With the Oscars coming up on Sunday, I feel that some capsule reviews are in order:
This is a sweet little movie about a controversial subject, namely teenage pregnancy. Juno, a 16-year-old played with verve and confidence by Halifax's Ellen Page, finds herself pregnant after a night of somewhat random intimacy with her best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). She decides to have the baby, but give it up for adoption to a well-off couple, Vanessa and Mark (played by Jennifer Garner - who gives an emphathetic and moving performance - and Jason Bateman). I've read some criticisms of the film to the effect that it's not a realistic portrayal of teenage pregnancy - Juno's amusingly quirky parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) are too accepting and helpful or some such - but this is thankfully not an "issue" movie. But Juno is a very entertaining and light-hearted film, which brings a certain wry humour to a touchy subject and nonetheless manages to portray multifaceted characters and, crucially, genuine emotion. Now, while some of the hipster dialogue is a bit over-the-top (particularly in the beginning) and the indie folk soundtrack is a bit too... indie, I can find few real faults with Juno. I'm not sure it deserves the best picture Oscar, but since it's the only nominee which I've actually seen, I suppose I'll be rooting for it nonetheless.
What can be said about Beowulf... well, first, it was an entertaining ride, though I didn't actually see it in 3D as was available. Second, this represents the first computer animated film I've seen which attempts to create "realistic" human characters and largely succeeds in avoiding their looking creepy or distracting. Third, though the story departs significantly in a number of ways from the original epic poem on which it is based, I think, as an adaptation, the writers did a quite decent job in turning a somewhat scattered text into a coherent film. A brief note on the story: Beowulf (Ray Winstone) of the Geats arrives at Heorot, the great hall of King Hrothgar (an amusing Anthony Hopkins) of the Spear Danes, which is being menaced by the grotesque, vicious, and ultimately rather pitiable monster, Grendel (Crispin Glover, not that you'd ever recognize him). There's more to it than that, as Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie) becomes involved. The story is not altogether complex, but it's fun enough, and there's a climactic sequence with a dragon that's quite something. Among the supporting players are Robin Wright Penn as Hrothgar's queen Wealthow, the always dependable Brendan Gleeson as Beowulf's comrade-in-arms Wiglaf, and John Malkovich, exhibiting one of his more bizarre and distracting (for him) speaking styles, as Hrothgar's Wormtongue-esque advisor Unferth. Something of a mixed bag then. Still, it's enjoyable enough, though it's not what one would call a "thinking movie".
(There are some nice touches, though, such as the gradual introduction of a syncretic Christianity into Norse culture over the years of the story, but I'm not sure most viewers will care. It's a nice detail for those of us who had to read the poem in its rambling entirety in university.)
Tales from Earthsea
Ursula Le Guin's first Earthsea book was not exactly my favourite read back in Grade 9, but reading some of her other books has forced my to reconsider my reaction way back then. Tales from Earthsea is a loose adaptation of some of the later books in her series, and is directed by Miyazaki's son, Goro. There is reportedly some degree of tension between them, and however much that might have affected the movie, it shows all the signs of having been rushed through production, which was apparently the case. The plot is simple enough - Prince Arren, after committing a horrible crime in his home country, goes into self-imposed exile, eventually gaining a travel companion in "Sparrowhawk" aka Ged, who is the Archmage and a wizard of some repute. Over the course of the film, Arren is literally forced to confront his inner demons, while meeting a seemingly unremarkable girl named Therru and the evil sorceror Cob along the way. Unfortunately, there is one major plot hole that plagues the film's resolution, and the script feels underwritten in other respects as well. But it does look breathtakingly gorgeous, with cityscapes clearly inspired by Rome, and the production and voice acting are excellent, as we should expect from Studio Ghibli. Tales from Earthsea is definitely a very pretty film, and while it's good overall, it's also seriously flawed. Le Guin herself has rather mixed feelings, but I'd say it's still worth seeing (assuming you can find it - it has yet to be released in North America... I obtained my copy from, shall we say, unofficial sources).