Sunday, January 10, 2010

A detective, a drug dealer, and a man who fires people for a living walk into a bar...

Reviews of three movies: Up in the Air, Sherlock Holmes, and 25th Hour.

Up in the Air

“Bird in a flying cage, you'll never get to know me well”

-The Police, “Man in a Suitcase”

There's a great scene early in Up in the Air that reminded me of those scenes in action movies where the hero suits up for battle. (Here's the quintessential example of that.)

But instead of preparing to combat an overpowering enemy force and emerge unscathed, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is preparing to speed through the airport and get on his flight faster than mere mortals like you and me can even dream of. He is a travel commando.

Getting through airport security quickly is just a manifestation of his philosophy: moving is living. He preaches a no-strings-attached aloneness as a way of life. “We are not swans,” he says. “We're sharks.” He gives seminars to other traveling workers in which he instructs them on how to lighten the backpack of life, reducing the burden of all those unnecessary things so many people carry, like a home. And family. Clearly, this is a movie figure who, like Jerry Maguire and any number of other freewheeling men before him, must reassess his priorities and learn some valuable life lessons about connection and family before the credits roll.

But while I was a bit disappointed that the underlying meaning of the film is so predictable in that regard, the path it takes toward Ryan's change is unpredictable and delightful. It's a change that's set in motion by a chance meeting at an airport bar with Alex, who seems to be the perfect candidate for the occasional motel hook-up, appearing to be as committed to a lack of commitment as he is. Their first meeting evokes the famous scar comparison scene from Jaws, only Ryan and Alex show off the various accoutrements of a life committed to traveling for work. Alex is played with irresistible charm by Vera Farmiga, and it's easy to see why she has such a dramatic effect on the normally unwavering forward trajectory of Clooney's Bingham.

Equally vital to Bingham's journey, in its own way, is the connection he develops with young go-getter Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who plans to save Ryan's firm tons of money by enabling them to do their jobs over the internet. But Bingham fights this, trying to demonstrate that face-to-face interaction is a necessary component of the job. Perhaps it is, or perhaps it's just that constant travel is a necessary part of his identity.

Clooney is exceptional here, playing Bingham as a man with depths he isn't even aware of, or has made a deliberate effort to deny. Perhaps that's necessary, given his line of work. Companies hire him to come into their offices and fire their employees. Clooney's glossy sheen is invaluable, helping him come across as both sympathetic and implacable in response to the emotional outpourings of the terminated employees.

Director Jason Reitman nails the tone, finding humor in sadness and sadness in funny situations so that the film never feels less than honest. And maybe it's just that I know so many people who have lost their jobs over the past year, but this film seems to come at just the right time, to reflect something important about where we are as a country right now, about the uncertainty of what's ahead. When Bingham fires people, he presents it as the opening of a door, the first step of the next great chapter of their lives. Perhaps he even believes it a little. And perhaps there is no harm in that.

Rating: 9/10

Double feature suggestions:

In Good Company (The evolving workplace of the 21st century)
Lost in Translation (Connections between older men and younger women that don't involve sex)
Jerry Maguire (No matter how committed they are to being single, all men secretly want to settle down)

Sherlock Holmes

This movie has about as much in common with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories as the Tom Hanks-Dan Aykroyd Dragnet movie had in common with its source material, but this is at least a spirited reinvention. The production design is great, creating an alluringly grimy and gray vision of turn-of-the-century London. And like its protagonist, the whole movie is an awkward but interesting mix of brains and brawn.

Like most Guy Ritchie films, it's brawly and feels a little pleasantly drunk. Sherlock Holmes isn't as ideal a fit for Downey's tremendous charisma as Tony Stark, and so this film is not the truly terrific entertainment that Iron Man is, but he's still fun to watch, and he and Jude Law (as sidekick/live-in companion Dr. Watson) are surely one of the great gay couples in the history of the cinema. Also, it has Eddie Marsan, the crazy driving instructor from Happy-Go-Lucky! You all remember him, right? Right?! And hey, there's a great Dubliners track that plays over the end credits. So there ya go.

Rating: 7/10

25th Hour

"Be on the lookout for the amber waves of grain
The green lady moved away and changed her name"

-Greenskeepers, “Vagabond”

Here's my timely review of this 2002 Spike Lee film.

It's a masterpiece. One of the very best films of the last decade.

Monty Brogan is spending his last night of freedom with friends, before being jailed for seven years. As played by Edward Norton, he comes across as affable, like a friend who was too clever by half in high school, saw a way to start earning some very good money dealing drugs, and quickly found himself in over his head. He is not without blame, and yet if we knew someone in his position, we'd probably feel a bit sorry for them.

We all commit transgressions, large and small, yet Monty is singled out while most of us enjoy impunity. In his own, perfectly legal way, Monty's friend Frank (Barry Pepper) makes huge amounts of money off of the misfortune of others. And English teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in yet another incredible performance) finds himself on that line no teacher should cross with his student Mary (Anna Paquin). He's not unprincipled, you see. It's just that the drinks are strong, and she's oh so lovely...

The events of September 11th are a constant undercurrent here, as the film opens with stunning images of the Tribute in Light, and Frank's apartment is on the very edge of Ground Zero. It's a time when perhaps as a nation we felt we were being punished and didn't know why, or felt that we as individuals had escaped punishment while others had not, and what had separated them from us, really?

I'm not sure what I was expecting going in to 25th Hour, but I sure wasn't expecting a film that is so entertaining, a film so powerful and so rich with meaning that is nonetheless funny and simply a joy to watch. But it is, thanks to the screenplay, which takes its time with these characters, letting us just observe them and listen in on their conversations rather than forcing the machinations of a plot on every moment, and thanks to the fully realized performances, which make these characters so fascinating to observe.

I need to give special attention to the film's ending. It's a transcendent and unforgettable ten-minute sequence in which Lee's indelible images and the poetic lilt of Brian Cox's voice (as Monty's father, driving him to prison the day after most of the film's events) combine to create an impression of a life lived. I watched it over and over again, trying to absorb every ounce of its beauty, but came away with only the ability to imitate Brian Cox saying “My bar?” (“My bah? Jesus, my bah?”) Which is still pretty cool.

Last year, Monty Brogan would have been released, if he'd survived his time in prison. I hope he emerged unbroken, able to enjoy the rich promise of America that the film's ending suggests. But I doubt it.

Rating: 10/10

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