Friday, December 28, 2007

The Atypical Teen Comedy

If I said there were no words to express how great Juno is, then this would be one very boring review. But I must say it's hard to find the right words to describe how friggin' amazing Juno is. I've been working on this review for three days!

It's like Waitress with a little bit of Knocked Up and dash of every great indie film you've ever seen thrown in. The whole cast (especially Ellen Page) is wonderful.

Juno (Page) is not-the-popular-type teenager who has sex with one of her best friends, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) in a really comfortable chair. A few weeks later, she discovers that chair sex can lead to pregnancy. After a traumatizing experience at the abortion clinic, she decides to have the child and give it up for adoption. The lucky couple are Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), two people who've been trying for a baby for a long time.

What's so absolutely incredible about this movie is that it explores not what a 16-year-old knows about life, but what a 16-year-old doesn't know yet. Juno knows a lot about music and loves a good slasher movie, but her outlook on life is still quite naive. She even exclaims early on that she doesn't know what kind of girl she is.

What else is so great about this movie? It's funny. It's touching. And after it was over, I wanted to watch it again.

At first, the dialog threw me. I'm obviously officially old because I didn't understand half the things Juno and her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) say in their first conversation. It reminded me of the first time I heard my brother talk to his friends. Are they speaking a foreign language? No, and when I caught on (pretty quickly, I might add), I found myself loving the odd phrases. (Especially when Juno exclaims "Thundercats are go!" Holy hell, that was HILARIOUS.)

Behind solid storytelling is an incredible cast. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are the parents of the year in my opinion. Jason Bateman is perfectly subtle while still being funny. And even though Michael Cera is simply playing Michael Cera, the characterization of himself fits the story so well I can't even fathom a complaint.

The stand-out roles definitely go to Ellen Page and Jennifer Garner. Everyone who's seen the movie talks about Ellen Page's Juno. She makes this pregnant teenager into someone for whom you'll never feel sorry. She's strong and scared all at the same time. She's smart and naive as well. Juno is a well-rounded character that just blossoms even more with Page's acting prowess.

Jennifer Garner's Vanessa starts out as a bit of a cardboard figure. She's got a perfect smile plastered on her face through the first act and part of the second, but then a great thing happens. Subtle remarks and actions start to break her perfection, and all of a sudden, Vanessa is a complex character with real feelings.

I know not everyone will love Juno, and that's okay. It's a lot of movie to swallow, but it's still a great small story that tugs on all the right strings.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Singing Killer

I am a huge Tim Burton fan. For those who know me well, that's a bit of an understatement. I believe the man can do no wrong. (We’ll just ignore that little blip called Planet of the Apes.) I’m also a big fan of musicals. I know that it’s unnatural for people to just bust out into song in the middle of the street, but it’s just so damn entertaining, I can't help but love it.

So, when a Tim Burton musical opens, there's no way I'm missing it. And I'm probably going to enjoy it out of sheer principle.

Johnny Depp stars as Sweeney Todd, formally Benjamin Barker, a talented barber who’s returned to London after being imprisoned by the sinister Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Upon his return, Todd discovers his wife poisoned herself and his daughter is now the ward of the judge. With the help of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), Mr. Todd seeks vengeance on the judge and every one else that’s done wrong in the cutting their throats. To properly dispose of his pile of bodies, Mrs. Lovett cooks them in her soon-to-be-famous meat pies.

There’s tons and tons and tons of candy-apple red blood, enhanced sounds of arteries opening and necks crunching, and of course, there’s plenty of singing.

I never really doubted it, but it was still a very pleasant surprise to hear Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter not only carry a note but sound like real singers. Depp's rock 'n' roll take on the Sweeney Todd character made it more his own. Bonham Carter's dainty voice worked well to counteract Mrs. Lovett's creepy cooking methods.

Then there's Alan Rickman. It could very well just be me, but the man should really, really stick to talking. Who would expect a man with such a lovely speaking voice to have such a grating singing voice? During the "Pretty Women" duet with Depp, I found myself hoping for a throat slashing just to get him to stop.

Acting and singing aside, the star of Sweeney Todd is the set design. As with all Burton films, the look is highly stylized and slightly surreal. All the bright colors are muted and swallowed by the grays, making London into the “whole in the world like a great black pit” of which Sweeney sings. The best, and oddest, sets are those presented during Mrs. Lovett’s song “By the Sea.” As she sings of the life she could lead, the audience is taken on a visual acid trip. Technicolor skies, super white beaches, with brightly colored costumes abound, and there in the middle of it all, are the dark-eyes and pale faces of Todd and Mrs. Lovett. I was sort of giddy with the look of the whole thing. If nothing else, Burton definitely knows how to give your eyes solid entertainment.

Sweeney Todd is not my favorite Tim Burton film. It’s very good, but it's not spectacular. I also think Burton fans who have trouble with people bursting into song may find some fault with this one. No matter how dark and twisted and splattered with blood a movie is, when people sing whilst walking down the street, some moviegoers are simply turned off.

If you're anything like me, and you do love a good musical, see this movie. The grandiose sets and magnificent costumes are worth seeing on the big screen. Besides, the blood spattering just isn't the same without the THX sound.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Crappy Compass

If there has ever been a reason to read the book instead of seeing the movie, The Golden Compass is that reason. Whomever thought Chris Weitz (the producer of The American Pie trilogy) could handle an epic-type fantasy should be shot in the foot.

I am so mad for many reasons. Mostly because this was my second most-anticipated movie of the year. Damn you, Chris Weitz. Damn you.

All the interesting parts of Philip Pullman's story have been pulled out and all that's left is a hollow story that has no appeal to me, let alone any child who's asked their parents to take them. Granted, of the His Dark Materials trilogy, this is my least favorite, but it's still a far, FAR more interesting story than this film will ever be.

Honestly, the only thing this movie has going for it is pretty pictures and good casting.

I say it has good casting solely based on my reading Philip Pullman’s books. The movie versions of these people are but a fraction of the in-depth people on the page. Nicole Kidman has the most standout performance as Ms. Coulter. She’s flawlessly beautiful yet crazy and ruthless. Watching her interact with Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) made me feel a bit icky all over, and that’s exactly how it should be.

Daniel Craig only gets about ten minutes of screen time, which is a shame, but he did have a rather decent ten minutes. I'm kind of mad that Lord Asriel didn't play a bigger part. Maybe they'll write in some more for him to do in the second movie.

Dakota Blue Richards is a bit too spunky and too expressive. This is probably due to overzealous directing, but who knows. My favorite moment with her is right before the ice bear fight. She's standing next to Iorek Byrnison (Ian Mackellen, doing the best Sean Connery impression I've ever heard), and tells him there ain't no one better than him. Yep, she said "ain't." I had to look around and make sure I wasn't watching Huck Finn or something.

Sam Elliot, what can I say? He’s playing a cowboy type who flies hot air balloons. It was either him or Tommy Lee Jones.

The most disappointing role came from Eva Green’s Serafina Pekkala. When I read the book, Serafina always seemed like a very strong, fascinating witch. The film has reduced her to a flying woman with a cool voice effect.

Besides the pretty people, there are very pretty images. Granted, most of them are computer-generated, but I was still visually entertained even if I was bored out of my mind in the process. The cityscapes as well as the ice-covered mountains and vast plains are beautiful and just surreal enough to titillate without looking like a backdrop in a George Lucas film. The interior shots (which I assume are physical sets) are equally eye-catching. Nothing is lavish, but everything is beautiful.

And let me spend a minute talking about the ending. For anyone who is a fan of Philip Pullman’s books, you will be personally offended by the upbeat, Disney-esque ending. Guess what? People die in this book. Even though there's a pretty high body count in the movie, the significant death is left out. Hell, an entire very significant scene is left out.

For those who have never read the book, you’ll simply be disappointed and possibly confused as you hear half the theatre yell “bullshit” at the screen.

Maybe Chris Weitz should’ve been less concerned about keeping out the religious allegory and worried more about keeping an interesting story intact.