Dec 28

“Juno”: Teen in Trouble Gets Love and Support from Her Family

The comedy/drama Juno (2007), starring Ellen Page, with J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as her dad and stepmom, presents a pretty functional family, something we don’t often see in films. Watch the trailer below:

As you can see, then, there’s the issue of an unplanned pregnancy in adolescence. As is so often the case, the review by Roger Ebert is spot on:

Juno informs her parents in a scene that decisively establishes how original this film is going to be. It does that by giving us almost the only lovable parents in the history of teen comedies: Bren (Allison Janney) and Mac (J.K. Simmons). They’re older and wiser than most teen parents are ever allowed to be, and warmer and with better instincts and quicker senses of humor…How infinitely more human and civilized their response is than all the sad routine “humor” about parents who are enraged at boyfriends.

UPDATE, 8/22/12: The following two scenes are no longer available.

Here’s the scene in which the teenager announces her news:

Juno’s Confession

In the next clip, stepmom Bren and Juno’s friend Leah accompany her to her ultrasound:

Juno’s Ultrasound

As described by Andrew Sarris, New York Observer: “Juno’s dad, Mac MacGuff…and her stepmom, Bren…defy stereotypes by being neither gaga hysterical nor bitingly aloof. Instead, they maintain a level of intelligent concern that makes them helpful partners in Juno’s warmhearted but risky enterprise.”

Dec 27

“Everybody’s Fine” in the Family (Or Not) for the Holidays

Another movie for holiday viewing, Everybody’s Fine (2009), may have missed a larger audience due to less-than-great critical reviews. It actually fared much better with actual audiences and is worth seeing, in my opinion.

Robert De Niro leads the Everybody’s Fine cast as Frank Goode, a recent widower who’s retired from his factory job where he coated telephone wires; the chemicals involved contributed to the development of a chronic illness. His four adult kids live in various locations across the country. Although he’d been expecting them to visit him at the holiday, each cancels.

Despite his doctor’s advice against traveling, Frank then “…embarks on an impromptu road trip to reconnect with each of his grown children only to discover that their lives are far from picture perfect.” (Metacritic)

Critic Marshall Fine‘s review: “This is a film for adults, to be sure – adults dealing with older parents, adults dealing with adult children – families in general learning how to communicate when separated by time and distance, even in the age of being instantly in touch electronically.”

Watch the Everybody’s Fine trailer:

Frank’s first stop is New York City, where he expects to find his son the artist. But he’s nowhere to be found, and Frank has to move on. This mystery pervades the subsequent interactions with each of his other kids.

He finds out from his two daughters that one of the main gaps in the relationships between him and them had to do with his specific parental role when they were growing up. Some relevant quotes:

Amy (Kate Beckinsale) to Frank: I tell you the good news and spare you the bad. Isn’t that what mom used to do for you when we were kids?

………………………………………………………………

Rosie (Drew Barrymore): We could just talk to mom.

Frank: Oh, but you couldn’t just talk to me?

Rosie: Well she was a good listener, you were a good talker.

Frank: Well so that’s good, we made a good team.

Various other revelations emerge over the course of this movie, not all of them pleasant, but it’s interesting to see how they occur within the specific family dynamics. A few more reviews:

Adam R. Holz, PluggedIn: “Everybody’s Fine explores how two of Frank’s character traits—perfectionism and denial of difficult realities—have ultimately wrought havoc in his children’s lives. That Frank has caused such damage over the course of their lifetimes isn’t positive, of course. But the fact that he’s trying to face the truth for the first time in his life is.”

Joe NeumaierNew York Daily News: “…works because it has a feel for little things.”

 ***Ann HornadayWashington Post: “Everybody should see Everybody’s Fine. But one piece of advice: Phone home first.”

Dec 26

Kris Kringle: Delusions of Santahood in “Miracle on 34th Street”

Although there have been a couple remakes, the original Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in which Edmund Gwenn plays a department store Santa by the name of Kris Kringle, appears to be the all-time favorite.

Gwenn, furthermore, not only won an Oscar for this film but also is the only actor ever to win one for a portrayal of Santa.

And his Kris Kringle really is a joy to watch and know. As described by critic David Cornelius, Gwenn’s superbly acted Santa “…lives for the joy of helping others. He knows that goodness is a better remedy for the world, and he lives every minute with an aim to watch goodness spread.”

The film’s storyline, from website IMDB: “When a nice old man who claims to be Santa Claus is institutionalized as insane, a young lawyer decides to defend him by arguing in court that he is the real thing.” Although insanity in today’s world is generally legalese for the inability to tell right from wrong, for the movie’s purposes, “insane” is the equivalent of “crazy.”

One Macy’s employee, the head of the toy department, Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), remarks, kind of in Kringle’s defense: “Maybe he’s only a little crazy like painters or artists or those men in Washington.”

Even if Kris Kringle is delusional, though, most people with delusions aren’t harmful to themselves or others. This is something that the cruelly incompetent “psychologist” Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) doesn’t appear to know or care about.

Sawyer, unhappy with Kringle’s behavior, retaliates by finagling the involuntary commitment of Kringle to a mental hospital. The only way to get out of there? Kringle’s day in court.

Emanuel Levy, film critic, on the film as a whole: “Sharply written, the tale makes smart, even edgy observations about corrupt politics and cheap psychology…”

And David Cornelius summarizes the film aptly:

…the genius of the screenplay (written by George Seaton, who also directed) is that no one ever authoritatively declares Kris to be Santa, nor does it prove in any way that Santa even exists…Sure, the movie drops hints and suggestions in Kris’ favor…but nothing is ever solid. It’s up to us to believe, and believe we certainly do.

And yet the film refuses to get mushy on us. The sentiment is genuine, but never forced. Seaton’s script is quite sharp, deftly mixing sly comedy (it’s actually a very funny movie) and pointed commentary (the movie remains a memorable attack on the commercialism of Christmas) into its tender drama. This isn’t some cornball effort that uses the holiday backdrop as a way to cheaply jerk a tear. No sir, it’s just a simple story of how kindness and decency will win over even the most cynical hearts. Quite plainly, it’s the Christmas spirit put on film.

Dec 23

A Charlie Brown Therapy: Lucy’s Ineptitude As Shrink

When the award-winning TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas initially aired in 1965 we also saw a Charlie Brown therapy when he turned to Lucy’s psychiatric booth to deal with holiday depression. A Charlie Brown Christmas continues to be one of the most watched shows at this time of year.

A recent article about this classic, entitled “Annie Hall for Kids? Yes, But Darker!: Recapping A Charlie Brown Christmas,” (Bruce Handy and Juli Weiner, Vanity Fair) is worth reading for its humorous interpretations of the “Peanuts” kids’ characterizations from an adult point of view.

In this beloved Christmas special, it’s notable that Charlie Brown seeks “therapy” for his depression by going to his friend Lucy’s psychiatric booth, where she regularly provides her services (for “5 cents please”) in the “Peanuts” cartoon strip.

Yes, shrinks and clients out there, Lucy believes she can solve any presenting problem for this amount of money. And no, her advice is generally not worth even that.

The first time, in fact, that Charlie ever consults therapist Lucy—during a previous bout of depression—she simply replies, “Snap out of it, five cents please.” Like the Charlie Brown that he is, though, he doesn’t stop trying.

Could it be that Charlie Brown would be cured by now of his recurrent depressive episodes if Lucy were more compassionate, competent, and, well, knowledgeable? Probably not, actually—because, as Charlie’s purported friend, she also lacks another key shrink ingredient, therapeutic objectivity.

That being said, one of the saving graces of the following Lucy-treats-Charlie session is that Lucy ultimately does seek a solution for his Christmas malaise that actually makes some sense.

        Merry therapy to you and yours this season.

Dec 21

“Young Adult”: Emotionally Stunted Alcoholic Narcissist

Over the weekend I saw the new movie Young Adult, a comedy/drama starring Charlize Theron, and featuring the same combo of writer and director, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, behind the success of Juno (2007).

Since seeing it, I read an article by Dan Persons, film journalist, and liked what he had to say regarding the release of this film during the holiday season:

Bless screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman their twisted, little hearts. In a season rife with people bettering themselves through moody introspection, they introduce us to Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), author of young adult novels and a woman who looks within and comes away with all the wrong lessons.

Young Adult isn’t season-specific, but it does serve as a healthy counterbalance to all that holiday growth and belonging…

Theron’s character Mavis, as described by Claudia Puig, USA Today, is  a “surly, emotionally stunted woman.” She’s depressed and knocks back hard liquor like there’s no tomorrow—and it clearly isn’t doing her any favors. And, with an unhealthy megadose of narcissism, her main quest in life, at the age of 37, is to bulldoze her way back into the arms of her old high school boyfriend—who’s now happily married with a newborn.

Here’s a look at the trailer:

In the end, although very impressed with Theron’s acting, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the overall story. Yes, it had held my interest. But…

A few hours later, though, it caught up to me, and I found myself thinking more about its meaning and impact. As Robert Levin, The Atlantic, concludes: “It trades in discomfort and unease, not catharsis. That’s an achievement worthy of admiration, if you can endure it.”

And Roger Ebert‘s sentiments also come close to my own feelings: “As I absorbed it, I realized what a fearless character study it is. That sometimes it’s funny doesn’t hurt.”

I would add, though, that the character is so damaged that some of those so-called funny moments—the ones that produced laughter from the people around us while my partner and I looked at each other questioningly—also do hurt.