Up in the Air

More than a century has passed since the Wright Brothers first took off from Kitty Hawk, but flying still retains some of its romantic appeal. Nothing represents freedom better than defying gravity, hurtling hundreds of miles per hour across the sky. The vistas turn towns into toys as you drift through those polymorphous clouds. Life below is an abstract; people are too small to see, so entire cities become depopulated dollhouses. Racking up enough frequent-flyer miles can be like working in the movies; when you live in the realm of fantasy, you’re the envy of those strapped to reality. A refugee from being grounded can leave his commitments—both the drudgeries and securities of day-to-day experience—up in the air. Who’d have thought that so many businessmen inhabit a dreamer’s paradise?

Well, Jason Reitman—who directed Up in the Air, adapted from the Walter Kirn novel by Reitman and Sheldon Turner—for one. His fellow traveler, George Clooney, plays the itinerant, Ryan Bingham, who darts from airport to airport 300 days a year. His job is to fire strangers from their jobs—he’s like a shiny, polished Magnum brandished by cowardly bosses. (Guns don’t kill people…) A part-time motivational speaker who preaches the virtues of traveling light, Bingham has the salt-and-pepper charm that makes the laid-off feel gently tapped into unemployment rather than thrown face first. Clooney—our closest equivalent to Cary Grant—resembles the lacquered gold-club saloons Bingham frequents. He looks like a man who’s descended from the heavens; he’s as sleek as the glossy pamphlets he distributes. The rough edges of life on the ground would have tarnished him, but the elevated air has been his botox. And yet the victims of his vocation form the toes of his crows’ feet.

Up in the Air is the third, and best, of Reitman’s features. His métier is making plastic people into flesh; but, in the past, his results have been closer to Dr. Frankenstein’s than Pygmalion’s. Juno was supposedly about a sensitive girl who hid her emotions; in reality, it presented a sitcom abhorrence weaned on Youtube and T.V. commercials. She was a Madison Avenue suit shilling Williamsburg plaids. The 2007 movie—for which the writer was probably more responsible than Reitman—had the same music-to-cut-yourself-to soundtrack as Up in the Air, but Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking (2005) seems more closely related to the new release. I can think of few movies that so avidly accepted smugness and half-baked ideas as satire and common sense, but Thank You’s hero—a tobacco lobbyist—was another corporate crank who discovered the destructive shallowness of his trade.

Up in the Air is no Thank You. Here, Reitman does not grandstand about Bingham’s morally questionable practice in a morally questionable system; but the director also shirks misstated questions and simplistic answers. (Part of the problem with Thank You may have been transcription; I blame Reitman, rather than Christopher Buckley, the writer, because the rhetoric seemed cherry-picked and pitted.) His style is still slick, but it’s sensitive now, too. Rather than hiring professional actors to play the laid off, the production team interviewed real victims of the recession, who were told they were participating in a documentary. In tone and subject matter, the film is indebted to the work of Alexander Payne, particularly About Schmidt and Sideways; but Up in the Air isn’t quite as clever or incisive—or open—perhaps because Reitman’s schmucks are corporate winners, whereas Payne’s are self-condemned losers. Reitman values pathos over perception. Working with a great subject, he’s done a creditable job, but the outcome is ultimately conventional: a high-flying rom-com with a figurative crash landing.

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Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Some people have the worst luck. Others are invented to have the worst luck. Such is the genesis of the title character in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. From that title alone, you know how importantly bad her luck is; the title needs a colonic. Produced under the aegis of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, the movie has been sold by way of scare tactics. For white critics, the story of an obese and embattled ghetto teenager is just about untouchable; we see her raped by her father and savaged by her mother—with every gruesome detail slammed up in our grillz. The film is so oppressively persistent that it can only be called “honest.”

Responding to an inaudible question, the director, Lee Daniels, says—facetiously at first—that “…an African-American can only tell an African-American story … and I think that’s why [critics and audiences] understand [Precious]. I’m a black man, I can tell this story. Easy. … It was very hard for me to come back [from a string of critical and/or commercial failures] to try to please people like you.” Basically, if people don’t appreciate his artistry, they’re racist. And if they do, they’re racist. Easy. But during that same Q&A, Sapphire reveals that “[there] was no one [real-life] character that had all of Precious’s characteristics”—the heroine is a composite of several girls that the author encountered as a literacy teacher in the Bronx. May the fates bless people like Sapphire who’ve devoted their time to giving the underprivileged a voice and a means of escape. But the movie has taken her worst case scenario and branded it as the norm; they turn the worst case scenario into a girl that Oprah has seen “a million times … standing on the corner … waiting for the bus as I’m passing in my limo.” This girl who’s been “invisible” to Oprah—a woman who transcended her own dire upbringing—is being pawned off as the poster-child of urban black culture. It’s pure sensationalism, and it’s spit in black culture’s collective eye.

As there probably are a few people out there whose circumstances are as decrepit as Precious’s, this movie might have amounted to something if Daniels’s direction was genuinely sympathetic or genuinely inspirational. An Irish-Scotsman invoked an Indian hellscape in Slumdog Millionaire, but he gave it a bonkers élan that exploded through its overwrought setting—not to mention potential accusations of racism. The public schoolchildren in the Palme d’Or-winning The Class comprised a frenetically tossed ethnic salad. But that French film gave us insight into the lives of a handful of diverse and individualized Preciouses; and its director didn’t toy with the sort of flourishes that Daniels does. (When our heroine first crosses the threshold into her life-changing literacy course, must the classroom emit a heavenly glow?) The Class also crawled inside the sunken eyelids of a harried teacher, and showed us the toll that dealing with persnickety pupils took on him; here, Precious’s pedagogue (Paula Patton) is smiley and bland. When Ms. Rain chats with Precious at home, or starts to vent about the shaky relationship she has with her own mother, Daniels immediately dumps a voice-over track of Precious’s narration on top of it. Are we supposed to think that Precious is too scatterbrained to care about her devoted teacher or is Ms. Rain’s life too uninteresting to be important? (This is partly—if not satisfactorily—answered by Sapphire’s reply to the question “Did you have a secret for maintaining the voice and getting into the character of Precious?”: “The secret was to make all the other characters silent….”)

I doubt that Daniels—who often grapples with difficult subjects in his work—means to be insensitive. But how can one be sure? Take this sequence, for instance. Precious (who is played by the 26-year-old Gabourey Sidibe) brings her incest-produced newborn home to her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), who didn’t even know that Precious was in the hospital. Mary tosses the baby on to the couch; assaults Precious—who Mary’s jealous of for usurping her rapist/boyfriend’s attentions; makes Precious, baby in arms, stumble down a staircase; and then nearly misses when she chucks a T.V. set—the one appliance she operates herself—at them. Precious shambles through the sere gray winterscape—her baby clutched to her chest—until she comes upon gospel singers who strike up her imagination. But before that can happen, Daniels has to focus on an advertisement for neutering—for happy, healthy animals. Is this supposed to function as satire or irony? Should this function as satire or irony?

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Some things in life are inevitable. Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela has finally come to fruition. In Invictus, the newly elected president of South Africa faces a country wriggling out from under apartheid. Rather than disbanding the Springbok—the nation’s piddling rugby team, which has traditionally been championed by the whites and the bane of the blacks—Mandela charges its captain, François Pienaar (Matt Damon), with the task of bringing the team to victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Spoiler alert: They win.

Suffice it to say, Invictus—produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, from a script by Anthony Peckham—is an “inspirational” movie: a typically uninspired genre. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with movies that make you feel good, but “feel-good” movies are not made to enlighten viewers—they’re made to make viewers feel self-satisfied for already being enlightened. These films aren’t a challenge or an aesthetic experience; they’re a pat on the back. The creative team here pats so hard that you want to wretch. Mandela, like Gandhi or Harvey Milk, is an exceptional human being whose accomplishments I have no intention of diminishing. In the movie, his liegemen claim, “He’s not a saint, he’s a man”—but these filmmakers aren’t out to make a movie about a man; Invictus is a hagiography. This civil-rights leader hasn’t the controversial credentials—or, thus, the dramatic potential—of a Malcolm X or Petey Green (the subject of Kasi Lemmons’s touching civil-rights drama Talk to Me). And for this set of filmmakers, that’s indubitably the point; they’re out to win awards for more than rugby.

It is possible to make a feel-good movie that doesn’t make you reach for Pepto-Bismol. Milk, for example, was not a great movie, but Gus Van Sant directed it with a partisan’s brio, and at least one key moment—a monologue delivered by Emile Hirsch—was rapturous. But there’s no getting around the fact that it centered on a superhero: Milk’s kryptonite was his surfeit of perspicacity, which hampered his personal life. (And even that wasn’t entirely his fault: His suicidal lover was disturbed to begin with.) In essence, Milk’s tragic flaw was being too much of a hero. To put it coarsely, Invictus is chocolate Milk. Its central figure also has a shaky family life—or so we’re told. There’s one scene featuring his estranged daughter—who criticizes his idealism—but that’s one of many plot points that Peckham raises and then gracelessly forgets about. Generally, this Mandela’s Mr. Perfect—too dogged to follow his doctor’s advice that he get some rest, and too selfless to pick up his paychecks when they come. When he’s finally confronted about this latter “fault,” he immediately decides that he’s being paid too much, and donates a portion of his income to charity.

Okay, you got me; a lot of this is probably true to life—and de rigeur for this sort of outing. But Eastwood drapes laurels around just about every frame, and Freeman wears them around his neck—along with sweaters borrowed from Cliff Huxtable’s wardrobe. Mandela’s dialogue (with such spontaneous pieties as “Forgiveness liberates the soul” and “I have a very large family: 42 million”) seems torn from the self-help section of a Barnes & Noble. Pienaar is Mandela as a white athlete, and speaks accordingly. He can’t get his head-of-state out of his head, even when his non-entity girlfriend wants to get frisky. (A friend likened the plot to Rocky Balboa bromancing the President. Touring Mandela’s former prison, Pienaar sees ghostlike images of his saintly leader staring back at him with a look of dignified longing.) Aside from the protagonists, the other characters exist merely to be skeptical of, and then won over by, our altruistic duo. (The lines that aren’t high-toned are merely functional.) Even the damn rugby players end up as virtuous as choirboys. I have friends who play rugby; it’s basically a sport for people who think football is for wusses. And yet, rarely are celebrity athletes as squeaky-clean and well-behaved as the Springbok boys—with the exception of Tiger Woods. Oh wait…

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It’s abundantly possible to make a good movie with much compassion and little creativity. Brothers is such a case. As the film opens, Marine Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is about to embark on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan; his younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is just getting out of the slammer. The reunion supper is tense. It’s clear which son is favored by the ex-Marine pater familias (Sam Shepard), and which son is the lifelong lubber. Sam countenances his troubled sibling, even as Sam’s wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), remains leery of her in-law. When Sam is reported to be lost in action, however, Tommy makes an attempt at reformation. He becomes for his nieces the avuncular playmate they’ve lacked, and he and his buddies remodel Grace’s shabby kitchen. Then, the inevitable: Harkening to the anodyne sounds of U2, he lights up a joint and registers surprise when goody-goody Grace partakes. She’s not just the “stuck-up” former cheerleader that he’d taken her for; and he’s more than the ruffian she’d believed him to be. Their lips share more than the pot, but their tragedy is too close behind for them to make any further advances—for now. I feel little guilt in revealing that Sam is, all the while, alive—if not well—as a prisoner of war; and that the Sam who comes home is not the same as he who left.

Brothers is a remake of a 2004 Danish film, but it seems to be a product of the Hollywood homefront of the 1940s. It’s more emotionally sophisticated than David O. Selznick’s Since You Went Away (1944)—which featured a war wife and her daughters coping with their absent patriarch—but Brothers seems set in that same universe in which small-town Americans are “elevated” by being cast as the heroic waxwork sculptures of a museum display. (Shirley Temple played one of the daughters in the World War II film.) The story is laid in an anonymous burg in the snowy part of California; the Cahills belong to a generic Protestant denomination; and the missis seems to have no life outside of her children, her husband, or his family. It’s Sarah Palin’s wet dreamworld—as blandly white as the snow. David Benioff, the screenwriter, conscripts some old-movie clichés for his characters, too: the cheerleader, the black sheep, the golden boy (a football star in high school, no less), his twinkling daughters, their gruff grampa. When Grace admits to having smoked dope and listened to U2 as a teenager, this is about as fresh a cliché-burster as the jock who joins the glee club.

Maguire, however, bursts out and then some. The director, Jim Sheridan, has likened the actor to Jimmy Stewart—and, indeed, Maguire pulls off his transition from everyman George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life to the warped Scottie of Vertigo. In most regards, however, I think the comparison is inapt: Maguire is, maybe, the everydork, but hardly the everyman. He’s always been likable but detached; his frosty-blue eyes seem a touch creepy for being too supernally warm—almost beatifically gentle. It’s somewhat absurd to see him as the football player/Marine (his discomfiting bulkiness was a lark when he became Spider-Man, too), but he culls from his mystical reserve; he makes a character that seems a little short of being real seem a little more than human. It’s this quality that makes him almost inscrutable; when he finally cracks up, you’re not quite prepared. When he shrieks, he’s like a girl on the wrong end of her menstrual cycle; it’s a primal howl—the evil twin of Paul Dano’s epicene squeals. Gyllenhaal is certainly well-matched physically to be Maguire’s brother—I used to think Maguire was great in October Sky—but his part is insufficiently written. His performance is fine, and he’s used well in the midsection of the movie; but he’s phased out after Sam’s homecoming, and the brothers’ relationship is thinly defined—contrary to what the title suggests. Does Sam love Tommy simply because Sam is a standup guy and compleat brother? Is Tommy a black sheep because his whole life’s been darkened by Sam’s wide shadow? When Sam confronts Tommy about his wife’s possible infidelity, the younger brother reacts indecipherably; he really hasn’t anything to hide, and yet he reeks of guilt and suspiciousness, as if he was a suburban Fredo Corleone.

Portman, unfortunately, too easily belongs to the movie’s retro framework. I’ve always found her to be a bit of a robotic actress; her mealy voice sounds like a low-oil indicator. She’s not bad, per se, but she gives a blandly conceived role the virtuous performance it deserves. When Carey Mulligan (of An Education) has her brief bit as a fallen soldier’s widow, she brings a humane softness to the movie; her tears have converted that lovely face into homely putty—beautiful in another way. Portman’s circuits are nearly exposed.

Brothers is either half-baked (the archetypes belong to a pipe-dream past) or overcooked (the plot is tendentious and closed for interpretation); and yet Sheridan’s direction is at just the right temperature. (One can forgive a few lapses of the editor’s judgment, and less obligingly, the fiddled-around-with-GarageBand soundtrack.) As with An Education, the director’s lucidity dignifies the narrative. Though more than an iota of credit is due to Maguire, Sheridan achieves in some scenes an almost intolerable fusillade of emotional currents; but you never mistrust the grip the director has on you because he plays with a fair hand. Sheridan doesn’t drape the movie in any flags or coddle its audience with simple solutions—except, arguably, at the very end. The movie has no shortage of brotherly love; and yet its characters are convenient stand-ins for people—not so much our brothers as our cousins from movieland. Brothers is a respectable effort; but it’s inbred.

Ninja Assassin

In its first few minutes, Ninja Assassin has some of the most creative dismemberments that you’re likely to have seen; and then, disappointingly, the satirical blade goes dull. In fact, it takes a considerable amount of time before another weapon is unsheathed, and you start to wonder why the hell we’re in Berlin—or why the hell an American (Naomie Harris) is there working for Europol, where everybody seems to speak English. She is, apparently, the agency’s resident ninjologist, and she uncovers this vast network of martial artists-for-hire who’ve been using their superhuman stamina to knock off despots and drug cartels for centuries. This connects her with the recalcitrant Raizo (played by the Korean actor Rain), a ninja-school dropout who means to avenge his alma mater’s mistreatment of him and, well, everyone else.

Ninjas were a joke well before Kill Bill karate-chopped open the floodgates for them; but this movie’s scriptwriters (Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski) and the director (James McTeigue) don’t appear to be laughing. Ninja Assassin has more squishy heart metaphors than a third-grader’s valentine, and yet the whole brutal affair is gorier than the dumpster behind a slaughterhouse. Who is the target audience? Bleeding-hearts who like to watch hearts bleed? So much of one’s enjoyment is had in quipping at the blockheaded movie’s expense that you almost feel guilty watching this guilty pleasure. (In Sorority Row, you feel in on the joke; here, the movie is the butt.) Misplaced snark palls on me fast, but if a pure-at-heart ninja yarn doesn’t invite sarcasm, I don’t know what does. McTeigue’s naïveté worked for V for Vendetta—which, like this film, the Wachowski brothers produced—but that was an old-timey swashbuckler: idealized anarchism. Between the bubble-brained acting, the founts of blood and treacle, and the whipping of children’s feet at a Hogwarts for magic masochists, Ninja Assassin is anarchy of a different kind.

But, as Susan Sontag pointed out, “Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying.” McTeigue may be the mainstream cinema’s last innocent; I haven’t seen this much Camp since I was a Boy Scout. But his work is satisfying. Though it may assassinate a few brain cells as collateral, Ninja Assassin is also an excellent killer of time; and in its own unpretentious way, it respects its audience—or at least that solitary man in front of me, who cheered the movie on the whole way through.