Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Recent Movie Watching

I've watched a couple of films of late. Be warned, I make no effort to avoid spoilers!

:: It's taken me a while to figure out how I feel about Juno, and I'm still not entirely sure what I make of it. Juno is exactly what everybody has already said it is: a feel-good flick about teen pregnancy. I'm not sure what it means that we can now make feel-good movies on that topic, but then, I'm not anywhere near a teenager anymore; twice as many years have now elapsed since I was a teenager than I spent as a teenager, and to my knowledge, there weren't any teen moms in my school anyway when I was a teenager, so I can't claim to have any great perspective on this topic. It's shaped, mostly, by those awful "After School Special" movies we often had to watch on the subject, in which teenage girls who became pregnant somehow became social pariahs who would never again fit in or live any kind of normal life. The topic of teen pregnancy, in my time, was always discussed with a major subtext of "If it happens to you, it's GAME OVER!".

So along comes Juno, a movie where a teenage girl gets pregnant by her boyfriend, decides to give the baby up for adoption, spends time with the adoptive parents and gets to know the husband better than she should, fights with her boyfriend a bit, watches as the adoptive family's marriage collapses, gives the baby up to the mother anyway, makes up with her boyfriend, and then presumably returns to the relatively normal life she's enjoyed all along. No major dramatic histrionics can be found in Juno. Her boyfriend is not some jerk jock type who is only looking to get in some girl's pants; in fact, the sex isn't even completely his idea in the first place. Juno doesn't lose all of her friends during her pregnancy, nor does she become a miserable waif shunned by her peers. Her best friend sticks by her the whole way. Her parents are supportive and accepting. I watched Juno thinking the film was terribly unrealistic, but then I wondered against myself: how unrealistic is it, anyway?

Parts of the film made me a bit uncomfortable. During the scenes where Juno forms a bond with the father-to-be, I found myself wanting to warn her away from this guy, who is clearly an overgrown child. However, the screenplay (written by Diablo Cody, which is the best name for a screenwriter ever) knows its characters, and in the end, it turns out that Juno has enough insight and awareness to recognize this man for what he is, despite all the ways she is able to connect with him and not with the mother. The other scene that made me wince was when the ultrasound technician makes some kind of judgmental comment about Juno's pregnancy, and then gets berated by Juno's stepmother (Alison Janney). This was the only part of the film that felt in any way reminiscent of a "Very Special Episode of Blossom", and it stood out to me as both contrary to the general tone of the film and to my general experience with people in that line of work in the first place. I found it very hard to believe that any person working in a perinatal field would make such a comment to a pregnant woman, no matter what her circumstance.

What else to say about Juno? Well, I very much doubt that lightning can be caught in the bottle twice, but when the film ended, I genuinely wanted to know what became of these characters and what life held for them. So that helps.

:: A year or so ago I bought a couple of omnibus editions of the stories of Robert E. Howard, having never actually read any Howard before. (I still don't have them all, missing the tales of Kull the Conqueror and one of the Conan the Barbarian volumes.) Howard is one of those "founding fathers" of modern fantastic fiction, along with E.E. "Doc" Smith (space opera SF), HP Lovecraft (horror), Edgar Rice Burroughs (planetary romance SF), and other very early masters of literal pulp fiction. Howard's creations loom over epic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery tales, and yet, I still haven't actually read him (although that will be changing soon). I've read lots of stuff based on his creations, and seen the Conan movies, but the actual source material still awaits me.

I do know, however, that Howard was one of those geniuses who burned brightly for a short time and then was extinguished. He committed suicide when he was just thirty years old, never coming close to witnessing his legacy, and he never married. Those things I knew. What I didn't know is that he had a tumultuous friendship, sometimes crossing the line into romance, with a schoolteacher and aspiring writer named Novalyne Price. The film The Whole Wide World tells this story, and I found the film astonishingly good. How I've managed to have never heard of it before a friend sent me a copy of it is beyond me.

Featuring Vincent D'Onofrio as Howard and Renee Zelwegger as Novalyn, the film tightly focuses on their relationship, which begins warmly enough but soon begins to lurch back and forth into pain as Novalyn becomes more and more aware of Howard's unstable nature. The film is pretty slowly paced, which turns out to be its main virtue; eschewing the standard devices of film romances, The Whole Wide World instead allows us to get to know these characters pretty well, much moreso than in most other films of this type. We see that Novalyn's attraction to Bob Howard isn't merely sexual physical attraction; nor is it the hero worship of a neophyte writer for a published professional. Frequently throughout the film Bob becomes borderline – or just plain outright – abusive toward Novalyn, and she never gets weepy or bemoans her fate; she tends to stand right up to Bob and make her displeasure known.

The romance between Bob Howard and Novalyn Price is very complicated; it proceeds in fits and starts and, despite the film's slow pace, their romance seems over before it begins. Even when they finally kiss, in a moment that almost seems ripped from every romance film under the sun with the kiss taking place at sunset on top of a vista with a gorgeous view of the Texas wilderness, with the score swelling to great passion, the darkness that we've come to expect surfaces almost immediately.

In the end, as a matter of record, Bob and Novalyn do not get together, and Novalyn learns of Bob's suicide via a telegram. Her reaction to this news is one of the more heartbreaking moments I've seen in a movie recently: she immediately grabs paper and pen to write Bob an angry letter for having taken such an action. Only after she's written the salutation does she internalize what's happen, and that's when the grief hits her.

I should also make special note of the film's score, by Harry Gregson-Williams. Gregson-Williams has emerged as one of the more intriguing new voices in film music over the last ten years, and I suspect that he'll become a very fine composer indeed if we ever get past the current era of rigid adherence to the temp-track. On The Whole Wide World, Gregson-Williams has to provide music that often shifts in mood several times within the same scene, as the film delves from mundane matters into the often dark psyche of Robert Howard and back again. It's an impressive and powerful score for an impressive film.

:: Finally, a couple of weeks ago we watched Stardust, the 2007 film based on the book by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess. The film was dumped into release late in the summer and vanished from the scene almost immediately, which seems to me a cruel fate for a film that's full of wit, charm, and good fun.

Stardust is one of those stories one finds often in contemporary fantasy that combines mythic elements that are as old as, well, the hills in ways that are fairly new and interesting, often times in a tongue-in-cheek way. In terms of mood, Stardust is much closer to The Princess Bride than The Lord of the Rings. It's been a long time since I read Gaiman's book, so I'd pretty much forgotten most of the story by the time we watched the film. I don't want to say too much about the plot, since the pleasure from watching it comes in seeing the way things unfold in unexpected ways, but it begins with an English village and the wall that runs through a field nearby, a wall that separates the mundane world from the magical one, and what happens when a curious youngster ventures to journey beyond the wall. What happens then is a terrific mish-mash involving a fallen star played by Claire Danes, a wandering Gypsy sorceress and her slave woman who seems to have powers of her own, a ship that flies through the air harvesting lightning, a group of princes who constantly plot against one another for the crown to their kingdom, a trio of witches (one of whom is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who looks awfully radiant in the movie – for a while anyway), and of course, as in all such tales, Our Hero, a young lad who is unsure of his place in the world and who his true love actually is.

When Stardust came out, I read a number of reviews that basically said that it was either too light in tone, or not light enough. It's not a deep film at all, nor does it have a cynical bone in its body. I liked it a lot. (It has a good score, too, by Ilan Eshkeri, a composer I'd never heard of before.)

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

My wife TOTALLY agrees with you about that scene in Juno about the stepmom and technician. Wheras I totally believe that the technician could say something that stupid and judgmental, having experienced it first hand.