Friday, 16 September 2016

GREAT FILMS: The Italian Job (1969)

0

The Italian Job (UK, 1969)
Directed by Peter Collinson
Starring Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill, Raf Vallone 

BFI Top 100: #36 (1999)

The recent Brexit debacle has provided us with an ideal opportunity to address an interesting question: is it possible to be proud of one's own country without simply viewing others as inferior? Long before Edward Said's Orientalism codified the concept of 'self' and 'other' in Western discourse, there was a suspicion that patriotism - and more specifically Britons' pride in their empire and achievements - were rooted in xenophobia backed up by a very impressive army, rather than a more constructive form of self-love (if such a thing exists).
 
The Italian Job is occasionally held up as an example of said vainglorious culture, sticking a middle finger up to the continent by having the Brits get one over on people with crazy mannerisms and silly accents who drive on the wrong side of the road. Coming from a time before Britain joined what was then the EEC, it can be viewed as either a straightforward, somewhat dated caper film or an ironic comment on Britain's  decline within the wider world. Whichever viewpoint you drift towards, there can be little denying its appeal as one of the most entertaining and technically accomplished films that Britain produced in the late-1960s.
 
When I first saw The Italian Job, as a teenager with a passion for history, I gravitated towards the revisionist school of thought, seeing it as an interesting commentary on the passing of an age, and the death of an empire on which the sun had all but set. I was too young to have any genuine nostalgia for 1960s culture, with the memories of England's accomplishments of that time being overshadowed by our subsequent failures in both the World Cup and the Middle East. The literal cliffhanger ending (which I will explore in more depth later) felt like a bittersweet twist for the audience, setting us up for the clichéd, feel-good ending and then reminding us that the good times (if indeed they were good times) were over and never coming back.
 
Elements of this interpretation still hold water in abstract, but you would have a hard time defending it on the basis of the original intentions of the filmmakers, and the audience for whom the film was intended. That being said, it would be wrong to assume that the film is therefore an out-and-out celebration of jingoism, along the lines of The Wild Geese or The Deer Hunter. Unlike those reactionary offerings, which wore out their welcome with some decidedly unsavoury politics, The Italian Job is a more subtle, well-crafted affair which reflects the talent involved.
 
With the crew of The Italian Job, its reputation is so great that it has come to define them in a way which eclipses their other achievements. Troy Kennedy Martin, who wrote the screenplay, later went on to create the gripping Edge of Darkness and the underrated Reilly: Ace of Spies, featuring one of Sam Neill's best performances. Notwithstanding his reputation for being a slavedriver, Peter Collinson was a very capable director, who later did a very good job on And Then There Were None. And while Michael Deeley later blotted his copybook with The Deer Hunter, he also produced such cult classics as Blade Runner and The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Whichever way you look at it, The Italian Job is one of the most technically impressive films of its genre and period. However far CG technology has come since its inception, there is still no real substitute for organic, physical effects and stunt work. The Rémy Julienne stunt team, who drove the Minis and planned everything from the rooftop jumps to the sewer sequence (shot in Coventry), combines fantastic technical precision with welcome visual humour. It's little wonder Julienne ended up designing the driving stunts on every James Bond film from Octopussy to Goldeneye.
 
Not only are the individual stunts extremely impressive, the wider spectacle of The Italian Job is equally arresting. Bringing a small number of streets to a standstill when shooting a modern-day blockbuster is tricky, never mind bringing a whole city to a halt. The film was one of the very first to be shot in Turin, and the police and officials co-operated willingly to close entire quarters, thanks in no small part to the influence of Fiat which was based there. Fiat's assistance was so great that the production team - partially motivated by the indifference of Mini manufacturer BMC - briefly contemplated replacing the Minis with Fiats (which was thanfully vetoed).
 
One of the major criticisms of The Italian Job when it was first released was that it focussed too much on the car chases and too little on the characters. The acclaimed American film critic Vincent Canby went so far as to describe it as "emotionally retarded" (an unfortunate turn of phrase). But for all Canby's credibility, on this occasion he was dead wrong, since the main characters of The Italian Job are arguably the aspect which has endured the best.
 
Much of the initial spark of The Italian Job, before the heist plot gets properly underway, comes from the relationship between Charlie Croker and Mr Bridger. The pair represent a clash of class and attitude akin to Sleuth, with Noel Coward's aloof, gentleman-thief monarchist having very different ideas and priorities to Michael Caine's cunning, working-class upstart. Charlie's efforts to get Beckerman's scheme funded is like watching someone from outside the old boys' network trying to get into one of their exclusive clubs. When Croker demonstrates the worth of his scheme (and to a lesser extent himself), he's admitted, but the old attitudes remain in place.
 
Allied to Caine and Coward's glittering chemistry, there is a cavalcade of talented British character actors whose screen time is short but energy is great. Tony Beckley, who would later appear in the Doctor Who serial The Seeds of Doom, provides some welcome comic relief as the stuffy yet immaculately dressed 'Camp' Freddie. Benny Hill is as disciplined and focussed here as he was in Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang, showing how well his talent should be applied with a decent director. Add in John Le Mesurier's cameo (filmed just as Dad's Army was taking off) and a fine villainous turn from Raf Vallone, and you have a very well-rounded, believable and endearing cast.
 
The ending of The Italian Job has become one of its most defining features. As well as avoiding the pat, predictable ending that would have resulted had the gang made it to Geneva, it also brings a symmetry to the film. The driving through the Alps in the opening credits, followed by the destruction of Beckerman's Lambourghini Miura, is reflected with the tumbling of the Minis and then the bus hanging over the precipice. Filming it was fraught with danger - downdraft from the helicopter getting the aerial shots almost sent the coach over the cliff, with a lot of the crew inside. But the risk paid off, creating a memorable capping for the caper, as well as providing a welcome brainteaser for maths and physics students for decades afterwards.
 
Inevitably with a film of this period, there are aspects of The Italian Job which haven't dated very well. Besides the fact that nearly all Italians in the film are caricatured as hand-waving, passionate divas who can't drive or calm down, its biggest issue is its attitude to women. Even by the standards of the day, they have very little to do other than walk around in next to nothing (Charlie's "coming-out present") or being the butt of people's jokes (literally, in one instance). It's not as toe-curlingly constant as in something like No Sex Please, We're British, but it's still pretty hard to overlook.
The Italian Job is a great British caper which has largely stood the test of time. Despite its dated politics - whether racial, gender or otherwise - it is still capable of leaving an audience gleefully entertained. Its physical effects and stunt work still stand up to more modern offerings, and the central performances from Caine and Coward are top-draw. If you've never seen it, then 'get a bloody move on' and fix that.

Photobucket

For more of my thoughts on Blade Runner and The Man Who Fell to Earth, check out The Movie Hour podcast from my days on Lionheart Radio.

NEXT REVIEW: Legally Blonde (2001)

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

RIP Gene Wilder

0

In case it wasn't abundantly clear by now, 2016 is becoming a bumper year for the Grim Reaper, at least as far as film stars and celebrities are concerned. Having already deprived us of David Bowie, Alan RickmanHarper Lee and Douglas Slocombe, the black-cloaked figure has now claimed Gene Wilder, who has died aged 83 after a three-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.
Image result for gene wilder 
Most of the tributes towards Wilder - real name Jerome Silberman - have focussed on his iconic performance as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But while I've always been a fan of Wilder's work, I've mostly been a fan of him in spite of that film, which I have generally considered to be enormously overrated. I won't go into detail here at the risk of sounding churlish or disrespectful - I'll be revisiting the superior Tim Burton version in due course - but the kindest thing I can say about it is that Wilder's performance has endured far better than the rest of the film.
http://www.themoviescene.co.uk/reviews/_img/42-2.jpg
Instead, my fondness for Wilder is firmly rooted in his work with Mel Brooks. The pair collaborated on three films between 1968 and 1974, all of which remain classics of both their period and the comedy genre. The Producers remains a sparkling satire of musical theatre and politics, with Wilder playing off Zero Mostel and Kenneth Mars with perfect timing. In Blazing Saddles, he provides the perfect foil for Cleavon Little - an actor who deserved a much stronger career in light of that performance. And in Young Frankenstein - arguably his finest hour - he balanced intensity with clowning to masterfully lead one of the best horror parodies of all time.
http://download.gamezone.com/uploads/image/data/1207267/Gene-Wilder-Out-of-Retirement.jpg
Wilder may have grown increasingly disinterested towards Hollywood in recent years, last acting on the big screen in 1991 and saying that he was "tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3-D". But even outside of Brooks' back catalogue, his influence looms large on the history of comedy. He's one of the best things about Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), and his writing and direction on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother  is very admirable. He was, by all accounts, a deeply decent man and is a great loss to the world of film.
http://richestnetworth.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Gene-Wilder-600x387.png
If you want to pay tribute to Wilder without resorting to Willy Wonka (sorry), I recommend a double bill of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. If you want something more dramatic, try Bonnie and Clyde, in which he has a small but noticeable role. Failing all that, check out this half-hour interview with him in 2013, in what turned out to be one of his final public appearances. RIP.

Daniel

Saturday, 13 August 2016

GREAT FILMS: Hard Candy (2005)

0

Hard Candy (USA, 2005)
Directed by David Slade
Starring Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh, Odessa Rae 

In 21st-century society, there are few subjects which can produce such guaranteed levels of hysteria as paedophilia and child sexual abuse. Technological progress, particularly the development of the internet and social media, has made sex scandals more immediate and more sensational, at least in the way in which they are reported. It has also resulted in a feeling that our culture is collectively under attack whenever such a scandal breaks; the public response to Operation Yewtree and the revelations about the Paedophile Information Exchange has been as chastened and ashen-faced as the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings or any other recent terror attack.
But just as erotic thrillers like Fifty Shades of Grey often oversell their rauchiness to disguise how tame they really are, so films about sexual abuse (at least in the English-speaking world) have been decidedly hands-off for some time. Not every piece of media about such a difficult and delicate subject matter has to be as contentious and uncomfortable as BrassEye, but the likes of Catfish and Trust are ultimately very sensitive, well-behaved affairs, which approach their subject in a manner which avoids causing offence but often at the expense of saying anything significant. It takes a great deal of bravery and intelligence to make a film which tackles this extremely tough subject in a manner which is both nuanced and brutally honest - and that is where Hard Candy comes in.
 
When Hard Candy first came out, a lot of the analysis focussed on the visual imagery of the characters, which had been played up in the marketing. The posters for the film made it out to be a modern-day retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, with Ellen Page's Red Riding Hood going after Patrick Wilson's Big Bad Wolf. The Japanese website for the film even used the tagline: "Red Hood traps the Wolf in his own game".
 
It's been widely documented since then that the allusion to the fairy tale was largely a coincidence; Hayley's red hooded sweatshirt was not premeditated symbolism, and the creative team merely seized upon the opportunity. It's also arguable that trying to reduce Hard Candy down to 'merely' being a fairy tale belies the psychological depth which it exhibits. But it should still be said that horror films and crime thrillers often incorporate elements of the story, or ones similar to it, to create empathy with a diminutive protagonist. The ne plus ultra of this technique is The Silence of the Lambs, in which Red Riding Hood (Clarice) has to use one Big Bad Wolf (Lector) to catch a bigger, badder one (Buffalo Bill). 
In the great pantheon of horror-thrillers with fairy tale elements, Hard Candy is in some respects a close cousin of Freeway, an under-seen mid-1990s effort which gave an early break to Reese Witherspoon. As well as the arguments about the shared Little Red Riding Hood heritage, both Matthew Bright and David Slade make use of the low-budget, independent aesthetic to bring out the edgy qualities of their respective stories. The washed-out colour palettes and handheld camerawork with tight close-ups put us uncomfortably close to the characters, forcing us to confront their every flaw and spot their every tell.
The visuals of Hard Candy are very carefully orchestrated to reflect the subtle shifts in the character dynamic, something which prevents this intimate two-hander from ever becoming stagey. Jo Willems, who later shot The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, does a very fine job, but the real credit should go to his digital colourist, Jean-Clement Sorret. The film was shot with the characters being slightly over-lit, and after shooting was completed, Sorret went through the film frame-by-frame, turning down the frequencies in scenes where Hayley felt threatened or angry. Aside from Roger Deakins' painstaking colour correction on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, such a meticulous approach was unprecedented, and it pays off, creating a startling, creeping claustrophobia which leaves us gasping for breath. 
 
The single biggest strength of Hard Candy is that it constantly forces us to question the moral authority of both parties, particularly Ellen Page's character. Had the script been any weaker, or the direction any less steadfast, the film would have quickly descended into a nasty little revenge thriller - I Spit On Your Grave by proxy, as it were. Given the evidence which is stacked against Jeff, we're not exactly rooting for him, but we don't support Hayley unconditionally, particularly as more details about her methods and motivation come to light. The film wants to explore how each party justifies or defends their actions, how morally warped the whole situation is, and what we would do if put in the same situation.
 
In doing so, the film manages to tackle both the horrible crime of child sexual abuse and address the hysteria and culture of vigilantism which has sprung up as a result of it. Slade does a great job with Jeff of showing us a banal, normal exterior with something deeply sinister buried just beneath. Jeff's initial scenes are similar to those with the villain in The Vanishing: they both seem normal to the point of boring, even though what they are doing is increasingly unspeakable. Jeff's pictures are shot in an almost Kubrickian manner, with the sheer whites, subtle reds and smooth camera angles being a possible reference to the long, slow corridor shots in The Shining. 
Hard Candy pulls an equally good deception on us with Hayley. Page's first few scenes are very naturalistic; you don't get the sense, either in the online conversations or the first encounter in the cafe, of someone consciously pretending or repressing something to hide their true intentions. It's only once the screwdrivers have been downed and the screen goes blurry that the visage starts to crack, and we understand with horror what kind of driven, ruthless monster lies beneath. Page has always had a gift for managing to play distant characters while still making us care about them; here we are simultaneouly perturbed by her matter-of-fact moments and drawn to her impulsive, moralistic outbursts.
 
Many horror films which accrue the kind of reputation that Hard Candy enjoys often do so because of the reputation of a given sequence. Sometimes, as with the chest-burster in Alien, the sequence in question is burned so strongly into the public's consciousness that it feels unwittedly like a set-piece; critical reaction can turn just another line of dialogue into a patch of purple prose, often against the writer or director's intentions. It's therefore gratifying that Slade manages to avoid that trap here, cooking up a sequence which is truly horrifying yet part of a continuous whole.
 
The castration scene in Hard Candy is at turns gruesome, nerve-jangling, chilling and a brilliant piece of misdirection. Despite appearing to just exploit some base, simple fear (i.e. the loss of one's genitals), it also brings out the metaphor behind this action, just as any decent horror film should. If you want to see this scene on the simplest level - a paedophile getting what many may feel he deserves - you can do so, but the film shoots it so slowly and clinically that it produces no joy or feeling of vindication. This slow pace lets the implications come to the fore - the symbolic loss of male power and agency, the consequences of the vigilante following through on their dark desires, and what it says about the human condition in general. If nothing else, it's handled more assuredly and with clearer artistic intentions than the scissors sequence in Lars von Trier's Antichrist. 
 
Much of the plaudits for the performances have rightly focussed on Ellen Page. Two years before her mainstream breakthrough in Juno, this was the role which announced her as one of the most promising acting talents of her generation. But for all her convincing and frightening intensity, it would all be for very little without the support of Patrick Wilson, whose collapse into blind fear, panic and despair is utterly gripping. It's a pity in hindsight that Wilson's career hasn't achieved the same level of success, discounting the heavily flawed Watchmen and the perplexingly overpraised The Conjuring. 
 
Hard Candy is a gripping, thrilling and chilling calling card for both its major stars and its director on debut. Despite a slightly shaky ending, in terms of both content and pacing, it manages to serve up both shocks and substance to do justice to its tricky subject matter. It is testament to the notion that an issue can be graphically explored without exploiting it, and even the most taboo of notions can be approached if great care is taken. If nothing else, it's a great benchmark for modern horror and thriller filmakers which will stand the test of time. 

Photobucket

NEXT REVIEW: The Italian Job (1969)

Thursday, 11 August 2016

LETTERS OF NOTE: The Elephant Man

0

Today's Letter of Note concerns one of the most heartbreaking human stories in Victorian medicine - the story of Joseph Merrick, also known as The Elephant Man, whose life was later immortalised by David Lynch in the 1980 film of the same name.
http://thehumanmarvels.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/joseph-merrick-797867-319x500.jpg
Merrick was born in Leicester in 1862 and soon began to develop abnormally. By the time he was a teenager, he was exhibiting enlarged limbs, impaired speech and lumpy skin, all of which baffled the brightest medical minds of the day. After a short-lived career as a living exhibit in London, he traveled to the continent, where he was beaten, robbed and generally abused. He returned to London in late-1886 and was promptly admitted to London Hospital, in ill health and without a penny to his name.
http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-5BeFDCy2uZU/ThZwT_MeLAI/AAAAAAAAMJ4/dQE7OND-TBk/s1600/the%2Belephant%2Bman.jpg
In December of that year, Francis Carr-Gomm, the chairman of London Hospital, wrote a letter to The Times appealing to the public for help in supporting Merrick. The resulting influx of donations, whether in the form of money, gifts or just kind letters, meant that the hospital was able to accommodate Merrick in reasonable comfort until his death in 1890. Following this, Carr-Gomm wrote to The Times again to thank the public for their outpouring of generosity.
 
You can read Mr Carr-Gomm's letters in full here. You can read my review of Lynch's film here, and if you're hungry for more Lynch after that, you can check out my review of the utterly mesmerising Mulholland Drive or the weird and wandering Wild at Heart. My review of Hard Candy will be along shortly - thanks for bearing with me!

Daniel

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

LETTERS OF NOTE: Advice from Hunter S. Thompson

0

For the first post of a new month, I'm returning to Letters of Note and taking a gander at the strange and amusing life of Hunter S. Thompson.
Eight years before he first made his name with Hell's Angels, a strident critique of the self-same biker gang in whose company he lived for more than a year, Thompson received a letter from a young friend called Hume Logan asking for advice. Despite being only 20 years old and still serving in the US Air Force, Thompson's reply contains a great deal of wise words, as well as the rambling, drug-induced stream-of-consciousness style which would come to define his career. It's an entertaining, if long-winded, snapshot of the great author that would eventually emerge in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (later brought to the screen by Terry Gilliam).
http://filmgarb.com/wp-content/uploads/film-fear_and_loathing_in_las_vegas-1998-raoul_duke-johnny_depp-accessories-sunglasses.jpg
You can read Thompson's letter in full here. If you're left in a Gilliam mood after that, either check out Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or explore some of his other work, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Twelve Monkeys. For a bit more gonzo journalism, or underground journalism, I recommend looking into John Wilcock, a contemporary of Thompson who co-founded The Village Voice and also rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol in the 1960s. I met him while doing work experience on the Northumberland Gazette in Alnwick; suffice to say, he's quite a character.
Daniel

Thursday, 21 July 2016

LETTERS OF NOTE: Tom 'Bango' Hanks

0

My first post back from honeymoon finds me returning to the deep well of inspiration that is Letters of Note, Shuan Usher's outstanding online library of correspondence which has already produced two highly compelling books (three if you count its sister website, Lists of Note). And what better way to kick things off again than with a huge dose of (over-)confidence on the part of a young Tom Hanks.
In 1974 Hanks was a 17-year-old unknown, still six years away from getting his first acting break on the low-budger slasher He Knows You're Alone. 1974 was also the year that The Sting, the renowned caper film which reunited Paul Newman and Robert Redford, won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (for George Roy Hill) and Best Original Screenplay (for David S. Ward).
http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/38634000/jpg/_38634107_us_hill_ap300.jpg
Hanks promptly wrote to Hill, with a precocious mix of self-confidence and self-deprecation, asking for the director's help in 'discovering' him - something which Hanks considered would be "all together fitting and proper". He speculates about being cast as a stand-in whose lucky break comes when the star of Hill's next picture (which would be The Great Waldo Pepper, also starring Redford) breaks his leg. He uses the word "bango" a surprising amount, and concludes (with some irony) that he doesn't want to be "some bigtime, Hollywood superstar".
http://images.fandango.com/images/fandangoblog/The-Sting-Best-Robert-Redford.jpg
You can read Hanks' full letter to Hill here. You can find my thoughts on The Sting here, and can also check out my thoughts on Redford's career in this article I wrote for WhatCulture! back in 2014.

Daniel

Friday, 8 July 2016

ANNOUNCEMENTS: I'm Getting Married in the... Afternoon

1

So, here we are. Tomorrow is the big day, when I will be getting married to my wonderful soulmate Aimee, in the company of family and friends. We'll then be on honeymoon for a week in Snowdonia - and while there is WiFi where we are staying, I'm not going to be so antisocial as to spend my honeymoon blogging.
In short, you won't see any more posts from me until July 18 at the very earliest. I have a few things in the pipeline, including my review of Hard Candy, but I shall be stepping away from the laptop as much as possible while I'm over the border in Cymru. No doubt you'll cope well in my absence, and we can catch up again soon.

God bless,

Daniel

Saturday, 2 July 2016

DRAMA: Juno (2007)

0

Juno (Canada/ USA, 2007)
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman

One of cinema's most endearing and important qualities is its ability to stimulate debate about the important issues of the day. Films can hold a mirror up to society in a manner which resonates like no other, using a variety of visual and verbal languages to shed light on injustice, hypocrisy and absurdity, and reveal more about ourselves in the process. In an age where the default setting for our culture would seem to be mindless escapism, films which can provoke such a reaction should be encouraged and promoted at any cost.
 
The downside to such an attitude, however, is that sometimes the controversy can overtake or overshadow the quality of a given film as a piece of art or entertainment. Whether it's a given filmmaker pushing the boundaries of taste with how much he or she chooses to show, or simply the inflamatory nature of the subject itself, a film can quickly accrue a reputation which is increasingly far removed from the content therein. We find ourselves in that position with Juno, which when stripped of all the arguments about the whole nine months has held up pretty well after a whole nine years.
 
When Juno was first released in America, much of the attention focussed around its treatment of abortion - an issue which, while far from being a moot point in Britain, doesn't attract the same gulf of opinion as you often find in the States. Both the pro-life and pro-choice communities were quick to defend and criticise the film; the former latched onto Juno's decision not to abort her baby, while the latter - like Lou Lemenick in The New York Post - argued that this was Juno's choice as a free agent with control over her own body. But whatever arguments you most gravitate towards, for whatever reasons, to come down firmly on one side or another is to miss the point.
 
It's tempting when you look at Diablo Cody's later work, like Jennifer's Body, to assume that she is primarily interested in female empowerment and that logically the film is therefore pro-choice. The argument goes that you cannot have a 'strong female character' (itself a dangerously loaded phrase) who isn't in control of her own actions. In fact Cody's writing, at least here, is far more ambivalent, reflecting the indecision and lack of grounding exhibited by the generation she writes for - a generation which picks and chooses the values which suit it at the time, and which struggles with any concept of absolutes or a higher moral standard.
From this point of view, Cody isn't nailing her colours to the mast so much as encouraging a discussion about what values we should uphold and how we should arrive at those decisions. While she has come out as pro-choice outside of her screenwriting, here she is immensely keen for her audience to think for themselves about this complicated, thorny issue.  Her even-handedness has sometimes resulted in films which are conflicted, as was the case with Jennifer's Body; it was torn between being a smart horror film about the sexual power of woman and a scuzzy slice of tittilation for teenage boys. This is where the director comes in, with Jason Reitman displaying a steadier hand here than Karyn Kusama did, reining in Cody's few moments of indulgence and working hard with his compositions and editing to keep the characters focussed and likeable.
 
Juno is not so much a film about abortion as it is about the need to be responsible and mature.   It shares with John Hughes' back catalogue, particularly The Breakfast Club, the notion that children are more able to figure out their problems than adults - or at least, are more willing to openly discuss them. Where a weaker film would have got bogged down in the awkward conversations between Ellen Page and Michael Cera, whose relationship is largely meandering, Cody and Reitman contrast the young lovers with a series of different adult relationships, all of which are dysfunctional in some way. Juno arrives at her decision not because of social attitudes or direct pressure, but from a rejection of the attitudes exhibited by the worst of these people.
The key dynamic in Juno is not between Juno and Paulie, but Juno and Mark, played with unusual reserve by Jason Bateman. Juno is drawn into liking Mark by their mutual taste in music, a frequent jumping-on point in teen dramas and coming-of-age films. She begins to build up a picture of him as a creative, fun-loving would-be parent, but this image is soon challenged by his misplaced ambition to become a successful musician. Mark's failure to put childish ways behind him and take on the responsibility that comes with fatherhood have a huge effect on Juno, leading her to question the loyalty of those she cares most about, and the role of men in her life as a whole.
 
But for all the best efforts of Bateman, very little of this would work without the great central performance of Ellen Page. Having made a name for herself in the terrific Hard Candy and made the best should could of her character in X-Men: The Last Stand, Juno sees her cement her status as one of the best actors under 30 working today. Her character manages to be hip and contemporary without feeling like a caricature of modern hipsterdom; she puts meat on the bones of Cody's language, bringing out the character's anxieties and indecisions without ever over-egging it. Her energy throughout provides a big lift for the other actors, particularly Cera, whose timid and uncertain performance is a million miles from his later work on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Credit must also go to Reitman for maintaining such a steady and naturalistic hand behind the camera. Unlike his father Ivan Reitman - still best known for directing Ghostbusters -, the comedy in Jason Reitman's films has never felt forced. You never get the sense that he is contriving a given situation, or rocking back and forth behind the camera praying that something funny will happen. He trusts the performers to get the best out of the material, and his role is to make them feel as comfortable as possible.
 
Juno also manages to retain an indie sheen on a visual level despite looking incredibly glossy and polished. Eric Steelberg has worked with Reitman for most of the latter's career, as well as lensing the overrated (500) Days of Summer two years after this. After the comic-book panel-style opening, which just screams "Sundance Film Festival", the visual style settles down nicely, with emphasis on earthy colours like greens, browns, ochres and deep reds. With such a zinger-laden script, the natural temptation would have been to make the visuals as off-kilter as, say, Ghost World, but Steelberg and editor Dana E. Glaubermann hold their nerve, to their credit and to the film's benefit.
 
Because the film feels so independently spirited despite its professional finish, the pace at which Juno unfolds is likely to divide audiences. It is a much better disciplined film than Little Miss Sunshine; as well as having a better plot from the outset, it avoids both repetition and unnecesary longeurs for the most part. But even at 96 minutes long, it doesn't feel like a brisk, well-refined 96 minutes, and you can sense both the actors and director being tempted to drag their heels at certain points when they really should be getting a move on. The entire scene with the pro-life campaigner is pretty unnecessary; the character is thinly written and Juno already understands what she's up against without it being shouted at her (and us).
 
The one weak link in Juno from a production point of view is some elements of the soundtrack. Many of the soundtrack suggestions for the film came from Page, and for the most part the artists and songs she has put forward are very fitting. The little snippets of punk rock that we get in the second act, including Patti Smith and Iggy Pop and the Stooges, gel really nicely with Juno as a character and counterpoint the incidental score by Mateo Messina. The real howler, however, is the inclusion of The Moldy Peaches, with 'Anyone Else But You' coming to epitomise the film. Without wishing to tar the whole anti-folk scene with the same brush, the song is atonal rubbish which cheapens the ending and makes the film in that moment far too self-conscious and shoegazing for its own good.
 
Juno is a very good second offering from Reitman which soars on both the maturity of its script and Page's gripping central performance. Unlike many films about serious social issues, it avoids being overly preachy or histrionic for the most part, giving its audience plenty to chew on and ponder while constantly making them chuckle. While it isn't perfect, it is a more rounded and satisfying work than Jennifer's Body, and is the yardstick against which all of Cody's subsequent output should be measured.

Photobucket

NEXT REVIEW: Hard Candy (2005)