It’s almost impossible not to describe this terror tale as “Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project,” as it exclusively relies on the camcorder wielded by one of its characters to capture the rampage of a frightening behemoth (and its even more terrifying sidekicks, vicious arachnoid creatures) as it destroys Manhattan with single-minded determination. Past films that employed this trick often seemed silly — what sane person wouldn’t drop the camera in the face of real danger? — yet in our modern-day, techno-crazed world, the need to capture everything on film (as if to validate its authenticity, not to mention provide the shooter with a fleeting 15 minutes of fame) is such a built-in instinct for many people that the actions of the protagonists in this film rarely come into question. Director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard also effectively tap into post-9/11 anxieties: It’s hard to witness collapsing skyscrapers and the resultant deadly debris hurtling down New York City streets and not be reminded of that fateful day. While some might consider such a tactic to be in extremely poor taste, there’s no denying its potency when viewed through fictional horror-film lens — for all its newfangled innovations, the movie shares DNA with similarly themed sci-fi yarns from the 1950s. And like many fantasy flicks, this one also contains a defining “money shot” (a la the exploding White House in Independence Day); in this case, it’s the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty, forlornly resting on a city street. Heads roll in Cloverfield, and none more startlingly than this one.
How She Move **1/2
A thoughtful, heartfelt drama that can’t quite get past the conventions of its plot mechanics, How She Move is the latest dance flick in which motion trumps emotion. That’s not to say there isn’t a certain amount of poignancy in the central plotline of a young teen hoping to break free of her dire surroundings — it’s just that this picture only truly comes alive when its talented young cast is strutting its stuff in rhythm to the music. How She Move focuses on African-American teenager Raya (Rutina Wesley), a student at a private school who’s forced to move back to her impoverished neighborhood after her parents spend all the family funds trying (and failing) to save Raya’s drug-addicted sister. Deemed stuck-up by Michelle (Tre Armstrong), a sullen classmate with a perpetual chip on her shoulder, Raya tries to keep her head down and solely concentrate on her studies, but she ends up getting drawn back into the world of stepping, a high-energy form of dancing practiced by both Michelle and Bishop (Dwain Murphy), a charismatic guy who hesitantly allows Raya to join his dance team just in time for the annual Step Monster competition. The screenplay by Annmarie Morais saddles the characters with too many scenes revolving around tired dialogue, but director Ian Iqbal Rashid compensates by staging the vigorous dance scenes as if his life — or at least his career — depended on it.
There Will Be Blood ***
I’m not sure Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood represents the best acting of 2007 (as various critics’ groups have declared), but it certainly represents the most acting of the past year. His performance here as Daniel Plainview, a prospector who strikes it rich in turn-of-the-century California, basically comes across as Bill the Butcher (his character in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York) turned up a couple of notches. Then again, Day-Lewis’ oversized turn is right in line with Paul Thomas Anderson’s oversized ambitions in creating a modern-day masterpiece, a movie so audacious that it flagrantly apes Citizen Kane during its final half-hour and recalls The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at regular intervals. That so many critics are indeed calling this an instant classic isn’t surprising, but if the No Country for Old Men vs. There Will Be Blood grudge match continues to gain traction, I’m afraid I’ll have to pledge my allegiance to the Coen Brothers’ equally brutal, equally risky but ultimately more satisfying drama. Anderson’s latest film isn’t even up to the standards of what I consider his real masterpiece, Boogie Nights, though there’s enough here to please hardcore cineasts as well as more adventurous moviegoers. Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! the movie opens with a superb 12-minute sequence with no dialogue — perhaps a nod to Erich Von Stroheim’s silent milestone, Greed, also about the destructive power of accumulated wealth? During this sequence, we’re introduced to Plainview, a determined prospector who over time strikes it rich and becomes one of the nation’s most powerful oilmen. Plainview has an adopted son in young H.W. (Dillon Freasier), who ends up going deaf after sitting next to an oil rig that explodes as it brings up black riches from beneath the surface. Plainview tries to be an acceptable parent to the boy, but he’s hardly a social creature, intolerant of those around him and not one to extend trust or affection easily. His greatest adversary as he tries to milk the land dry is Eli Sunday, an unctuous preacher who’s as much the conniving showman as Daniel Plainview. The picture is a beauty to behold (Oscar nods for technical achievements should breed like rabbits), and there are individual sequences so staggering that a second viewing will hardly be a chore. But those planning to check it out should be sure to bring an umbrella, Rocky Horror Picture Show-style, just in case Day-Lewis’ juicy lip-smacking manages to break through that fourth wall.
27 Dresses **
The filmic equivalent of a baby: cute, pampered, craving attention, and somewhat smelly thanks to all the formula passing through it. Katherine Heigl is Jane, a perpetual bridesmaid who (as the title hints) has attended 27 weddings in that capacity. Jane feels that it’s payback time from the gods — that she should land her own man and her own wedding — and she’s long been pining over her boss George (Edward Burns). But he’s never shown any interest outside of their close business relationship, and once her perky, irresponsible and blonde supermodel of a sister (The Heartbreak Kid’s Malin Akerman) breezes into town, George is hopelessly smitten. Nice-girl Jane refuses to interfere, even though she knows her sister and her boss aren’t right for each other, and she’s frequently distracted by the unwanted advances of the cynical Kevin (James Marsden), who she knows to be a writer but doesn’t realize that — get this — he’s the one who writes the heartwarming newspaper wedding columns that she clips out with religious devotion. Director Anne Fletcher and writer Aline Brosh McKenna (who had better luck adapting The Devil Wears Prada for the screen) offer a couple of modest examples of plot tweaking — for example, George isn’t the usual self-centered jerk of a boss but a genuinely nice guy — and the actors are all pleasing, especially Judy Greer as Jane’s sarcastic best friend (yes, the Lisa Kudrow role, only fresher). But for the most part, 27 Dresses is so cliched that it even includes the standard scene in which our drunken leads persuade an entire bar of people to join them in singing along to a pop hit.
This indie effort takes a moment to get its bearings. Yet after a rocky opening that almost drowns in its own attempt to be hip, this movie is pure bliss. Ellen Page, who already revealed herself as an actress to watch in Hard Candy, is perfection plus as the title character, a spunky and verbose teen who finds herself pregnant after a dalliance with sweet classmate Paulie Bleeker (Superbad’s Michael Cera). After briefly considering an abortion, Juno elects to have the baby and place it up for adoption, a decision supported by her dad (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson) and stepmom (Allison Janney). After careful research, she decides on the adoptive parents: Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), a tightly wound businesswoman who wants a child in the worst way, and Mark (Jason Bateman), a TV jingle composer whose tendency to live in the past makes him an ideal friend to Juno (they both share a love for gore flicks and bicker over musical tastes). But Juno’s idea of how everything should proceed smoothly doesn’t exactly pan out, and her sarcastic front falters in the face of fear and uncertainty, revealing the child underneath. Perhaps because it’s written by a woman — and a former stripper and phone-sex operator at that — Juno is already receiving the sort of knee-jerk backlash that tellingly was never foisted upon Judd Apatow’s similarly themed summer comedy Knocked Up. Yet Diablo Cody’s script is more balanced than Apatow’s: The laughs are plentiful in both, but Cody places a bit more emphasis on the emotional fallout, with teenagers Juno and Bleeker awkwardly trying to express their feelings for each other and Vanessa’s anxiety almost palpable as she constantly worries that Juno might change her mind about handing over the baby (Garner is excellent in her best film role to date).The direction by Jason Reitman (also responsible for last year’s winning Thank You For Smoking) is understated and never obtrusive; clearly, this is the writer’s dance. Cody’s dialogue may not always be believable (how many 16-year-old girls reference Dario Argento, let alone Soupy Sales and Seabiscuit?), but its intelligence and quirky humor qualify as music to the ears of moviegoers tired of monosyllabic snorts and witless banter.
The Bucket List *1/2
An interminable film about terminal patients who learn important life lessons before, yes, kicking the bucket. Morgan Freeman plays Carter Chambers, an auto mechanic with an IQ equal to that of Stephen Hawking. Dying of cancer, he shares a hospital room with the filthy rich Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), who’s beginning to realize that money can buy everything except an extended lease on life. With each man facing less than a year to live, they both elect to go out in a blaze (or at least daze) of glory, by dutifully performing tasks on their self-penned “bucket list” of activities they’ve always wanted to do. The list includes such items as “go skydiving” and “laugh until I cry”; unfortunately, “entertain audiences who pay to see this Bucket of s***” is nowhere to be found. A lazy and condescending package from top to bottom (with uninspired efforts put forth by Nicholson, Freeman, director Rob Reiner and especially scripter Justin Zackham), The Bucket List isn’t nearly as torturous as the similar, “laughing in the face of death” Patch Adams; then again, neither is a broken back.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Given the emphasis on history in the National Treasure franchise, this follow-up to the 2004 original reminded me of a line from the Herman’s Hermits tune about that jolly historical figure Henry the Eighth: “Second verse, same as the first.” In other words, NT2 is essentially the same movie as its blockbuster predecessor, meaning it’s a draggy combination of The Da Vinci Code and old-style serials. Only Nicolas Cage’s Benjamin Franklin Gates is no Indiana Jones, and (like the first flick) this isn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark. Moving ahead at breakneck speed and with no time for rhyme or reason, it’s a disjointed yarn in which Gates, in an effort to prove that his great-great-grandfather wasn’t one of the conspirators behind Abe Lincoln’s assassination, must locate a legendary lost city of gold by uncovering clues hidden on historical artifacts in Paris, London and at the White House. Practically the entire principal cast returns from the original film -- Jon Voight as Gates’ dad, Diane Kruger as his girlfriend, Justin Bartha as his sidekick, and Harvey Keitel as the sympathetic FBI agent hovering around the margins (a role that exists for no discernible reason) -- and they’re joined by a slumming Ed Harris as a shady treasure seeker and a slumming Helen Mirren as Gates’ feisty mother. It should be noted that this marks Mirren’s first screen appearance since winning an Oscar for The Queen. Granted, that’s not nearly as shocking as Shirley MacLaine turning up in Cannonball Run II immediately after her Terms of Endearment Oscar victory, but it’s nothing to brag about, either.
This year’s sight-unseen, automatic Oscar entry mostly lives up to its lofty expectations, even if it doesn’t possess the sweeping emotion that provided other British period pieces like Sense and Sensibility and The Remains of the Day with their enduring resonance. If a finger must be pointed, it would most likely fall in the direction of director Joe Wright, who previously teamed with his muse Keira Knightley on 2005’s breezy adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Here, it’s Ian McEwan’s beloved novel that gets tastefully brought to the screen, via a literate screenplay by Dangerous Liaisons adapter Christopher Hampton. Knightley essays the role of Cecilia, who finds herself attracted to the family servant’s upwardly mobile son Robbie (James McAvoy). But Cecilia’s precocious younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) has also developed a crush (albeit a more chaste one) on Robbie, and Briony grows jealous as she witnesses events that she feels attests to the bond between the lovers. Eventually, Briony uses a tragedy that occurs on the estate grounds as a way to get back at Robbie, not comprehending the long-term implications of her actions. It’s only when she herself has grown up (and played at this point by Romola Garai) that she’s able to grasp the magnitude of what she did -- and work on setting matters right. Knightley’s role doesn’t allow her to flourish as she did under Wright’s direction in Pride and Prejudice, which is fine, since this is Briony’s story and McAvoy’s film. As solemnly played by Ronan, the teenage Briony comes off as a bad seed writ large, with an IQ that, coupled with her naivety, makes her especially dangerous. It’s a memorable performance in the best-written role, yet it’s the excellent McAvoy who injects the proceedings with a notable degree of compassion: We ache for Robbie throughout this tale, and McAvoy expertly conveys the feelings and frustrations of a man who dared to dream outside his station in life, only to watch as his desires go up in flames. It’s a shame that the denouement doesn’t completely provide us with the emotional catharsis we require. Providing a clever, bittersweet twist, it affects the head more than the heart, and reveals a certain measure of clinical execution on the part of Wright. It caps the film with a slow simmer, when nothing less than a full blaze will suffice.