Friday, December 4, 2009

Movie Reviews -- Three to See!

There's a common thread in today's three movie reviews -- all center on delivering bad news. The good news is -- the films all do a terrific job with the difficult topic. And what do you know -- all get strong recommendations today -- especially due to powerhouse acting by the lead actors.

Everybody's Fine

In this new drama from director/writer Kirk Jones (Waking Ned), Robert De Niro plays Frank, a recent widower trying to re-connect with his adult children. When the children one-by-one pull out of a planned visit to the family home, Frank decides on a whim to take a road trip to visit them -- unaware that they've been avoiding him because they're unsure how to deal with telling him some bad news. Along the way, Frank discovers that the lives of his grown children are far from perfect -- nor is his. Although he was a great family provider, Frank learns that he wasn't exactly emotionally attached. As one of his daughters points out, "
Mom was a good listener, you were a good talker."

Don't be fooled by the studio's mis-marketing of the film as a warm and fuzzy holiday movie. It's actually quite depressing and certainly a tear-jerker. But the reward is in witnessing the top-notch, understated performance by De Niro -- you'll be reminded again why one the greatest actors of our time has two Oscars on his mantle (The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull). Drew Barrymore (Whip It), Kate Beckinsale (Whiteout) and Sam Rockwell (Moon) are also very good as the adult children. The cast is further strengthened by a group of young actors -- some of who play the children in revealing -- and ingeniously-shot "flashbacks." Look out for a small role by last year's Oscar nominee Melissa Leo (Frozen River) -- someone please give this fine actress another meaty role! [Rated PG-13; opens today]

Grade: B+

Up in the Air

In this timely film, George Clooney plays Ryan, a man who travels around the country to terminate corporate employees. In these recessionary times, companies don't want to deal with the heavy task, so they use Ryan's outsourced firm to deliver the bad news to the cut employees. We learn that in the past year, Ryan has spent 322 nights on the road -- er, up in the air. For most of us, this time away from home would be unbearable. But Ryan thrives on his life away from home. In fact, his shell of a small apartment in Omaha is far from a home. And he's even distanced himself from what else makes up a home -- his family -- which consists of two sisters.

Clooney (Syriana) is excellent as a detached, but happy soul -- whose only goal seems to be reaching the unfathomable ten million mile frequent flier mark. Things start to change when his firm hires recent grad Natalie (of Twilight fame), who develops a method of video conferencing that will allow termination without ever leaving the office -- essentially threatening the existence Ryan so cherishes. But Ryan insists that firings still must be dealt with in person, so he takes Natalie on one of his cross country firing expeditions -- where both unexpectedly discover the downfalls of this career choice. Further complicating his neatly set life, Ryan falls for Alex, another frequent flier (The Departed's Vera Farmiga) -- can either stay content with just scheduling brief (and literal) layovers?

Just yesterday, The National Board of Review named Up in the Air the best film of the year. Although I agree it's one of the year's best, I don't think it's THE best. In fact, I liked George Clooney's last film, the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox more! This film got bogged down a bit towards its close -- as a family scene drags on a bit too long. But this is in no way meant to diminish Jason Reitman's huge success in only his third feature film (after Thank You for Smoking and Juno). Reitman does a masterful job helming an intelligent and witty film. I especially appreciated how he weaved in actual real-life folks who share their thoughts about their recent unemployment status. And the irony in showing how some people are rewarded for years of hotel stays, air travel and car rentals -- while so many others are so easily dismissed after putting in years of dedicated work service -- well, it's simply brilliant. Also stars Jason Bateman (Juno, Extract). [Rated R; opens in limited release today, wider December 23]

Grade: A-

The Messenger

It's not too late to catch a movie that's been out for a couple of weeks, but not gaining as much attention as it deserves -- probably due to its tough subject matter. Like Up in the Air, this film is another timely example of those responsible for delivering bad news. Ben Foster plays Will Montgomery, a U.S. Army officer who has recently returned from a tour in Iraq and is re-assigned as a casualty notification officer. He is partnered with fellow officer Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who trains his younger counterpart in the unbearable role of relaying bad news to the loved ones of fallen soldiers. Things are bad enough for Montgomery, who initially wants nothing to do with the job, but now faces more difficulty when he becomes involved with a widow of a fallen officer (played by Samantha Morton).

Director/co-writer Oren Moverman, also the co-screenwriter of Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, was born and raised in Israel, where he served in the army. That military experience surely makes up for his inexperience in directing. Moverman opens your eyes to a part of our wars you don't usually consider -- and probably would rather ignore due to its painful nature. But surprisingly, he softens the grief with some humor -- and gives us a moving and rewarding film.

Foster (Alpha Dog) does an excellent job conveying the complex ethical dilemma he is faced with -- while also juggling an unconventional friendship with his mentor. After a fun turn in Zombieland (and a bright spot in the dismal 2012), Harrelson is back in fine dramatic form. He delivers a powerfully emotional performance as a tough-as-nails officer full of pent-up sadness and emptiness. Morton (Minority Report, Sweet and Lowdown) is superb as always. Also stars Jena Malone and Steve Buscemi in smaller roles. [Rated R; in theaters now]

Grade: B+

  • Click the film reviews icon in the upper left column for a full alphabetical archive of other movies reviewed this year.

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