The Descendants (Payne, 2011)

All hail Clooney! Here’s my SD.com review of Alexander Payne’s excellent new film, The Descendants.

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Up in the Air (Reitman, 2009)

Flying high above the ground, the vast American landscape looks serenely majestic even during our most trying times. The opening credits of Jason Reitman’s Up In the Air juxtapose horizons of massive cityscapes with perfectly symmetrical fields, plains, and waterways. These omniscient views represent home sweet home for Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a charming corporate shark traveling the country firing employees for weak-willed companies. Bingham’s serpentine work ethic and isolationist code rely on constant forward momentum, staying one step ahead of emotional commitment to mentally survive. In this current economic crisis, Bingham’s business is booming, and Reitman makes a point to insert worker testimonials to properly contextualize the film. It’s just one of the many aesthetic decisions heightened for maximum thematic effect.

Of course Up In The Air would not exist without the prospect of Bingham experiencing personal change and redemption. His professional creed gets challenged partially due to shifting business tactics and technologies, but more substantially after a chance meeting with Alex (Verma Farmiga), his female equal. While most of the film postures as a keenly aware statement about the social consequences of this down economy, Up In the Air develops Ryan and Alex’s sublime relationship with ease. Clooney and Farmiga tap into a wonderful improvisational acting style, leading the viewer down a road of unexpected emotional expression, only to derive something far more powerful, timely, and forlorn in the end. Their gracefully fleeting moments together represent the growing disconnect between romantic perception and reality.

If Up In the Air feels entirely polished, it’s more a blessing than a curse (as opposed to Reitman’s two other films) since the visuals perfectly compliment Ryan’s structured elitism. Thankfully, Reitman understands the most important element connecting both Bingham and the countless workers he fires – the ability to evolve. And so the film fluidly taps into America’s current desperation without seeming heavy-handed. But Reitman’s talent at constructing complex character interactions only takes these themes so far, and beyond Bingham’s deeply personal conflict this American landscape feels particularly black and white, especially straight-forward. Those critics praising Up In the Air as a landmark of cinematic poignancy must see an invisible depth in even the most familiar moments.

While Up In the Air might not be the social Goliath its supporters think it to be, Clooney’s tragic performance is something to behold, delving deep into a well of melancholy and regret. As Bingham’s exterior confidence slowly crumbles and his dapper Dan attitude falters, Clooney’s body begins to slightly slouch, his eyes occasionally avoid contact, sure signs of a man coming to grips with his own insignificance. Even though Reitman reserves plenty of reflexive hope for Bingham and the American worker in general, his film lives and breathes with an unspoken heartache collectively drifting through the rarefied air. In these subtle moments of indecision and remorse, Up In the Air turns transcendent, if only for fleeting moments before descending back to the depths of convention.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson, 2009)

With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson the auteur, the charming orchestrator of verbal banter, the rigorous explorer of family melancholy, comes full circle and revisits the nuanced themes and motifs of his two previous masterpieces (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums). Anderson’s first official foray into animation clarifies what the director has been building toward with his last few films, problematic pictures about misbegotten families that confuse deep irony with deep humanity.

Fox, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, takes Anderson’s themes to a far superior level, using stop-motion animation to infuse the lively creatures beneath us with human traits, emotions, and conflicts, complicating the beasts and their burdens with inevitable change. The film frolics at a breakneck pace, cramming detail upon detail into strikingly composed frames, revealing a sublime order from mother nature’s darker hues. In short, the film creates a dynamic, communal animal universe with traditions, histories, and legends that all layer into a superbly specific tale of adaptation, instinct, regret, and contentment.

And so it begins, with Mr. Fox (George Clooney) leaning confidently against a skinny tree overlooking a vast valley, immersed in a tape cassette recording of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, pleased with his profession (killing chickens) and his singular family (wife Felicity Fox voiced by Meryl Streep). It’s possibly the only moment in the film where our hero is alone, and it can easily get forgotten amongst the countless joyous moments to follow. But it speaks volumes about his character as a kind rogue flushed with self-confidence, waiting for life to happen, hiding insecurities about parenting, later entranced back toward darkness by a mid-life craving of sorts. This type of complexity inhabits each of Anderson’s characters, and the world seems to evolve from their mere existence.

Deep seeded emotions carve these characters into complex animals, rendering the fabric of their hair, skin, claws, and teeth. Parental influence, sibling rivalry, responsibility, and trauma become benchmarks for their interactions, creating kindred moments akin to Max’s deep longing for his mother in Rushmore or Chas’ haunting admission at the end of  Tenenbaums. Their detail evolves from the colorful and illuminating mise-en-scene – interiors flushed with portraits, landscape paintings, objects of affection, and clothes, exteriors dense with movement, danger, and elemental shifts. Anderson takes his characters through holes, trees, sewers, and finally into the sun, basking in the glow of immediacy. Color pops from every angle –  the red of Fox’s tail, Badger’s dark suit, and Ash’s light blue cape immediately make an impact.

Wes Anderson creates universes from the ground up, rooting space, time, and style within the organic makeup the characters, and when he’s most successful the screen pops with visual splendor and darkly comedic undertones. Fantastic Mr. Fox has these traits and more, illuminating the texture of wild instinct, the detail of fatherhood, and the colorful glow of love. If these brilliant incarnations seem occasionally forlorn, it’s because the wild animal in them takes a backseat to their human soul, for the good of friendship and family. But Anderson also understands that each needs to release the necessary beast inside, if only for a moment, to eat, scream, or hold an occasional rumpus.

Michael Clayton (Gilroy, 2007)

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It’s the season for passion projects from Hollywood directors with such films as James Gray’s We Own the Night, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James… and Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton gracing the silver screen. Each piece took their respective filmmakers many years to develop and produce and all three somewhat live up to their special billing.

But Michael Clayton remains an oddity amongst this group since it doesn’t display any artistic indulgence or reflection- just plain old classic storytelling. Writer/director Gilroy (who wrote the Jason Bourne films and a host of other mainstream fare), takes a page out of the Soderbergh/Clooney playbook in both style and grace, but the story of Michael Clayton is all his and incredibly personal. The way each character is introduced, established, and moved represents a close attention to character detail, not as Hollywood emotion hounds but as people immersed in this particular story. Gilroy opens with a haunting monologue voiced by Tom Wilkinson’s character Arthur Eden, a high powered attorney who’s just found religion, and his striking words will ring loudly throughout. Arthur and his team have been representing U North, a corrupt farming corporation fighting a class action lawsuit against small scale farmers in Minnesota for the last six years and in a drastic turn of events, shifted his loyalties because of a guilty conscience. Eden’s firm sends in Michael Clayton (Clooney), a janitor of sorts to clean up the media mess and internal strife. U North sends in it’s litigator, the devastating Tilda Swinton, as a counter-punch, and the two take off on separate paths in dealing with the conflicting situation. The table is set for a highly intelligent screenplay to take over, moving from scene to scene with suspenseful fervor, seamlessly incorporating a feeling of ethical mortality throughout.

Michael Clayton isn’t the type of film that’s going to blow you away with flash, just it’s mastery of the medium. The images by Robert Elswitt, the amazing sound design and score, and Gilroy’s perfect execution on all levels (especially his script) make this the best classical Hollywood film in years, and that’s saying something. Michael Clayton might be simple in name, but the mesmerizing process of this man and his morals keeps faith alive for all of us wishing mainstream cinema would captivate more often.