Up in the Air – Film Review

George Clooney as Ryan Bingham

I wondered how a film where the main character’s job is to fire employees for firms that are looking to downsize is getting so much attention in this economic climate. My guess is the filmmakers frequently debated how they would position and portray those difficult “letting workers go” scenes and instead turn the focus on the core of the story. They succeeded. Although a significant amount of time is devoted to them, Up in the Air is centered on Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and his search for a life he doesn’t even know he’s looking for.

Mr. Bingham is apparently one of the best in his field. He travels over 300 days a year, touching down in cities big and small to deliver bad news to everyone he meets. He’s cool, calculated and right to the point. Partly because he has to be for legal reasons, but also because even for Ryan, this is tough work. Yes it’s a job, but one senses Ryan has an undercurrent of sincere empathy beneath that professional facade.

All is right in Ryan’s little world. He loves the special treatment elite status affords him by airlines and hotels across the country. Every transaction is viewed as an opportunity to accumulate airline miles that brings him closer to his goal of 10 million.┬áHe has this traveling thing nailed. Nothing is packed unless it’s needed, and he knows exactly what he needs. Every move is choreographed with a specific purpose, eliminating every ounce of waste and inefficiency from his professional and personal life. So much so that he has carved out a niche for himself on the speaking circuit entitled What’s in Your Backpack.

Director Jason Reitman tries to squeeze Mr. Clooney’s chiseled good looks into almost every frame of the film. It’s a good strategy, but he goes one better. Through short vignettes inside the film, Mr. Reitman uncovers the inner workings of Ryan’s one track mind with fast cuts of Ryan packing, getting through TSA security and checking into jetliners and hotels. A wonderful device that advances the story and foreshadows the films final scenes.

Vera Farmiga as Alex Goran

One night while unwinding in the hotel bar, Ryan spots a very beautiful woman, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), sitting in a tall chair looking bored. He strikes up a conversation, about reward programs of course, and soon they are tossing down their loyalty cards in show off style. One thing leads to another and soon they find themselves in the same hotel room. Arrangements are made to meet again.

Ryan’s boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), calls him back to the home office in Omaha to unveil something revolutionary. A whipper-snapper employee fresh from Cornel, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), has convinced Craig that all this travel expense is completely unnecessary. Instead the firm should use technology to fire people. It’s dead simple. Put a computer monitor in a client’s conference room and fire the people via video conference. Job accomplished without anyone ever setting foot outside Nebraska.

Ryan is threatened by this as it will pull him off the road and crush his lifestyle. But it’s not just the prospect of losing miles opportunities that bothers him. He feels that being face to face is crucial to helping people who have just heard devastating news transition to a new opportunity. He demonstrates his point effectively by making Natalie fire him as if she was online. The message gets across to Craig and Ryan is asked to show Natalie the ropes on the road so she can better understand the process. He refuses at first, but eventually accepts his new sidekick and off they go.

I was prepared for this to go all “buddy picture” on me, but the filmmakers were able to rise above that with thoughtful dialogue and removing the “I’m going to sabotage this” temptation. With Natalie as an observer, Ryan demonstrates how it’s done. During one session a gentleman flashes photos of kids and asks what he should do now. Ryan has done his homework by reading through the man’s resume in advance. He points him back to what was once his career love, completely changing the mood of the conversation from doom to potential.

Pic is shot through a realistic lens with almost no special effects. They also use real airlines and hotel properties which succeeds in bringing the audience closer to the story. There are an abundance of shots of clouds, views of the ground from 32,000 feet and wide array of corporate settings. Thanks to great editing the film has crisp pacing and holds dramatic interest. All the performances are excellent, especially Mr. Clooney, who showcases his timing and wit. Ms. Farmiga is seductive in her portrayal of the male version of Ryan Bingham. Supporting actors turn solid work, rounding out the story. I love these kind of pure films.

Natalie and Ryan have very different life philosophies and their banter serves to expose both the advantages and disadvantages of the choice each has made. They nudge one aother back from the guardrail and more toward the center of their beliefs, setting up a finale that delivers an emotional jolt.

Highly recommended. The official Up in the Air web site can be found here. Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Burn After Reading – Film Review

I have to admit when I first saw the trailer for Burn After Reading, the latest offering from the Coen brothers, I was afraid. It looked like it might be another Intolerable Cruelty. I was still reeling from No Country for Old Men and was hoping for a similar outing. No Country was at the top of my study list, but maybe doing intense films back to back is not a good idea, not even for the Coens. My fear was so strong that I only got around to seeing this film yesterday, several weeks after it opened. I was sorry I waited that long.

All the Coen elements are present. A wide array of familiar characters, plot twists, murder (of course), blackmail and everyone is cheating on everyone. It’s all wrapped up in a nice tidy package in a final exchange inside CIA headquarters.

John Malkovich plays Osbourne Cox, an analyst for the CIA with a level three security clearance. Due to a drinking problem he is asked by his boss to take a step back in his career. He becomes furious, and quits. This opening scene catapults the story forward and we find ourselves at a dinner party Osbourne and his wife, Katie Cox, played ice cold and calculating by Tilda Swinton, are hosting. At that event we meet Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and we’re off to the races.

Since he is now unemployed, Ozzie, as Osbourne is called, works on his memoirs. While we watch him slowly unwind and get a feel for his relationship with Katie, the film moves to Hardbodies Fitness Center, where Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) work. A mysterious computer disk is found in the locker room and Chad and Linda are convinced it is full of spy secrets and begin their blackmail scheme. It’s here that the Coens stop their nice tidy connect the dots story line and start bouncing all over the place. Fate and coincidence take over the plot and the ride gets stranger and funnier by the minute.

It’s kind of a spy movie, but the subtitle (intelligence is relative) hints that these guys may not be the sharpest tools in the shed. The script is funny and the style is dramatic comedy that goes back and forth between horror and disbelief.

Great performances, strong camera work, and witty dialog delivered with fantastic timing make this a really enjoyable film experience. I laughed out loud several times, as did most everyone in the packed theater. Recommended.

Visit the official web site here. Read the background copy of the site carefully.

Michael Clayton – Film Review

What struck me most about Michael Clayton is how all the players on this project came together as an ensemble, and took this film to a much higher level than might otherwise have been achieved. This is an extreme example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. When you look at the foundational pieces that make up this film, they are nothing special for the slick productions we have come to expect from Hollywood. By foundational I mean the story/script, music, art direction, costume and make-up. Certainly there are brilliant moments in the dialog, and score, But the entire film has been elevated several levels by the amazing performances of the actors. Each and every thespian turns in a performance perfectly pitched for the story. Credit of course goes to the casting, but it continues through to the director (Tony Gilroy) strategically placing his pieces on the chess board in a stunning gambit. Those accomplishments have been acknowledged with 3 Academy Award nominations for acting, as well as 4 others; direction, music, original screenplay and picture.

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However, the real stand out, the thing that pulls it all together in my mind, is the editing (by John Gilroy, the director’s brother). It’s his work that builds importance and power through the opening pre-minutes, then seamlessly splices together a patchwork story into the final film that earned a Best Picture nomination. In an unfortunate oversight, his name is missing from this year’s Oscar nomination list; I can see how it might have been overlooked when you look at the competition. But I posit, without Mr. Gilroy’s skill, Michael Clayton would not be on the Best Picture roster.

The story has been told many times before. Big conglomerate prioritizes greed above ethics and humans suffer. Hires a powerful law firm to defend it against a class action law suit, and an insider finally gets fed up and decides to expose the company for what it really is. Good triumphs and confidence is somewhat restored in the system.

That insider is Artur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) the law firm’s star litigator who has been willing to stay with this case for the firm and their client, U North. Arthur has a chemical imbalance, stops taking his meds and creates a scene by removing his clothes in a deposition hearing, then chases the witness into the parking lot wearing nothing more than his socks. Mr. Wilkinson’s rants remind me of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) from Network. Middle aged, reliable, brilliant, willing to do anything he’s asked, and slightly left of center. Edens teeters back and forth between mad professor, and adolescent boy looking for a way to beat the bullies and get back a small part his lost youth.

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U North has just promoted Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) to head legal counsel, and sends her to Minnesota to straighten out the Edens predicament. Meanwhile the law firm dispatches their “fixer” Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to do the same. Clayton has been with the firm for years and his talent is swooping in when there is a mess, or about to be one, and making things seem normal again. Clayton’s life is in turmoil, as usual the shoemaker has no shoes. His marriage has dissolved, he sees his son regularly, but doesn’t really connect, he has a gambling problem, and a recent business venture with his brother has gone bust, leaving him with a large financial problem. Clayton is a steeping pot waiting for someone or something to uncork the kettle. Mr. Clooney plays it Clooney cool, but allows us a glimpse into the tortured side of his character as he struggles to piece together family and career. It’s touching and very real.

Crowder is calculating, neurotic, and will do anything to further her position. Ms. Swinton captures it beautifully, taking us inside her character’s head. We see her rehearsing her speech while carefully laying out the big meeting’s wardrobe to show us how comfortable she is inside the friendly confines of the law office. These rituals have served her well. But when the fight moves to the street she is in way over her head.

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Director Tony Gilroy and George Clooney

Pic technical aspects are first rate. Strong direction and photography are right on for the complex thriller genre. It helps us forget sometimes that the story is a retread. But the script has numerous holes, and is in such a hurry to get to the end that it misses some rich opportunities along the way. Still, I would recommend this for its acting quality, doesn’t get much better, and the way the filmmakers assemble the elements into a fast-moving entertaining couple of hours.

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