Sunday, December 27, 2009

Up in The Air

I was quick to jump on the bandwagon of director Jason Reitman's last outing, Juno, after seeing it two years ago. I loved it. After reading the script, I loved it less. Reitman and his cast gave these quirked out suburbanites' quotable dialogue nuance that was present on screen and glaringly missing on the page. Simply put, you had to see it to believe it.
Working from his own adaptation of Walter Kirn's Novel of the same name, Reitman's Up in the Air succeeds where Juno lost its footing. Its script is amazing. Its cast is impeccable. And this time, Reitman has raised his own game visually.
George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a "termination facilitor". It means people hire him to fire their employees. He fancies himself a professional. It's clear in early scenes that he excels at his job as much as one could hope to. He's quick on his feet and focused. What I misjudged first as callousness reveals itself later as resignation to the inherent difficulties of his job.
His character has also resigned to the idea that he's better off moving about free of emotional and relational tethers. He's a man without a home by choice.
It's when he's faced with the prospect of staying foot that Bingham starts drowning. His final trip to train an overeager corporate upstart (played beautifully by Anna Kendrick) lays it out for us. Faced with staying put and digging in at his supposed home of Omaha takes a backseat to one last venture out in his beloved airplanes to stay in hotels, eat lounge dinners, and swap drinks and spit with a bewitching fellow traveller (played with deceptive layers by the excellent Vera Farmiga).
It's not terribly surprising that along the way he comes to question his choices, his relationships and lack thereof. What is surprising is how natural Reitman and Clooney make it appear. Even when the answers seem easy, they're not. Even when the glass is half-empty, it remains half-full and vice versa. It's this balance of sweetness, humor, and grim reality that mix to create a film for now. It's been called "The Film of this moment" too often to actually fit the bill. With that in mind, it comes damn close. There isn't a false note to be found in the movie. The emotionally heavy-lifting isn't there. But the movie is more than skin deep, too. It's just right like Baby Bear's porridge. Clooney, Farmiga, Kendrick, and Reitman know well enough that drama comes both from action and reaction. So rather than calling it the movie of this moment in time, let's call it "a reaction to this moment" and soak it in for it what is: one of the best films of the year.

Also, somebody tell Reitman that his half-empty/half-full ending is just what Up in the Air needed.



I want to speak in specifics, but I'm left only with abstract superlatives. Avatar blew me away. I was exhilarated in ways few movies have made me. Visually, Avatar was far superior to what I was expecting. I'm not talking about the 3D (though that was fun). I'm talking about the CGI performances of those long blue natives you see runnin' around in the television commercials. They're much better on the big screen. I was surprised by the amount of emoting these Avatars were able to do. Zoe Saldana in particular turns in an amazing performance under the guise of a blue alien. So much reality comes through in her voice and on that blue creature's face (created through motion capture), that you BUY IT. THIS CRAZY NONSENSE WORKS. Sigourney Weaver, however, loses something in translation in blue alien form. Don't know why. What works on both sides of the coin is Sam Worthington's performance. It's not groundbreaking thematically, but he's able to carry the story (an epic one at that) all the way through with ease. It's hard to explain. Let's just say that the awkwardness of his performance in Terminator Salvation is lost. He's at ease as an actor. He's found his stride as a performer.

James Cameron has always excelled more as a visual storyteller and as an idea man than a screenwriter in my eyes. Some of that military grunt and scientific babbling blah blah blah is still here, but the extraordinary visuals have a grounding in these characters. Even as the supporting characters weave in and out of their degrees of value and credibility, Worthington and Saldana are there to bring us back. And don't ever question the visuals. Simply put: they're amazing.

I was surprised at how involved I became in the story. I literally sat on the edge of my seat biting my fingers. I was into it. Whether or not that fascination wanes upon further viewing remains to be seen. For now, I am satisfied in calling this one of my favorite films of the year and the easiest to recommend to everyone. You'll like it. Unless you're stupid. Just kidding. Mostly.


The Box

It's hard to praise The Box. It's so stylized, that any sort of originality or individuality is blurred. Its source material, a science fiction short story, has previously been played out in a Twilight Zone episode. It's that same sort of melodrama and tweaked atmosphere that is played out in Richard Kelly's film. I wouldn't be able to stand the musical score of the film, an amped up pulp orchestration, unless I viewed it as a key component of Kelly's intent. This is not a modern film. Some guy in the late 70's, early 80's could have matched the result (minus some of the special effects). Kelly wants to tell a tale in a slightly more innocent time on the cusp of 80s greed and subsequent immorality. What Kelly has going for him is the conceit. What would you do? How would you deal with the circumstances?

Also working for Kelly is his casting of James Marsden. The former Cyclops has acting chops. He makes the most of the hackneyed dialogue that Kelly gives him. It's his eyes, his urgency, his increasing fear that comes across the best. Unfortunately, Kelly's A-Lister, Cameron Diaz can't save her dialogue. It might be the accent that buries her, but she's hard to believe for much of the film even as the unbelievable happens around her and her husband. Frank Langella acts past his characters facial deformities to create a mysterious villain (?) worth remembering. It's when his intentions become clearer that the film breaks its brakes and nosedives towards its climax that the film loses traction.

It's freaky, intentionally so. In a dark theater with surround sound, it's scary. Still, sitting there I was thinking ahead to watching it at my house on my 13-inch TV. There, it might be silly, laughable even. Time will tell. In his effort to make us scratch our heads, to question what we see and what we hear, Kelly may have pushed the style too far. I shouldn't be giggling. I should be squirming in my seat uneasily. Sometimes at the theater, I was.

The film bends under the weights of its director's need to mind-screw his audience. The final scenes don't work. As far as the questions Kelly raises, I kept asking myself these long after I left. As cinema, The Box is slight. As science fiction, it's intriguing. I would watch it again to see how it holds up. There's good there hiding out amongst the missteps.



Carriers comes hot off the success of its star's other big 2009 movie, Stark Trek. Chris Pine has made a name for himself. That name wasn't enough to get Carriers much of a theatrical release, but it was enough to lure me in for a viewing. The prospect is enticing: a unnamed virus is making people sick - not zombies - and two brothers and their respective love interest head for the beach and some notion of outlasting the carriers. Nobody's biting anybody else. But the virus is easily caught and acts quickly. Chris Pine plays a brother quick to dismiss the victims, while his younger bro, Lou Taylor Pucci (of Thumbsucker fame) reacts uneasily at every turn to his brother's callousness. That dynamic creates the friction the film will carry to its uneasy end.

Pine shines in a complex role. It's a bit showy, but Pine shines with these kind of opportunities. His seemingly numskull frat beard has seen some things/done some things that have shaded him differently. It's how Pine lets these unseen experiences compel his character that shape the performance. More so than the poorly titled, Jim Sheridan helmed melodrama Brothers, this film throws two siblings into harrowing circumstances and let's 'em rip. Pine sets the pace, but Pucci can't match it. His character is meant to be a pushover, a well-meaning-yet-toothless intellectual. Pucci just plays it bland. Emily Van Camp plays his maybe main squeeze while Piper Perabo plays Pine's long time girlfriend. Both turn in understated performances, and Perabo in particular impressed me in her scenes mid-film.

In the end, the film has a good setting and atmosphere, but cannot flesh beyond the surface of what could have been an affecting, bleak outing. Their plight is real, but none of the circumstances stemming from that plight payoff quite as much as I'd like them to. The filmmakers teased me. First, we have the scenes with Christopher Meloni and his daughter seeking out a cure at a outpost with the four weary travelers. Heavy stuff. Yet, the filmmakers only dip their toes in danger before moving their characters on. Next, they meet up with a creepy bunch of hazard suit survivors at an old resort. Again, the tension and stakes are high only to be dropped when our four stars head out to the next stop. It's meant to be post-apocalyptic fears played out between four road trippers. What works is their sparring. What doesn't is the lack of stakes outside their car. And please don't have Pucci drip profundities in voice over in the last scene as though it meant more. It could have, but it didn't. Carriers only sweeps the surface.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

I felt strong pangs of nostalgia during this movie. More awkwardly, I heard the restless wrestling of the youngins' and their regretful parents around me. This was far too deep for humans not old enough to reminisce. Perhaps you have to be older than 18 to enjoy it, to be able to look back at your youth with regrets and longing. Max is a 9 year old to a fault. His haphazard imagination is full of tangents and half-thoughts. It's the moments of passing clarity (Max's fear when his Wild Things avatar, Carol, is off the handle; KW isn't wrong to seek out new friends; emotions are strange) that will fly over the heads of those 9 year olds in the audience. We old timers (at 27, I feel simultaneously part of the target hipster and the silly nonsensical kid demographics without wholly belonging to either) see the insecurities masquerading as confidence in Max. I got a lot out of it. The rivers in the land of the Wild Things run deep. Even as the Wild Things cumulatively lose the plot, I saw value in the confusion it created. It's about feeling alone and out of place even amongst a crowd, even in your own mind.

Spike Jonze steps out of the Charlie Kaufman shadow he helped create to claim his own vision. This is the work of a visionary cued to the artistic instincts of a master getting better, staying true to his gut. The film has moments of exquisite beauty, but the aesthetics are strictly rough around the edges - like Roger Deakins' family vacation home movies. If the film has failed to connect with viewers - I might just have to play the snob card - they just don't get it...or aren't old enough to get it yet. A child's psyche is a place where Wild Things roam. It's not high and mighty to realize I want my mom sometimes, and I don't ever have to say so. I can always go home. Even if cliches always say otherwise.


The Men Who Stare at Goats

This movie wasn't awful. Interested now? Oh, not really? Well, good. You see, after all the characters have ended their journeys, I was left feeling "meh". So what? The character arcs were utterly dissatisfying. George Clooney tried his best, but the script is too preoccupied with it's oddball cast of characters to tell their story. Yeah, they're goofy; but SO WHAT? In the climatic scene, where George Clooney and his mentor free the minds of the too serious, too sad, too capitalistic U.S. Army and its psychic advisers through LSD shenanigans only to disappear into the desert, I just wondered why it was supposed to matter to me. I liked Lynn (Clooney's character). He's about all I really LIKED about the film. Still, his triumph felt shallow. Ewan McGregor's accompanying journalist remarks about the profound effect Lynn had on him, but I can't really see why. What did any of these guys really do in the end? Why is their satisfaction important to me?

Note to producers: do not cast McGregor as your straight man. He can't do it. He's best as the wide-eyed, edgy dreamer. Would he have been better cast as Lynn? Nah. But he's lost to connect with the character he's given.


Sadly, I think there was a good story here. If any of the background behind this story is true, I find it fascinating. This journey of enlightenment for McGregor and relevance for Clooney cannot match its potential. I guess I'll read the book.


Monday, December 7, 2009


What was a genuinely engaging sci-fi thriller went off the rails two-thirds of the way through and never really recovered. If you're a Ben Foster fan, see it. If you're a Dennis Quaid fan, you'll rethink things two-thirds of the way through. Pluses: tense atmosphere, scary creatures, Ben Foster, that sleeping creature sequence near the end. Minuses: Too many plot twists. As a straight forward horror movie in space, this movie could have excelled. And why do blood-thirsty creatures show nobility for no reason? Ughh. That last 45 minutes was messy. But I liked it?


The Fantastic Mr. Fox

I've been raving a bit about this film. The pure joy wasn't known to me immediately after the film. It's thinking about the movie now and giggling and smiling to myself that I truly grasp the entertainment that flowed forth out of Wes Anderson's (and ole Roald Dahl's) whimsical mind.

I am not familiar with the source material, but I have to say that this feels like vintage Anderson (whatever that means, right?). That odd sense of humor and peculiar eye is let loose through the animation. It's as though anything that Anderson was unable or unsure of in live-action is up-for-grabs when it comes to animation. Case in point: the strobe-light-like battle between the rat and Mister Fox. In what other film could Anderson justify a fight sequence like that? And it works.

Kudos to Jason Schwartzman for stealing every scene his tiny avatar was in. The voice casting was superb. Even non-actor Eric Anderson (Wes' brother) fit perfectly into the world. I've always felt that lead George Clooney was best rattling off complex chunks of dialogue. Anderson gives him a platform for that. But the wacky side of Clooney that has felt overdone in recent films feels perfectly used here.
The film moves at the speed of light, but I think it's a frenetic energy that comes naturally to the story - as though it was only meant to be told as such. The humor is quick and witty, but also old school quirky in the typical Anderson fashion that he has both been acclaimed and panned for. I laughed out loud of my own accord throughout. The gravity of, say, Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums isn't there. However, there are still lessons to be learned and a great story to be told. Joyfully.



Out of the way: I haven't seen the original Danish film on which this is based. Therefore, my comments are on this film alone.

I enjoyed Brothers. It's a gut-wrenching film, but I like to have a lump in my throat. The performances from the three leads were uniformly excellent. The subject matter was handled well and I thought Maguire returned to earlier heights. The scene depicted above is my favorite from the film. It's tragic. It's haunting. It's scary. It's sad. It's affecting. That having been said, allow me to nitpick. The script seemed to rush through its dramatic beats. Even though it was 2+ hours long, I felt as though the developments in both characters and plot were rushed. Case in point: Gyllenhaal's quick insertion into his brother's family. It was too quick, too easy. The actors handled it well. I just thought that there were scenes missing. The ending also felt abrupt. If the intention was to lend a taste of ambiguous closure, screenwriter David Benioff nailed it. But to go wide on the two characters with Maguire's voiceover before credits rolled seemed lazy, almost like there was a different ending that was scrapped. Maguire and Portman nail the intense emotions of that scene, so I'm not going to argue otherwise. I will say that we go from those emotions to the credits too quickly. Gyllenhaal's character becomes a footnote when the three of them were of equal importance up to the endpoint. And let me say that Sam Shephard's (whom I love) scenes had an air of artificiality to them. His lines were contrived, and he couldn't save them.

Still, let me call back to the three lead performances and the promising debut of Bailee Madison as Portman and Maguire's eldest daughter. Top-notch work from talented actors.