Saturday, March 6, 2010

New on Blu: "Breaking Bad- The Complete First Season"

At the end of the penultimate episode of the first season of Breaking Bad, Walter White wins. He does so in a way that is completely unexpected and spectacularly effective, but entirely in line with his specific characterization—Yes, we say, that’s how Walter could have handled that. The Walter we met at the beginning of the season might not have thought of that way out, or had the balls to carry it through, but the character has grown, changed—we’ve observed the steeling of his resolve, the little moments when this milquetoast man decided he had a little fight in him after all. And after he wins, he goes to his car and sits in the driver’s seat—and the camera holds on him, holds, and then it pushes in, as he celebrates the moment with a growl that seems to explode from the darkest place of his soul.

Breaking Bad is the story of a good man driven to bad places. Walter (Bryan Cranston) is a high school chemistry teacher who has just turned 50 when the series begins; he is writing off his grogginess and general malaise to mid-life crisis, but finds out there’s more to it than that. He’s got lung cancer, it’s spreading, and the prognosis isn’t good. Walt is worried about his family: his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) is pregnant, his son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy, and they live paycheck-to-paycheck. He’s desperately searching for a way to leave a healthy nest egg. And that’s when he tags along with his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) as they take down a meth lab. Walt sees Jesse (Aaron Paul), a former student, making a getaway. Walt goes to the young man and offers a deal: Walt cooks the meth, Jesse sells it, and Walt can stash away enough ill-gotten gains to take care of his family after he’s gone.

In its rough outlines, the series sounds astonishingly similar to Weeds--desperate protagonist makes an unlikely fit into the seedy world of narcotics—but tonally, the two shows are starkly different. It’s easy to chuckle at the goofy potheads that make up Nancy Botwin’s clientele, and to allow ourselves the comfort of knowing that, no matter what happens, she won’t deal the hard stuff. Breaking Bad makes no such concessions to viewer comfort. Crystal meth is a different beast, and the show has no qualms whatsoever with following the story’s natural inclination to kick over rocks and gaze at the vermin squirming around underneath.

There’s a raw, gritty intensity to the show, established immediately with its frantic scorcher of an opening scene. In that pilot episode, creator Vince Gilligan throws us off-balance, and never allows us to really get our bearings back—the series is unpredictable and frazzled, and even at its most stoic, it packs a perverse, voyeuristic thrill. The structure of the season that follows is shrewdly inventive—it throws Walter and Jesse together without too much contemplation, then deals, deliberatively, with the fallout of a first big deal that goes very, very bad. That splits them up, and the rest of the season (a total of seven episodes, shortened due to the 2007-2008 writer’s strike) follows the series of events that puts them back into the lab.

What’s great about good television, the advantage that it has over even the best of movies, is the time allowed for character and situational development. The changes to Walter’s personality are allowed to develop subtly over the seven hours of the season. We find, to both our surprise and his, that the cancer is not making him weaker, but stronger—stronger in character, and in purpose. It also gives him a sense of having nothing to lose, which certainly puts him at an advantage against the rough-and-tumble types he must now do business with, and the writers are confident enough to let us infer that without giving him some hack dialogue saying as much in black and white.

Similarly, the opportunities for extended storytelling allow them to pull events out and give them their full weight. Most films, even the great ones, can only spend a few minutes of screen time on a character making a choice to kill another. Early on, Breaking Bad spends a good two hours on it (and other things too, don’t get me wrong—it’s not some chamber piece about morality and mortality), as Walter knows that what he has to do, and simply cannot bring himself to it. His obligation, and the knowledge of the consequences (as outlined on his pros and cons list), sits heavy in the pit of his stomach, and it lends the episodes a real sense of dread. The resulting episodes are so tense, they manage to give you goose-bumps with a scene of Walter reassembling a broken plate. That’s skillful filmmaking, no matter what the format.

But it’s in episode five, “Gray Matter,” that you feel the show truly staking its claim as great television. Walt has finally told his family that he has cancer (though not about his alternate revenue stream), but he doesn’t want to pursue treatment. They decide to stage an intervention, and what begins as a potentially pat sitcom situation takes a lightning-fast turn from character comedy to tough, heartbreaking drama. “All I have left,” Walter explains, “is how I choose to approach this.” Cranston was a surprise Emmy winner for the series, but watching his work, it’s no shock at all—this is a tremendous performance, nuanced and brilliant. As his wife, Gunn does a tricky job (she must be both smart and completely oblivious) admirably, while Paul—though strangely reminiscent of Ben Foster—lets us see just enough of Jesse’s soul to keep from writing him off. He and Cranston also get a good rhythm going in their scenes, which is a nice contrast to the sprung timing of Norris, who plays Hank has a big, boorish lunk who is plenty dangerous all the same. Mitte (who has CP in real life) handles several difficult moments well, though Betsy Brandt (as Skyler’s sister Marie) doesn’t have much to do. About the only performance that doesn’t play is that of Raymond Cruz, whose Tuco is so deliriously over-the-top that he threatens the reality of the show; he’s “acting” in a way that the rest of the cast is not.

The overall tension goes a little slack around episode four, and occasional story threads are allowed to fall away (the business with the open house in the season’s final episode ramps up big with no payoff). These are minor defects, momentary glitches. Dark, unpredictable, and downright combustible, Breaking Bad is one of the most exciting and challenging shows on television today, joining its AMC brother Mad Men in expanding the boundaries of what television can do in today’s timid network climate. Its intense subject matter and smattering of sex, violence, and gore (watch out for that bathtub) certainly qualify it as an acquired taste, but audiences with the stomach and intestinal fortitude will find The Complete First Season to be rewarding, essential viewing.

"Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season" is currently available on DVD: it makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, March 16th.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Today's New in Theaters- 3/5/10

Alice in Wonderland: For my money, Tim Burton hasn't made a movie worth a shit since 1994 (that'd be Ed Wood), so I can't say I'm exactly bursting at the seams to see his overstuffed, unnecessary retelling of Carroll. It went 0 for 3 among my fellow DVD Talk theatrical reviewers, and we never all agree on anything.

Brooklyn's Finest: Roger Ebert's three-star review seems to be pretty much the norm--most agree that while Antoine Fuqua's return to Training Day territory doesn't reach that picture's heights, it's still compelling and well-acted. I'm definitely in; the trailers are sharp and it's full of actors I like (yes, even Snipes).

The Secret of Kells: The surprise nominee for Best Animated Film is gorgeous, yes; it has a specific look and feel that is, at times, breathtaking. But the story is a non-starter--in spite of the luminous images, my mind wandered frequently throughout. It's worth a look, though, for the sheer aesthtetic beauty of the piece.

The Ghost Writer: Polanski's slick, efficient thriller goes wider this week; it's got some problems, but it's got a smooth professionalism to it, and packs some kicky thrills.

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss: A fascinating examination of the unfortunate legacy left to the children of Viet Harlan, the Third Reich's most successful filmmaker. It works on two levels--as a facts-and-dates doc on the dark world of Nazi film, and a psychological portrait of a dysfunctional family.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

In Theaters: "The Secret of Kells"

When the Academy Award nominations were announced last month, no film prompted more head scratching than The Secret of Kells, a virtually-unknown picture up for Best Animated Feature. You can see why Academy voters were so taken with it—it’s a gorgeous film with a unique, handcrafted style all its own. But it does not have the greatness of its fellow nominees; it lacks a narrative that matches its dazzling technique.

Young Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) lives in the Abbey of Kellis, where Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) is overseeing the building of a tremendous wall to prevent a barbarian attack. Brendan, his nephew, is distracted from the enterprise by the arrival of Aidan (Mick Lally), a master illustrator carrying a magical but unfinished book. Brendan is fascinated by Aidan and his work, and becomes an apprentice and accomplice in its completion, much to the chagrin of his strict, fierce uncle.

The primary attraction of The Secret of Kells is the stylized, knockout animation. The film sports a snazzily distinctive look—it’s a pleasure just to gawk at. There’s a charming, paper cut-out quality to the animation, all sharp angles (even the rounded ones) and hard edges, lovingly organized into striking, inventive compositions. Directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey also enjoy playing with the frame—they utilize split-screen arrangements, borders, and alternate forms (the use of chalk drawings is memorable) to tell the story more efficiently.

It’s such a lovely film to watch, you burn with hope for the story to be as involving and compelling as its visuals. But the mind wanders during the picture—the storytelling is listless, and in spite of the attempts to bend it into a journey story in the middle or an action epic at the end, there isn’t much of a motor powering it from scene to scene. Ultimately, it’s not much more than a collection of pretty pictures.

But seriously, what pretty pictures. The characters designs are absolutely delightful (they capture the movement and sounds of cats in a way I’ve never seen in a film), the imagery vivid and sometimes scary. There’s a cold beauty to the desolate snowfall of the closing scenes (and the way it turns to red), and a playful majesty to the forest scenes. The Secret of Kells should certainly be seen, for aesthetic reasons if none other—you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s like a gorgeous piece of art. But, unlike some of the animated films it’s nominated with, it’s not a work of film art.

"The Secret of Kells" opens in New York City on Friday, March 5th.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New on Blu: "Mona Lisa Smile"

There are some movies you can feel good about enjoying, and then there are movies like Mona Lisa Smile. There's nothing in the picture that you haven't seen before, probably in a better film; it is cliché-ridden, melodramatic, obvious, and simplistic. I wish I could leave it at that. But it's just too damned likable.

The "teacher who inspired us all" is a literary and cinematic convention as old as the hills; members of my movie-going generation tend to compare all entries in the genre to Dead Poets Society, itself a fairly obvious riff on Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The recipe is simple--unique, rebellious, free-thinking educator breezes into academic setting (preferably an uptight, exclusive private school, hopefully run by hidebound authoritarian figures), slowly but surely connects with a select group of interesting student types, shaking up their march to their predestined fates by changing the way they think, live and feel--usually to the chagrin of the rigid school establishment. Cue the strings, run the credits, go home with a tears drying in your eyes.

Mona Lisa Smile doesn't shake up the formula (the irony of a film about non-conformity taking so few risks is not lost on this viewer), but is saved (mostly) by its witty, literate screenplay, the intelligent, low-key direction by Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and the outstanding performances. Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal's script is notable not for its storytelling chutzpah or ingenious construction, but for its dialogue and characterizations--these women may be clichés, but they're well-written, well-played clichés.

Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, the new Art History professor at the distinguished Wellesley College for women. The year is 1953, and Watson floats in from California, all free-spirited and forward-thinking and progressive and whatnot, and is shocked to find that the main focus of this distinguished women's college is to produce housewives. Her students are knowledgeable to the point of intimidation (a terrific early scene, where she finds out exactly how prepared these women are, is so well-written and well-executed that it is sort of exhilarating), so she works some modern art in the curriculum, and starts asking them to examine the way they think about art.

These classroom scenes are the best stuff in the film. Some real questions are asked, some interesting points are made, the drama is (mostly) believable, and Roberts is at the top of her game--another scene, late in the film, in which the art slides are replaced with magazine ads of the housewife at work ("SLIDE!" she commands, and the next one slams in), represents some of her finest work.

Perhaps the most interesting actor in the picture is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays the campus bad girl as if she's fully aware that she is stealing every single scene. Gyllenhaal, who was coming off of her star-making turn in Secretary, is simultaneously heartbreaking, sexy, and wickedly funny. Julia Stiles, a marvelous actress in her own right, has trouble overcoming the stilted nature of her character, but she's still interesting to watch.

Kirsten Dunst doesn't fare as well in the film's most thankless role. She's the token bitch, and she doesn't get many opportunities to color outside of thosee lines, since her character mostly functions at the convenience of the plot. She's a snooty, bitter little thing, turning into a shrieking shrew in one badly handled confrontation with Gyllenhaal, and unable to do one damn thing with the awkward, clunky scene that explains the title. She's a decent actress, but not here. However, Marcia Gay Harden, Topher Grace, Ginnifer Goodwin, and John Slattery make valuable contributions in smaller roles.

Thankfully, the film doesn't get as buttery about dear Katherine as you might think; a brief romance with a fellow professor (played by Dominic West of The Wire) ends with some keen, tough observations about her. Those character flaws are forgotten by the end, however, which lays it on mighty thick. But we’re in a forgiving mood by then; Newell’s sure-handed direction can’t entirely compensate for the inherent familiarity of the material, but he makes it a pleasantly enjoyable diversion.

There is much to admire about Mona Lisa Smile-- it is beautifully executed (talented cinematographer Anastas N. Michos creates some awfully pretty pictures) and is a showcase for some truly fine acting. That it breaks little new ground and makes barely an impression, though an accurate statement, is a pretty hefty charge to lob at an entertainment as lightweight as this one.

"Mona Lisa Smile" made its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, February 2nd. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In Theaters: "Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss"

Perhaps the most peculiar sidebar of the popular and critical success of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds has been the curiosity over Third Reich film—the notion, explored in that film and explained by the filmmaker, of “Goebbels as a studio head.” While serving as minister of propaganda, he directly oversaw the German film industry, which produced copious musicals and comedies but was best known for their works of pro-German, anti-Semitic proselytism, including Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Fritz Hippler’s The Eternal Jew, and Veit Harlan’s costume drama Jew Süss.

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss profiles that notorious film’s creator, the Third Reich’s most successful filmmaker, who was later tried (and acquitted) twice for crimes against humanity, so powerful was the hateful message of his best-known work. His story is told primarily through the words of his descendents, the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews who have spent their lives coming to terms with who this man was, and what he did.

For his part, Harlan claims in his memoirs that he was forced to make the controversial film; there are varying degrees of disagreement about that. Some of his relations are critics, some are apologists, and some are both. His daughter Maria Korber describes her first viewing of the film thus: “I felt like going outside and puking.” His granddaughters, on the other hand, seem underwhelmed; they’re not entirely sure why it was such a cause célèbre. But they’re also seen reading aloud the letter from Himmler, directing it to be shown to all SS and policemen, and I think we can safely infer that he didn’t just like the film for its costumes.

How complicit was Harlan? How anti-Semitic was the man himself? There’s no consensus there either. Granddaughter Jessica Jacoby argues that he had to have been aware of the power of his imagery. But Korber trots out the old chestnut, “He had many Jewish friends!” Son Caspar Harlan deems it irrelevant: “The non-anti-Semite is the best person to sharpen the knives.” What can be certain, it is duly noted, is that he had no qualms with putting his actress wife into the film. Would he have put the woman he loves front and center if he considered it such a vile project? Harlan viewed himself a victim in the years after the war, and he fell out of favor, though he continued to make a living grinding out “sentimental and gloomy melodramas.” His real legacy, it seems, was the name he left his children with.

Director Felix Moeller generously sprinkles in clips, from not only the film in question and the rest of Harlan’s filmography, but horrifying newsreels from the era and home movies of the well-to-do filmmaker and his family. The abundance of footage is helpful; aside from those clips, the film is basically an assemblage of talking heads, and Moeller’s attempts at getting out of that box (such as corny shots of relatives sitting contemplatively on beaches) don’t really land. However, Marco Hertenstein’s excellent score keeps our interest piqued, as does the compelling nature of the story at hand.

As intriguing as the details and discussions of the film itself may be, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss is most fascinating as a tricky examination of their difficult family dynamic. “There’s something in the psyche of our family,” one of them notes, and they’re right—some disown him, some embrace him, some don’t know what to make of him. His son Thomas is an outspoken critic of his father, causing other members of the family to speak more scornfully of Thomas than of Veit. These are complex, these familial issues, and they branch out and spread; early on in the film, I thought I recognized a niece’s name, then shrugged it off as coincidence. Turns out it wasn’t—his niece is Christiane Kubrick, the widow of Stanley Kubrick. Late in the film, she says she took her husband to meet her uncle. Kubrick, she recalls, was “shaken” by the experience. That’s saying something.

"Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss" opens Wednesday, March 3rd at Film Forum in New York City.

Monday, March 1, 2010

On DVD: "Where the Wild Things Are"

Holy crap, they pulled it off. After years of preparation, after rumors of behind-the-scenes rumblings, after all of the breathless pre-release hand-wringing (Is it too intense for kids? Is it too smart for family audiences?), at long last, Spike Jonze's film version of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are has finally arrived, and it was worth the wait. It's an enchanting film, warm and winning, a picture that envelops its audience and holds them in its grasp for its entire 94 minutes, which go by in a blink. The preview audience I saw it with laughed at the jokes, but sat in hushed silence otherwise, lest they break the delicate spell the film casts. It is, in a word, wonderful.

It is also, yes, "difficult" and "challenging" and all those other buzzwords that dull Hollywood types attach to any movie that can't be put into a box that spits out Happy Meal toys. Make no mistake, it is an unconventional family film--but that is a good thing, inasmuch as it is noticeably lacking in pop culture references and bullshit moralizing. What it does, more than any movie that I can think of, is replicate what it's like to be a kid, how it feels, the fierce energy of an imagination untethered, and how that runs parallel to the first, terrifying pangs of sadness and fragility and loneliness and despair.

Those ideas are only hinted at in Sendak's book, which has been greatly (and ingeniously) expanded by Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers (who penned A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, as well as the screenplay to last summer's Away We Go)--and it would certainly need to be augmented, since you can read the book in about three minutes flat (trust me, I just checked). It is still the story of Max (Max Records) and the boat trip that leads him to the land of the wild things, who make him their king. But we get to know Max a bit beforehand; in a heartbreaking early sequence, we see how his older sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) is drifting away from him, and how his imaginary exodus follows a tantrum prompted by his divorced mother (Catherine Keener) entertaining a gentleman caller (Mark Ruffalo).

Don't worry, this isn't needless psychological hogwash intended to "explain" the behavior of an iconic character (we're not dealing with Rob Zombie's Halloween here). What they do, in those evocative opening passages, is to show Max's world, all the good and the bad of it, richly drawn, deeply felt and beautifully textured, so that we can understand why he would want to escape it--and why, later, he would ache to return. It is not a golden-hued, idealized home, nor is it a thin caricature of domestic melancholy. It is what it is. Jonze's unadorned, mature direction, and the straight-forward, naturalistic writing, are, in the own quiet way, a revelation.

When the wild things appear, they are frankly stunning--thanks to the flawless designs of Jim Henson's Creature Shop (and some all but invisible animatronic and CG detail work), they look just as they should: real, tangible, alive, there. One can imagine a lazier director slapping in CGI co-stars, Scooby Doo-style, but these creatures have weight and presence, and when they stand on that cliff with Max and howl at the rising sun, it is sheer perfection.

The power of those characters is complimented by some spot-on voice casting. Chief among them is Carol, played by James Gandolfini in a performance that is second only to Tony Soprano in his body of work, and no I'm not kidding. Carol is a fully-drawn character, an immaculate match of marvelous character design and wonderful vocal work. Carol's gee-whiz enthusiasm, and his ability to turn on a dime to anger and anguish, is a potent cocktail for Gandolfini, who, in his best work, utilizes his teddy-bear charm, and then shows us his claws. Lauren Ambrose finds just the right note for KW, who Carol loves and seems to have lost; Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and Catherine O'Hara all get splendid moments of their own.

Also of note is little Max Records, whose lead performance is just amazing--he is absolutely committed and completely believable, whether in his unexpected turns to tears (which will just wreck you) or the full-throated abandon with which he throws himself into the "action" scenes, like the thrillingly jarring opening (in which he tumbles down the stairs in hot pursuit of the family dog). That scene, and much of the film, is shot in an intimately handheld style--not a Blair Witch handheld, understand, but more of an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind handheld, keeping us up close with our hero, and sometimes struggling breathlessly to keep up with him. That is one of two smart camera calls by Jonze; the other is the decision, similar to Spielberg's in E.T. , to shoot most of the film down low, from Max's eye line, showing his world as he sees it.

Scanning over this review, I fear that I may have over-intellectualized what is, in fact, a warm and funny and ultimately very sweet picture; it's just so seldom that we get a film that actually elicits these kinds of responses, that speaks directly to such fundamental themes as loneliness and abandonment and isolation and friendship and love, and it's even more impressive that those notions are housed in a film that is presumably intended for an audience primarily younger than I. But is that a surprise? Even smart grown-up movies are dumbed down and sanded off, and I wonder what it says about the movie business, circa 2009, two of the three best films of the year (this one and Up) were ostensibly created for "family" audiences. (I think it says two things: that family films are aiming higher, and that everybody else is aiming lower.)

"We've got to tamp down our expectations on this one," I was telling some friends before the film's release, as we were discussing how thrilling the trailers were and how eagerly we were anticipating it. "Because at the rate we're going, by the time this movie comes out, it's going to have to be the greatest movie ever made, or we're going to be disappointed." Well, Where the Wild Things Are is not the greatest movie ever made. And that is about the meanest thing I can manage to say about it. I'll say this, though: I wasn't disappointed.

"Where the Wild Things Are" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, March 2nd.

On DVD: "Up in the Air"

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 take Natalie on the road and show 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 recent movie (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 (Reitman shoots Clooney going through airport security with the silky panache of a heist sequence). 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. In its ads, the film is made to look like Clooney’s one-man show; in fact, the people who surround him, in spite of his best efforts, are ultimately what lends the picture its considerable soul.

Up in the Air, which was the best film of 2009, 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 these days—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.

"Up in the Air" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, March 9th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cassavetes: "Gloria"

And who’da thunk it. After all that experimentation, after all that peering into the dark recesses of the soul, after all those self-indulgent actor’s exercises, Cassavetes goes and makes his greatest film—and it’s his most conventional. Gloria is the story of a tough dame and a cute kid (that old chestnut), wrapped inside a gangster movie and a chase picture. There’s not a reason in the world that it should be part of the Cassavetes filmography. But it is, and it’s wonderful.

Gena Rowlands stars (of course) as the title character, an aging gangster’s moll who ends up stuck with a neighbor’s kid (John Adames) when his whole family is taken out by gangsters; the kid’s dad was a mob accountant, and he handed over his ledger book to his son before it all went down. The motor for the picture, then, is Gloria’s attempt to get the hell out of town before either (or both) of them get killed.

Rowlands is electrifying as Gloria—she packs both a pistol and a sharp tongue with equal skill, growling her hard-boiled dialogue with an abundance of moxie. Adames is charming and likable, and the rouges gallery of tough-guy character actors are more than credible. But it is disorienting to watch the film within the context of the Cassavetes filmography—there’s stunts! And shoot-outs! And an overblown Bill Conti score! And yet, he makes it all work, even the most tired and obvious elements.

What was he up to here? For my money, the same thing Soderbergh is up to with crowd-pleasers like the Ocean’s movies—he uses the experimentation of his smaller, more personal projects to imbue a smarter, richer sensibility into the big studio pictures. Gloria doesn’t have the kind of on-screen character development as Rowlands’ characters in A Woman Under the Influence or Opening Night, but she has the same kind of rich inner life that those women had. She just has it before the movie starts.

I had an epiphany about Cassavetes’ work when I watched Woman back in June; I wrote, “Cassavetes doesn't take anything out. Other movies abbreviate or remove the long climb that leads to those kind of emotional moments; they just give us the high points. Cassavetes leaves it all in. Does that make him a better or a worse filmmaker? That, I'm not sure of.” In Gloria, he finally takes some of that stuff out—and ends up with his finest film yet.

If you've got 123 minutes to kill, "Gloria" is available for online viewing at Crackle.

On DVD: "Precious"

Its reputation as a sleeper hit aside, Lee Daniels' Precious is a tough, potentially alienating film--it deals in troubling themes (child abuse, incest, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, AIDS), and running them down makes the film sound like a non-stop, depressing scourge. But it is not that; it has humor, and joy, and life pulsing through it. Inventively, tenderly crafted and sensitively acted, it is a great American film that could have gone wrong in a million ways and savvily sidesteps all of them.

Gabourey Sidibe plays the title character, a 16-year-old still stuck in junior high, pregnant with her second child. She shares an apartment with her mother (Mo'Nique), a chain-smoking bully; both her mother and (mostly off-screen) father subject Precious to a stream of physical and mental abuse. Precious creates elaborate fantasies to escape from her impossible reality, dreaming of a glamorous and happy life that she fears she will never know. In desperation, her school principal sends her to an alternative school, where she is taught basic reading, writing, and arithmetic by Ms. Rain (Paula Patton); the interest and encouragement of a genuinely positive adult figure opens the young woman's eyes to what her life could be.

Hearing a synopsis like that, you can imagine the clichés and pitfalls that it could fall into; in the hands of the wrong writer and director, that story's got the makings of a Lifetime movie. Luckily, Precious has the right writer and director. Geoffrey Fletcher (adapting the novel Push by Sapphire, as awkwardly indicated by the film's full title) isn't afraid to make the centerpiece scenes of abuse and psychological terror (like Precious' return home with her newborn son) truly harrowing--they gobsmack the audience like blunt instruments. But he (and director Lee Daniels) knows that an audience needs variation from this kind of grim tragedy; we need escape valves and distractions, which the picture (thankfully) provides.

Even when the writing is spotty or obvious, Daniels' instincts are mostly good; Precious' fantasy life is richly, entertainingly drawn (and slickly shot, indicating that the picture's gritty, low-fi aesthetic is a stylistic choice rather than a necessity), though a couple of those sequences are goofily broad rather than poignant (I'm lookin' at you, foreign film on Mama's TV set), and somewhat out of place. Indeed, some of the tonal shifts are a bit too wild to play--you feel the strain of Daniels smashing pieces together that just don't fit, though his experimentation is welcome and certainly doesn't derail the enterprise.

In many ways, the heart at the movie's center are the scenes with Precious and her classmates (both in and out of school), which have a loose, offhand, improvisational vibe that goes a long way towards levity. Those scenes are anchored by the considerable warmth of Patton, an actor whose previous work (most notably as window dressing in films like Déjà Vu and Idlewild) gave no indication of the depths of her talent. For that matter, who knew Mariah Carey (more than holding her own in one of the movie's toughest scenes) had a performance like this in her, to say nothing of Mo'Nique, who is simply electrifying. (Some of the other pieces of stunt casting, like that of Lenny Kravitz or Sherri Shepherd, are less successful.)

All of them are in support of Sidibe, in (astonishingly) her film debut, turning in a beautifully modulated and stunningly controlled performance. She is completely shut off as the picture begins, in that particularly unforgiving way that hopeless teenagers are; her mouth is locked in frown, and it hardly seems that any light is making its way into her eyes. But as the film progresses, she slowly becomes comfortable in her own skin and develops, delicately, tentatively, into her own person; even her voice-overs become more confident and funny ("They talk like TV channels I don't watch"). That kind of transformation is stunning, particularly in a first-time performer--we're with her, all the way, and when she falls apart, it is shattering.

If the first half of Precious is tenuous, the second is unflinching and powerful, unrelenting in its sorrow yet simultaneously moving and forgiving. It is a bold, heartbreaking picture, and entirely worthy of the considerable praise it has received. It is, make no mistake, difficult viewing. But some films are worth the effort.

The second round of TV spots for Precious seemed designed primarily to counteract the only element of bad buzz in the film's considerable word-of-mouth success: that it is a downer, depressing, sad, etc. So Lionsgate put out an ad with upbeat music, smiling characters, and voice-over narration about how inspirational and uplifting the movie is. It is, perhaps, not the most honest television advertisement you've ever seen. Precious is, in fact, inspirational and uplifting, but it makes the viewer walk through fire to get there. It is a classical tragedy in the Greek sense, and runs its characters (and viewers) through a wringer of pity and terror on the way to its devastating catharsis.

"Precious" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, March 9th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review at DVD Talk.

In Theaters: "The Ghost Writer"

The opening images of Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer are, on their face, fairly mundane; a ferry docks, and the cars drive off, but one of them has been abandoned. A tow truck comes to remove the vehicle. That’s pretty much the opening scene (not exactly Hitchcock, is it?), but Polanski shoots it with such verve and skill, we can’t help but be intrigued. And then we have the payoff shot: a body, washed up on the beach.

That is the body of a close adviser to former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who was helping the politico write his memoirs. Lang’s publisher, frantic to protect their $10 million investment, seeks out a ghost writer to finish the job, and in a hurry. Ewan McGregor plays the writer (never named), who is quickly spirited off to Lang’s Massachusetts beach house in the dead of winter to interview Lang and flesh out the dull manuscript. “All the words are there,” he says of the book, “they’re just in the wrong order.”

But there are sinister things happening at the beach house—security seems too tight, something seems a bit off. Lang is fiercely protected by an assistant (Kim Cattrall) who everyone seems to know is his mistress, including his wife (Olivia Williams). Not long after the writer arrives, a scandal explodes: a former subordinate accuses the PM of authorizing the torture of four terror suspects, one of whom died in the process. The writer stumbles upon some of the deceased advisor’s notes, and discovers that Lang may have even more to hide.

The Ghost Writer is a throwback to the good old-fashioned potboilers of the 1950s, when skilled studio directors made pictures that functioned on a base, surface level as thrillers or mysteries, while smuggling in all kinds of interesting subtext. Lang is clearly modeled after Tony Blair, specifically in his support for questionable American tactics in the war on terror (he’s seen on CNN at one point with the secretary of state, a dead ringer for Condi Rice), which benefit a private company called “Hatherton” (hey, it’s not as obvious as “Harriburton” in District 13: Ultimatum). But Lang isn’t written as an empty Blair photocopy; he’s a complex, fascinating character, charismatic and affable one moment, tempermental and prickly the next (Brosnan’s performance is another in a steady stream of well-drawn post-Bond character roles).

Blair isn’t the only public figure that the film calls to mind. As the torture accusations become a media sensation, the picture draws out some peculiar (though accidental) parallels to the troubles of its director, who was finally incarcerated for his decades-old crimes while the picture was in post-production; one can’t help but blanche as Lang and his advisors try to determine which countries will provide him a safe haven. But the film’s most interesting theme lies in the simplicity of the McGregor character; he is called “The Ghost” (by his employers, and in the closing credits), but the name takes on multiple meanings. In many ways, he begins to function as the ghost of his departed predecessor—finishing the investigation which that man started, piecing together clues and connecting dots.

His curiosity leads him further into Lang’s past, a trail which winds past Eli Wallach (in a wonderful walk-on) to the door of Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson, that master of smug malice). They have one of those encounters where everything one man says is clearly a lie, and when he is called on it, he produces another lie to explain that one, and does it without batting an eye. But he’s clearly up to something, and the sequence that follows (a tense encounter on a returning ferry) confirms that, even after a decade spent on historical dramas and literary adaptations, Polanski still knows how to put together a scene of crackerjack suspense. The film also has an admirable dry wit (observing the dull beach town, McGregor observes, “This place really comes alive at night”) and some marvelous performances (some of them unexpected—yes, that really is James Belushi, owning an early scene as a gruff publisher).

The master filmmaker’s control and confidence help us overlook some of the film’s flaws—there is an undeniable drag to the second act, and he fumbles some of the exposition (we’re not sure, for entirely too long, who picks up the other end of a key telephone call). The use of obvious ADR to change some of Brosnan’s rougher profanities (he says “sod ‘em,” but his lips are clearly mouthing “fuck ‘em”) is distracting and unnecessary—did anyone involved in the picture really think that the PG-13 rating was going to put the teen audience into seats? Ah, well. The Ghost Writer is a crisp and intelligent thriller, carried off with silky panache by its smooth, skillful director. And that closing shot is sheer perfection.

"The Ghost Writer" is currently playing in limited release.