AFI Fest 2007: Day 5

This film festival is beginning to feel like I’m speed dating, going from one movie to the next with each one getting 5 or 10 minutes to impress me. If it fails, I’m ready to move on to the next one. The pace may have had something to do with my reaction to the first film I saw Monday night.

USA 2007

Have you ever found yourself in a movie theater watching a movie where everyone seems to be enjoying themselves but you? That was my experience last night with Jason Reitman’s new comedy written by Diablo Cody and starring Ellen Page. I wanted to like it. I really did. It turns out I didn’t hate it, but I’m a little mystified by where all the praise for it is coming from. 

The story in a very tiny nutshell is that 16-year-old free spirit Juno finds out she’s pregnant and she chooses to give the baby up for adoption. That’s not the whole story, but it’s the meat of it.

More important than the story however, in fact the main attraction of the movie and the source of most of the humor is the patter between the characters. The dialogue is the star of this show. Cody definitely has an ear for a certain kind of banter and Page has a knack for delivering it, but I have a feeling it read funnier on the page than it plays on the screen. The audience around me laughed a lot, but I found myself smiling at most.

The problem was that 16-year-olds were talking like they were 29. There was an air of artificiality to the whole thing. Characters were like constructs rather than flesh and blood people. They were created to recite funny dialogue. They listen to Astrud Gilberto or Iggy Pop and they argue Herschell Gordon Lewis vs. Dario Argento because it seems cool and smart and a little edgy. If they were real, these characters would’ve watched Ghost World a thousand times. But they’re not. They’re not human beings at all, but an amalgam of quirks and pop culture references. Even the pregnancy is just another little piece of the Juno puzzle. It’s hardly taken seriously. The most major consequence is that her belly gets big and kids in school look at her funny.

Yes, there is quirk to spare in Juno. From the characters to the dialogue to the Kimya Dawson/Moldy Peaches infused soundtrack (they even tore a page out of the Wes Anderson playbook with a Kinks song). It’s quirk for quirk’s sake and it’s going to charm a lot of people while annoying the hell out of many others. I fell somewhere in between. Above it, but not ready to walk out of the theater. I even found myself humming the Moldy Peaches song later on in the evening, but I never bought into the movie.

I wanted to. Trust me. I like Ellen Page a lot and she did a great job. Michael Cera was also good as the dorky father of her child (though his gangly, awkward, innocent guy shtick I admit is starting to wear a little thin), but nobody was playing a real person. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner probably had the truest moments as the prospective adopting parents, but they actually felt out of place in the movie and ultimately they were clichés anyway.

In the end, had Juno been played as a straight up comedy with stronger laughs, it wouldn’t have mattered so much, but just being funny wasn’t enough. In the end it had to reach for an emotional payoff that was never earned. It felt dishonest and it fell flat.

I think I’m going to be in the minority of opinion on this one, however. The audience around me appeared to be having a great time and I want to emphasize I didn’t hate the movie. At worst, it was harmless and it might have worked as a true indie film if it hadn’t been given the Fox Searchlight treatment with all the rough edges smoothed over.

Despite my reservations about Juno, I look forward to seeing more from both Ellen Page and the screenwriter Diablo Cody. The latter is an interesting new voice and the buzz around her may still pan out. Oddly, even though I didn’t care for it, I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend it to people. I think you alread know if you’re going to like it or not and I hope you can read between the lines of my crankiness and decide for yourself.

Juno opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 5, 2007. I’m sure a wider release will follow.

artofnegativethinking-250.jpgThe Art of Negative Thinking (Kunsten å tenke negativt)
Norway 2006

First time writer/director Bård Breien’s The Art of Negative Thinking might not be the perfect movie, but it was the perfect antidote to the enforced artificial quirkiness of Juno.

Full of rage and bitterness, this movie also somehow manages to be extremely funny. You see, Geirr is pissed off. You would be too if you were confined to a wheelchair for two years as he has been. His wife Ingvild tries to be supportive, but it’s not easy when Geirr is content to hole up in his room, smoking pot, watching war movies and listening to Johnny Cash.

 Hoping to shake him out of his miasma, she invites a state run support group over for a visit. They’re a motley crew of somewhat demented disabled people. Their leader is Tori, a doctor who fascistically insists on easy positivist dogma like “focus on the solution not the problem.” These are the kind of platitudes that might be more meaningful to people who are at least able to wipe their own asses and Geirr will have none of it.

Tori also has a bit of a Nurse Ratched thing going on. She likes to be in control at all times and she manages it until Geirr enters the picture and everything gets turned on its head. Of course, when chaos finally reigns, issues can be confronted with honesty and only then can healing really begin.

This is a gleefully non-politically correct treatment of disabled people, though I have to admit it’s easy for me to sit back and enjoy when I can stand up and walk around on two legs. Interestingly, on my way from the subway station to the theater, there was a blind guy walking down the sidewalk who had kind of veered off to the side like he didn’t know where he was going. A concerned passerby stopped to see if he was ok and to point him in the right direction and the guy explained he’d just lost his bearings and was looking for the curb so he could orient himself again. He was verbally appreciative, and yet there was a note in his tone that seemed to bristle a little bit at being patronized. Clearly the person was just being a good citizen, but how demoralizing it must be to be treated as though you’re helpless all the time. And yet, should the person have just passed on by, allowing the person to flounder? I don’t know.

Sorry for the tangent. I just remembered seeing that and it somehow fit in with the film I saw.

Tonight I’m going to see at least one movie, The Tracy Fragments, a Canadian film (with Ellen Page again) by Bruce McDonald that’s supposedly a sort of experimental exploration of teenage alienation in the big city. Also of note is the US premiere of Body of War, a documentary from Phil Donahue (who produced and co-directed) about a soldier who is paralyzed by a spinal injury and the North American premiere of Noise with Tim Robbins on a one-man crusade against noise in Manhattan.

As you can see, I’ve switched up my reviewing style a little bit here in the festival. I’m aiming for quantity rather than depth. I don’t think there is any other way I could do it and still keep up. When the festival is over, I’ll revert to more detailed reviews, but this has been sort of an invigorating experience so far. I wonder how it reads. Let me know.


10 thoughts on “AFI Fest 2007: Day 5

  1. Funny because it sounds like this just as easily gone the other way with you loving Juno and hating the other movie. But hey, sometimes these things happen.

    I’m the guy that really couldn’t see how so many critics included Taladega Nights in their Top Ten lists for the year, so you know I’ve got a weird take on comedy.

  2. Would you believe the more I think about it, the less I’m liking it? It’s beginning to seem so cynically calculated. I don’t know.

    I look forward to hearing what other people think about it. For now, give me the cranky Norwegian paraplegic.

  3. Thank you for the Juno review, you just ensured it a place on my Netflix queue as opposed to a theatre viewing. You said exactly what I said I thought it would after that annoying trailer. Glib, hipper than thou dialgoue is a major bummer for me. The great thing about Ghost World is that the characters talk like that, a little, but the movie never buys into their worldview, they’re full of shit, and the movie knows it.

  4. I love the Speed Dating analogy. I think it fits the experience perfectly, to be honest, and it kind of explains the Ghost World comment. When you’re speed dating, the rush and haze of the experience sometimes leads to some potentially unintentionally misconstrued comments.

    But I agree with Chuck’s response. Well-written yet unrealistic charaters and dialogue is just as annoying as poorly written characters and dialogue. It’s actually more frustrating for me, only because there’s intelligence behind it but it still misses the mark.

    Course, I haven’t seen this movie. I may disagree with you.

  5. I think I already knew that I wouldn’t like it as much as most others. But the clarity of the your fine review really helped to consolidate that impression. Thanks Craig.

    Thanks again for the heads up about the advance screening of the truly great There Will be Blood. While at the Castro I saw that Blade Runner – The Final Cut will play there in February. Just goes to show that all things come to those who are patient.

  6. i loved how you got the ghostworld ref just works.and it doesn’t have to have a 300% concrete meaning. 🙂

    anyway i ahven’t even seen ghostworld(beat that..)and i’m not cool and i was even worse in the cool department when i was 16.

    so i wonder how this film will play for me…

    before your review i was thinking(correct or not..doesn’tmatter) that people may go crazy for this/it may crossover because it seems a sit com but abit bettter…(and that will show the mainstream the true meaning of indie…)

    and thanks for taking the kicker to fox s.s. with your they sanded down the edges type comment. love it…

  7. anyway cgaig i think both of these reviews are detailed. 🙂

    and the art of the of the negative seems so much better than ….uh atoonement.there you go…

    craig your words read/transmit fine…..and we’re swallowing every bit. well you know what i mean… 🙂

  8. I haven’t seen Juno yet — just the trailer — so I’m talking out of my hat. What I’m wondering about is, of those who really like the filmk, what’s their demographic? Do the teens like it? Or is this a film that rubs calamine lotion on parents who are consumed with angst about the relationships with their teenaged children?

    Certainly the idea of the film sounds good — especially to adults — and backstory of the film — especially its writer — is the type of thing AMPAS enjoys lapping up like cream.

    Diabo Cody, Callie Khoury, Matt & Ben, Billy Bob, the Big Fat Greek Wedding gal (sorry I forgot her name and used “gal”) — the Academy theys loves their instant phenoms.

  9. You talk out of your hat Pierre, while I talk out of my ass.

    I think the younguns are going to like Juno a lot, but the older skewing festival audience I saw it with also had a great time.

    I suspect it might skew a little too young for the Academy, but I’m known far and wide for being clueless about these types of things.

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