Monday, December 28, 2009

A Movie Review: Up In The Air (2009)

Up in the Air (2009)

Director - Jason Reitman
109 Min; R

Ryan Bingham - George Clooney
Alex Goran - Vera Farmiga
Natalie Keener - Anna Kendrick
Craig Gregory - Jason Bateman

Following the critical success of his two previous films (Juno; Thank You for Smoking) director Jason Reitman seems to be on his way to a trifecta with the just released Up in the Air, a film which does an excellent job at weaving distinct story lines into one coherent and cohesive picture. It certainly appears that George Clooney’s agent is earning his paycheck, as there really could be no better fit for the character of Ryan Bingham who spends the majority of his life on airplanes and in hotel rooms all while in pursuit of one of the most special recognitions frequent fliers can obtain – major, major mileage accrual.

Of course a film just about a guy collecting airline miles would probably become as dull as flying all those miles every year, and thus we have the reason for his travels, or travails as it were, Ryan fires people. He works for a company that is paid by other companies to do the dirty work of corporate downsizing, in person, and to do it professionally. Business is booming for the company, which, of course means lots of people are losing their jobs. Welcome to present times. It is soon revealed by his boss Craig (Jason Bateman) that fresh-faced and spunky Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has proposed an idea that has been accepted on a trial basis which effectively grounds all the ‘road warriors’ from doing their jobs. Firings will no longer take place in-person; instead, to save a lot of money the company will be testing a new tele-conference system which allows the company to conduct all its business from Omaha.

For some the idea of a life more grounded and full of routine is a welcome announcement, but for people like Ryan, it is all but a death sentence. The need for a family and a home are not pressing, and he spends some of his time at speaking engagements where he presents his view of ‘unpacking items from your backpack of life.’ But now there will be no more coming and going, working at your own pace, on your own terms, meeting who you want, when you want, as he comes to do with a fellow traveler herself, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), or even just the welcome solitude that the road life can bring to some people. Sure Ryan has his moments, as most do who travel extensively for work, where he feels the isolation. Clooney does a very good job at portraying the range of emotions a person like this goes through – sometimes in love with the lifestyle, other times wishing for something more ‘stable.’ It is, after all, not a lifestyle suited to everyone.

The film becomes a mentoring project as Ryan takes Natalie on the road for some hands on training in the art of firing people all while awaiting the implementation of the new cold and more heartless video system firing makes its debut. Keener is a by the numbers tough chick eager to make her mark, while Ryan is a man who has perspective on his side. Together the two make an interesting couple with a nice dynamic, and ultimately it is Clooney who really pulls off this part of the film, with this well times smirks, nods, and just his general ability to make his character very believable, which isn’t always easy to do with someone like Ryan, who lives a life most people cannot relate to on any real level. After all, most people get married, buy a house, have kids and go to the same job at the same place most days, so for the audience it takes an actor like Clooney to bring us into his character’s world and keep us there, not wishing for him or against him really, just realizing him for what he is as that character.

Casting many real-life people who have been let go in this manner ads a nice touch to the film and lends some realism to the scenes. A film that is ‘about firing people’ is also very much about a personal journey for two very different characters, and the different ways in which they choose to find something out about themselves. The film does not overly glorify nor condescend the life of the ‘road warriors’ but finds a nice balance.

I’d like to add a personal note of bias to this review, as I myself am very much like Ryan, with a road warrior job that keeps me on the move as much as 40+ weeks in some years (and yes, collecting miles and hotel points is a major part of my life), and the portrayal in this film is very fair. To oversimplify the character would have been an injustice, but not as much as if it had been overdone and preachy, trying to force us to feel pity for Ryan. In the end, I felt like I had watched a slice of someone’s life who I can relate to, but I never felt like I was being asked to judge him, and I thank the director for that touch.

***** out of 5

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

3 quick 2009 reviews: Observe and Report; Julie and Julia; The Messenger

Director - Jody Hill
86 min; R
Ronnie Barnhardt - Seth Rogen
Detective Harrison - Ray Liotta
Brandi - Anna Faris

I suppose I laughed a few times at this quirky noir-comedy, but in reality it is pretty unwatchable. Both this film and Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) suffered from their similar release dates with similar subjects, and I guess to be quite honest, from lack of good writing. The film does contain some dark-comedy that some may enjoy, but I don't think the general viewing public is going to find most of this entertaining. Give me a movie like Punch-Drunk Love (2002)any day. Prepare yourself for a lot of crude humor and vulgar language. You really lose nothing by skipping this one.

* and 1/2 out of 5


Director - Nora Ephron
123 min; PG-13
Julia Child - Meryl Streep
Julie Powell - Amy Adams

I was pleasantly surprised by this cute film which traces two storylines in a side-by-side narrative, that of the life of Julia Child and her rise to world-wide cooking sensation, and that of Julie Powell and her project to spend one year cooking her way through the famous chef's famous cookbook. The film does not reach any major conclusions but it leaves you feeling satisfied, and the fact that it is based on a true story makes it all the better. Is this a top theatrical presentation? Who cares! It is watchable and definitely would work as a date movie.

*** out of 5


Director - Oren Moverman
105 min; R
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery - Ben Foster
Kelly - Jena Malone
Captain Tony Stone - Woody Harrelson
Dale Martin - Steve Buscemi

A wartime film that follows the lives of two soldiers who hold the distinguished and anguished job of delivering news of death to next of kin. Wonderful performances by both Foster and Harrelson make this film worth seeing, and some of the scenes where they deliver their message are beautiful and powerful, including 2 scenes with a father (Steve Buscemi) that are the best of the movie. Ultimately it falls apart for me as the direction of the film takes a turn towards a strange plotline which I did not feel gave any depth to the subject matter and only left me wanting to see more of these soldiers as they perform their duty, not as they each fight seemingly self-imposed demons.

*** and a 1/2 out of 5

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A retro-review of Frost/Nixon with DVD updates

2008 was a pretty damn good year for films. It had a lot to live up to from 2007, and never quite did, but still we got The Wrestler, In Bruges, Milk, The Dark Knight, Revolutionary Road, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and of course, my favorite movie of the year, Frost/Nixon.

Below is my original review of the film, but I'd like to add these comments as I just finished watching the DVD and the extra features.

This film is magical as far as acting and direction go, and this is only enhanced by the bonus features.

1. Multiple deleted scenes bring forward the greatness of Frank Langella and Michael Sheen as we get to see longer, uncut scenes with Langella speaking as the President, some of them would have even been great had they been included in the film.

2. There is a very nice segment on the Nixon presidential library in Yorbalinda, CA. It talks about the history and you get great views of the grounds and the house where he grew up.

3. There is a good segment on the making of the film

4. The best part is the Ron Howard commentary. You can watch the entire film with Howard giving his thoughts, and he speaks almost the entire time. I couldn't believe how much I wanted to just watch the entire film back-to-back first without and then with his commentary, as it truly gives a wonderful insight into the world of the actors playing this great scene of not just American history, but world history.

If you skipped this film last year or if you haven't heard of it (It made less than 20 million world wide, yet is praised by almost all who see it, and unfortunately had to go against the more mainstream Slumdog Millionaire at Oscar time) please go out of your way to watch this film and if moved to do so, watch it with the commentary afterwards.

It is very possible this film is in my top 10 of the decade.

Even if you know close to nothing about political history it is safe to say you have probably heard of Watergate. It is also safe to say that you correlate Watergate with the 1970s and President Richard Nixon. In Ron Howard’s new masterpiece Frost/Nixon we are taken back to the Summer of 1977 to play witness to a series of interviews between TV personality David Frost and semi-exiled Ex-President Richard Nixon. What transpires over the course of the film is nothing short of brilliance in the way of character performance, equaled shot for shot by Michael Sheen as Frost, the successful foreign showman who is trying to climb back into the NY picture, and Frank Langella as Nixon, a proud, larger-than life figure battling his own demons while trying to clear his tarnished reputation.

I am not a political historian, but in doing some basic research on the film it is apparent that liberties were taken with some of the facts and sequences, but after all this is not billed a documentary and that should not deter you in any way from enjoying this as a fictionalized piece imbrued with mostly fact, or factual like scenarios.

The movie takes you through the tormented minds of two very different people over seemingly very different issues, but ultimately, what we find, is that these two are more alike than either could have ever imagined, and the culminating scenes of the film draw us in deeply to the minds of these two as they fight man to man in a verbal battle that will ultimately lead to a staggering conclusion.

The film itself sets up as a character piece early on, in which we come to learn of David Frost and how he went from the top of the world in terms of US stature to fighting his way through talk shows and entertainment venues in Australia. He badly wants to get back to the top in the capital of the world- New York City. After the resignation of Richard Nixon and subsequent Presidential pardon, there was no closure, no apology, no admission, and simply no acknowledgment by Ex-President Nixon. He simply moved to California and did not speak of such things.

Though Sheen gives an impressive performance and is as much the driving force of the film as anything, it is simply the work of Langella that reaches out and grabs you by the neck and says “Hey! This is what acting is all about!” His portrayal of the disgraced Ex-President, looking for redemption, seeking something he cannot quite grasp, is one of the greatest performances I have ever seen on the big screen. I was captivated by his movements and even more so his larger-than-life presence. With each cut to him exiting a vehicle, or psyching himself up with a quick jog to music, I found myself feeling both sympathy and pity for this man, but you never forget the reason that this film exists, and those faults will follow his legacy forever.

I will not give out more details though it is widely known how the interviews turned out. I am simply going to say that this is an absolute must see film and is my choice for the top movie of 2008.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A movie review: Brothers (2009)

Brothers (2009)

Director - Jim Sheridan
Runtime 105 min; R
Tommy Cahill - Jake Gyllenhaal
Grace Cahill - Natalie Portman
Captain Sam Cahill - Tobey Maguire
Hank Cahill - Sam Shepard
Isabelle Cahill - Bailee Madison
Maggie Cahill - Taylor Geare

The ensemble cast of the new war and family themed film Brothers is about as good as any this year. I left the theater with a feeling that I had just watched a very real slice of actual life, somewhere not too far away from where I live, and that these people exist everywhere in the world, just as they are, flawed and human. I am no expert in praise of direction, but it seems fitting to me that Jim Sheridan deserves a lot of credit here, and I hope the maker of In the Name of the Father (1993) is honored this year.

Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is preparing to return for a tour of duty in Afghanistan, once again to leave his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two daughters behind. The timing coincides with the release of his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison just a few days prior. Throw into the mix their alcohol abusing and Vietnam Vet father Hank (Sam Shepard) and this film has all the makings of a serious family drama.

Let me start by stating my view that this film is really only 25% about war and the consequences of war, and 75% about what it means to be a family. There has been talk about an anti-war message but I don’t really see that coming through too strong, more along the lines of war is bad in general, and bad things happen because of it. In the case of this movie, Sam is presumed dead after his vehicle goes down in battle, and in the aftermath of grief it is Tommy who steps in to help Grace and the children cope. Tommy is flawed, a failure at everything he has ever done in life, and Hank is quick to point it out and to also make clear that Sam is the hero of the family, the one to be praised, not the criminal and quitter that Tommy has always been. Grace, having never liked Tommy, slowly allows him access to her life, if for nothing more than someone to share the grief load with, and soon Tommy begins to prove his worth.

No sooner does it seem that Tommy has his life on a better track, helping with Grace and the kids and receiving the praise from his father he never had, does Sam reappear, having been held captive all along and now, months later and a funeral ago, unsure of how to cope with the situation. What did Sam have to do to get back to his family? What emotions are the brothers feeling toward each other? How do a wife and children accept a man back into their lives who is not the man they once knew?

Psychological issues are deep in this film, and though Maguire is being singled out across the board for his break-through performance, it really is the entire cast, including a wonderful job with a range of emotions by Bailee Madison as daughter Isabelle, that brings this film together. This is not a film about a beginning, middle, and end. This is a family in motion, with real issues, and nothing is easily answered.

Unlike the excellent film from this year The Hurt Locker, which deals entirely with war at its worst, and in the zone itself, this film takes the horrors of war and transcribes them onto the American family in ways that no other film in recent memory has done. I would not be surprised to see multiple award nominations in multiple categories for this film.

**** and ½ out of 5

A movie review: Avatar (2009)

Avatar (2009) (Viewed in 3D)

Director - James Cameron
Runtime 162 Min; PG-13
Jake Sully - Sam Worthington
Neytiri - Zoe Saldana
Dr. Grace Augustine - Sigourney Weaver
Colonel Quaritch - Stephen Lang
Trudy - Michelle Rodriguez
Parker - Giovanni Ribisi

The word “hype” is thrown around quite freely in the world of cinema, but in recent memory has there been a more hyped film than James Cameron’s $250,000,000+ blockbuster Avatar. Years in the making, hardly a week or two would go by without progress updates detailing the enormous task of undertaking new and untested grounds in CGI, 3-D, and movie-making in general. The world waited in anticipation as the self-proclaimed King of the World (A bit brash, but it probably felt true after his Oscar dominance in 1997 with the epic film Titanic) toiled away on his baby, waiting for this year’s award season to finally release what was billed to be the most spectacular achievement in filmmaking. From the man who brought us innovative techniques in films such as the Terminators, Aliens, and the Abyss we are given a new frontier. So? What is the verdict???

In order to answer that question we must first explore the world that Cameron has literally created, Pandora, and the inhabitants, of which there are many. I felt like a little kid again when I put on the (thankfully better designed) 3-D glasses and watched previews, building the anticipation as characters and scenes around them came to life. It would be a mistake to not first praise the visually stunning world of blues and greens and magical whites and floating mountains, of giant wonderful trees that tower up and out beyond comprehension with branches that span and tangle and grasp the world around it, or the rhino-like creatures that stampede about while flying dragon-like animals roam the sky, or breathtaking scenes of waterfalls and mysterious trees with beautiful dangling white strands. It is apparent from the very first viewing of this world where all that money went, and, conversely, it quickly becomes apparent where that money did not go (everything else.)

This is not a CGI-hater critique, as it may be known that I am not a general fan of the overused technique which often leads to terrible plots and even worse acting, and it calls to mind immediately the atrocious Transformer films of recent years. In fact, without the incredible visuals employed in this film it would not even be worth the time to write about, for the plot and acting in this film are mediocre at best. This may just be the one film of the decade that is saved completely by the astounding technical work and, mixed with the hype, will surely leave audiences feeling they got what they deserved.

That is not to say the film is anything special outside of the visuals, for it is not. This is too big for one film, and much like the epic and infinitely better Lord of the Rings films, this movie would have benefited greatly if it were released in two or three parts, with expanded scenes detailing some of the head-scratchingly overlooked details of this fantasy world infused with our own. In particular, so much attention is placed on the scenery that it would be impossible for the plot to not suffer. We are dealing with a storyline that involves humans conquering a foreign land to raid it of its natural resources, at whatever cost necessary, and in that storyline we have several plot lines of individuals that just cannot be fleshed out in one sitting. That many compare this to a Dances With Wolves theme and/or tie it to the political greenness and liberalism of today is without fault, as the messages of this film are loud and clear. I only wish Cameron didn’t take such a hard-line against our own people – maybe he should move to France if he dislikes his own country so much?

In the year 2154 a team of science based humans led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) are on a mission to infiltrate, study, and with the government breathing down their necks and the push of company man Parker (Giovanni Ribisi) and military might Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), to harvest a precious resource found on Pandora no matter what the damage to the local Na’vi people, who live a life in harmony with nature causing no threat to anyone nearby. Team members, including Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is thrown into the program without training after the death of his twin brother, venture to the world of Pandora where air cannot be breathed without masks by humans in the form of an avatar, a 10’+ and blue-tailed representation of the Na’vi people, and all from the comfort of their Matrix-like pod.

Through a series of events Jake is brought to the inner circle of the Na’vi people by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a local Na’vi woman who just so happens to be the most attractive blue creature on the screen since smurfette. Jake is to learn their ways and ultimately to become one of them, and along the way he must fight his emotions for the people and the land and the ultimate goal of having them leave so resources can be harvested. The rest of the story is fairly predictable.

I’d like to take a moment hear to voice my frustrations with the film. To start, the main character is completely miscast. Worthington plays the role of a jaded marine butting heads with everyone around him with the grace of a bull in a china shop, lashing out in one moment then gleefully yelling as he swoops down in a helicopter over the Pandora countryside like a giggly school-girl. He has a temper and it shows throughout, but it seems misguided as he tries to earn the trust of the locals. I would have liked to see him as a strong actor, less campy, and more grounded with the film. My second biggest complaint, and this is oddly enough just a minor blip in the film, is the choice of foul language used for no reason, spread throughout. This is a PG-13 movie, so liberties are allowed, but the use of language should have some purpose to the film, not simply having a character shout out ‘I’ll shoot you’re bitch-ass!’ at random intervals. It may seem minor but it really bothered me, as it was almost on cue every 20 minutes to get some shock value, like, ‘hey, I spent $250,000,000 on this film and if I want a character to say ‘shit’ then that character is going to say ‘shit’.’ As pointed out by others, Giovanni Ribisi is not a good fit as the company man. He simply feels out of place and fumbling, and never reaches a high or low that would evoke some sort of emotional response from us.

This film would probably be pointless to see in anything other than 3-D, so please pay the extra few bucks and enjoy this magical world, but be prepared to lose a bit of the novelty as the film progresses, and don’t feel bad when you leave if your world hasn’t been turned upside-down – just be happy that you sat through something better than Transformers and 2012.

*** out of 5

A movie review: The Brothers Bloom (2009)

The Brothers Bloom (2009)

Director - Rian Johnson
Runtime 114 Min; PG-13
Bloom - Adrien Brody
Stephen - Mark Ruffalo
Penelope - Rachel Weisz
Bang Bang - Rinko Kikuchi

Is there anything worse in the world of cinema than making your way about 15 minutes into a film and feeling like you already know everything that is going to happen, as if the director and writer took a cookie cutter and stamped it over the entire genre, leaving a perfectly crisp and predictable outline for you to follow? It’s a rhetorical question, sort of, but thankfully it does not apply to 100% of the The Brothers Bloom, a film by Rian Johnson, in which we are taken for a ride on a common topic (the con man) but given enough change from the status quo to keep us interested (almost throughout.)

Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are brothers, the former 3 years older, who, from the time they can consciously understand the value of money (say, 10 years old or so) decide to con people out of it. Stephen is the brains of the operation, coming up with the scheme worked out in a series of steps and bubbles on a piece of paper, with each one involving his younger brother as the star of the con. Bouncing from foster home to foster home they continually find themselves on the move and soon we find thirty-something versions of the two as they pull off yet another in a long long line of successful and complicated capers.

The life of a con man is tiring Bloom, unsatisfied by the written life his brother gives to him. A series of cons in which he is to get the trust of a woman, get close to her, and then without so much as a goodbye, take his leave, has left him jaded and wanting to lead an unwritten life. Perhaps a clean break with his brother and partner is what is needed, and so he leaves for Montenegro, and there he is, by himself, a new life… for 3 months. And then his brother comes calling again, and he cannot resist “one more big con to end them all” on an eccentric young heiress from New Jersey.

Whisking us through different periods in time and some wonderful scenery, this film takes on an often formulaic theme and gives us something not quite revolutionary, but different enough to warrant our attention. Along with Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), the Asian con-woman who just showed up one day to help them and who likes to blow things up but almost never speaks, the team makes their way throughout the world conning con men and being the best at what they do, until ultimately Bloom’s desires for a real life come to a head with the meeting of their final mark, the young, eccentric and beautiful heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz). The majority of the film is concerned with the elaborate con of the woman and had the team making this film held out with just a bit more conviction they could have found something special here, but unfortunately they fall pretty to third act problems, so prevalent with recent films it makes your head spin, and we are left with a bit of sour taste at the end wondering what could have been.

This is not a must-see film but it is worth a look, if for no other reason than it is a nice change from a lot of the same ol’ same ol’ being produced in Hollywood, and the characters are all acted nicely throughout with some well timed deadpan humor that keeps us smiling. This film doesn’t break the mold, but it expands it quite well.

*** out of 5

A mini-movie review: The Limits of Control (2009)

Director - Jim Jarmusch
Runtime 116 min; R
Lone Man - Isaach De Bankolé
Nude - Paz de la Huerta
Blonde - Tilda Swinton

A film of brutal methodology that leaves us wanting to take our own lives, The Limits of Control (2009) fails to engage us past the initial intriguing sequences, as we follow the Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) through beautiful scenes of Spain as he trades his soul for diamonds and other illegal affairs. 116 minutes is 110 minutes too long, even with the beautiful Paz de la Huerta as Nude woman, well, nude all the time, and you should skip this one.

* Out of 5

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mini Reviews: 2012 and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Director - Roland Emmerich
Runtime - 158 min; PG-13
John Cusack - Jackson Curtis
Amanda Peet - Kate Curtis

Exactly what you would expect, nothing more, nothing less. I suppose 2/5 is fair, considering the bad acting, terrible plot lines, and over the top cgi - come on John Cusack, you can do better - but overall not as terrible as I expected)

Director - Werner Herzog
Runtime - 121 min; R
Nicolas Cage - Terrence Mcdonagh
Val Kilmer - Stevie Pruit
Eva Mendes - Frankie

Nicolas Cage with a great performance as a drugged up cop post Katrina, but the film by Werner Herzog is a bit out there in terms of cohesivness and though I'd love to proclaim it a best of the year candidate it seems to fall short in believabilty which isn't good in a movie that is somewhat trying to be 'real'... It simply does not flesh out many parts of the film enough and leaves too much dangling... 3.5/5 reluctantly because I feel it should be higher.