playing catch-up

I missed a lot of movies in 2009 and I’m playing catch-up. Here are some worth seeing:

Milky brought this one over; I’d wanted to see it, but he got it first. This is perhaps one of the best science fiction films of the last decade. Written and directed by Duncan Jones, it tells the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell, Choke) an astronaut who works for Lunar Corp, managing their mining operations on the lunar surface. It of course recalls 2001 but also the ’70s cult classic Silent Running, because he is alone with his robot Gerty on the barren moon. The movie has a fantastic tone of solitude and agoraphobia; Sam has a 3 year contract, but seems to be going a little stir crazy. He starts seeing things; or does he? Is the man on the moon not alone? It’s a great story, and I won’t spoil it for you. This one’s a winner, and Rockwell deserves a nomination for his role. Milky and I both give it:

5 bare-assed moons out of 5.

Julie & Julia
Nora Ephron is hit or miss with me; I loved When Harry Met Sally… but much of her recent work has felt formulaic, so I skipped Julie & Julia in theaters last year when reviews felt that one half of the film was lackluster. And it is, but only compared to the other half. As a whole, the film is quite enjoyable and doesn’t feel 2 hours long. As a food blogger, I should have given this movie more respect. Amy Adams plays the food blogger, who decides to cook every recipe in Julia’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking to bring some meaning to her life. She works for the 9/11 recovery office, and feels helpless as she tries to assist people whose lives were thrown asunder by the attacks. Thankfully, the story is intertwined with Julia Child’s life in France, where after working as a file clerk for the O.S.S. in WW2, she feels empty returning to home life. But she loves French cooking, so she learns how to cook- a decidedly male profession at the time- and then decides she has to introduce America to it. We know her story is a success, but the script manages to convey just how unlikely that was.

Much has been said of Streep’s excellent portrayal, which goes beyond impersonation and makes a lively character of the younger Julia Child based on her memoirs. She says things we would never expect, comparing a hot cannelloni to a stiff cock. (Remind me to read her memoirs –ed.) Stanley Tucci is also perfect as her loving and supportive husband, showing the man’s true range- he’s getting a lot of respect for playing a twisted murderer in The Lovely Bones, but this role shouldn’t be overlooked. Contrast him with Julie’s husband, who seems to be suffering her obsession with cooking. What the film lacks is a love of food, and a bit too much time spent on the mundane and self-absorbed act of blogging. It might be fun to read, but if you watched me type this stuff or fiddle with layouts, you’d rather watch paint dry; and we’re subjected to too much of it, even if it’s only a little. Amy Adams does what she can with the Julie character, but there’s not enough there; it was brave, positioning herself across from Meryl Streep, but unfortunately, she’s not ready yet. If this had been all about Julia Child, it could have been fantastic.

3.5 slabs of butter out of 5

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Andersen does it again. I’m not his biggest fan, but I admire his work, and he makes a wonderful story for both children and adults here. As much as I liked Where the Wild Things Are (full review) I think this is even better. It’s not as wacky as a Wallace & Gromit cartoon, but the stop-motion fuzzy figures are easily as emotive and endearing. And the story works for kids and adults, generating chuckles and grins from all directions, without trying too hard. I had a blast, and Firecracker did too. Like Andersen’s live action films, every moment has little details, the characters all have their little motivations and issues, but it’s all kept lively and fun.

5 Fox Force 5’s out of 5.

Sherlock Holmes
I had reservations about Guy Ritchie turning the world’s most famous detective into an action hero, but if you put expectations aside, this is a blast. Sure, it’s more like Young Sherlock Holmes– complete with cultists operating in the middle of London- but it grabs you early on, introducing Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes the bare-knuckle pugilist. He’s excellent as usual, toning down his twitchy mannerisms and slipping into Sherlock’s pipe and muttonchops with ease. Jude Law is Watson, Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky) has a delightful role as the harried police chief who needs the duo’s deductive powers, and the plot- revolving around an Aleister Crowley-esque magician with plans for Parliament- has twists and turns, but in the end, unravels to rational deduction, as it should. The weak spot is Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, who just doesn’t seem wily enough to be the only person to outwit Holmes. There’s plenty of good fun with set pieces in a shipyard, and a hulking giant that the duo bests with cattle prods and ju jitsu. Looking forward to the inevitable sequel, hoping someone says “no shit, Sherlock.”

4 deductions out of 5

A Single Man
Saw this with Firecracker because it is a rare starring role for Colin Firth in a film of substance, when he’s languished a bit lately. Set in the early ’60s, he plays a British college professor in California, suffering the loss of his lover of 16 years. During a time of red-baiting and nuclear paranoia, he contemplates suicide after losing the love of his life, because nothing else seems to matter. He sees minute details, like his students’ eyes glazing over; he feels like he is drowning, in a repetitive art-house sequence where he flails underwater naked in a back-lit swimming pool. Directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, the film looks beautiful, with stunning sets and some spectacular shots, making 1963 feel even more real and alive than a “Mad Men” episode. However, the story lacks focus and the film rests on the shoulders of Firth’s excellent performance. When a recognizable actor disappears into a role without extensive make-up, it is worthy of note. Also memorable is Julianne Moore as his friend Charlie, looking a bit haggard but also building a fully fleshed character with motives of her own. I felt the ending was a bit of a cop-out, perhaps cautionary, but it’s an enjoyable if morose character study of an invisible man suffering the loss of a love that at the time, still dared not speak its name. Expect an Oscar nom for Firth.

3.5 Calvin Klein commercials out of 5

Up in the Air

To your dismay, my resolution this year- along with the usual eat less, save more, and try not to explode with anger at the discourteous terminally oblivious jackass that has become my fellow New Jerseyan- is to spend less time online. My overflowing bookshelves and ten year backlog of unread tomes has become a running joke; I have more unwatched DVDs than many people have DVDs, period. I have a wall of them. So, what does it all mean, Basil? I took a hiatus of sorts while I was on a lazy holiday-peppered vacation these last two weeks, posting few and far between, and that’s going to be the norm. If you peruse the archives going back to 2008- and I hope you do- I was posting every day for a long time. It became an obsession; I’d watch bad movies just to blog about them, I’d patter about just about anything. So think of this as quality control. I’ve still got plenty to share, but it will hopefully be more interesting.
So, that being said, I saw Up in the Air with Firecracker last weekend. It’s one of the year’s best films, and shows that Jason Reitman is maturing at an exponential rate. At first glance I wanted nothing to do with it; a story about a road warrior whose job is to fire people? We can’t all choose our jobs; I wouldn’t squint at a guy who shovels horseshit and wonder if he’s a coprophiliac. But a professional, like a proctologist, sometimes I wonder if they saw it was an understaffed field, or if they just like assholes in an unwholesome fashion. I mean, if Quentin Tarantino got a medical degree, we know he’d be a podiatrist. But I digress; George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who loves being unanchored to the Earth, spending 274 days a year flying at his job as a corporate contract killer- someone hired to fire people en masse.

I encountered one of these firms a few months after 9/11, when I was working for a company- or should I say, no longer working for a company- HQ’d in Israel, whose stock nosedived. It was pretty funny, at the time; I’d only been there since February, I was a Cheeto-encrusted gamer nerd with a 6 hour a day Everquest addiction, and after seeing people file in and not file out, when I was called to the Roach Motel office, I knew the axe had come down. I was practically giddy- 2 months severance? Sign me up. They were expecting fear and rage, and I took my packet and wanted out of there ASAP. I still have the bagel slicer some co-workers gave me. It was a month before Christmas, I spent the winter raiding dragons and searching Monster. I had a positive outlook. That was when the book the movie is based on was written, after the dot com boom but just before the 9/11 bust. Now, I’d be heading toward that office with dread and uncertainty.
Releasing a movie about a corporate ax-man during these times is a tricky thing; can you generate sympathy, or even empathy for a Judas goat? Jason Reitman manages it, with his screenplay based on Walter Kirn’s novel. He returns to his trusty voice-over model, as Firecracker reminded me, well-used in both Juno and Thank You for Smoking. Ryan Bingham embraces his empty life choice, and even speaks about it as his “empty backpack” philosophy. No baggage. None except a carry-on, of course. Perhaps done a little more poetically in Fight Club with “single-serving friends,” but an equally chilling portrait. But as headhunters learn, their own head is someone else’s prey; Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman, who’s everywhere nowadays) has brought in psychologist and efficiency expert Natalie Keener, who’s going to save them tons of money on travel by switching them to firing people by videoconferencing.
This puts a damper on Ryan’s lifetime goal of reaching ten million frequent flier miles, and the benefits that come with ultra-elite status. In a country without royalty that claims to be classless, we love being treated better than common scum, even if it only means a free bottled water in our hotel room, or being able to take the shorter line. To keep the road movie format, Natalie flies with Ryan to test her system. On the road, Ryan has met a kindred spirit in Alex (Vera Farmiga) who also fetishizes the fetters of travel like Concierge Keys and sexts with him on her Blackberry when their itineraries don’t intersect. The film is busy, like Ryan’s schedule; he has his sister’s wedding to go to, as well.
The film has plenty of clever moments and some good laughs, but where it shines is when it spotlights our vulnerability when we’re rudely kicked out of our cozy cubbyholes by the cold quantization of others who reduce us into abstracts and headcounts. We see Ryan and Natalie at work delivering the news to the newly fired, and a few are cameos, but most are normal folks who lost their jobs recently, who were asked to say how they felt. Hopefully they got a decent paycheck, too. But it’s something only great actors can fake. Ryan gets the rug yanked out from under him late in the film, and I have to say that Clooney manages it. We’ve seen him get his fingernails pulled out before, but the shaken realization he has here is a career benchmark. He consoles the dearly redundant with a stone-faced there-there; pep-talks his brother-in-law-to-be with an honesty that cuts to the bone. Up in the Air is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and Clooney’s performance is even better than the recent Michael Clayton. We’ll be seeing him again at the Oscars this year.

5 out of 5 mile-high club entries

Staring at goats is funnier than you’d think

The Men Who Stare at Goats has an ad campaign that made me wary. It professed to be just so wacky, that it seemed primed to disappoint. Thankfully, it doesn’t. It’s not the surprise comedy of the year that Role Models was, but it’s refreshingly different, and very funny. The burden rests mostly on the backs of the actors assembled for the task, but director Grant Heslov- probably best remembered as Fazil, the funny sidekick in True Lies– does a good job with an iconoclastic script.
Ewan McGregor plays Bob, a reporter working in Ann Arbor, Michigan who finds a local eccentric who claims to be a psychic who worked for the Army. The man, Stephen Root, has those crazy eyes we’ve seen Root use, and he drops the names of the most powerful psychic he worked with. Later, when Bob is in Iraq looking for a story on contractors, he recognizes that name: Lyn Cassady, played by George Clooney. Lyn always looks like he’s a deer in the headlights, or perhaps a rat in a cage. Clooney excels at creating eccentric characters like Ulysses Everett McGill, or his spook from Syriana, and this is perhaps somewhere in between. Lyn is immediately intriguing, infectiously enthusiastic about his psychic powers once he decides he can trust Bob, and they’re off on an adventure across the desert.
So it’s partly a road movie, with Bob reading the New Earth Army manual that Lyn gives him, so we learn the history of Psychic Warfare in the U.S. Army through flashback, with its birth in the training of Bill Django, a super-hippie warrior monk played by Jeff Bridges. It’s easy to write this performance off as The Dude, but it’s much different except for the easygoing acceptance of new age oddities. When Bill and Lyn click during an early, unconventional training session involving the hippy hippy shake, it’s perfect. The whole premise is unbelievable now, but in the madness of the Cold War, which gave us Mutual Assured Destruction and other insanities well satirized in Dr. Strangelove, we think it just might have happened. The movie is a fictionalized account, but the opening notation of “You’d be
amazed at how much of this is true.”
In structure, it reminds me of Thank You for Smoking, which melded the ridiculous and the morbid, and this is a fun war movie set in Iraq, something I never expected. It has a sort of Three Kings vibe in that way, a “Catch-22” view of the military and keeps a magnificently consistent tone. The villain of the story is Kevin Spacey’s Larry Hooper, an L. Rob Hubbard science fiction writer dabbling with the occult, who becomes intrigued with the team, joins it, and becomes its undoing. This is one of Spacey’s best roles of recent, a skin he fills naturally. Compared to his Lex Luthor, this is masterful and perfectly played. Ewan McGregor is the outsider and does a good job, despite his American accent sounding a lot like he had the same voice coach as Eddie Izzard for his role in “The Riches.” He may have been chosen so we can chuckle every time the psychics call themselves “Jedi,” but he manages to hold his own with the big boys who get the crazy roles.
Do they stare at goats? Yes. They also take some digs at Halliburton, Blackwater, torture, and the media. It’s enjoyable viewing, and doesn’t belabor you about the head with messages. Unlike the idiocy of Buffalo Soldiers, this embraces the mad bureaucracy of the military and its excesses, and makes good fun of it. It introduces us to unbelievable characters that we enjoy the company of, and despite a little shakiness in the third act it’s never boring, eye-rolling or inconsistent. I give it great credit for maintaining its wild tone of ’60s idealism throughout, without getting sappy.

3.5 out of 5 goat scrotes