Saturday, February 13, 2010

Please read

Esquire's Chris Jones profiled Roger Ebert in this month's issue. Even if you don't like Ebert--and if that's the case, what's wrong with you?--it's an exquisite, flawless piece fo writing from one of my favorite magazine writers.

It's not up on the magazine's Website yet, but buy a copy. Just tremendous.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

R. Kurt Osenlund and I...

...Debate the merits of narration in films on You should check it out!

What Oscar Voters Missed

So, the Academy Award nominations were announced last Tuesday, much to my ever-loving chagrin. I'm not going to get into a tizzy over the movies that shouldn't be honored, or how remarkably stupid the expanded best picture category is.

What I'm going to do is list some films and people that were overlooked in certain categories. I think that'll make things a lot, lot easier for my sanity.

  • Best Supporting Actor: Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles (pictured) was mesmerizing, and I find it unbelievable that he didn't crack this category. (Peter Capaldi in In the Loop or Zachary Quinto in Star Trek would have been super, too.) Here's the problem: Christopher Plummer wasn't anything close to Oscar-worthy in The Last Station. Here's the second problem: No one saw Me and Orson Welles. It vanished after December.
  • Best Supporting Actress: Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air? Um, not good. Don't even get me started on Mo'Nique in Precious. I would have been happy seeing Samantha Morton in The Messenger or Alycia Delmore in Humpday.
  • Best Actress: Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria. The nomination should have been her coronation, not Sandra Bullock's. Another good choice: Nicole Beharie in American Violet. (See Kurt, we agree on stuff!)
  • Best Actor: Tobey Maguire's haunting work in Brothers was the best he's done in years, and was a splendid reminder that he was once considered a young talent to watch. My guess is Jeremey Renner's fine performance in The Hurt Locker pushed Maguire aside. Too bad. Other possibilities: Viggo Mortensen in The Road and Patton Oswalt in Big Fan.
  • Best Picture: I know that the Academy Awards expanded this list to incorporate more variety, but here's my quibble. For the "family film" slot, why choose The Blind Side? Julie & Julia was so much better while being made for the same demographic. It's one of my favorite movies of the year, and I'm not for whom that movie was made....And why put Up as a sacrifical lamb? If the voters had included Adventureland or Humpday or Sin Nombre, wouldn't that have meant more to those filmmakers? Up has made 80 bajillion dollars. Pixar is already a household name. This move doesn't help Pixar profile-wise or expose moviegoers to something they may have missed that's worth their time.
P.S.--Hey, Razzies, where were these?

1.) The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond
2.) Deadgirl
3.) The Answer Man
4.) Pink Panther 2
5.) The Limits of Control
6.) Gigantic
7.) Alexander the Last
8.) The Time Traveler's Wife
9.) The International

Monday, February 1, 2010

Review of Up in the Air

Pictured is New Jersey's very own Vera Farmiga, perhaps the one good reason you should watch Up in the Air. Listed below is why you really shouldn't.

This review originally appeared in ICON and is reprinted with the loving permission of Trina Robba.


It happens every year: A movie seduces critics, moviegoers, and everyone else but leaves me cold. In 2009, I encountered three: The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, Lee Daniels' Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, and now Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, starring George Clooney.

The last film, which should make headlines after Oscar nominations are announced Feb. 2, revolves around these troubled times. It's the kind of film that oozes relevance and a deeper meaning—if a filmmaker commits to that agenda. Reitman doesn't. He's never entirely sure whether he wants to offer a character sketch or a movie about the big world. A movie for our times, a description I've heard in commercials for Up in the Air, can't be wishy-washy even if we are.

Ryan Bingham's job is to relieve people of theirs. For over 300 days a year, Ryan (Clooney) crisscrosses the country, doing the dirty work of CEOs. His life is sparse and efficient. There's no wasted space, no superfluous motions. It should come as no surprise that he never sees his family—his reaction to his sister's marriage ranges from indifference to annoyed—or has a meaningful relationship. It can't fit in his suitcase.

His organized little world gets a major jolt when his young go-getter colleague, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), unveils a plan to modernize their firm that the higher-ups love. No more will Ryan and his co-workers fly across the country, a costly endeavor that has allowed Ryan to proudly amass nearly 10 million airline miles. Firings will now be done via teleconference from the home office in Omaha to wherever the recession has claimed its next victims, with a headset-wearing "transition specialist" doing the dismissing.

It's a fitting idea from Natalie, who sounds like a corporate mission statement, but Ryan hates it, namely because what he does can't be simplified via technology. There's a technique involved, something that Natalie can't comprehend. Two side notes: Ryan hates being home; his identity is in the air. Being grounded also eliminates his time with amorous travel buddy Alex (the excellent Vera Farmiga). Ryan and Natalie's boss (Jason Bateman) has a unifying solution: Ryan will take Natalie on the road to show her what he does.

The trip, peppered with visits to bankrupt companies and airport lounges, turns out to be an eye-opener for both. Natalie learns that the people she wants to use as guinea pigs for her career advancement have feelings, and that her pre-planned course for success is a joke. Thanks to Alex, Ryan learns the value of companionship, of having someone in your corner. And he realizes this while attending his sister's Pabst blue-collar wedding, which undoubtedly satisfies his multi-tasking streak. Whether Natalie and Ryan can endure these changes is a different story.

Up in the Air does offer enough internal crises regarding Ryan and Natalie to keep the movie involving, but Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner never align this development with the tumultuous world the characters navigate, one where personal connections are being replaced by technological convenience and the bottom line. The groundwork for a movie with a larger message is begun and we get little tastes: empty offices, tearful employees, etc. But it's used as a garnish, a quick and dirty way to add importance to a story about a corporate drone searching for himself. By giving this tumultuous world idea short shrift, Reitman confesses that it's not that important. It's scared filmmaking: You either make your grand statement on the world, or you save the soapbox for another time. Hedging your bets, hoping that people will confuse flashes of meaning for meaningful, is remarkably condescending.

Ryan has built his career telling people that they've become irrelevant. Now he's facing the same fate, which he has escaped by traveling non-stop. His time is up. That's great, but Turner and Reitman never flesh out Ryan's profile. We never learn how Ryan got to thrive on solitude, and how his family became an inconvenience. What causes a man to become so content living out of a suitcase that he gives lectures on the subject? One could say that Ryan's blank personal history works because the movie involves him opening up, but the evolution is pointless if we have no idea where he started.

That we know Alex better than Ryan highlights the need for two distinct personas to survive in the business world. Still, I couldn't help but wonder if she could have lent one to Ryan. Every strong move here is met with a weaker one, like stocking the supporting cast with Bateman, J.K. Simmons, and Danny McBride so they can play the same old roles. It's fitting that the grand ideas espoused by Up in the Air are tripped up by smaller details, ones that Oscar voters will blithely ignore. [R]

The Film Round-Up for February

In this edition of the Film Round-Up: An unhinged detective, a steel magnolia, a father wading through the destruction of the apocalypse, and why you should be afraid of Nancy Meyers.

These reviews previously appeared in the February issue of ICON and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina).

In reviewing offbeat and independent films, I missed most of what the multiplex offered in November and December, when studios unload their Oscar hopefuls. With Academy Award nominations coming Feb. 2, I figured it was high time for me to catch up.

Sherlock Holmes (Dir: Guy Ritchie). Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly. A beloved literary character gets a movie makeover, and the result is a rollicking, vastly entertaining start to a certain franchise. In late 19th century London, renowned detective Holmes (Downey Jr.) and his trusted partner Watson (Law) follow a disgraced politician (Strong), whose apparent resurrection and enthusiasm for black magic threatens to bring the country to its knees. Thrown into the mix is Holmes' old flame (McAdams), a brilliant con artist whose shifting allegiances keep everyone on edge. Ritchie (Snatch) slows down his hyper-kinetic style to tremendous benefit: The movie runs like a champ while establishing Downey Jr. (who's perfect—just the right mixture of mischievous and confident) and Law's snippy brotherly rapport, the real reason to watch the movie. The talented McAdams, however, has trouble finding her footing. The character has no hook, and she's not seductive enough to give it the proper oomph. Other than that, Sherlock Holmes continues an emerging trend: big-budget, well-written action-packed blockbusters (e.g., Star Trek, Iron Man) that everyone can enjoy. [PG-13] ****

It's Complicated (Dir: Nancy Meyers). Starring: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Lake Bell. Jane (Streep) and Jake (Baldwin) have been happily divorced for 10 years, an arrangement that has served them and their three grown children well. While in New York for their son's college graduation, the divorcees have a one-night stand, which blossoms into an exes-with-benefits deal. However, the passionate arrangement hits a snag when the unhappily remarried Jake develops real feelings for Jane just as she's dating the nice-guy architect (Martin) working on her house. Like her previous movies (Something's Gotta Give, The Holiday), Meyers has a knack for breezy dialogue and getting charming performances from her leads. And like her previous movies, Meyers' insistence on setting them in luxurious locations and giving her heroines ridiculous occupations—Jane owns the kind of gourmet bakery that sells $8 muffins to a willing public—belittles the message of strength that she's espousing to a graying sisterhood, most of whom are battling problems in houses far smaller than Jane's garish addition. By portraying real problems in a fantasyland farce, Meyers has brought baby boomer problems to the masses. That's admirable, but her cutesy, compromising style casts a pall over the entire film. [R] **

The Blind Side (Dir: John Lee Hancock). Starring: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Jae Head, Lily Collins, Kathy Bates. Before he made the NFL as a left tackle in 2009, Michael Oher essentially grew up homeless and forgotten in the nasty Memphis projects. Thanks to his huge size and freakish athletic ability, Oher got into a fancy private school as a teenager. But Oher (who is black) got a home, encouragement, and much-needed stability from the affluent (and white) Tuohy family, whose children attended the same school. Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, the indisputable head of the family, a feisty but loving steel magnolia who invites Oher (Aaron) into her home and shepherds him through the school's rigorous academics and to his eventual athletic success. Yes, the movie shamelessly guns for Oscar votes with its making-a-difference tone and dramatic showboating, but it works thanks to the gripping story and Bullock's spirited performance. The Blind Side is the kind of well-intentioned, morally superior fare you keep waiting to hate but never do. It entertains and uplifts you against your better judgment. [PG-13] ***

The Road (Dir: Jon Hillcoat). Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce. The world is dying, but not in an Al Gore, down-the-road kind of way. Fires and earthquakes are now part of the scenery. The land is barren and the skies are gray. With food scarce and survival paramount, packs of marauding, gun-toting cannibals hunt for fresh meat. Thrown into this awful new reality, a father (Mortensen) and son (Smit-McPhee) search for food, shelter, and a reason to continue. Adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel is relentless in its nervous misery, but hopeful in its lasting message. Equipped with a wild beard and gaunt frame, skeptical and world-weary, Mortensen is exceptional in the lead, matching the movie's stark visuals. Theron is very good as Mortensen's defeated wife, who we see in flashbacks. Two factors prevent the movie from being truly great, and why you probably haven't heard a ton about it: Mortensen's almost redundant narration and Smit-McPhee's performance, which is more whiny and needy than wide-eyed and terrified. [R] ***