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Monthly Archives: November 2007

The most enticing thing about Juno for some may be that it was written by a former stripper. For others, perhaps the cult t.v. comedy stars Jason Bateman and Michael Cera (Superbad). Still others will be drawn to the offerings of Jennifer Garner and the young charmer Ellen Page. Without any one of these attributes, perhaps save for Garner, Juno would be a far less delightful romp.

Let’s say Knocked Up got in bed with Superbad and out popped little baby Juno. The only surprising feature of the infant would be that this film actually takes a few risks. Whereas the other hit comedies this year relied solely on their raunchy gags, not that there’s anything wrong with that, this one has a bigger agenda. The titular character is a quick witted young outcast (Page) who gets knocked up by the awkward, somewhat athletic Paulie Bleeker (Cera). Naturally the ‘word that rhymes with shmashmortion’ comes up, but unlike in distant ancestor Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Juno decides to keep the oven cooking and find the [too] perfect parents, played by Bateman and Garner, to raise her child.

The dynamic between these characters, Juno’s dad among them, is hilariously uncomfortable and, at times, disturbing. Since authenticity is not the claim of this film, though, such moments are easily embraced as stylized expressions of cleverness. After all, astuteness is the stereotype most teens actually fill. All these sharp lines of dialogue serve the greater purpose of the evolving relationships, and a state of awe while watching them unfold is almost unavoidable.

It is easy to be won over by the quick dialogue and enchanting performances, a few cameos among them. Still, each jolt of energy that accompanies the presence of Page, Cera, and most of the adult players is sedated by the stilted, predictable turns of Olivia Thirlby and a slew of no name fellow students.

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Juno may not be the funniest movie of the year, nor the most ambitious, but it has enough charm, wit, and style to be a stunning achievement from a freshman screenwriter and young director Jason Reitman. The most remarkable aspect of Diablo Cody’s script is not the instantly quotable lines nor the authentic diction but the way she refreshingly intertwines chunks of reality just when it becomes easy to lose track of the farce. Though not an exceedingly accurate portrayal of the typical high schooler, it is nothing short of a delightful taste of teenager pudding with a few wafers of soul. It is sure to leave an impression on anyone who has once dreamed of naming a child after a historical monument, who has applied deodorant where it does not belong, or who has considered the possibility that doctors are sadists who just like to watch lesser people scream. A-

The Coen Brothers have already proved themselves among the greatest comedic minds working today. Though their subject matter is certainly diverse – from bowling bums to Prohibition-era crime to the unlikely couple of an ex-con and ex-cop, – each film has had, at the very least, distinct comedic undertones. Most similar to their latest endeavor is Fargo, largely considered their best work. From the bitterly cold landscape and murders in that 1996 film to the haunting aridity of the Texas country in No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers should now be considered masters of suspense.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s not-quite-masterful 2005 novel, the Coens have assembled a dream team of go-to cinematographer Roger Deakins, on-a-roll actor Josh Brolin, and, above all, each other (as writers, directors, producers, and editors). The most memorable contributor, however, is Javier Bardem as the delightfully, disturbingly psychotic killer Anton Chigurh. With weapons almost as frightening as his hair, Chigurh is, as many have already stated, one of the most unnerving characters every portrayed on film. Most indicative of his power to unsettle is a scene late in the film when Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss is in an airport on the phone to his wife, and two men in the background, though only for a moment, appear to have haircuts strikingly similar to Chigurh himself. From about thirty minutes in, every instant the killer reappeared on screen, the oxygen in the theater suddenly evacuated into the lungs of startled spectators as a mass of simultaneous gasps.

The story, though, is not Chigurh’s, and Brolin’s formidable performance makes that overwhelmingly clear. The McGuffin of the film, a satchel of money that Moss stumbles upon, is almost entirely forgotten at one point – but not by the filmmakers. The suspense lies not with what hands the crisp bills concealed by the bag will fall into, but rather with who Chigurh will blow to smithereens next. At a certain point, as with most films of this nature, another brutal on-screen murder would just be redundant, so the Coens instead reveal everything through the habitual mannerisms of Chigurh after a kill.

Assuredly subtle and strikingly silent, No Country for Old Men has the most perfect final scene of any recent film, but it is not without fault in the moments preceding it. Assumably sticking a little to close to the source material, the concluding events feel both rushed and disjointed, though not at all displeasurable. Even the last lines are without doubt novel-like, but it’s a style rarely seen on film before, and chilling nonetheless.

No film this year has been so mutely momentous, nor has any other film from the Coen Brothers. Neither easy to sit through nor easy to forget, No Country for Old Men assures you that any perplexities were not missteps, but rather enigmas underhandedly planted to draw you back to the theater and sit through this masterpiece once again. A

Is it a coincidence that the best two films of the year, so far that is, are two of the longest of the year? In an age when people complain about every film over 100 minutes, some may call it easy to praise a film that can remain compelling for longer than the formulaic length. Films should not be considered great simply because they can handle their running times, but, rather, any film that remains engrossing for its duration is, in part, a success.

American Gangster, directed by the seasoned Ridley Scott, is one of the best films of the year, and not just because of its entertainment value. Before I saw Gangster, I was convinced that Zodiac would remain my favorite film of the year, simply because I’ve seen it three times now, and every time I do I find it equally absorbing and remarkable. However, it is so rare to find a film that, immediately upon finishing it, assures you that it will hold up to repeat viewings. Gangster is just such a film, one that’s undoubtedly entertaining but, perhaps more importantly in terms of its longevity, one that’s full of complexity and depth.

For the above reasons, it is almost entirely unfair to state an opinion on this film before a second viewing, but I won’t refrain from sharing all the reasons that everyone, instead of watching Old School on TBS, should get up off their sofas and spend the evening at the biggest theater near them. Gangster is a film that not only shows the deeply disturbing but wholly compelling lives of drug emperor Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and detective Richie Roberts (the superb Russell Crowe), but also builds palpable momentum until the moment the two finally meet. It’s an inevitable climax, but shocking and fascinating nonetheless.

As I mentioned, Crowe is at his best here, and Washington is, well, pretty good. He kinda put on the Oscar skin, that being a nearly infrangible layer of bravura and severity, but he is still able to contain all the emotions and thoughts of the complex Lucas character on his face. The supporting players consist of perfectly casted actors like Ruby Dee, who plays Mama Lucas, and Josh Brolin as the corrupt Detective Trupo.

What makes this film more than great Oscar bait, more than another great gangster flick, and more than great, adrenaline-pumping entertainment, is the care and attention Ridley Scott gave to the project. Steven Soderbergh, one of today’s greatest working directors, is quoted as saying that what he hates most about movies is when everything in them looks the same. Scott, before this film, could have been accused of that crime, but this time he handles each environment like an entirely different movie, brining a whole new level of excitement to an otherwise decent film. The way he transitions to these starkly different territories is even more remarkable. The editing by Pietro Scalia is as sharp as the trailer, which by now we’ve all seen since June.

American Gangster is full of complexity, profundity, and delight. Scott doesn’t tell you who to root for, and he makes you feel a little guilty about it. Those who complain that not much is said over such a long period of time are dead wrong; everything you need to know is hidden in the performances of both the leads and the supporting actors. Gangster is a film to be re-watched and re-embraced, much like a certain film that is on A&E just about every weekend. What was that called again? A.