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Column Fri Dec 04 2009
Up in the Air
Connections are the most important thing we make as human beings, but not everyone is capable or driven to make them. And then there are those select few human beings that actively discourage connections with other people or possessions. In the case of Ryan Bingham (played with a marvelous, understated blend of charm and contempt by George Clooney), the only connections that matter are those at airports (although being the seasoned business traveler that he is, he probably would laugh at the very idea of booking a flight that required a connection), and the only groups he wants to belong to usually involve a platinum card that is earned after millions of miles of flying or staying at the same hotel chain for the better part of a given year.
Bingham is a man that believes that the life unencumbered by connections is the only life worth living; if you've seen the phenomenal teaser trailer for Up in the Air, then you've heard the backpack speech — the one that ends "We are not swans; we are sharks." And perhaps the most remarkable things about Clooney's portrayal of Bingham is that despite the fact that I couldn't disagree more with his personal mission statement, I still found him one of the most fascinating and easy-to-identify characters put on screen in 2009. And it goes without saying that writer-director Jason Reitman (who has brought us other equally unlikely heroes in Thank You For Smoking and Juno) spends much of Up in the Air (adapted from the book by Walter Kirn) trying to introduce elements into Bingham's life that challenge his life's philosophy that if we stop moving because we are weighed down by life's connections, we effectively die as humans. And Reitman does such a masterful job telling this story without judgment that by the end of the film you'll either feel that our antihero might be on to something, or you'll want to hug the person sitting next to you just to remind yourself that knowing people is a good thing.
Far from a feel-good movie (although odds are you'll feel pretty great watching Reitman's adept balance of humor and drama), there is something wonderfully life affirming and a little seductive about the experience of watching Bingham go through his work as an efficiency expert who is called in when corporations are forced to fire people in large numbers. Observing Bingham go through his routine is like watching a master carpenter build a grandfather clock. We assume there is no one better at it than this caring, sensitive man who tells the distraught employees that he's there to help them find new employment and that he/she should look at this as an opportunity to live out your life's dream rather than a setback. Bingham is a walking contradiction in many ways, all of which are fascinating. He's about staying disconnected, yet he insists on doing the firings in person to bring a human touch to his job. This partially explains why, when his boss (Jason Bateman) brings on a new face to the company who has created a way of firing people via webcast rather than flying Bingham and his coworkers all over the country, he feels severely threatened.
The young, energetic new employee with the big ideas is Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick (her best role before this one was in the little-seen Rocket Science, but she's probably best known for playing Jessica in the Twilight films — don't hold that against her), and she's a spectacular combination of confidence and naivety. Bateman wants Natalie to learn the ropes of the job and saddles Bingham with the assignment of dragging her along with him on the road with the possibility of beta testing her new firing methods. Lest you think this is some cheesy older-man/younger-woman scenario, please think again. Nothing in Up in the Air is that simple or obvious. But that doesn't make their relationship any less interesting and unpredictable. Through Natalie, we learn a bit about the way Bingham lives his life — from the way he expedites his time in airports (apparently getting in security lines behind Asians is a huge time saver) to packing to getting room upgrades at hotels to crashing hospitality suites at conventions that happen to be booked at the same hotel you're staying in. Those of you who do a fair amount of business travel will probably want to buy Ryan Bingham his next drink for all the great pointers.
During the course of the film, we also learn his take on interpersonal relationships, including those with family members and potential romantic entanglements. One night at a hotel bar, Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga, that rarest mix of beauty, class and intelligence), a woman who is living a life very similar to his. They compare VIP cards for hotel chains, airlines and car rental companies, and they both get very turned on. What results is the closest thing that Bingham has to a relationship. They compare schedules every so often and see when they might be within a couple hundred miles of each other in the days to come. It's sweet and a bit sad, but mostly I found them an exciting item and it's beyond clear that Alex might be the one Ryan breaks all his rules for. And once again, I'll ask that you keep telling yourself that nothing in Up in the Air is that obvious.
The third set of female relationships that Bingham has is with his largely estranged sisters, Julie and Kara (Melanie Lynskey and Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton, who has only been in a handful of TV show and films, but I love seeing her in anything). Julie is getting married (to Danny McBride's Jim, who is suffering from a nasty case of cold feet), and although Ryan wasn't even sure he could make the wedding, he does manage to make it with Alex as his stunning date. Heck, he even helps avert a crisis when Jim is having second thoughts about marrying Julie. And let's imagine, if we can, receiving relationship advice from a man who has made a name for himself telling other people that connections are a bad thing (yes, Ryan is a budding motivational speaker as well). And for one of the many reasons this is the finest performance of his career, Clooney pulls the scene together and delivers a pep talk so convincing that you can't help but be impressed.
There's a great sequence when Ryan, Natalie and Alex all end up together at a party, and for a brief moment you see that the three have become a temporary family. Natalie's long-distance boyfriend has just broken up with her, and Ryan and Alex are attempting to console her and, more than that, get her back on her feet by getting her a little tipsy and back in the game with some of the lovely conventioneers at the party. Mom and dad have helped their little girl heal and sent her back into the world. But that scene is just one of many perfectly realized moments from Up in the Air, a film in which there isn't a single poor performance, false moment or predictable turn. Does Ryan Bingham discover the error of his way of thinking? The better question might be, can you handle it if he doesn't? At the same time, you may wonder whether it's possible to care about man who lives a life diametrically opposed to the one you live. Up in the Air isn't a film attempting to shatter your value system, but it does require you to think and judge for yourself. Director Reitman does not lead you by the hand toward foregone conclusions about any of his characters. Instead, he wisely presents them to you and asks that you evaluate these men and women on your own.
Through its note-perfect use of laughter, tears and some of the best character building I've seen all year, Up in the Air is a film that can be watched repeatedly, and each time, you'll discover something new and remarkable. There's an easy flow and dignity to this movie that made watching it the most effortless and enjoyable experience I've had in months, but it still made me ponder (and often reaffirmed) my definitions of connections, relationships, family and friends. There's a genuine pleasure to watching Up in the Air that I get from so few other films this or any other year, and I truly can't wait to revisit Ryan and the circle of acquaintances that clutter his life. With less than a month to go in 2009 (and only three or four year-end films still to see), Up in the Air is my favorite film of the year to date.
To read my exclusive interview with Up in the Air co-writer and director Jason Reitman, go to Ain't It Cool News.
It's not likely that many of you saw the 2004 film from Denmark Brødre, but for those of you that did, it was probably an unforgettable experience. The movie (translated as Brothers) starred two of Denmark's top actors, Ulrich Thomsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, both of whom have appeared in English-language films over the years, as well as Connie Nielsen, perhaps best known as the prince's lady love in Gladiator. It was a timely film about the toll that war takes on those left behind and on those who make it back. Today (or more specifically a year ago, since this American remake has been on the shelf for about a year), Irish director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, In America) has taken the template of the original film and changed very little to make his movie an equally powerful work fueled by three tremendous lead performances from Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman.
Maguire's Sam Cahill is a career military man, who is about to head back to the Middle East for his fourth tour of duty, leaving behind a wife, Grace (Portman), and two young daughters (gifted child actors Bailee Madison and Taylor Grace Geare). Just before he is sent into Afghanistan, his younger brother, Tommy (Gyllenhaal), is released from prison. Tommy seems genuinely rehabilitated, but that doesn't stop him from being an abrasive ass who drinks too much and picks fights with the brothers' parents (Sam Shepard and Mare Winningham). Shortly after his deployment, Sam's helicopter is shot down and word makes its way back to Grace that her husband is dead. Without needing to be asked, Tommy steps up and begins looking out for Grace and the kids, helping out around the house, babysitting while Grace lies in bed with severe depression, and just generally being more useful than he's been in years.
As you might suspect, Sam is not dead. He and another solider are being held captive and tortured by the Taliban, and Sam is forced to make a decision that would destroy most men, and it may eventually eat through the young captain's soul. Back home, Grace and Tommy predictably get closer and even share a regrettable kiss, but cooler heads prevail, and the moment simply serves to strengthen their commitment to making it through their loss. If the film has one giant flaw, it's that the entire film feels like it's building up to the time when Sam returns home, which is exactly what happens. He immediately starts dressing like a serial killer and loses his temper with an anticipated regularity, even accusing his wife of sleeping with his brother. These emotionally explosive scenes wouldn't work at all were it not for the caliber of actors on hand.
Maguire is nothing short of a wiry hand grenade after he returns home. In different hands, the film's more charged moments could have gone really wrong, but especially in the argument scenes between Maguire and Portman, there's something really special going on. There's a great deal of crying on at her end, but she adds small touches to grace that are expected and show a great sense of what works in a performance. Gyllenhaal is impressive for entirely different reasons. He glides along the divide between complete asshole and caring individual, and somehow manages to pull both versions of Tommy off seamlessly. He's actually the greatest source of tension release for most of Brothers, and he's as convincing as Maguire, but in very different ways.
There's not a whole lot more to say about Sheridan's version of Brothers. I like some of the small alterations by screenwriter David Benioff, but there are a few I didn't like. Overall, it's a solid balancing act. Not one of the performances falters or registers as too amped up or too subdued, although I suspect most debate about this film will surround this aspect to Brothers. I'm not sure how many people are going to flock to a movie this heavy, but that's not my job. I remained thoroughly impressed all the way through this film for our times. This is a complex film dealing with countless emotional levels, but I think you'll really enjoy this offering.
This remake of a little-seen 1990 Italian gem of the same name from director Giuseppe Tornatore (it was the film he made right after the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso) is one of the all-too-rare works that takes a fairly formulaic plot and elevates it thanks to quality actors doing across-the-board terrific jobs, turning what could have been Schmaltz Central into a film of some substance. And for God's sake whatever you do, ignore the commercials and print ads that paint Everybody's Fine as a cutesy holiday family film. Yes, this is a story about a family and there is a glimpse of a holiday celebration at one point during the movie, but this is by no means the type of cheesy holiday junk we get around this time of year.
British director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee) has taken this simple story about an aging man whose four grown children are scattered across the country and always seem to have excuses not to have time to talk to him on the phone, let alone visit him. In a beautifully subtle performance, Robert De Niro plays patriarch Frank (Marcello Mastroianni had the role in the original), a fairly recent widower who decides, after yet another mass cancelation by his offspring just days before a planned reunion, that he's going to take a spontaneous road trip against his doctor's orders. What we learn early on is that his children are in constant communication and that they are hiding something very important from Frank concerning the youngest, a New York artist named David, whom Frank goes to visit first. Frank wants to surprise his children, but after a failed attempt to visit David, he heads to his oldest daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), a successful ad exec, and she immediately lights up the switchboard to the other two to let them know dad is on the way.
Our second discovery is that Frank's kids lie to him a lot, whereas they used to share everything with their mother. As De Niro goes from place to place, we learn a little bit more about the way he raised his children and the pressures he put on them to succeed. He was one of the those working-class fathers who sacrificed everything to make sure his family was secure and had all the advantages that he didn't, without realizing that the thing he was sacrificing the most was a relationship with the very people he wanted to take care of. The film has a great deal to say and let us contemplate concerning family and the white lies we tell each other to get through the day with as little conflict as possible. Most of the lies Frank's children tell are in the name of not disappointing this man who always had the highest dreams and expectations for his kids. His oldest boy Robert (Sam Rockwell) led Frank to believe he conducted an orchestra, when in fact he plays percussion in one. His youngest daughter, Rosie (Drew Barrymore), lies about getting work in Las Vegas shows and even the spacious apartment she lives in.
What's more fascinating is that when Frank comes face to face with these untruths, he sees right through them. He spots all the little signs and knows exactly which facts are lies, and he's right every time. But this isn't the De Niro we've seen of late in the Meet the Parents franchise who possesses no shades of gray or patience of any kind. Frank is a kind, slightly desperate man who sees that some of his children are in trouble and knows that he possesses a lifetime of experience that might help his struggling kids. In one scene near the end of the film that has no business working as well as it does, De Niro is having a dream set at a backyard picnic table where we see all of the family as children, but they are speaking the words of adults with a lifetime of trying to live up to dad's example and expectations. It's a sad and melancholy sequence that works because it's saturated with the truth. There are moments in Everybody's Fine that ring so true they gave me goosebumps.
And so De Niro's Frank does his version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles without the jokes, and it still manages to work. I think my favorite of Frank's visit is with Rockwell's character, who seems the most bitter about his father being there at all. The barely contained tension between them is enough to fuel an entire movie, and Rockwell is such a great actor that to see him conquer a character so "normal" is a bit of a kick. I also had fun watching De Niro chat with some strong supporting players that he runs into on his journey, including Melissa Leo (Frozen River) as a truck driver who gives Frank a lift at one point. Everybody's Fine is a simple, quiet gift in theaters right now. There are no special effects, no big dramatic moments, no dumbed-down instances of lame humor. No, this is one of the good ones — a deceptively easy story punctuated and brought to life with great acting and solid, steady direction. No one was more surprised than me at how much I became engrossed in the lives of this family. Every so often, a meat-and-potatoes movie feels more like a gourmet dish. Do not miss this.
Assassination of a High School President
It may seem slightly bizarre that any theater in Chicago would play this film considering it has been out on DVD for about two months already, but since this better-than-average spawn of Heathers and close kin to Rian Johnson's Brick never opened in Chicago, I'm actually kind of glad the Gene Siskel Film Center is giving it at least one token play on the big screen this weekend — Friday, Dec. 4 at 8pm to be precise. While Assassination of a High School President isn't a must-see on the big screen, this highlight of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is definitely worth checking out in some format.
The story involves a reporter for a high school newspaper digging deep to discover who among his classmates is responsible for stealing completed SAT tests from his Catholic school principal's (Bruce Willis) office safe. A amply off-beat Reece Thompson plays journalist Bobby Funke (whom everyone refers to as Funky), who believes he has uncovered the thief in none other than the school's student body president, thus wrecking his chances of getting into college and opening up the very real possibility of going to jail. But as Funky goes from zero to hero overnight with his revelation (including hooking up with the former president's girlfriend, played by Mischa Barton), he discovers new facts that would make it seem unlikely that the accused was the culprit. His deeper probing into the matter reveals a mass of drug dealing, widespread cheating, gambling and shitloads of additional conspiracies that may not make total sense, but it's sure fun to learn about the seedy underbelly of this school.
Assassination of a High School President could have been an unmitigated mess were it not for a smart script by Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski, and a skillful eye by first-time feature director Brett Simon. But I was also impressed with most of the performances (although Willis' borderline over-the-top First Gulf War vet act gets old fast), especially Thompson (last seen by me in Rocket Science) and Barton, who I've never seen act before and found fairly solid in this part as part seductress, all femme fatale. By the end of the film, the tables have turned on Funky and those he hunts begin hunting him. The language and general demeanor of the students is as crude as it is funny, and there's a thread of evil that runs through the entire movie, but I found that made the whole experience watching it just a little more devilish. You may feel like you need a shower after you watch this dirty little bit of teen noir depravity, but I think you'll still have a blast going on this weird and wonderful ride.
As an added incentive to come to the Dec. 4 screening, director Brett Simon and screenwriter Kevin Jakubowski will be present for audience discussion after the film. And trust me, this one requires much discussion after it's over.