November 26, 2007

August Rush

Most critics hated August Rush, and the few who liked it were almost apologetic in their praise. Well, I liked it and I'm not apologizing for it. I loved it when my mother brought this kind of movie home from the video store when I was growing up. It's the kind of wholesome movie she was happy to have me love. And to my surprise, and great relief, it's the kind of movie I'm still able to love: a truly stirring fable.

The film's only weakness is the necessary back story; the cookie cutter drama and PG excuse feels a little too stale. When we meet August Rush at an orphanage in what appears to be western New York, he's known as Evan Taylor. The world sings to him in a language that only he can seem to hear, with a melody that connects him to the parents he never knew.

The other orphans mock him for believing his parents will come for him, but lengthy flashbacks confirm August's intuition. Fate, Van Morrison and a serendipitous harmonica-playing street performer had brought his classical cellist mother and indie rocker father together. A complicated series of events pulled them apart and left them ignorant of their son's existence.

At the orphanage, August is oblivious to neither the bullies' opinions nor their intentions; he's simply blessed with enough self-assurance to remain unfazed. And like any miracle of goodness who lights up a bad situation, young August attracts supporters who do resent him. August's bunkmate volunteers the lies that August won't say to protect him from the bullies' beatings. He has largely given up on his own chances, but senses and appreciates that August is destined for something greater. Even the child services agent that interviews August takes a liking to him and becomes a valuable advocate in the events to come.

August ultimately takes matters into his own hands. The movie really begins with him walking along cold winter roads toward the Thruway as the power lines hum him a tune. A trucker picks him up and brings him all the way to Manhattan, where the man from child services might know what to do with him. August Rush quickly becomes Oliver Twist, just sprung from the work houses. The less-than-seedy underbelly of the film's fairy tale New York is his 1830's London.

The director, Kirsten Sheridan, was one of the two daughters fictionalized in his father's terrific autobiographical New York fable, In America. Her introduction to New York feels more authentic: an overwhelming onslaught of sights, sounds, sensations. August, who hears music in everything, becomes lost in it until a car strikes him and brings him back to reality. Even in her glossy take on New York, it seems some facts of urban life are just too blindingly obvious. A certain lyricism develops in the way she takes August from place to place along the journey, paralleling his comfort level with the city as it quickly grows.

A whisper of music leads him to a black street musician roughly his age who roughly approximates the Artful Dodger from Dickens's tale. A hot pizza convinces the young musician to let August tag along back to the abandoned theater he calls home.

There we meet Wizard, the manager of a whole army of young street musicians. He feels the music in his soul too, and cares for many young boys who would not be cared for otherwise. But like Fagin, the Oliver Twist character on whom he is obviously based, it is much easier to join Wizard's ranks than it is to escape.

Robin Williams's performance of the character is challenging. By employing on the body language and gentle voice that made him so endearing in films like Dead Poets Society and Patch Adams, it's hard not to warm up to his character. The scene where he names August Rush is triumphant, even. The use of his family friendly persona makes it more shocking than it should be when he starts to more sharply exert his crass claim over August's talent and soul. Wizard is the most complex character in the film, a pimp that manages musical talent instead of sexual liaisons.

August's continued survival and well being amongst nefarious people is the conceit of the film. That isn't to say Sheridan's New York is free of problems. It just that the mechanisms by which we deal with those problems are optimistically showcased working at their best. A particularly poignant sequence comes when August finds his way into a black church during choir practice. The gospel choir is full of the products of broken families, and they're singing about their common threads of misfortune. August finds refuge in their shared sadness just like they do.

The progression of August's musical talent is not as flimsily conceived as I thought it would be. He is presented as a genius, to be sure, but he never simply picks up a new instrument and plays. Freddie Highmore does a great job with his face when August watches other musicians even before he starts to play. You can almost see the gears breaking it all down in his head.

When he finally gets his hands on a guitar, he meticulously fiddles with each component and listening to how it affects the sound. A little girl at the church has to teach him the scales on sheet music before he can put the song that is all around down on paper. The pastor at the church gets him enrolled in formal study at Juilliard. People aren't as lucky as August in real life, but I could believe that a true prodigy in August's situation given the same improbably opportunities could become so accomplished. The fairy tale is able to forgive what the circumstances don't quite account for.

If you've read Oliver Twist, the plot won't be much of a surprise to you. If you haven't the plot still probably won't be much of a surprise to you, especially after reading this review. Go anyway. The film has the most unabashedly heartfelt climax you'll see this year, matched with one of the most rousing and meticulous scores I've ever heard. August Rush is a protagonist worth cheering for. (***½)


November 02, 2007

Juno

Juno is the answer to movies like Ghost World and Napoleon Dynamite, which think that an off-kilter, heavily stylized universe filled with quirky characters who craft a lexicon out of pop culture references and ridiculous catchphrases is enough. From the first shot and first line of dialog, this film follows all of the conventions that made those films so celebrated. But here, finally, real people emerge from under all of the artifice. The protagonist with her stylishly outdated cultural vocabulary could have stepped out of MTV's old loser-chic hit "Daria", but strip away the verbal flourishes and Juno still succeeds as a girl with all of the overwrought drama, passion, false assumptions and optimistic naiveté that comes with being 16 years old.

And unlike the armies of dysfunctional and often antagonistic families in previous indie portraits of suburbia, Juno was raised by a father and stepmother who, despite a steady flow of biting insults, never let her forget for a moment that she is loved.

The film begins with a chair where, we quickly learn, Juno fornicated for the first time only time with her track star best friend and band mate — a boy so timid he's practically non-verbal. Three pregnancy tests soon prove that his sperm were a good deal more assertive than he.

So Juno, surrounded in her well-worn bedroom by artifacts that range all the way back to birth, calls up her girl friend on her hamburger phone and asks what to do. Her friend recommends an abortion, but a surprising bit of information from a girl outside the clinic ultimately changes her mind. The nine month pregnancy becomes one of the most perfectly executed coming of age stories I've ever seen, in which our protagonist learns a great deal about who she is, what she wants and what she already has.

Ellen Page, who still looks far younger than her age, wields the unconventional and sophisticated dialog with remarkable ease. Her performance is bright and friendly and remarkably open; when Juno unintentionally makes some devastating social faux pas Page's complete refusal to acknowledge them maintains Juno's innocence.

As Juno's understanding of the world broadens, my perceptions of the characters surrounding her expanded as well. What begin as exaggerated caricatures reveal themselves over the course of the film to be no less complex than Juno herself.

Michael Cera in particular manages to make timid track star father-to-be Paulie Bleeker remarkably expressive. Juno talks incessantly and Bleeker barely says anything; yet their dynamic proves surprisingly egalitarian: he sees right through all her chatter and she intuits what he does not say.

I waited the entire movie for the adoptive father-to-be to assert himself to his domineering O.C.D. wife and left the theater almost wishing he hadn't.

Allison Janney transplants the fiery intellect and acidic wit of her West Wing performance to the opposite end of the economic spectrum as Juno's stepmother, a woman who communicates in insults but manages to be comforting as well cruel. Juno's father speaks in the stark, blunt language of a former military man. But somehow, his words carry another meaning that is clear as glass to his wife and eldest daughter. He is a blue collar man that is allowed to be wise, intelligent and sophisticated.

Juno is the rare art house comedy that treats its characters with the dignity afforded to people instead of the expediency afforded to punch lines. It is also the rare art house comedy that remembers even unconventional families are built on a foundation of love. The stylized elements, as employed here, reinforce the film rather than support it. Kimya Dawson's oddly affecting anti-folk suspended-adolescent duets scattered throughout complement the picture well. Juno operates on a far stranger plane than director Jason Reitman's feature-length debut Thank You For Smoking, but the result is a tighter more focused final result. I can't point out a single misstep, and the final product is probably my favorite film of 2007 so far. (****)