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 5, 2008

The List is Life: #88

88.

The Dame;

Joan Crawford.

Perhaps most readily remembered for her feud with Bette Davis which came to a head in 1962 with her being blown off the screen in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and maybe forever tainted by the damning portrait painted by a bitter daughter in Mommie Dearest, the career that Joan Crawford enjoyed for over 30 years beginning at the dawn of the sound era seems to have been generally forgotten. She was an Academy Award winning actress with numerous acclaimed films under her belt, she worked with major directors and major performers. In Mildred Pierce she gave one of the more iconic performances of the golden era, and a decade later in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, she took the lead as the westen was turned on its head, with strong women in the central roles. One of the greatest of the greatest age, she has insured that she’ll never be forgotten.

The Dude;

Paul Schneider.

Entering into the acting profession at the age of 24 (making him a late comer by todays standards) in the films of David Gordon Green, George Washington and more notably as the lead alongside Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls, Paul Schneider has in a just a few short years established himself as one of the more accomplished supporting actors in the movies today. In 2005 he took a side role in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and with his quirky small town simplicity, literally stole the show from the leads. Then in 2007 he had what could be termed a breakthrough year, with polar opposite roles. Firstly appearing as the villainous Dick Liddil in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a supporting role that he filled with both sinful sleaze and unabashed charm in equal degree, and an almost entirely opposite turn as a quiet, loving brother trying his best to cope with an awkward situation in Lars and the Real Girl. He’s a wonderfully subtle, assured and diverse actor whose career is certainly heading for great heights.

The Director;

Sydney Pollack.

I would venture to say that Sydney Pollack’s finest accomplishments have come in front of the camera rather than behind it. Always taking small roles in movies, he has on more than one occasion, ended up being the finest member of the cast, perhaps most notably in his tiny role in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. However none of these on screen accomplishments can take away from the fact that Pollack is an Academy Award winning director and producer. It was his Robert Redford-Meryl Streep epic Out of Africa that brought him this acclaim, but from where I am sitting his finest work comes in smaller, more character driven movies, where the performers, not the wondrous grandeur take centre stage. As the tagline to his 1969 Jane Fonda vehicle¬† They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? declared, “People are the ultimate spectacle” and rarely is that more in evidence than in Sydney Pollack’s films.

The Picture;

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

Though most widely remembered for the grandiosity of the final sequence, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film that is at heart one of his most intimate and human films. Driven at full force by a wonderful performance from Richard Dreyfuss, who won the Oscar for 1977’s The Goodbye Girl, but should probably have picked up the award for this film. It is a performance both comic and dramatic, filled with the wondrous curiousity of an overgrown child yet at the same time shot through with a certain darkness in its examination of a mans obsession and subsequent neglect of his family. It is that performance around which this film is built; there are brief moments of alien spectacle propping it up throughout, making sure that we remember that we are truly not alone in this one, all mysterious, all beautiful to behold but ambiguous in intent, and it all builds to a wondrous crescendo, that magnificently glorious finale in which all is revealed, truly epic spectacle, human curiousity and those 5 beautiful notes.

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