Sunday, February 10, 2008

If it has half the cast of Arrested Development...

then it has to be good, right? Juno shows us that's clearly true.

Review and Analysis: Juno and Little Miss Sunshine

So Juno doesn't actually have half the cast of television's best comedy of the decade. But it has two, and that's good enough for me. Although, before getting too deep into the discussion, imagine a universe where Juno's father is played by Jeffrey Tambor, who played George (and Oscar) Bluth, and tell me it wouldn't be wonderful.

Oddly, for all the character permutations present in the movie, the Arrested Development reunion of Michael Cera and Jason Bateman never actually showed up. The character permutations that did show up were very good. Orson Scott Card, an author to whom a big part of the inspiration credit for this blog goes, once told a trick for effective characterization. Good characters necessarily become exponentially more complex as the number of characters increases. With only two, you have to write two personalities, and define how the two of them interact. With three, you have three personalities, three sets of interactions, plus any modifications to the interactions if the three of them ever showed up as a group. Some set theorist could probably define this mathematically for large numbers of characters; Card maintains it's a bad choice to include more characters than definable interactions.

And honestly, think of the best literature and movies and television shows. Either they're incredibly complex to the point where using Card's definition rule would merely bog things down, or they truly do focus on a completely defined network of characters. House, at least for the first three seasons, had essentially six characters. You could always describe the relationship between, say, House and Wilson; between Cuddy and Foreman; between Chase and Cameron. One of the reasons that Alien was so classic wasn't necessarily its command of science fiction, but the fact that it had only eight characters, most of whom had distinct relationships to each other. The list could go on.

Ultimately, the Card relationships are impressive in Juno--and something approaching perfection in Little Miss Sunshine, which I'll hit on again later. I'm not sure why it makes so much sense to review these two movies together, except that I read somehow that they were connected in an AJC article a month ago. I think that Movie People could probably explain some better reasons they're connected.

After doing my homework, Wikipedia reports that both are the products of Fox Searchlight.

Another similarity I can immediately identify is that, in the Garden State vein, they're both Soundtrack Movies. That is, they're movies whose soundtracks that people can actually reasonably want to buy, and whose music lends character to the movie rather than just providing background noise. One of the guys I watched Juno with remarked that "this soundtrack is supposed to be like living in Zach Braff's earwax." Of course. Because every work of art in this genre has to be incestuously related to each other, and if I like one of them, I must like them all. But that's a discussion for a different day.

The soundtrack for Little Miss Sunshine was pleasantly Sufjan-ed up, but otherwise not especially remarkable. My dad hit the nail on the head when he described Juno's as "trying a little too hard". Juno tries too hard in a lot of respects. It makes a lot of minor missteps. And yet, I think that's almost intentional. Juno herself says to Bleeker that he's cool and he "doesn't have to try hard". He responds "I try really hard." That could just as easily be an admission, or a wink and a nudge to the audience trying to tie a massive motif together.

Juno herself is the ultimate in trying too hard. Whether it's the writers trying too hard to make her an indie kid, or intentionally going over the top and establishing her character as one that tries too hard to be an indie kid (I prefer to think it's the latter), she's crafted to seem halfway between exquisitely organic and meticulously assembled. Sure, everyone knows someone who uses the same idiosyncratic turns of phrase that she does, that wears Slinky shirts like she does, that guzzles 52-oz blueberry slushies, that has a penchant for obscure 70s punk and slasher movies, that speaks with the same consistently sarcastic timbre. But is there anyone who's that intensely individual... does a Juno actually exist, or is she an amalgamation of every trait held in high regard by a certain demographic? I maintain that nobody is really quite like Juno, and that forcing every one of these attributes into her makes her seem a little alien, something where the whole is not greater or less than the sum of the parts, merely a little off.

She is the sort of character who can make you develop an instant crush on Ellen Page, or who can instantly make you enter super-movie-critic mode, and talk about things like "motifs" and "character relationships" and "traits". But whatever way you look at it, this a movie about trying too hard. The characters, the characterizations, the movie itself. Happily, all of them, especially the movie itself, prevail in the end. Juno takes stale ideas and plots--things like Growing Up Versus Childhood, and Responsibility Versus What Feels Right--and makes them into a story that's not only coherent but engaging. The resolution of those themes is well done, with each supporting character (Bleeker, Mark, Vanessa) not exactly developing as the movie goes on: each remains essentially a static character. The truly interesting approach here is that they seem to be developing, but that's really an illusion, more of a function of Juno's perception of them as they react to her situation than any actual divergence in character. It's an interesting cinematic device, and it works beautifully given what else is going on in the movie.

Ultimately, Juno is excellent, a movie that actually delivers comedy, drama, and characters you care about. It's highly recommended, and punctuated by a wonderful performance from Ellen Page, and nearly equally good showings from Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, and Jennifer Garner. However, if you could choose just one movie to see, it would have to be Little Miss Sunshine.

Most movies, when I'm done with them, I sort of nod, and think okay, that was fun. A select few, like Juno, I actually recommend as something that's entertaining and worth seeing. After I finished Little Miss Sunshine, I had one thing to say: "what a wonderful movie."

I mean it. If you can only see one movie over the next (arbitrary length of time) make it Little Miss Sunshine. The first thing I noticed about this movie, and the thing that inspired my Card analysis of Juno, was that every single one of the characters interacts with every single other character remarkably. Grandpa has a character that shines through all his interactions. But that interaction changes subtly (yet believably) when he talks to Olive, or to either of her parents.

The quirks that pervade Juno's character are here distilled and selectively inserted into every character in the movie. Dwayne? You swear you knew a guy like that in college. Frank? If that guy doesn't show up to your family reunion, that's the exception rather than the norm. Every moment following these characters, and every moment delicately probing the unique relationship that each character has with the next, is nothing short of delightful. And the climax of the movie, with Olive dancing to "Superfreak" and drawing the ire of every other pageant-goer? Anton Chekhov wishes he could write irony that brilliant.

Currently listening: "Just Give Me the Damn Sepak Tekraw Ball," from the Onion News Network podcast

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Transition States (and a game review, too)

One theme that runs throughout discussions of college is change. Learning to learn. Figuring out where you actually want to go with your life. "Finding yourself" (and we all know how I feel about that). Experimentation, if that's your cup of tea. I don't doubt that certain people change; many of my friends certainly have. But I sort of don't know that I've changed much at all since I started school. Granted, I can now watch House and get the meaning of "allosteric inhibitor" or watch the French station on GTCN and catch about every tenth word, but that seems like a pure function of learning, not of personality development.

I recently clicked on the wrong button in Gmail, one that sent me hurtling back to summer 2005 (that strange, strange time between high school and college), and I decided to read some of my correspondence from that era. My writing style is essentially the same. The things I talk about are the same--at least the topics are; the amount of experience I can draw on is something like fifteen percent greater now. The only major change, as far as I can tell, is the people I talk to now.

I think everyone I'm friends with or who may read Isoceleria is, by this point, out of high school. They're out of high school to varying degrees, ranging from less than a year to decades. Think back to your Summer 2005 (whether it be summer 2007 or summer 1976 or anywhere in between) and try and recall your promises to keep in touch with high school friends. How many of them did you contact once you got to college? How many of them did you see again? How many did you actually make a continuous effort through college (and beyond) to stay in touch with? Two and a half years into college, I can say that there are less than ten people from high school I talk to regularly--and that number would probably be even lower if a few of them didn't go to my college.

The best way to measure anything--anything--relating to college is Facebook. That place is a data miner's dream, something that people like my dad can only dream about having unmitigated access to. You can gauge across people--popular culture, or counter culture; when projects are due and tests are scheduled. Or you can find out very important things about an individual person--a relationship just isn't "official" until it's on Facebook, after all. Looking at who sends me messages, it's shifted gradually over the last few year from people I knew from high school to people I know from college.

And now, friends and acquaintances are threatening to do things like "get a job" and "go to grad school". What's going to happen to college friendships once that happens? Does it all dry up, except for a select few, like high school friendships mostly seemed to do? I'm not sure if that's a bad thing (it doesn't seem like a good thing; the best thing we can hope for is neutral).

One major change that I definitely have noticed, and that definitely does seem like a good thing, is that I'm a lot more confident in my personal aesthetic. I know what I think looks good, sounds good, tastes good, is worth spending time on. As a corollary, I'm increasingly impressed with (or attracted to, in a select few cases) people who also have strongly defined aesthetics, and impatient with people who don't have them.

That hasn't changed me from liking good video gaming, though. The usual cycle of "let's all play World of Warcraft" is back in full swing, so I've retreated to some games of my own.

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

I'm one of those Nintendo fanboys who believes that Twilight Princess's predecessor, Ocarina of Time, was brilliant, possibly the best video game ever. Twilight Princess might just surpass it. I'm not done with it--probably about a third to halfway, knowing Zelda games--and I'm already this impressed.

Twilight Princess relies on the Zelda mainstays of sequential dungeoneering, progressive item upgrades, delightfully frustrating item collection side-quests, and a strangely dressed man with pointy elf ears saving a mystical princess. So I won't go into those details.

Where Twilight Princess really shines, though, is in its storyline. The one knock on Ocarina of Time--the part that made people give it A's instead of A+'s--was that the downtime between dungeons was clearly the throwaway part of the game, merely designed as a linear railroad until the next part of the Item Collection Main Quest. In Twilight Princess, however, there are things like plot twists. Important NPCs with memorable character traits. Epic mounted combat. Even a bit of intrigue. Add all of that to everything good about Ocarina of Time, don't make the Oblivion mistake of getting rid of good things from the original game, and you have something truly spectacular.

Currently listening: The Execution of All Things, Rilo Kiley