Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movie Review: Up in the Air

(For the radio version please click here).

It took a 31 year old to direct one of the most adult and topical films of the year. Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters director Ivan, now has three feature films under his belt. “Thank You for Smoking”, a movie about a corporate tobacco public relations specialist, and “Juno”, a movie about a pregnant teen. They were sympathetic takes on marginalized lives. His third film continues the trend of asking us to care about people we are not suppose to care for.

“Up in the Air” follows the life of Ryan Bingham, who is portrayed by George Clooney. Mr. Bingham fires people for a living; a man who fires people because their own bosses are too chicken to do it themselves. And in our economic downturn, Ryan’s business is booming.

Years of firing people and hopping around the country have left Mr. Bingham with emotions of stone. He enjoys the insincere and forced friendliness afforded frequent fliers such as flight attendant greetings and hotel perks. Any interaction with lovers are likely soulless one night trysts in whatever Hilton brand hotel he happens to be in. When Mr. Bingham fires someone, externally, he is warm, sympathetic and hopeful. He is good at his job. But never do you think he gets sad at the destruction of these lives.

At first, the only discernable goal Mr. Bingham strives for is 10 million airline miles, a dedicated phone line to his air carrier, and a ride with the captain. Fortunately, two women crack his shell of impenetrable charm, and all of them change for the better - sort of. See, the unique talent of Mr. Reitman is turn the story of an emotionally cool frequent flying firing philanderer into a poignant commentary on our economy and an affirmation of roots, family, and love.

Anna Kendrick plays Natalie Keener, a young go-getter who’s business ideas threaten Mr. Bingham’s high flying ways. For me though, the real relevation is Vera Farmiga who plays a frequent flying female version of Bingham. They like each other enough to share flight schedules and arrange cross-country hook ups. Ms. Farmiga is excellent in a well written role; at turns funny, kind, empathetic, and ferocious. It’s a great role played by a great actress.

I beg you to see this film. My parents were in town over the holidays and looked after the kids. So my wife and I went to dinner and a movie. We chose “Up in the Air” over that other film. That other film, the one breaking all manner of box office records, is a technological marvel about nine foot tall aliens that will appeal to the 12 year old in us all. I can’t wait to see it. But please don’t ignore films like “Up in the Air”. It’s nuanced, topical, cohesive, adult, with great writing and acting, with minimal special effects, but plenty of visual charge. Make these movies successful so the 40 year old in us can have something to enjoy too.

“Up in the Air” is playing this weekend at Gross Alaska Cinema, downtown theater. This is Clint Farr, on a date with his wife (!), at the movies.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog

(For the radio version, please click here).

Much has been made, and rightly so, of the fact The Princess and the Frog is the first Disney animated film to feature an African American princess. And I join the rest of the country in saying, “It’s about time.” Yet, my four year old daughter, sitting in my lap, was totally engrossed. She giggled at the Cajun firefly; she guffawed at the horn blowing gator; and she buried her face into my chest when shadowy demons were released into the bayou. My little one was unaware of anything different, or groundbreaking, or political about this film. She just loved it. That too, I think, predicts well for our future.

Beyond the leap forward for society, I have to ask if the movie is any good? Of course it is. It’s a great film. The Princess and the Frog takes place in a specific time and place, New Orleans and Bayou in the 1920s. The film’s heroine, Tiana, dreams to start a fine restaurant and her father’s strong wise words provides her a path to do so. The rest of the film is the journey to discover her and her father’s dream. The fact an amphibious Prince of indeterminate southern European country shows up as a love interest really is beside the point. And I like that.

Of course the movie glosses over the reality of 1920’s Louisiana. We believe an African American woman could really start a fine dining establishment. Disney has Disneyfied reality since Dumbo. It is a fantasy, so there’s nothing here to disappoint.

The film showcases a collection of New Orleans jazz and down and dirty bayou blues played as fuzzy facsimiles. That would be my one criticism I suppose. This movie could be a chance to introduce children to some of the best roots music this country has to offer. Instead we get a phoned in soundtrack from the master of bland, Randy Newman. He’s talented, but his zydeco is a little like Pat Boone playing Metallica.

I know, I know, it’s a kid’s movie. And it truly is a kid’s movie. There is some nuance and unexpected poignancy that will keep adults engaged. But really, it’s about the kids. Even if the music is mediocre, there is plenty of it, and there is enough slapstick and outrageousness to keep the kids hooting. Unlike the Pixar films, like Wall-E or Finding Nemo, the film is animated with traditional hand drawings. This so-called two-dimensional animation is beautiful, harkening back to the Disney films of your youth.

I don’t know if The Princess and the Frog is a two-dimensional classic like the Lion King or the Little Mermaid. It more reminded me of the pleasant experience of watching The Aristocats or 101 Dalmations. Nothing amazing, but very fun, very watch-able, and very worth your money. And as with any Disney animated film, this movie is best appreciated on the big screen with a bunch of little kids giggling and screaming in unison.

The Princess and the Frog plays this weekend at the Gross Alaska Glacier Cinemas. This is Clint Farr, not so alone with my four year old, at the movies.