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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May 3, 2008

The List is Life: #78

78.

The Dame;

Meryl Streep.

Making her screen debut in 1977 at the age of 28, Meryl Streep made her mark quickly. A year into her career, making an appearance in the award winning Julia, before winning an Emmy for her role in the television mini-series Holocaust. Two years later, her reputation was established when aged 30 she won a supporting actress Oscar for her role in the Best Picture winning Kramer vs. Kramer, it was her second Best Picture appearance in as many years after her quietly pained turn in the Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter and established the New Jersey native as one of the brightest sparks on the Hollywood map. Immortality was hers 3 years later with her leading turn in the emotionally harrowing, physically draining Sophie’s Choice, she won the lead actress Oscar and immediately took her place at the head of the quickly emerging generation of actresses. She went on to garner 4 more nominates in the 80s, and with Out of Africa appeared in her 3rd Best Picture winning film in 7 years. As the years have passed she has continued to gain a great deal of attention, racking up further Oscar nominations till she became the most nominated performer in history with her 13th nomination in 2002. Though often accused of being a mechanical, mannered actress, Streep is at times perfectly capable of playing loose, of being effortless and flowing as her detractors claim she is impossible of being. She rose above the turgid middle aged romance of The Bridges of Madison County, to give a heartfelt, melancholy turn, and with her role in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, gave the sort of beautifully subtle mix of comedy and drama which she had never come close to displaying before, and leaving many to wonder why she doesn’t do it more often. Whether or not Meryl Streep is one of the great actresses of all time is a matter of opinion, but that she is an incredibly gifted performer, equally capable of earning laughs, and tears, with restraint or theatrics is a plain and simple fact. Pushing 60, she shows no signs of slowing down.

The Dude;

Peter O’Toole.

Playwright Noel Coward once told Peter O’Toole that if he had been any prettier, the movie would have had to be called Florence of Arabia. Depending on a persons tastes, that may or may not be the case, but if it is, nobody could deny that the Irish born son of a bookie who abandoned boyhood dreams of journalism to enter the world of acting has ever taken the simplistic route of coasting by on his looks. After small parts in small movies and bit parts on television, graduation day came; in 1962, at the age of 30, Peter O’Toole beat out some of the biggest names in the business to land the lead role in David Lean’s majestic Lawrence of Arabia, and an icon was born. In the 46 years that have come and gone since, O’Toole has amassed 7 further Oscar nominations, yet it was that first that almost half a century later remains the role for which he is, and most likely always will, be best known for. T.E Lawrence was a larger than life character, he was special at what he did and he knew it, O’Toole plays the part with absolute conviction, never attempting to reach out for the audience’s sympathy, simply bringing the character shining to life with a God like ferocity. He has brought that same ferocity to the vast majority of his roles since, whether providing the storm to Richard Burton’s calm in Becket, taking the lead in epic literary adaptations such as Lord Jim, more intimate ones such as Goodbye Mr. Chips, the thundering fireworks of his verbal duels with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion Winter, the odd but interesting choices of films like Supergirl or Caligola, or as the elder statesman, bringing his parched, resounding tones and towering pathos to supporting roles in the likes of Troy and Ratatouille. Peter O’Toole carried a degree of grandiosity out of that desert and into anything he has been involved with since, that he has played Presidents, Popes, Kings and…film directors, will come as no surprise, the world knows what he is suited for, and it’s majesty.

The Director;

Roberto Rossellini.

Roberto Rossellini was born into a bourgeois family in Rome in 1906, his father built the first cinema in Italy, and granted his son an unlimited free pass. As such, the youngster began frequenting the theatre from an early age, falling in love with the medium he helped to define decades later. Following his fathers death, Rossellini began working as a soundmaker on numerous Italian productions, quickly learning the different aspects of the moviemaking trade before in 1937 he made his first documentary, after this he went on to work as assistant on numerous other directors productions, gaining further experience. Though his directing career began soon after, it was not until 1945 that he began to establish the reputation that endured ever since with Roma, citta Aperrta. Made in the final year of the war it ushered in the beginning of the neo-realist movement that has been the hallmark of Italian cinema ever since, it told the harrowing tale of the city of Rome under Nazi occupation and made a star of Anna Magnani. He followed it up the next year with Paisa, a larger scale chronicle of Italy during the war. He completed his legendary neo-realist trilogy in 1948 with Germanna anno Zero, leaving his native land behind, Rossellini turned his attention to Germany, and the conditions in the country in the wake of the war, told through the eyes of a young boy, the nation’s future, and its struggles to overcome the past. In 1950, Rossellini married Ingrid Bergman, and over the next 4 years they made 6 films together, most famously Stromboli, Europa ’51 and Viaggio in Italia, all character dramas dealing with wider world issues. Though as a cinematic icon it was these later years that made him most famous, it was in that first decade, during the neo-realist period of the 1940s, that Roberto Rossellini made his most defining works as a filmmaker. He took non professional actors and put a camera to them, against the backdrop of one of the most turbulent times in the continents history, perhaps as close as narrative cinema has ever, or will ever come to capturing life on screen. He continued working till the year of his death, but it was in those first ten years of his career, that Rossellini earned cinematic immortality.

The Picture;

Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952)

Hollywood had been turning out musicals since they knew how, ever since Al Jolson sang his way to immortality in The Jazz Singer, the movies had been brimming with song, from Top Hat to The Wizard of Oz to On the Town, from those beginnings to the genre’s decline in the mid 60s musicals garnered Best Picture Oscars on six different occasions, yet still, over half a century later, the Hollywood movie musical was perhaps never more perfectly embodied than in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. Created in collaboration between Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (the two who had brought the iconic On the Town to the screen 3 years prior) the film set new standards of musical innovation, from Donald O’Connors physically awe inspiring, manic hilarity on ‘Make ’em Laugh’ to the unflinching joy of ‘Good Morning’, the dreamlike odyssey of the ‘Broadway Rhythm Ballet’ and the soaring precipitation soaked glory of the title song itself. Yet here was not a film built entirely upon its musical sequences, for Singin’ in the Rain featured fine performances from its entire cast, from Kelly’s ballsy, charming leading man, Debbie Reynolds’ sweet softness, Donald O’Connor and his electric verve and Jean Hagen’s greedy, jealous, simple and conniving starlet, and even more impressively, here was a musical social commentary at it’s heart. Telling the tale of the coming of sound to cinema, of the changing world and how all in it learned to cope, about ambition and stardom and glitz, about the ones who toil and make the magic and the ones that shine and create illusions. There were those that made more money, and those that won more awards, but only one, had Gene Kelly…singin’…and dancin’…in the rain.

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 12, 2008

The List is Life: #99

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — cigarettesalesman @ 10:51 pm

99.

The Dame;

Lauren Bacall.

Making her screen debut alongside a Hollywood legend at the age of just 19 can’t have been easy, but were you to see the smouldering confidence with which Lauren Bacall carries herself through To Have and Have Not, alongside her soon to be husband, Humphrey Bogart, and you’d think she was a seasoned pro. For over 60 years she has continued to turn in highly confident and mature work, time and time again. Her legendary status cannot be denied, and her beauty has probably lead to her being tremendously overlooked as an actress.

The Dude;

Sean Connery.

An absolute pro. His marvellous physique made him the perfect super spy in his prime yet as the decades have gone by, Sean Connery has displayed a natural and effortless screen charisma that only the true legends of the game could claim to possess. That he numbers among their rank, cannot be denied.

The Director;

Victor Fleming.

Victor Fleming began his directing career making fairly low key silent films. He finished it in the 1940s, making star vehicles with Spencer Tracy as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc. Yet in the end his career has been eternally defined (and rightfully so) by the year 1939, in which he snatched up the reigns and took control of the troubled productions of two all time classics, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Two bonafide iconic films, from entirely different ends of the spectrum, both steereed to the screen by the same man in the same year. Not bad a for a fella who started life in the business as a stuntman.

The Picture;

The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967)

Based (albeit loosely) on the book by Rudyard Kipling and as the last Disney film overseen by the great man himself, The Jungle Book could have coasted on the reputation that such claims would have afforded it. Yet the studio managed, even in the wake of its creators passing to rise up and turn out one of their most beloved classics. Catchy songs from start to finish keep all entertained, characters that are both zany and bold ensure that this is an experience the viewer shall never forget and laying at the heart of this animal kingdom is an entirely human story about a child growing up and accepting his destiny. The darker nature of Kipling’s story may have been replaced by something altogether more family-friendly, but the deep humanity at heart remains throughout.

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