Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Up in the Air (dir by Jason Reitman)


There’s a lot of film bloggers out there who have a natural aversion to anything that Jason Reitman is associated with.

And listen, I understand.  The fact of the matter is that Jason Reitman probably does owe a lot of his success to the fact that people in the industry know and like his father.  And it’s also true that Jason Reitman does tend to specializes in making films that you’re either going to love or you’re going to hate.  His films mix drama and comedy and sentiment and snark and sometimes, his refusal to come down firmly on the side of either one can feel like a bit of a cop out.  There’s a quirkiness to many of his films and sometimes, it can come across as being a bit cutesy.  And I’ll even go as far as to agree with those who say that it’s been a while since Reitman’s made a really good film.  The most common complaint I hear about Reitman is that his first four films (Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In The Air, and Young Adult) were okay and then he let his good reviews go to his head.  Of course, some people — okay, a lot of people — will tell you that, of those four films, Juno’s overrated.

I get all of that and I actually agree with some of those points.  Reitman is a director who sometimes seems to have lost his way after his early successes.  I think the closest that Reitman’s come to giving us a good film post-Young Adult was with Tully and even then, that felt more like a Diablo Cody film than a Jason Reitman film.

But, with all of that in mind, I still really like Jason Reitman’s early films and I think that he still has the potential to once again be an important and interesting filmmaker.  Thank You For Smoking and Juno are better than many give them credit for being.  Charlize Theron has never been better than she was in Young Adult.  Finally, this morning, I rewatched 2009’s Up In The Air for the first time in a long time and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it holds up.

Up In The Air features George Clooney and Anna Kendrick.  Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, an obsessive traveler who boats about living a life without commitment.  Ryan works for a company that hires him out to fire people.  If your boss is too much of a pussy to tell you that you’ve been terminated to your face, he hires Ryan to do it for him.  Ryan specializes in trying to convince people that being fired is not a tragedy but an opportunity for a new beginning.  Ryan also has a side gig as a motivational speaker.  His speeches are largely about avoiding commitment and personal baggage.

Anna Kendrick plays Natalie Keener.  Natalie works for the same company as Ryan but, at the age of 23 and just out of college, she’s a lot less confident when it comes to destroying people’s livelihoods.  (“I’ve worked here for 17 years and I’m being fired by a 7th grader,” is one person’s response to being terminated by Natalie.)  Natalie has come up with a new plan where all firings will be done via Skype.  That way, the person doing the firing will never have to leave their office and won’t have to deal with the people they’ve fired one-on-one.  Ryan says he considers this proposal to be inhumane but mostly, he’s just worried that he’ll lose his traveling privileges if Natalie’s plan is instituted.

Ryan and Natalie travel the country.  Ryan teaches Natalie how to fire people and Natalie discovers that it’s not as easy to destroy someone’s life as she thought.  Everywhere they go, they deal with people who are facing economic uncertainty.  Ryan meets another frequent flyer, Alex (Vera Farmiga) and, after Alex reveals that she’s even less interested in commitment than Ryan, they begin an affair.  Ryan starts to fall in love with Alex and even invited her to attend his sister’s wedding with him.  However, Alex has a secret of her own.

One thing that I really like about Up in the Air is that Ryan and Natalie never end up sleeping together.  I remember, when I first saw the movie, I was convinced that it was going to happen.  After all, Ryan is handsome and charming and Natalie is attractive and, after her boyfriend dumps her, vulnerable.  I was cringing at the knowledge that there would eventually be some contrived scene where Natalie and Ryan end up getting drunk and then end up waking up in bed together and the end result would be Natalie going from being a well-rounded, multi-dimensional character to just being a plot device in Ryan’s journey to becoming a better man.  Well, there is a scene where Natalie and Ryan get drunk at the same time but it doesn’t lead to Natalie and Ryan becoming lovers and I respected Up in the Air for having enough respect for its characters to not do the convenient thing.

The other thing I liked about Up In The Air is that it’s one of the few films to make proper use of George Clooney’s deceptively smooth screen presence.  We all know that Clooney is handsome and charming but what makes him an appealing actor is that there’s always been hints that there’s a lot dorkiness and insecurity hiding underneath the suave facade.  Ryan may seem like he’s got it all together but, as the film progresses, you come to realize that he’s a lot more insecure and neurotic than he lets on.  All of his snarky comments have more to do with his own fear of failure than anything else.  Much as how the real life Clooney still sometimes seems as if he hasn’t fully gotten over being dismissed as just being another pretty face in the early days of his career, Ryan has never gotten over his dysfunctional childhood.  Instead of taking a risk on love, he instead obsesses on getting frequent flyer miles.  (At one point, Sam Elliott pops up out of nowhere and, in a scene that you could really only expect to find in a Jason Reitman film, gives Ryan a pep talk.)  There’s a sadness to Ryan, one that seems to come from deep inside of his soul.  Clooney does an excellent job of bringing that sadness to the surface while still giving a likable and compelling performance.

Up In The Air was released at a time when America was stuck in what seemed like a never-ending recession.  Despite the fact that the news media and the politicians were insisting that things were on the verge of getting better (or, at the very least, boasting that unemployed actors were no longer “job-locked,” whatever the Hell that meant), many people believed that their best days were officially behind them.  A lot of the contemporary reviews of the film focused on what it had to say about living in a time of economic uncertainty.  That was ten years ago and we’re now living in a strong economy but, even so, Up In The Air still resonates.  Reitman includes scenes in which people talk about what it was like to be fired.  The majority of these people were not actors but were instead people recruited from the local unemployment office and they were speaking about their own experiences.  The pain and resentment on their faces and in their voices is so palpable that it’s actually a bit jarring when J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis show up, playing employees who are “terminated” by Ryan.  I guess I should admit that I’ve never actually been fired from a job but, after watching Up In The Air, it’s not something that I would ever want to experience.

Up In The Air holds up well.  Reitman’s direction is quirky but effective and he does a good job of mixing comedy in with the drama.  (Wisely, whenever he has to make a choice, he emphasizes the drama over the comedy, instead of trying to maintain some sort of mythical 50/50 balance between them.)  This film features one of George Clooney’s best performances and he has a really likable chemistry with Vera Farmiga.  Anna Kendrick also does a great job with a character who could have become a stereotype in less skilled hands.  Finally, along with Juno and The Gift, this film is one of the reasons why I always have a hard time watching Jason Bateman in any film or show where he’s cast as hero.  Bateman plays Ryan’s boss and the character is so smarmy (and Bateman does such a good job of playing him) that he’ll make your skin crawl.

It’s been a while since Up In The Air was first released and Jason Reitman’s career has had its ups and downs.  Still, regardless of whatever film Reitman makes next, Up In The Air remains a classic of the aughts.

Here’s The Trailer for 21 Bridges!


To be absolutely honest, the trailer for 21 Bridges looks pretty generic.  Everything about it — from the New York setting to the tough dialogue to the casting of J.K. Simmons as some sort of authority figure — looks like what you would expect from an action film in 2019.

Still, the film might be interesting because it features Chadwick Boseman in a role outside of the MCU.  Now, of course, Boseman made many non-MCU films before he was cast as the King of Wakanda.  He played everyone from Jackie Robinson to James Brown to Thurgood Marshall.  Still, for most people, Boseman is best known for playing T’Challa in Black Panther21 Bridges will give us a chance to see if the same audience that loved that film will follow Boseman over to a non-Marvel action film.

21 Bridges, which Boseman produced along with the Russo Brothers, will be released on July 12th.  The trailer is below!

 

Here’s The Trailer From I’m Not Here


There are a few things about the trailer for I’m Not Here that cause me to feel cautiously optimistic about this film.

First off, the film stars two super talented actors, J.K. Simmons and Sebastian Stan.  Simmons deservedly won an Oscar for Whiplash and he’s one of our best-known and most recognizable character actors.  That said, it’s rare that he ever gets a starring role, even though he certainly has the talent to handle them.  Meanwhile, Sebastian Stan is a good actor who always seems to be at risk of getting overshadowed by all of the other big stars in the MCU.

Secondly, the trailer’s song made me cry.

Now, here’s what I’m cautious in my optimism.  After spending two years on the festival circuit, I’m Not Here will finally be getting released in March of next year.  In the past, it was rare that good films were ever released in March.  That said, both Get Out and Grand Budapest Hotel were March releases so maybe it’s time to leave that superstition behind.

Here’s the trailer!

 

Here’s The Trailer For The Front Runner!


As a director, Jason Reitman has had a tough few years.  After directing two best picture nominees — Juno and Up in the Air — and one film that should have been nominated (Young Adult), Reitman stumbled a bit with both Labor Day and Men, Women, & Children.

However, this year, it appears that he may be making a bit of a comeback.  Earlier this year, he reunited with Charlize Theron for Tully and directed her to some of the best reviews that she’s gotten in a while.  (The critical reaction to his directing was a bit more mixed.)  Now, with The Front Runner, Reitman is returning to screen just in time for the Oscar season.

The Front Runner is a film about a presidential candidate (Hugh Jackman) who gets wrapped up in a scandal.  Jackman has been getting some Oscar buzz.  To be honest, most films about political campaigns tend to fall flat, largely because filmmakers always seem to get too caught up in their own biases to actually craft a compelling film.  (Remember The Ides of March?)  Hopefully, this film won’t get bogged down in ideology because I’d like Reitman’s comeback to continue.

Here’s the trailer:

Film Review: The Snowman (dir by Tomas Alfredson)


So, I finally watched the 2018 thriller, The Snowman, and my main reaction to the film is that it featured a lot of snow.

That’s understandable, of course.  The film takes place in Norway and it’s called The Snowman so, naturally, I wasn’t expecting a lot of sunshine.  Still, after a while, the constant shots of the snow-covered landscape start to feel like almost some sort of an inside joke.  It’s almost as if the film is daring you to try to find one blade of grass in Norway.  Of course, the snow is important because the film’s about a serial killer who builds snowmen at the sites of his crimes.  They’re usually pretty big snowmen as well.  It’s hard not to be a little impressed by the fact that he could apparently make such impressive snowmen without anyone noticing.

Along with the snow, the other thing that I noticed about this movie is that apparently no one knows how to flip a light switch in Norway.  This is one of those films where every scene seems to take place in a dark room.  I found myself worrying about everyone’s eyesight and I was surprised the everyone in the film wasn’t wearing glasses.  I can only imagine how much strain that puts on the eyes when you’re constantly trying to read and look for clues in the dark.

Michael Fassbender plays Harry Hole, a Norwegian police inspector who may be troubled but still gets results!  He’s upset because his ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has a new boyfriend (Jonas Karlsson).  He’s also upset because his son (Michael Yates) doesn’t know that Harry is actually his father.  Or, at least, I think that Harry’s upset.  It’s hard to tell because Fassbender gives a performance that’s almost as cold as the snow covering the Norwegian ground.  Of course, he’s always watchable because he’s Fassbender.  But, overall, he doesn’t seem to be particularly invested in either the role or the film.

Harry and his new partner (Rebecca Ferguson) are investigating a missing person’s case, which quickly turns into a multiple murder mystery.  It turns out that the crimes are linked to a bunch of old murders, all of which were investigated by a detective named Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer).  Gert was troubled but he still got results!  Or, at least, Harry thinks that he may have gotten results.  Nine years ago, Rafto died under mysterious circumstances…

Now, I have to admit that when, 30 minutes into the film, the words “9 years earlier” flashed on the screen, I groaned a bit.  I mean, it seemed to me that the movie was already slow enough without tossing in a bunch of flashbacks.  However, I quickly came to look forward to those brief flashbacks, mostly because they featured Val Kilmer in total IDGAF mode.  Kilmer stumbles through the flashbacks, complete with messy hair and a look of genuine snarky bemusement on his face.  Kilmer gives such a weird and self-amused performance that his brief scenes are the highlight of the film.

Before it was released, The Snowman was hyped as a potential Oscar contender.  After the movie came out and got roasted by the critics, director Tomas Alfredson replied that the studio forced him to rush through the production and that 10 to 15% of the script went unfilmed.  Considering Alfredson’s superior work on Let The Right One In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.  The film’s disjointed style would certainly seem to back up Alfredson’s claim that there was originally meant to be more to the film than actually ended up on the screen.

The Snowman is one of those films that doesn’t seem to be sure what it wants to be.  At times, it aspires to David Lynch-style surrealism while, at other times, it seems to be borrowing from the morally ambiguous crime films of Taylor Sheridan.  Ultimately, it’s a confused film that doesn’t seem to have much reason for existing.  At the same time, I’ve also been told that the Jo Nesbø novel upon which the movie is based is excellent.  The same author also wrote the novel that served as the basis for 2011’s Headhunters, which was pretty damn good.  So, read the book and ignore the film.

Playing Catch-Up: Autumn in New York, Griffin & Phoenix, Harry & Son, The Life of David Gale


So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past few weeks!

  • Autumn in New York
  • Released: 2000
  • Directed by Joan Chen
  • Starring Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch, Vera Farmiga, Sherry Stringfield, Jill Hennessy, J.K. Simmons, Sam Trammell, Mary Beth Hurt

Richard Gere is Will, a fabulously wealthy New Yorker, who has had many girlfriends but who has never been able to find the one.  He owns a restaurant and appears on the cover of New York Magazine.  He loves food because, according to him, “Food is the only beautiful thing that truly nourishes.”

Winona Ryder is Charlotte, a hat designer who is always happy and cheerful and full of life.  She’s the type who dresses up like Emily Dickinson for Christmas and recites poetry to children, though you get the feeling that, if they ever somehow met in real life, Emily would probably get annoyed with Charlotte fairly quickly.  Actually, Charlotte might soon get to meet  Emily because she has one of those rare diseases that kills you in a year while still allowing you to look healthy and beautiful.

One night, Will and Charlotte meet and, together, they solve crimes!

No, actually, they fall in love.  This is one of those films where a young woman teaches an old man how to live again but then promptly dies so it’s not like he actually has to make a huge commitment or anything.  The film does, at least, acknowledge that Will is a lot older than Charlotte but it still doesn’t make it any less weird that Charlotte would want to spend her last year on Earth dealing with a self-centered, emotionally remote man who is old enough to be her father.  (To be honest, when it was revealed that Charlotte was the daughter of a woman who Will had previously dated, I was briefly worried that Autumn in New York was going to take an even stranger turn….)

On the positive side, the films features some pretty shots of New York and there is actually a pretty nice subplot, in which Will tries to connect with the daughter (Vera Farmiga) that he never knew he had.  Maybe if Farmiga and Ryder had switched roles, Autumn in New York would have worked out better.

  • Griffin & Phoenix
  • Released: 2006
  • Directed by Ed Stone
  • Starring Dermot Mulroney, Amanda Peet, Blair Brown, and Sarah Paulson

His name is Henry Griffin (Dermot Mulroney).

Her name is Sarah Phoenix (Amanda Peet).

Because they both have highly symbolic last names, we know that they’re meant to be together.

They both have cancer.  They’ve both been given a year to live.  Of course, they don’t realize that when they first meet and fall in love.  In fact, when Phoenix comes across several books that Griffin has purchased about dealing with being terminally ill, she assumes that Griffin bought them to try to fool her into falling in love with him.  Once they realize that they only have a year to be together, Griffin and Phoenix set out to make every moment count…

It’s a sweet-natured and unabashedly sentimental movie but, unfortunately, Dermot Mulroney and Amanda Peet have little romantic chemistry and the film is never quite as successful at inspiring tears as it should be.  When Mulroney finally allows himself to get mad and deals with his anger by vandalizing a bunch of cars, it’s not a cathartic moment.  Instead, you just find yourself wondering how Mulroney could so easily get away with destroying a stranger’s windshield in broad daylight.

  • Harry & Son
  • Released: 1986
  • Directed by Paul Newman
  • Starring Paul Newman, Robby Benson, Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, Judith Ivey, Ossie Davis, Morgan Freeman, Katherine Borowitz, Maury Chaykin, Joanne Woodward

Morgan Freeman makes an early film appearance in Harry & Son, though his role is a tiny one.  He plays a factory foreman named Siemanowski who, in quick order, gets angry with and then fires a new employee named Howard Keach (Robby Benson).  Howard is the son in Harry & Son and he’s such an annoying character that you’re happy when Freeman shows up and starts yelling at the little twit.  As I said, Freeman’s role is a small one.  Freeman’s only on screen for a few minutes.  But, in that time, he calls Howard an idiot and it’s hard not to feel that he has a point.

Of course, the problem is that we’re not supposed to view Howard as being an idiot.  Instead, we’re supposed to be on Howard’s side.  Howard has ambitions to be the next Ernest Hemingway.  However, his blue-collar father, Harry (Paul Newman, who also directed), demands that Howard get a job.  Maybe, like us, he realizes how silly Howard looks whenever he gets hunched over his typewriter.  (Robby Benson tries to pull off these “deep thought” facial expressions that simply have to be seen to be believed.)  There’s actually two problems with Howard.  First off, we never believe that he could possibly come up with anything worth reading.  Secondly, it’s impossible to believe that Paul Newman could ever be the father of such an annoying little creep.

Harry, of course, has problems of his own.  He’s just lost his construction job.  He’s having to deal with the fact that he’s getting older.  Fortunately, his son introduces him to a nymphomaniac (Judith Ivey).  Eventually, it all ends with moments of triumph and tragedy, as these things often do.

As always, Newman is believable as a blue-collar guy who believes in hard work and cold beer.  The film actually gets off to a good start, with Newman using a wrecking ball to take down an old building.  But then Robby Benson shows up, hunched over that typewriter, and the film just becomes unbearable.  At least Morgan Freeman’s around to yell at the annoying little jerk.

  • The Life of David Gale
  • Released: 2003
  • Directed by Alan Parker
  • Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Rhona Mitra, Leon Rippy, Matt Craven, Jim Beaver, Melissa McCarthy

For the record, while I won’t shed any tears whenever Dzhokahr Tsarnaev is finally executed, I’m against the death penalty.  I think that once we accept the idea that the state has the right to execute people, it becomes a lot easier to accept the idea that the state has the right to do a lot of other things.  Plus, there’s always the danger of innocent people being sent to die.  The Life of David Gale also claims to be against the death penalty but it’s so obnoxious and self-righteous that I doubt it changed anyone’s mind.

David Gale (Kevin Spacey) used to the head of the philosophy department at the University of Texas.  He used to be a nationally renowned activist against the death penalty.  But then he was arrested for and convicted of the murder of another activist, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney) and now David Gale is sitting on death row himself.  With his execution approaching, journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) is convinced that Gale was framed and she finds herself racing against time to prevent Texas from executing an innocent man…

There’s a lot of things wrong with The Life of David Gale.  First off, it was made during the Bush administration, so the whole film is basically just a hate letter to the state of Texas.  Never have I heard so many inauthentic accents in one film.  Secondly, only in a truly bad movie, can someone have a name like Bitsey Bloom.  Third, the whole film ends with this big twist that makes absolutely no sense and which nearly inspired me to throw a shoe at the TV.

Of course, the main problem with the film is that we’re asked to sympathize with a character played by Kevin Spacey.  Even before Kevin Spacey was revealed to be a sleazy perv, he was never a particularly sympathetic or really even that versatile of an actor.  (Both American Beauty and House of Cards tried to disguise this fact by surrounding him with cartoonish caricatures.)  Spacey’s so snarky and condescending as Gale that, even if he is innocent of murder, it’s hard not to feel that maybe David Gale should be executed for crimes against likability.

Playing Catch-Up: Zootopia (dir by Byron Howard and Rich Moore)


zootopia

Speaking of animated films

I finally got a chance to watch Zootopia last night and oh my God, what a sweet and wonderful little film it turned out to be!

Zootopia is an animated film from Disney and it started out with a premise that sounds very Disney-like.  Zootopia takes place in a world where there are no humans.  Instead, animals walk and talk and scheme and plan and joke and dance and … well, basically, do everything that humans do.  Except they’re a lot cuter when they do it because they’re talking animals.

Judy Hopps (voiced by Gennifer Goodwin) is a rabbit who happens to be an incurable optimist.  (We should all try to be more like Judy.)  Even when she was growing up on the farm, Judy knew that she would someday move to the sprawling metropolis of Zootopia and become the first rabbit on the city’s police force.  When she finally does graduate from the police academy, Judy gets a lot of attention as a trailblazer.  But she quickly discovers that she’s only been hired to be a token, a political tool to help the city’s mayor, a blowhard of a lion named Lionheart (J.K. Simmons, voice the role that he was born to voice), win reelection.

See, Zootopia may look like a wonderful place to live but, as quickly becomes apparent, it’s a city in which the peace is very tenous.  Animals that are traditionally prey — like Judy and her fellow rabbits — may live with the predators but they certainly don’t trust them.  And the predators may not eat the prey but they certainly don’t respect them.  Underneath the cute face of every talking animal, there lies prejudice and resentment.  Lionheart is a predator who needs the votes of prey to remain in office.  What better way to win their trust then to make Judy Hopps a police officer?

Judy may be a member of the police force but that doesn’t mean that she’s going to be allowed to actually do anything.  While every other member of the force gets an exciting assignment, Judy is assigned to traffic duty.

However, an otter has recently vanished.  He’s just the latest of 14 predators to vanish in the city.  With the help of seemingly sympathetic deputy mayor, Judy gets herself assigned to the case.  But there’s a catch.  She has 48 hours to find the otter.  If she doesn’t find that otter, she’ll resign from the force and go back to the farm.

Luckily, Judy is not working alone.  She knows that the last animal known to have seen the otter is a fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).  Nick’s a bit of a con artist and, as a predator, he wants nothing to do with Judy and she doesn’t quite trust him.  But, events — which I’m not going to spoil here — force them to work together and uncover the darkest secrets of life in Zootopia…

If Zootopia sounds cute, that’s because it is.  It’s perhaps one of the most adorable films that I’ve ever seen, full of wonderful animation and memorable characters.  But, at the same time, there’s a very serious theme running through Zootopia.  Zootopia is about more than just talking animals.  It’s a film about prejudice, racism, sexism, and intolerance.  It’s a film that invites us to not only laugh but also to reconsider the world around us.

Zootopia is currently on Netflix and, if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.  It’s great for children and adults.