Sunday, January 13, 2008

Juno A Good Character Movie When You See One?

Over the last week I've seen three films, all of which have several things in common:

  • They're all character focussed, rather than story-focused

  • They've all had rave critical reviews, but comparatively few people went to see them

If this all sounds as depressing to you, as it does to me, there are signs for hope. One of the three films, only just about to go on general release in the UK, is gathering momentum as the new Little Miss Sunshine - ie an indie film that could cross over through word of mouth. For the other two, released on shiny disc last week, one suspects that retail sales will be as weak as box office performance was because we live in a world where all anybody cares about is watching state-of-the-art CGI or reliving their youth through poor sequels to films made over 20 years ago.

The indie film is Juno - a film I would have gone to see based solely on the fact it stars Ellen Page, who made an impressive debut with my favourite film of last year, Hard Candy. She plays a very different teenager character this time round: a happy-go-lucky teenager who gets herself pregnant, and decides to give away her baby to adoptive parents. The plot sounds just like one of those 'gloom and doom' reality indie films doesn't it? Nothing could be further from the truth because this is in fact a sweet, if rather quirky, comedy 'feel good' film. It features some really outstanding performances from the whole cast, not just Page, who's performance is so natural that if one hadn't seen her previous work one could be fooled into thinking she isn't acting at all. It's tastefully directed by Jason Reitman, most famous for having written and directed the sleeper hit Thank you for Smoking last year. And it has a stand-out script from newcomer Diablo Cody. Now why can't we in Britain make fantastic, low-budget, films like this? If you get a chance to see this at your local emporium I'd recommend you do so - it has plenty of laughs, and I can't imagine anyone would regret seeing it.

The Walker is a more difficult film to like. It's notable mostly for the quite amazing performance from the central figure played by Woody Harrelson. The film is another in the 'variation on a theme' series' from writer/director Paul Schrader, a theme he apparently started with Taxi Driver and American Gigolo. I have to say I admired the film more than I enjoyed it, mainly because of its lack of coherent or believable plot, although I can see that it was always meant to be a deep character study. Harrelson plays Carter Page III, a society 'walker' whose job is to escort the wives of the rich and powerful to events their husbands cannot accompany them to. The wife of a liberal senator finds her lover murdered and Carter offers to pretend it is him who discovered the body to protect his friend and her husband, soon finding himself ostracised and deserted by those he'd thought were his friends. The central plot, together with a photographer boyfriend and rather silly skullduggery, never really convince and are merely the excuse to embark on a subtle character study of the 'walker' of the title. Critics are rightly praising Harrelson's performance as a career best, and if there were any justice in the world, or this had performed better at the box office, this one would definitely be up for an oscar. It's certainly worth seeing, but it's not up there with Schrader's earlier work, and I found it hard to empathise or even sympathise with the central character, such that the whole thing felt like a bit of a downer.

I was much happier with Sherry Baby, which had a much more upbeat feel and ending than the advance reviews (who all loved it) had lead me to expect. Filmed almost documentary style, the film follows the life of Sherry Swanson, an abused single mother and drug addict, after she's released from a two year prison sentence and tries to rebuild her life with her daughter, being looked after by her brother and sister-in-law. Arguably featuring the 'Best Female Performance of the Year', Maggie Gyllenhaal more than steps up to the plate in playing the role of Sherry, and delivers a film that is at turns shocking, sad, funny and most-of-all incredibly moving. Definitely worth a rental if you like good movies!

Today is my last day of freedom before the new 'day job' starts up tomorrow, and already the weekends between now and my Las Vegas trip (primarily for a Microsoft conference event MIX08, but with 3 extra days holiday tacked on) are filling up. I've somehow managed to volunteer to film at the upcoming ALT.NET conference, which takes place the first Friday/Saturday of February (it's not so much the filming that worries me in terms of taking up time, it's the editing!), and then hope to knuckle down for the launch of the new Shiny Discs web site which I'm hoping will be a big improvement on what appears to be available at other DVD Review sites today!

All of which means I'm not quite sure when this blog will next get updated, but hopefully I'll still get time to post the odd DVD mini-review before Shiny Discs properly launches some time in March.

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