After breaking out two years ago with the teen pregnancy comedy Juno writer-director Jason Reitman trains his keen acerbic eye on the modern business traveler in Up in the Air a bittersweet comedy about one man’s turbulent journey of self-discovery and redemption.
George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham a corporate downsizer (he fires people for a living essentially) and seasoned road warrior whose aversion to real human connection is reflected in his mammoth stockpile of frequent flyer miles the fruits of a job that calls for 300-plus days spent away from the office. Thoroughly content with a life spent in hotel bars and airport lounges Ryan begins to slowly unravel when he’s tasked with mentoring Natalie (Anna Kendrick) a fresh-faced recent graduate with a bold set of ideas for transforming the business of firing people — ideas that threaten both Ryan’s untethered existence and his budding relationship with Alex (Vera Farmiga) a fellow corporate nomad whose penchant for low-effort commitment-free relationships mirrors his own.
Enchanted by visions of a perpetual booty call replete with racy Blackberry messages and romantic trysts arranged via Outlook Ryan begins to suspect he might have found his soulmate in Alex. Inconveniencing his idealized scenario however is his travel partner Natalie a probing perceptive gal who proves a far more worthy adversary than he initially anticipated. As Ryan exposes Natalie’s real-world inexperience and naivety in a series of mildly disastrous business meetings she in turn refutes his resolutely isolationist approach to love and relationships. Soon their mutual resentment gives way to a father-daughter dynamic characterized by genuine albeit guarded affection. As his carefully crafted barriers steadily erode Ryan’s thoughts increasingly turn to Alex and he begins to contemplate the previously unthinkable prospect of putting down actual roots.
Corporate downsizing emotional detachment and the dehumanizing effects of modern technology aren’t exactly the most lighthearted of topics but Up in the Air avoids wallowing in dour Death of a Salesman territory with the help of Reitman’s sharp perceptive wit and a handful of lively cameos from comic heavyweights like Danny McBride Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons. In fact the whole affair makes for a surprisingly uplifting experience in a "saddest happy ending" kind of way. Though the latter half of the film is hampered by structural deficiencies and a pair of melodramatic sadly predictable twists that move the plot forward but diminish its overall impact it still qualifies as one of the top films of the year and Reitman’s best work to date. Consider Up in the Air a surefire Oscar contender.
As a thinking man’s actioner Ultimatum continues the franchise’s firm grasp on how spy games are actually played. The film starts at the point where Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is in Moscow having killed the assassin from Bourne Supremacy in a car crash. He has exacted his revenge for his girlfriend’s death but he is still haunted and needs to know how the hell he got into this predicament in the first place. Plus he’s got a new CIA schmuck Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) after him. Vosen has reopened the Treadstone project--now called Blackbriar--and is using a new cache of highly trained assassins to do his dirty work. Luckily for Bourne he’s got two women on his side: CIA lackey Pam Landy (Joan Allen) who while in the situation room tries to thwart Vosen at every turn; and Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) the young logistician who covers for Bourne whenever she runs into him. With their help our intrepid assassin circumvents the globe in typical Bourne fashion so he can hunt down his past in order to find a future. Damon has truly perfected his Bourne alter ego in this third go-around. With his cool demeanor he really makes it all look so effortless--jet-setting around the world fighting enemies off with pens books towels cars whatever he can get his hands on and covertly obtaining the information he needs. Damon is an accomplished actor no doubt able to take on a variety of roles--but he may never quite top Bourne. Damon is also surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast. In both Supremacy and Ultimatum Allen as Landy stands out in the crowd of power-hungry men she works for and with infusing the proceedings with a steely intelligence--and ultimately compassion. Stiles too is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise testosterone-filled environment and her Nicky may actually have more of connection to Bourne than we previously thought. The stellar Strathairn a character actor who can play both hero and villain with relative ease adds the sneaky Vosen to his list of bad guys while Albert Finney makes a brief but memorable appearance as a link to Bourne’s past. Helming his second Bourne installment after getting our hearts pounding with Supremacy Paul Greengrass (United 93) gets it. Although the Bournes sprouted from the furtive mind of spy-thriller author Robert Ludlum the director seems keyed into the whole spy genre as well handing us what feels to be a genuine look at how covert operations might work. From the operations center in which CIA personnel can find ways to tap into a target’s life via any number of ways to the action on the streets Greengrass keeps it moving at a whiplash pace. We’ve now come to expect the seat-clenching car chases along with at least one hand-to-hand combat scene between Bourne and some other super assassin in which Bourne kills his attacker with sheer brute force aided by some everyday item. Still they never seem redundant flowing nicely into the storyline. Greengrass’ filmmaking style however can be a tad jolting at times. He loves putting the audience in the middle of the action swinging the camera around fast-cutting between shots keeping things slightly confusing on who’s doing what to whom. But that real-time look and feel is what makes the Bourne movies unique from other actioners. Could there be room for a fourth Bourne? One can only hope.
The story is the same. Poor little orphaned Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) has had a hard life. Either toiling in a horrible workhouse or being beaten at a miserable foster home it's hasn't been easy for the 9-year-old. The boy finally runs away to London where he is immediately spotted by the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) a wily pickpocket. He whisks the sickly Oliver off to meet Fagin (Ben Kingsley) the leader of the pickpocket gang. Under the watchful guidance of Fagin and the other boys Oliver is taught the fine art of lifting. But when he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time and is falsely accused for a theft Oliver is inadvertently taken under the wing of the kindly Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) a rich man who adopts the boy. Finally some happiness right? Not if you're in a Dickens novel. No sooner is Oliver contentedly ensconced with Brownlow when tragedy strikes again. Fagin's business partner the utterly cruel Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman) kidnaps Oliver and forces him to help them rob Brownlow's house. And when that doesn't go so well Bill then wants to get rid of Oliver. Only with the help of Bill's mistress Nancy (Leanne Rowe) who feels sympathy for Oliver can the boy be reunited with the only person who has ever showed him any kindness.
In a film full of fine performances from relatively unknown British actors Ben Kingsley stands out--and rightly so. Finally Kingsley has been given a part worthy of his talent and the Oscar-winning actor plays one of literature's more memorable characters to the hilt. Part Shakespeare's Falstaff part Lord of the Rings' Gollum Kingsley enjoys playing up Fagin's sprightly nature and physicality. Fagin is a merry prankster even if he's all hunched over and craggy faced with a high squeaky voice and a long moldy beard. But Fagin suffers. He doesn't really want to corrupt young Oliver. He knows the boy is pure of heart but he's too afraid of getting caught--or of evoking Bill's wrath--to let Oliver go. Kingsley subtly shows this internal struggle of good and evil raging within Fagin. As far as the rest of the cast it's interesting to note how all the children are fresh-faced and wide-eyed especially Clark as the oh-so-fragile yet surprising resilient Oliver and Eden as the crafty but goodhearted Dodger. All the adults especially the mean-spirited ones are either very severe and haggard or doughy and sweaty. In fact the film is a great study in faces a testament to Polanski's keen eye for the human condition.
Roman Polanski may have made some bad choices in his personal life but the man sure knows how to make a movie. With Oliver Twist the Oscar-winning director returns to the 19th century England he so vividly painted in his 1979 Tess--except this time around it's a bleak existence in the mud-caked streets of Victorian London being used as a backdrop instead of the lush English countryside. Polanski and his team painstakingly recreate the newly industrialized London from the ground up. It's a bustling teeming frightfully dirty environ filled with pestilence and vermin of all kinds. It must have been such an awful and a brutal time period to have endured and Polanski wants to make sure we understand this so we'll be that more amazed by how this little boy survives in it. There are times you almost wish they would break out into song ("Food! Glorious food!") just to lighten the mood a bit--but of course that's an entirely different Oliver Twist. And therein lies the film's problem: too many Twists. By count there's about 18 other versions either done as feature films or television movies/miniseries--and that's not including the Oscar-winning 1968 musical Oliver!. With all of Polanski's talents he could have picked something that was a little less of a retread.