The Movie Club

My Take on the Up in the Air Backlash
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2010 5:20 PM

The Movie Club

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Howdy gang,

Roger, I do love your parting shot about the deflated Sully love doll. And it's true that Avatar is more successful as a collection of other romances—including the romance of the Other and the enduring love story between James Cameron and himself. The movie is actually such a vast entertainment that it giveth on so many levels. There is much to roll your eyes at—"Who's bad?," "Numbnuts," Giovanni Ribisi)—but your eyes are also frequently encouraged to pop out of your brains.

Avatar's the-future-is-nowness alone is not a cause for rhapsody. I experienced that when blood drizzled down the screen in My Bloody Valentine 3D. And don't we see a low-tech version of motion-capture every time Jessica Biel acts? (Although we have not discussed how good Zoe Saldana—or the idea of Zoe Saldana—is in Avatar.) The movie's achievement is that despite Cameron's lousy dialogue and the cardboard element of some of the acting, Avatar has both a visionary's scope and a craftsman's sense of pacing.

Cameron is actually a clever storyteller. In the first 30 minutes, we understand all the stakes, so you're free to focus on everything that's going on visually in every inch of many of the film's frames. It should go without saying, but 3D puts you inside the screen. Great filmmakers have been creating the emotional equivalent of that experience for decades. Cameron gets an emotional response just by putting us closer than we've been before.

I remember during Sully's second trip to Pandora that I had the conversion moment. Suddenly, I got why Cameron had made all those aquatic IMAX movies. I saw where all the money went. I felt my resistance fall away and felt the movie working on me and for me. It was like flying. Very few moviegoing experiences have made me feel airborne in quite the same way. You could counter with Up, but the best passages in that movie, which I enjoyed a lot, occur before the house leaves the ground. I rarely long to reach out and touch a movie, but there went fingers feeling for fauna and flora and, I won't lie, nipples.

It's interesting that Dan invoked Lars von Trier's name while talking about Cameron, since both men provided very different reminders of why we go to the movies: to feel something. Antichrist was one of the other best times I had in a theater in 2009. Roger, I think we were at the same screening, and I'll never forget the atmosphere. Von Trier had an entire audience aghast and exhilarated, talking back to the screen, laughing with and at all the madnesss. That movie, in my mind, is inseparable from the experience of watching it. It was not unlike, say, watching Jennifer Hudson make people scream and pass out during The Scene in Dreamgirls.

Antichrist was the year's best horror film. In Boston, it opened in the same period as Paranormal Activity, and it was interesting having two movies about couples besieged by the metaphysically inexplicable. I tried not to feel superior to Paranormal Activity, but everything about the movie felt phony to me—the couple, the gimmick, but especially the house, which looked like it was assembled from a Cribs kit. Drag Me to Hell was fun, especially the final shot. But the volume was absurdly loud. I saw it twice in two different cities, and both times I noticed the sound design working against speaking characters. Lorna Raver's puke came in clearer than anything Alison Lohman said.

Meanwhile, the criticisms of Up in the Air don't feel like a backlash so much as an unease that's always been with the film. Jason Reitman really gets all the classic Hollywood romance stuff between George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. It's sexy. And that relationship talk between her and Anna Kendrick is uncommonly perceptive for Hollywood nowadays. But the movie, which bears only a passing resemblance to Walter Kirn's novel (not a crime, mind you; more movies based on books should take liberties), doesn't know what to do with anyone when it's not in an airport, conference room, or hotel.

What Reitman doesn't get is actual people. The scenes in Wisconsin don't work, although Amy Morton as Clooney's wearied sister does splendidly. Reitman has also glued interviews with unemployed people onto the end of the film, and, OK, they're touching. But they're also apologetic: We're sorry Clooney burrito-ed Farmiga on the couch. Why be sorry? That stuff was fun! It is interesting that a great-American-director enthusiasm has coalesced around Reitman. He does have a light touch that feels, in so many ways, bygone. If he continues to work in this vein, he'll restore a lost glamour to our movies. But I worry that that lightness is sometime simply "lite."

Up in the Air does feature characters brought to life by their jobs. The very good French director Laurent Cantet makes great portraits of people and their work. Obviously, this year's stunning "time to make the donuts" movie was The Hurt Locker, in which we watch a man caress bombs. Talk about romance! The care Kathryn Bigelow puts into her construction of sequences is equal to the care William James puts into his dismantling. I love the idea that he adores his job enough to forgo the regulated sartorial protections to perform it. Holy moly, the sex is unprotected.

James is not a lunatic, but this experience has rendered him too big for his small, civilized life. There has been debate about the meaning of the film's title (the excellent script is Mark Boal's). Is it the suit? Is it the war? I thought it was the crate of bomb parts and the photo of a woman—things he says that almost killed him. The movie is hard, but it's also exceedingly gentle in its depiction of the tenuous bond between soldiers. James would rather be alone but he tolerates company, I think, because it keeps him human and keeps him sane.

The Hurt Locker is an intimate, masterfully suspenseful piece of moviemaking, topped for me only by the emotional intricacies of Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum, which is available to be streamed or rented. Both movies are achievements of spatial arrangement. The critics are united behind Bigelow and the fantastic Jeremy Renner, who plays James. I hope that translates somehow into a bigger audience.  

Dan, you wanted our biggest surprises? Mine is the success of and critical, commercial, and Hollywood enthusiasm for Inglourious Basterds, a film loved by you and many colleagues and friends. I think the first and third chapters are brilliant. But the final sequence depressed me: Tarantino goes medieval on the Third Reich! I'm out of time, but I'm sure you all have feelings, inglourious and otherwise.

Your avatar,
Wesley

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