The Parnassus Times

March 21, 2009

The List is Life: #75

75.

The Dame;

Rachel McAdams.

Taking up acting at the age of 12, at a summer theatre camp, Rachel McAdams went on to earn a BFA degree in Theatre from Toronto’s York University. Following graduation, a few bit parts on TV lead to a role in 2002’s  The Hot Chick, yet it would be another 2 years before the London, Ontario native found fame, first as superbitch Regina George in Lindsay Lohan vehicle, Mean Girls, a show she all but stole from a very talented cast, and then as one of the leads in epic, decade spanning romance, The Notebook, alongside real life boyfriend Ryan Gosling, the two shared a sizzling chemistry that lit up the screen and displayed the great potential of McAdams as a leading lady. The next year brought further success, first as Owen Wilson’s love interest in box office hit  Wedding Crashers, playing a pretty underwritten role, but instilling it with her effortless screen charm, as part of a large ensemble in  The Family Stone, she managed to stand out from the pack, and alongside Cillian Murphy in Wes Craven’s  Red Eye she took another lead role and knocked it out of the park, the two leads working brilliantly off one another, McAdams filled her character up with a sweet naturalism that had you falling for her in an instant. Though the last few years haven’t brought much in a way of major roles, she’s clearly displayed enough talent and range to make her a major name of interest in the future of cinema’s leading ladies.

The Dude;

Michael C. Hall.

Michael C. Hall’s career began Off-Broadway, he spent his time working in productions of  Macbeth, Cymbeline, Timon of Athens and  Henry V, in addition to his Shakespearean work he appeared in controversial, modernizing and homosexualizing Jesus tale, Corpus Christi and displayed his musical abilities in an early incarnation of what later become Stephen Sondheim’s  Bounce, and then in his first Broadway role, as the Emcee in Sam Mendes’ Broadway revival of  Cabaret. It was this role that lead Mendes to suggest Hall to his  American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball when he was casting for his new HBO series, Six Feet Under. Over the next 5 years his Emmy nominated work as David Fisher brought great internal anguish searing onto the screen, the viewer feeling his pain, his conflicts all the way. Since that shows conclusion in 2005, Hall has spent the past few years finding widespread fame as a righteous serial killer, in Showtime’s hit Emmy winning and Golden Globe nominated, Dexter. His drier than dry wit, and seamless transition from loving brother and boyfriend to vicious killer all working easily and effortlessly in his hands.

The Director;

Jean-Luc Godard.

Godard first rose to prominence alongside contemporaries, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette writing film criticism for Andre Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinema in 1951, across the next decade he tried his hand at documentary making and produced a number of short films, before in 1960 he directed his first feature, A Bout de Souffle, the film came to encapsulate the Nouvelle-Vague movement, with its frenetic jump cutting, and character asides, it also saturated itself with numerous references to popular culture, most notably the American movies Godard was influenced by. The prime of his career lasted for about 7 more years, turning out films like  Le Mepris, Bande a Part, Alphaville, and Pierrot le Fou, films that generally worked to conventions and with reference to cinematic history, and very often featuring his wife and muse, Anna Karina.  Following the couples divorce in 1967, Godard’s career took a great swerve, suddenly, as if in line with the youth of the nation, his work became almost revolutionary, certainly anti-establishment, he was tagged as everything from a militant, a radical, even a Maoist, he began to delve far deeper into political and social issues that had been there before, but that now sat at the forefront of his work. Along with this change came a denouncement of much of cinema’s history as bourgeois, and thus without merit. He continues to work to this day, turning out usually at least a film a year, aged 78, he shows no signs of slowing down, and no signs of softening his edges.

The Picture;

beauty_and_the_beast1

Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, 1991)

The story, Beauty and the Beast, can be traced as far back as 1740, written by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, a variety of different versions of the story evolved out of this one over the next few decades, abridged, and transformed into stage plays and opera form. The first major cinematic version was Jean Cocteau’s 1946, La Belle et la Bette, starring Jean Marais. However it was in 1991 when it came into the hands of the mighty Disney that it was forever immortalized for global audiences, and remains to this day, the only animated film to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The production lends the story an epic grandeur rarely seen in animated movies up till this point, giving it a real feel of prestige, usually reserved for live action pictures, it maintains the tales classical feel perfectly for adult audiences, perfectly portrays the greatly conflicted central relationship that turns from hatred slowly to love for a younger more romantic generation, and fills itself out with a host of wondrously entertaining supporting characters to enthrall children everywhere. The songs are gorgeously written, and brilliantly vibrantly visually realized, as is the entire movie, whether playing out in grand ballrooms, dark forests, or drunk taverns, you can feel the atmosphere shining through the screen. It is a beautiful film to behold, turning a story two and a half centuries old into something both modern and old fashioned, for the young and the old, for lovers of  story or of visuals, it is truly universal, and a real classic for all time.

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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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