Juno was the indie success story of 2007. In most years, that would make it an underdog hit, the Little Miss Sunshine in the company of Hollywood muscle. This year, it made it the biggest box-office success in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that Juno was in any way snubbed at the Oscars. It was the featherweight favorite in a heavyweight competition and picked up an Award for Diablo Cody’s original screenplay, a playfully clever creation filled with askew dialogue, a fantasy of youth slang gone wild that borders on precious and contrived. It’s also a delightful, alive little film, where the quirks are built on a bedrock of characters filled with heart and soul.
Ellen Page is impetuous and funny as the smart-mouthed high school goofball who finds herself pregnant after the experimental seduction of her hopelessly smitten best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), then finds an adoptive yuppie couple for her baby in the Penny Saver: tightly wound professional Jennifer Garner and easygoing musician Jason Bateman. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney co-star as her sardonic but unconditionally supportive pop and stepmom, potential caricatures that the performers fill with warmth and protectiveness behind resigned exasperation, and Olivia Thirlby is a discovery as Juno’s spirited best friend.
The DVD features commentary by director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, 11 deleted scenes with optional commentary, gag reel, and 22 minutes of screen test among its supplements. The “Two Disc Special Edition” also includes a collection of featurettes.
A little less lighthearted is Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a lacerating drama that begins as a heist gone wrong and turns into a devastating family melodrama.
The film shifts backward and forward from the deed, following the trajectories of the brothers and the father and the bystanders churned up by their drama, but at the heart of this crime-gone-wrong thriller is the lacerating drama of a family eating itself raw. Directordigs deep into the tawdry souls, peeling back the layers of arrogance and anger and self-delusion until all that’s left is fury and fear and hate.
The disc features commentary by Lumet with actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke and the intelligent and illuminating 24-minute “Directed by Sidney Lumet: How the Devil Was Made,” making this release notable for the best supplements of the week. Read my complete DVD review here.
Shot on the streets of New York in black and white by a minimal crew, with writer/director Baron himself taking the lead role (a part originally written for young actor), the production embraces its limitations. The film turns the bustling streets and chilly urban atmosphere into an alienated world where “Baby Boy” Frank Bono, the disconnected killer who prefers the isolation of his own company, uses his spite and self-hatred to focus on the meticulous details of plotting and executing a murder. The film plays like an unholy marriage between the realist films noir of the ’40s like “The Naked City” and the early independent dramas of , with a narrator (uncredited ) speaking in second person like the twisted inner voice of a soul that has been basting in antipathy and spite for years.
The DVD features a 60-minute documentary and galleries of stills from then and now. Read the complete DVD review here.
This week in TV on DVD is Alien Nation: Ultimate Movie Collection, the complete run of Alien Nation TV movies that followed after the series was canceled. The series was a spin-off of the theatrical film with James Caan and Mandy Patinkin, with Gary Graham in the Caan role as a rough and tumble human cop and Eric Pierpoint in Patinkin’s part as his humorless but dedicated “newcomer” partner, one of hundreds of thousands of Tenctonese survivors of an interstellar slave ship that crashed on Earth five years before. The show confronted racism through the prism of fantasy – the newcomers face a wave of bigotry from human supremacists threatened by the alien nation in their midst – in an angle free of cultural and social freight.
The first of the telefilms, “Alien Nation: Dark Horizon” (originally broadcast in 1994), begins with the intergalactic slavers following a beacon to Earth, where an ambitious overseer (Scott Patterson of “Gilmore Girls”) prepares the way to retrieve their slaves and cart off the humans as a bonus. Meanwhile a racist (specist?) conspiracy plots the genocide of the entire alien race on Earth. It’s a good metaphor but a rather thin film that reveals its TV series origins in the rather cheap production values and a narrative structure that plays like a two-part episode, with a cliffhanger break right at the mid-point. The subsequent films are a little stronger…
Also recommended this week on DVD TV is the new BBC adaptation of E.M Forster’s A Room With a View, with Elaine Cassidy sheltered Brit lass in Italy Lucy Honeychurch and Rafe Spall as the “unsuitable” British working man George Emerson with whom she inconveniently falls in love.
It’s a minor production with its own charms, notably Cassidy, whose look of purity and innocence gives her sudden flowering passion the rush of sexual awakening, and [Laurence] Fox, whose gives Cecil a sense of self-awareness and a dignity that isn’t immediately apparent. Otherwise the deftly scripted feature feels like it’s skimming through a classic work.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column.
Movies: Ryan Gosling is shy child-man Lars, who mail-orders a fiancée and introduces the anatomically correct love doll as his living, breathing girlfriend, in the easygoing, amiable little comedy Lars and the Real Girl.
The premise is an invitation to inevitable sight gags and director Craig Gillespie isn’t one to turn down an easy laugh, but they are all good natured and Gosling plays Lars with such wide-eyed innocence that the seamier possibilities are put to rest. The story is slight and the cinema psychiatry creaky, but for a premise with such lurid possibilities, Lars and the Real Girl is as easygoing and warmly innocuous as the benign irony of the title.
TV: Tara Fitzgerald star as Helen Graham in the British miniseries adaptation of Anne Bronte’s final novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
… an epic adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel about a young British woman (Judy Davis) who travels to India in the late 1920s with a free-spirited elder companion (Peggy Ashcroft)…. Lean, who also scripted and edited, gives the drama a magnificent visual scope and dramatic sweep. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Actress (Davis), Best Director and Best Picture, and won for Peggy Ashcroft’s supporting actress performance and Maurice Jarre’s score.
The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.