The Parnassus Times

June 21, 2008

“They Call Me the Cautionary Whale”. Jason Reitman’s – Juno

Juno (Reitman, US/Can, 2007)

Much has been made of this twee, quaint, quirky little movie, the tale of 16 going on 60 teenager, Juno MacGuff and her journey through the world of pregnancy; yet this is not really a pregnancy movie, if the difficult trials and tribulations that go with the expecting are what you are looking for, then take a trip to Apatown and watch Knocked Up. For in Juno, MacGuff’s pregnancy is little more than a MacGuffin, a plot device that proves very useful in helping each of the characters go on their own personal little journey.

Juno is a fast talking, quick witted, wise ass, she thinks she knows every thing, and can read every body, her father (J.K Simmons), step mother (Allison Janney), and the couple hoping to adopt the expected baby (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) are all subjected to her premature worldliness as the film gets underway. Diablo Cody’s equally revered and maligned screenplay certainly seems to lay on the quirk thick and fast in the films opening stages, the dialogue stilted, every time anyone opens their mouthes to speak the overriding feeling is that they’re trying too hard, yet as the film wears on, things begin to change. Cody’s dialogue continues to maintain its witty edge, yet it all feels more real, far more natural, while remaining equally quotable, never losing that fantastical edge. This is probably due in very great part to the sublime cast, that has been assembled. Every one of them is absolutely note perfect for their role.

While father-to-be Paulie Bleeker is the one main character that sadly remains underdeveloped, Michael Cera brings to him the same geeky innocence he displayed so marvelously in Superbad, Bleeker is not ready for the situation he finds himself in, nowhere near as confident as Juno, he finds himself having to fight much harder to step up and do the right thing.

J.K Simmons sits comfortably on the sidelines as the very warm, very loving and somewhat naive father. As most famously displayed in the Spiderman films this is a man with magnificent comic timing, but when called upon to deliver in his dramatic father-daughter scene, the Oz veteran serves up a heartfelt, home spun blend of the knowledge that comes from a life well lived, the struggle of a middle aged man to ever truly understand what his teenager is talking about, and the innocent, old fashioned naivety of the small town suburban man.

As his wife, Allison Janney reveals the layers of humanity beneath the woman Juno seems to see as little more than her hard nosed, step mother. Authoritarian but loving, this isn’t one of those performances where the monster subsides to reveal the human underneath, Janney, the professional that she is, plays her the exact same way the whole way through, the credit must come back once more to that screenplay, it changes our perspective of her by slowly unveiling how she feels, in addition to simply showing us how she is. We see how much she cares, we see what she has given up, and we see her vulnerabilities.

Still these characters are minor players, the heart of the picture lies in Juno’s relationship with prospective foster parents Mark and Vanessa Loring (Bateman & Garner). Garner’s Vanessa is the white upper middle class suburban materialist, living in her perfect home, she’s desperate for a baby, determined to prove she’s ready, yet she never seems to really get it, more concerned with the color of the baby’s room, with proving to others how ready she is, how ready her husband is, she is a character far too concerned with appearances. It’s not until the realization of the life she’s looking to take on dawns on her that she begins to come to terms with the simplistic humanity required to face her situation. To be fair, she is probably the least important of the major characters, and the least well written, Garner, a tremendously capable actress with the right material, does all with her that she can, she seems soft, easily breakable, but a strong determined heart beats at her centre.

It is Jason Bateman’s Mark that is of real interest here, almost the mirror opposite of our title character; she’s desperate to grow up, to be taken seriously as an adult, he’s the man trying to cling on to those dying flames of his youth, to take that step back, to accomplish the dreams he’s aspired to go after for so long. His relationship with Juno is what makes the movie, where he makes her realize how little she can yet understand of the adult world, she awakens him to the fact that he may not quite be ready to take the step he’s about to take. He’s a wonderfully conflicted character, the screenplay makes no judgments about him, and Bateman plays a somewhat more straight role than he is usually used to with absolute conviction, down the middle, navigating through moments of potential awkwardness, with an innocence and moral confusion. It’s Juno’s story, but it could quite easily be his.

Yet in the end, it’s all about one, numero uno, is Juno. The entire film rises and falls on the back of her character and with an incapable actress at it’s heart, the film would have been a well intentioned failure. It is with great delight then, to see that Ellen Page steps up to the plate and knocks the part completely out of the park. With only a minor role in the third X-Men film and a decent if clearly inexperienced turn in the atrocious Hard Candy as any work of note for audiences to judge her on, this performance comes entirely out of the blue. She’s funny, she’s heartbreaking, she’s naive, she’s mature, she’s child, she’s adult, she’s obnoxious and she’s heartfelt. The more pregnant she becomes the more laboured her movements, and she conveys it all with absolute credibility, she can make the most simple line of dialogue mean a whole lot more than it says on the page, make the most ridiculous line as natural as air, she’s not afraid to take risks and go out there, but at the same time, she knows when to reign it in, her eyes are as expressive as any around in the modern day and all in all, nothing can be said other than it’s one of the great breakthrough performances of recent times and that Ellen Page was deserving of every award that she won, and that her career is almost certainly going to be long, fruitful and incredibly interesting to watch.

As director, Jason Reitman continues to impress, Juno shares that same lightness of touch that he brought to his debut feature Thank You For Smoking, yet that lightness is never out of control, never glossing over the films central ideas. At 96 minutes, the film is just 4 minutes longer than his first, Reitman is not a director given to excess, he’s not interesting in making sprawling 3 hour epics, he keeps it simple, he keeps it short, he makes his point, he never overstays his welcome and no matter what the issues at heart, he never lets his picture get boring. His breezy style recalls his father in his heyday, yet all the while his films seem to have more to say. If Ellen Page is a rising star to watch in front of the camera, Jason Reitman is one to watch behind it.

The film is edited with a snippy pace, never hanging anywhere to long, but never rushed, while Thank You For Smoking occasionally got a little languid with the pacing, Juno never lags for a moment; it’s a brisk ride from start to finish. Shot with beautiful variation, the camera focuses on its characters but their surroundings are never ignored, the homely browns of the MacGuff house, the whites and greys of the Lorings, or the vivid colourful outdoors, the bright tones of the school, newcomer Eric Steelberg knows exactly what he’s doing and in that gloriously beautiful final shot he closes this picture with the ultimate capture of suburbia, of happiness, of home; he’s got the skills of someone far beyond his age. The production design crew add to that visual narrative, the cluttered cosiness of Juno’s home, the perfect and precise order of Mark and Vanessa’s abode, save for those two rooms Mark calls his own, the two rooms where his youthful spirit continues to run free. People get hung up on the films dialogue, but it’s a wonderfully intricate visual experience as well.

The fact of the matter is that the heart of this screenplay, lies not in that (in)famous dialogue, but in it’s construction, each character so finely tuned and spun out over a 90 odd minute running time that allows for not an ounce of excess. Cody does so much with just a handful of scenes for her supporting cast, and as has been pointed out already, she slowly, economically reveals that these complicated adults are not quite as simple and easily understandable as our titular character believes them to be, nor is she anywhere near as all knowing as she seems to act. It’s a beautiful piece of writing from someone so inexperienced, filled with beautiful little moments, take the scene where following a fight with Bleeker, she goes to her car and before going to visit the Loring’s applies a little lipstick, it’s a wordless seconds long scene, that tells us a great deal without saying a single thing. Another glorious little moment, detailing the extent of their teenage innocence comes when Morgan Freeman is related to bone collecting (The Bone Collector being a film starring Denzel Washington) it’s a wonderful moment that gives us such a great insight into the imperfect, entirely human nature of these characters.

Many have taken shots at the pictures flippant, breezy approach to the actual pregnancy, but as already mentioned, the state in which Juno finds herself is not the central point here, the pregnancy is her penance, her penalty, it’s the child being stuck with the consequences of her actions, learning to have to deal with what she did “What are you ashamed that we did it? Because at least you don’t have to have the evidence under your sweater”, while Cody suggests Juno is not as wise as she thinks she is, she also muses over the idea that maybe it’s time to grow up.

All in all it is really no question that this is a film with a great deal to say, it is aimed at a very specific audience, and it entertains anyone who comes to it looking for nothing more than a good time, but it’s never brainless, there is a great deal of heart, and a greater deal of cinematic construction at work. No matter what the detractors say, Diablo Cody is not Quentin Tarantino for teenage girls, her screenplay has depth, it has meaning, it has purpose, it’s not just about the dialogue…honest to blog.

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April 13, 2008

The List is Life: #82

82.

The Dame;

Anjelica Huston.

Anjelica Huston is Hollywood royalty, so it may seem strange to some that she never really broke into movies until her mid 30s when she was cast in her father’s Prizzi’s Honour, and subsequently won an Oscar for the role. It was not a debut, she had been working in the business since her first appearance (doubling as Deborah Kerr’s hands in the spoof version of Casino Royale) in 1967, but it was her first major role, and when she won that award that so many strive for, for so long, one wonders why she had not begun sooner. Since then, Huston has established herself as one of the great supporting actresses of her generation, equally adept at comedy and drama, in the widest variety of roles playing everything from ghastly witches to nuns. The only shared trait in her work seems to be that of strength, an attribute of the Huston family going back to the time of her grandfather Walter, a pioneering actor of the sound era, a strength that has not flinched one bit as the Huston families legacy has been carried forward in the hands of a woman. Having, since the turn of the century, become almost a muse of director Wes Anderson, playing small but important, revered and iconified roles in his films, she has proven beyond all doubt her status as a legend of the game, one that has continued to build her families legacy onwards and upwards and one who shall be remembered for years to come as one of the best of her era, entirely worthy of her name.

The Dude;

Heath Ledger.

Gone so suddenly and so early, more than certainly on the cusp of the A-list status he had been approaching for so long, it has become popular to speak of Heath Ledger in grand terms. What can certainly be said, was that in 2005 he gave what is almost unquestionably one of the finest screen performances in history. In Brokeback Mountain he worked in complete contrast to Jake Gyllenhaal’s wild angst, and in doing so painted a perfectly captured study of repression. Entirely internalised, his performance was a physical one, sealed lips, through which hardly a word escapes and when it does, is difficult to decipher, hunched shoulders, hanging head, barely able to make eye contact, a curled fist, a microcosm of his character. His work is one for the screen, the sort of performance that would be useless on the stage. Though in his short career prior to this he never showed anything like the abilities he did in earning that solitary Oscar nomination, there was wonderful promise from the very start. In his screen debut in the high school comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, his performance mixed the macho and mean with the tender and the caring, his eyes saying as much as his words, in Terry Gilliam’s flawed Brothers Grimm, he displayed the internalisation he perfected in Brokeback Mountain. While Matt Damon mugged and overemoted his way through the movie, Ledger’s performance was again a physical one, told more through movement, through the face, than via words. This restraint was displayed through most of his work, in the Australian drugs drama Candy, he starred alongside side Abbie Cornish, and again, contrasted her theatrics, with nuance, and quiet, internal pain; just as he had done 5 years earlier as the emotionally tormented son in Monster’s Ball, a performance that could easily have given in to hysterics, but in the hands of a quickly learning, quickly maturing actor, was held back and made far more interesting. He seemed wise beyond his years on the screen, learning quickly and turning early promise into something more potent, it is a very great shame, that he will never have the chance to show again, just what he was really capable of.

The Director;

Cecil B. DeMille.

Along with D.W. Griffith and Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille was one of the great American trailblazers in the cinematic arena. While both his peers were certainly knew a thing or two about spectacle, during the first few decades of the industries existence, there was nobody anywhere in the world that milked the awe, wonder and possibilities out of the medium in the same way that DeMille did. In the beginning when shackled by silence and black and white images, there was still no denying his epic intentions, his 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, 1927’s King of Kings, and into the sound era with his Claudette Colbert starring version of Cleopatra. DeMille understood that there was nothing in the world capable of achieving cinema’s grandiosity and as technicolour set in he took it a step further, Samson and Delilah, The Greatest Show on Earth and that final, mightiest of swan songs, his second version of The Ten Commandments. He died in 1959 of heart failure, it was during that preceding decade that cinema had come under fire from the popularization of the television, the little box that diluted the power of the silver screen, and flew in the face of all that had men like DeMille had established. That his departing and it’s rise came in the same 10 year span can easily be seen as a turning of the tide, but cinema has endured, and every epic that has come since has owed a debt to him in one way or another.

The Picture;

The General (Buster Keaton, 1927)

Buster Keaton began directing films in 1917 at the age of 22, it wasn’t until some 5 years later with Our Hospitality that he really came to the fore as a filmmaker. He enjoyed a successful run for the next few years, turning out films like Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator, before in 1927, after 10 years as a director, he created The General. An adaptation of Congressman William Pittenger’s memoir, The Great Locomotive Chase; the film was a box office failure upon initial release, but over time has gained its deserved status as a classic. It is at once both riotously funny and sweetly romantic, Keaton may not have had the ability to touch the human heart with quite the intensity of Chaplin, but he was a master technician and innovator of his craft. Looking back at The General, some 80 years after it’s release, some of the magic on display is bewildering to behold; coming one after the other, Keaton strings together setpieces that not only make you laugh but have you with jaw agape, wondering just how he did it. This film was made some 50 odd years before computer effects came into play, Keaton did everything himself, and it left his crown jewel with not only laughs, not only heart, but awe inducing spectacle.

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