The Conspirator

Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” poses questions of American values in a time of uncertainty for our country. It conveniently even applies to the recent death of Osama bin Laden, pondering if an unprecedented villain is entitled to his human rights. But could the reiteration of those values appear any more trite than they are here?

Through some extensive and deep research by his screenwriter James Solomon, Redford re-enacts the time following President Lincoln’s assassination through the eyes of Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a captain for the Union Army in the Civil War and now a lawyer working for the Southern senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). His job is to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a keeper of a boarding house charged with sheltering, aiding and conspiring in the murder of President Lincoln with John Wilkes Booth.

Aiken is nearly certain of her guilt, as is the rest of the country looking for answers and revenge, but Johnson convinces him that the Constitution entitles her to the same fair trial as anyone else, and the trial made up of a jury of Northern war officers and a biased Attorney General is not it.

This becomes more than clear as it does in almost all courtroom dramas. A judge is always bitter and unfair, the prosecutor is always ruthless and smarmy, the surprise witnesses are always unpredictable bombshells and the pitiful client will always sit silently and stoically until the climactic moment when an outburst in the courtroom threatens to place them in contempt.

I grew tired of “The Conspirator’s” drawn out portrayal of yet another courtroom drama with hints of conflicting American values not so subtly poking their heads into the proceedings. Continue reading “The Conspirator”

Helvetica

Graphic designers talk about typefaces the way I talk about film.

To them, a typeface has a rich history, it expresses feelings and emotions, and it symbolizes simplicity, cleanliness, modernization and even conformity.

So I learned in the documentary “Helvetica,” a film that definitively proves there is a documentary for anyone, about anything.

This is a film that explores the origins and the significance of the font Helvetica, the most ubiquitous font used in ads, signage and computers for the last 50 years. Continue reading “Helvetica”

Kick-Ass

I’m going to try reviewing “Kick-Ass” as a movie and not one that inspires and calls out to fanboys. I have no need to insult the audience that finds it amusing, nor do I have to criticize Director Matthew Vaughn or it’s original author Mark Millar for imagining it. I initially carried a lot of unnecessary baggage regarding the morality of the film, but morals are the least of the film’s problems.

Admittedly, I did find it uncomfortable to see a preteen girl utter lines of loving affection to her father with the same inflection of glowing innocence as a collection of four-letter words before she proceeded to chop off legs, nail baddies in the head and get pummeled to a bloody pulp by a middle-aged man.

But, I didn’t enjoy these moments that others find so cathartic and hilarious not because I’m a prude, but because a majority of the scenes are strictly serious, played for drama and rooted in a mindset of reality. This is not comic violence; it’s just violence. Continue reading “Kick-Ass”

Up in the Air

Jason Reitman’s third film “Up in the Air,” like “Juno” before it, is a socially relevant, timely masterpiece that speaks and relates to adults everywhere with its intelligence and charm.

Up in the Air PosterSociety has become streamlined. The best and brightest function like clockwork, the most tech savvy and connected people operate with speed and efficiency, and the only people with anything meaningful or important to say have done away with all the excess waste in their lives and need not say anything at all. Jason Reitman is one of the few left to not function this way, and he still has a great story to tell.

Reitman’s third film “Up in the Air,” like “Juno” before it, is a socially relevant, timely masterpiece that speaks and relates to adults everywhere with its intelligence and charm.

The film’s hero is Ryan Bingham, as portrayed in one of his best performances by George Clooney. Bingham’s job is to fire people for a living, and he is the best at what he does because he has a way with words, creates no attachments and has micro managed society to the point that he understands the way people think and act. To attain this level of success, Bingham has become a pioneer of the air, attaining more frequent flyer miles than almost any person, and his universally connected status ensures that he can spend all his time without ever being grounded in one place.

It’s his way of life, and his extremely methodized system keeps the business world turning as the economic downturn threatens jobs across the country. In addition to some actors like Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons, Reitman did his research and cast some genuine, recently terminated people for Clooney to fire. These moments and performances are remarkably truthful in their bleakness and emotion. For these scenes alone, Reitman and “Up in the Air” will become a landmark for the ways in which humans face an ever growing problem.

And while the economic theme of the film serves as a mighty overtone, I have not even begun to discuss the psychological depth Reitman’s screenplay has. The film provides Ryan Bingham with two reincarnations of himself. “Just think of me as yourself with a vagina,” says Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a middle-age pioneer of the air that enjoys comparing car rental plans with Bingham and gets turned on by his American Airlines Concierge Membership Card.

Alex has such a warm demeanor about her character. She serves such a nice role in modeling and embodying the similarities of Bingham to paint him as so much more than a character type. As Alex, Farmiga syncs up perfectly with Bingham’s rapid fire dialogue and witty persona, and it gives Farmiga the first opportunity to really do comedy. Who would have guessed her more solemn, dramatic background could honestly allow her to go head to head with George Clooney, one of the most charming men on the face of the Earth? The two have an excellent chemistry.

Then there is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a hotshot straight from Cornell hoping to revolutionize the art of firing people, modeling Bingham 20 years ago. Natalie wants to begin firing people through video chat, grounding all the people in the air and saving a fortune on travel fees. Not only will this drastically change Bingham’s life, he feels it is a harsh thing to do to a person in such a tough situation.

But just as much as Natalie will grow under Bingham’s wing, her common dreams of building a relationship and a home life will make Bingham rethink his drifter lifestyle.

The discussion of this topic gives “Up in the Air” its weight. Through the similar personalities and yet polar ideas of both Natalie and Bingham, the film finds a note of great comedy as the two actors let loose their argumentative chops. But it also strikes some dramatic chords in the way the discussion makes us think.

Bingham makes a speech several times throughout the film about living life with an empty backpack. When we jam all the possessions, institutions and even people into our lives, they slow us down like a heavy backpack. Bingham and his lifestyle are idealized throughout the film. We root for the success of his freedom. And although such freedom is unrealistic and ultimately a lonely way of living life, the film does not attempt to completely change Bingham through melodrama and the clichés of love and friendship.

What I got from the film is that the institutions, the traditions and the little things in life, they can be meaningless and are a waste. The people, although they offer the most burdens of all, are the only things worth carrying. To say people and connections are the most significant things a person needs is fairly generic, and “Up in the Air” even challenges that theory. But it also seems to say, “If your backpack is empty, what’s the use in carrying one?”

These were the things I thought about during “Up in the Air,” which is a beautifully cinematic experience, a mature comedic affair and an emotional ordeal. Reitman is one of today’s best directors at getting people thinking. Even his comedy, as “Up in the Air” is rich and funny, is material suited for intelligent people as it has a vein of truth and thought to it.

Of all of Reitman’s leads, Clooney is perhaps the best at making his audience ask questions of his character and performance. Clooney is wonderful here, displaying more charm and conversational physique than ever. But his Ryan Bingham is something Clooney is often not: vulnerable. There is more pain to be sensed here than when he stood in front of his car exploding in “Michael Clayton.”

And the reason for Clooney’s frailty and nakedness is in Ryan Bingham’s bleak future. “Up in the Air’s” ending is a difficult read, but I view it as a rebirth. A rebirth is the service Bingham is offering to all whom he fires. And through his thought provoking screenplay, Reitman is doing the same for his audience.

4 stars

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Anyone who knows me knows I had severe doubts about “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” before going in, and despite my enjoyment of the first film, this one has Michael Bay to thank for that. But I checked my bias at the door and yet my first suspicion this would be a bad film was the Paramount logo. Sound effects punctuated every star that flew by (all 22), and I asked, “Is this really necessary?”

That’s the question I was asking throughout the whole movie. How much longer does this fight scene between hundreds of CGI creations have to drag on for? And how many more of them do we need? How many back stories and Macguffins do we need to understand that an evil alien race wants to destroy Earth purely for revenge (which, since it’s in the title, is fairly obvious already)? Why must it pander every stereotype, cliché and sex joke in the book before it thinks we’re entertained? Continue reading “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Remember the fight scene between Jack and Barbossa in “The Pirates of the Caribbean?” It goes on for several minutes until we learn that each of them is an undead pirate zombie that can’t be killed. I’ve never been able to defend that one scene, and for the same reason, I can’t defend a single moment of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

Although it is intended to be a history lesson on a story most people already know enough about, “Wolverine” is a film without suspense or purpose. It is one action sequence after another, each more ludicrous than the last. And it is so because Wolverine is invincible; He is the hero of all heroes, with no weaknesses, no easy way to be killed, an unrivaled weapon and a guarantee of his survival.

Since the X-Men trilogy, Wolverine has not changed or gotten stronger, but his limits are stretched even beyond the ones established in the series. In the original series, Wolverine was passed out for several minutes after a gunshot to the head. Here, he gets stabbed numerous times consecutively, is hurled through walls, takes multiple bullet wounds and even recovers unscathed from a brief death after his adamantium injection. This is all done stylishly, but to no avail of course. Continue reading “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”

Zombieland

Can I recommend a movie simply because Bill Murray is in it? Can I justify a likeness for a film if it contained five great minutes in comparison to 75 more lackluster ones? I’m not kidding when I say “Zombieland” features a cameo so hilarious it may just be worth your money and time. So should you see this movie? If zombies are your thing, have a blast.

Oh! You were expecting more of a review? Anyone going to see “Zombieland” can guess the film is just a goofy monster movie, and for these people for this movie, a simple thumbs up/thumbs down should suffice. Anyone else is waiting to hear if this is another genre-defying “Shaun of the Dead,” in which case, don’t leave the comfort of your witty, quirky Judd Apatow or Wes Anderson comedy just yet.

In fact there is nothing clever about the dozens of zombie murders that pepper the film. Kills are less amusing and more gruesome. They amount to little creativity other than baseball bat to the head, car door to the head, banjo to the head, and on one occasion, grand piano to the head. Continue reading “Zombieland”

The Social Network

“The Social Network” is both a vivid, inventive fantasy and a dramatically realistic portrait of the 21st century. It succeeds at being both because Director David Fincher has touched on a subject that has become so ingrained in the subconscious of everyone who’s ever heard of the Internet while expanding on the biopic subgenre in a way as revolutionary as the idea of Facebook itself.

The film is not about Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the founder of Facebook, or Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Mark’s one-time best friend, or Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the inventor of Napster and co-owner of Facebook or even about the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played by Armie Hammer), who claim Mark stole the idea of Facebook from them. Aaron Sorkin’s inspired screenplay weaves through time and different perspectives to create a powerful story about no hero, villain, victim or winner.

“The Social Network,” with all its rapid-fire, whip-smart dialogue, is a stirring metaphor for the complexities and tragedies of life on a web site where everyone is connected. And yet it is not pro or anti Facebook, the Internet or technology. It is a character sketch for what happened to these people in this screenplay in a time where the only friends Zuckerberg has are the ones we see, and not the 500 million users around the globe. Continue reading “The Social Network”

The Hangover

Remember when comedies not produced by Judd Apatow didn’t have to be about being chased by CG dinosaurs or fighting an evil Egyptian Pharaoh with Amelia Earhart? Or how about when a comedy didn’t have to star every A, B, C and D-List comedian on the planet? Me neither, but “The Hangover” is the exception.

Here is a simple, funny comedy with a not completely outrageous premise and a few characters that are familiar but not total cliché stereotypes. Doug, Phil, Stu and Alan are four guys on the way to Vegas for Doug’s bachelor party. We see them make a toast and have a drink on the roof of the hotel, and the next morning, none of them can remember anything, their room is trashed with hundreds of unexplainable details, and Doug has gone missing. What we’re left with is three characters on a kind of mystery quest to piece together everything that happened the previous evening. Continue reading “The Hangover”

An Education

There is a performance by Carey Mulligan in “An Education” that is so inherently charming that I would like to say it is the sole reason for the film going above and beyond as it does, give her an Academy Award for her work and move on. But Lone Scherfig’s film has a nuance to it that transcends boilerplate Oscar-bait becoming a wholly original work of art.

“An Education” is a British film in the early, pre-Rock and Roll 60’s of London. Jenny (Mulligan) is a senior in high school, top of her class, itching to attend Oxford, constantly nagged by her supportive but pushy father Jack (Alfred Molina), plays the cello, has a quasi-relationship with an equally nerdy and fastidious boy and is bored out of her mind. She lives in the type of household where a Latin dictionary serves as a suitable birthday present, and both her father and would-be boyfriend think highly of her enough to get the same gift. Continue reading “An Education”