Nov 30, 2007


Diablo Cody is a young woman that was living in Minnesota and doing sex work (whatever that means) when a guy from LA contacted her on her blog and asked her to write a screenplay, which she did. The result four years later is Juno, well directed by Jason Reitman.
This is the kind of "Lana Turner discovered at Schwab's" story that makes my stomach churn with envy, I must confess. In the case of Diablo, and to judge from the very entertaining film, she is actually very talented, so on the one hand the stomach churns violently; on the other, chapeau to her.
Juno is the story of a prickly, sarcastic, but sweet 16 year old high school student who gets pregnant by the very flappable Michael Cera, in yet another one of his quiet, nebbishy performances.
I love Michael Cera and I wish somebody gives him a villainous role soon. It would be wonderful to see him play against type.
Juno is played by the formidable Ellen Page, who I am sure will be the subject of much awarding this season. The film is very funny, quite endearing and it sports very spunky dialogue. It is quite up to date with teenage patois, which tends more towards sophistication than monosyllables. There is plenty of verbal dexterity in this film and the language is quite original.
In a way, Juno is like a fairy tale for bohemians that tries to turn certain stereotypes of the pregnant teenager genre on its toes. For instance, Juno's parents, hilariously and warmly portrayed by JK Simmons and Allison Janney, are actually very sympathetic oddballs, instead of the garden variety uncomprehending sansabelt weirdos that usually populate this genre.
In fact, what I liked best about this movie was the acting. The comedy was just right, the pitch quite perfect. Jason Bateman is great as a repressed rocker married to the very uptight Jennifer Garner, who wants to adopt Juno's bundle of joy, or the "thing" as Juno fondly calls it.
I saw Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking and I thought it was leaden and unfunny, but in Juno he displays great finesse, a great sense of light satire and much humanity. He seems much more inspired by this material.
On the surface the movie seems unconventional, but at heart it is sheer fantasy. People make much of the fact that this is a spunky teenage heroine, as opposed to the teenage male mutants we are used to seeing each and every summer. She is an outsider, as is her family, but there is a very conventional core to this film. She wants the kid to grow up in a good home and this being a comedy, I will not ruin it for you if I tell you it has a happy ending that would probably not be as saccharine were the same thing to happen in real life.
Still, it is funny and enjoyable and moving. It reminded me a little bit of Little Miss Sunshine and I feel it tries a bit too hard to show it's indy oddball credentials (some of the cutesy music drove me nuts), but it grows on you, just like Juno's belly, and you end up liking it.

Nov 28, 2007

Frank Langella: Getting Better With Age

There are actors who get worse with time. They become caricatures of themselves. Two examples that come to mind are Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino, two great actors who became unbearable to watch in later life. In the case of Frank Langella, the opposite has happened. I don't think he was ever a mediocre actor, but now that he is older, he is a giant. I've seen him onstage twice and my jaw has dropped in amazement both times. Once in a Noel Coward play where he played a flamboyant queen and he was hilarious and powerful and mesmerizing and human; and in Frost/Nixon, where he played Richard Nixon way beyond the easy caricature. He was awesome.
Now he plays a former famous novelist in the very literary movie Starting Out in The Evening. And he is so quiet and restrained and so powerfully internalized, I'm guessing Oscar nomination too, if somebody takes the trouble to watch the small, fine film. It is delightful to see Lili Taylor again, playing his intense New York daughter. She holds her own as usual, with great intensity. As for Lauren Ambrose (formerly of 6 Feet Under), she tries very hard and almost succeeds in portraying an ambitious graduate student who insinuates herself into the life of the famous novelist. She gives a brave performance, but she fidgets, and makes faces and shows every tic in the book, which may not be the best way to go when you are faced with a Totemic force like Frank Langella, who is a study in the emotional power of stillness.
Kudos to my pals, cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian and Manuel Billeter, the camera operator (and dp of my own little short -- gotta do the plug), for making this movie, shot in HD video, look like a film, very beautiful.

Nov 26, 2007

I Take It Back About Casey Affleck

I like Ben Affleck, as my loyal readers already know. I like him as a movie star, for he is handsome, charming and likable and I like him even more as an articulate, intelligent, committed liberal.
And now he has directed a movie, Gone Baby Gone, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, and he has done a pretty good job of it. I remember reading a review where the complaint was that Affleck peopled his movie with too many unsavory-looking real people from tough Boston neighborhoods. I found it totally refreshing that here is an American commercial film where the much touted prosperity of our country is nowhere in evidence. Affleck takes his sweet time showing almost nothing but poverty, ignorance and crime and I commend him for it. He really does not sugarcoat the sordid underbelly of drug and child abusers, and the movie is actually rather hard to watch. There is not much to be so smug about at home, the movie seems to say.
The story is a sad and sordid affair. Brother Casey stars as Patrick Kenzie, a very young guy who specializes in missing person cases; as he points out, the kind of missing who disappear as their bills mount. But in this case, a little girl has been abducted and Amy Madigan, in a powerful performance as her aunt, hires him and his lover and partner, Michelle Monaghan (who seems too wholesome for the way she makes a living), to help look for the girl. I had major reservations about Casey Affleck in that Jesse James movie. He is kind of an unlikely movie star, with a reedy, thin voice and strange good looks. He looks a bit like a goof, and his performance in that movie lacked focus. In this case, Casey is much more convincing, and quite compelling as a young detective with connections in the hood and unimpeachable morals. Now, why Americans, even intelligent and sensitive ones like Ben Affleck, have this unyielding obsession with moral heroics, I still can't totally fathom, and a lot of the movie concentrates in Kenzie growing into the very challenging role he has been assigned with utter moral certainty. He is sort of a reluctant hero, but his probity is the kind that seems to exist only in movies and the convention seems at odds with the rest of the film. Yet at the core of the film lies an interesting moral dilemma. The mother of the missing child makes Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest seem like Florence Nightingale. Amy Ryan deserves an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. Not only she is a coke whore and a drunk but she exhibits the kind of tough, irresponsible, bitter selfishness that only the dispossessed can have. She is fierce and tough and angry and scarred by life and unafraid of meanness, but even she eventually breaks as no sign of the girl turns up. Her pain seems genuine, at least for a moment, but survival makes her craven, not a saint. She is a defiant wreck and the performance is pitch perfect and astounding.
Not to give away the complicated plot, the dilemma centers on what is best for the girl versus what is the right thing to do. The movie stretches credibility by making the dilemma more powerful than it is but it still is a nice twist to what seems like a routine police thriller. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and morality (and this may be a fresh concept in this country) is not as cut and dry as people hold it to be.

Nov 16, 2007

No Country for Old Men

I went in expecting a masterpiece and I went out, as my friend Lisa says, trying to convince myself that I had liked it more than I did.
It seems to me that this movie is another, less successful version of Fargo. There is a man (Josh Brolin, quite good) who gets involved in a crime far out of his league, but who is not as hapless as Jerry Lundergaard (Bill Macy); there is a very evil man (Javier Bardem) who is like the Peter Stormare character (sans sidekick and much more deadly), and there is the decent but completely underwhelmed small town police force (Tommy Lee Jones, incredible, as usual, and his stupid sidekick), there is the Coens' fascination with the local patois, and there is the same indictment against greed and lust for money from the hearts of ordinary, decent people. Except in this case, the violence is far more vile and the few attempts at humor, which worked so wonderfully in Fargo, really don't match the rest of the tone of the film, which seems rather dispassionate and somber. The screenplay is tight and complicated and the movie is extremely suspenseful and entertaining, but somehow I couldn't muster myself to care, and I'm still trying to figure out why. It's yet another Coen brothers mash up of genres, a lovely mix of a modern Western and a crime thriller, but it's not as flawless as Fargo (to me, the gold standard in Coen brothers films). Perhaps it's that Javier Bardem, as wonderful as he is, is a one dimensional cartoon of pure evil. I like the idea of unexplained, non-psychological evil. In movies, and indeed in the press in the US, they tend to use fastidious over-explanations of human evil (child abuse, etc) and here evil shows up one day and it just is, which is fine by me. And I also really like and respect the open ending because they would have disappointed me deeply if they gave it a completely artificial ending. In fact, the ending is the most interesting part of the movie, as it effects the one and only change in Bardem's character and yet we don't quite know how much of a change it was. It is subtle and brilliant, but my main problem with this film is one of tone. The salt-of-the-Earth people who inhabit this Texas wasteland seem too real compared with Bardem and his Prince Valiant hairdo (don't get me wrong, I'd love this man if he wore a mullet) and I was really disturbed by the bad attempts at ineffectual police humor; they just didn't seem to belong to the same movie, which has a harsher, darker, much less playful feel than suits the usual Coen antics.
I guess film reviewers in the States need to get excited about something, and this is certainly a perfect movie to get excited about. The Coens at least are original, sophisticated filmmakers and this is a much better use of their immense talent than futile stuff like The Ladykillers, but it just didn't blow me away. Fargo did.

Nov 9, 2007

No Country for Old Reviewers Who Give Away the Plots

I very much want to see the new Coen Brothers movie No Country for Old Men, but already Anthony Lane was kind enough to describe in writing the entire opening scene. Hell, A.O. Scott put the gist of the plot on the byline of his review! Is it possible to go to a movie without knowing absolutely everything that is going to happen? I know I sound like a broken record, or better yet, an escapee from the psycho ward, but it drives me crazy that people cannot write a review without giving away the plot. We lose the element of surprise. And those of us who love movies, well, we live for the element of surprise! I don't want to know what happens. I want to know if you liked it or not and why. Can you write about the movie in general terms without going into plot specifics? Is this too much to ask? Should I be restrained with a straitjacket?
Usually reviewers leave the filler for the middle, which, when confronted with nothing interesting to say, they just tell you everything that happens in the story. In order to avoid the spoilers, I simply read the first and the last sentence and I get a pretty good idea of whether they liked it or not.
Now Anthony Lane has ruined it for me. He's ruined the beginning for me. I'm still going to see the movie, but I am not reading the reviews. And neither should you. (Unless you read mine, coming soon to this here page).