Saturday, November 21, 2009

Up in the Air

It's rare when I walk out of a movie not having an immediate opinion on it. Up in the Air seems to contain enough story for at least two films, and I think the film's inability to truly connect these two tales is the reason I'm having such a hard time defining it.

Up in the Air
Co-writer/Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman

This film certainly has a lot to offer, but I'll warn you now: there are no explosions, no damsels in distress, no dragons, and no action montages. If you're one of my readers for which one (or all) of these elements is a requirement for enjoying a movie, you might as well tune out now and move on to something else (Ong-Bak 2, preferably). For those who prefer a bit more depth to your movie-going experience, read on.

Based on a book by Walter Kirn, Up in the Air tells the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a man who fires people for a living. Constantly flying across the country to fire people in person, Bingham has an almost non-existent home life and prefers living in hotel rooms and on airplanes. He yearns to be one of only three people to ever rack up 10 million frequent flyer miles, and he is loyal to only one airline. Everything we hate about traveling, he loves. There is a pretty excellent montage in the beginning of the movie (strangely reminiscent of a similar montage in a previous Clooney movie, Batman & Robin) that shows Bingham packing his suitcase, smoothly and flawlessly removing his shoes and laptop as he goes through security, and seamlessly repacking everything and going on his way. This dude has it down to a science, and this montage was a solid way to establish just how Bingham loses himself in the world of travelling. He also gives motivational speeches at conventions, all of which revolve around the same theme: everyone carries a metaphorical backpack that is stuffed with every aspect of their lives (physical possessions, stress, relationships, etc), and Bingham preaches in favor of ditching as much weight as possible.

His world is thrown into the blender with the appearance of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), the prototypical hotshot college grad hired at Bingham's company, and she is eager to shake up the structure of the company and ultimately make Bingham irrelevant by introducing an online system that allows agents to terminate clients via webcam. Naturally, Bingham is resistant to change and demands to take Natalie with him on the road to give her a firsthand lesson of how personal his job is, a demand to which his boss (Jason Bateman) reluctantly agrees. This sets up one of the many conflicts of this film: human interaction vs. technology.

Another storyline concerns Bingham's budding relationship with a fellow road warrior, a woman named Alex (Vera Farmiga) who shares many of his interests, philosophies on life, and affinity for travel. Though the Natalie and Alex storylines do overlap a few times, this is where I think the movie has its most significant problem: the issues Bingham deals with are vastly different with the two women, almost too different to be contained in the same movie. Tonally, Bingham is more of a father figure to Natalie (in whom I'm sure he sees a younger version of himself) and he essentially slips into a teaching position as he shows her the ropes of how his business is conducted. With Alex, he subverts his own teachings (read: the backpack speech) and slowly begins to realize that maybe he's been looking at things all wrong. I'm not saying that there shouldn't be multiple layers to a film (I almost always prefer when there are), but this movie is so layered with penetrating themes that it's oddly disorienting at points.

In the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, I'll refrain from mentioning any more plot points, although if you see this movie and want to talk to me about it, feel free to do so in the comments section.

I had the opportunity to see this movie last week (for free!) at an advanced screening on the Paramount Pictures lot, so let me take a second and geek out about the totally awesome experience. If you ever get a chance to see a movie at that theater, I'd obviously highly recommend it - the seats are amazingly comfortable, the screen is massive (not IMAX quality, but much larger than a normal theater screen), and the sound quality is perfect. The coolest part of the night was a Q&A afterwards featuring the female leads in the movie, where they gave some insight about their characters. Vera Farmiga described her character with a phrase I thought was extremely well-voiced: she said Alex was the "masculine portrayal of the feminine desire." (This will actually make sense to you if you've seen the movie.) Jason Reitman seems to be drawn to strong female characters, which is a nice thing to see these days. Let's be honest, most cinematic female roles are relegated to secondary characters that rely on a man to define them, or at least define their purpose for being involved in a given situation. Reitman, along with his co-writers, has crafted two female characters who do not rely on Clooney's Ryan Bingham to get through their day, but are arguably more mature than Bingham by the end of the movie.

There has been some talk about this movie possibly being nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year, and I think it's probably a lock for a nomination since the Academy expanded the nominations from five to ten this year. Do I think it'll win? No. Does it deserve to win? I'm not sure, but as of right now I'd say no. That said, did I enjoy the movie? Definitely. It touches on some relevant buzz words (the economy, job loss, etc), but like I said - the disjointed feel of the overall narrative was slightly off-putting for me and I'll be interested to see how that will play for Academy voters.

There are very few roles where Clooney doesn't excel, and this one seems tailor-made for him. It's an interesting deviation for him, since he doesn't play the charismatic suave guy, but instead embodies Bingham with a heavy insecurity. His character has a need for the luxuries provided him by his frequent flyer status and the facade of fake smiles given by flight attendants, but he can't fathom a real relationship or even relate to his own family. Do I think he'll be nominated for Best Actor? Absolutely. Will he win? I think he deserves it (but that's because I haven't seen all of the nominees yet).

Speaking of Oscars, Vera Farmiga (who you'll undoubtedly remember as the therapist in The Departed) was fantastic in this flick and showed her ability to roll with another of the biggest actors of this generation. She handled herself very well among DiCaprio and Damon a few years back, and I think she's surpassed that performance in Up in the Air. Anna Kendrick (a relative unknown, save for Rocket Science - which I'd recommend checking out) did some great work here as well. I feared her character might fall into the aforementioned trap of being defined by a guy, but she ended up teaching Bingham a thing or two as the movie progressed and made a profound impact on his life.

Visually, the film feels very similar to Reitman's debut, the excellent Thank You For Smoking. The cinematography is gorgeous, especially the aerial shots from the exterior of planes flying above major American cities. Both the score and the visuals were subtle and reserved, allowing the actors' performances to be the centerpiece of the movie. One more word of warning - this isn't exactly a heart-warming story, so don't go in expecting some sort of holiday cheer when it hits theaters on Christmas Day. The film skips between a breezy vibe tinged with humor to the bleakness a person experiences regarding job loss with little warning of the impending tonal shift. Even though this aspect is an unfortunate setback for the film, you can sense Reitman's touch all over this flick; his hard work pays off in some great ways here, most notably by melding the actors to fit their specific characters. He wrote most of the characters with certain actors in mind for the roles, and was lucky enough to get his first choice on most (if not all) of them. In any case, Reitman's direction should be highly touted (kudos also for shooting in location-specific airports) and I'm very much looking forward to his next project.

There is a good amount of humor featured in Up in the Air, but it's not a selling point for this movie: don't expect to be laughing out loud all the way through. This is a complex story about an emotionally distant character and his reactions as his personal and professional beliefs are challenged. If none of this has convinced you to see this movie by now, then check out the teaser trailer embedded below (edited by Reitman himself), which is one of my favorite trailers of the year. Until next time...

Lame Aside/Observation Alert: I'm literally "up in the air" while writing this review - I'm on the plane on my way back to Florida for Thanksgiving. Enjoy the holidays, readers.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Assassination of a High School President

[Reprinted from, a site for which I no longer write.]

Premiering at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, Brett Simon's Assassination of a High School President was finally released on DVD a couple months ago. The film was promised a theatrical release in March of 2009, but actually went direct-to-DVD, thanks to the Yari Film Group's releasing division filing for bankruptcy in December of 2008.

Assassination of a High School President
Writer/Director: Brett Simon
Starring: Reece Thompson, Mischa Barton, Bruce Willis

The film is a noir mystery set in a Catholic high school, revolving around Bobby Funke (Reece Thompson), a sophomore reporter for the school newspaper, as he stumbles through a web if illegal activity and uncovers a conspiracy to frame the president of student council for stealing the SAT's. Along the way, he is seduced by Francesca Facchini (Mischa Barton), a popular senior at the school, and has various run-ins with the Gulf War Veteran principal, Kirkpatrick (Bruce Willis).

The movie has been called an homage to Roman Polanski's neo-noir Chinatown, and the similarities are prevalent throughout; the final line in Assassination even puts a predictable spin on Chinatown's famous last line, "Forget it, Jake - it's Chinatown." Like Nicholson's character in the 1974 classic, Funke gets deeper into the fray and finds the scope of his discovery is far bigger than he originally imagined.

Brett Simon's direction is solid for a debut feature film, but the movie itself fails to extend beyond its intriguing logline. The deception and misdirection feel played out, and we don't spend enough time with any of the side characters for their actions and motivations to be emotionally effective. Reece Thompson did a great job and held the film together; after seeing him in this and another film fest favorite Rocket Science, his status as a rising star should be cemented. Mischa Barton was watchable (which is more than I can say about any of her other performances, save her extremely brief cameo in The Sixth Sense) and Bruce Willis was entertaining as the borderline-crazy war veteran who runs his high school the same way he ran his command unit in the Gulf.

The main problems I have with Assassination of a High School President aren't necessarily with the movie when viewed by itself, but become glaringly clear when compared to another film noir set in a high school, Rian Johnson's 2006 masterpiece Brick. The world of Brick pays homage not to neo-noirs like Chinatown and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, but to film noir institutions like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. Brick feels so much more pure than Assassination; the pulpy dialogue in the former is no match for the occasional one-liner in the latter.

There's not much else I can say without giving away major plot points, so I'll just conclude this review by telling you I was a little disappointed with the movie. Perhaps it was because I heard some good hype coming out of Sundance, but this film didn't live up to my expectations. I'll admit - I'm coming down a little harshly on Assassination of a High School President because of my bias in favor of Brick. If you haven't seen either film, give Assassination a shot (see what I did there?!) - noir fans should be pulled into the comparatively innocent world Simon has crafted, where detectives are reporters and cigarettes are replaced with chewing gum. But after you see this, check out Brick if you're looking for the best in the subgenre; I'd also recommend Rocket Science (even though it's not a noir) for another great performance by Reece Thompson. Until next time...