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 8, 2008

The List is Life: #85

85.

The Dame;

Ava Gardner.

Though so widely reknowned for her looks, over the 18 years that she was at the top of her game, Ava Gardner took huge steps as a performer. Making her name as the deadly femme fatale, alongside Burt Lancaster in The Killers, the first of a number of Hemingway adaptations in which she starred, Gardner displayed the sultry beauty she has become iconic for, over the next few years she took in incredibly varying projects, comedy, drama, musical, adventure, film-noir, romance, she worked with major directors and major performers but all the while she was called on for little else than her looks. However, in 1953, under the employ of John Ford she played the wisecracking, emotionally fragile Honey Bear Kelly in Mogambo and scored herself an Oscar nomination. Her reputation as an actress on the increase, Gardner’s star continued to rise, having reached a level of credibility where now she was able to take lead roles in her own right as opposed to simply leading lady roles as she did in George Cukor’s Bhowani Junction. Probably her finest moment as an actor came almost a decade later when she starred alongside Richard Burton in John Huston’s Tennessee William’s adaptation, The Night of the Iguana, matching Burton blow for blow at the very least, she waltzed away with the entire film landing numerous awards nominations including BAFTA and Golden Globes. Though she continued to work regularly for the next 20 years, that was her last great statement as an actress, thereafter her work was, as she put it “for the loot”. The career that had come before was never tarnished, and the status as an icon of her era remains; in an era of skinny blondes, she was unique.

The Dude;

Tony Leung.

Abandoned by his father at the age of eight, the young and mischievous Tony Leung quickly transformed into a quiet, restrained child. Raised, along with his younger sister, by his mother who worked to put him through private school before financial difficulties forced him to pull out at the age of 15, he worked odd jobs before a meeting with fellow Hong Kong star Stephen Chow, influenced him to take up a career on screen. Beginning as the host of childrens television shows before in 1989 his role as a deaf mute in the Venice Film Festival winning Beiqing Chengshi (A City of Sadness) helped catapult him into the public eye, 3 years later starring alongside Chow Yun Fat he cut a blazing trail in John Woo’s Lat sau san taam (Hard Boiled) soon after he established a long standing working relationship with Wong Kar-Wai, with whom he had first worked in 1991s A Fei zhang chuan (Days of Being Wild), they went on to work together on 5 more occasions, helping each other establish their status as being amongst the finest actors and directors in Chinese cinema. That quiet child of the 1970s, repressed in the wake of his patriarchal abandonment had found a new way of communicating with people, through the close hug of the camera, and those eyes that speak a thousand words.

The Director;

Leni Riefenstahl.

Born into a working class neighbourhood in Berlin, Leni Riefenstahl began life as an interpretive dancer, before a knee injury during a performance called a premature end to her career; soon thereafter upon viewing a nature documantary she became fascinated by the emerging cinematic medium and its possibilities, she soon emerged in her native land as a popular actress of the silent era before being offered the chance to direct in the early 1930s, and in 1932 her debut feature Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) was released, during the filming of the movie, she read the autobiography Mein Kampf and as she told the Daily Express newspaper in 1934 “I became a confirmed National Socialist after reading the first page” that same year she attended a rally where she heard Adolf Hitler speak for the first time, she was mesmerized by his abilities as a public speaker, he in turn had greatly admired her debut directorial effort and employed her to film Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith) an overview of the 1933 Nazi rally at Nuremberg. Though for political reasons the film was a failure, Hitler was impressed with her work and recalled her for the Nuremberg rally the following year, her subsequent Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) stands to this day as one of the finest, most influential achievements in technique in all of cinema, documentary or otherwise. Pioneering cinematic techniques such as the use of tracking rails to achieve moving shots,  distortion of perspective via the use of telephoto lenses and aeriel photography she established herself as one of the great cinematic innovators. Two years later her chronicling of the ’36 Olympic games in Berlin (for which she had qualified to participate in cross-country skiing but withdrew to document) went on to champion the use of smash-cut editing techniques, extreme close-ups, tilted camera angles, the footage went on to make the two part documentary Olympia, the first filmed document of the Olympic games. Following this she began work on Tiefland, a feature film adaptation of Hitler’s favourite opera, though filming began in 1940 it was not completed for 4 years and the editing was not finished until after the end of the war at the completion of which Riefenstahl spent 4 years in a French detention camp, the film finally saw the light of day in 1954. This artistic struggle was emblematic of the rest of her career, though she lived till the age of 101 Riefenstahl would only complete on more film, in the 70s she lied about her age,  at 72, claiming to be 52 in order to gain certification for scuba-diving and after taking up underwater photography she worked on what eventually became Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), an up close look at life under the ocean, and was finally released in August of 2002 on her 100th birthday. She died a year a year later at the age of 101, a figure of artistic impression who had once served a pioneer for her entire medium.

The Picture;

12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)

In 2007, Sidney Lumet at the age of 83, directed Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a vicious, breakneck sickening fable with a fractured narrative and everything from performance to score amped up to monstrous levels. 50 years earlier, the Philadelphia native had  made his debut with this simple work of extreme emotional power a final triumph for minimalist cinema in an age quickly becoming dominated by widescreen and technicolour following the advent of television. Headed by Henry Fonda in as gentlemanly and dignified  a role as ever,  and Lee J. Cobb unleashing the fiery passion he was so famed for; the film stretched far beyond the restrained confines of its courthouse setting and seemingly simplistic murder case and delved deeper into the heart of humanity. Taking in the good and the bad, the patience and intolerance, love and hatred and all their many complications. Nowhere in sight is there a special effect, no over the top production design, garish costuming or blaring score, it’s 12 men sat at a table, and yet adapted by Reginald Rose from his own play, with an eager young filmmaker at the helm and legends of the game in front of the camera, it encompasses more than most can manage.

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