Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reel Low: In the Wake of American Tragedy

One thing I've noticed as I've aged a bit is I increasingly enjoy reflections of modern society, especially ones directly examining American ideals and mores. A few films in this vain stuck out to me recently. Two immersed themselves in the economic crisis came about this past year or so, while the other was made a year after September 11th, but is perhaps more significant eight years after the fact.
First up is Jason Reitman's award-darling Up in the Air [2009].
George Clooney works for a company where he is subcontracted to firing people from their venue of employment. In the process, he travels around the country accumulating airline miles to an unheard of degree. He's closed off from everything, save for himself and the skies. That is, until two things happen: he meets a woman who lives her life exactly like he does his, and is tasked to mentor a young woman in the art of the termination. It's a sleekly compiled film where everything seems to fit perfectly, almost a bit too perfectly sometimes.
Not surprisingly, Clooney brings the needed likability to a nearly unsympathetic lead role. Similarly, Vera Farmiga as his mirror image and love interest delivered an excellent performance and was hard to not to fall for, and I'm fairly confident we'll be seeing young Anna Kendrick doing good work for some time after her turn here as Clooney's protege. Her initially icy performance warming into adulthood was the highlight of the film for me.
I find it a little surprising Up in the Air has received as much acclaim as it has, namely an entry for Best Picture by the Academy. Not that it isn't a good movie -- it's rather phenomenal in many respects, particularly in the dialogue -- but I had some trouble getting past an underlying current streaming through the narrative. At the end of the day, these characters were scum. Their daily task of becoming as emotionally devoid as possible to be successful in their own professions and goals.
Another problem with the film is that the two sides of the Clooney character -- the guy avoiding commitment and the guy traveling around the country firing people -- are never tied together, which is kinda shocking considering how well written this film otherwise is.
Up in the Air may be too slick in spots, and not cohesive enough in others, but it's still very good. Just maybe not best-picture good for my tastes.
Meanwhile, frequent Clooney collaborator Steven Soderbergh dove head-first into the economic crash while uncertainty about it was at its highest. The result: The Girlfriend Experience [2009].
Soderbergh puts both the high-end escort and personal training industries under the microscope. However, this being one of his indie projects made between his big-budget studio flicks, that microscope is left a little out of focus, probably intentionally so.
Real-life porn star Sasha Grey takes the reigns of the film as Chelsea, a Manhattan call girl on the rise. She weaves in an out of the lives of her customers while slowing building her reputation and pay grade. Where the story takes a unique turn is that not only does she go about the city pretending to be the girlfriend of her customers, she has a live-in boyfriend who knows nearly everything about what she does.
The boyfriend is a personal trainer, who is also trying to climb the rungs of both the fitness and fashion worlds, as well as gauge his potential worth monetarily at every opportunity. These are industries that, at least in the way portrayed in the movie, are strikingly similar as they both force their inhabitants to profusely sell themselves in order to be successful. Coupled with an economy steeped in ruin, their plights are far more dynamic than they would have been had the film been set in 2007.
Some other reviews I've read seemed overly obsessed with Gray's porno past, claiming it gave a staunch realism to her performance. I don't have much of an opinion on that. She's not particularly outstanding in the role, but were it not for an often drab delivery, she might have glowed on the screen. Grey's past is only a distraction in the film if you let it be.
The Girlfriend Experience poses some intriguing quandaries for the leads: how do these customers keep up with the rising cost demands in this economic climate, and how do these entrepreneurs find the perfect balance of success and happiness?
Soderbergh doesn't seem interested in the answers to these questions, just posing them. At the end of the day, the all the film really seems concerned about is the benjamins.
And even when it doesn't seem like it's all about the money, it really is. Such is one of the lessons delivered by Spike Lee's 25th Hour [2002].
Produced a year after 9/11, 25th Hour is about a convicted drug dealer's last day of "freedom" before beginning a seven-year sentence. It's simultaneously a love letter to New York City and a scathing critique of the American way filled with high levels of devotion and anger that only someone like Spike Lee seems to successfully pull off.
This clip is one of the highlights of movie. It doesn't really give away any plot points, so feel free to take a peek. (FYI, not for the easily offended.)
This cast is superb, top to bottom. Ed Norton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox each give marvelous performances.
I watched this one for the first time a few months ago, and never got around to writing about it due to my technical difficulties at the time. Because of that, I'm getting a little sketchy with the details of it, so I'll spare myself from making a mistake by trying to relay a detailed recap of the story. However, Norton's Monty tried to take a short cut to obtain the American dream by dealing drugs is exposed, as are the class differences between him and his best two childhood friends as they fool themselves into one last great night before he gets locked up.
I apologize for the lazy review here, but trust me -- it's a great film. Probably my favorite Spike Lee joint, out of the ones I've seen.
It's fascinating to watch a film like this now, nearly nine years after that hellish day. In 2002, anger and fear over it were still astronomical. But now, all those emotions from that time feel like they happened even longer to me. I'm sure those feelings still linger, especially for New Yorkers, but they aren't in the daily thoughts of the nation any longer. Watching 25th Hour brings them back in a flash.
The current recession is changing the world too, although in a much subtler manner, and it is feeding a lot of entertainment now. It makes me wonder if we'll look at Up in the Air or The Girlfriend Experience with any sort of the apprehensive nostalgia of "remember what 2009 was like?" in a few years time. Case in point, I was surprised how quickly I forgot about John McCain spewing endlessly on his "maverick" qualities until The Girlfriend Experience reminded me, so I'm sure there'll be something noteworthy. I'll let you know if we're still fiddling with this site in 2019.

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