Friday, December 4, 2009
Brothers: Jim Sheridan is a director I trust; he's made several legitimately great movies (In The Name of the Father, The Boxer, In America), and he's got a solid cast of good actors with real chops who don't always get the chance to show them. Ebert gives it a rave, while Movieline is more indifferent.
Everybody's Fine: It may play like DeNiro's remake of About Schmidt, but this bittersweet family drama sports some terrific performances, and the best work that the increasingly-unreliable lead has done in years.
Armored: Back when the trailers for this slicked-up thriller started appearing, comic Brian Posehn remarked on Twitter, "Doesn't Armored look like a movie you already saw and hated?" But Ornorf says it's entertaining, and it certainly has an interesting cast.
Serious Moonlight: I really wanted to like this one, what with its heartbreaking backstory and all, but it's a pretty flaccid affair, stagey and contrived (and wasting the wonderful Kristen Bell).
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Last year, Ryan Bingham spent 322 days on the road, “which means I had to spend 43 miserable days at home.” Most of his travel is for work; in a miserable economic climate, his is one of the few booming businesses. He goes in to companies with massive layoffs, and fires the employees of bosses who are too spineless to do the job themselves. He provides a face for their bleak future, and hands them packets full of vagaries about their “options.” When he’s done doing that, he packs up his carry-on bag and hops onto another flight to fire more people somewhere else. Occasionally, he’ll pick up a gig as motivational speaker for the new millennium; the gist of his message is that possessions and relationships weigh us down, so to get ahead, you must do without them.It pretty much goes without saying that, if there is a story to be told about someone like Ryan, it is that he must come to question the logical but empty assumptions by which he lives his life. Up in the Air does that, but not in the way that you might expect. It is too smart for easy answers. It is also too skillful to let you see exactly what it’s up to.
The picture is directed by Jason Reitman, who has put together a three-film body of work that rivals Quentin Tarantino’s or Paul Thomas Anderson’s at that point in their careers. His first film was the fast, funny, take-no-prisoners corporate satire Thank You For Smoking; his second, Juno, was a heartfelt movie about strong, flawed, likable people. He famously put this passion project (which, like Smoking, he co-wrote from a novel) on hold because he was so taken by Diablo Cody’s Juno screenplay, and it’s for the best that he did. Here, he combines the best elements of both films, and comes up with his most impressive work to date.
Bingham is played by George Clooney, in a marriage of performer and role that is so spot-on, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor playing it. As with his previous career-best turn, in Michael Clayton, he is playing a seemingly smooth operator who is perhaps no quite as together as he seems. Clooney is carving out a niche in a very specific kind of role (in many ways, Danny Ocean and Jack Foley in Out of Sight aren’t too far removed from this orbit); like the movie stars of yore he’s so frequently compared to (Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart), he has a certain kind of role that he does very well without ever seeming to repeat himself. There is also, without question, a kind of voyeuristic quality to watching him play this character, who holds forth on his disinterest in marriage and family life quite convincingly, since we’ve seen and read interviews in which the actor professes many of the same views.
Up in the Air is about how that man’s views are shifted by the arrival of two women into his life. He meets Alex (Vera Fermiga) during one of those late, lonely nights in a smoky hotel bar; she is a fellow traveler, one of the few people on earth who can appreciate his impressive array of members club cards and his spectacularly high frequent-flyer miles. They have a good time comparing status and having free-wheeling sex, and try to intersect on the road whenever possible, but that’s it; she directs him to “think of me as you with a vagina.”
The other is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young up-and-comer in Ryan’s company who is trying to make a name for herself by shaking up they way they do business. Specifically, she proposes that they cut down and travel time and expense by doing their dirty job over webcams—a proposal that Ryan immediately, instinctively resists, for reasons both moral (their job requires a human face, and not one on a computer screen) and self-serving (he doesn’t have much of a home life, plus he’s really close to hitting ten million miles). He’s not one to change his entire life because a hot new Cornell grad thinks they should get web-centric. His boss (the invaluable Jason Bateman) suggests that Ryan takes Natalie on the road and shows her the ropes.
That scene, in which the three sharp, fast-talking actors engage in a tough round of rat-tat-tat one-upsmanship, is a highlight. But the picture’s finest scene comes much later, as Clooney, Kendrick, and Fermiga share a drink and let their guards down, just a bit. Watching that scene, we can take ourselves out and reflect that all three are characters that could be written and played as stock types—the footloose professional who can’t commit, the tough gal with the atypical preferences of sex and relationships, the young hotshot who’s more fragile than she seems. But all three are such specific, well-defined personalities, so richly invested with warmth and humanity by the skilled actors playing them, that we’re genuinely involved with them.
The film’s timing is impeccable; no movie this year (save, perhaps, for Capitalism: A Love Story) more accurately reflects the general malaise and anxiety that has infected our feelings about how and where we work. Reitman masterfully uses a mix of actors and real, recently-unemployed workers for the scenes of dismissals; their genuine pain and heartache lends the film a documentary realism, and immediacy. The film has real weight, and is better for it.
Make no mistake, though, Up in the Air is not a depressing mediation on our fallen economy. It is an irresistibly smart, laugh-out-loud funny picture, marvelously constructed and snappily edited, and there’s not a bad performance anywhere in it—Kendrick (who came onto my radar with her fierce turn in Rocket Science) is phenomenal, Fermiga is wonderfully efficient, and Clooney has never been better. Several other actors of note (J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliot, Zach Galifianakis, Danny McBride) are used sparingly but effectively; Amy Morton and Melanie Lynskey, as Ryan’s neglected sisters, say more in the way they look at him (and each other) than they could have with reams of dialogue.
Up in the Air, which is the best film I’ve yet seen this year, is something of a miracle, really. When we reflect on the “golden age” of 1970s filmmaking, we’re often talking about pictures like The Godfather and Chinatown and Cukoo’s Nest and The French Connection--well-financed studio films with movie stars that made money, but were also geared towards adult audiences and were as enthusiastically received by critics as they were by audiences. Up in the Air feels like a throwback to that era, which is quite an accomplishment in a year where Hollywood’s highest-grossing film is a sequel to a movie based on 1980s cartoon that was a commercial for toys. This is a film for grown-ups, made by grown-ups. I hope, for all of our sake, that there’s still an audience for that kind of thing.
Robert DeNiro hasn’t exactly made it easy to be a Robert DeNiro fan over the last decade or so. Sure, he makes a good film every now and again (The Good Shepard is solid, and The Score is trashily enjoyable), but for every one of those, there’s three disappointments like Meet the Fockers or What Just Happened, and a couple of embarrassments like Showtime or (God help us all) Righteous Kill. DeNiro himself is seldom out-and-out bad (okay, he’s pretty terrible in Stardust), but there’s something missing in his work of late—you don’t see the fire in his eyes, the passion of the playing. He’s phoning it in at best, sleepwalking for paychecks at worst.His new picture, Everybody’s Fine, has some problems, but let this be said: It’s the best work he’s done in years. His portrait of late-life loneliness is poignant yet understated, touching but restrained. What’s more, he’s surrounded by a cast of talented young actors, each of whom appears to be valuing the opportunity to work with a living legend; they bring their A-game, and consequently, you see their skill energizing him.
DeNiro plays Frank, a widower who is not close to his now-grown children; in a heartbreaking opening sequence, he is seen making elaborate preparations for a weekend visit by all four of the kids, who then cancel out, last minute, one by one. Though his doctor won’t let him travel due to recent health woes, Frank decides to hit the road, paying a surprise visit to each of his offspring. He comes to discover that he’s been getting edited, rose-colored versions of their lives, and that perhaps he may not have been the ideal father that he fancied himself to be.
If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is; there’s a feeling, as the narrative kicks into gear, that DeNiro badly wishes he’d been cast in About Schmidt. It is, in fact, a remake, though not of that film (the source material is Giuseppe Tornatore’s Stanno Tutti Bene), but it has a vibe of its own. Directed with smooth professionalism by Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine), who also adapted the screenplay, Everybody’s Fine often has the warmth and glow of a comfort food movie.
But it’s more complicated than that—it’s not afraid of the dysfunctional family dynamic it is exploring. Early in the film, Frank visits his daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), and sits down for a dinner with her, her husband, and her son. Relations are clearly strained, for reasons we’ve just begun to guess at, and the discomfort of all parties involved are palpable—and relatable to just about anyone watching. His visit to son Robert (Sam Rockwell) is nearly as awkward; Robert’s been slightly exaggerating his station in life to dear old dad, and the truth clearly disappoints Frank, who hides it badly. Rockwell and DeNiro play off each other beautifully here, even if some of the dialogue is a bit too on the nose (there’s perhaps too much surface and not quite enough subtext for their scenes to play one hundred percent truthfully).
After a too-brief appearance by Melissa Leo as a friendly truck driver, Frank arrives in Las Vegas, where he’s met by his other daughter Rosie, played by Drew Barrymore. She’s just perfect, and her effortlessness with DeNiro and the ease of their body language belies a special closeness; we don’t have to be told that she’s daddy’s little girl, which makes the breadth of her secrets all the more surprising. All of these hints and clues of their private revelations lead to a very tricky climactic scene late in the film, a sort of fantasy/fever dream/nightmare sequence that could have gone wrong in about a million ways, and manages to sidestep all of them. It takes daring to take a whack at a scene like that and risk looking silly; it turns out to be an inspired and powerful storytelling device.
The picture treads into some serious emotional waters at that point, and most of it plays well—you only wish Dario Marianelli’s browbeating score wasn’t laying it on so thick (the acting and the text are strong enough). The closing passages may be unabashedly sentimental, but they’re not manipulative, as so many lesser family crisis dramas can be. Those scenes play—by that point, the film’s genuine emotions are honest and earned. Everybody’s Fine isn’t quite a great movie, but it is a very, very good one, intelligently made and sensitively played, a lovely film in a very minor key.
Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles is a jazzy, fast-paced, high-spirited theatrical romp, the kind of backstage tale that Hollywood used to crank out every other week, only this time with the real names and most of the good, ribald stories left in. The “me” of the title is Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), and he is a fictional character; the film is based on a novel by Robert Kaplow. But just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it isn’t truthful. It is based on upon a real turening point in Welles’ life and career: the Mercury Theater’s modern-dress staging of Julius Caesar.But Richard is our audience surrogate; a stage-crazy high school kid from the suburbs who inadvertently talks his way into a minor role in Caesar a week before opening night. A pretty production assistant (Claire Danes) is assigned to help the kid learn his lines, and a bit of a spark develops. Meanwhile, Welles (Christian McKay) seems intent to push his cast and crew to the limit—the frantic final week features plenty of incomplete rehearsals and temper tantrums, in addition to the company’s primary activity: “waiting for Orson.”
The screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. ballsily presumes that we know who Welles and the Mercury were, and thank God for that; while the Efron target audience may be clueless, I appreciated not having to sit through an endless text crawl at the top of the picture. Enough exposition is cleverly smuggled into the dialogue; the specifics aren’t necessarily important. That said, the picture goes to remarkable (and admirable) lengths to get the specifics of the production right; it is, as far as I can tell, exactly as described in countless Welles biographies (particularly in Simon Callow’s indispensable The Road to Xanadu). As a Welles fan, it is a real treat to see those legendary stories brought to vivid, breathing life. For example, he was playing “The Shadow” and other radio roles at the time, to help finance the Mercury; in order to fulfill those obligations but spend as little time as possible away from his theater, he’d take an ambulance across town to the radio studio and waltz in moments before show time, performing (brilliantly) without rehearsal.
McKay is the film’s breakout star; he’s flat-out phenomenal as Welles, not only nailing the great one’s physicality and speaking voice, but his zestful energy and intensity. He encompasses the personality of the man without succumbing to mere impression. The script is a keen psychological study of the man, in his specific actions and dialogue (like his wonderful speech about why he loves to act—“If people can’t find you, they can’t dislike you”), his relationships (particularly with the much-abused John Houseman), and his overall disposition. Caesar was a great play that came together at the last possible second; the more you read about Welles, the more frequently you’ll find that he waited until that last second, sometimes for no good reason. What kind of man continuously subjects himself to that kind of pressure? And what happens when the eleventh-hour miracles don’t come?
The picture is also an astute examination of hero worship—as Richard finds out, there’s no lift like praise from someone you consider great, and no crushing defeat like finding out they’re a sonofabitch. The movie understands that, though I’m not quite certain Efron does. He’s a likeable and charismatic presence, but a bit of a cipher here; there’s something dead in his pretty blue eyes, and too many of his line readings are wooden. There’s not enough fire in his belly, and though Daines is engaging, their romance is a bit of a non-starter. Frankly, his sweet, honest relationship with a slightly neurotic writer (played by the wonderful Zoe Kazan) plays much more entertainingly.
But enough of that. The film is beautifully made, full of impressively detailed costume and scenic design and expressive but controlled camerawork (by Mike Leigh’s favorite cinematographer, Dick Pope), and director Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise) brings it to a perfect conclusion, with an exquisite recreation of the show’s opening night that is absolutely thrilling to watch. Me and Orson Welles is an enjoyable throwback, and a skilled portrait. But its best quality is its enthusiasm; it feeds off the energy, the passion, and the creativity of its characters, all young and full of ideas, ready to take on the world. At the picture’s end, Richard isn’t sure what specifically he wants to do with his life, but he knows what he loves: “Whatever it is—writing, acting, music plays—I want to be a part of it all.” Linklater’s wonderful movie knows that feeling from the inside out. It is a picture of pure enjoyment.
"Me and Orson Welles" is currently playing in limited release.
Adrienne Shelly was on the verge of a breakthrough when she was tragically murdered in her Manhattan office apartment in late 2006; long known as an actress in indie films (particularly in the films of Hal Hartley), she had seen her film Waitress, which she wrote, directed, and co-starred in, accepted to the Sundance Film Festival. That film went on to become a sleeper hit the following summer, and would certainly have marked the beginning of an exciting new phase in her career. She did, however, leave an unfilmed screenplay behind. That script, Serious Moonlight, has now been filmed, with Waitress co-star Cheryl Hines making her directorial debut.With that kind of backstory, you can’t help but go in rooting for Serious Moonlight. It’s an incredibly likable movie, and it’s a slick, professional job. But it’s a little too clean and easy, and it doesn’t quite manage to pull off the delicate balancing act of off-beat charm with dark undertones that Waitress did. Its opening scenes are not encouraging; the jazz music, upper-class location, and presence of Meg Ryan have us worried that we’re entering Nora Ephron territory here (it proves better than that, although that isn’t much of an accomplishment).
Meg Ryan stars as Louise, a high-powered attorney who inadvertently catches her husband (Timothy Hutton) as he’s about to rendezvous with his mistress (Kristen Bell) and leave Louise. There’s some funny business about how he’s trying to accomplish this (fearing confrontation, he tries writing a note, which includes a request to feed the fish); they engage in the expected arguing and banter. And then she throws a potted plant at his head, and he wakes up bound with duct tape. I sat up a little. This was getting interesting.
“You won’t be untaped until you love me again,” she informs him, and so begins their long night of bickering, reminiscing, yelling, pleading, and so on. There is some good material in here, but much of this section of the film is a little too controlled and constructed; it feels theatrical, somehow stagey, and while the best of the dialogue has a nice, natural ring, a lot of it feels written instead of spoken.
None of this is the fault of Ryan, who here gives her most robust performance in years (not a surprise—if you can get past all the weird stuff she’s done to her face, she was actually quite good in last year’s dreadful remake of The Women). It’s a fizzy, spirited piece of work, and her line readings are just sharp as a tack. She also has a moment on their front porch, early in the film, where she completely loses her shit; it’s a tough bit of acting to get away with, but she’s so raw and unguarded, she pulls it off. However, her big monologue about their wedding day and their marriage is smothered by Andrew Hollander’s maudlin score (a complaint I find myself becoming a broken record about these days)—I found myself focusing more intently on her so I could tune that terrible music out.
Timothy Hutton (or “Tim Hutton,” as he’s inexplicably billed) doesn’t quite match up with her. His performance is passable, but Ryan’s just acting circles around the guy, and by the midway mark, she’s so exhausted that she starts acting down to him. It’s not entirely his fault; his role isn’t written as well as hers. When his big moment comes, he tries to underplay it, but it comes across as stilted; he’s just saying lines here. And no young actress projects fierce intelligence as effortlessly as Kristen Bell does, so it’s kind of sad to see her wasted in what’s essentially a nothing, young-and-dumb role.
Serious Moonlight has a little more flavor than the vanilla chick flicks that Ryan made her name on (and that it probably will be marketed to resemble). Though it has some decent performers and a few solid chuckles, it’s too put-together for my taste; it evaporates by the time you’re out of the theater.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Monday, November 30, 2009
We three disciples went uptown, way uptown, all the way up to 175th street to hear the man himself, the poet laureate of folk rock, the voice of a generation: Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan. “Who’s the opener?” Mike asked me on the way there, and I shrugged, because who cared; if there even was one, we’d figure it out when we got there. And a few minutes past 7:30, the house lights went down and the stage lights bumped up. “Are you ready for some rock and roll?” asked the stage announcer.
A collective look of horror was exchanged. No, we certainly were not ready for “some rock and roll.” We were there for Bob. What the fuck was this?
“Then please welcome Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dion!” The three of us winced. Dion? Midlevel late 50s/early 60s pop crooner Dion? Typically dull teen idol who Dylan was a much-needed antidote to, Dion? One and the same. And you know what? The crowd went bananas. It didn’t matter that the set was jive and tacky, that the band was second-rate wedding reception quality, that Dion himself was lifeless, and that his songs weren’t terribly good forty years ago, to say nothing of today. They ate it up with a spoon.
I had presumed that those in the audience were fellow travelers, that all had come to the United Palace Theater to Kneel At The Altar Of Saint Dylan. As I scanned the crowd, cheering and dancing through a listless but faithful rendition of “Runaround Sue,” I realized that I was dead wrong. Much of this crowd was here because, by their definition, Bob Dylan was an “oldies act”—playing music from their youth, music that is now part of the rotation on whatever radio station they listen to in the hopes of being transported back to that youth.
The first rock critics and tastemakers may have seen the clear difference between the two men’s work—one a genre-bending artist who redefined American popular music, the other a bubble-gum songster who followed trends rather than set them—but the passage of time put them on the same plane, at least for some of this audience. It’s all music from the 60s. If you remember it, it’s good. Nostalgia has become the qualitative equalizer. Is the pattern set? In 2040, will I go to a Wilco show, and find that Miley Cyrus is the opener?
It feels like a relatively recent phenomenon, a result of the increased speed with which pop culture eats itself. My memories of the 1980s are that no one harbored any illusions about the 1970s—it was pretty much understood that huge swaths of what was popular in that decade (Disco, Charlie’s Angels, the Airport movies, etc.) was, by most standards, really terrible, and it would be best for everyone to pretend like much of it never happened. But the twenty-year cycle of nostalgia hit the 1990s, and suddenly, the joys of “My Sharona” and One Day at a Time were being espoused by the faux-bohemians of Reality Bites. This was the stuff they grew up on, and so it was the stuff they looked back on with fondness—quality be damned. Sure, people would often couch their appreciation in meaningless terms like “guilty pleasure,” but no one’s guilt seemed to be bothersome enough to get them to switch off that rerun of The Brady Bunch on TBS.
By the turn of the millennium, it was time to look back fondly on the 1980s, the only decade that was even more culturally empty than the 1970s, a period of soulless films, synthesized music, and cripplingly formulaic television. But by the early 2000s, nostalgia itself was television fodder; VH1 spun whole series out of fond remembrances of decades past (like I Love the 80s), and while there may have been a smug comment or two from the cast of stand-ups and sitcom sidekicks, no one seemed particularly concerned about whether the movie/TV show/music video/video game/whatever in question was actually any good. Nothing could have mattered less. The things we remember have become, in our minds, the things that were important, and the endless series of remakes and sequels and sequels-to-remakes and “reboots” and “reimaginings” (whatever the hell that actually means) that we’ve flocked to in the last decade or so reflect that trend.
As of this writing, the highest-grossing motion picture of 2009 (by a good $100 million) is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which is (deep breath) a sequel to a movie based on an 80s cartoon series based on a line of children’s toys. How creatively bankrupt can one project be? How far afield from anything resembling an original thought can one film go? But nothing speaks to our cultural tastes like the things that we have poured the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP into. And Hollywood banks on that taste for familiarity. Originality is unpredictable. Nostalgia is bankable—if you fondly remember a movie or a TV show from your childhood, then perhaps you’ll open up wallet to see it again, only this time starring Will Ferrell.
By definition, nostalgia is an emotional longing, a desire to recapture a moment in one’s life. We remember our affection for bad movies and dumb television shows and vapid music and silly books because at the time we liked them, we didn’t know any better; our tastes mature, but our initial impressions never will. Which is why I’m part of an entire generation that is convinced that Top Gun is a great movie, a notion that flies right in the face of the cold, hard fact that Top Gun is a crushingly horrible movie, filled with music-video storytelling and cringe-inducing dialogue and unfortunate stereotyping—but hey, it has fast jets and Tom Cruise, and when we were 12, that was a good movie. And Diff’rent Strokes was a good TV show and “Rock Me Amadeus” was an awesome song and parachute pants were an outstanding fashion choice.
We like to snicker at those things now, as if we know better, and we’ll adopt a caustic hipster perspective about bad television and crappy movies and tacky music. But more often than not, it’s for show. A few weeks back, Christopher Cross was the musical guest on the goofy “Yacht Rock” episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and he performed his staggeringly white-bread hit “Ride Like the Wind” with the accompaniment of The Roots, who are without question the best band on television (and one of the best bands working, period). I kept playing the Hulu clip of their performance, over and over again, in the days that followed, and my excuse for playing it ad nauseam and showing it to friends and sharing it on Facebook was similar, I’m sure, to Jimmy Fallon’s reason for having an early-80s oddity like Christopher Cross on the show in the first place: we were sort of mocking him, and were impressed by how good a lame song like “Ride Like the Wind” sounded when it was played with a crew of badasses like The Roots. And all of that is true. But that’s not why I kept playing the clip; I kept playing it because the original song came out in 1980, when I was five years old, and my dad played it about as much as I played the Fallon version. And I liked it. I could dress my love for this thing up in all the sneering mockery I wanted, but the fact of the matter is, I loved this performance because I loved this song, in all of its vanilla goofiness. That copy of Over the Top on my DVD shelf is not there for the purposes of irony or cultural commentary; it’s there because, like it or not, the mood occasionally strikes me to watch Sylvester Stallone win his estranged son’s heart through the twin charms of long-haul trucking and competitive arm wrestling. The intellectual in me knows it’s a terrible movie. The 12-year-old in me couldn’t care less. He likes what he likes.
Postscript: Here's that performance I'm rambling about at the end of this piece. If you're between the ages of 30 or so and 40 or so, you'll probably love it too.