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Wednesday
Dec162009

Up in the Air (2009)

0 for 3

A couple years ago, Will Smith starred in a film adaptation of the Richard Matheson novella, I Am Legend. The movie was a slick bastardization of the ideas—and point—of the source material, and nothing in its bloated, uninteresting 101 minutes could compare to the first 10 pages of the book on which it was based. Up in the Air, the new Jason Reitman film based on Walter Kirn’s book is not quite as awful, but it did give me flashbacks.

In the movie, George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man who travels so much for his job that he’s on the cusp of earning 10 million frequent-flyer miles; it’s a singular goal in a life marked by an utter lack of dreams or human connections. Ryan zigzags all across America, acting as the soothing hatchet man for downsizing companies. One day, his boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that his company is looking to cut travel costs by firing people via a new teleconferencing system developed by Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an ambitious, young college grad. Ryan takes to the air one last time to show Natalie the ropes, insisting that his line of work requires a more personal touch than an LCD screen can offer.

There’s a lot of “Best Picture” buzz surrounding this movie, and I honestly don’t get it.

Okay, I kinda do.

Unfortunately, all of the hype seems to have been built around the film’s ingredients rather than what they ultimately combine to make. You have Jason Reitman at the helm, who gave us the inexplicably adored Juno and Thank You For Smoking; you have George Clooney, who—love him or hate him—has used his mega-millionaire icon status to pursue only interesting projects (in other words, you won’t be seeing him in Another Fine Day); lastly, you have one of the most topical films in memory: jobs are disappearing quicker than Amelia from the multiplex. Building a film around the people doing the canning is a great idea—if properly executed; Up in the Air is not.

The cast is problem number one. I’m a big fan of George Clooney, but he brings too much of his Danny Ocean character to Ryan Bingham. Bingham is suave and great at his job, but instead of the darkness that we’re supposed to see under the wisecracking facade, we see only more smirking. I kept thinking of the weight in Clooney’s eyes and shoulders that was evident throughout Syriana, and wishing he’d brought a quarter of that power to this role.

Of greater concern is Anna Kendrick as Natalie. She plays an early-twenties version of Lilith from Cheers: all buttoned-up seriousness, but with the eager naïveté of a puppy dog. It’s a fine bit for a sitcom, but when we’re asked to take her seriously for the better part of two hours, it becomes an issue. Take, for example, the scene in which she asks Ryan if he would ever consider getting married. When he says “no”, she acts as like a Vulcan android that’s just blown a circuit; am I really supposed to believe that an educated woman who came of age in the last two decades has never encountered someone who doesn’t think marriage is right for them?

I understand that these critiques have more to do with the screenplay than the actors, but Up in the Air is the perfect storm of bad choices on both the writers’ and performers’ parts. The script is a mess; on the one hand it’s a funny road picture in the vain of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, but at the same time it aspires to the gravitas of a socially relevant portrait of the economic disaster. It takes a very deft touch to have it both ways, and Jason Reitman is about as ham-handed as they come.

It’s cute that he decided to insert real laid-off employees into his movie to give heart-felt testimonials during the firing scenes, but Reitman failed to learn Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino lesson from last year: for the most part, regular people don’t know how to fucking act. And when you plop them into a movie of established actors, the contrast is embarrassing to watch. Look no further than J.K. Simmons, who shines in one of only three decent scenes in the film. He plays a family man who gets the axe, and his exchange with Clooney gives a glimpse of the humanity and fine filmmaking that Up in the Air should have possessed; when we cut back to the non-actors, the movie takes on the air of a corporate training video.

And what of the economic crisis theme? Up in the Air shows us plenty of desolate buildings and jittery nerves in conference rooms, but it doesn’t say anything about how current events affect its characters. The downturn is simply a backdrop against which to paint a clichéd lost-man portrait. Two key indicators of this are late-film developments that defy plausibility and undercut the supposed theme:

1. One of the women that Ryan and Natalie let go early in the film kills herself by jumping off a bridge; this is telegraphed (sloppily) in her exit interview. It pops up as a story point in the last fifteen minutes, and is brushed aside with a few lines of dialogue as if it would not be a big deal in real life. Natalie quits her job and Ryan lies to his boss about having seen signs of a problem with the victim; my understanding of the real world is that there would be lawsuits and inquiries, possibly suspensions. But, no, the dead woman is just a catalyst for...

2. Natalie getting a new job right off the bat. Her new employer receives a letter of recommendation from Ryan that testifies to all the lessons she’s learned on the road, and how great a catch she is for any business, etc. It’s unclear what kind of job she gets, or whether or not she was at all scared of not finding work in the current climate. We just see her sit down for a brief interview and walk away with a new paycheck and 401(k).

I really dislike Up in the Air; which is a shame because I was truly looking forward to it. I would still love to see a serious examination of people whose job it is to put other people out of work; by “serious”, I don’t mean dour—just something that doesn’t feel like its screenplay was revised by the head writer of Two and a Half Men.

The only thing this film did right was to compel me to pick up Walter Kirn’s novel; I’ve finished the first chapter and, sure enough, its first 11 pages are far more effective than the whole movie based on it.

Note: For those of you that have seen the movie, you’ll notice I left out the two bulky sub-plots involving Ryan’s affair with a fellow frequent traveler and his trip home to attend his sister’s wedding. The reason is simple: they add nothing to the movie except running time (unless you’ve never seen another movie about family and/or the road). The characters involved in these distractions are as cardboard as the gimmick-y cut-outs Ryan photographs in front of the places he travels; particularly offensive is Danny McBride, as the brother-in-law-to-be, who plays exactly the douchebag one might expect him to play in a conventional comedy; the fact that he is not elevated above archetype here is a good indication of how dumb the movie considers its audience (another credibility issue: he gets cold feet on his wedding day because he’s never—until the big day—thought about what getting married actually means; there may be people out there that this happens to, but they deserve neither sympathy nor significant screen time in a movie made for adults).

Additional Note: I should mention that Up in the Air has one of the best closing scenes I’ve seen; it involves Sam Elliott as an airline pilot who congratulates Ryan on earning ten million miles. The look on Ryan’s face when the pilot asks where he’s from—and Ryan’s answer—is just perfect. The problem is, that scene comes about ten minutes before the end; there is no finer example of Jason Reitman’s ineptitude as a storyteller than the misplacement of this gem of a capper. Instead, we’re treated to a lingering, silent shot of clouds that even a C- film student would decry as pretentious.

Sunday
Dec062009

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)

 

Hicks and Hexes

The saying goes that the best way to criticize a bad movie is to make a good one. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinfofsky have taken that idea a step further by applying it to a murder trial. Their documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, is a damning critique of two trials that saw the (apparent) wrongful conviction of three teenage boys for murder in West Memphis, Arkansas. These filmmakers have taken their case to the court of public opinion, and have made a compelling argument for their subjects’ innocence.

The film opens with grisly footage of the crime scene: the naked, mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old boys are dragged from a river embankment. Watching the police video, it was startling to think that I was seeing real human beings and not dummies from some slasher film; the reality didn’t hit me until the cut to the family interviews and local news coverage. It’s a hell of a way to open a movie, and the directors wisely went with the most shocking images right off the bat; they would be the tent pole on which the rest of the story—and the trial—would come to rest.

We learn that on May 5, 1993, the three second-graders were allegedly attacked in the woods of Robin Hood Hills by Jessie Misskelly, Damien Wayne Echols, and Jason Baldwin. The teen outcasts—who wore all-black and listened to Metallica—brutally raped, killed, and disfigured the kids as part of a Satanic ritual, or so the story goes. Paradise Lost spends a lot of time on the front end with the victims’ families, all working-class upstanding citizens whose grief has quickly morphed into anger: they gleefully hypothesize about what will happen to the killers when inmates/God/Satan get hold of them; one mother even promises to mail one of the jailed teens a skirt. The outrage is understandable—though very unsettling—and it’s easy to side with the relatives; that is, until the facts of the case begin to unravel.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Paradise Lost became the most fascinating court drama I’ve ever seen. During two trials, we see the legal teams of all three defendants paint a picture of small-town prejudices that made them the only possible suspects in the murder—even though each teen had an alibi and none had motive. Despite the fact that one of the victims’ own fathers is eventually eyed as a viable suspect, the defense teams face an up-hill battle that has less to do with the facts of the case than with the fear and suspicion of people who want to upend their beliefs (a couple of the expert witnesses are derided by the prosecution for being “big-city” folk whose fancy college educations and high rates of pay negate anything they might have to contribute). Unfortunately, I was somewhat familiar with the fate of the “West Memphis Three” (this documentary did come out almost fourteen years ago), so I lost out on the drama of the verdict; but Berlinger and Sinofsky so effectively involved me in the story that I almost forgot.

In addition to the courtroom material, the interviews with both the victims’ families and the families of the accused are just fascinating. No one in West Memphis comes across as particularly educated, attractive, or even nice; it’s easy to see where the caricatures of Southern ignorance come from. But there are surprises everywhere, as in a scene where one of the dead boys’ family is sitting around cursing the murderers and plotting violent revenge in the event that the alleged killers are set free; the grandfather pipes up and says that he’s a Christian, and that as mad and hurt as he is, he won’t engage in the Devil’s work. When we meet Damien Echols’ girlfriend, we see a sweet teenage mother who never doubts the innocence of the boy she loves, and her testimony ultimately causes us to re-evaluate some of what we believe about Damien. You could edit out the trial altogether and still have a solid movie about human pettiness and compassion.

Ultimately, Paradise Lost makes a strong case for the teens’ innocence, though it also paints them as being not bright enough to be able to look innocent. Of the three, Damien Echols is the most educated, but also the cockiest, and it’s not difficult to see how a jury could go against him, even in the face of evidence that he was nowhere near the crime scene. I came away from the movie angry at the proud ignorance of the town and embarrassed for the justice system—I know that it works in many cases, but when it doesn’t, well, you get things like redneck justice and an unsolved murder.

Note: I haven’t seen the sequel, Paradise Lost: Revelations, which follows up on the case with, I guess, new evidence. I plan to check it out soon, to see if it answers some questions that I have about the original trials (such as how the prosecution thought the teenagers lured three second-graders into the woods in the first place).

Saturday
Dec052009

Videodrome, 1983 (Home Video Review)

Boo Tube

When I pulled up the Videodrome IMDB page—as I often do for quick reference when writing reviews—I noticed two entries for the film. The first was for the original 1983 movie, directed by David Cronenberg; the other was an “in development” notice for what I can only guess is a remake, slated for 2011. From a brand recognition standpoint, I totally understand; while Videodrome isn’t at the forefront of the public’s conscience, it is certainly known enough that it could reasonably attract enough viewers to have a decent opening weekend—with none of that pesky originality that studios seem to dread these days. From a creative standpoint, however, there’s absolutely no reason for Videodrome to be “re-imagined”. Cronenberg had a bleak vision of the future twenty-six years ago, and we are still moving towards it.

As a sidebar, I’d like to thank God, Buddha, Allah, and Gaia for Netflix. Not only has it saved me from cabin fever during this nightmare illness, but I no longer have an excuse for not having seen classic movies.

Videodrome is the story of Max Renn (James Woods), a small-time cable channel executive whose carved a niche in the market by airing risqué programming (soft-core porn, violence, etc.). He’s constantly on the lookout for the next big thing in edge-creeping entertainment; when one of his friends, Harlan, pirates a broadcast called Videodrome—which depicts the torture and rape of faceless women—Max becomes obsessed with finding out who or what has created it. As you might imagine, his quest leads to no good, and Max soon discovers that the Videodrome signal acts as a drug on anyone who sees it; one that induces severe hallucinations that blur the line between reality and television.

Videodrome is a cult classic for a reason: David Cronenberg created a prophetic anti-TV movie that is just as notable for its philosophical musings as it is for its gore, sex, and graphic instances of Debbie Harry trying to act (she plays Max’s girlfriend, Nicki, and from the outset she comes across as having fallen victim to the signal—or perhaps a handful of Quaaludes). The most remarkable thing about Videodrome is that its message about the effects of too much television are still relevant, and can easily be applied to today’s obsession with constant, easy access to information, via Twitter, 24-hour cable news, and even the iPhone (hell, there are people at my day job who have a second computer monitor at their desks, solely to stream television shows all day).

Looking at the film now, it’s easy to see Videodrome’s influence on other movies of the last quarter century, from UHF to The Matrix to The Ring to Surrogates, and at least twenty others (the film's spiritual predecessor is Sidney Lumet's Network). What Videodrome has over many of them is the boldness of its ideas, and a string of instantly quotable lines. When Max encounters a mysterious doctor who appears to hold the secret to Videodrome, he is cautioned that, “Television is reality, and reality is less than television” (the doctor, incidentally, says this on a TV talk show in which he appears on-stage as an image broadcast through a television on a stand). Movies like this question the effect of media on the mind; the better ones ask us to evaluate how we allow the images and messages that we take in to shape our worldviews and even our identities.

By the time Max has disappeared down the rabbit hole, he has become a confused, mass-murdering acolyte of a new world media order. His need to see things he should not have seen and to know things no one should know are dramatized with eerie images like a gun fusing to his hand and an eager vagina sprouting on his torso (which receives videotapes, naturally). But, psychologically, does this differ from our need to be involved in the private lives of celebrities or to watch footage of wartime beheadings?

Fortunately, Videodrome has aged pretty well (aside from the aforementioned Debbie Harry problem), and might even appeal to modern audiences—that’s always an iffy proposition: one generations groundbreaking special effects is the next generation’s drinking game cheese-fest. This is an important movie that should be seen by anyone who is interested in making smart, effective entertainment.

Somehow I doubt the remake will qualify.

Note: This movie has something that I haven’t seen a lot of, but that I think could absolutely help a lot of “near-future” films: Cronenberg introduces ideas that were futuristic—for 1983—by integrating them into the natural rhythms of what audiences of the time would consider modern-day living. For example, the opening image is that of a video wakeup call by Max Renn’s secretary—the equivalent of a clock-radio alarm. It’s a weird idea, but one that is not mentioned or pointed out as being special; rather, it’s just part of the fabric of Cronenberg’s 1983.

Saturday
Dec052009

A Serious Man (2009)

Chickenshit for the Soul

Note: It’s been almost two months since I saw A Serious Man. I’ve been struggling to put my thoughts on it into words the whole time. The only upside to being laid up in bed with a drippy, sleepless, chest-bursting cold is that I finally have no excuse to put off this review any longer. I still don’t think I’ve captured everything I want to say, but at least I can blame the meds...

It’s hard to believe that the Joel and Ethan Coen who wrote and directed A Serious Man are the same brothers who brought us Burn After Reading. The former is a masterpiece of cinematic indulgence; the latter is sloppy dog shit.

Harsh? Maybe. But I thought a lot about Burn After Reading in the days after I saw A Serious Man. The dark frustration over that quarter-baked, unfunny political satire almost eroded my glowing enthusiasm for their latest picture, a breezy portrait of a heavyhearted suburbanite. Burn After Reading was clearly a rebound picture, a bit of fun behind the camera after the hard work and passionate investment that was No Country for Old Men. With A Serious Man, the Coens remind us (and possibly themselves) that great, smart comedy is not easy; it does not emerge from cheap, ninety-minute running jokes about Brad Pitt being a ditzy personal trainer (a CW sitcom pitch if I’ve ever heard one).

The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota physics professor in 1967. He’s got a wife and two kids, and his biggest problem is that he’s up for tenure at the same time a student is trying to bribe him for a better grade. Out of the blue, his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces that she’s leaving him for a widower named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Larry’s shocked at the news. Very quickly, the other elements of his life that he thought were fine—or at least manageable—begin to unravel.
All of the characters Larry encounters are quirky in some way, but realistic enough to be plausible foils; because Larry is painted as a sympathetic character, we alternately root for him to prevail while at the same time wishing that he’d stop being such a timid mess.

A Serious Man is full of story elements (“plot” is the wrong word in this case) that I wouldn’t dare spoil for you. This is a movie that walks the fine line of farce and dramedy and succeeds in the most surprising, fulfilling ways. Much like American Beauty, this is a story about the collapse of a suburban family, but because A Serious Man is rooted in Jewish tradition, it operates a few levels higher than the former film. Many of Larry’s predicaments would have been easily shrugged off by a man who was not so concerned with always doing the right thing (even “the right thing” in some cases, is open to interpretation). That’s not to say that the movie is pro-religion; in fact, the red tape of rules, customs, and the reverent formalities of dealing with Rabbis act as obstacles to Larry’s happiness. This makes for a miserable protagonist and a positively giddy audience—I loved just about every minute of this picture (there’s a story thread involving Richard Kind as Larry’s disabled brother that stuck out like a dog-eared corner on a lithograph).

I even loved the ending.

In case you haven’t heard, the Coens gave this movie the same kind of ending as that of No Country for Old Men—only far more jarring. This movie literally stops in the middle of what looks to be a very important scene. For about twenty minutes after I left the theatre, I felt like I’d just witnessed a car accident; my mind went into shock (call it pathetic if you will—I really get into movies). Thinking back on the film’s message, though, the ending makes perfect sense. In fact, I still have a harder time reconciling the opening of A Serious Man than the final moments (I think I understand what the filmmakers were going for, but I’d have to see it again to be sure). I hope I haven’t ruined anything by mentioning the abrupt finale; I won’t tell you what to watch out for, but just know that you’ll have to fill in a lot of blanks on your own.

This is on my short list of films of the year, and I would be as shocked as Larry Gopnik if this movie didn’t at least get nominated for every major award (save for special effects). Joel and Ethan Coen have made the ultimate movie for people who love movies, cramming it with textures, ideas, and performances that make every sub-par, un-ambitious movie (even ones they’ve made) seem like an insult to mankind’s creative instincts. It’s that good.

Sunday
Nov292009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)

Interlude with Some Glam-pires

If you’re considering going to see The Twilight Saga: New Moon because you’ve heard it’s better than the first film, I’d like to propose a brief, rather vulgar, mental exercise.

Consider the last time you were constipated. It was excruciating, wasn’t it? Lots of effort and groaning, perhaps some tears of agony—all followed by a result that probably wasn’t worth the effort.

That’s the first Twilight movie.

Now recall your last bout of diarrhea: likely a much smoother experience, with better pacing and far more colors.

That’s New Moon.

The lesson? No matter how drawn out or mercifully short the process, shit is shit, and shit stinks.

It’s hard to believe that, when this film franchise is complete, we will have four—maybe five—movies devoted to such a simple, bland story. After having endured the first two, I’m convinced they could have been condensed into one hour-and-a-half movie (much like the bloated Harry Potter series). Of course, this would mean taking out all of the extended pouting and longing shots, not to mention the gratuitous shirtless preening. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Taking place shortly after the events of Twilight, New Moon opens with Bella Swan’s (Kristen Stewart) 18th birthday party, which she celebrates with the Cullen family. They’re a tight-knit clan of undercover vampires who includes Edward (Robert Pattinson), Bella’s boyfriend and James Dean idolater. Bella slices her finger open on some wrapping paper and is attacked by one of the “younger” vampires, who hasn’t learned to control his blood lust. The Cullens leave town for Bella’s safety and she spends three months staring out her bedroom window; her policeman father allows her to do this because he apparently believes prolonged waking catatonia and violent, screaming nightmares to be acceptable teenage behavior.

Enter Jacob (Taylor Lautner), Bella’s platonic best friend. When Bella finally drags herself out of bed, he helps her restore a busted motorcycle. You see, she’s developed the ability to see a ghostly, Jedi-like vision of Edward whenever she is endangered, and figures that if she can get close enough to death she’ll be able to communicate with her beloved. Did I mention that the Twilight films are packed with great messages for teenage girls?

Over several weeks, Bella and Jacob bond over break fluid and she helps keep him out of trouble with the other kids from his Indian reservation high school: a pack of buff dudes who spend their free time roaming the woods, wrestling and diving off cliffs—wearing only cut-off shorts and eager smiles (I’ll leave the “recruiting” subtext to the scholars). Bella kind of falls for Jacob, but she can’t shake Edward, so she leaves him in the “friend zone”. Cut to several more weeks and a dozen un-returned phone calls later, and we find Bella driving out to Jacob’s house. He’s cut his long hair and forsaken the “shirt-and-pants” look for—you guessed it—cut-offs. He warns Bella to stay away from him and his new band of secretive, well-waxed friends; she ignores him and is attacked by the bronzed brotherhood who are—gasp!—werewolves.

I’ll fast-forward through the next hour of will-they/won’t-they drama (they won’t) and get to the semi-interesting stuff. We learn of an ancient vampire council called the Volturi. They live in Italy and maintain the laws of their culture; one of which is that vampires cannot reveal themselves to mankind—under penalty of death (never mind that Edward and Bella’s relationship has been going on for quite awhile and that a good number of vampires know their “secret”). Edward goes before the Volturi and asks to be killed (don’t ask); they deny his wish, so he decides to step out into the sunlight during an Italian festival; Bella shows up (seriously, don’t ask) and stops him. The vampire police are miffed and demand to see the lovesick teenagers; during this encounter, it is discovered that Bella is immune to the Volturi’s powers: they try to psychically inflict pain and it doesn’t work; they try to read her mind and find only a void (which I’ve known about Kristen Stewart ever since Adventureland). Several boring fight scenes later, Bella and Edward are released and head back to Forks, Washington, where they rekindle their relationship.

This leaves Jacob out in the cold, moping shirtlessly and rambling about some treaty between vampires and werewolves. I had serious deja vu during the last twenty minutes and realized that I was watching a re-run of the first film’s climax—though New Moon’s sets are cooler.

That’s a lot of summary, huh? I’m sad to say that I’ve left out several sub-plots because A) I don’t care and chances are, neither will you, and B) they are filler that serve only to pad out this weak story and give it the illusion of depth. New Moon is not without its charms, but every two- or three-minute scene of nice character touches is cut short by poorly choreographed action or drastic personality shifts that come off as bad rehearsal footage. These movies have a rabid fan base and it’s cute that the screenwriter and director attempt to stuff as much of the books into the film to give it an air of legitimacy, but the real reason these pictures are so popular is because of the goddamned beefcake. Pattinson and Lautner strike so many poses in this movie that a number of times I swear they were replaced by cardboard standees. If—as the Twi-hards claim—the books are amazing, great literature, then the filmmakers have utterly failed to bear this out. Watching these movies, I’m not at all compelled to read the source material; if anything, I’m inspired to start some Fight-Club-style book-burning franchises.

New Moon is actually very entertaining, if you’re up for a good laugh. The actors are forced to recite lines that one can picure scribbled inside squiggly hearts on the back of Stephenie Meyer's sophomore English Lit notebook; but they can't even do it convincingly. Kristen Stewart once again demonstrates that she has some kind of respiratory disorder (she huffs before, during and after almost every line, and occasionally launches into these weird limb-flailing spasms). Robert Pattinson continues to perfect Method Sulking. Only Taylor Lautner fares well here; his unforced sincerity suggests that he may have squeezed an acting class into his rigorous workout routine. But all of the leads are upstaged by Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning (you read that right) as members of the Volturi. Their fifteen minutes of screen time almost make up for the other hundred-plus, and they (briefly) turn New Moon into something interesting, something adult. Unfortunately, they come and go, and leave us with a love triangle that is destined to become this generation’s guilty, dated embarrassment (like the original 90210 or a prom night abortion).

Note: I’m not the audience for this movie, as I’ve neither read the books nor had a period (sorry, if there’s a definition of a “chick flick”, New Moon is it; the irony-free gender cross-over potential for this franchise is zero). I do appreciate entertainment aimed at different audiences, but I’ve seen more honest storylines about love, loss, and longing on Gossip Girl. For all the cheesy glamour and stigma of it being a network teen drama, it does well with archetypes and features actors who at least have life to breathe into the material.