PICKS OF THE WEEK
Up in the Air (A-)
U.S.; Jason Reitman, 2009, Paramount
In Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a prime/perfecto Clooney role: Ryan Bingham, a nice-seeming, glamorous-looking guy with a highly paid, very nasty job. Ryan is a severance expert, a corporate gun-for-hire who flies around the country (so often that he's near a 10-million-mile Frequent Flyer award), firing employees whom their bosses are too gutless to face and fire themselves. What's this guy's game? Granting these unfortunate, now ex-employees a few minutes of his highly personable, superficially empathetic, totally programmed time, Ryan dispenses a little snappy patter, flashes his softly bemused half-smile, drops an aphorism or two, and ushers them out of their old lives and into their possibly bleak new ones, with economy. And panache.
The kicker here is that, in the new post-Bush America, even the Ryan Binghams may become expendable. And that's what seems to be happening when Ryan's boss and "friend" Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) -- an affable, selfish corporate creep, played with slimy expertise by Bateman -- tells Ryan he's hired a hotshot (i.e.: younger and cheaper) new efficiency expert named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), to streamline the operation. Natalie's brainstorm: to fire all these hapless people by remote control from other cities, other rooms, by video-conferencing -- an innovation that may cost Ryan his job, and would certainly end his country-hopping "up in the air" lifestyle. And his casual affairs with fellow savvy travelers like Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, excellent).
Alex, whose quick-witted sexual byplay with Ryan has the erotic lilt and sting of a Golden Age scene with Bogart and Bacall, or Hepburn and Tracy, is a canny corporate babe whom Ryan woos throughout the movie, finally deciding whether to invite her to the wedding of his little sister Julia (Melanie Lynskey) in Wisconsin. A conventional escape hatch? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Adapted by writer-director Jason Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner from Walter Kirn's novel, Up in the Air is a smart movie. And Ryan is a smartly-written part. It fits Clooney like a slick leather glove -- in much the way that Cary Grant's best romantic comedy roles (in say, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday or North by Northwest) or Paul Newman's best sexy heel roles (in Hud, Sweet Bird of Youth or The Hustler) fit those actors. Playing Ryan -- a comic sexy heel, a charmer with a flaw -- lets Clooney call up most of his ample reserves of casual, glib charm and social-political cunning. Clooney, like Grant or Newman, can play manipulative or even somewhat mean characters and stay likable. Here he shows how in corporate America, charm can be a weapon, how flying above all the misery and loss below, doesn't stop it from existing.
It's clear from both Juno and Up in the Air that Reitman is sharp on dialogue and character, and very good with actors. Up in the Air has some of the flashing verbal ingenuity that the classic Hollywood romantic comedies had, and that movies by Alexander Payne or Woody Allen still have today. Up in the Air -- which looks and sounds great -- neatly balances comedy and drama. Pain. Loss. The careless rich who diddle with the economy, and who diddle with our lives and futures, while diddling each other. This peek at real problems is what gives Reitman's movie its razor's edge, and that also helps define who Ryan is, and what he's become, and what a lot of corporate America has become too. (Extras: featurettes.)
Precious (Based on the Novel 'Push" by Sapphire) (A-)
U.S.; Lee Daniels, 2009, Lionsgate
It deserved its Oscars for supporting actress Mo'Nique and screenwriter adapter Geoffrey Fletecher). Not just because of Mo'Nique's acting chops and for the movie's unusual ambition and breakthrough achievement, but because it's so patently an Oscar-style movie ripe and ready for its nod. Precious also should get its shot because it succeeds so well at being the ideal anti-Hollywood (yet not alarmingly so) movie, a picture set in '80s Harlem with an outsider, abused, overweight heroine Claireece, a.k.a. Precious, played luminously by Gabourey Sidibe.
It's exactly the kind of film the smarter Hollywood types are probably embarrassed that they don't make more often, because it's daring, but not too daring, because newcomer director Lee Daniels (Shadowboxer) and writer Fletcher (a.k.a. Damien Paul) show such impressive confidence and skill, and because Precious really does have some of the best naturalistic dialogue and performances of any American film this year.
That includes Sidibe, of course, who moves us as the seemingly stolid impassive but churning-inside Claireece, and moves us more with her eloquent dreamy voice-over narration. And it includes Paula Patton as her believably dedicated teacher, pop singer/artists Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz as a very convincing social worker and male nurse (more drama from these two), and most of all, in the scorching performance of Mo'Nique as Claireece's horrible, destructive, gluttonously mean yet vulnerable mother Mary.
A small point, though. I haven't read Sapphire's novel. But this is the kind of story that would have been even more powerful if we'd seen Claireece without the amazing support group she has here, if instead she'd have to suffer in relative silence, sadness and isolation, the way many girls and women like this really do in life. It could have been better if we'd realized that help doesn't always come, that there are still Claireeces all around us, Preciouses we don't help, lives that are blighted, victims who are ignored. There are. Such stories exist. Thanks partly to Precious, Daniels, Fletcher and company, maybe more of them will be told.
King Lear (A-)
U.S.; Peter Brook, 1953, EI Entertainment
The greatest live dramatic performance in the history of network television probably took place on Oct. 11, 1953, when Orson Welles, played the title role in Peter Brook's "Omnibus" production of William Shakespeare's King Lear. Welles was 38 at the time and Brook was 28, and they were a pair of matched theatrical enfants terribles at the height of their powers, still full of youthful exuberance, high ideals and cocky confidence. Both adored Shakespeare and knew his work with encyclopedic breadth, but both were also noted for their bold, sometimes irreverent-seeming interpretations (such as Welles's voodoo Macbeth and modern-dress Fascist-era Julius Caesar and Brooks' "radical" reinterpretations of Measure for Measure and A Winter's Tale).
They joined here for an unlikely TV triumph: a full-dress telecast of a shortened version of Shakespeare's dark masterpiece, captured live on camera, and realized with an intensity, spontaneity and dramatic fury that few other filmed Lears can match -- including Brooks' own excellent, later, much bleaker 1971 movie with Paul Scofield as Lear. Omnibus, a 90-minute program devoted to the high (and lively) arts, produced by Robert Saudek and the Ford Foundation, and memorably hosted by Alistair Cooke, could only squeeze about 70 minutes of "Lear" into its rigid time format -- which meant dropping the whole character and major subplot appearances of the villainous bastard Edmund, and juggling some lines among other characters.
But what was left -- the Lear scenes and the entire portrayal of the blighted king's unwise division of power in his bloody kingdom, his banishment of his good daughter Cordelia (played by Brook's wife Natasha Parry) and subsequent betrayal by his evil daughters Regan (Margaret Phillips) and Goneril (Beatrice Straight), his descent into madness and his tormented wanderings in the stormy dark wilds of his lost kingdom with his faithful fool (Alan Badel)-- as well as the chaos of bloodshed, riot and treachery into which his kingdom soon falls -- is all there, acted magnificently by Welles and the entire company. The eerie original score is by Virgil Thomson.
We tend to forget what a great stage actor Welles was -- and what a devoted Shakespearean. Here, with his massive bulk and his unmistakable deep, sonorous speaking tones, he gives Lear a titanic stage presence, a truly Shakespearean voice that blasts above the dark world to the seemingly unlistening heavens, a voice that cries, croons, moans and roars over the stage wind, sound and fury like a full orchestra hitting one Beethovian climax after another. When this Lear comes crashing down, the effect is truly tragic.
It would be wrong to ignore or deprecate this DVD and production because of the fuzzy kinescope recording or because it was, comparatively, a Reader's Digest condensed edition. Ninety minutes, with commercials, was all they had, and yet Welles and Brook filled it beautifully, unforgettably. Nothing else like it exists in the whole Welles canon, or the Brook canon either. This old-fashioned, rough but thrilling DVD keeps them all forever young. (Extras: Backstage preview of the Omnibus King Lear; Dr. Frank Baxter, from the Frank Capra science specials, on The Globe Theater; Alistair Cooke live from the Yale Shakespeare Festival, staging The Merry Wives of Windsor; drama critic Walter Kerr on staging Shakespeare; booklet with essays by Brook and Callow.)
U.S.; Ridley Scott/James Cameron, 1979-89, Fox
Jim Cameron may not have beat out his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow for the best director Oscar this year. But he directs up an action-movie storm in two of these three spectacularly visualized science fiction epics: the hell-for leather 1986 first sequel to 1979's Alien, with Avatar costar Sigourney Weaver at her ballsiest, and "Ripliest," and the underwater action saga The Abyss.
They're not the best movies in this three-pack though. I've always thought Abyss should have begun with more surface ocean shots before it plunged us so deep, so long, beneath it. And Aliens, for all its explosive other-worldly, roller-coaster excitement, lacks the rapt, macabre, visionary beauties of the top film here, Ridley Scott's incredible, visionary Alien.
But they're all visually breathtaking shows, especially in Blu-ray.
Includes: Alien (A), U.S.; Ridley Scott, 1979), with Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Harry Dean Stanton. Aliens (A-), U.S.; James Cameron, 1986, with Weaver, Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen. The Abyss (B), U.S.; James Cameron, 1989, with Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Todd Graff.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
U.K.; various directors, 1975, Acorn Media, four discs
One of the biggest hits, both critically and ratings-wise, in the history of BBC's Masterpiece Theatre was the 16-episode, 821-minute-long serial made from Winston Graham's Poldark novels in 1975. Set on Cornwall's ultra-scenic, Daphne du Maurian coast immediately after the American Revolution, it's an unbuttoned, stormy tale of family hatreds, rivalries and jealousies, of commercial battles for the copper mines (the last of which would close two decades after Poldark was telecast), and of wild, wayward, dangerous love affairs. It's a work that mixes history and romance more in the style of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind than of the usual Masterpiece British classics fare of the '60s and '70s.
The show also has a lustier, less class-bound hero: Robin Ellis as rebellious Ross Poldark, who fought the Rebels and Yanks, but admires the American revolutionaries and Indian tribes he met overseas more than the greedy bankers and stodgier neighbors he comes home to. And it also has an earthier, cuter, lower-class heroine: Angharad Rees as Ross' snippy, impoverished servant-girl turned spirited wife Demelza Carne, one of the all-time Masterpiece Theatre cutie-pies, just as Ellis is one of its all-time hunks.
Poldark also has wilder, sexier, more violent plots and subplots than most of the great British writers, save Thomas Hardy and a few others, were likely to supply. (It's interesting to compare the show to that year's Stanley Kubrick Thackeray movie epic, Barry Lyndon: a far greater film, but far less engaging and lively.) Of course, all that sex and violence, laced with lots of the usual elegant M.T. talk, is why Poldark was so popular. The interiors may now look a little daytime-soap-opera-ish, the besetting vice of pre-1980s British classic TV adaptations. But there are lots of windy, rough-hewn exterior scenes shot apparently in Cornwall, that give Poldark a hint of the greater visual richness and flavor that later became the British TV adapted-novel norm, flourishing from the '80s and Brideshead Revisited on. For its time, it remains a Masterpiece Theater crown jewel. (Extras: cast filmographies and Cornish historical background essay.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT DVDS
Capitalism: A Love Story (B)
U.S.; Michael Moore, 2009
Michael Moore's cheerfully and sometimes tearfully agitprop documentaries, of which Capitalism: A Love Story is the latest and ballsiest, almost always move and amuse me -- mostly because they take me right back to my college days at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, when the war at home against the Vietnam War was raging, rallies and tear-gas were common, the young Beatles, Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan provided the sound track, "Bonnie and Clyde" and The Battle of Algiers were in the movie theaters and lecture halls, and it was a badge of honor to mix radicalism and a certain brand of democratic pop culture Americanism.
Back then, my friends and I saw no incongruities in championing a revolution, digging rock and loving John Ford movies. Indeed, many of us felt that, if you really understood Ford and The Grapes of Wrath -- not to mention Orson Welles and Citizen Kane -- you should believe in Power to the People. There were many other views on campus, of course; even Dick Cheney was lurking around Madison somewhere, attending classes and gathering ammunition. But, back in the high '60s, the idea of a specifically American re-Revolution was common, before the spoiled-rich-kid fits of the Weather Underground gave rebellion a bad name.
Moore, though, still fights and sings that old-time revolution, and Capitalism: A Love Story is one of his strongest ballsiest, funniest and most moving blows against the empire. In a way, this movie is a bookend to his powerful, sometimes hilarious first feature, Roger and Me, in which, confronted with the collapse of the auto industry in his hometown of Flint, Mich., the younger but no leaner or meaner Moore tried to assault the halls of General Motors and breach the offices of chairman Roger Smith, with a camera and microphone (and was rebuffed, to rich comedic effect).
At the climax here, after a film's worth of interviews, analyses, jokes and sad personal stories about the postwar rise of right wing anti-regulation economics and its disastrous 2008 consequences, he "tries" to make a citizen's arrest on Wall Street of some of the financial miscreants, greed-crazed creeps and inept CEOs of the recent crash, and ends up wrapping some of the great gray buildings and financial houses in yellow and black crime scene tape, while shaking his fist and avowing that, like Henry Fonda's Tom Joad, he won't go away. (From America that is, not Wall Street.) "Childish! Irresponsible!" his detractors will pronounce. Well, yeah, but it's funny. And it's an effective way of telling the story, which is what most of his detractors really dislike about him.
Moore's finest moment here is his presentation of a lined, aging but compelling (and previously unshown) film clip of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, toward the end of the war and near his approaching death, announcing and detailing his support of an expansion of the Bill of Rights, to include economic security -- and universal health care. This is a major discovery, the kind of journalistic coup Moore's opponents feel he can't or doesn't get. And, with FDR's face here looking haggard, ill but determined, it also packs an emotional wallop, as moving as all Moore's tales here of the common people screwed. (Extras: featurettes by Moore and Chris Hedges.
Old Dogs (D)
U.S.; Walt Becker, 2009, Walt Disney
Robin Williams and John Travolta have all their good scenes under the opening titles in Old Dogs -- in a series of archive photos that shows the lifelong friendship of their Odd Couple-ish characters, nervous Charlie and stud Dan, as they grow up from tots to sports entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, the movie then started cranking up its story. Travolta and Williams had to start reading their lines, or improvising, or reading teleprompters, or being possessed by Satan, or whatever caused them to say aloud some of the worst damned dialogue in the worst damned, dumbest scenes this side of My Mother, the Car, or the Vegas nightclub acts of Barney the Dinosaur & His Dino-Mites.
Unhappily, we also get the plot (courtesy of writers David Diamond and David Weissman) about Dan and Charlie having to baby-sit Charlie's long-lost children from ex-wife Vicki (played by Travolta wife Kelly Preston), while engineering a Japanese sports coup, after Vicki's best friend Jenna (Rita Wilson) gets her fingers comically smashed in an automatic car trunk door (the sound track roars out "Big Girls Don't Cry"), and Charlie gets thrown out by the swingers of his no-kids condo, and Matt Dillon shows up snarling, as a macho scout camp commander.
I would have thought that even just reading this script, naked, without sets or glitz or production value, would have terrified these two guys so much they would have immediately have run off looking for Jason Reitman. Didn't Williams cringe at the idea of donning a superhero James Bond suit with jets and repeatedly crash-landing in a park pond? Didn't Travolta object to the sequence where he flirts with an obtuse, horny tanning gym attendant while his buddy gets fricasseed? And couldn't somebody have taken pity on poor Seth Green, so he wouldn't wind up in the grand finale zoo scene as a rock-yodeling rock-a-bye doll in the arms of a horny-looking guy in a gorilla suit?
The end-credits scenes with comical out-takes are lousy too. But to tell the truth, the whole movie looks like an out-take. Somebody must have thought that director Walt Becker could recapture the magic of Wild Hogs, even without wild hogs, and with a script that frankly makes Wild Hogs look like The Odd Couple. Or even King Lear. (Extras: Commentary by Becker and others; featurette; blooper reel, music videos; deleted scenes.)
Planet 51 (D+)
U.S.-Mexico; Jorge Blanco/Javier Abad/Marcos Martinez, 2009, Sony
Cutesy cartoon fluff, awash in clichés, that might play well on a rainy Saturday morning. In this Spanish-made science-fiction satire/comedy, little green Shrekkie-looking suburbanites on a distant planet have somehow evolved a civilization that resembles an '80s movie about a '50s American small town, trapped in the throes of invaders-from-outer-space paranoia. They all talk English, despite their rubbery green skin, lack of noses and hairdos that resemble bunches of unripe bananas.
Are you still with me? The Spielbergian kid protagonist Lem (voiced by Justin Long), is a planetarium worker and sci-fi fan, with a crush on a cute green neighbor (Jessica Biel), who's being wooed by a Dylanesque protest guitar-strummer. Into their oddball world comes an American space launch and a good-natured astronaut, Capt. Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson, punishingly cheerful), who has a bouncy little R2-D2 clone. Chuck is immediately mistaken for a monstrous alien invader with murder on his mind by tyrannical General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and vivisection-happy Prof. Kipple (John Cleese). Havoc ensues.
The plot and the soundtrack are rife with echoes of Alien, E.T., 2001 and almost every other sci-fi movie classic you can think of. The screenwriter, Joe Stillman, also wrote Shrek and Shrek II, but he's not cooking here. The only things the Shreks have in common with this movie are characters with green skin.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (C+)
U.S.; Rebecca Miller, 2009, Screen Media
Here is a sometimes well-reviewed modern domestic drama, adapted by writer-director Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack and Rose) from her novel about a 50ish woman, Pippa Lee (Robin Wright Penn), and, coming at us in flashbacks and vignettes, her long, mostly unfulfilled life. It's a sad affair: Pippa is married to Herb a sarcastic publisher three decades her senior (Alan Arkin), bullied by her unbalanced mother Sulky (Maria Bello), cheated on by her hubby and her friend Sandra (Wynona Ryder, weepingly contrite), befriended by lesbian aunt Trish (Robin Weigert) and her try-anything girlfriend (Julianne Moore), and hit on by a writer-neighbor Sam Shapiro (Mike Binder). But who now, finally, at long last, she may be ready to blossom into unfettered womanhood.
This is the kind of ambitious, realistic psychological drama, sympathetically written and extremely well cast, which I usually complaining isn't made often enough. Does it seem churlish of me now to say I didn't like it much, despite sensitive performances by Wright Penn, Arkin and others? I couldn't swallow Pippa especially when Keanu Reeves showed up as a kind of earth-angel of sex with a Jesus tattoo on his chest, offering both the open road/territory ahead, and redemptive masturbation.
This movie may overrate onanism as an antidote to grief. But it's at least hip to the Tom Sawyerish symbolism of exiting houses by going out of open windows. Pippa and Keanu both do it, and Ryder at one point threatens to jump out of a hospital window unless she's forgiven. (Pippa forgives her, then reneges -- which kind of sums up the movie's approach.) By my lights, all the characters behave badly, including Pippa. And, even worse, they rarely talk like people living in a real world, and not some therapeutic drama, full of Jesus tattoos and open windows.
Pauline Kael used to complain about the dialogue of Rebecca's great playwright father Arthur Miller, which Kael thought was sometimes clunky and preachy -- and I thought she was funny but very unfair. No matter if the elder Miller came up with a clunker every once in a while. At least he was fighting for strong social issues, for family honesty and for political justice. What is this movie fighting for? The right to be yourself? The right to get off while your husband is dying? The right to drive off into the sunset? Trust me, those kinds of rights are well and amply supported by lots of mainstream romantic movies and melodramas. So, excuse me, please, while I look around for a window. (Extras: commentary and interviews with Miller, Wright Penn and others.)
Lodz Ghetto (A-)
U.S.: Alan Adelson/Kate Taverna, 1988, Passion River
Superb documentary about the horrors, struggles and tragedy of the Lodz Ghetto, where the Nazis murdered thousands. With Jerzy Kosinski. An unforgettable Holocaust document.