Would it were not so, but moviegoing is not about you or what you want. If that were the case, summer would not be fuller than a public pool on Labor Day with action movies but devoid of serious or thought-provoking films. And December would not be more crammed than a Wal-Mart sale bin with interesting, challenging cinematic options but almost empty of fare for the family. But because of some weird alchemy of awards season, cooler weather and the public's need to feel depressed at year's end, a lot of ambitious movies are coming out now. To help you navigate, film critic RICHARD CORLISS and Arts editor BELINDA LUSCOMBE have put together a guide to those you should catch, those you should skip and those that look promising.
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman. Directed by Tim Burton. Opens Dec. 21
Johnny Depp returns with director Tim Burton! Johnny Depp gets to murder people with much splatter! Johnny Depp sings! Let's face it, the curiosity meter on this one is turned to 11. And it was even before Depp got poliosis (that's the medical term for that goofy white forelock he's sporting).
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, as the full title has it, has quite a history. It's the film version of the hit Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical, which was based on a '70s play based on a 19th century melodrama. All of those appear to have drawn on an urban myth about a barber who found an unconventional use for his straight razors and then an even more unconventional use for the bodies of his victims.
It's always a little tricky negotiating the road from Broadway musical to major motion picture, strewn as it is with the burned-out hulks of vehicles like 2005's The Producers and Rent. Viewers currently like their cinematic fantasy fairly realistic, the better to suspend disbelief. But in reality, only crazy people break into song in the course of regular conversation. Conversely, the weirder the movie musical is, the better it appears to work (see Moulin Rouge! or Chicago). This would seem to play to Burton's and Depp's strengths.
With Burton at the helm, for example, we know the film will be visually front-loaded. His London is very murky and dark, its citizens very pale and sickly, the better perhaps to complement all the blood they're about to be sloshing around in--or to remind us of old black-and-white horror films. We also know there will be an abundance of quirk. What's not certain is whether the film can find an audience. Will the buckets of gore and the presence of the erstwhile Captain Jack Sparrow--not to mention an appearance by Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen--draw in the young gotta-get-to-it first-weekend viewers? Will the musical credentials and actorly cast lure the older theater crowd? Or will the two elements cancel each other out: too much violence for the fogies, too much singing and dancing for the kids?
Whether the movie turns out to be a bloodbath or a triumphal song, one thing's for sure: it will be cutting edge.
Starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley,Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai ,Vanessa Redgrave. Directed by Joe Wright. Opens Dec. 7
It's not the heat of this summer day in 1935 that brings emotions to a boil; it's the erotic humidity. Two sisters in an upper-class English family are about to have their lives changed: lovely Cecilia (Knightley), by surrendering to a long-simmering attraction to the housekeeper's son (McAvoy); and 13-year-old Briony (Ronan), by catching them in the act of first love. Briony is intellectually precocious, sexually naive. The inferences she makes from what she's seen--and the vengeful uses she puts them to--open wounds that will take decades to heal.
Atonement, from Ian McEwan's novel, traces the impact of Briony's adolescent decision through World War II (when the girl, then 18, is played by Garai) and up to the present (with Redgrave as Briony, who is finally ready to make her confession). Each period in the film packs a seismic revelation; the ultimate one is both devastating and cleansing.
The Brits are past masters at viewing passion with precision. Atonement has echoes of 1971's The Go-Between (a youngster's confusion about a grownup love affair) and 2004's Closer (in which revenge is a stronger impulse than desire). All these films say we are creatures of our wills; it's what makes us human. Atonement says we can sink into sin and lift ourselves out. That's the message of this wise, beautifully acted parable of vengeance and contrition.
The Kite Runner
Starring Khalid Abdalla, Zekiria Ebrahimi, Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada. Directed by Marc Forster. Opens Dec. 14
One of those rare literary works that became an addiction for millions of readers, Khaled Hosseini's novel has been filmed most reverently. The movie is the book, with its narrative force and fondness for plot clichés. Amir (Ebrahimi, far right), a child of privilege in Afghanistan, loves to fly kites with his best friend, Hassan (Mahmoodzada), the son of his father's servant. One day Hassan is raped by a bully and his gang, and Amir, who sees the assault, does nothing to stop it. Indeed, he becomes vindictive toward Hassan, leading to many betrayals and reversals that will be resolved only when the older Amir (Abdalla), now living in the U.S., returns to a homeland ravaged by the Taliban.
The film has an authentic feel, thanks to its use of Afghan children in the lead roles and dialogue in the native tongue. But at heart it's a Victorian novel transposed to war-torn Afghanistan: Dickens spoken in Dari. Every atrocity endured in childhood will face an equal and opposing vengeance at the end; virtually every major character will reappear later; family relationships are not what they seem. Readers (and viewers) don't love books (and movies) like The Kite Runner in spite of these clichés but because of them. The fierce tidying up of ancient grievances allows us to believe that there may be justice in the world--at least in fiction.
Forster (Monster's Ball, Stranger Than Fiction) has ingested this elixir deeply. He's not out to make a spare, understated art film; he knows that the novel owes more to Hollywood than to Iranian cinema. So he pushes each scene, each character to extremes. Viewers will either be swept away ennobled or feel manipulated, even as they wipe away tears. The emotions may be forced, but that doesn't mean the movie won't get to you.
That's because the kids are terrific, persuasively playing out their devotions and resentments. It happens that the producers are trying to help one of the children, who feared harm from Afghans for having appeared in the rape scene. We can only hope that this boy's story has a happy Hollywood ending.
Youth Without Youth