’s choice to direct Tom Stoppard’s adaptation, but suddenly Mendes was out of the picture, and Chris Weitz, director of the loathsome “About a Boy,” was in. Also out of the picture was Stoppard, whose screenplay was scrapped when Weitz decided that he himself could improve upon it. Dakota Blue Richards plays the central role of a child who sets out to find a friend who’s been abducted and taken to a parallel universe, Daniel Craig is her noble father, and Nicole Kidman is a malcontent who wishes the child nothing but harm on her fearful journey. Now Playing

GRACE IS GONE: John Cusack, Shelan O’Keefe, Grace Bednarczyk, Alessandro Nivola (Written and directed by James C. Strouse; The Weinstein Company) More and more, we hear about the brave American men who are being killed in Iraq. But we seldom hear about the young women who are making the ultimate sacrifice in that endless civil war. This movie strives to set the record straight, dealing with the tragedy of a woman who performs valiantly under fire and, as a result, will never hold or hug her two young daughters again. The story, however, chiefly focuses on the patriot’s traumatized husband (John Cusack), a civilian whose overpowering sense of loss makes it impossible for him to tell his children of their mother’s death. What to do, which way to turn? Postponing a horribly painful scene, he feigns a lighthearted calm, packs the girls into his car and takes off on a surprise trip to a theme park. It turns out to be a bumpy journey, one full of jolts and discoveries. To read about other new movies dealing with war, click here. Now Playing

THE WALKER: Woody Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Moritz Bleibtreu, Willem Dafoe, William Hope, Geff Francis, Steven Hartley, Mary Beth Hurt (Written and directed by Paul Schrader; Kintop Pictures) Woody is walking his baby back home. That’s right--Woody Harrelson plays Lauren Bacall's gay escort in Paul Schrader’s new thriller, "The Walker," and he also frequently “walks” two other prominent Washington socialites, played by Lily Tomlin and Kristin Scott Thomas. When he’s not squiring these wives of wealthy politicians to social events, this son of a legendary senator is apt to be lunching and dishing with them, or perhaps joining them in a wicked game of canasta. Or he may have slipped off for a tryst with his main man, an intense German-Turkish paparazzo (Moritz Bleibtreu, best known for “Run, Lola, Run”). But suddenly there is trouble in the walker’s paradise, and it involves the murder of a man having a hot affair with one of the wives (Scott Thomas). In an attempt to shield the adulteress from scandal, he makes the serious mistake of telling the police that it was he--not his gal pal-- who discovered the dead man’s body. Writer-director Paul Schrader, who gave us “American Gigolo” in 1980, has said that the central character in “The Walker” might be viewed as a speculation on how the sexual adventurer played by Richard Gere in that film might have aged. To read the Variety review of “The Walker,” click here. Now Playing

I AM LEGEND: Will Smith, Salli Richardson, Dash Mihok, Paradox Pollack, Alice Braga, Sterling Wolfe, Charlie Tahan (Directed by Francis Lawrence; Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman; Warner Bros) A lethal virus has attacked our planet, and the only visible survivor is a mystified super-scientist who roams the streets of what may be the last city on earth, tapping out daily radio messages to what he hopes are fellow survivors. The city, of course, is New York, and the strangely immune scientist is Will Smith. Can Will find peace on earth (not to mention a few good, honest-to-god men and women, as opposed to the mutant, possibly blood-sucking, weirdoes who keep popping up in his path and quickly retreating into the shadows)? For clues, browse through the 1954 novel that is this film’s chief source--Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” in which an apocalypse is triggered by what appears to be the reckless behavior of a gang of vampires. Or you might check out these previous cinematic versions of the Matheson story: 1964’s “The Last Man on Earth,” an Italian flick starring Vincent Price, and 1971’s “The Omega Man,” in which Charlton Heston was the man who seemed to be facing the world all by himself. Our hunch is that where there's a Will there's a Way. Now Playing

THE KITE RUNNER: Khalid Abdalla, Zekeria Ebrahimi, Homayon Ershadi, Ahmad Mahmidzada (Directed by Marc Forster; Written by David Benioff; DreamWorks and Paramount Vantage) Afghanistan has been a ravaged, terrorized country for many years. But once, during the time of the monarchy, life was pleasant for Amir, the son of Baba, a wealthy Kabul businessman. It was pleasant, too, for Hassan, the son of Baba’s servant and a loyal friend to Amir. Just before the revolution, however, Amir stood by, doing nothing to help Hassan when he was menaced and eventually raped by a gang of bullies. Amir’s feeling of guilt tormented him throughout his adolescence and into his adulthood in California, where he became a successful physician. In the end, as readers of Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 best-selling novel know, Amir felt compelled to return to Afghanistan (by then under Taliban control), in search of Hassan--and forgiveness. David Benioff’s adaptation has been directed by the erratic Marc Forster, whose past credits include “Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland” and “Stranger Than Fiction” and whose future credits include “Bond 22. ” Yes, that’s Bond as in James Bond. Now Playing

NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Ed Harris, Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel, Justin Bartha, Alicia Coppola, Bruce Greenwood (Directed by Jon Turteltaub; Written by Cormac Wibberly and Marianne Wibberley; Buena Vista Pictures) If you saw 2004’s “National Treasure,” you’re aware that in all of this world so far there has never been a keener follower of clues and finder of lost, precious documents than Benjamin Franklin Gates. Well, super-snooper Ben, once again played by Nicolas Cage, is back on the job. This time, he’s fixated on tracking down some missing pages from the diary of John Wilkes Booth, the guy who gunned down Abe Lincoln. How come? Because Ben has a sickening hunch that his very own great-grandfather may have been in cahoots with the murderous Mr. Booth! Now Playing

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Timothy Spall, Christopher Lee, Jamie Bower, Jayne Wisener, Laura Michelle Kelly, Ed Sanders, Michael N. Harbour, Peter Bowles, Anthony Head, Ian Burford (Directed by Tim Burton; Written by John Logan; Paramount) From “Edward Scissorhands” to “Ed Wood,” Johnny Depp and his favorite director, Tim Burton, have never been afraid to appear creepy. Even so, it’s a jolt to learn that their sixth collaboration will be “Sweeney Todd,” the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, an ex-con who slashes the throats of his customers in order to supply ingredients for the succulent pies to be baked and sold by his equally demonic mate (Helena Bonham Carter, whose casting surely had nothing to do with the fact that she is the mom of Billy-Ray Burton, son of the film's director). Sing out, Johnny!. To read about more new movie musicals, click here. Now Playing

THE BUCKET LIST: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Seren Reeder, Jonathan Mangum, Beverly Todd, Sean Hayes (Directed by Rob Reiner; Written by Justin Zackham; Warner Bros.) Yes, that’s “bucket,” as in kick the bucket. In what is evidently intended as a three-hanky comedy, Nicholson and Freeman play a pair of terminally ill patients--Jack's a billionaire, Morgan nearly qualifies as a pauper, and neither is so ill that he cannot make a swift escape from a hospital. Once they’re on the road, they draw up a list of things they are determined to do before death comes calling. Topping the list are such musts as booze, caviar, poker and maybe an occasional broad. For Guy Flatley's 1974 interview with Jack Nicholson, click here. Now Playing

CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Rachel Nichols, John Slattery, Om Puri (Directed by Mike Nichols; Written by Aaron Sorkin; Universal) Sometimes Texas politicians misbehave on a lavish scale--no, we’re not talking about Tom DeLay or Alberto Gonzales. The congressman in question here is Representative Charles Wilson, a boozer who was caught not only in his cups, but also in a Las Vegas hot tub with a couple of coke-sniffing party girls. That was early in the eighties, and for a while it looked like a long goodbye for the man once known as Good Time Charlie. But eventually Wilson staged a comeback as a crackerjack CIA agent, a major player in the expulsion of the Russians from Afghanistan. And now the guy’s a D.C. lobbyist! Tom Hanks hasn’t had this much fun since playing with all those wonderful toys in “Big.” And Julia Roberts, who had fun of a darker kind under Mike Nichols' direction in "Closer," plays Joanne Herring, the powerhouse Texas socialite who persuades Charlie Wilson to turn over a new leaf. Hoffman is a CIA honcho. To read about many more new biopics, click here. Now Playing

THE GREAT DEBATERS: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Columbus Short, Kimberly Elise, Nate Parker, Collins Pennie, Emil Pinnock (Directed by Denzel Washington; Written by Robert Eisele and Suzan-Lori Parks; The Weinstein Company/MGM) For decades, the movie industry did pitifully little to create opportunities for black actors. Gradually, the situation improved, most conspicuously when Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win an Oscar as Best Actor (for his performance in 1963’s “Lilies of the Field”). Then, following in Poitier’s Oscar path, came Denzel Washington, Best Actor for “Training Day” (2001); Halle Berry, Best Actress for “Monster’s Ball” (2001); and Forest Whitaker, Best Actor for “The Last King of Scotland” (2006). The latest good news is that Whitaker and Washington will share screen time in “The Great Debaters,” a true-life drama about a debating team from Wiley College in Texas that went up against Harvard’s prestigious crew of debaters in the 1930s. Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, the tunnel-visioned coach of the Texas team, and Whitaker plays the emotionally conflicted father of one of Tolson’s students. Another sign of progress: Washington, who made an impressive helming debut with “Antwone Fisher” in 2002, will be sitting in the director’s chair. Now Playing

PERSEPOLIS: (Voices of Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Danielle Darrieux, Simon Abkarian, Gabrielle Lopes Benites, Gabrielle Lopes, Fraancois Jerosme, Arie Elmaleh; Written and directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi; Sony Pictures Classics) Since this is an animated feature based upon writer/director Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel about her coming-of-age in Iran, and since it employs the voices of such pretty people as Catherine Deneuve and her daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, you might assume “Persepolis” is a lyrical recollection of sweet, dreamy adolescence. But you’d be wrong. It is instead an unsparing depiction of the oppression of young women during the Islamic Revolution in 1970s Iran, focusing on the suffering of the sensitive, spirited Marjane under militant male domination. Eventually, her parents arrange her journey to a different form of discrimination in Europe and finally she returns to her home, only to find a land that is unbearably alien to her. Disney this is not. Now Playing

THERE WILL BE BLOOD: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Russell Harvard (Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; Paramount Vantage) Oil is a red hot subject these days, but it was pretty hot stuff back in 1927, too. That’s the year “Oil!,” Upton Sinclair's robust depiction of greed and corruption among early 20th-century developers and drillers, was published. Now Paul Thomas Anderson, the boldly imaginative director of “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love,” has helmed his own adaptation of Sinclair’s book and he had the smarts to cast Daniel Day-Lewis in the central role of a Texan prospector who makes a killing in Southern California and then pays a heavy spiritual price for his handsome fortune. To read about more new movies based on books, click here. Now Playing

Click here to read the Ultimate Forecast for December 2008.