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Review: Up in the Air (2009)

Jason Reitman's Up in the Air is pretty overrated. There's a lot of unemployment, and it's about a guy who fires people for a living and it has a zippy script and A-list actors doing a good job, so it's no surprise it's zeitgeist-y and Oscar catnip, but like Reitman's previous film, Juno, it's more likable and glib than profound. The book is based upon a novel by Walter Kirn, which I have not read, though I have read some of his short stories and articles, which I found uniformly worthwhile.

George Clooney does a pretty good job as Ryan Bingham, a rootless corporate wanderer who flies around firing people for company bosses who don't know how or can't be bothered. Bingham makes a sort of religion out of doing his job well, avoiding entanglements and staying in constant motion. He's even bottled his philosophy into a motivational speech which he delivers in whatever's left of his free time.

Bingham stays in constant motion, on autopilot in fact, until he's confronted with a young business school graduate, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, very good), with a new scheme for his company's business which would strand him at home, where he might have to get a dog or grow petunias. Clearly, this must be stopped.

Bingham's plan is to put Keener on the road with him, show her the ropes of what can be a particularly nasty and depressing business, and see if she can stand up under it. He's nice enough to her, but doesn't shield her from the realities of what they do.

In the meantime, Bingham has started up an affair with Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, wonderful), who seems to be sort of a female version of himself. She's open, funny, pragmatic and seems as interested in Bingham as he is in her. Ryan and Alex's paths cross with Natalie's at a memborable conference they crash for the music, dancing and free booze.

We do learn that Bingham has some family connections, however reluctant he may be to spend much time or thought on them, when he invites Alex home with him for his sister's wedding. We meet both of his sisters, Kara (Amy Morton, very good), who's getting a divorce after many years of marriage to a man Bingham barely knows, and Julie (Melanie Lynskey, "Two and a Half Men," Away We Go, also very good), who's marrying Jim Miller (Danny McBride, pretty funny), a lovable goofball with cold feet.

Jason Bateman plays Clooney's boss, and is quite good. Zach Galifianakis, J.K. Simmons and Sam Elliott have effective cameos, along with a string of actual fired workers who play workers Bingham fires.

There's a lot that's amusing or interesting in the film, but there are connections that just aren't made or made well. I won't spoil the ending, but I must say it's weak, despite confronting in a useful way some of the more tired conventions of similar films. The last line of the film, in my opinion, is much too epigrammatic, too easy, and at the same time overambitious. It doesn't work, and it unbalances the film.

I've seen Up in the Air twice by now. It's not bad, and again, the actors are talented and working well with okay material. But it's sort of like Jerry Maguire without any earnestness, and what was good about Jerry Maguire was mostly earnestness. The film's best acting Oscar nominations are well-deserved, script, pic, director not so much, I think.

The Magic of the Movies

Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is truly disappointing, an effects-wizardry extravaganza with not much going on. There's so little character development that it's sometimes hard to care who is who or what is happening. I glanced at my cell phone for the time a lot during the second hour and that's pretty rare for me, but the display looked cool in IMAX 3-D.

Mia Wasikowska is picture-perfect as Alice Kingsleigh, now twenty, who as a child used to have strange dreams of what the audience knows is Wonderland, and a father, Charles (Marton Czokas), who would kindly remind her that she should never be afraid of dreams, after all, she could always just wake up. But at twenty, her father has died, and his trading company is in new hands. And Alice, a bit of a rebel, seems to be the only one in her circle who does not think of herself as in danger of looming spinsterhood.

There's an engaging, if a bit cartoonish beginning, as Alice travels with her mother to the home of her father's business partner, where some surprises are in store.

But Alice is distracted, she keeps seeing a white rabbit in a waistcoat flitting through the bushes, or gesturing at his pocketwatch. Nobody else seems to notice, even Aunt Imogene (Frances de la Tour), who's a bit touched. But at a crucial moment, Alice decides to follow the rabbit, who leads her (back?) to Wonderland, or Underland, or howsomever you say it.

This movie claims to be based on both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and it displays both a pretty impressive visual exposition of the stories and the sort of encyclopedic knowledge of them which can sometimes unfortunately lead film adaptations to be boring to those who do not possess such knowledge.

Characters and dialogue are given short shrift, there's very little humor which connects, but whatever monsters and talking animals seem to know what's going on. It feels rote and underimagined.

The way the story is presented also invites unfortunate comparisons to the superior second Narnia film, Prince Caspian, whose fantastic characters are as obtuse, but wonderfully explicated and exploited for their visual and character quirks in a way this film never seems to consider.

There are some excellent performances. Wasikowska is picture-perfect, as previously noted, though sometimes overwhelmed by the effects, which at times literally clash with her relatively calm and realistic take. Good voice work is often wasted on characters whose plotlines don't really pay off, especially most of the talking animals, and Johnny Depp is not very good, and doesn't seem to have much to do, as the Mad Hatter. Helena Bonham Carter is spot-on as the Red Queen, however, as she interrogates frogs or screams, "Off with their heads!" and Crispin Glover is pretty good as her minion, the Knave of Hearts. Anne Hathaway is not bad, and has some funny moments.

Unlike some effects movies I might see again just for the effects, even if the story is weak, this Alice really did not knock my socks off, and I would probably decline the chance to see it again, even free. It is neither Tim Burton nor Johnny Depp's greatest two hours. But it is a movie, with some decent performances and some striking visuals, so I've given it my slightest condemnation at two stars.

The Magic of the Movies


Thune (again) leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for February

Sen. John Thune (SD) led February voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

February 2010

#1 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 29.4%
#2 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 22%
#3 - Rep. Mike Pence (IN) ... 19.2%
#4 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 7.3%
#5 - Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) ... 4%
#6 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 3.4%
#7 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 2.8%
#7 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 2.8%
#7 - Other ... 2.8%
#8 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 2.3%
#9 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... 1.7%
#10 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 1.1%
#11 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... .6%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... .6%
#12 - Sen. Sam Brownback (KS) ... 0%

177 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) was added to the poll this month after winning the straw poll at the CPAC meeting. You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

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Review: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is adapted from books by Rick Riordan which I have not read. So without implicating the books, I'll quickly diagnose the film as a Harry Potter ripoff. Of course it's directed by the same director as the first two Harry Potter films, Chris Columbus, who used to make pretty cool movies like Adventures in Babysitting or Home Alone. More than anything, now, he seems to want to be in charge of a franchise. Maybe he's found one.

Percy Jackson isn't bad, it's just extremely lazy. Par for the course for big effects movies lately, it has spectacular effects which are worth the price of admission, and it largely ignores character development and dialogue. The result is beautiful if underwhelming in terms of story.

Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is a high school student we don't know anything about, except that he lives with his mother (Catherine Keener) and mean, crude stepfather (Joe Pantoliano, wasted), and doesn't know who his father is.

We know who his father is, however, as we watch a confrontation between Zeus (Sean Bean), the head of the Gods, and Percy's father, Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), the God of the Ocean, who threaten each other with war if Zeus doesn't get back his stolen lightning bolt, which somebody apparently has fingered Percy for, or if anybody threatens Percy, from Poseidon's point of view.

Cue the harpies! Yeah, there isn't long to wait until we snap out of the non-existent story of Percy's normal life and into the mythological wonders on display. Impatient with leaving things to the Gods to decide, all manner of strange beasties begin the attack against Percy, looking for that bad lightning bolt. They must think they have a pretty good informant, an idea which might have been interesting if explored. Why do they think they have a good informant? I couldn't tell you.

Percy himself is pretty unfazed by this mythological eruption, or by the response of his mythology professor, Mr. Brunner, an academic in a wheelchair who transmogrifies into Chiron, a half-horse, or Centaur, or his best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), who transmogrifies into Percy's "protector," a half-goat, or Satyr. After all, if we wanted to see how Chris Columbus thinks someone might react to their entire conception of the world being altered by supernatural forces at work, we could always watch Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone again.

Still, Lerman, Jackson and Alexandra Daddario as Annabeth, a daughter of Athena, do yeoman acting work being likable while having a semi-entertaining quest around the country trying to find some magical objects which will help them travel to the Underworld, rescue some people, and try to prove that Percy is not the lightning thief. Their time at the Lotus Casino is the highlight of the quest, a trippy MTV-inspired interlude which transcends the bounds of the rest of the plot by far.

Lots of fine actors' talents are wasted along the way, including Uma Thurman's as Medusa, Steve Coogan's as Hades and Rosario Dawson's as his wife Persephone. But again, it's all fun to look at, the fantastic settings and effects are remarkably good. Then there's a fairly worthless coda of action which presents itself pretty quickly after the beginning of the credits, so you should remain seated for that, if you care to, by that point.

I might watch Percy Jackson again, just to see it, and a two-and-a-half star rating is a recommendation. If you have kids learning about mythology, or who have an interest in it, you might want to see it with them. But if you have no special interest in the film itself for any reason, you should probably trust your gut and pick a different way to spend your two hours. You wouldn't miss very much.

The Magic of the Movies


Review: The Wolfman (2010)

Joe Johnston's The Wolfman, apparently some kind of semi-remake of the 1941 Universal classic with Lon Chaney, Jr. (which I did not watch again before writing this review), does not quite reach classic status on its own. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt, it's a very basic, and boring at times, Edgar Allan Poe-esque retelling of a basic werewolf story. It aspires to be iconic, like last year's simple ninja story, Ninja Assassin, and some humor, period feeling and decent effects (though some are pretty cheesy) along with committed if odd performances from all, come together to give it my slightest recommendation.

The film opens with a lively and interesting werewolf attack. We have no idea what's going on or who the werewolf is, and the speed and ferocity of the werewolf as he attacks are effective. The whole film is shot in a dark lather of clouds, shadows and contrasts, at times seeming almost black-and-white, with perhaps a few dim hues discernible. This mostly works, too, though the day and night scenes are sometimes hard to tell apart.

Benicio Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, an actor who lives in America after being sent away from his family home in Blackmoor, England, as a child, after he was institutionalized following the death of his mother. A letter from his brother Ben's fiancée, Miss Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), reaches him in on tour in London, informing him that his brother has been missing for days and that Lawrence's assistance would be appreciated.

Lawrence does decide to return, his fame as an actor attracting some local attention as he does. But the search for his brother has ended by the time he arrives. His brother's body has been found in terrible, mysterious condition, and the search for answers begins as Lawrence commits himself to find out how it happened.

Benicio Del Toro is all shambling Brando in the picture as Lawrence, mumbling even when he's enunciating clearly, a trick he perfected in The Usual Suspects, to greater effect in that film. His character's exile to America handily explains his accent and exposure to The Method. There are moments when this is very persuasive, and moments when it's almost laughable, unfortunately.

Meanwhile, further werewolf attacks attend Lawrence's investigation, and arouse neighborhood suspicions of our prodigal son. There's a further institutionalization, which reminds very much of scenes from David Lynch's The Elephant Man. Antony Sher, who was a charming Disraeli in 1997's Mrs. Brown with Judi Dench, has fun as Dr. Hoenneger, the treating psychologist.

Anthony Hopkins, the actual veteran of The Elephant Man, at first seems a perfect choice for his role as Lawrence's mysterious father, Sir John. Though he looks nothing like Del Toro, what the heck, he'd be a good choice for any werewolf movie. This actually turns out to be a bit of a handicap, as he's scarier as Sir John than any werewolf, but the role forces him to be somewhat restrained and his dialogue is unintentionally funny at times, undercutting the story. He wears dark round smoked glasses to remind us of characters in better semi-contemporaneous period pieces like Gary Oldman's in his own Bram Stoker's Dracula, Johnny Depp's in From Hell, or Robert Downey, Jr.'s current Sherlock Holmes.

Emily Blunt plays a sort-of love interest for Lawrence after his brother's death, but she doesn't have much to do, either. She does seem to be the most aware of her predicament acting in this movie with a weak script, and she makes the most intelligent use of bad dialogue, adding some interest and disdainful humor. There's a moment when she reaches for a deadly weapon like she's reaching for a cup of tea, which I found highly amusing. Hugo Weaving is also fun, and has the best scene, as Inspector Abberline, though the character mostly wanders around aimlessly not looking for obvious clues.

I don't know, I might actually watch it again for Del Toro, Hopkins, Blunt, Sher, Weaving and the effects. It's kind of funny, and kind of cool at times, but overall, The Wolfman just doesn't hang all together so well. If you're hungry for a wolfman movie, and the weekend box office says you (collectively) are, have at it. It's a bit better than last year's Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, not nearly as good as Mike Nichols's Wolf.

The Magic of the Movies


Review: Youth in Revolt (2010)

Miguel Arteta's Youth in Revolt, from C.D. Payne's novel, is an entertainingly referential, dysfunctional and quirky love story among a young man, Nick Twisp, his alter ego, François Dillinger (both Michael Cera), and a girl, Sheeni Saunders (the appealing newcomer Portia Doubleday). I haven't read the novel, but it's sitting here staring at me while I write this.

Nick is sort of a boring jerk, a teenager with divorced parents (the very good Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi), who moons around, doesn't take much seriously and loves the idea of love. When his mom's boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) needs to leave town for a bit, Nick and his mom join him at a trailer park for a little "vacation" while they wait for some disagreements at home to pass them over.

There Nick meets Sheeni, who lives at the park with her parents (M. Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Place), religious fanatics who quickly take a strong (and pretty understandable) disliking to Nick. But Sheeni stays enamored, advising Nick to do whatever it takes to cause trouble to get himself kicked out of his mom's house so he can live with his dad, closer to Sheeni.

That command, taken so seriously by Nick, and added up with his newfound interest in all things Sheeni loves, leads him to create his alternate, devil-may-care, French chain-smoking alter ego, François Dillinger. This is a pretty spot-on moniker, as the film amusingly pays tribute to French New Wave films like Breathless (À bout de souffle), Shoot the Piano Player, Elevator to the Gallows and others, as well as cinematic and other retellings of the John Dillinger story.

When I saw conservative activist James O'Keefe's photos as he was released from jail in New Orleans after being caught trying to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu's telephones, I felt I could not be the only one who saw O'Keefe as Nick Twisp, and wondered who his Sheeni might be. Likely answer: wealth and fame. On second thought, given the light box office for this film, I may indeed have been the only person who thought that....

But back to the film, Sheeni's direction begins Nick's life of crime, a sad and pathetic, yet still humorously portrayed spree of foibles and disasters. Mom's new boyfriend, a cop (Ray Liotta), offers to help cover up Nick's crimes while Nick goes to live with his father, but by this time Sheeni has been packed off to boarding school, incidentally, along with Nick's romantic rival. Too much more plot will get me into spoiler territory, so I'll quit with that.

Miguel Arteta has made perfect films in the past, notably Star Maps and Chuck & Buck, but this one doesn't quite get there. There's solid acting from everybody, quite funny dialogue and quite a few funny situations, but it's missing something. It probably goes to the drug well too often, for both humor and plot points, and while this is mostly funny, like I say, it might be too easy a crutch. Nevertheless, it's a treat to see Galifianakis, Smart, Liotta, Fred Willard, Justin Long, Adhir Kalyan and others playing some funny parts, and Cera and Doubleday are quite good at selling the love story.

There are some animated interludes which bring to mind the (superior overall) John Cusack movie Better Off Dead and which advance the plot at times, but they are not the greatest animation, or the greatest way to advance the plot. They're cute and not overdone.

Youth in Revolt is pretty funny and good-hearted, despite some very mean things people do to one another. It doesn't have any wrong notes, but a few very weird notes which don't necessarily add much. Cera's performance(s) alone (together?) is (are) worth the price of admission. He's a fine comedic and dramatic actor with such a bright future in the movies. He reminds me of the Woody Allen of Take the Money and Run, Play It Again, Sam or Annie Hall. You could already have a very fun Michael Cera movie festival.

The Magic of the Movies


There you go again, Glen(n)?....

What's that extra 'n' for in your name, genius?

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