Tag Archives: George Clooney

Monday Morning Review: Ides of March Trips on its Own Feet

It is a real and regular mistake to confuse the unblinking search for plot holes with real film criticism, and such a narrow-minded approach can only lead to madness: Why are these street gangs singing about a girl named Maria? Who hears Kane say ‘rosebud’ in an empty room? Why does Willard persist in his mission to find Kurtz? These are all logical questions posed about films that don’t revolve around logic, and suggest a shallow viewing at best.

At the same time, in the thriller, plot holes do matter, because unlike the woven tapestry of a drama or the crazy custard pie of comedy, a thriller is most like a machine — which is why the phrase “clockwork” or “tightly-wound” comes up so often in discussing them — where a single missing piece makes the whole enterprise grind to a halt. It’s always interesting to see people who don’t know how to make thrillers tackle them — or, rather, people who don’t know how precisely to make a thriller work — because they might, perhaps, be condescending to the genre: It’s just a thriller. How tough can it be? The answer to that is, well, Alfred Hitchcock is generally considered one of the greatest directors of all time. And he made nothing but thrillers, and he made them superbly.

Ides of March, the latest directorial effort from George Clooney, is a prime example. Expanding on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, it follows the trials and tribulations — many of which are self-induced — of cynically idealistic campaign media man Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) as he encounters personal and political crises while trying to earn sitting governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) the Democratic presidential nomination. The film is substantively altered — and expanded — from Willimon’s play; in the play, intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood in the film) has an affair with Stephen’s superior on the behind-the-scenes campaign staff; in the film, it’s Clooney’s candidate — which leaves her pregnant. Stephen gives her money for an abortion, drives her to the clinic — and then gets caught up in his own problems, with the panicked Molly then taking an overdose of pills. The tragedy makes the campaign stumble — a horrible accident, pills and booze — but Gosling blackmails Clooney with the facts into a new and better job.

Which, bluntly, is where Ides of March falls apart, as Molly is found dead next to the very pill bottles she got with a prescription from an abortion clinic, and any cop or journalist who can read could phone the prescribing doctors and unleash a scandal that would dominate news cycles and irreparably damage Morris. (Worse, for all the film’s talk about Molly needing cash, you can see the clinic nurse handing Wood back a plastic card with her paperwork — whether it’s a credit card or a medical coverage card, either way, it’s also traceable.) Woody Allen did something similar in Match Point — another film that requires cops to not do autopsies, read diaries or accept anything other than the simplest explanation for a dead woman. Willimon co-wrote the screenplay with Clooney and Grant Heslov — and it’s hard to imagine one of the three of them not thinking through the ramifications of the script’s changes from the play, but that’s exactly what seems to have happened.

I admire Ides of March for its snap, for its sense of language, for the delight it takes, and makes, from actors like Gosling, Clooney, Paul Giamatti and Marisa Tomei being profane and pragmatic — like a West Wing episode on steroids, crazed with rage — but the film’s misstep on a plot level, on the level of working as a thriller, was so damaging to me that it was less like a minor flaw in a garment and more like a hole in a boat that made it founder and sink. No, plot holes don’t matter as much in drama or musicals or in comedy — but they matter immeasurably in the clockwork guts of what’s supposed to be a thriller, where a gap of millimeters can make the film inert or shudder to a halt. The Ides of March is, for the most part, an entertaining political drama that works as a cautionary tale for power-seekers and power-brokers — but as a thriller, it’s more of cautionary tale to directors and screenwriters.

From my review at Movies.com

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Interview: Jeffrey Wright of The Ides of March

With his rippling voice and air of no-holds barred intelligence, Jeffrey Wright (“Source Code,” “The Manchurian Candidate”) plays Senator Thompson in George Clooney’s political thriller “The Ides of March.” Thompson has a few scenes — and only a few lines of dialogue — and it’s a tribute to Wright that he’s able to fill a seemingly small part with such verve and vigor. We spoke with Wright in Toronto about politics, working with Hollywood’s best-looking director and his take on 2012.

Aside from the fact that your director is better looking that usual, what’s it like working with Mr. Clooney? Obviously he’s got insight in acting, but are his technical chops there as a director?

Wright: Not yet, but I’m hoping.

No, but seriously.

Wright: I was serious. No, George — it was a fantastic experience. I never worked with him as a director. We were in ‘Syriana’ in separate tracks. He brings such a clarity and a calm to a movie set. That’s all you can hope for your director and a clear command of the vision. We as individual actors know our little component, but the director really has a clear command of the overall. They don’t always have that. George cowrote the piece, was acting and directing at the same time, and doing it with such ease that it was really mindblowing. He’s a wonderful director to work with.

I think it’s a line from Hillary Clinton that politicians campaign in poetry, but they govern in prose, and there’s a difference between speeches and actions. Your character, you have that incredibly blunt speech, and then you get to do this high-flying bit of language about the public nomination. Is it fun to play that contrast between the public and the private?

Wright: Absolutely. That was very much what I was trying to contrast. I think he’s the commentary on these guys: How genuine are you? Do you talk the talk and walk the walk? What I think happens too often — not always — is that these guys are willing to sacrifice the common interest, or the interest of the larger constituency, in terms of the interest of their own egos. My way of commenting on that was playing this contrast of the public and private persona.

It’s the fall of 2011 and all we’re getting is a lot of throat-clearing on the 2012 elections. Regardless of party, what could any politician say to win your vote and support in 2012?

Wright: I just want somebody who’s genuine. I think our current president is that. I think he’s well-intentioned; I think he’s thoughtful. I think there’s serious challenges the country’s facing. Obviously, we have to battle some of these economic issues, get some job growth out there. Bill Clinton said it best, if that’s right: It’s the economy, stupid. I usually look for someone who’s genuine, who’s not trying to pull the wool over my eyes and pander to the lowest common denominator, who’s trying to lead us to a better place.

From my article at The Hitlist

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The Politics of the Ides of March

Watch my interviews with the stars of <i>Ides of March</i> here.

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TIFF 2011 Interview: Evan Rachel Wood of The Ides of March

Clad in a high-collared tan retro-dress and a pair of red-soled Louboutin shoes, Evan Rachel Wood is the model of a modern starlet as she talks about her role in “The Ides of March” — until she wants to talk about the paralysis of partisan politics in modern legislation. It’s rare to find the modern actor — regardless of gender — with a mind as clear as their skin, but Wood is that actor, and that intelligence — and, yes, a tempering hint of naiveté — is evident on-screen as she plays Molly, the Presidential-campaig​n intern whose romance with high-level campaign staffer Ryan Gosling opens up problems in George Clooney’s political thriller. We spoke with Wood in Toronto.

I feel like we can’t talk about the twists and turns of the plot too much because it might dilute the pleasures of the film for some people. When you were reading the script, were you going, ‘Oh my God?’

Wood: Absolutely. I didn’t see the play; I didn’t know the story. The storyline surrounding my character, there’s a lot of twists and turns that occur in that. I was shocked.

Do you feel like audiences won’t see it coming, either?

Wood: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of surprises in the film that no one’s going to see coming.

You’re playing an intern in a political campaign. Did you research that world? Did you get a taste of it? There’s documentaries and research materials, but did you go and look at that process and what it’s like or just go with what was on the page?

Wood: The story’s so great, the writing’s so great, it was really there. George gave a lot of the cast some great documentaries to watch, which show the behind-the-scenes with press on the campaigns and the interns. It’s a really interesting line of work, to get that close to a candidate and to see the evolution of where they go throughout the whole process. It’s clearly interesting. ‘Journeys with George’ was my favorite, I think. That’s an amazing documentary.

Your character is the lowest of the low on the food chain, but she’s also the daughter of the Democratic National Committee chairman. It’s the weird combination of privilege and lack of privilege. How do you play that?

Wood: I felt like my character has grown up in this world. It’s all she knows, so I think it was always assumed that this was what she’s going to do, and when she gets out of college she’s going to be an intern. She’s accepted this as her life. I think she’s still a 20-year-old girl and she’s still going to have her fun, and she’s not intimated by any of these men. I think she uses it to her advantage, really.

There’s an old and cynical line that politics is show business for ugly people. Did you find any similarities in the worlds?

Wood: Of course. I think a lot of politicians are some of the best actors in the world. You have to sell yourself to an entire country, you have to be entertaining, you have to be charismatic. That’s all like a show. I do see similarities, sometimes.

The film talks quite a lot about politics and idealism versus reality, campaigning versus the pros of getting elected. What could a candidate, regardless of party affiliation, say to you right now to earn your vote and your support in 2012?

Wood: I don’t know. I’m in a weird place where I think at this point it doesn’t matter who gets elected. I think the way this system’s built, they can’t govern the way they want to govern. It’s an uphill battle for anyone. I think a lot of things need to change, and I think people need to stop being so afraid. Things do need to evolve and need to change. I think we need to let go of some of our past ideas.

When you’re caught up in the madness of a film festival like this, is it very easy to forget about the actual work? When you’re busy doing press and worrying about what to wear, is the hubbub worth the hassle?

Wood: Absolutely. Something like this is fun. I’m so proud of this movie, and the cast is amazing. I love doing press and touring with these guys is amazing. I try to have fun with it, and it’s fun to play dress-up. It’s whatever.

From my interview at The Hitlist

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TIFF 2011 Interview: Ryan Gosling of Ides of March

In “Ides of March,” Ryan Gosling plays a talented young political operative working under older and seemingly more-experienced peers like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and George Clooney, occasionally earning the upper hand; it’s not an entirely inappropriate metaphor. Gosling’s here at Toronto with not one but two films — “Drive” is playing the festival as well — and even with the festival serving as a fairly triumphant homecoming for the Canadian-born actor, he’s calm and relaxed when we talked about politics, preparation and how having George Clooney as your director means more than just working with the best-looking director you’ve ever taken direction from.

There’s an old and mean saying that politics is show business for ugly people. When you learned about this world for this film, did you see similarities between what you do and what these political consultants and campaigners do?

Gosling: There’s some similarities, but at the end of the day the decisions we make don’t kill anybody potentially. There’s no one’s lives at risk at our job.

How do you get that kind of gravity, that intensity that you have in the moments of a political campaign? How do you recreate that as an actor?

Gosling: I don’t know specifically what you do. I think that’s the trick is that you’re trying to get that. We watched a lot of these documentaries that were on the campaign trails: ‘Journeys with George,’ and there was one for the Obama campaign. We tried to keep watching those to give ourselves a sense of what the relationships were on campaign trails. At the end of the day, it’s not really a very accurate political film, because it’s not a political movie; there’s not a political message. It’s just a thriller that uses politics as a backdrop. It could be set on Wall Street or in Hollywood. …

When you’re watching Mr. Clooney at work, he’s assembled this great technical team like Stephen Mirrione, the editor. When you’re watching him direct — aside from the fact that he’s probably the best looking director you’ve worked with — do you look at him and go, ‘Yeah, I could maybe do that; this is something I could work towards one day?’

Gosling: He’s a very impressive guy. It’s hard to feel that way at the end of the day. You end up feeling like I could never do that. He’s writing, he’s producing, he’s directing, he’s starring in, he’s got his work in Sudan, he’s got three to five practical jokes in the works at any given moment, and then he’s checking scores on the game. He’s doing everything all the time. I could never do that.

Right now we’re in this incredibly tedious period of throat-clearing before the 2012 elections, even though it’s in the fall. Regardless of affiliation, regardless of party, what could a candidate say right now to earn your support and your vote for 2012?

Gosling: I don’t know. I don’t really like to talk about politics in this forum. I don’t think you should talk about politics in sound bites. Or I shouldn’t, anyway.

Politics so often gets distilled to bumper stickers, which is the worst possible medium for it.

Gosling: Yeah.

You’re here with ‘Ides of March,’ and you also have ‘Drive.’ Is it half the work or doubling or cubing? Is it easier or harder?

Gosling: You have to apply the five rule. If it’s odd, you have to add a five. If it’s even, you add seven and a zero.

Having two films at Toronto, the only way to calculate the increased effort is to convert it to metric?

Gosling: (Laughing) Yeah.

From my article at The Hitlist

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The Ides of March (3.5/5), MSN Movies

Adapting Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North” for the big screen, George Clooney’s “Ides of March” starts so strongly — from the jump,  it’s an truly entertaining mix of Aaron Sorkin and Sidney Lumet, where  idealism and pragmatism fight dirty in the dimmer corners of the halls of power — that the film’s mis-steps later on are not just disappointing but depressing. Clooney has, as in his earlier films, assembled an amazing cast here. Ryan Gosling is a political operative under Phillip Seymour Hoffman trying to get George Clooney’s Governor Morris the Democratic Presidential nomination, with Max Minghella and Evan Rachel Wood as junior staffers, Marisa Tomei as a member of the press and Paul Giamatti as Hoffman’s opposite for the other contender.

Casting, however, isn’t filming, and while Clooney has — as ever — assembled a superb technical staff, the screenplay is where things go awry. Cinematographer Phaedon Pappamichael (“Sideways,” “Walk the Line,” “Knight and Day”) captures the wintry haze of battleground state Ohio and the plywood pomp-and-circumstance of the modern campaign trail, while editor Stephen Mirrione (“Traffic,” “Ocean’s 13,” “Go”) cuts the close-clipped conversations superbly. Clooney-as-director also earns credit for opening the play up visually, walking the line between showy excess and artlessly hurling theatrical blocking up on-screen. (A moment where we slide in and out of three parallel offices as information passes back and forth is superb, as is a hidden meeting in the shabby privacy of a shaded stairwell.)

The jostle and bump of public pronouncements and private secrets, of press releases and closely-held information is a major part of the fun and charm of the film. At the same time, with no small sense of regret, it must be said there’s a hole in the plot of “The Ides of March,” and while it cannot be discussed in great detail for fear of ruining the film’s central set of surprises and secrets, it is also so clumsy and gigantic that it is less like a pinhole in a cup that lets in disbelief and more like a gaping chasm in the side of a plane that results in a crash. (Let’s just say that, for “Ides of March” to work as written, cops, coroners and journalists in Ohio have to be remarkably incurious illiterates with poor vision.)  Willimon, Clooney and frequent Clooney collaborator Grant Heslov adapted Willimon’s play — and changed it substantially — and the fact that three separate set of eyes didn’t catch so glaring a problem is both human and disheartening.

Some will suggest that a picayune obsession with plot details is beneath an ambitious political drama about tactics and cynics, polling and governing; I think that if “Ides of March” is going to take a certain dramatic route — especially a dramatic route like that of a thriller, where one mistake can mean disaster — it needs to be as cautious of the potential for disaster in that route as it is excited about the possibilities that route offers. And bluntly, there are moments here that are so very good — like Gosling, livid and silent, thinking a mile a minute while his heart is stopped dead, for one example, a conversation between candidate Clooney and his  supportive-but-stressed wife Jennifer Ehle for another — and I could watch scenes of Giamatti and Hoffman being profane and pointed, brusque and blunt, outraged and outrageous, all day. 

“Ides of March,” for the most part, is an engaging and exciting look at the machine that grinds and jolts beneath the smoother images offered up in public forums and campaign ads, and at the people behind political candidates. It also, like any politician, makes promises that soar on wings of language to suggest it can do the job, and it’s too bad that the brief-but-significant very real plot problems in the film make it feel a little like a lame duck with a crippled wing. 

From my review at MSN Movies

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The Top Ten Films of 2009, Part 2

Yesterday, I shared the first half of my list of the top ten best films of 2009; without much more ado, here’s the remainder of the countdown. …

Serious 5) A Serious Man (Director: Joel and Ethan Coen)

The latest film from the Coen brothers seems to offer it all — the strange surrealism of Barton Fink, the quotability of The Big Lebowski, the social satire of Burn After Reading and the slice-of-life close-up view of Fargo — but it’s still unlike anything the Coens have done before, following physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) as his professional, personal and spiritual lives all … melt … down. Based in no small part on the Coen’s own experiences growing up in Minnesota, A Serious Man isn’t just a great comedy of suburban manners; it’s a sincere look at the benefits — and curses — of a spiritual life, as God moves in mysterious ways and Larry Gopnick is Job in horn rims, wondering why the universe seems to be picking on him and never wondering if, in fact, it’s because he deserves it.

Anvil 4) Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Director Sacha Gervasi tracked down his favorite band from his youth to find out what happened to them; the answer wasn’t some sob story about breaking up or packing it in, but, rather, the slightly sadder, and scarier proposition that 20 years after the peak of their success, Canadian heavy-metal band Anvil were still plugging away. Gervasi joined them for a tour (disastrous) and the recording of a new album (contentious) and got past the real-life Spinal Tap absurditity to show us two friends and, yes, artists who refused to give up in a world that says “quit.” Gervasi knows and loves his subjects — drummer Robb Reiner and guitarist/singer Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow — but that doesn’t mean they get off easy in his film, and that honesty — painful at times — is what makes Anvil! The Story of Anvil more the story of a friendship than the story of a band, more a story of hard work than the story of an idle dream.

Whiteribbon 3) The White Ribbon (Director Michael Haneke)

Why would anyone want to watch a 144-minute story of repression, sadness and man’s inhumanity to man, shot in black-and-white and unfolding in a small German town before the outbreak of World War I? The simple answer is: Because it’s fascinating. Michael Haneke’s unblinking eye has always made his films hypnotizing works of cruel genius, but even with all of The White Ribbon‘s more tense and unhappy moments (the children of the town turning on each other is chilling and yet never phony or fake), the movie’s methodical, precise pace makes it a magnetically glowing thing of stark wonder. Yes, there are explicit parallels to history– the kids we see lashing out at each other will, inevitably, grow up to make Hitler possible — but Haneke’s story works like an x-ray, showing us the stark bone-white truths that lie under the happy flesh of any town at any time.

Fantasticmrfox2 2) Fantastic Mr. Fox

The biggest, brightest piece of pure comedy and joy at the movies this year – and, at the same time, a serious look at family, at friendship, at community, at being true to who we are. There are at least three vocal performances (Jason Schwartzman, Meryl Streep and Wally Wolodarsky) that put 90% of the Oscar-nominated performances you’re going to see this year to shame with their heart, soul, timing and warmth. Director Wes Anderson’s fuzzy, controlling ways have strangled some of his films — see, for one example, the claustrophobically micro-managed and airlessly art-designed The Life Aquatic — but here, they serve him and the audience extraordinarily well as a talking fox (George Clooney) shoots for a better life by pulling one last job. …

Thehurtlocker1) The Hurt Locker

Following a team of bomb-disposal technicians in Iraq (and written by journalist Mark Boal, who spent time embedded with a real Army EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) unit in the field), Kathryn Bigleow’s movie isn’t just a hurtling, tightly-coiled thriller that pushes you to the edge of your seat; it’s also a portrait of why both men and nations go to war. Superbly shot, surprisingly funny (A superior officer asks about bomb disposal: “What’s the best way to go about disarming one of these things?” Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. James answers quietly: “The way you don’t die, sir …”) and startlingly engaging, The Hurt Locker shows us men who choose to face death in the name of duty, and more importantly actually asks why they do it.

Runners-Up: Moon, The September Issue, Up, Inglourious Basterds, Where the Wild Things Are, The Missing Person, Every Little Step, The Escapist, Humpday, Adventureland, Funny People, The Girlfriend Experience, Tokyo Sonata, Police, Adjective and The Informant!

— From Redblog; also at MSN Movies.

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The Top Ten Films of 2009, Part 1

Making a “Top Ten Films of the Year” list is always an exercise in frustration and futility — what about the movies you didn’t see? Who cares about this stuff, really? Isn’t it silly to judge movies, a shifting and quicksilver art form, in such a hard-hearted and mathematical fashion? And yet, I read through the “Top Ten” lists of critics and writers I admire to get a sense of what I may have missed, or what I may have overlooked, or what I may have misjudged, and it’s in that spirit — not that of a harsh judge who claims to know it all, but rather that of a helpful guide who knows he knows a few things– that I present my picks from 2009, a year full of so many good movies that, frankly, narrowing a list down to ten is an exercise in and of itself. …

10) The Brothers Bloom (Director: Rian Johnson) Bloom

Rian Johnson’s follow-up to Brick twists and turns the con game flick just as skillfully as his debut shifted and twisted the private eye film — turning what could have been a purely mechanical exercise in genre-bending into a truly funny and, more importantly, truly touching look at the similarly-complex challenges of family and storytelling. Rachel Weisz steals scenes as a meek heiress who discovers love and life through conning and being conned, and Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo’s work as the title brothers has warmth and heat; add in Rinko Kikuchi in the sassiest supporting performance of the year, and you get a funny, frantic tale about what the stories we tell say about us.

Maid 9 ) The Maid (Director: Sebastian Silva)

Of all the films on this year’s best-of list, The Maid may have had the most limited distribution — a pity, as it’s a knockout drama that, literally, had me on the edge of my seat because I had absolutely no clue what was going to happen next, and also because I needed, desperately, to know what was going to happen next. In an upper-class home in Chile, Raquel (Catalina Saveedra, in one of the year’s best performances) has been serving her employers for almost 20 years — and, breaking under the strain of exhaustion (and being exhausting), refuses to take on any help or call a truce in the long-running passive-aggressive struggle she’s trapped in with her employers. I can’t say much more for fear of ruining the film, but I didn’t know what The Maid was going to be — a thriller, a comedy, a family drama, a personal story, a romance — and The Maid‘s carefully-drawn performances and impressive sense of realism had me desperately waiting to find out what was going to come next.

TheMessenger 8 ) The Messenger (Director: Oren Moverman)

You could play The Messenger in sequence with the next two movies on this list, and you’d have a great triple-bill. Like Up in the Air, The Messenger is about doing difficult work; like In The Loop, The Messenger is about language and society in the face of war. But for all its big ideas, The Messenger is a movie of small moments, as Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson play soldiers on notification detail who deliver the bad news to families that their loved ones have fallen in war. Some critics call The Messenger overly showy and mannered, but I found it immensely engaging — and a movie that’s real, raw and honest about the challenge of our present moment in a way that few other movies dare to be, bolstered by impressive acting work from both Foster and Harrelson.

UpIntheAir 7) Up in the Air (Director: Jason Reitman)

If you wanted to demonstrate to some hypothetical future citizen what life felt like in mainstream America in 2009 within the space of two hours, you could do much, much worse than sitting them down to watch Up in The Air. Jason Reitman moves past the hip cynicism of Thank You for Smoking and the easy-breezy glibness of Juno to make a real film, with George Clooney as a high-flying consultant who fires people, but when facing the axe himself squirms and dances to hang on to the gig while realizing everything else he’s lost his grip on. Dry, funny and invisibly smart, Up in the Air is a breezy, light movie about some heavy stuff that dances along with grace and charm until it socks you in the jaw.

6) In the Loop (Director: Armando Iannucci)

IntheLoop Another little-seen import, but well worth tracking down — if only because no other comedy this year literally hurt until you laughed with such brute blunt force, bad language and battered brilliance. A low-level British public servant gets on the radio and actually says something (“War is unforeseeable. …”) and then has to not-quite-recant what he said, because as the Prime Minister’s snapping, snarling right-hand man (Peter Capladi, in the knockout supporting performance of the year) explains, the war may be inevitable or unforeseeable but that’s neither here nor there and definitely not something that needs to be said on the public record. … Full of unprintable insults, whip-crack sarcasm and very real points about public service, the power of lies and how political maneuvering can, regrettably, lead to troop maneuvers, In the Loop plays like an episode of The Office written by George Orwell.

Tomorrow: The final countdown!

–From Redblog; Top Ten also at MSN Movies.

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Up In The Air

UITA Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Juno and his debut Thank You for Smoking, isn’t just a stronger and richer film than either; it’s a strong and rich film in its own right. Like his debut, Thank You for Smoking, it’s got a savage streak of satire; unlike that film, Up in the Air is set around a warm and wounded heart. Like Juno, Up in the Air has a certain sentimental optimism; unlike Juno, that sentiment is never used as the emergency exit for the easy way out. Up in the Air triumphs as an entertaining and, yes, thought-provoking film that turns our current mood of national economic anxiety into comedy while still talking about the real facts of our current crisis and asking more than a few eternal questions. Some naysayers have already dismissed the film — a friend of mine, without seeing it, sniffed via Twitter that they “… can’t wait for another movie where an executive discovers their soul.” But Up in the Air isn’t about that; it’s about how we don’t seem to have a working system of work in America any more, just an ongoing game of musical chairs where we all hope to have a seat and a job when the music stops and never have the time to wonder who, exactly, is playing the tune and pulling the available seats away one by one.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney, charming but beat-up) is a frequent flyer and a frequent liar. He jets around from ailing business to ailing business, laying people off for employers who don’t have the guts or the gall to do it themselves. (Reitman peppers the film with montages — from Ryan’s point-of-view — of people responding to their firing, played for the most part by real people who’ve recently lost their jobs. It could be a gimmick; it isn’t.) Ryan’s good at what he does — perhaps a little too good, packing like a pro, sailing through security, accumulating corporate loyalty points and going from town to town telling lies so skillfully he may even be fooling himself; he’s like The Music Man with a mileage plan, the latest spin on a classic American lie.

— from my redblog review.

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Up in the Air

Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Juno and his debut Thank You for Smoking, isn’t just a stronger and richer film than either; it’s a strong and rich film in its own right. Like his debut, Thank You for Smoking, it’s got a savage streak of satire; unlike that film, Up in the Air is set around a warm and wounded heart. Like Juno, Up in the Air has a certain sentimental optimism; unlike Juno, that sentiment is never used as the emergency exit for the easy way out. Up in the Air triumphs as an entertaining and, yes, thought-provoking film that turns our current mood of national economic anxiety into comedy while still talking about the real facts of our current crisis and asking more than a few eternal questions. Some naysayers have already dismissed the film — a friend of mine, without seeing it, sniffed via Twitter that they “… can’t wait for another movie where an executive discovers their soul.” But Up in the Air isn’t about that; it’s about how we don’t seem to have a working system of work in America any more, just an ongoing game of musical chairs where we all hope to have a seat and a job when the music stops and never have the time to wonder who, exactly, is playing the tune and pulling the available seats away one by one.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney, charming but beat-up) is a frequent flyer and a frequent liar. He jets around from ailing business to ailing business, laying people off for employers who don’t have the guts or the gall to do it themselves. (Reitman peppers the film with montages — from Ryan’s point-of-view — of people responding to their firing, played for the most part by real people who’ve recently lost their jobs. It could be a gimmick; it isn’t.) Ryan’s good at what he does — perhaps a little too good, packing like a pro, sailing through security, accumulating corporate loyalty points and going from town to town telling lies so skillfully he may even be fooling himself; he’s like The Music Man with a mileage plan, the latest spin on a classic American lie.

Clooney’s perfect as Ryan — a little charming, a little tired, capable of looking a little foolish and thus being even more charming. Ryan has good personal luck — meeting a fellow frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga) who’s sexy, sassy and fun — just as he has bad professional luck. The company he works for, motivated by driven new young hire Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, surprisingly good in what could have been a one-note part defined by the joke of her name but who has, and hits, richer notes than that) is going to pull Ryan and his peers off the road and start firing people via the internet. Over a webcam. This, to Ryan, isn’t just making a humiliating and tough time in people’s lives worse; it’s endangering his job and, more importantly, his chances of becoming a 10-million miler in American’s loyalty program. …

Discussing what happens when Ryan’s tasked to take Natalie out on the road to show her the ropes — or, rather, the noose — would belabor the point. But Clooney, Farmiga and Kendricks not only all do what you expect but go through things that you don’t. Reitman’s script adaptation, alongside Sheldon Turner, of Walter Kirn’s novel not only makes jokes but makes points, and doesn’t allow itself, or us, the opportunity to look away when things get tough. Many movies tell us “live your dreams,” and that’s part of what Ryan tells the people he’s just fired: “Any person who’s changed the world or founded an empire sat where you’re sitting now,” spouting slogans to soothe. But Up in the Air isn’t about living your dreams; it’s about the terrifying-yet-exhilarating, hopeful-but-wounded necessity of having a plan b, about maybe lowering your standards, about how maybe your dream isn’t what you should be dreaming, about all of the messy compromises we make in our modern world without ever quite understanding why. …

And Reitman’s direction is honed and assured, from his comedic timing to his deft use of flyover footage and how his careful eye captures the splendor and the terror of the tastefully lame world of corporate America. Reitman nails the world of airport lounges and chain hotels, generic offices and faceless buildings, where “loyalty” is a word printed on a card with plenty of fine print on the back and there’s always karaoke and an open bar at the mixer at the hotel because the company loves you, right up until they ask you for your keycard and get security to walk you out. Some have suggested that Up in the Air will play well with the frequent-flyers of the film fest crowd, but I think it’ll play well for anyone who’s had a boss and felt a knot of fear in their gut when they’ve announced, as Clooney’s boss Jason Bateman does, that something’s going to be “a real game-changer.” That is to say, these days, it’ll play well for all of us. I don’t know if Up in the Air is a film for the ages, but at the nervy start of the new century, it certainly feels like the perfect film for our age.

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