Tag Archives: Entertainment

Movie Review: UP IN THE AIR, with Notes from Q & A with Jason Reitman and Cast

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’ve been reviewing a string of movies that, though well-crafted, are so depressing you need to down a fistful of Xanax after watching. Imagine my relief, then, when I got to see Jason Reitman’s wonderful Up in the Air (opening Dec. 4), which is moving and thought-provoking but also entertaining in the purest sense of the word.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who flies all over the country to fire people when in-house managers don’t have the stones to do it themselves. Theoretically, this third-party method also protects company personnel from retaliation by pink-slipped employees. (Be sure and read my notes below from the Q & A; Reitman told amazing stories about using non-actors who’d really lost their jobs.)

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

It’s a tough line of work but Bingham loves it. He’s got his firing technique honed to a science, has no problem staying disconnected from people’s emotional reactions, and is more comfortable on the road than in his apartment, which looks less homey than his hotel rooms. He also has Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer and bed partner whenever they’re in the same city. No strings, no responsibilities— just the way Bingham likes it.

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

His existence is threatened when his boss (Jason Bateman) hires a precocious upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who suggests that firings can be done via teleconference to save travel costs. When Bingham protests, his boss tells him to take her on the road to see which method is better. Though high-strung and ambitious, Natalie helps Bingham realize that being grounded, literally and emotionally, might be a good thing.

Clooney’s performance here is his most vulnerable yet. There are times when Bingham is looking at Alex and Clooney just strips his face naked—eyes softened, completely defenseless—making you think, if you didn’t know better, that you’re watching him fall in love with Farmiga right there on screen. Sometimes his gaze is so intimate, I felt like a perv stealing his private moments.

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

Farmiga matches Clooney note for note and the heat between them is potent. She’s been consistently strong in little-seen films like Down to the Bone and Breaking and Entering; here’s hoping Air will take her career higher.

Kendrick is having a moment right now with this movie and New Moon, in which she plays Bella’s friend Jessica. She deserves the attention; her work here is infused with maturity and smarts. (Can’t comment on her Moon performance since I probably won’t see it.)

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

As for director, producer and co-writer Reitman (the movie is based on a novel by Walter Kirn), he’s proven beyond a doubt he’s no Tori Spelling. I’ll go further to say this movie is better than anything his father, Ivan, ever directed. Jason includes social commentary and emotional resonance with the humor; I can’t say the same for Meatballs, Twins or Kindergarten Cop. (OK, Ghostbusters was good but not Oscar material.) When Air is up for Best Picture—I think it has an excellent chance of winning —you’ll root for it, not roll your eyes like you do at elitist films that leave you wondering, “What the hell?”

After the Variety screening I attended, Reitman, Farmiga and Kendrick participated in a Q & A. Interesting tidbits revealed:

  • The film’s St. Louis casting director, Joni Tackette, placed an ad looking for people who had recently lost their jobs and were willing to share their experiences on camera. Though actors (J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis among them) play some of the laid-off workers, twenty-two respondents ended up in the firing sequences, using their own words. Reitman said they talked about things he’d never think to write, in a way he’d never think to direct them. [This made for incredibly affecting scenes. When I was watching them, I kept thinking, “Who are all these actors? They’re so real.”]
  • After a speaking engagement in St. Louis, Reitman was approached by a 50-year-old man named Kevin with a cassette tape. On it, Kevin explained he’d just lost his job and had written a song about what it means to try and find purpose in the world. Reitman said “what follows isn’t the most beautiful song but [it's] incredibly authentic.” He put it over the end credits, complete with Kevin’s intro about his situation.
  • The movie was mostly shot in St. Louis and Detroit, which were among the cities hardest hit by the recession. Cast and crew filmed in office buildings that were cleared out and abandoned like they were supposed to be in the movie.
  • Alex and Natalie aren’t in the book. Reitman wrote those roles specifically for Farmiga and Kendrick.
  • Farmiga said she confided in Clooney that if she could cuddle up to any cinematic character, she’d choose Karl from Sling Blade. This made Clooney repeatedly do Karl imitations between takes.
  • Clooney never goes to his trailer and never wears any makeup. Ever.

Nerd verdict: Up in the Air is first-class

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Movie Review: Colin Firth as A SINGLE MAN

I wanted to see this movie because of Colin Firth, though I wasn’t crazy about the notion of a sad, mopey Firth when I like him awkward and silly as in Love Actually and the Bridget Jones movies. But his performance in A Single Man (limited release, Dec. 11) proves he’s a first-rate actor who can make grief not only watchable but compelling.

Set in 1961 and based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel, Man deals with college professor George Falconer’s (Firth) struggle to cope with the death of his long-time partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car accident. The whole movie takes place on the day George decides to commit suicide. We see him putting his affairs in order and internally saying goodbye to his students and best friend Charly (Julianne Moore). Ironically, as he prepares to die, he becomes more alive, taking in details about his surroundings he hadn’t bothered to absorb during his grief-stricken stupor.

And that’s about it as far as plot goes. Being a fan of plot-driven stories, I was greatly surprised I wasn’t bored by some tedious navel-gazing. Most of the credit goes to Firth, who’s in every scene and holds my attention in all of them. He pulls off the difficult act of covering up feelings you suspect are roiling inside George, but he doesn’t bury them so deeply that the character becomes inaccessible. You can see his thoughts as they flit behind his eyes, the mental screams he’d like to release. For all his graceful suffering, George should bring Firth his first Oscar nomination.

Moore is also impressive; is that news to anyone? She plays a woman in mid-life crisis, feeling worthless because her husband and son have left her and her looks are fading (she’s still gorgeous to me). As strong as her performance is, though, I’ve seen better from Moore—in The Hours, for example. If she does get an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, she has no chance (no one does) of beating Mo’Nique for Precious.

Hoult in SINGLE MAN

The biggest surprise here is Nicholas Hoult as a conflicted student of George’s who slowly awakens the older man to feelings he thought he no longer had. Hoult is so impossibly pretty with his golden hair, flirty baby blues, and pink pout, I was shocked to realize he’s the same actor who played Marcus,

Hoult in ABOUT A BOY

the plump, awkward kid who pestered Hugh Grant in Almost a Boy. Well, he’s all grown up and ungainly no more.

First-time director and co-screenwriter, Tom Ford, known primarily for his work as a fashion designer for Gucci, knows a thing or two about beauty. All his actors are ridiculously good-looking and he made sure you know it. It got to be a bit much after a while; I actually chuckled when the camera zoomed in for the umpteenth time on Hoult’s and Firth’s naked bodies floating in slo-mo in the ocean, or lingered on a starlet’s bee-stung lips exhaling cigarette smoke seductively.

Ford said during the post-Variety-screening Q & A (more on that below) he wanted a Bernard Herrmann-esque score as homage to the composer known for his work in Hitchcock movies, but the plaintive strings are too overpowering for such an introspective film. Ford needn’t try so hard; he has potential as a filmmaker and was smart enough to cast superb actors who added class to a project that could’ve been dismissible.

When Ford showed up for the Q & A, he was soft-spoken, articulate and unexpectedly vulnerable. He told a lot of personal stories which he said informed the movie. Some details:

  • He first read the book 25 years ago when he was living in West Hollywood and working as an actor.
  • George didn’t want to kill himself in the novel but Ford added that plot point because of a suicide in his family.
  • Firth originally turned down the film so Ford cast another actor. When that actor dropped out 3 weeks before production, Ford flew to London, pitched Firth personally instead of going through his rep and this time Firth said yes.
  • The film was shot in 21 days, with only 3 of rehearsal. Ford simply had Firth watch a clip of Bill Clinton denying he’d done certain things to Monica Lewinsky, then told Firth to have George cover up his emotions like that.
  • In a scene where George is supposed to chastely kiss Charly, Firth wouldn’t stop kissing Moore, resulting in several unusable takes. Ford had to keep reminding Firth he was playing a gay man.

Nerd verdict: Man is imperfect but Firth is impeccable

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Hear Kate Hudson & Marion Cotillard Sing in NINE Numbers!

Wow. In the first video, check out Kate Hudson singing the stuffing out of “Cinema Italiano,” one of the numbers from Rob Marshall’s Nine. Had no idea she had such a robust singing voice.

In this next one, there’s no video but you can hear Marion Cotillard perform “Take It All,” starting out sultry and breathy then climaxing in full-belt mode.

Are you as excited for this movie as I am?

CD Review: Kris Allen’s KRIS ALLEN

krisWhen Kris Allen was on American Idol, it took him a while to make an impression on me. He didn’t stand out at first but then he started making bold choices like acousticizing Kanye West’s “Heartless.” By the end, I was voting for him over the louder Adam Lambert.

His album, titled Kris Allen (dropping Tuesday), is a mixture of low-key and rousing numbers, resulting in a package that’s pleasant enough even if none of the tunes really stuck with me. His voice is in good form, aching and cracking on ballads like “I Need to Know,” rocking on the energetic “Alright with Me” (the disc’s most catchy tune) and “Can’t Stay Away from You,” and a bit smoky on “Heartless.”

Allen co-wrote nine out of the thirteen tracks, alternates between playing the guitar and piano so he’s certainly talented. But even after multiple listens, I had a hard time telling one track from the next (except for the aforementioned ones) and identifying which cuts would make good singles. It’s more like a collection of songs that blend well together and would make nice background music at a party. Though well-crafted, the album is as modest as its namesake.

Nerd verdict: Pleasant enough tour through Allentown if nothing to write home about

Movie Review Plus Q & A: THE ROAD

v & k walking macall polay

courtesy 2929/Dimension Films

I was really hesitant about going to a Variety screening of The Road (opening Nov. 25), the long-delayed movie based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, because the story is so depressing. It’s about a nameless man and his son trying to survive after the apocalypse by any means short of cannibalism (though other survivors engage in that). But star Viggo Mortensen was doing Q & A afterwards along with director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall so I was curious enough to attend. (I learned loads of interesting info; see notes below.)

v & k embrace

courtesy 2929/Dimension Films

Well, depressing doesn’t begin to describe the movie. There’s an ongoing reference to how The Man has a gun but only two bullets, which he’s saving for his son and himself in case things get too hopeless for them to go on. Mid-movie, I was screaming in my head, “Give me one of those bullets! Or build a fire and throw me on it!” The story is soul-breaking and gives you only a tiny glimmer of hope at the end.

Stomach-turning plot points aside, however, Road is very well done. Mortensen goes deeply inside a character who’s heart-piercingly tender towards his son but fierce towards all else. He also looks like he ages and becomes more emaciated right before our eyes. Kodi Smit-McPhee, as The Boy, does brave and mature work while maintaining the innocence of a child who’s never known a world where there were living things and enough food to eat. He does look a bit well-fed for the character—his cheeks have baby fat and his lips are plump—but I don’t think I could’ve handled watching a gaunt, sickly child on top of everything else.

charlize

courtesy 2929/Dimension Films

Charlize Theron is believably weary as The Woman who just can’t take it anymore, though I suspect her golden hair helped a little in getting her the role. In The Man’s dreams about the life he used to have with her, the world is full of color and The Woman’s bright, shiny hair is the most striking thing in it. It’s a sharp reminder of the lightness he’s lost.

The story asks tough questions: How do you hang on to your humanity when you’re competing with savages to survive in a lawless world? What are you willing to do to keep your child from suffering? How do you know when the last ounce of hope has left your soul? While I hope I won’t ever be tested like this, I appreciate McCarthy’s and the filmmakers’ examination of human nature in a non-sentimental way which still manages to be quite moving.

As mentioned, Mortensen, Hillcoat and Penhall did Q & A after the screening. The session was almost as fascinating as the movie. Some things I learned:

  • Director Hillcoat’s favorite disaster movie is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He was also inspired by The Bicycle Thief for its minimalism and The Grapes of Wrath.
  • landscape

    courtesy 2929/Dimension Films

    Though the landscape is stark with a gray and brown palette throughout, Hillcoat used real locations instead of green screens. Locations included Pennsylvania because of the strip mining and Louisiana because Katrina clean-up was far from complete. There were about 50 locations total.

  • Mortensen said he was cold for real during much of the shoot. Hillcoat told him it’s better to be cold than to pretend to be cold.
  • Mortensen is humble, smart, dry-witted and so frakkin’ cool in person. He’s got the easy confidence of someone who’s got nothing to prove to anyone, and brought a copy of the book and a bottle of wine to give out to random audience members who correctly answered trivia questions about the movie.
  • Penhall said he loves Sam Shepard as a screenwriter and it’s easy to see why. Both men cover complex and gritty subject matter in minimalistic ways.
  • McCarthy told Hillcoat he didn’t miss anything from the book except four lines of dialogue which he asked to be re-inserted. It involved The Boy asking The Man, “What would you do if I died?” The ensuing conversation is verbatim from one the author had with his own son.
  • Hillcoat said McCarthy’s favorite film is Fellini’s La Strada, which means The Road.

Nerd verdict: Rough Road but one worth taking

Movie Debate: THE BLIND SIDE

It’s the return of PCN vs. EE. Every once in a while, I post a Siskel & Ebert-style movie review instead of a traditional one when my occasional movie partner, Eric Edwards, disagrees with my take on something.

We recently attended a screening of Sandra Bullock’s upcoming movie, The Blind Side (opening Nov. 20), based on the true story of Michael Oher, an African-American teen with a mother addicted to crack  who bounced through the foster care system before he was taken in by a Memphis family, the Tuohys. He eventually went to college and became a star NFL player with the Baltimore Ravens.

After the screening, Eric and I had the following discussion.

THE BLIND SIDE

Warner Bros./Ralph Nelson

PCN: What didn’t you like about it? It stars your girl, Sandra Bullock!

EE: Sandra Bullock is the best thing about it. Take her out of the movie and you’ve got something that should be a Lifetime movie of the week.

PCN: Yeah, but it does have Bullock and she elevates the material like she usually does. You can’t judge it on what it might have been.

EE: Okay, but you must admit the movie’s very safe. The stakes are never very high and no matter what Michael does, there are no repercussions. Also, we hear there are issues at school but we never get to see any of it. He may have had a rough past but once the family takes him in, everything works out and he’s beloved by everyone.

PCN: You’re right, the movie doesn’t break any new ground. But since there are supposedly only seven original ideas in Hollywood, I look at the execution. Bullock’s performance as Leigh Anne is quite engaging and there are some funny moments. The Proposal wasn’t an original concept, either, but Bullock made that watchable.

EE: But she only brings to life her role. She can’t carry the whole movie and whenever she’s not on screen, the movie drags.

THE BLIND SIDEPCN: I thought Quinton Aaron did a nice job as Michael. He’s got such sad eyes and a gentle soul, which make for an interesting contrast with his intimidating size. Aaron hasn’t done much film work but he kept up with Bullock.

EE: I think the director told him that less is more and that’s what he did. He let his eyes do most of the acting and he’s got great eyes.

PCN: The casting of Tim McGraw was curious. He turned in a good enough performance as Leigh Anne’s husband, but I was thinking, How come they had to get a country singer for this role? There weren’t any qualified actors who could have played that?

EE: I agree, and there’s no arc for that character at all. He’s pretty much written as one-note all the way through. The only justification I could think of for casting him is that it’s set in Nashville and he’s a country star.

PCN: Yeah, but this movie is opening nationwide, not just in Nashville.

EE: But country music is huge and maybe they’re going after those fans, to give the film any kind of advantage possible. I maintain, though, it’s not worthy of the big screen. It’s a nice family movie with very little drama and low stakes.

PCN: How about looking at is as a character study instead of a plot-driven piece? You didn’t find these people compelling?

EE: The problem is, the strongest character is Bullock’s, but the movie isn’t about her. It’s about Michael and he’s not that interesting.

PCN: He’s a kid from a really rough childhood who makes good in the NFL!

THE BLIND SIDE

Warner Bros./Ralph Nelson

EE: But we only get tiny glimpses of his childhood in flashback. It’s not enough to make me care. The story mostly deals with him living with the Tuohys, where it’s pretty much smooth sailing.

PCN: I know where you’re coming from; normally I’d be making the same arguments you are.  This time, though, I recognized the movie’s flaws but went with it anyway because I was rooting for Michael and thought the Tuohys were pretty cool for what they did. Maybe I just have a soft spot for true stories about kids overcoming adversity to achieve great things.

EE: It’s not a horrible movie but I’d still recommend waiting for the DVD.

Nerd verdicts—PCN: An enjoyable Side show, EE: Movie turns Blind eye to conflict

Music Review: GLEE soundtrack

Oh man, I’m so excited to be able to access my blog again. I had some weird issue with WordPress for the last two days and was unable to edit or write any new posts.

gleeBut I’m also happy because I’ve been listening nonstop to the Glee soundtrack, Glee: The Music, Volume 1, which dropped this week. I’ve been dancing around my room, singing along at the top of my lungs (I think neighbors called animal control) and now I’m writing about it in case you’re still not sure what all the fuss is about.

First, let me say I usually like musicals about as much as I enjoy eating a bag o’ glass with a Tabasco chaser. It annoys me whenever the narrative comes to crashing halt for some guy to burst into song in a cornfield because he just figured out he’s in love.  Go find her and tell her already! In the four minutes it takes him to sing and prance about with a hoe to represent the object of his affection, the girl could be accepting a job in a foreign country or marrying another guy. Come on!

Despite this, I love Glee and look forward to it every week. I even get grumpy when it gets pre-empted by baseball (the show returns next Wednesday, November 11). That’s because the musical sequences are cleverly worked into the plot so they don’t slow down the pace. The recent dance number featuring the entire high school football team doing Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” on the field? All part of an exercise to loosen them up. And a teacher twirling in a wedding gown, singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady? She was testing if she could actually move in her dress to the song she wanted for her first dance.

rachelBut the reason I’m addicted is the phenomenal cast. When Lea Michele, who plays Glee Club diva Rachel, opens her mouth, pure magic comes out. Her voice can probably cure illnesses. Matthew Morrison, who plays the love-torn music teacher, Will, busted out in the last episode,  performing “Bust a Move” while showing off eye-popping dance moves.

That song’s included on the soundtrack, which features some of the show’s most memorable numbers to date (Volume 2 comes out December 8). My faves: “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” (might as well download it directly into my frontal lobe), “Somebody to Love” (I think Freddie Mercury would’ve approved), “Take a Bow” (defiantly sung by Michele) and “Sweet Caroline,” which seduced me completely when Puck (Mark Salling) sang it to Rachel though he’s usually an ass.

In the time it took me to write this, the disc has looped around twice already and I ain’t stoppin’ it. The neighbors might have the cops bust down my door, but first, I’m gonna bust a move.

Nerd verdict: C’mon, get Gleeky