Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Up in the Air" / Mini-Reviews - "(500) Days of Summer" / "Che" / "Gallipoli" / "It Might Get Loud" / "Humpday"

Up in the Air - Directed (and co-written) by Jason Reitman, starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick - Rated R

A Chigurh for this funny, thoughtful film.

Up in the Air, the latest from Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking), is a funny, thought-provoking, borderline existential film that has much more to say than most comedies. But then again it isn't necessarily a comedy. I suppose the correct term these days is "dramedy." But I don't particularly like that word. Let's just call it a film, and a very good one at that.

The film is about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man who spends nearly his entire life flying from city to city. Bingham's job is to fire people for other companies because they are afraid of the reaction they might get from the axed employee. This may sound like the set up for a very depressing film, but it is really much more light-hearted (for the most part) than you would think. For starters, Bingham loves the traveling that comes with his job. He has no "real" life so to speak, though, in his words, he is "surrounded" by people to connect with. There is nothing long term in his life and he likes it that way.

A wrench is thrown into the works when Bingham's company decides to take the advice of a rising star at the company, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). Natalie thinks the company can save a ton of money if they start firing people in an even more impersonal way, through video conferences. Bingham isn't a fan of the idea since it would force him to settle down, but he convinces his boss to take Natalie on the road for one last trip to show her the ropes and how important it is to fire someone in person.

This set up allows George Clooney to break down the rules of quick and easy travel and this is when Up in the Air is at its best. Clooney plays the know-it-all to perfection and Anna Kendrick plays off of him well. Their banter makes for some of the funniest scenes in the film. But make no mistake, this is Clooney's film. In fact, your opinion of Clooney will make or break this film for you. I'm a Clooney fan, and this is one of his better performances. I got the feeling that he was playing himself (both he and his character are not exactly tied down), but I think that's the mark of a good performance. When you can believe that the actor is exactly like the character, then he's done something right and will most likely receive a nomination for the role.

Clooney is not alone, however. Vera Farmiga does a nice job as Clooney's love interest. The rest of the notable cast basically consist of cameos. Zach Galifianakis and J. K. Simmons have short but sweet roles as recently fired workers. Sam Elliott's appearance made for a good scene near the end. It was good to see Danny McBride show up in a semi-serious role since he's usually cast as a ridiculous, over the top character. There are more, but these appearances stuck out to me and, in the case of Galifianakis and Simmons, made the firing scenes easier to sit through.

The firing scenes are not necessarily meant to be funny, though (and certainly a couple are meant to be completely depressing). What makes some of these firings depressing and authentic is that the filmmakers got recently fired regular people and told them they were making a documentary about layoffs. They were told to treat the camera like the person who fired them and recreate their experience or say what they wish they had said. It adds a reality to the film that can get to you at times. Listening to these real people and hearing Clooney's responses get to the heart of this movie.

That brings me to the message of the film. Up in the Air asks the audience what is truly important in your life. Is it your job? Is it living life with no strings attached? Is it settling down and having a family or someone to be with? These are the kinds of questions that any adult can relate to and that is what makes this movie almost existential. Danny McBride's character asks late in the film, "What is the point?" Clooney isn't sure at first, but who is? Who hasn't asked him/herself this question at least once in their life after a bad day or an argument with a loved one? Up in the Air can't give a definitive answer to that question because it can only be answered by the individual. The film can, however, make you think about what the point is, and you might laugh a bit while you consider the answers; and maybe that's the point.

This is something new I'm going to start doing. I tend to watch plenty of DVDs through the week and I never write anything about them and many of them do not warrant a full review either because they are old movies, or because I just didn't feel like writing a full review. I'll try to keep them as short as possible, giving a concise synopsis followed by a sentence or two of opinion.

(500) Days of Summer - Directed by Marc Webb, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel - Rated R
This movie is about a relationship from beginning to end. It's been compared to Annie Hall and I think that is a fair comparison. I really enjoyed this one. It felt like a new breed of romantic comedy, one that both a man and a woman could enjoy. Let's hope this is the beginning of a new trend.

Che (Parts 1 and 2) - Directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Benicio Del Toro - Rated R
I'm not exactly a fan of Che Guevara. When I see kids wearing t-shirts with his face on them I want to approach them and verbally berate them. But then I calm down, because I realize it would infuriate Che even more than me to see the American youth wearing his image, expecially if that image is on a $30 shirt. Anyway, I watched this lengthy biopic (the two parts equal about 4 and 1/2 hours) because Soderbergh makes interesting films. This film has its moments, but they are few and far between. The filmmakers didn't take a strong stance one way or the other with Che and I think that hurt the film. I just didn't have much of a response to this film one way or the other. I will say, though, that Benicio Del Toro is absolutely perfect for the role. I've heard complaints about his accent, but as far as the look goes, he was born to play Che. But even his performance does not warrant a viewing of this film.

Gallipoli - Directed and co-written by Peter Weir, starring Mel Gibson - Rated PG
I don't know why but it took me forever to get around to watching this historical film about the Australian soldiers fighting in Turkey during World War I. It is a very solid and devastating film and I suggest checking it out if, like me, you have left it off your list.

It Might Get Loud - Directed by Davis Guggenheim, starring Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge - Rated PG
Let's face it, if you're into rock music you'll probably want to check this out for Jimmy Page alone. If you're not into rock, you should skip it because this movie consists of these three guys sitting around talking about guitars and playing a bit here and there. I enjoyed it, though I thought it could've been a bit better. I guess I expected them to play together a bit more or something. But it is still very cool to see these three together, even though The Edge is kind of a whacker.

Humpday - Written and directed by Lynn Shelton, starring Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard - Rated R
This is definitely one off the beaten path. It's about two lifelong friends who feel they haven't accomplished anything substantial in their lives. So they decide to make a gay porno film of themselves, even though they are both straight. I thought this film was quite funny and it understands male friendship in the way that a Kevin Smith movie does. So don't be scared off by the porno aspect of the film, because the film isn't all about that. It's more about getting older and trying to do something with your life. And it's definitely about how awkward such a situation could be.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Avatar - Written and directed by James Cameron, starring Sam Worthington, Stephen Lang, and Zoe Saldana - Rated PG 13

For the flat out awesome experience, this film gets a Vader.

Wow...just wow. Avatar, the long awaited, majorly hyped new film from writer-director James Cameron is simply amazing. When watched in IMAX 3D it turns plain movie watching into a unique and breathtaking experience. There were times when I found myself with a grin on my face or with my mouth hanging open during this film. It completely encompasses you into the story in such a literal way that it will leave you wanting to go back in the theater and experience it all over again. Now, I've got my excited gushing out of the way, so let's get into the specifics.

Avatar takes place on the lush planet Pandora in 2154. Earth has run out of natural fuel resources, so a corporation sets up a military/scientific base on Pandora to try and come up with a way to get the precious Unobtanium under the planet's surface. To get the valuable substance, however, they have to deal with the Na'vi, the large, blue-skinned natives who are none too happy to see the "aliens" on their planet. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, who is given the opportunity to take the place of his recently deceased twin brother in the avatar program the scientists have come up with. The scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), want a diplomatic solution for the Unobtanium retrieval. To do this, they have spliced Na'vi and human DNA to create Na'vi vessels to be remotely controlled by the scientists. This way, they may be accepted into the Na'vi culture and could possibly convince them to simply move away from the main source of Unobtanium.

As you can imagine, things haven't been going so well for the corporation and they've decided to solve their problem with military action. Jake is asked by Col. Miles Quaritch (played to hardcore Marine perfection by Stephen Lang) to play along with the scientists' diplomatic mission, all the while reporting back to him for military reconnaissance. That's as far into the plot I want to go, but if you've seen the previews, you know that things eventually get violent. But you can experience that for yourself.

What helps you experience Avatar is the character of Jake Sully. He's a newcomer to Pandora and he's never remotely controlled an avatar. So he's our newbie guide and it's a perfect way to set the film up. We get to experience the beautiful world of Pandora with the same amazed grin as Jake when he first enters the jungle. The strange plant life and assorted beasts that populate the planet confuse and amuse Jake and we, the audience, are likewise amused.

Just showing off a pretty new planet to the audience isn't enough to make a great film, though. (I would argue, however, that the special effects alone make this film worth watching.) Cameron throws Jake into the Na'vi culture completely and we're treated to a rich and compelling society. The best comparison I can think of is Dances with Wolves, especially since the Na'vi, with their connection to the living planet, so closely resemble Native Americans (which is most likely why Wes Studi plays the chief/leader of the people).

A soldier entering a foreign society only to become emotionally invested in it is not all that original, but when you stop and consider what you are seeing on screen, it seems completely new and fresh. That's because you are watching ten foot tall blue creatures the whole time, not a single one of them practically made. This is all done through motion capture technology and it is stunning. I didn't consider the Na'vi to be silly CG creatures created only to show off new movie technology. I saw them as complete characters in the film and it didn't take very long for me to side with them in the struggle. Sure, you're supposed to side with them, but I usually have an aversion to films that treat the majority of the human race as greedy, hateful creatures. When it comes to fictional alien races or the human race's needs, I'm usually all for taking out the aliens for the greater good (or comfort) of humanity. But this time the aliens seem to be much more in touch with humanity, if that makes sense. Does all of this sound a bit heavy handed and even downright cheesy? I can see that argument, but I would only agree with that if the movie was terrible. As far as I'm concerned, Avatar bought itself a free pass for a sappy political message or two once I was treated to a few flybys and jungle treks in glorious 3D.

If you think nature looks amazing in 3D, just wait until stuff starts getting blown up. Cameron has long been known as a master of the action film (after Aliens, Terminator & T2, and True Lies) and he does not disappoint here. Aerial battles, ground battles, and good old fashioned one on one showdowns are all impressive and never overbearing.

Usually, I might find myself waiting for each action scene, but in this film I was always interested and fully invested, even when there weren't arrows or bombs flying through the air. Part of that is character development and story, but part of that is acting as well. I've already mentioned Lang's hardnosed turn, but that's simple stuff; his character is a human. It's the motion capture performances that sell the film. I'm not saying Worthington deserves an Oscar or anything, but he is perfect when it comes to making an awestruck face. And while the face itself may be computer generated, his performance is not. His voiceover segments of the film (done through periodic video logs) help keep the film together as well. There's a sincerity in his voice that I found completely convincing.

This all sounds great, I know. It sounds nearly perfect, but Avatar is not without its faults. First off, the Na'vi look amazing and nearly look photo-realistic, but when a Na'vi is interacting directly next to a human, it looks kind of goofy. The contrast between the species may be the cause of it, but regardless I found myself chuckling a few times when I wasn't supposed to. These moments are few and far between, though. Secondly: Michelle Rodriguez. Ugh, I have had it with her tough girl characters (Resident Evil, The Fast and the Furious, S.W.A.T.) that always have plenty of witty remarks to solidify their toughness. She has to be the least versatile actress in the business. Thankfully, she only has a couple of moments in the film, but I cringe every time I see her on screen. But that's not a knock against the film itself; it's more of a personal preference type of thing. I just wish Cameron could've held off from inserting yet another tough as nails female character into his film. Zoe Saldana's Na'vi character Neytiri filled the female warrior slot fine on her own. These are very minor issues, though, and they don't keep Avatar from being a great film.

There are many more ideas and aspects of the film that could be discussed but I think I've made my point. Avatar is an experience like nothing in recent film memory and everyone should see it. Whether or not James Cameron has made his masterpiece is something only time will tell, but one thing's for sure: he's created one hell of a ride. I, for one, can't wait to go again.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"The Road"

The Road - Directed by John Hillcoat, starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee - Rated R

The best apocalyptic film of the year (I consider Zombieland a zombie movie more than an apocalyptic movie).

The film adaptation to Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling novel The Road has had a long trek of its own into theaters. It was supposed to have been released over a year ago but was delayed time and time again until it was finally released into a handful of theaters a month ago and is now being slowly expanded across the country. Typically, when a movie is completed and shelved for over a year that means it is terrible or just too weird to find an audience. I’m happy to say that The Road is neither. The only reason I can think of for delaying the film is the marketing issues that arise when dealing with such a dreary film, though the marketing should be done already since so many people have read the amazing novel that the film is based on.

The Road takes place after the apocalypse. We’re never told exactly what happened to the world, but that’s not important. All we know is that whatever happened left the world scorched and nearly lifeless. Into this world comes a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), trying to make their way to the coast. The travelling is not easy, though. Cannibalism has become the main form of survival, but the man and the boy (their names are never given) are the “good guys” and they survive on the dwindling supply of actual food left on the planet.

So the film is a bit dark, both literally and figuratively. When you are dealing with a film, or a book, that is supposed to be about actual and moral survival and hope then the more miserable the situation is the better. Director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) creates a perfectly gray world to bolster this idea. And even though it may look miserable, it also ends up being a visually striking look for the film that will stick with you for awhile.

The look alone can’t draw you into the film, though. The performances from Mortensen and Smit-McPhee complete the world. Mortensen looks absolutely haggard and his voice and face convey the character’s misery to perfection. Couple that with Smit-McPhee’s terrific turn as a frightened, yet morally strong child and you have a believable father-son duo trying to survive a harsh world. I expect a great performance from Mortensen (Lord of the Rings, Eastern Promises), but Smit-McPhee was a pleasant surprise. Whenever you’re dealing with a story with a child as a main character there is always the chance that a terrible young actor could ruin the film, but Smit-McPhee is utterly convincing in this.

Aside from the two leads, The Road is peppered with short but sweet roles for Garret Dillahunt, Robert Duvall, and Guy Pearce. Charlize Theron does a fine job as the man’s wife who is not along for the journey but is seen in flashbacks and dreams. The prevalence of Theron in the previews worried me since it seemed like they were going to play up on the pre-apocalypse scenes, which are not focused on in the novel. But, thankfully, the film sticks closely to the book.

The faithfulness to the source material is the strongest aspect of the film. The scenes that I remembered most clearly from the book were created just as I imagined them. That could be a problem for some people who have read the book, though. Everyone creates their own personal image of what a story would look like and it just so happened that Hillcoat’s interpretation jived with mine. That may not be the case with everyone. Maybe the gray misery will outweigh the hope for you more than it did in the novel, when you decided for yourself how dreary the world was. I don’t think many people will have that problem, though.

It may sound like reading the book beforehand is a requirement based on this review, but I think you can enjoy this one without reading it. I do think that this film caters to the readers though, and the readers will be the biggest supporters of the film. That may be the reason why the studio is limiting the release of this, though I would definitely recommend checking this out if it is near you, even if you haven’t read the book. You may come out of the theater feeling a bit depressed, but you won’t regret a minute of the beautiful misery.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Invictus - Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon - Rated PG-13

I think "District 9" is a more interesting film about South Africa and apartheid, but "Invictus" is still very good.

Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, is a well made inspirational film with an important message, but it falls short of greatness. The story is about South Africa after apartheid and the struggle to keep the racially divided country together. Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is the newly elected president who has been given this task. With mass poverty, an economic crisis, and open hatred between the races he decides to focus on South Africa’s rugby team. He enlists their captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to motivate his team to win the rugby world cup (which is a much bigger deal in the rest of the world than it is in North America).

Invictus is not just a motivational sports movie, though. The focus is more on the political side of things. As Mandela enters the office for the first day of his presidency, most of the white office workers are packing up and leaving, assuming they are to be fired. Mandela allows them all to stay and he also makes a point to diversify his security staff (more on them later). He realizes that these small scale changes will not accomplish much and he finds his solution at an appearance at a rugby match. Mandela notices that the white fans cheer for South Africa, and the black fans cheer for England (or whoever happens to be playing South Africa), which is exactly what he did when he was imprisoned. Mandela realizes that “petty revenge” won’t solve anything, so instead of doing away with the team’s traditions, he encourages all of South Africa should embrace the team.

This sounds all well and good, but it’s a bit hard to get into a movie in which all the action takes place through a sport that is obscure at best to an American audience. I understood that the games were about more than winning, but I had almost no idea what was going on during the matches. This is actually a joke in the film as the black characters in the film are just as baffled by the game as the audience in the theater. I get the joke, but I wanted multiple, intense rugby scenes that focus on the simpler parts of the game rather than a few gags in which characters ask, “What happened? Is that good?” Eastwood does accomplish this in the final game with some great sound work and slow motion, but it was too little too late for the rugby.

Regardless of the cultural divide, the importance of the games is easy to understand. I may not have understood what was happening most of the time, but I knew how I felt when it was over. This is one of the most hopeful, uplifting movies I have seen in recent memory. In a cinematic world that seems to focus more and more on misery, death, and violence it was nice to watch a movie about human beings that overcome hate. Is that sappy? Maybe, but it’s also refreshing. But the movie does crossover into extremely sappy territory when it comes to song selection, though. Eastwood goes with an original song titled “Colorblind” that features lyrics such as, “it’s not just a game.” The music is too obvious and it’s stating things that Eastwood has already accomplished.

The musical missteps and confusing rugby scenes aside, this is a solid film. Freeman and Damon strengthen the film immensely. I don’t think they’ll be winning Oscars for their work or anything, but they do carry the film very well. Freeman is great, (as he should be, since Mandela himself has said that Freeman is the only actor who could play him) but his performance is really just a great impersonation. He does convey a presidential authority in every scene, though, and he made the film amusing at times. Damon is fine; it’s just that his character didn’t have much to do. His performance in The Informant! was much more impressive.

What makes this movie a bit more interesting, though, is the fact that the focus isn’t solely on Mandela and Pienaar. A subplot about the newly diverse security detail supplies much of the heart of the film. Add to that subplot scenes of the rugby players teaching kids about the sport, a child trying to listen to the game alongside police officers, and regular people coming together to watch the championship game and you have an encompassing picture of how important that one rugby match was to an entire country. Despite the slight missteps, Eastwood crafts an inspirational film that manages to (barely) get past an audience’s ignorance of rugby and show that a country can overcome severe differences, with the help of some born leaders and a common goal. Even if that goal involves a sport in which it is really hard to tell how goals are scored.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"A Serious Man"

*I know A Serious Man has been out for quite some time, but a theatre withing driving distance finally got this film (thank you, Kerasotes of Evansville) and The Road is still stuck in limited release hell, so I'm going to go with the newest film from my favorite living filmmakers, the Coen Brothers.

A Serious Man - Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, and Fred Melamed - Rated R

I was going to give this a Vader, but it only makes sense to give a great Coen Brothers film a Chigurh.

I am very glad that the Coen Brothers, riding high from the success of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading, were able to make this personal film about physics professor Larry Gopnick (Stuhlbarg) and his struggle to deal with a plethora of problems. That synopsis sounds a bit vague (and boring), but it's a bit hard to explain the story without giving a spoiler filled interpretation. I suppose the best way to put it is that this film is an adaptation of the Book of Job, set in the late 60's in the Midwest. If you're not familiar with the story of Job from the Bible, I certainly suggest that you at least look at a synopsis of the story before you watch this film. That was the extent of my research before I saw this and it made for one of the deepest viewings of a film I've had this year.

The religious connections do not stop at the Job adaptation. This is also a film that is very much about the Jewish religion. And the film starts with a kind of Hebrew folktale about curse being visited upon a family. That emphasis on religion leads me to base my interpretation almost completely on the Book of Job. Though it is not a literal translation by any means. More of a "inspired by" take on it rather than a "based on."

There is a basic story to the film, though. Larry's wife, Judith, wants a ritual divorce so she can marry Sy Ableman (a terrific Melamed). Divorce is troubling enough as it is, but matters are made worse as Sy and Judith try to work out the details with Larry and can't seem to understand why he might be upset by any of this. Larry, for his part, seems utterly befuddled by the development. Larry also has to deal with his troubled brother Arthur (Kind), a pot-smoking son, Danny, who seems to only need his father to fix the TV reception, a daughter who only cares about her hair, financial problems, the possibility of not receiving tenure at his college, and a Korean student who is attempting to bribe him for a passing grade. In other words, Larry's life isn't going well and he doesn't understand why any of this is happening.

While this all sounds a bit depressing, the film is actually very funny. The Coens are masters of the awkward conversation and A Serious Man has them aplenty. Every interaction featuring Sy Ableman was hilarious, the excessive cussing of Danny and his friends had me laughing every time, and the meetings with the three rabbis were extremely funny. There are no real stand out comedic set pieces, but the film has general funny undertone to it. Think more along of the lines of Miller's Crossing or Fargo type humor rather than the blatant comedy of The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The comedy hinges on one performance, though, and Stuhlbarg completely delivers. He is perfect at playing the exasperated Larry. What impressed me the most about his performance were his facial gestures. Stuhlbarg is able to convey so much without speaking and you really feel for the guy, even though you'll be laughing at his misery throughout. Here's hoping that he's recognized this awards season.

Laughing at someone's misery certainly doesn't sound like a good time, but the Coens pull it off. This is dark comedy at its finest. I thought that Burn After Reading was a bit too dark and unpleasant at times, but they found the right groove for this film.

The comedy makes this film entertaining but it's the deeper meaning beneath the story that makes it a lasting and rewarding experience. There are too few films out there than can make me laugh aloud while watching it and then have a serious and lengthy conversation about it when it's over. A Serious Man goes to show that a deep film doesn't have to be utterly confusing and humorless.

I'm a bit biased when it comes to Coen Brothers films, but I have to say that this is easily one of the best films of the year, possible even the best. I don't consider it their best film, though (to me, Miller's Crossing is the Coens at their best), but time will tell on that one. The Coens have a way of making films that get better with age and this one will definitely hold up well. For now, I count it among their best and that is saying something.

I feel the need to add a couple SPOILER-filled paragraphs discussing the point of the film and what the ending meant to me. So please stop reading if you haven't seen the film yet.

A Serious Man ends with Larry getting a phone call from his doctor with presumably bad news. While he's receiving this news a tornado is heading towards his son. That's not the important part, though. What's important is what happened right before the phone call. Larry gives in and accepts the bribe from the Korean student and just as he pencils in a passing grade for him he gets the call and the tornado heads toward his son. To me, this was Job/Larry failing the test that God was putting him through. (I know that Job passes in the Bible, but remember I consider this to be inspired by the story, not based on it.) The whole film was a trial of sorts for Larry and he failed miserably and got punished for it.

To back this claim up, think back on Danny's constant complaining about the TV reception. Larry has to go on the roof to mess with the antennae. As he twists and turns it he can hear reception coming in and out, like someone is trying to reach him but just can't get through. I don't think I'm off base in thinking that this is supposed to represent God's attempt to reach Larry. I feel that I am backed up by this since the poster image of the film features Larry on the roof next to his antennae.

Just my two cents on what it all meant. I'm sure there are other interpretations that are just as "right" as mine and that's another aspect that makes this film great.