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.
Novelist Richard Yates tried for years to bring his 1961 story of marital trouble in ‘50s suburbia to the screen but died before seeing it finally come to fruition in the form of this scorching adaptation by writer Justin Haythe. April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) are young marrieds living what appears to be the ideal life in the Connecticut of the 1950s. He has a nice job she is a mother of two with dreams of an acting career. But beneath the surface is a lingering dissatisfaction with their lives; Frank is having an affair with an office worker (Zoe Kazan) and April is terribly unhappy with the way her life is turning out. They engage in ferocious arguments constantly disproving the idea they are the perfect couple. One day April decides the answer to all their problems is to move to Paris and start over. Frank initially agrees but the relationship goes downhill even further from there and things spiral out of control. Revolutionary Road’s brilliant ensemble ignites and delivers on just about every level imaginable. Kate Winslet who seemingly can do no wrong these days is heartbreakingly good as a housewife who foreshadows the feminist movement. Her April is an ambitious confused woman tragically living a couple of beats ahead of her time. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his finest film performance as a man who knows he is not living up to his potential but seems to be in a state of denial trying almost pathetically to keep what’s left of his marriage and family together. It’s the subtext and unspoken words between them that really give power to these tremendously effective performances. After the first 10 minutes you will be so mesmerized by their raw naked acting you will forget you are watching the two young stars who first appeared together in Titanic a decade earlier. Kathy Bates as a cheerful real estate agent with her own family problems is also quite good as is Michael Shannon as her disturbed grown son who seems to know more about the sad state of the Wheelers home life than anyone realizes. He should be a frontrunner for the supporting actor Oscar if there is any justice. Also blending in nicely are Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour as neighbors who are the polar opposite of Frank and April. Sam Mendes who won an Oscar for directing yet another stinging view of suburbia with his Oscar-winning American Beauty does another great job of bringing out the essence of what Yates says about a generation hiding behind a façade of happiness but living on the cusp of great profound social change. Mendes lets long dialogue scenes play out packing them with riveting moments. His filmmaking style should be savored for the insights it provides and the emotional challenges it presents. Mendes also manages to get an extraordinary portrayal of suburban angst from his real-life wife Winslet. Not since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton battled so brazenly in 1966’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf has there been a wounded couple’s marriage so deeply and poignantly exposed on screen.
For the past 11 years--his whole life--Evan (Freddie Highmore) has been an orphan but that’s about to change along with his name. Evan has "always heard the music " even when it’s not playing and one day he decides to follow it in hopes of finding the parents he’s never met and whose musical genes he has inherited. It takes him out of the orphanage he has always despised and into Manhattan where 11 years prior he was conceived. As we learn via flashback his parents both young musicians at the time were an unlikely match: Lyla (Keri Russell) was a shy dainty cellist while Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) was a brash Irish rocker. Their mutual love for music ultimately brought them together on a rooftop for just one night of which Evan turned out to be the product. But when Evan is born prematurely Lyla’s father (William Sadler) does what he thinks is right for her career and gives the newborn up for adoption without her knowledge. Lyla and Louis have since reluctantly given up music but Evan is about to pick up where they left off in New York City. While there he is discovered by a seemingly well-intentioned "manager" named Wizard (Robin Williams) who renames the prodigy August Rush. Before long Wizard is booking gigs in hopes of capitalizing financially while August hopes to use his music for a slightly nobler purpose: tracking down and reuniting his parents. Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate) is as much a child-actor prodigy as August Rush is a musician; he’s truly in a class of his own. It’s not just that the British youngster seamlessly ditches his accent to play an American—better and more undetectably than many of his elders are able to do might I add—or that he’s able to pull off the musical aspect (he reportedly mastered the guitar and conducting for further authenticity) but rather that he advances the never-dormant story every step of the way. And it’s not every day that a teenager can handle being the centerpiece of a big Hollywood movie (see The Seeker et al.) but Highmore makes it a non-issue. Russell and Rhys Meyers meanwhile add a classy touch of adult to the story with their opposites-attract arc. Russell borders on too pristine and precious at times and Rhys Meyers is written as the stereotype of Irishmen but they make you believe in the commonality of music as a matchmaker. Williams however misfires with his portrayal of the somewhat ambiguous Wizard. It is unclear whether he is a reincarnated pirate or just a well-traveled New Yorker and Williams plays him with that lack of clarity but kids will laugh nonetheless when the actor gets loud and hyper. Terrence Howard as a concerned social worker and Mykelti Williamson as a pastor turn in solid supporting performances while young Jamia Simone Nash may incite standing ovations with her singing. The concept of August Rush is most certainly aimed towards those too young to discern between realism and fantasy but at least director Kirsten Sheridan (Jim’s daughter) doesn’t patronize kid viewers the way most preteen movies do. While the young director doesn’t exactly steer clear of clichés and sap she makes a concerted effort to place the film’s music and sheer energy at the forefront. Sheridan also does the best with what she’s given which is a highly predictable occasionally preachy script—with a tendency to give Highmore cringe-worthy voiceovers (i.e. “Open yourself up to the music around you”)—written by Nick Castle (Hook which August Rush often resembles) James V. Hart (The Last Mimzy) and Paul Castro. Just as impressive as the film’s omnipresent music—both “found” (basketball dribbles etc.) and orchestrated—is the look of a somewhat magical Manhattan that is as fun for kids as it is mildly scary. All in all Sheridan’s first big movie is a different if slightly uneven kind of kids flick but not so different that the target audience won’t dance along.
December 18, 2003 12:55pm EST
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) a novice professor from UCLA lands a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 and she's thrilled at the prospect of educating some of the brightest young women in the country. But her lofty image of Wellesley quickly fizzles when she discovers that despite its academic reputation the school fosters an environment where success is measured by the size of a girl's engagement ring. Besides learning about fresco techniques and physics the women take classes in the art of serving tea to their husband's bosses something that doesn't sit well with the forward-thinking Katherine who openly encourages her students to strive for goals other than marriage. Katherine inspires a group of students specifically Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) but newlywed Betty (Kirsten Dunst) feels Katherine looks down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty goes on the offensive and uses her column in the school paper to drive a wedge between the professor and the stuffy faculty. But while Betty puts on a happily married face her hostility towards Katherine is actually misplaced anger stemming from her miserable marriage to a cheating charlatan.
Katherine is Mona Lisa Smile's most complex and intriguing character and Roberts is a fitting choice for the part. Like an old soul the actress has a depth that's perfect for a character like Katherine who's enlightened and ahead of her time. But Katherine never emotionally connects with any of her students which isn't surprising since they're so bitchy and self-absorbed. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the young women's characters and building their relationships with Katherine sooner but as it is the underdeveloped friendships between the women will leave viewers feeling indifferent rather than inspired. The worst of the bunch is Dunst's character Betty who is intent on making everyone around her feel unworthy. She has her reasons of course but they're revealed so late in the story that it's hard to suddenly empathize with her after having spent three-quarters of the film hating her guts. Stiles' character Joan is perhaps the most congenial but like Betty she never develops a strong bond with her teacher. The most "liberal" of the girls is Giselle played by Gyllenhaal but the character suffers the same burden as the rest: She's unlikable. Giselle's penchant for sleeping with professors and married men is so odious that not even her 11th hour broken-home story can salvage her character.
While Mona Lisa's smile in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting has often been described as subtle director Mike Newell's star-studded drama is anything but that; Mona Lisa Smile is so heavy-handed that unlike the painting for which it was named there is nothing left for moviegoers to ponder or debate. The film plays like a montage of '50s ideological iconography: A school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control; a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist"; Betty's prayers are answered when she gets what every woman dreams of--a washer and dryer. But the film's critical insight into '50s culture isn't as shocking as it thinks it is and the way it highlights feminist issues is as uninspired as trivial as a fine-art reproduction. Newell also spends too much time basking in the aura of the '50s era focusing on countless parties dances and weddings sequences that while visually ambitious are superfluous. The film may be historically accurate but its characters story and message will leave moviegoers feeling empty. A climactic scene for example in which Katherine's students ride their bikes alongside her car as a show of support comes across as a tool to evoke sentiment that just doesn't exist.
With its twisty-turning plot and military setting Basic could be the love child of an illicit affair between The Usual Suspects and The General's Daughter; it even borrows the star of the latter. In Basic John Travolta plays Tom Hardy a former Army Ranger and interrogator extraordinaire who's now a DEA agent in Panama suspended from duty on suspicion of bribery. He's hitting the rebellious law enforcement officer's requisite bottle of Jack Daniels heavily--until an old friend on the local army base Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) calls him in to investigate the disappearances and probable deaths of an elite group of trainees and their commander Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L Jackson) during a training session in the Panamanian jungle. Staff investigator Lt. Julia Osbourne (Connie Nielsen) a plucky Southern gal who's none too pleased with Hardy's invasion of her turf is assigned to help Hardy question the unit's surviving members Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). As their stories unfold over a series of flashbacks the interrogators discover a military underworld of drugs murder and coercion--and the mysterious existence of a rogue Ranger unit called "Section 8." Now for an interrogation of our own. Is the plot convoluted? Sir yes sir! Is it too tricky for its own good? Sir yes sir! Thank you soldier. You may stand down.
The trigger-finger pointing winking cluck-clucking "gotcha" persona Travolta (Swordfish Domestic Disturbance) creates in Hardy is as appropriate to the story as it can possibly be; the way he manipulates his subjects under interrogation is much the same way the story manipulates its audience. He leads them--and the observant Lt. Osbourne--to believe one thing then pulls the rug out from under them to prove the old cliché of military movies: that nothing is as it seems. In Nielsen's (The Hunted One Hour Photo) Osbourne we're given a character who could lead us through the jungle of the plot (she discovers the "facts" at the same time as the audience so her reaction is meant I suppose to be ours) but since Hardy spends much of his time making her look and feel like an idiot she comes off as one and frankly so do we. The talented Jackson (Changing Lanes) mostly does the bellowing drill sergeant bit while Ribisi (Heaven) as the homosexual son of a high-ranking general talks like he has cotton wool in his mouth and moves and twitches like he's mildly brain-impaired. (His character's not supposed to be; he only got shot in the leg.) One bright spot in this movie is the featured role for hunky Van Holt (Windtalkers Black Hawk Down) whose chiseled good looks and heroic demeanor make him a shoo-in should anyone ever make a live-action Johnny Bravo movie.
Director John McTiernan has given audiences some heavy-duty action in Die Hard Die Hard With a Vengeance and The Hunt for Red October but he's also the director who brought us such gems as Rollerball and Last Action Hero so it's not surprising that in Basic we get some action and intrigue paired with the out-there story stylings and narrative confusion of some of his less successful work. Here each flashback brings new information that conflicts with what we've been told before and the story never really resolves those conflicts in any satisfying way. The "big twist" at the end instead of bringing it all together creates gaping holes in the plot or at least creates so much doubt in the story we've just spent an hour and a half watching that it's easy to get fed up with trying to figure it out. Naturally no one likes to be spoon-fed plot resolutions but in order for twists to work they have to give the audience something to focus its doubt on--they can't just call the whole kit and caboodle into question. We have to be able eventually to figure it out. But hey maybe we aren't supposed to work out the details; after all this movie with its catchy one-word title and colorful cast of characters is just begging for a sequel: Basic 2: Explaining the First Movie.