28 November 2009

Up in the Air

I truly wish the TV commercial for this movie did not tout it as being the "from director of Juno."  That is selling it short.  Or worse.  Juno was self-conscious in almost every aspect.  Up In The Air, however, is anything but that.  It is fresh, funny and touching -- and probably marks (I hope) a new epoch in George Clooney's somewhat uneven career (What was Leatherheads, anyway?)
Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, acts as the narrator for a simple tale of a man who finds contentment in what others would consider drudgery.  He spends as much of his time in planes, airports, hotels and rental cars as work will allow.  He is precise and committed (as we are shown this through Wright/Pegg-like editing as he packs his suitcase, goes through security, etc.).  If he were a hue, he would be a comfortable, unoffending grey.  He uses this muted personality to deliver pink slips to employees at companies around the country.  It becomes clear that while he doesn't enjoy the job, he knows that he is good at it, or as good as anyone can be, and finds comfort in the idea that he is at least trying to lessen the blow.  
Young whippersnapper Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) joins the firing firm and announces that the company could save significant funds by laying off employees via teleconference.  Horrified at the insincerity of this change, and what it means for his own way of life, he convinces boss Jason Bateman to let him go on one last trip to show Keener the tricks.  
Now confronted with a loneliness he has not experienced, and the possibility that he may never meet up again with his airport fling, Alex (Vera Farmiga), he returns to the job with a new intensity.  

The movie is very witty, sharp, wry and funny.  It is also genuine and touching.  The punches are not pulled, even if they are somewhat expected.  The setups are not so overwhelming obvious that the audience is just waiting for their fulfillment.  The ride is actually interesting and enjoyable.  Clooney is channeling someone from his father's era with Cary Grant-like goofy expressions (see Charade, 1963), and he is comfortable in it.  Kendrick plays an overeager overachiever well.  She brings enough naivete to the role to make her vulnerable and therefore sympathetic.  Farmiga's range in this role is stunning.  She and Clooney have an unmistakable chemistry that is a joy to watch.  So much so that when she displays a coolness, it makes the audience squirm.  It is convincing and unnerving at once.  
Aside from the nauseatingly obvious and repetitive product placement of one of the major airlines, Up In The Air has much to recommend it.  Finally, someone decided to just tell a good story.  And they made it very enjoyable. 

12 November 2009

Youth in Revolt

Like most of America, I first became aware of Michael Cera with the all-too-short-lived comedy Arrested Development. Since his stint as the awkward George Michael Bluth, he has branched out to playing a slightly older but still awkward teenager looking to find his way in the adult world. 
Youth in Revolt is a similar picture. Sweet and shy, Nick Twisp narrates the pitfalls of his first romance (ostensibly, passages from his "diary" , which is really the book that the film is based on).  Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) is the young woman whose affection he pines for.  Like a knight on a quest, he traverses rickety mobile homes, stoned older brothers (Justin Long), a set of trailer-trash parents AND a set of Bible thumping parents to win the love of his lady.  And typical, predictable humor ensues. 
The more interesting twist to the tale is the inclusion of "Francois", a devil-may-care French alter ego who Nick seems to have no control over.  It is Francois who has the courage to say daring things and commit felonious acts.  And Cera gets this part to a tee.

  There is reference made to the Godard classic "Breathless" - Sheeni's posters on the wall, the mention of running away together like outlaws - but for film geeks it never pans out.  There easily could have been a shot of Francois, leaning up against a lamppost with a newspaper, planning to rob a bank just before the accidental arson, to give those who get it a chance to exercise their now sleeping braincells.  
And what ever happened to his friend who helped him sneak into the dorm?  We don't see him again until the end credits.  In fact, there was an audible "oh yeah..." from the crowd when he popped up.
Youth in Revolt is amusing.  If you like this kind of film.  Think Superbad with less weed, or fewer cops.  And no Seth Rogen (thank goodness).  Sheeni is wholly unlikable, to the point that you don't really want him to get the girl.  There are admirable appearances by Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi, and Zach Galifinakis.  
Overall, it just feels unfinished.  Or confused.  It could have been a truly unique version of the genre.  Instead, it is of the genre, with a minor gimmick.

04 November 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats

Seriously. They actually do. This title is not a metaphor.
Like The Informant!, though less subtle, the film is adapted from a book by Jon Ronson, which is supposedly a collection of mostly true stories, and instead of saying "Based on a True Story" the opening credit leads with "More of this is true than you would believe." And they are probably right, but it is a fun romp for all of that.
Ewan MacGregor acts as the narrator and guide on this strange journey. He is a troubled reporter in Ann Arbor Michigan who decides to prove himself by following up on a story of ridiculousness of enormous proportions. His initial source claims to be part of an elite unit that was trained to use various psychic powers against the enemy. He travels to Kuwait, waiting for a chance to cross the border into Iraq to find more trainees. As luck would have it, he finds Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) in the hotel lobby and the story only gets weirder.
The movie is full of Family Guy-esque flashbacks (some almost non sequitur) featuring Jeff Bridges as the progenitor of the movement (in tripping Lebowski style), Kevin Spacey as the unamused and mediocre physic, now private contractor and Stephen Lang as a goofy, grinning BG Hopgood.

Clooney's character seems to span all the slices of time we are privy to, and as such he vacillates between looking like Dennis Farina, Tom Selleck and James Taylor circa 1971. He brings back a bit of the goofy seen in O, Brother but seems to have aged into this role a bit more thoughtfully. There is a sincerity underlying the crazy. We are sucked into believing him, like the reporter, even though what he describes is utterly nuts. It is a fun ride, like letting go on a roller coaster.
In the end, the film isn't about much. The only truthful moment is when Cassady and an Iraqi national assure one another that not everyone from their country is not a terrorist, or an idiot. If there is anything to take away from it, it is that it ok to laugh at the inanity of war sometimes.

The Young Victoria

The Brits have a love/hate obsession with their royals that is still somewhat a mystery to Americans. We have our celebrities that we love to hate but rarely, if ever, do we follow their story from birth to death. The young princes William and Harry have been speculated about since before they were born. For England, it has been true since the monarchy was installed. And as Americans, we have a limited, cursory view of the woman whose name inspired an era synonymous with propriety and staid relationships.
Seeing Academy Award winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes tender dramatization of Queen Victoria's early years was refreshing, lovely and often amusing. He interpreted a time in her life before she had become comfortable with power. Having been groomed to be nothing but a figurehead, she defied numerous pressures to take her place as the longest reigning English monarch to date.

Emily Blunt (who looks more than a little like HRH) brings an understated, light honesty to the role. She manages to show Victoria's humor, stubbornness, strength, compassion and uncertainty. Rupert Friend takes on the awkward but sweet and sincere Prince Albert of Saxon-Coburg. Their onscreen chemistry enhances the flirtatious nature of their courtship.
Most striking about the film's presentation is how accessible it is. Despite the depictions of excessive wealth, power, inane protocol, the audience is constantly aware that these are just people. It is more than a costume drama. It makes one of history's most notable love affairs as simple as a college sweetheart romance. They are nervous, excited, and have fights, just like any couple. The audience was actually cheering when the two finally become engaged -- even though we all knew the Victoria and Albert were a couple.
Additionally, Jim Broadbent's boisterous King William is very funny, and again underscores that everyone has an ungrateful aunt, a difficult uncle or an annoying cousin. Families will be families, no matter how blue their blood.

The Young Victoria bases itself on true events, including Sir John's vehement wish for a Regency, the attempt on Victoria's life and Victoria and Albert's adjoining desks. Of course, much of the dialogue is speculation, but Fellowes embeds so much that we cannot help but fall in love with the royals, just like any Brit.