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Rating History

Juno (2007)
3 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

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.

The Prestige
The Prestige (2006)
13 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

It's become lazily popular to dismiss Christopher Nolan as a cold, clinical director. Critics of his work frequently attack his approach to characters and dialogue, claiming that they are little more than vessels for ideas, and that by extension his ideas are not complex enough in the first place. Whether you attribute such attitudes to snooty critics or disgruntled fanboys, it's an attitude which seems unlikely to go away any time soon.

Viewed from this perspective, The Prestige presents itself as an excellent counter-argument. Coming between the film which made him a big name in Hollywood and the film which immortalised him for a generation, this is a demonstration that Nolan can do small, intricate, character-driven pieces every bit as well as blowing up buildings. More than that, it's a reminder of how effective his approach to character construction can be - a reminder which is still scintillating after nine long years.

First and foremost, The Prestige looks fantastic. Wally Pfister's directorial ambitions to date may have come to little, but as a cinematographer he remains arguably the best in the business. Where so many period dramas have a cookie cutter feel, borrowing all too readily from either Pride and Prejudice or Barry Lyndon, Pfister and Nolan's vision of Victorian London is completely bespoke, at once modern and historic. Pfister achieves an excellent balance between the glaring bright light of the stage lights and Nikola Tesla's lightning with more velvety, textured tones and an effective use of shadows even in the darker scenes.

Rather than simply looking pretty, however, Nolan's version of Victoriana is steeped in what could poetically be called the mystery of modernity. Many period dramas seek to emphasise the antiquated, pastoral or reactionary tendencies of their time period, contrasting our busy, technology-driven lives with simpler, possibly more elegant moments in our history. The Prestige, by contrast, emphasises the modern, innovative nature of this world, focussing on the confluence between science and imagination. It puts the audience on the cusp of the greatest and most dangerous development of the age, leaving us in a permanent state of both unease and curiosity.

The Prestige is primarily a film about obsession, a trait which is reflected in multiple ways in the main characters. Like Guy Pearce's character in Memento, both Robert Angier and Howard Borden are romantically obsessive, the former for his dead wife, the latter for his estanged love and by extension his daughter. These obsessions merge with their natural competitive desire to outdo each other, which expresses itself in their showmanship to their audiencez and their increasingly ruthless desire to outdo one another.

Nolan is making a very clear point about class in this character dynamic, contrasting Borden's earthy yet often uninspired approach to tricks with Angier's aristocratic love of flair and panache. The death of Angier from this perspective is a nod to the declining social position of his ilk, and in the long-term the death of a particular style of theatrical performance. From this angle, one could liken it in a strange way to The Entertainer, with Angier filling the shoes of Laurence Olivier's Archie Rice.

But the final defeat of Angier also makes a point about the fruitlessness of obsession and competition. While Borden is able to confront his obsession, finally putting the needs of his family first and giving up his art, Angier remains a prisoner to the end; his constant desire to beat Borden, whether out of vengeance or spite, has left him a hollow shell. His trick wins over the crowd, but without the deeper love of his peers, his victory is meaningless and he dies a broken man.

It would have been very easy for Nolan to make a film in which two characters simply talk about how obsessed they are, intercutting this with glitzy set-pieces involving the tricks. But Nolan instead conveys the struggle through the characters, setting up the initial conflict and allowing the actors to deepen the characters as their obsessions intensify. The characters are defined by the ideas and themes that surround them, but their personalities are not restricted by either. And while the women in the film are dealt a slightly weaker hand in this respect, Scarlett Johansson and particularly Rebecca Hall are more than capable of holding their own in their given scenes.

The Prestige is also very much about perception, particularly about how magic and science can both challenge our accepted versions of reality. The magical aspect of this is pretty clear: most films about stage magic have long sequences about misdirection and sleight of hand. But The Prestige goes further than, say, The Illusionist from the same year, talking about the purpose of misdirection rather than just the mechanics of it. There are long discussions about the need to challenge the expectations of the audience, and the power that comes from causing people to believe the impossible.

Borden and Angier's search for this ecstatic moment in magic is mirrored by Nikola Tesla's experiments in the middle section of the film. The first glimpses of Tesla's arching electricity fells us with terror and dread - a feeling which turns to eerie wonderment during the light bulb scene and then Tesla's immensely cool entrance. From there we are taken on a journey through the frustration that comes with experimenting, and then the surprise and (albeit considered) elation of success.

The central lines of The Prestige are spoken by Tesla when Angier attempts to commission him to build the machine. When Angier claims that it is impossible, Tesla responds: "Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier, what you want is merely expensive". The words are both extremely confident and immensely cautionary, with Tesla's reluctance coming from the knowledge of where his innovation will lead. David Bowie plays him as the Cassandra of the piece, whose sad warnings fall on deaf ears; Bowie is perfectly cast and gives what may be his best all-round performance since The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Having given us memorable characters and a whole lot of substance on which to chew, Nolan completes his brilliant misdirection through twisty, non-linear storytelling. While the narrative structure is not as radical as Memento's, it does justice to the epistolary nature of Christopher Priest's source material, and by jumping around in time the audience is kept constantly guessing. Non-linear storytelling should never be viewed in gimmicky terms, with a film automatically becoming stronger if it uses it. It's a question of finding the right way to tell a given story, and this is the right way for this particular tale.

The Prestige is an excellent mystery thriller which combines strong characters with memorable storytelling and a series of fascinating, complex ideas. While it is perhaps slightly too long and a little too twisty for its own good in the last act, these are small, easily forgivable flaws in the context of a damn fine piece of cinematic craftsmanship. Inception may have since surpassed it as Nolan's best film, but it's still a fitting reminder of his skill with characters and the benefits of his storytelling methods.