Juno is a city in Alaska, Zeus’ wife, and apparently the title of the script that quirky kinda cute hipster girl in your creative writing class was working on. The script is the star here, the first by stripper turned screenwriter Diablo Cody, and I assume she kept her stage name for one bad-a credit line. Anyway, the film’s dialogue starts of quite brilliant, an assemblage of Tarrantino pastiche and the fast paced no one’s this witty Gilmore Girls-speak. I could hang with that for a little bit, but as the film goes along it gives up its artificial qualities that made it so exciting, and instead starts to lean on its influences, and overdone plot devices.
Yes, the film is too cute. But it’s also too contrived. The dialogue is dialogue, words noticabley but in the characters mouth by a singular voice. And while this works for Tarrantino, or even Jared Hess, who this film emulates at times, those directors stay in their own deconstructed worlds. In trying to be both Wes Anderson detached, and it-goes-there real, but also be Garden State hip, Juno has its cake, eats it too, then regurgitates it and eats it again. Ellen Page handles the dialogue magnificently but the dialogue from Juno is so out of place in the world after the first few scenes in the film, that it seems, at times annoying. Just one groan inducing moment: when Juno’s water breaks she announces “Thundercats are go!”
Right after that initial and energetic start, we are introduced to Michael Cera getting dressed into a track uniform apparently borrowed from the set of Rushmore, to The Kinks “Well Respected Man,” a groan inducing choice. And that’s what the movie was for me. Moments of brilliance, followed by groan inducing fumbles. And mostly these fumbles are when the film falls back on stereotypes and influences. This isn’t surprising from a first time screenwriter and a young director, but Reitman showed he has skills with Thank you for Smoking. His choice to basically take Cody’s first draft and put it on screen nearly untouched is a noble gesture, but shows why there’s need for editing.
The biggest problem with the film is the fact that we have amazing characters but we don’t get time with them. The film’s too busy with plot procedure that I didn’t know anything about Cera’s character, or why he was so great, except he got one gushy line that got the girls behind me swooning. The only relationship that works well, and honestly is the relationship between Juno and her step-mom, who’s played amazingly by Alison Janney. The film spends too much time on the been-there done-that husband won‘t grow up domestic subplot, which then became Hard Candy 2 at one point, or so I thought. Jennifer Garner does the best work of her career as the prospective mother, but we don’t see enough of the couple to really get more than superficially involved, and we see too much of them that it distracts the film away from its original and more endearing characters.
It is impossible to see this film without comparing it to Knocked up. I missed the profane naturalistic honesty of the relationships in that film, particularly in the troubled relationship between Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s characters. Apatow’s films work so well because of the cohesive and inclusive relationships of each his films collaborators. The relationships in Knocked up or the other Cera film Superbad are so endearing because they are, to some extent, real, or at least the creation of multiple collaborators who are invested in the process. Juno, sadly has the potential, it has a great script and a core group of characters, but it comes off rigid, and forced. There are great moments, and these were, like Apatow’s, collaborative. The best being the final scene, a beautiful moment where Page and Cera play a song by the too cute band The Moldy Peaches. Reitman gives us a long shot, and allows the actors to be free. And I wondered why the rest of the film couldn’t be that way too. At the end I was quite thoroughly depressed by this movie. Not that it didn’t live up to hype, or what I was expecting or subject matter, but I guess it was because I was given some amazing characters, who I think anyone would want to be friends with, and was not hardly given enough to feel that they and I had been used.
One last note, and this is prefaced by the fact that I’m not usually the moral conservative, but I was a little worried by the film’s depiction of teenage pregnancy. Fox is marketing it as this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” and this certainly appeals to the same demo. It’s cute, indie, and smart. But Sunshine had some rather dark and troubling elements to it, which made the film more emotionally powerful and effective. I’m not saying we needed a out and out sex-ed film like at the end of the insane ‘70’s exploitation flick Teenage Mother. But the film glosses over so much of the difficulties of pregnancy, especially on the emotional front for Cera’s character, that it seems to not give the act the weight it deserves.
Charlie Wilson’s War
This probably would have won best picture 10 years ago, partially because of the cast, and partially because of the fact that the film wouldn’t have to worry about covering itself for an epilogue. That’s not the films fault, but the film spends so much time trying to make sure it’s careful addressing the subject that it gives us 3 different apologies, each more obvious than the first. This a highly entertaining film, the script is great, though there are a few Sorkin-esque lines that are a little annoying, and Hanks and Hoffman are cast perfectly here. Roberts, and her ill-spoken accent seem a bit out of place. As do the cut ins from Afghanistan, composed of news reel footage and strange POV gunship shots, and a few scenes of victorious fighters reminiscent of Rambo 3.
The biggest problem is the film’s focus. When it’s brilliant it’s about how three broken people, Wilson being a drunk, cocaine sniffing, womanizer, who somehow are able to complete something greater than themselves in some cases because of their faults. When it falters it tries to be a satire on inter-departmental politics, or a history lesson. While he’s one of the best American directors of all-time, and has done some of the best play-adaptations in film, Mike Nichols has had several problems adapting books, his disastrous adaptation of Catch-22, for example, also suffered from similar focus problems.
* * * ½
Ok, I’ll admit it, it took me the promise of buckets of blood to get into his work, but once I did get in I realized that Sondheim lives up to his reputation, and I was happy to experience his genius. In Hollywood adaptations of stage musicals, one problem has been that the songs struggle at times to keep up with the rhythm of a film, and turn into obstacles we have to get through until we get to the rest of the plot and the film’s action.
Burton, at his best here, allows the music to take the fore, and that was the best decision he could make. The music is brilliant, funny, and beautiful, and Burton does an incredible job incorporating the film into the music, as much as the music in the film.
At the same time this is also a showcase for Johnny Depp. Who, as always, is spot on brilliant, and has got some pipes on him. Sadly Helena Bonham Carter doesn’t , but it wasn’t just being the director’s wife that got her the part. She is perfect in the role, and acts superbly, and she does a great job playing her vocal limitations and insecurities into her performance, instead of trying to hide them. She’s no Angela Lansbury, but who is?
The rest of the cast on loan from and just bused over from the Harry Potter set apparently, is solid, though it’s the new, musically trained actors who shine in it. The look of the film is everything you expect from Burton. The much spoken of blood is surprisingly old school. We do get some nice cutting, but the blood is as much a part of the art direction as the wallpaper in the film, and it works quite well.
The other great decision Burton makes is to underplay certain aspects of the last act, tragically speaking. It is not a thunderous fall, but quiet. The revenge feels, and is set up to feel, empty, short, and unfulfilling, making the final, terminal shot, extremely effective.
There are a few decisions I didn’t quite agree with; we get a few Baz Luhrman shots of the city’s streets and alleys. And I wish we would have spent more time with the victims, getting a little more of the black humour. But this is a very entertaining and effective film, and the best of the recent adaptations of stage musicals on film.
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