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Bloody valentines 

Juno, Sweeney Todd and Margot at the Wedding are a mixed bag of goodies

click to enlarge Ellen Page and Olivia Thirlby in Juno - PHOTO COURTESY OF DOANE GREGORY/ FOX SEARCHLIGHT
  • Photo courtesy of Doane Gregory/ Fox Searchlight
  • Ellen Page and Olivia Thirlby in Juno

Having already blazed a trail into news, politics, sports and gossip, it was just a matter of time before the blogosphere established a beachhead in the world of cinema. Diablo Cody already had a loyal following for her Pussy Ranch weblog and 2006 memoir Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper before penning JUNO, a coming-of-age dramedy about a teenager's unplanned pregnancy. Cody's whip-smart script, imbued with a rapid-fire, Gen-Y argot, not only tackles touchy life lessons without sanctimony but also finds hilarity as a so-called "teenage comedy" without the crutch of defiled desserts or an endless string of profane Apatow-isms.

Of course, it helps when your dialogue is being delivered by Ellen Page, who, at age 20, has already developed into the actress everyone once thought Christina Ricci would become. Although Page's breakout performance in 2005's Hard Candy felt too much like an acting school exercise, it still flashed the raw potential that blossoms here in the hands of Cody and director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking).

After seducing her nebbish high school class/bandmate Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), Juno becomes pregnant and must decide the fate of her unborn child. Fortunately, Juno is not a jeremiad against teenage pregnancy, premarital sex or abortion, as some have suggested. Rather, as the self-styled "smartest person in the room," Juno must face her own immaturity—her witty bluster is not a byproduct of self-esteem but rather an aegis shielding her lack of it.

The audience joins Juno in discovering the true quality of supporting characters who defy genre conventions by being so, well, normal, including Juno's supportive stepmother (Allison Janney) and Army-vet dad (J.K. Simmons) a caring father who fancifully considers himself his daughter's best friend.

More intriguing still are Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), the childless couple Juno chooses to adopt her baby. Vanessa is initially cast as an uptight suburbanite, while Juno launches a platonic kinship with Mark, spending afternoons with him playing guitar, listening to Sonic Youth and the Melvins, and measuring the aesthetic merits of schlock horror flicks. However, Cody eventually flips our perceptions of each character, further demonstrating Juno's overarching theme that maturity is not merely a reluctant acceptance of responsibility, but instead the reclassification of cool. —Neil Morris

Opens Tuesday in select theaters

click to enlarge Make it a very close shave: Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) goes under Sweeney Todd's knife. - PHOTO BY PETER MOUNTAIN/ PARAMOUNT
  • Photo by Peter Mountain/ Paramount
  • Make it a very close shave: Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) goes under Sweeney Todd's knife.

Tim Burton's hundred-mil appreciation of Stephen's Sondheim's deeply bent operetta, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, has a brilliant cast and ravishing production design. It also boasts copious bloodletting, courtesy of a neatly matched set of sterling silver straight razors (full disclosure: I couldn't watch) and a lip-smackingly ghoulish sense of humor.

Burton and his inspiration, Johnny Depp, have collaborated memorably many times before (among them, the two Eds, Scissorshands and Wood) and Burton again slakes Depp's lust for embodying misfits and outcasts. Here he's powdered as white as a silent movie phantom, resembling Cesare, the somnambulist serial killer of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Indeed, Sweeney Todd has a 1920s sheen, as if the tinted black-and-white scenes were hand-colored to accentuate crimson splashes. And with continuous underscoring, as well as dozens of songs, it certainly evokes the silent film aesthetic of a series of compelling images propelled forward by music. Helena Bonham Carter, Burton's partner and female muse, is the mad baker Mrs. Lovett, and has the two best songs, as she touts her own "Worst Pies in London" and in a seaside fantasy in which she imagines herself and Todd uniting in blissful twisted matrimony.

Also appearing—all too briefly—is the scene-stealing Sasha Baron Cohen as a flamboyant tonsorial rival, shimmering in a skin-tight, electric-blue silk suit. Alan Rickman, always a pleasure, seems to have simply simmered down his Snape a bit as Judge Turpin, the primary object of Todd's vengeful rage. Timothy Spall (actually dressed in Dr. Caligari's duds) and young Ed Sanders as a workhouse boy drawn into the couple's scheme are excellent, but the mind wanders during the subplot of the trembling young lovers.

Again, though, I have to ask, who is the intended audience? One would think Sweeney Todd rather too Grand Guignol for the average Broadway theatergoer, but brimming with way too much singing (there seems to be hardly any spoken dialogue) for the average "R for graphic bloody violence" multiplex-goer. There's plenty of bleak wit—the bake house boasts severed tidbits of corpse and is designed almost as a ghastly mirror image of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Burton and Depp continue to evoke the silent film-era partnership of director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney, vivifying a shared love of the macabre and creating a gallery of doomed heroes. But, in spite of some tasty bits, Sweeney Todd is a disappointing holiday treat. Please don't pass the meat pies and gin. —Laura Boyes

Sweeney Todd
Opens Friday throughout the Triangle

Margot at the Wedding might be—as writer-director Noah Baumbach has stated—patterned in the style of an Eric Rohmer family comic-drama or, as another critic has put it, the manifestation of a Dorothy Parker poem. Or, as many contend, it could represent Baumbach's equal-time excoriation of his mother following the thrashing he gave his doppelganger father in The Squid and the Whale. Regardless of its genesis, the director's latest exercise in familial flagellation is a dreary, indulgent slog through upper-crust bohemia.

As the film opens, the eponymous Margot (Nicole Kidman), a writer of some repute, is traveling with her teenage son Claude (Zane Pais) to her family's seaside homestead for the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a hapless lout named Malcolm (Jack Black). It seems that Margot's acid tongue once broke up Pauline's first marriage, and now Margot is divorcing her husband and carrying on an affair with her writing partner (Ciarán Hinds).

What ensues is an endless, inane series of passive-aggressive backbiting and reprisals executed by utterly unlikable people—Margot and Pauline are the sort of folks who only laugh when recalling the time their younger sister was raped by a horse trainer. Any subtext gets washed away in a sea of ugliness, except for the vague metaphor of an old family tree whose roots are encroaching on the property of some inexplicably creepy neighbors. Its eventual collapse onto the wedding tent is less remarkable as symbolism than as the last leg of this odious odyssey.

Perhaps we are meant to enjoy observing the wretched treatment these hollow souls inflict upon one another. Baumbach's last film, though corrosive, was at least charming and redemptive. Margot, on the other hand, is like the semen young Frank smears on the school walls in Squid and the Whale: the masturbatory byproduct of Baumbach's ongoing cinematic self-therapy. —Neil Morris

Margot at the Wedding
Opens Friday in select theaters


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