RESERVATIONS ARE required for the first 15 minutes of Juno. And by reservations, I don't mean the type involving a phone call and the expected number in your party; I mean reservations as in the withholding of expectations and opinions, as 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 sometimes failing in that way only teenagers can topple) 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. And speaking of music, the soundtrack is a keeper as well, with eccentric tunes that complement the action. Kicking up a fuss (much like Juno's unborn child), this is easily one of the year's best releases.
SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 Broadway smash, but it hides its stage roots so thoroughly that it often feels like a piece created exclusively for the silver screen. There's no trace of the claustrophobic (and often limiting) theatricality that has marred other stage-to-screen transfers, though that's hardly a surprise given that Tim Burton remains one of modern cinema's most visually adept filmmakers. In refashioning Sweeney Todd for the movies, he and scripter John Logan have presented audiences with a big, bold musical that functions as an upscale slasher film: It's bloody but also bloody good, with the gore tempered by the melancholy love stories that dominate the proceedings.
Burton's go-to guy, Johnny Depp, delivers a haunted performance as Benjamin Barker, a sweet-natured barber who's falsely imprisoned by a lecherous judge (Alan Rickman) who covets Barker's wife. Fifteen years later, Barker returns to London a changed man: Now calling himself Sweeney Todd and physically looking like a zombie who's already been buried a couple of times, he sets about planning his revenge on the judge. He's aided in his efforts by Nellie Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a lonely widow whose love for Todd will clearly remain unrequited. As partners-in-crime, however, they're matched beautifully: A crazed Todd slits the throats of all who sit in his barber's chair, while Mrs. Lovett grinds up the corpses to use in her increasingly popular meat pies.
Burton's decision to stylize the film to within an inch of its life was a sound one, resulting in a visual feast that dazzles even through the setting's necessary grime. And his most theatrical flourish is to retain a Grand Guignol sense of the melodramatic, with the gory scenes tempered by the fact that the blood looks less than authentic (it's the bright-red variety employed in many a Hammer horror flick from decades past).
The blandness of the actors portraying the story's young lovebirds, Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisner, is a debit, but as compensation, there's Borat himself, Sacha Baron Cohen, cast as a charlatan named Pirelli -- perhaps not since Eric Rhodes played Alberto Beddini in the Astaire-Rogers classic Top Hat has an actor so deliberately hammed up the Italian language. And while neither Depp nor Carter are classically trained singers, both are just fine belting out Sondheim's tunes. More importantly, they provide this rousing musical with the emotional heft necessary to prevent it from merely becoming an exercise in Gothic chic.
Thanks for writing, dsync. Actually, I have read the novel (more than once), and yes,…
You apparently haven't ever read the novel. I suggest that you do, its smugness and…
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