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.

April 6, 2008

The List is Life: #87

87.

The Dame;

Madhuri Dixit.

The Indian film industry is the largest in the world, it has the highest annual output of motion pictures of an industry around the globe (1200 in 2002, 877 in 2003) and the highest numbers in annual ticket sales. As such, its stars, many of whom turn out numerous productions every year, are iconic in status. Their popularity is so great, that many of the major names not only appear on film, they also perform songs from their films in concert. Madhuri Dixit is no different, acting on screen since 1984, a trained and highly accomplished dancer who first dreamed of being a micro-biologist before finding her calling. Though widely recognized for those abilities as a dancer and indeed as a singer, Dixit has a subtlety and control as an actress not widely found in Indian cinema, her heartbreakingly painful (and deservedly award winning) supporting turn in the 2002 production of Devdas, completely stole the show from the films two megastar leads. Following this success she retreated from the silver screen, finding her way to Denver, Colorado where she quietly enjoyed married life and the raising of her family. She did not return to the screen for 5 years till 2007’s Aaja Nachle, a film that while generally not well recieved, garnered much acclaim for its leading lady, and the proclomation of the New York Times that “she’s still got it”.

The Dude;

Bill Murray.

Among the dryest of the dry, Bill Murray somehow managed to establish himself as one of the funniest performers in American cinema. After graduating from the small screen, where he made his name on Saturday Night Live, Murray quickly established himself as a promising up and coming funny man in films like Caddyshack, Stripes, Tootsie and Ghostbusters. Soon thereafter he attempted to build a reputation as a dramatic lead with a starring role in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, which he co-wrote, the film was a failure and hurt by its resception Murray walked away from the limelight, leaving movies behind to study Philosophy and History at the Sorbonne in Paris, nothing but a cameo appearance in The Little Shop of Horrors for 4 years, until he returned to doing what does best, comedy, over the next few years turning out Scrooged, Ghostbusters II, What About Bob, and coming to a head with the widely acclaimed Groundhog Day in 1993. Following his reestablishment as a star he retreated largely to supporting roles for the next decade before in 2003 taking the starring role in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, earning an Oscar nomination, numerous awards and critical acclaim in a film that while shot through with the comedic touch you cannot help but find in Bill Murray movies, was largely dramatic in tone, helping him to find that dramatic leading status he had sought some 20 year earlier, he followed this with further leading turns in quirky dramadies The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Broken Flowers further establishing himself in his new niche as a leading force in indie cinema.

The Director;

Carol Reed.

Carol Reed was one of six illegitimate children of the stage actor, drama teacher, and the impresario founder of the Royal School of Dramatic Arts, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. As such, when as a teenager he sought to follow his father into acting, nobody could blame him, yet as time went by, it was as a director that Reed quickly established himself. In 1932 he began working at Ealing Studios, and the transition from stage to screen began, he made his directorial debut 3 years later with the adventure film Midshipman Easy. As the second world war began, Reed contributed to the war effort through doing what he knew best, his 1945 Ango-American documentary, The True Glory covering everything from the Normandy landings to the taking of Berlin, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and quickly established Reed was a name worth watching. A few years later he turned the crown jewel of his career, the iconic adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, perfectly pitched between darkness and humour, the magnetic and mysterous presence of Orson Welles looming in the long shadows as around his aura Reed crafts a perfectly shot, gloriously scored and wonderfully written piece of work that still towers over most films made in its era, or ever since. Over the next few decades he continued working steadily, mainly on adaptations, his finest moment coming when in 1952, he became the first British director to be knighted, before in 1968 he struck big, bringing to the screen Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist. Oliver! was a movie musical that while never lacking a lightness in touch, was never afraid to stray into the dark and savage places at it’s stories heart, with now famous turns from Jack Wild and Ron Moody, it was really the directors nephew, Oliver Reed, whose monstrous Bill Sikes stole the show. The film brought Reed his first Oscar as Best Director after 3 nominations and established his legacy beyond all doubt.

The Picture;

Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005)

With 2002’s Gerry, Gus Van Sant abandoned bigger budget studio pictures to return to the lower free form style of directing pioneered by the likes of Bela Tarr, he delved into experimental cinema in a way no major director had ever done before after achieving the sort of mainstream success that he had achieved with films like To Die For and Good Will Hunting. Following Gerry and 2003’s Palme D’Or winning Elephant, Van Sant turned in Last Days, the final part of what he has termed his ‘Death trilogy’ the physical isolation of Gerry, social isolation of Elephant came to a head with the mental isolation of Blake. Loosely based on the final days of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Last Days chronicles the downfall of a man losing the will to live, that simply through stylistic directorial choices makes the audience feel something similar. As our lead character sees nothing but mundanity all around him, through the sterile, static, hushed way in which Van Sant brings each barren, desolate shot to the screen we are left with some sort of understanding of just what is going through his mind. Last Days is not an easy film to watch, indeed it can be an incredibly harsh viewing experience, but the sheer artistry at its heart cannot be denied. With Elephant, Van Sant was accused of not giving answers or offering any sort of explanations as to the actions of his high school slayers, here he is not posing questions, he simply crafts a dark portrait.

March 17, 2008

The List is Life: #94

94.

The Dame;

Nicole Kidman.

Despite being one of the biggest movie stars in business for over a decade and having being best known at one point more for making up one half of the ultimate Hollywood power couple rather than for her movie roles, Nicole Kidman stepped up to the plate at the turn of the century and proved once and for all that she could turn out magnificent work on screen on a regular basis. Prior to her double hit in 2001 with the creepy horror The Others and her Oscar nominated turn in the musical Moulin Rouge! Kidman’s only real performance of note had come under the direction of Gus van Sant in 1995s To Die For, post 2001 she enjoyed a few years of marvellous success in which she took risks entirely foreign to stars of her status, Birthday Girl, The Hours, Dogville, and Birth all proved her capabilities as an actress on smaller and more serious scales. Though since 2004, success has generally eluded her, her participation in movies such as Fur and Margot at the Wedding prove she is still willing to take those risks, and that can never be a bad thing.

The Dude;

Steve Buscemi.

Perhaps the ultimate king of indie cinema. After taking bit parts in the Coen bros. Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, Steve Buscemi rocketed to fame as Mr. Pink in Quentin Tarantino’s Resevoir Dogs. Since then he has enjoyed a wonderfully varied career as an actor, taking part in the tiniest indie films yet still keeping his profile alive in big budget pictures such as Armageddon, Monster’s Inc. and The Island. Buscemi has also enjoyed success behind the camera, directing small indie films, perhaps most notably 2007’s Interview, as well episodes of HBO shows, Oz and The Sopranos, the latter of which he had a tremendous part on during the shows fifth season. Buscemi is that rare kind of performer who has managed to remain a famous name in major movies without ever selling out his crediblity.

The Director;

Sam Mendes.

Coming from the world of theatre, few could have judged Sam Mendes if he had kept to the style that he knew, as many have done before him. Yet in his three feature films to date, Mendes has displayed a magnificent eye for gloriously cinematic visuals, mixing that visual flair with beautifully human stories he has quickly emerged as one of the more exciting directors in American cinema. Having picked up the Academy Award for direction with his debut film and having that very same film win Best Picture cannot have been an easy act to follow, but so far Mendes has remained varied and interesting and it would not be a surprise to see him surpass that marvellous debut at least once in the future.

The Picture;

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

John Ford and John Wayne began collaborating in 1939 with Stagecoach, yet their most famous cinematic pairing came 17 years later with their landmark work in The Searchers. Wayne had played outlaws and men of immensely tough spirit yet never before had he gone to the lengths that he had done in this film, his Ethan Edwards was a racist, obsessive, borderline psychopath and these themes radiated throughout the movie. It was not the first film to explore these themes but certainly one of the first to probe them to the extent that it was done here. Fords attempts to delve into the plight of the Native American and the abuse they were subjected to was many a year ahead of its time to the point of being nothing but a modest commercial success upon initial release, yet as the years have gone by, its status has grown and the way it examines the formation of a nation holds up as well and as powerfully today as it has ever done.

March 16, 2008

The List is Life: #95

95.

The Dame;

Lily Tomlin.

Since her career took off during the 1960s, Lily Tomlin is an actress who has found great success on television, film,  and with her famed one woman shows on stage. Her most famous  cinematic collaborator is unquestionably Robert Altman with whom she made four films, including earning her one and only Oscar nomination to date in his Nashville, and was one of the standouts in his swansong, A Prairie Home Companion. She is a wonderously electric comedic performer, yet at the same time so perfectly adept at finding small, beautiful moments of humanity whenever she ventures into dramatic territory.

The Dude;

Steve Carell.

Though unquestionably loud, the majority of times that he appears on screen, Steve Carell is at the same time, incredibly subtle in the small moments. Small glances, shrugs, and gestures that add layers of depth and humanity to the laugh out loud moments of riotous comedy. His performance in Little Miss Sunshine works in complete contrast to almost everything that he has done in that, though full of humour, it is entirely deadpan and laying beneath everything is a heartbroken melancholy. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that even with his worldwide fame, Steve Carell probably doesn’t get enough credit as an actor.

The Director;

Stanley Donen.

The director of iconic films brimming with iconic moments, the sailors of his debut, On the Town, letting loose in New York, New York, Cary Grant’s last great screen hurrah, alongside Audrey Hepburn in Charade, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore unleashed upon cinema audiences in Bewitched, those Seven Brides for those Seven Brothers and of course, Gene Kelly in the rain, dancing his way to immortality. Donen’s forte was generally in the musical arena, yet when the songs were nowhere to be found, the fun certainly never dreid up. His films were always fun, always a breeze to watch; he was not a director who ever let himself get to attached to one type, he simply told stories, and entertained millions.

The Picture;

Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)

The searing work of a master, Naked is an unrelenting rant, a dark and bitter portrait of lower class England in the 1990s. Revolving around Johnny, played with dark, bitter humour and a weary knowingness by David Thewlis, this film is all about him; we journey through this world with him and are constantly subjected to his rants. Whether or not you appreciate the film may depend entirely upon how you feel about him, this is not an easy film to stomach and it is absolutely certain that repeat viewings will do wonders for one’s appreciation of it. This is a dark, dark world of morally greay human beings, and yet Mike Leigh makes it endlessly fascinating by managing to probe through the wordiness to find the humanity in each and every one of the sublime cast.

January 27, 2008

“Whatcha Got Ain’t Nothin’ New”. Joel & Ethan Coen’s – No Country For Old Men

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No Country For Old Men (Coens, US, 2007)

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men is not a novel that rears its brutal head amongst the upper echelons of the Pulitzer Prize winning authors work. Not here will one find quite the literary majesty of Blood Meridian, or the poetic beauty of his Border trilogy. No Country For Old Men is, as far as can be said of such a writer, a far more pulpy effort. When reading, one cannot help but feel that the author’s main objective was to produce a tale that would be easily converted to the screen. So it should come as no surprise that just two years after the novels publication, No Country For Old Men has been brought to life on cinema screens by the unquestionable genius of Joel and Ethan Coen.

To begin, the Coens seemed to have realised something that so few filmmakers who adapt books seem to, and that is that cinema is a medium of images. This is an art form not constructed upon language or on sound, but upon the visual, upon what is seen on the screen. A medium where the perfected art of editing can create more tension than any combination of musical instruments could combine to do in the sort of terrifying score that instructs its audience to be afraid. Here are a couple of filmmakers content to show you and let you see for yourself, just how terrified you are going to be.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins (collaborator on every Coens film going back to 1991’s Palme D’Or winning Barton Fink) photographs this stark and horrifying terrain with the bleak and terrifying stillness it requires, each frame set up to perfection, each shot telling its own story.

The Coens have adapted their screenplay as should be done, the pondering voiceovers that fill out and dominate the novel have been largely done away with. The screenplay is filled with silence, plenty is going on upon the screen but not a great deal is being said. This is one of the finer adapted screenplays of recent times, and others should take note; it stays true to it’s source novel while at the same time understanding and grasping the benefits of its own medium.

Having done away with any semblance of a score, the Coens use of sound in the film is perhaps the most notable of any motion picture in a good while. The sound IS the score, and how effective it is; the blowing of the wind, the shot of a gun, a flowing river, a speeding car, a ringing telephone, or the approaching sound of a killers footsteps. Each noise is amplified, again, no score is going to help the viewer along, it’s the sounds of the world that soundtrack this film and it is all the more unique for it.

Moving forward again, one cannot complete a review of this gem of a movie without a nod to it’s award winning ensemble cast. Josh Brolin is the closest thing our story has to a hero, yet a hero he is not. His Llewelyn Moss is basically a down on his luck loser with a heart of…well…not quite gold. Brolin inhabits his character with a simple yet strong, naive yet knowledgeable air. Our boy might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he knows how to get by. Lord knows where this man his risen from, but let’s hope he stays.

Kelly McDonald’s ever loyal, ever loving and ever adorable trailer trash wife is the human soul of this movie; she is the audience surrogate, looking in on this world of depravity with no comprehension of its workings. Her final scene is as heartbreaking a piece of work as you are likely to see all year; she sits comfortably and without fuss on the sidelines throughout the entire film and when the time comes for her to step up to the plate, she does so…and smacks it out of the park.

Woody Harrelson turns in fine supporting work as the bounty hunter with the knowing smirk, the only one who seems to know what is going on and the one who thinks he can comfortably control it, it’s yet another sign of the Cheers graduate’s ever rising status as an incredibly capable supporting player and hopefully shall lead to bigger and brighter things in the future.

Tommy Lee Jones is our heart, he’s our conscience, he whose melancholy, world weary tones bring us in, and take us out of this world. His disillusioned, lost and confused lawman is as perfect a performance as ever he has given. The Oscar winner is by all accounts a McCarthy nut and it shows on screen here as you feel every twitch, every stare, every word rise up from deep within him, with nothing but truth pervading throughout.

Yet looming large over this world of shady dealings, good women, troubled men and those just trying to do right, a dark cloud hangs. A towering statue of evil, decked out in black with a bad haircut and a can of compressed air. Javier Bardem has been nominated for an Academy Award, he has been robbed of an Academy Award and finally it seems that at long last his time has come, this is the one that will make him, and you simply can’t stop what’s coming. The fearsome Anton Chigurh is at first glance nothing more than a retread of the Terminator, yet you see it on his face from time to time, humanity shining through. Here is that rarest of things, a subtle waltz through human insanity. Oscar is calling, and Anton is coming.

All in all, none but the foolish could deny that the brothers Coen have risen back to the level they belong. Having spent the last 6 years toiling in mediocrity, they stand back up and put on display for all the world, a perfect demonstration of just why they are among the finest filmmakers to have ever stepped foot in the game. They are craftsmen of the highest order, and while that style drips from every frame of their work, the humanity is never missing, your heart never fails to race, never fails to break. Here we have a commentary on the state of a nation like no little man in a suit could ever give, here we have pitch black humour, edge of the seat thrills, philosophizing and visual poetry. Here in lies a profoundly American story, one that manages that rare feat of improving upon its source material, what more could a person ask for?

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