Month: December 2009

Up in the Air

Polished, neatly packaged, and wrapped tightly in a shiny bow, Up in the Air is Hollywood’s gift to Oscar voters in 2009. While being of perfectly adequate quality with professional grade writing, directing, and acting, Up in the Air is also a tedious chore of a movie to write up. Why? Because there’s nothing challenging here, no choice in storytelling, performance, or style that wavers outside the path of convention and normalcy.

As a movie, it’s…fine. If you like a slick drama with dashes of clever social commentary and human interest elements thrown in, this is the movie for you. Up in the Air has PRESTIGE MOVIE emblazoned across it in large, gold letters. It’s the movie with the full-page promotional ads in your local paper’s movie section trumpeting its selection in numerous categories in this season’s dizzying array of awards. It’ll be hard to miss.

Jason Reitman’s recession-era romantic dramedy is themed (among other things) on the existentialism of job loss but it seems to have been made by people who’ve never been fired or laid off. What they do know is that getting laid off can be really, really hard on a person. Scenes of employees reacting to the news that they’ve been let go drip with such heavy sentiment that, as a viewer, you can feel Reitman and Company working overtime to wring tears and heartache from you. It’s only one of the many disingenuous qualities about the movie.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) shunts around the country, reporting to company bosses who’ve hired his services as an ace corporate downsizer and charged him with the task of firing redundant employees. As unsavory as it is, Bingham enjoys the sense of transience his profession gives him. Afraid to put down roots, to commit to anything, Ryan thrives on his synthetic lifestyle of living in airplane cabins and hotel rooms, rental cars, and executive lounges.

Up in the Air finds Ryan faced with twin crises. The first is the imminent extinction of his here-today-gone-tomorrow lifestyle thanks to a go-getter who’s convinced Ryan’s boss, Craig (Jason Bateman), that firing people via an internet connection is far cheaper than the face-to-face method, which requires flying personnel all over the country. And the second is his sister’s wedding, an event that demands that he visit his family, from whom he’s long kept his distance.

These wrinkles in Ryan’s lone-wolf existence are, in turn, perpetrated and complicated by the arrival of two women: One is the aforementioned go-getter, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the other is fellow professional transient, Alex (Vera Farmiga), the woman he falls for and whose carefree attitude to their relationship only draws him closer to her.

When Craig orders Bingham to take Natalie with her on his next run, it signals the movie’s second act in which Bingham tries to school his naive, precocious, high-strung companion on the finer points of firing people — not to mention, luggage selection. One of the movie’s butter knife-dull attempts at humor has Natalie arriving at the airport with a clunky, over-packed suitcase. It’s a device meant mainly to prompt a demonstration by ace traveler Bingham on flying light, never mind that a sharp, shrewd woman would know better in the first place. Yes, the comedy doesn’t aim much higher than that.

Of course, Natalie’s tough outer shell quickly begins to melt away after her boyfriend leaves her via text (a moment riddled in an over-the-top breakdown by Kendrick that would be better suited to a bargain-basement rom com), prompting her to mourn her romantic disillusionment (honestly, an ambitious, professional woman dreaming of marriage and kids in her mid-20s seems like a stretch in the 21st century but, okay, I’ll play along). Turns out, Natalie is an old-fashioned gal, a woman who places high value on love, loyalty, and relationships — the very things that Bingham reserves special contempt for. Much witty banter on the subject ensues.

Still, the theme of lasting companionship swirls in the film’s undercurrents and surfaces at every major plot point. When Bingham attends his sister’s wedding, for instance, he’s called upon to pep talk the dithering groom-to-be on the joys of marriage; a scene whose real function is irony since Bingham doesn’t know the first thing on the subject, and, in contemplating them, it’s the change stirring in his own heart that matters here. Bingham’s affection for Alex is what’s at stake in Up in the Air, and their relationship comprises the movie’s most organic quality. Reitman handles Bingham and Alex’s scenes together with a decidedly looser touch, and, truly, these characters share a genuine chemistry with a humor that feels natural. A major reason for this is that Clooney and Farmiga are two talented actors whose work transcends the limitations of the material. In their scenes together, we can enjoy the building dynamic of two talented actors working their craft, reaping as much from a stilted screenplay as possible.

However packaged and artificial Reitman’s concoction may feel, the star of the show, thankfully, is George Clooney. He is the film’s emotional center of gravity, due largely to the warm, natural appeal the actor exudes on screen. Clooney is the closest thing Hollywood’s got to an old-time movie star, namely to Cary Grant. Like Grant, Clooney has the sophisticated demeanor and easy, dapper charm that endear him to his audience, regardless of whatever cad, heel, or crook he happens to be playing. And, like Grant, time and again, Clooney is really playing variations on the same cool, elegant persona, whether it’s Danny Ocean or Michael Clayton or Ryan Bingham. Each role requires him to fine-tune his comic and dramatic temperatures, but, at the end of the day, all the above characters could easily sit together in some smoky club room, enjoy drinks, and understand one another.

Up in the Air is a well-intentioned Hollywood product with a message about the value of human connections. But it mistakes glibness for wit and charm for irreverence. What’s missing from the engine of his screenplay is a more razor-edged sensibility, in which things don’t feel so cute and tucked-in at every turn. It’s a movie of missed opportunities, wherein Reitman could have plumbed the dark depths of the betrayal, loneliness, and denial that make up the core of Bingham’s wounded self. He could, thereby, have made the moral payoff of his conclusion feel well-earned and satisfying. As it is, he’s got the right actor for the job, but his movie lacks the guts.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliott

Sicko

Reviewing Fahrenheit 9/11, I described Michael Moore as the P.T. Barnum of documentarians. His polemics have all the subtlety of a carnival barker’s shtick, but, you have to admit, there’s little arguing with what’s at the heart of his movies: the portraits of working class individuals who’s circumstances illuminate the festering inequities allowed to thrive in America, inequities that enable the rewarding of the rich and the marginalization of the poor. He’s a master showman, a populist muckraker, to be sure, but his moral outrage against the greed-driven excesses of corporations and the corruption of government is palpable, infectious, and, I think, much-needed in a society that too often feels under the thumb of shareholders, lobbyists, and politicians.

In Sicko, Michael Moore dissects the American health care system and doesn’t come up with very good news. He examines a cross-section of American families and individuals, all of whom are suffering in some way by the bottom-line profiteering and ruthlessness of our major health care companies. Some of his subjects have gone bankrupt, others forced to face serious illness on their own after their carriers abruptly dropped them for getting sick in the first place. Moore investigates the conditions in hospitals where the more “burdensome” (i.e. uninsured, costly, and mentally ill) are regularly thrown out, and left to the mercy of shelters. We also get firsthand accounts of the relatively more compassionate forms of health care that’s the norm in other countries; Moore travels to Canada, the UK, and France to dig up the “dirt” on the socialist modes of care, and finds that their populations live longer and healthier than America’s. Most affecting perhaps is his portrait of several 9/11 rescue workers, all of whom suffer from a range of conditions, from respiratory ailments to PTSD, who’ve all either gotten by mountainous health care bills or gone bankrupt by the same, meeting only apathy from a government that professes to care so much for them.

As is the case with even Moore’s best efforts (and Sicko ranks among his best), the man’s showboating and penchant for staging silly, attention-getting stunts undermines the powerful and poignant message at their roots. In Sicko, the director wields his megaphone and tries to gain his group of 9/11 workers entry into the Guantanamo detention center, a gambit that, no surprise, goes nowhere. But, for the most part, Moore the prankster is muzzled in favor of Moore the social chronicler, and that works to Sicko’s benefit immeasurably. This is a polemic, for sure, but, in uncovering the realities of people — all of them not too different from the rest of us — foundering in a broken system, the movie’s imperative for change, spiked with ironies and salved with sly humor, gets a vital, impassioned dose of urgency.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Michael Moore
Written by: Michael Moore

Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore casts his gaze at the institution of Capitalism and the wreckage of bankruptcy, corruption, disillusionment and broken lives it’s left across America. The financial meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent propping up of the banking industry inform much of Capitalism: A Love Story’s outrage and Moore’s questioning of a system that’s devoted predominantly to fattening the wallets of CEOs, boardroom suits, bankers, and the politicians who serve as their functionaries in Congress. Moore’s overripe sentiments and silly showmanship — at one point, he enters a financial institution and declares he’s there to make a citizen’s arrest of the company’s CEO for pillaging Americans’ tax dollars and, shortly after, he covers the perimeter of the building in police tape — all work to undermine the inherent power of Moore’s subject. Such antics don’t fool anybody, and, as viewers, we become impatient, anxious for this activist-filmmaker to get past the gags and on to the heart of his story, and to what he does best: Bring into vivid relief profiles of ordinary, embattled Americans. Here, Moore singles out poor families evicted from their homes, striking union workers, and overworked airline pilots, creating portraits of lives ruined by the mortgage crisis and jobs threatened by companies eager to cut corners, while baring for view the nexus interconnecting America’s corporations and its government. By exposing the dirty underbelly of American Capitalism, Moore doesn’t necessarily tell us anything new, but it’s his gung-ho pursuit of accountability and compassion for working-class victims and crusaders that make his movies — and Capitalism: A Love Story among them — worthwhile inquiries into how we live today.

Grade: B

Directed by: Michael Moore
Written by: Michael Moore

The Last Station

Overwrought direction and a muddled screenplay make writer-director Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, centering around Leo Tolstoy’s last days, a difficult film to parse out and to appreciate. But thanks to the presence of Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren as Tolstoy and his wife Sofya, the core ideas of the messy and imperfect nature of love can still find flashes of clear expression. Read it here…

Diary of a Country Priest

An incredibly beautiful film by Robert Bresson about a young, dying priest who arrives at his new parish in rural France and struggles to maintain his spiritual faith, his love for others even as those around him are venal, bitter and harbor vindictive thoughts, both towards him and each other. In every way, this is a flawless piece of work and my second favorite so far of Bresson’s films (tops on the list for me is A Man Escaped). Pretty much everything Bresson made is worth watching–he’s one of those filmmakers who infused so much thought and vision, uncompromised and clear-eyed, into each film that he redeems Western cinema of all its indulgent garbage. Bresson worked outside any larger movement–he wasn’t part of the French studio system nor of the New Wave–but the fact that he was embraced by both shows just how universal his greatness was. There isn’t a false note or dramatic stumble throughout Diary — all of it needs to be and appreciated exactly as it is. The Criterion DVD of this movie is, true to form, gorgeous, doing ample justice to the movie’s shimmering cinematography. A lovely and profound masterpiece.

Grade: A+

Directed by: Robert Bresson
Written by: Robert Bresson
Cast: Claude Leydu, Jean Riveyre, André Guibert, Rachel Bérendt, Nicole Maurey, Nicole Ladmiral