Archive for December, 2009

Up in the Air

Monday, December 28th, 2009

upintheair

Movie review by Greg Carlson

If Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” is one of the year’s most Bressonian films, then Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” is certainly its antithesis.  Manipulative, smug, and supremely confident of its own worth, “Up in the Air” is a movie of and for its time, a skittering commentary on economic despair coupled with a conventional “to thine own self be true” mantra.  George Clooney’s tremendously appealing performance saves the film from total disaster, but the movie is ultimately too dependent on self-actualizing epiphany – in other words, it has more than one big moment in which a character realizes that a major mistake has been made, and then sprints off in the opposite direction to try and fix it.

Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a seasoned terminator who fires people for a living, a veteran air traveler more comfortable on a hotel room mattress than in his own seldom used bed in a drab apartment in Omaha.  He crosses the country in pursuit of 10 million frequent flyer miles (a substantial upgrade from the novel’s 1 million), distancing himself from the anguish he leaves in his wake.  As Bingham shuttles from city to city, he divides his time between seducing fellow road warriors like Alex (Vera Farmiga) and condescendingly putting up with his earthbound sisters.

Reitman, with co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner, overhauls and transforms Walter Kirn’s grim, sooty novel so radically that only a smattering of themes, ideas, and lines make it from the page to the screen.  Kirn’s Bingham, a discombobulated, paranoid, pill-gobbling conspiracy theorist, is edgier and less likable than Clooney’s calm opportunist, and the book is more interesting for it.  Additionally, the filmmakers concoct the entire subplot of Bingham’s indoctrination of Anna Kendrick’s ambitious efficiency expert/career transition counselor.

Reitman sounds the movie’s sourest note during a grounded wedding interlude in “authentic” Wisconsin.  The director dredges up several old chestnuts, from a groom with cold feet to the encouraging pep talk that validates the protagonist’s persuasive rhetorical gifts.  The sequence, which includes a queasy visit to Bingham’s old high school with his new squeeze, is scored with fragile, melancholy acoustic tunes like Elliott Smith’s “Angel in the Snow,” a device that has felt stale and imitative ever since “Miss Misery” earned an Oscar nomination for “Good Will Hunting” in the original song category.

“Up in the Air” probably wouldn’t have received as much love and praise had Reitman skipped the equivocation and moralizing, but that combination is one of the filmmaker’s hallmarks.  Studio publicity has milked the anecdote that the people who appear in the “getting canned” montages are not actors but regular folks who have lost their own jobs.  Somehow, though, Reitman’s casting gesture seems less than magnanimous and more than a bit exploitative.  “Up in the Air,” like Reitman’s other features, vigorously mixes the solemnity with heaping helpings of comedy.  My favorite moment was Sam Elliott’s cameo resurrecting the Stranger.  He does not happen to mention that Bingham is the man for his time and place, but seeing him did remind me to watch “The Big Lebowski.”  Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes, well, he eats you.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/28/09.

Bright Star

Monday, December 21st, 2009

brightstar

Movie review by Greg Carlson

In a recent interview with Maria Garcia in Film Journal International, director Jane Campion invoked the name of Robert Bresson, the colossus of unblinking austerity and scholarship of the soul, whose oeuvre has become a Rosetta Stone for generations of moviemakers.  Campion’s “Bright Star,” a love story based on the doomed courtship of Romantic poet John Keats and his neighbor Fanny Brawne, reverberates with many of Bresson’s techniques, and even if Campion lacks the most rarefied of the French master’s gifts, her talents are considerable.  “Bright Star” is among the director’s finest films.

Literary superstars, especially tubercular poets who die at 25, defy quiet cinematic portraiture, and Campion wisely filters the consciousness of the narrative through Abbie Cornish’s Fanny Brawne instead of through Ben Whishaw’s John Keats.  Cornish is superb, and her performance so sensual it is easy to see how Keats might have fallen easily, speedily in love.  The two actors share an inviting chemistry and a smoldering eroticism that allows Campion to perfect the art of suspended and sublimated desire.  Few movies manage to effectively translate the emotional resonance of poetry without a share of pretentiousness, but Cornish and Whishaw recite some of Keats’ best known work as though the lines were showers of sparks.

Campion’s sharp eye has often gazed upon strong women who negotiate and subvert expected gender roles with fierce intelligence and reserves of dignity.  In “Bright Star,” Campion seizes upon Brawne’s keenness for fashion, imagining the teenager as an artist with a needle and thread whose facility for innovative clothing construction matches Keats’ way with words.  Far from reinforcing the old-fashioned concept that relegates supportive young women to homemaker-appropriate pursuits, Campion sees Brawne as Keats’ aesthetic peer.  One of the movie’s most potent images reveals an intricately embroidered pillowcase sewn by Fanny for Keats’ consumptive brother.

Campion’s vision of 19th century Hampstead Heath is simultaneously elegant and understated.  She directs from her own script (inspired by Andrew Motion’s Keats biography), and makes certain that the measure of daily life in Regency England is just as restrained and chaste as the restricted affair between Brawne and Keats.  With the exception of a few sultry kisses, Fanny and John must forego physical contact, but Campion turns the ache to her advantage.  In one stirring scene, Fanny transforms her quarters into a lepidopterist’s hothouse, filling the space with delicate butterflies while she swoons on the bed and attempts to articulate to her concerned mother the intensity of her feelings for Mr. Keats.

The brilliance of “Bright Star,” and one of its Bressonian traits, lies in how much Campion leaves unspoken and left to the viewer.  Paul Schneider, the American actor who played opposite Zooey Deschanel in “All the Real Girls,” steals several scenes as Charles Armitage Brown, Keats’ best friend and protector.  Brown dreads the spell Fanny casts over Keats, convinced that the flirtatious girl will obliterate the poet’s concentration and dilute the quality of his verse.  Brilliantly, Campion manages to legitimize Brown’s complaints without turning him into a grotesque or a villain (even though he does impregnate the Irish maid).  In an irony surely not lost on Brown, Fanny instead fuels some of Keats’ most brilliant achievements.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/21/09.

Invictus

Monday, December 14th, 2009

invictus

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like many of Clint Eastwood’s recent films, “Invictus” takes its sweet time to arrive at a conclusion determined from the opening moments.  A glossy and superficial account of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, the movie blends biopic with traditional sports genre elements, including lengthy sequences in which rugby games are photographed from every possible angle.  Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela with authority and gravitas, but too much of the dialogue is reduced to aphorism and platitude, conveying the feeling that as a political leader, Mandela was more angel than human.

Alongside Freeman, Matt Damon takes on the role of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, the Afrikaner flanker who came to understand the transcendent potential of a World Cup victory once Mandela reached out to him.  Somewhat strangely, Damon is given very little to do outside of his athletic duties, a frustrating aspect of a movie that might have had much more to say about the key personalities in one of South Africa’s most suggestive and meaningful sports accomplishments.  Pienaar leads the team that black South Africans cheered against, but his presence in the film is unusually apolitical.

“Invictus” follows a linear chronology that builds some momentum as the story unfolds, but the one-thing-at-a-time structure tries the patience when so many scenes alternate between snippets illuminating Mandela’s ulterior motives for taking such a keen interest in rugby and the progress of the Springboks as they struggle to develop a winning team.  Eastwood carefully modulates the way we come to know Mandela, opting to focus on the man’s incredible sense of forgiveness in the service of healing national wounds rather than on any particular demands of his role as the newly elected President of South Africa.

For all the time Eastwood lavishes on rugby, the audience learns very little about the rules of the game or the individuals who made up the championship Springbok team.  Ironically, Mandela is shown in one sequence studying a roster in order to be able to greet each player by name, but with the exception of Pienaar and Chester Williams, the only non-white member of the 1995 Springboks, the viewer is not expected to differentiate among the footballers.  Despite Williams’ claims that some of his own teammates spurned him with racist name-calling, the movie version focuses on Mandela’s anxiety that the winger’s injury will prevent him from being a visible black representative when the Boks take the field.

Eastwood’s decision to refrain from procedural explanations of rugby will divide viewers, but “Invictus” strains to make clear the tensions and stakes of post-apartheid South Africa.  Mandela shrewdly understands the symbolic power of showing up in Pienaar’s green and gold number 6 jersey, and Eastwood guarantees the audience won’t miss the point either.  An economical subplot concerning the racial integration of Mandela’s security detail covers the same territory, as does a series of shots in which a small boy, unable to gain entry to the Ellis Park final, loiters near a car to monitor the game on the radio.  The toughest cynics will have a hard time swallowing the climactic displays of black/white esprit de corps, but more shocking is the truth of the historical record.  Yes, Eastwood suggests that Mandela almost singlehandedly orchestrated the World Cup championship, but the against-the-odds win of the Springboks is a perfect illustration of real life drama tailor-made for big screen adaptation.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/14/09.

Brothers

Monday, December 7th, 2009

brothers

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A remake of the 2004 Danish film directed by Susanne Bier, “Brothers” adds nothing new to the tradition of the returning-from-war subgenre, even as veteran filmmaker Jim Sheridan’s steady hand guides an attractive and talented cast.  Three of Hollywood’s most promising young leads, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, and Jake Gyllenhaal, are not entirely convincing as representatives of the working class, but the stars do their best with a script that depends too heavily on doses of mountainous inevitability and dubious implausibility.

Maguire plays Marine Captain Sam Cahill, a veteran soldier who has seen men through several tours of duty in Afghanistan.  Sam dotes on his two adorable daughters and lavishes affection on wife Grace (Portman), his sweetheart since high school.  As Sam prepares to deploy, his troubled brother Tommy gets out of prison, and the extended Cahill family copes uneasily with the changes.  Shortly after Tommy’s return, Sam is believed killed in action, and Grace turns to her brother-in-law for comfort and support.  In love triangle movies, sport can be made of imagining the actors trading roles, and it is hard not to think that “Brothers” might have been more interesting had Maguire and Gyllenhaal switched parts.

It has been suggested that mainstream studio-released films addressing Operation Enduring Freedom carefully avoid taking any political position, but haven’t war movies always balanced on the edge of cheering tremendous personal sacrifice while ruing the horrors that inevitably scar the brave protagonists?  Movies dealing with the cruelty of combat appeal to the voyeur who craves images of inherently dramatic mayhem and yet laments the tragedy of killing.  Sam pays a horrific price that erases his ability to readjust to domestic routine, but the template of “Brothers” is familiar enough that the viewer can anticipate nearly every scene.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder propels the second half conflict of “Brothers,” in which Sam returns to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, but the film’s presentation of the debilitating impairment doesn’t hold a candle to “Taxi Driver” or “Coming Home.”  The story demands that Sam be presumed dead long enough for Tommy and Grace to develop a relationship, but that very requirement challenges the audience to sympathize with the absent Marine, whose own children verbalize their desire for Mommy to partner with Uncle Tommy.  As Sheridan cuts between Sam’s ordeal in Afghanistan and Grace and Tommy growing closer, a tone of anxiety and unease clouds the narrative.

The deficiencies of “Brothers” include oversimplified and underwritten roles for the leads (Portman’s part in particular is egregiously neglected by screenwriter David Benioff), and a few farfetched plot complications.  Sam Shepard, who plays the alcoholic father of Sam and Tommy, praises his straight arrow offspring but makes no effort to hide his contempt for the one who spent time behind bars.  His hot and cold emotional shifts, represented as polar extremes, apply to many of the movie’s other relationships.  The Muslim bad guys are equally as flat, standing in as terror merchants whose lack of humanity feels contrived and convenient.  More disappointing, the principal characters in “Brothers” receive the same treatment, ending up as symbolic representations of dutiful wife, damaged soldier, and repentant lawbreaker instead of recognizable individuals.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/7/09.