Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I'll put my cards on the table now - I loved this film. So if you just wanted a quick recommendation, you could just head off to the movies now. The less trusting could read on.

Juno is a teenager who discovers she's pregnant, contemplates an abortion, decides on adoption, goes hunting for adoptive parents and then discovers that the best laid plans go awry when they involve human beings.

Human beings and how they're flawed is partly what this film is about. It's also about love and the strength of relationships. It's definitely life affirming, but don't start reaching for the sick bag. The dialogue is one of the films many strengths, and is witty and understated. There's no screaming or shouting - Paulie (the father of the baby)tells Juno that she broke his heart while managing only to sound mildly aggrieved. Juno's stepmother has some particularly good lines, and we both thought the pharmacist at the beginning of the film was a great character who could have been utilised more.

I liked the soundtrack (folksy) and I liked the fact that Juno and Paulie seemed genuinely young. The contrast between Juno's level of knowledge about pregnancy and that of Vanessa the adoptive mother-to-be was cleverly drawn. I liked how life at high school went on, and how Juno's parents were matter-of-fact. The flowering of Juno and Paulie's relationship was a joy to watch and the not-too-predictable ending made made me cry.

Anne's rating 5/5

I can't help comparing this with last year's Knocked Up -- another American comedy about unplanned pregnancy. Both are comedies about a young woman coping with an unexpected pregnancy. Juno is focused on a laid back, gentle comedy style while Knocked Up has a wide variety of comedy styles. Juno steered closer to the abortion option than Knocked Up (where the A-word wasn't mentioned), but still dealt with the option quite glibly.

Overall Juno is more realistic and a more gentle comedy than Knocked Up.

Ian's rating 4/5

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

No Country for Old Men

The Coen Brothers have a reputation for making unconventional films. But No Country for Old Men starts in a conventional fashion. It opens with voice-over a monologue by Tommy Lee Jones as a Texas country sheriff and a man out deer hunting who comes across the aftermath of a gun-fight. There are dead bodies of men and dogs, abandoned pick-up trucks (one packed with packets of drugs) and a heavy black bag of $100 bills. We don't need any dramatic chords to know that taking home the money is the bad idea that will give us our plot.

Of course there are people on both sides of the drug deal who weren't at the gun fight and in particular Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem) who will kill anyone to get his hands on the money. The Chigurh character is the lynch pin of this movie. His soft voice, his blank expression, his weapon of choice and his relentlessness are compelling and repelling in equal parts. His counterpart is Llewelyn Moss, the deer hunter - played by Josh Brolin, a resourceful, independent and stubborn man and the one we are rooting for in this thriller. Sheriff Bell is on the trail of these two and provides us with the sort of laconic commentary that is second nature to Tommy Lee Jones.

This is a thriller and therefore we know where we are going, and for the most part the Coen Brothers are happy to oblige. There is plenty of violence, close escapes, black humour, taunting and even a "fairy godmother" (Woody Harrelson is a white cowboy hat). But I am happy to say that there is also a musical turn and a very untraditional ending that I won't say any more about.

To sum up: No Country for Old Men is an extremely violent and somewhat unconventional thriller set in west Texas that will leave a lasting impression.

Ian's rating 3.5/5

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lust, Caution

It is the second world war and a pretty young woman uses her sexual attraction to get close to a senior enemy official in order to aid the resistance. This synopsis will be familiar to those who saw Black Book.

In Ang Lee's film the setting is Shanghai under Japanese occupation and being run by the Nanjing regime. The resistance are the Chinese Nationalists -- who later became the government of Taiwan (Ang Lee's homeland). Unlike Black Book, this film explores the delicate process of seducing a highly suspicious, aloof and dangerous married man. To this end the pace of the film is very slow and somewhat non-chronological. The heroine, Chia Chi, is initially a university student and member of a drama club which decides en mass to join the resistance. Their strategy is suitably dramatic, use Chai Chi to infiltrate the Yee household and lure Mr Yee to a place where he can be assassinated.

This is basically a Chinese film, the Japanese are a foreign and menacing presence, and white people are refugees queuing in the streets. I don't know what 1940's Shanghai looked like but the interior shots in the film are often very lush. Understandably the exterior shots look more like sets, some long shots look very fake and 1970s London taxis are substituted for period cars in a couple of places. But I was willing to overlook these things in what was basically character driven film.

What is more difficult to get my head around was the love story. Was it love, lust, acting or sexual relief from the suffocating social environment of occupied Shanghai? Did they both feel the same way about each other? The slow build up of the relationship in Lust, Warning contracts with the instant love affair in Black Book, and general paranoia makes for a more realistic feel.

There is a bit of hype around the sex scenes and whether they were simulated or real. Let me burst some bubbles here: there are about 10 minutes of sex in 2.5 hours of film, it doesn't look any more real than other mainstream movies, there is one violent sex scene (which might account for the R18 rating) and there is more nudity in a British comedy like Death at Funeral than here.

Ian's rating 4.5/5

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

When I first saw this title I wondered if this was some Dad's Army spin-off film. But I was confusing Arthur Wilson, the suave, diffident Home Guard Sergeant for Charlie Wilson the Texas Congressman I've never heard of.

Film is a straightforward telling of the story of how womanizing, hard drinking, happy-go-lucky and not particularly important Congressman, Charlie Wilson, almost single handedly boosted the CIA budget for covert war in Afghanistan from $5 million per year to over $500 million a year ($630 million per year according to Wikipedia) and hence brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The eponymous war (I've never heard anyone actually say that word) refers to both the war Charlie Wilson fought in Washington DC to get funding for Operation Cyclone and also to the proxy US-Soviet war that the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89) evolved into due to operation Cyclone.

Tom Hanks plays Charlie Wilson as an all-american politician, charming, pleasure seeking, naïve on the surface yet smart enough to smell trouble before it happens and to trade his vote on issues that are not important to himself and his constituents for support for the issues he is keen on. The ultimately important issue is killing Russians.

This is not an action movie.

The war in Afghanistan is presented as linking scenes between the main action in Washington. There are shaky and grainy anonymous Afghans or Soviets firing out of shot. There are reconstructions of Soviet attacks on Afghan villages and later Afghans downing Soviet planes and helicopters in slow motion. There are visits to (less than authentic) refugee camps by some of the characters. But all of this seems to be interludes to punctuate the story.

This is not a romantic movie.

There are plenty of pretty women in the supporting cast led by the queen of pretty women, Julia Roberts, but there is no love match or sex. Just plenty of tight skirts and cleavage leading the eye from one scene to the next and Julia Roberts in a bikini that matches her flowerbeds as background to a phone call -- all eye candy.

This is a political movie.

So it is mostly talk-talk. The visuals are there to provide mes-en scene and keep you interested. The film doesn't try to drive home any political points directly but presents us with a bunch of explicit and implicit contrasts and lets us make our own mind up. I expect that this will tend to re-enforce our existing beliefs rather than change our minds about anything.

For instance the Soviets are shown as evil killers who's main war aim is to kill Afghan civilians. There is an implicit contrast with 2008 where the main killer of Afghan civilians is the US military. If you are a believer in the evilness of communism and the implicit goodness of America then you will be happy that the difference is because the evil Taliban are hiding behind the civilians who are killed by accident and that most of the "civilian" dead are really Taliban anyway. If you are less partisan you will see that the USSR was supporting a regime in Kabul and fighting an asymmetric war against an insurgency funded by enemies of the Soviets with the consequent civilian casualties and today the USA is supporting a regime in Kabul and fighting an asymmetric war against an insurgency funded by enemies of America with the consequent civilian casualties.

If you are too young to remember the politics of the 1980s and are interested in an straightforward American view of that time then go and see the movie. Tom Hanks is at the top of his game. The humour is understated, the politics are un-preachy and everyone is honourable -- pity about the battle scenes.

Ian's rating 3/5