I´ve got nothing against Jason Reitman, but I´ve found the wunderkind´s highly-acclaimed first two features, Thank You for Smoking and Juno, to be underwhelming and immensely overpraised. I enjoyed Up in the Air more than the aforementioned, but you can still add it to that list; it´s a timely, precise, extremely well-acted film that deserves most of the praise that´s being thrown at it, but it still left me wanting.
George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, who has made a career out of firing people; he works for Career Transition Counseling, a corporation that provides layoff hitmen to companies that are unable or unwilling to fire their own employees.
Bingham´s job, of course, involves a lot of travel – he´s gotta be there in person to lay off people all over the country – which results in a lifestyle that many of us are unfortunately familiar with. He´s on the road so much he barely has a home (his hotel-like apartment is the most alien setting in the film). He has no close relationships, even his family members are kept at a cool distance. His identity lies in the virtual realm, numbers and cards in his wallet.
In one of the film´s best scenes, Ryan picks up Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) in an airport lounge. You get the sense he´s done this before. And so has she. They´re two of a kind, each know who they are and what they want. Clooney and Farmiga play off each other wonderfully.
But Career Transition Counseling, under the rule of slimy Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), might have just made Ryan´s job redundant. They´re about to implement a virtual firing system, a kind of layoff-by-video-chat, that would save the company untold riches in travel fees and eliminate the need for Bingham´s position, or at least the travel-friendly position he has been accustomed to. Young upstart Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has devised this system, and Gregory asks Ryan to take her out in the real world to try it out.
Here´s one of the problems I had with the film. It makes this new system – by all means a logical extension of what CTC does – out to be cold and impersonal. Which it is, of course, but it compares that to what Ryan does, which is apparently something more noble. Only it isn´t. He´s a corporate hitman, in flesh or on video, whose job shouldn´t be necessary in an ideal world. Bingham does sound sincere while reading his scripted responses, though, I´ll give him that. “We´ll be in touch.”
Eventually, Ryan forges a larger relationship with Alex, and takes her “home” for his sister´s wedding. And eventually, Up in the Air asks us to care for Ryan Bingham. I can relate to Bingham, identify with him, I can even like the character in a certain way. But I don´t care about him, not in the least, his personal philosophy prevents it. If Bingham were watching the movie, he wouldn´t care about the character either.
There´s a huge, HUGE plot point in Walter Kirn´s novel that has been forcibly removed from the screen version by Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner. I´m not sure it would have made the film significantly better, but it would have filled a gaping hole in regards to Bingham´s character.
But at least half of Up in the Air is excellent; a timely, pinpoint satire of corporate ethics and corporate travel lifestyle. Acting is first-rate all around. This is one of Clooney´s meatiest roles, and while his character is rather soulless the actor is as charming and likable as ever. Kendrick and (especially) Farmiga offer some wonderful support.
Most films based on factual events (and some that aren´t – see Fargo) are content with that old standby opening text (“this film is based on a true story”) that audiences have learned to instinctually distrust, and maybe some scrawl at the end about what happened to the characters since. Not Olantunde Osunsanmi´s The Fourth Kind, which features the usual opening and closing bits but also assaults us throughout: every five minutes there´s “real” audio or “real” video and imposed text on the screen just to make sure we know the change in film stock means that what we are seeing is indeed, yes, “real”.
It´s all bullshit, of course, which you might confirm through a quick Google search when you get home from the cinema. Or not, because you´re not likely to be fooled during the course of the movie anyway. This isn´t a film like Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, where they might deceive us initially but at least keep the gimmick going for the course of the movie; this is a Milla Jovovich thriller that constantly interrupts itself, turns to the camera and lies to the audience (“hey, this is really real, remember?”) and then tries to continue.
It´d almost be offensive if it weren´t, ultimately, comical. Which is a shame, because there´s some stuff in The Fourth Kind that really works, and the central conceit could´ve been pulled off under different circumstances.
(Beware spoilers throughout the rest of the review.)
Milla Jovovich opens the film by speaking directly to a swirling camera: “Hello, I´m actress Milla Jovovich. What you´re about to see is real, and may be disturbing to some viewers.” Thanks, Milla, sounds good. Jovovich plays Dr. Abagail Tyler, a psychologist who lives in Nome, Alaska, with a son and daughter. Her husband died under mysterious circumstances, and now Dr. Tyler (kind of) investigates mysterious disappearances around Nome, using some of her patients as a kind of bait. Will Patton plays the local sheriff who doesn´t like what Abigail is up to, Elias Koteas plays a friend/colleague, and Hakeem Kae-Kazim plays an expert she turns to.
Luckily for us, the real-life Dr. Tyler filmed the creepy sessions she recorded with her patients, which are played out for us next to (literally, via split screen) recreations starring the actors. I´m not sure why Osunsanmi chose to handle it this way, as the faux-real stuff is extremely well done and truly frightening at times, and puts the recreations to shame. Also effective: faux-real audio recordings of Dr. Tyler, who taped herself giving notes that turned into something else.
So what is The Fourth Kind all about? The title´s a dead giveaway, if you´re familiar with Speilberg´s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Yes, this film uses the same scale devised by J. Allen Hynek, where the third kind refers to a UFO sighting, and the fourth kind refers to alien abduction. To give away any more would be unfair, the film is light enough on story as it is.
For all its disingenuousness, my immediate reaction to The Fourth Kind was one of intense dislike. But weeks later, some of it, and some of its scary vibes, still stay with me. That´s more than I can say for most films (including the overrated Paranormal Activity) and Osunsanmi does deserve some amount of credit for that.
Stick around for the end credits, which are quite possibly creepiest part of the film, as they scroll over real-sounding audio reports of UFO sightings.
I really enjoyed Paris, je t´aime, a concept film devised by Emmanuel Benbihy and Tristan Carné in which some 20 internationally renowned directors made short (5-7 minute) segments tied together by a Paris setting. Alfonso Cuarón, Joel & Ethan Coen, Sylvain Chomet, Walter Salles, Gus Van Sant, and other provided pleasant and sometimes affecting love letters to the city, and the film´s only real problem was the varying degree of quality in each of the individual segments.
That´s not so much a problem in Benbihy and Carné´s follow-up feature, New York, I Love You, a similarly-conceived film featuring New York stories directed by Fatih Akin, Yvan Attal, Allen Hughes, Shunji Iwai, Wen Jiang, Joshua Marston, Mira Nair, Brett Ratner, Shekhar Kapur, and Natalie Portman. No, these all stink.
I take that back – the final segment, directed by Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) and featuring an elderly couple (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman) taking a walk to Coney Island, is actually pretty good in its own modest way. And some of the others aren´t so terrible.
But the rest ugh. After the first film, I was looking forward to New York, I Love You. The concept is solid. But red flags went up when I saw the list of directors. Paris je t´aime set a pretty high standard with the talent involved; in New York, we have exactly half of the number of directors involved, and they just don´t stand up. Akin and Nair, sure. Attal, Iwai, and Jiang, okay, maybe. Kapur and Hughes are each more than a decade removed from artistic success. Marston has directed one feature, Portman none, and what in the world is Brett Ratner doing here?
Nothing against Ratner, but his segment is a painful nadir, a sloppy teen comedy sketch starring Anton Yelchin, James Caan, and a prom date in a wheelchair. Shekhar Kapur fares little better on the opposite end of the spectrum in his overindulgent segment, which features Julie Christie as an aged opera singer, John Hurt as a hotelier, and Shia Lebeouf (?) as a hunchbacked bellboy. No, it´s not a comedy. Allen Hughes´ portion, starring Bradley Cooper and Drea De Matteo, is a complete mess.
The usually reliable Nair´s segment also falls into the painful category: she tries to do too much with too little in a story between an Indian (Irrfan Khan) and a Jew (Natalie Portman), and I´d rather not ever revisit Portman´s Bronx Jew accent. Yet the Portman-directed segment, starring Cesar De León as a “manny” and Taylor Geare as the girl he cares for, is one of more endurable portions of the film.
Also tolerable: the fleeting segments by Wen and Iwai. Wen´s tale of grifter Ben (Hayden Christensen) and a professor (Andy Garcia) and his young girlfriend (Rachel Bilson) opens the film; Iwai´s stars Orlando Bloom as a music producer and Christina Ricci as his corporate contact. Ricci has about five seconds of screen time here, but they´re a welcome five seconds.
Moving into the nearly-good category are the segments by Akin and Attal. Akin has too little time for his story involving an artist (Ugur Yücel) and an oppressed shopworker (Qi Shu), but it´s still mildly affecting. Attal gets two whole, separate segments to himself: the first features Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q, and it´s the highlight of the film until Marston´s finale; the second, with Chris Cooper and Robin Wright, is merely okay.
In-between all the stories are unneeded transition scenes directed by Randall Balsmeyer and featuring a videographer randomly meeting and filming characters from the individual segments.
By my count, at least half of this movie is unbearable, and only one 7-minute segment is really worthwhile. View at your own risk, and I´m already dreading the next 3(!) features planned, which will be set in Shanghai, Jerusalem, and Rio de Janeiro.
Does it do justice to New York City? Nah. Wait for the real New York compilation feature (or make your own), which can feature segments by Coppola, Scorsese, and Woody Allen (they tried this before in New York Stories, which, warts and all, I´d heartily recommend over New York, I Love You), and also Spike Lee, Abel Ferrera, Sidney Lumet, etc.
Note: There are a few lines in foreign dialects throughout, subtitled in Czech on Prague screens. 98% of the film is in English, though.