Thursday, December 31, 2009

December 2009 Movie Roundup

As is customary for this time of year, I've spent the better part of the last couple of weeks trying to see as many movies as possible. Consequently, I won't have time to review them all before putting together a top ten list for the year - at least, not if I want that list to be somewhat timely.

So as an experiment in brevity, for each of the last five films I saw, I'm offering my thoughts in ten words or less. Think I can't do it? Think again!

INVICTUS (directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon)

Not a single unexpected moment. Yawn.


FANTASTIC MR. FOX (directed by Wes Anderson; voices of George Clooney, Jason Schwarzbaum, Michael Gambon, others; based on book by Roald Dahl)

Wes Anderson's whimsy put to best use since "Rushmore." Delightful.


ME & ORSON WELLES (directed by Richard Linklater; starring Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes)

Lightweight but enjoyable reminder that geniuses are often charismatic assholes.


AVATAR (directed by James Cameron; starring Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, voices of Zoe Saldana, CCH Pounder, others)

Clunky but gorgeous fantasy rewrite of the Western imperialist narrative.


A SINGLE MAN (directed by Tom Ford; starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult, Ginnifer Goodwin)

Self-consciously arty yet poignant depiction of grief. Bravo Mr. Firth.


Note: If one of these films ends up in my top ten for 2009, I will make every effort to do a fuller review as soon as possible.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Stopping by Oz on a Snowy Evening

Being snowbound today, which curtailed my original evening plans, I found myself watching "The Wizard of Oz" on TV. It was the first time I'd seen the movie the whole way through since I was a kid, and I had the pleasure of discovering (or rediscovering) the following:

1. I still wish Toto were my dog.

2. Judy Garland's Dorothy would be annoying if she weren't so adorable.

3. The whole Munchkinland sequence is shockingly trippy.

4. Glinda has a double chin. (Not knocking the actress, Billie Burke, who was 54 at the time and looked damned good for her age.)

5. The flying monkeys are still scary, but even scarier is the sight of nasty neighbor-lady transforming into the wicked witch during the tornado. That totally freaked me out as a kid.

6. Weakest song: "If I Were King of the Forest."

7. Best sidekick: Scarecrow, of course! Though I always found the Tin Man rather charming, too.

8. Best line: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

9. I don't think I cried when I watched the movie as a kid, but it makes me cry now. Not sure why. Something about Garland's performance, I think.

10. The movie holds up. Not that that should come as a surprise.

And now I have "If I Only Had a Brain/We're Off to See the Wizard" stuck in my head. Oh well, I've had far worse songs rattling around in there.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Gliding, rather than soaring, "Up in the Air"


directed by Jason Reitman
starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Melanie Lynskey, J.K. Simmons, others
based (loosely) on the novel by Walter Kirn

True to its title, “Up in the Air” is about a man who’s only comfortable when in flight. Flight from what? From nothing and everything: fundamentally, from being grounded. But the question the film’s really concerned with is not what drives such a man, but what it takes to bring him down to earth. That focus proves to be both its strength and its weakness.

The man’s name is Ryan Bingham, and he prides himself on his state of permanent transience. First-class cabins, airport lounges, and hotel suites are his home, Hertz is his garage, and airline and hospitality employees are his friends. His most cherished goal is to gain admission to the one million mile club, and his motto is to carry as little baggage—of both the material and personal kind—as possible along the way.

He’s also good at his job, as only someone of his disposition could be. It’s a line of work most people would find intolerable: Downsizing companies hire him to deliver the bad news to their downsized employees, a task he performs with such smooth professionalism and such a credible imitation of empathy that it’s hard to imagine anyone other than George Clooney playing him at all convincingly. Still, Ryan’s job is clearly just a means to an end, in that it allows him to subsist on fleeting moments of connection that never need to be developed into anything more or require him to put down any roots anywhere. Naturally he feels threatened when a fresh-faced young Ivy League graduate, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), arrives at his company with a revolutionary proposal—sack the schmoes through the Internet, save travel costs!—that threatens to up-end not only his business M.O. but his entire way of life. His only defense is to show her what he does and why firing via webcam is such an inadequate substitute.

The premise of “Up in the Air,” which uses clips of interviews with non-actors who were really laid off to underscore the impact of Ryan’s work, is at once timely and timeless, if a bit implausible. I’ve read conflicting accounts on whether or not traveling axe-men exist in reality, but even if they do, I find it hard to believe in entire companies that exist only to help lay off other companies’ employees. I found it even harder to believe that anyone in this purported business would take Natalie’s innovation seriously, as it hardly seems calculated to improve a service of already-dubious value. Still, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of her interactions with Ryan (Kendrick’s and Clooney’s comic timing is gold, and they play well off each other), and there’s a certain witty consonance between the different brands of isolation that Ryan and Natalie represent—the former with his gospel of traveling “light” and never stopping, the latter with her belief in the powers of going “glocal.” Inevitably, the two characters learn from each other that their philosophies simply can’t account for all the vagaries of human nature, especially the need for genuine, lasting human connection.

You may think you know where the story is going, especially once Ryan crosses paths with Alex (Vera Farmiga, never sexier), a fellow frequent flier who seems at first glance to be his female counterpart, at second his potential soulmate. But don’t be too sure: the script, which was co-written by the director, Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Thank You For Smoking”), and loosely adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn, throws a curveball or two that may disappoint some viewers and pleasantly surprise others. The result is a very watchable, frequently very funny, and occasionally poignant film that strives to convey a deeply conventional message while simultaneously subverting a conventional narrative structure. Whether the one tends to undercut the other may depend on the individual viewer’s opinion of the message. If you’re already a believer in what the movie’s selling, you’ll likely see its approach as nuanced; if you’re a skeptic, you may see it as merely muddled.

In any event, much of “Up in the Air”’s effectiveness derives not so much from the writing as the acting. This is especially true of the two principal women in the movie, whose presence and rapport with Clooney are so strong they tend to conceal a certain thinness of characterization. The latter might be a deliberate choice, especially with respect to Alex, but the fact remains that she and Natalie are chiefly important not for themselves but for the reaction they elicit from Ryan. As for Ryan himself, he remains an enigma, even after we learn a little more about him and see his vulnerable side exposed. Yet he manages to acquire a gravitas, a claim on our sympathies, that can only be attributed to the depth of Clooney’s performance. That’s not to diminish its value; quite the contrary, it’s to his credit that our emotional investment in him feels honestly, if imperfectly, earned.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

"Glee" Fall Finale: Sectionals!

I have no great insights to offer on this week's "Glee," only this observation: I can't remember the last time a season finale so fully embodied both the best and worst aspects of the show overall. (Ok, so it wasn't exactly the season finale - but it's the last new episode until April, so it's at the very least a mid-season finale.) Plot holes galore, inconsistent characterization, too much treacly sentimentalism mixed with overly broad humor - yet it had a verve, an energy, a sly sparkle that in the end proved irresistible.

Was there ever any doubt that the McKinleyites would prevail at sectionals? That Finn would come back and rally them to victory? That Emma would not, in fact, marry Ken? Not for a minute. But I thought it was interesting that even though "Glee" did end up where we knew it was going, it didn't always take the obvious path. In fact, the episode was as remarkable for what it didn't show as what it did. There was no crowning moment of victory - no suspense-laden announcement of the winner - heck, we didn't even get to see the Gleeks' last number. (Probably because it was one we've seen them perform before - though I for one was hoping for a recap, since "Somebody to Love" happens to be my favorite "Glee" song.) There was no dramatic confrontation between Ken and Emma, or Ken and Will, and no scene of Will rushing in to interrupt the ceremony. (Thank goodness.)

Ok, so we did get to see Will rushing to intercept Emma just before she left - and the big kiss, of course. Have to say I'm a little ambivalent about the timing, even though the writers have obviously been building up to this all season. Will may have left his wife, but he's still married, and I don't see that divorce being a quick one. But who knows, the way "Glee" is paced, the proceedings may all be wrapped up by the time the show returns in the spring.

So very glad the ridiculous pregnancy lies are no longer continuing. And that Quinn is choosing to go it alone, at least for now. Wonder where she'll go live now?

Rachel once again proves that despite her staggering egotism, she is basically a good person. I'm glad she's finally starting to break through to the others. Their dislike, while plausible enough, was getting a bit tiresome.

Sue: same old same old. Jane Lynch is great, but that character is in danger of becoming too one-note. (Except when she reads to her differently abled sister, of course.) However, more Sue Sylvester also generally leads to MORE FIGGINS! Figgins cracks me up even more than Sue does. While he wasn't as funny today, he was oddly impressive - I wasn't expecting him to stand up to Sue. We'll see how long that lasts. Loved the little wink he gave Will afterwards.

On the musical front, we of course had to have the obligatory showstoppers. After all, it's sectionals, bitches! I actually hate the song "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going," but there's no question Amber Riley (who plays Mercedes) is a vocal powerhouse. As is Lea Michele (Rachel), in a different way. Quite enjoyed her performance of "Don't Rain on My Parade," though in what musical universe is that a ballad? And in general, I wish that all of the songs weren't autotuned to death. These kids don't need it.

I could write reams about all of the flaws of both this episode and the season in general...yet I know I'll be suffering "Glee" withdrawal this time next week. There's really nothing else like it on TV these days. And that counts for a lot.