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Saturday, 9 February 2008

Juno


16-year old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) has a jaunty walk. She looks like a tough Little Red Riding Hood – jeans, sneakers, red lips, black hair. Swigging orange juice from a huge bottle, she saunters to the local store. Actually, she’s filling her bladder to take yet another pregnancy test. The results are a major bummer. One bout of sex with her dorky best friend Bleeker (Michael Cera) and now this. Forgoing a ‘smashbortion’, the unconventional Juno decides to go through with the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption to a ‘perfect’ couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). Of course things don’t go exactly to plan.

This smart, sweet comedy from director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) and stripper-turned-scriptwriter Diablo Cody has already proven itself a critical and commercial success. The reasons are clear. The dialogue is whip-smart, packed with pop culture references and hilariously vulgar at times. Yet these small-town American characters are people you’d actually like to hang out with. Especially Juno. The hugely talented Page (Hard Candy) gives us a clever, wise-cracking teen who’s still soft and innocent enough to be confused by first love.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, 28 Jan)

Friday, 8 February 2008

Charlie Wilson's War


God forbid that every film should follow the Hollywood three-act plot structure, but in this case a decent third act probably wouldn’t have hurt. The film starts out interestingly enough in 1980, with Texas Democrat Senator Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) learning about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan while sitting in a Vegas hot-tub surrounded by showgirls. The all-true tale that follows is slickly told, with playboy Wilson teaming up with a rich right-wing socialite (Julia Roberts) and a gruff CIA agent (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to get anti-helicopter missiles to the Afghani resistance.

Director Mike Nichols (Closer) clearly relishes the more farcical aspects of his tale (the war scenes are less impressive), while the trio of leads all have fun with their larger-than-life roles. But the story never goes anywhere: Wilson wants to help the Afghans, he helps the Afghans, then it’s all over, bar one brief scene pointing out that once the war was over no-one wanted to help Wilson save the gun-toting and radicalised Afghans from themselves. That moment is the entire point of making this film today. Skimming over it does this otherwise interesting story no favours.

Anthony Morris
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue, 28 Jan)

Friday, 1 February 2008

The Kite Runner


In 1978 Kabul, before the Russians, and before the Taliban, two young boys fly their kites in the clear blue skies of Afghanistan. Amir is the son of a wealthy intellectual, while his best friend Hassan is the son of the family’s long-time servant. The boys are like brothers until a single act of violence and cowardice shatters their bond. Fast forward to modern-day Los Angeles, where Amir, now a budding author, receives a phone-call summoning him back to strife-ridden Afghanistan to make amends for his childhood sin.

Based on Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, this film covers epic emotional and physical territory. Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) vividly brings to life the complexities of a history and culture we only know from sketchy news coverage. The backbone of the story, and its greatest strength, is the patrician father (Homayoun Ershadi) courageously adapting to life’s reversals, maintaining his dignity even as he serves as an LA garage attendant. Not so strong is the adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla), whose performance feels stilted and unnatural – though perhaps this is just the burden of shame he’s supposed to carry. Nevertheless, a beautiful and enlightening film.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review first appeared in The Big Issue 14 Jan)

3.10 to Yuma


After years of revisionist westerns and post-modern westerns, seeing a western done straight seems almost shocking. And director James Mangold’s remake of the 1957 film about a dirt-poor farmer and family man (Christian Bale) who joins a rag-tag posse to escort a captured outlaw (a never-more charismatic Russell Crowe) on the long journey to the train to Yuma prison is about as straight as they come.

Yet as the odds against the farmer mount – the captured outlaw’s gang is hot on their trail, and the posse numbers are constantly shrinking – his stubborn refusal to simply surrender ceases to be a straight-forward plot device (if he gives in, the movie ends) and becomes something much deeper and more powerful.

While Mangold does a fine job of staging the numerous action sequences, and Bale’s performance as a battered man with a core of iron is quietly compelling, it’s Crowe’s electrifying turn as the gang leader that powers this film. Honourable, murderous, and as slyly tempting as any devil, his performance would earn a more media-friendly actor a sack of awards. This gripping adventure isn’t just a great western; it’s a great film.

Anthony Morris
(This review appeared in The Big Issue 14 Jan)