Posts Tagged 'Juno'

Please watch The Wire. Thanks.

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I stumbled over this show a few years back, rented the first disc of the first season, watched two episodes, got bored, took it back. And even now, after becoming one of the show’s biggest fans, when I go back to start the saga over once again, it takes a little work on my part to plow through the first few episodes. This isn’t your average cop drama (viewership doesn’t increase when a fat man shows his ass or somebody says “shit”) or your average television drama for that matter. Season after season, the Wire has consistently offered something fresh, something important, and, above all else, for better or worse, something difficult.

Difficult things you may not want to see, things you may not want to think about, like how many kids are shot dead in the streets, or even in their own homes, every day; how much damage the “war on drugs” inflicts upon our cities, what it costs in terms of lives and tax dollars, without ever improving. The Wire is even difficult to invest yourself in, which was my problem the first time around. One of the show’s veteran writers, Rafael Alvarez, compares each season to a Russian novel, which tend to require readers to “do the work” for a hundred pages or more before momentum carries the story. But the payoff is huge, and remains constant through all five seasons, each more rewarding than the last.

In general terms, two things make this show great.

First, the show’s creator, David Simon, is both a passionate Baltimore native and an incredibly pissed off ex-reporter for the city’s own Baltimore Sun, which is to say his heart for the city is as big as the chip on his shoulder. Massive. He knows Baltimore, he loves Baltimore, and he knows everything that has gone wrong and remains wrong in Baltimore today. Every season the show focuses on one of the city’s pressing social issues, everything from the dying dockworkers unions to the miserable and failing public school system, and all of it ties in with Baltimore’s perennial good guys and bad guys: the city police and the drug crews.

This is what elevates the show to greatness. While Simon pumps the Wire full of social commentary and protest, the show never loses its footing in terms of action, character or pure, effective storytelling. Characters like Omar Little or Marlo Stanfield are borderline mythic, while Det. Jimmy McNulty and Sgt. Ellis Carver are as flawed and compelling as any characters found in the best work of Charles Dickens*. This is due, no doubt, to the stable of thoroughbred writers at the helm, such as George Pelecanos (Hard Revolution, The Night Gardener) , Richard Price (Clockers, Freedomland) and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), as well as superlative** acting talent. Dominic West, Clarke Peters, Michael Kenneth Williams and the rest of the cast consistently deliver some of the finest performances on television, maybe ever.

I won’t spoil any specific scenes or moments. Just know the best (and maybe some of the worst) are better than anything you’ve probably seen anywhere else. The action sequences rival those of John Woo or Sergio Leone at the top of their game. Note: for all it’s social and artistic merit, the show is damned entertaining.

If you aren’t watching now, you have to start from the beginning. There’s no way around it. Each episode feeds into the next, through each season, first to last. This might explain, at least in part, why the show has struggled to find an audience. Work and television don’t mix well, and this is a show that takes some effort. But if you’re tired of the recent influx of reality shows, and crave some substance, then here’s what you do:

A) Log onto Amazon.com or roll up to Best Buy and purchase seasons 1-4. Watch them, and pay attention. Call your cable provider and subscribe to HBO, preferably with OnDemand, so you can catch up with season 5

 Or, if you’re cheap, or just broke:

B) Subscribe to netflix, load your que up with the Wire, and wait a few months for season 5 to come out on DVD (you can probably put it on your que now, pending release)

The Wire may be the most important television show ever created, and could remain as such for a long, long time. Nothing has capitalized on our freedom of speech so effectively or, in many ways, so mercilessly. And that’s the truth, Ruth. Give it a shot. You’ll be glad you did.

Juno still blows.

*A New York Times commentary on the show compared it to the work of Dickens way before I did.

**I’ve used “superlative” on this blog a few times now, and I’m loving it. Great word.

Yeah. Juno is a pretty terrible movie, actually.

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Here’s a movie that isn’t just aggressively hip and quirky, but makes sure you’re paying attention to both with a pre-teen’s persistence. Like in the beginning, after discovering her pregnancy (and thank god for Rainn Wilson’s cameo; I mean, who else could’ve uttered those immortal words, “this is one doodle that can’t be un-did, homeskilliet”?) Juno McGuff* is carrying on flippant and sarcastic conversations with both friends and abortion clinic receptionists, discussing her unwanted unborn child like a zit or a dumb thing she said to a boy she likes. These conversations are held on a telephone shaped like a hamburger, hinged on the side so it opens up to the inner beef patty. The hamburger phone is irredeemably gay to begin with, and yet Juno doesn’t merely talk on it, she talks about it, making sure we, the audience, are paying attention to how damn cute and quirky she is. This happens after another inspired scene where, lugging around a jug of Sunny D, Juno comes upon a curbside living room set with vintage-by-way-of-Hot Topic appeal, which she decides to haul to her baby daddy, Pauly Bleeker’s house (with names like these, my god, how can the movie not be quirky as all get out?), arrange in his front yard and lounge in when she tells him that the grey clump of cells growing in her belly half-belongs to him.

Juno appears to be the girl screenwriter Diablo Cody wishes she had been at sixteen, with the apparent maturity of a thirty-year-old, the wit of a far more intelligent person, a loaded bank of pop culture references to sling and, of course, a hamburger phone. Unfortunately the yearnings of the screenwriter do not automatically translate into the yearnings of her characters, which is why those in this film feel more like the tin ducks and pellet guns of a carnival game, firing or being fired upon with air-powered quips and phrases.

 I get it. Believe me. Juno’s affectlessness is supposed to be a character flaw, a defense mechanism, whatever, and that she ultimately learns to express herself, to love and to let others in, blah, blah, blah. Unfortunately, a jarring breakdown scene in the family’s minivan, a note scribbled on a discarded oil change receipt and an orange tictac-laden finale with the elusive Pauly Bleeker (Michael Cera, who delivers the most genuine performance in the whole film and gets maybe two scenes, three tops) do not amount to character maturation. These scenes, and a handful of others, only suggest that Cody had enough of a grasp of story structure to realize that she couldn’t have ninety minutes of name-checking bands and cracking Thundercats jokes.

Two scenes stand out in memory,The first involves Juno and the ex-rocker (of course!) yuppie, played by Jason Bateman. After interviewing the yuppie couple (Bateman and Jennifer Garner), and agreeing to let them to adopt her child, Juno forms a friendship with the husband, drawn to his youthful attitude and, wouldn’t you know, exhaustive knowledge of the coolest bands, comics and horror films. Once Juno starts hanging out with this ex-rocker, an inevitable and epic volley of punk and alternative grunge bands ensues, followed by a longwinded discussion of who, between Dario Argento and Herschell Gordon, is the better goremongering horror director. Here is Diablo Cody at her most obvious, letting the audience know that she knows a lot about a lot of subculture, stuff she wishes she’d known so authoritatively at sixteen.

The rest of the plot just sort of happens. Juno gets pregnant and her family just sort of goes along with, you know, whatever. The suburbanite marriage just sort of falls apart, with Bateman, who in the beginning is oppressed by his domineering and anal-retentive wife, becoming selfish and childish, while Garner, who starts off cold and inhumane, becomes sweet and maternal. The baby is just sort of born and given away, and it all wraps up in time for Juno and Bleeker to just sort of fall in love (he is the mac to her cheese, as she says) culminating in an agonizingly long scene of them singing and playing guitar together.

There are a handful of genuine scenes. When Bateman shares his guitars with Juno (before the epic bout of hipster name-checking), he opens up to her about unmade dreams of “making it” as a musician, settling for the comfort and stability of suburbia. Though not particularly complex or impressive, this scene is at least relatable, and offers some authentic humanity. Also, when Juno finally, and inexplicably, realizes that she loves Bleeker, she says to him, something to the effect of, “You’re just so cool, and you don’t even try.” Bleeker response with, “I try really hard, actually.” This, unlike maybe 98% of the remaining dialogue, offers genuine and character-driven wit.

This is the problem with most recent comedies. The concept of wit has been reduced to the ability to reference something obscure or culturally relevant. A deeper connection to the story or the characters isn’t necessary, so long as the audience gets the reference, and the reference is hip or, at the very least, popular. Juno sticks to the former, like when Juno’s water breaks, she responds by shouting, “Thundercats go!” At this line, the theater I was in erupted with laughter, because, hey, we’ve all seen Thundercats, or at least clips of it on “I Love the 80s”, and, you know, they say that too! It’s not so different from the recent slew of dick-bitingly nauseating “spoof” comedies, like “Date Movie” or “Epic Movie”, which elicit laughs by putting caricatures of pop figures or recent films on screen. There is no method to it, or commentary in the subtext (think “Airplane!” or “Shaun of the Dead”), or subtext to begin with. Put on a cartoonish likeness of Britney Spears, or Rocky Balboa as an escaped geriatrics patient, complete with a walker and IV bag , and you have yourself a laugh riot.

This isn’t to say that true comedies aren’t making it into theaters. Jason Reitman’s last film, “Thank You For Smoking” was lights out, as was last year’s character-driven indie darling, “Little Miss Sunshine”.  Then there’s anything Will Ferrell is in (for the most part), or anything Judd Apatow is attached to (“40-Year-Old Virgin”, “Knocked Up”, “Superbad”, etc.) But Juno is evidence that, even in the indie universe, the line is blurring between genuine humor and pop culture reference-blasting. Now, a little bit is okay, or even a lot, so long as it’s handled well and balanced with human characters and a strong sense of the story. Over the years, Kevin Smith and Adam McKay have shown an ability to find this balance, and as I’ve said, at times, “Juno” does as well. These times are simply overshadowed by the rest of the film, and its Sixth Grader attempts to be cool and make sure you pay attention. Side note: the soundtrack, for the most part, is unbearable. I know inexplicable lyrics and off-key vocals sung over detuned acoustic guitar is pretty damn hip, like the Moldy Peaches crap that plays throughout almost the entire film, but it sucks nonetheless. It sucks like none other. And suits this film just fine.

 *Even the name Juno is a reference to the cruel and antogonizing Roman goddess. Don’t worry, though. Cody made sure to put in an entire monologue to explain this.