Friday, December 18, 2009

Film reviews in brief

Posted By on Fri, Dec 18, 2009 at 2:22 PM

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  • Up in the Air

By Matt Brunson

So did Santa deem me a good little boy or a bad little boy this year? Hard to say. On one hand, his helpers at the Fox studio didn't screen Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel for local press, and for that, I'm eternally grateful. On the other hand, those bastards at Fox also didn't screen Avatar in Charlotte, a demeaning slap in the face to this region and its inhabitants. (Fortunately, I managed to catch up with the film.)

Here, then, are brief blurbs of seven films new to local theaters, listed in preferential order.

UP IN THE AIR (****) — In the cinema of 2009, Ryan Bingham should by all accounts emerge as the Protagonist Least Likely To Be Embraced By The Nation's Moviegoers. That's because Ryan works as a downsizing expert, hired to come in and dismiss employees that their own bosses are too gutless to fire face to face. Ryan is excellent at his job, which would make him the antagonist in virtually any other film. But because he's played by charismatic George Clooney, Ryan becomes less a villain and more a representative of the modern American, a tech-age person trying to reconcile his buried humanity with what he or she believes is necessary to survive in this increasingly disconnected world. That's the starting point for this superb adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel, but the film covers a lot more territory — both literally and figuratively — before it reaches the finish line. As Ryan jets all over the country doing his job — the opposite of The Accidental Tourist's Macon Leary, he loves traveling and hates the handful of days a year he's forced to spend at home — he makes the acquaintance of a fellow frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga), and they strike up a romance that's among the sexiest and most adult placed on screen in some time. Yet Ryan's carefully constructed life threatens to crash and burn when his company's latest hire (Anna Kendrick), a whiz kid just out of college, implements a plan that will require the grounding of all employees, including Ryan. Penning the script with Sheldon Turner, director Jason Reitman (now 3-for-3 following Juno and Thank You for Smoking) has created a timely seriocomic work that manages to be breezy without once diminishing the sobering realities that constantly hover around the picture's edges (for starters, the fired employees interviewed in the film are not actors but real workers who were let go from their jobs). Farmiga and Kendrick are excellent as the two women who unexpectedly alter the direction of Ryan's life, yet it's Clooney, in his best screen work to date, who's most responsible for earning this magnificent movie its wings.

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THE MAID (***1/2) — The Maid sports the sort of terse, career-oriented title that often suggests a viewer can expect to either see a slapstick comedy (The Valet, The Bellboy) or a psychological thriller (The Nanny). But while it's clear from the outset that pratfalls will be noticeably missing from this Chilean import, it isn't until late in the game that audiences will be able to determine the extent of the picture's darker undertones. In a formidable performance, Catalina Saavedra plays Raquel, who for 23 years has served as the live-in maid for the Valdez clan. Considering herself one of the family, Raquel is fiercely territorial, and when her failing health forces mousy matriarch Pilar Valdez (Claudia Celedon) to hire additional help, Raquel does whatever she can to scare off those she views as intruders. The script by director Sebastian Silva is masterful, setting up all manner of interesting dynamics not only between Raquel and the members of the household but also between Raquel and the succession of domestics who run afoul of her tyrannical ways.

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THE DAMNED UNITED (***) — Anthony Hopkins has long been heralded for playing a wide variety of historical figures — Adolf Hitler, Pablo Picasso, Richard Nixon and a dozen others — but Michael Sheen isn't exactly a slouch either when it comes to turning real life into reel life. The talented thespian who previously tackled David Frost, Tony Blair, H.G. Wells and Emperor Nero now essays the role of Brian Clough, and if most American viewers draw a blank on that name, rest assured that British soccer fans are more than familiar with his legacy. Refusing to devolve into a routine sports flick (see Invictus), The Damned United is instead more interested in the off-field clashes than the on-field skirmishes, as the talented soccer manager Clough moves up into the major leagues and ends up taking over the championship team vacated by his rival, Don Revie (Colm Meaney). The beauty of the script by Peter Morgan (The Queen) is that the feud between the two men isn't black-and-white: Clough often reveals himself to be as much of a prick as Revie (especially when ignoring the advice of his longtime friend and partner Peter Taylor, well-played by Timothy Spall), and it's this entanglement of audience emotion and expectation that allows this rollicking saga to score.

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THE ROAD (***) — Zombies seem to be de rigueur in today's strain of post-apocalyptic motion pictures, yet this adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) offers nothing quite so fanciful. The undead shambling through this bleak movie's ravished landscapes are, technically speaking, still human, though many have taken to eating human flesh, and all seem to be moving forward as though propelled by an automatic instinct to survive at all costs. Among the ragtag survivors are a father-son team identified only as Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee); solely dedicated to protecting his child, Man does his best to steer clear of all other humans, lest they be what he tags "bad guys" (those with murderous, cannibalistic urges); his paranoia makes him even wary of seemingly harmless strangers, like the elderly man they encounter on the road (Robert Duvall, doing the most with this juicy morsel of a role). Director John Hillcoat, whose Aussie Western The Proposition should be Netflixed posthaste by all who haven't seen it, creates a credible futureworld in which even the "good guys" struggle to retain some semblance of decency, and Mortensen comes through with another haunting performance that mixes the cerebral with the physical.

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AVATAR (***) - The only film capable of surpassing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as the Fanboy Fave of 2009, James Cameron's massively hyped Avatar at least differs from Michael Bay's boondoggle in that it's, you know, entertaining. On the other hand, the notion that it represents the next revolution in cinema is nothing more than studio-driven hyperbole, because while the 3-D visuals might rate four stars, Cameron's steady but unexceptional screenplay guarantees that this falls well below more compatible marriages of substance and style found in such celluloid groundbreakers as the original King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Toy Story and Cameron's own Terminator films. Here, the story meshes Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas with, amusingly enough, this year's animated flop Battle for Terra — it's the year 2154, and the Americans have decided to destroy the indigenous people on a distant planet in order to plunder the land and make off with its riches (plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose). Employing technology that allows humans to look like the blue-skinned locals, the Earthlings send in a Marine (Sam Worthington) to gain their trust, but as the jarhead gets to know these aliens better, he finds himself conflicted. For all its swagger, Avatar is rarely deeper than an average Garfield strip, but Cameron's creation of a new world demands to be seen at least once.

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ME AND ORSON WELLES (***) — In 1937, high school student Richard Samuels (Zac Efron, just fine) lands a small role in a theatrical production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. But it's not just any production: It's the one being mounted by the innovative Mercury Theatre and its brilliant star-director, an arrogant and demanding force of nature named Orson Welles. Lacking the sociopolitical context of Tim Robbins' 1999 Cradle Will Rock (another look at the early days of the Mercury), Richard Linklater's entertaining picture nevertheless does an admirable job in its dissection of Welles' fascinating — and infuriating — personality, although the movie wouldn't be half as successful without Christian McKay's commanding performance in the showy role.

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DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? (*1/2) — Stop me if you've heard this one before: Two city slickers whose knowledge of world history extends only to the NYC boroughs are forced through contrived situations to stay a spell in rural America, where they adapt to the regional cuisine (lots of mayonnaise employed), view animals as alien beings (horses and cows and bears, oh my!), and remain leery of the locals (gun-toting Republicans who love their rodeos but hate those liberals). If you've heard that one, then you've certainly heard about the Morgans, a dimwitted comedy in which an estranged couple (Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker) find themselves hiding out in Wyoming after they witness a murder back in the Big Apple. Old pros Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen (representing the small-town law) provide some lift, but otherwise, here's yet another movie that should be neither seen nor heard.

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