It used to be the independent film scene consisted of small, struggling studios that had no association with the Tinseltown fat cats. Their lineups consisted of foreign language and quirky, low-budget productions that usually played only in limited release on the art house circuit in major cities (and the occasional college town) before hitting home video. And seldom did they turn a profit.
In the late 80s and early “90s, however, that all began to change. The separate universes of independent and mainstream American cinema began to slowly edge closer to one another thanks mainly to Miramax Pictures, the indie studio that found financial, critical and award success via such hits as Sex, Lies and Videotape, My Left Foot, The Piano and The Crying Game, all without the help of a major studio. The house that Bob and Harvey Weinstein began to build in 1979 took what was once consider a niche market and helped transform it into a prominent-and profitable-force in American cinema. The Walt Disney Studios realized this, and in 1993, they acquired Miramax, a $70 million move that continues to pay off handsomely for the studio to this day (despite the Weinsteins” much-publicized departure in 2005).
Shortly after the Disney acquisition, other major studios jumped on the bandwagon and began to develop their own specialty divisions. Despite a few bumps here and there over the past decade or so, mini-majors such as Focus Features, Fox Searchlight and Paramount Vantage have begun to echo Miramax’s good fortunes. One needs to look no further than the recent Oscar season for proof: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Atonement and the biggest hit of them all, Jason Reitman’s $143 million smash Juno were all independent films that crossed over to find commercial success with multiplex crowds.
In Juno, Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is a witty 16-year old whose one-chair stand with close friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) leads to an unexpected pregnancy. After shooting down the idea of an abortion, she tries to find adoptive parents for her unborn child. Leah (Olivia Thirlby), Juno’s friend, suggests that she looks in the classified ads of the local Pennysaver newspaper for perspective parents. She settles on Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) Loring, a young couple who have had no luck conceiving a kid. As the months tick by, Juno’s relationships with her parents (J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney), Mark and Paulie grow as quickly as the baby, bringing the smart-aleck teenager into adulthood a lot sooner than she had expected.
For me, Juno got off to a pretty iffy start. Hearing Diablo Cody’s hip, pop-culture savvy dialogue for the first time takes some heavy-duty getting used to if you are either: a) over the age of twenty or b) consider English your primary language. Combine the initial verbal assault of Cody’s near-alien gibberish with Reitman’s handling of opening scenes drenched in a smug, pseudo-hip attitude (Riann Wilson’s cameo is surprisingly cringe-inducing), and you have a movie on the verge of being ejected from my Blu-ray player faster than you can say “Knocked Up.”
Fortunately, the film reverses direction and gain considerable momentum once Juno confronts her parents about her pregnancy (this occurs about ten to fifteen minutes in). Reitman, son of Groundhog Day director Ivan Reitman, delivers directing that gives the cast plenty of breathing room to grow into and develop their characters while keeping the production from drowning in a sea of self-consciousness or cheap emotional manipulation. It is also at the aforementioned 10-15 minute mark that Cody’s screenplay begins to tone down its hipster style (even if the dialogue throughout is the type that only fictional characters are capable of saying) and begins to deliver scenes and situations that are insightful, believable, hilarious and often very touching.
At the center of the film’s success, as many have discovered, is a wonderful ensemble cast, led by the Oscar-worthy performance of its young lead actress (El, you were robbed). Page, who made quite the impression a year or two back with the thriller Hard Candy, is great as the titular character, perfectly conveying the young woman’s anxiety, heartbreak, cynicism and innocence without ever sliding into cliché. Solid support is provided by Thirlby, Cera, Bateman, Janney and especially Simmons, who shares one of 2007’s best scenes with Page in the film’s third act. Sadly, Garner proves to be the one misstep in the cast. It’s not that her performance is terrible; it’s just not in the same league as everyone else.
In the end, Juno is a winning combination of independent film smarts and mainstream cinema feel-good, crowd-pleasing elements. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, this sweet, smart little movie becomes really hard to resist or dislike. Juno is, God forgive me, a little bundle of joy that was the best comedy of last year (that didn’t involve a French rat that cooks).
As many a Blu-ray collector has discovered, Twentieth Century Fox Home Video is a studio that has charged the most and delivered the least when it comes to their releases. The audio and video presentations are usually quite good, but when it comes to supplements, they become the Blu-ray equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge. There is some good and not so good news to report with the BD release of Juno: on the downside, the title still carries on the tradition of the company’s steep retail pricing. On the plus side, at least they saw fit to fill it with a healthy amount of bonus material.
The film itself is presented in a decent-enough 1080p/AVC-MPEG 4 encode, which clearly shows the limitations of the production’s low budget. Colors, black levels, flesh tones and detail are all acceptable. There is a noticeable amount of grain throughout the film, with a little bit of video noise as well. Compression artifacts are never an issue. The picture quality is perfectly acceptable for this type of film, just don’t use it to wow your guests in terms of demo material.
Usually, Fox puts only one English audio track on its Blu-ray titles: a 5.1 DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio track. For Juno, the studio has seen fit to also include a 448kbps 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track (perhaps they finally realize that few if any people out there can properly decode the HD-MA track). While the DTS track comes across at a healthy 1.5 mbps, I was hell bent to notice any discernable difference between this and the Dolby Digital tracks. The DTS had a little more oomph to it, but since we are dealing with a comedy that is primarily dialogue-driven, either track is more than adequate to do the trick. The center-channel dialogue is nice and clear, with the front right and left channels doing a fine job presenting the multitude of songs and occasional sound effects there are to be had.
As previously mentioned, the Juno Blu-ray is filled with a decent amount of extras. While the supplements listed on the back of the case show promise, a majority of them wind up being the type of studio-sanctioned (and reviewer-dreaded) “puff piece” where the cast and crew shower nothing but love on each other, giving the impression that working on this film was nothing short of a blessed event. Of course it was. The supplements, audio commentary aside, are presented in acceptable 480p Standard video and Dolby 2.0 Stereo Surround.
First up is an Audio Commentary with director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody. This is a pretty laid-back and enjoyable track, with the duo bouncing anecdotes about the production off of one another. It’s a more enjoyable way to learn about the production than sitting through most of the featurettes.
Approximately 21 minutes of Deleted Scenes in 4×3 non-anamorphic widescreen come next, and this collection of cut material was my favorite extra on the disc. Running anywhere from 40 seconds to close to four or five minutes, a majority of the scenes are as funny as anything that made the final cut and are well worth checking out.
Diablo Cody is Totally Boss (8:35) is a mini-love fest for the recent Oscar winner. The Jason Reitman version of the Cody bit can be found in Jason Reitman for Shizz (8:08). Perhaps I am showing my age, but exactly when the hell did “shizz” become an actual word? Maybe I should ask Ellen Page.
Honest to Blog: Creating Juno (13:01) has Reitman and Cody asking each other questions about their involvement in the production (material already covered in other featurettes) and also features some quick interview snippets with cast members.
The Screen Tests for Page, Cera, Thirlby and Simmons run approximately 23 minutes. It’s interesting to see the quartet of actors delivering their lines and playing off of each other for the first time and also to see just how little the dialogue in certain scenes changed over the course of production. Way Beyond “Our” Maturity Level: Juno, Leah and Bleeker (9:00) is a collection of short interviews with the three young stars as well as Cody.
A rather amusing ”and occasionally profane- Gag Reel (5:10) comes next. It’s your typical collection of line flubs made even funnier by Jason Bateman saying a few choice bits about the film’s screenwriter. Rounding out the non-exclusive supplemental material is a three-minute Crew Music Video that has most of the cast and crew goofing around and lip-synching to a song (I didn’t catch the name of it). Worth a watch once, but unless you are a really die-hard fan of “Juno” or the song, I can’t see the value in going back and re-watching it.
Fox has even seen fit to include two Blu-ray exclusive extras: Fox Movie Channel: the Juno Premiere (5:30) and Fox Movie Channel: “Juno” Casting (7:51). These appeared on the cable channel back in December and basically are just two more puff pieces created to help sell the film. Yeah, they’re nothing special, but at least Fox is starting to recognize the BD format a little bit by giving us something exclusive.
Last but not least, Juno contains a second disc with a digital copy of the film that can be downloaded onto one’s PC or iPod. I can see where this would be useful if you are stuck on a plane for several hours and the movie selection onboard is lousy, but personally the only use I could have for such a thing is it being a drink coaster.
Oddly enough, there is no theatrical trailer to speak of. Fox has been a bit frugal with extras, but they always saw fit to include a film’s theatrical trailer. Hopefully, this isn’t the start of a new trend.
2007 was the year of the pregnancy comedy. First there was the late Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, then Judd Apatow’s blockbuster Knocked Up and finally Juno at the end of the year. With its funny, smart screenplay, wonderful ensemble cast led by a career-making turn by its young lead and nice direction by Jason “Don’t call me Ivan” Reitman, Juno was easily the best of the 2007 cinematic maternity ward. Fox has stuffed this Blu-ray edition with a decent audio/video presentation and enough extras to hold hard-core fans of the film over for nearly a trimester, even if a majority of those supplements tend to be average at best.
– Shawn Fitzgerald