Knee-Jerk Review “Up in the Air”

1. Smart and clever we expected. But we were surprised by how genuinely moving it is.
2. We wouldn’t mind being George Clooney for a day.
3. “It’s just someone who’s lost.” Best line of the movie. Powerful.
4. Brought to you by American Airlines, Hertz, and Hilton. It takes product placement to a whole new level when the products actually form integral parts of a film’s plot.
5. What’s in your backpack?
6. Subtext and theme are what separate good movies from great movies. This one is chock full of both. Case in point are the many mentions of how American Airlines values the loyalty of frequent-flyer George Clooney, which runs completely counter to the abject lack of loyalty shown to the longtime employees his company fires. Capitalism at it worst or best, depending on where you sit.
7. It’s genius to force a character who hates marriage have to try and convince someone to get married.
8. Typically, you’d expect the love interest (Vera Farmiga) to be the one to help our hero change and evolve, but that really comes more from his snotty sidekick (Anna Kendrick).
9. All three lead roles are so meaty, it’s hard to tell which is the most engaging, complex character. It’s no surprise that all three got Oscar nods.
10. Screenwriting 101: just when the hero at last gets everything he thought he wanted, he realizes he no longer wants it.
11. Jason Bateman is a revelation here, all dead-eyed smarm.
12. So many great, sharp observations here about life as a full-time business traveler. (“I’m like my mother. I stereotype.”)
13. Some may disagree, but we loved the slightly ambiguous ending.

Oscar handicapping

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
>>The kind of lifetime achievement award Oscar loves to bestow. Bridges has already been sweeping other award shows. Consider this a lock.
George Clooney, Up in the Air
>>Already won one for Syriana a couple of years ago. He probably won’t get another until he provides a showstopper performance that’s impossible to ignore.
Colin Firth, A Single Man
>>Should be happy to be here since no one saw his movie.
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
>>A good performance, but the star of that movie is really the directing.

Best Actress
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
>>We’ll have to see the movie to offer an informed opinion on the groundswell of support for Bullock. As of now, we remain dubious. Oscar loves rewarding movie stars, but we can’t believe that this is Bullock's Erin Brockovich. From the outside, it looks like a Lifetime movie, too small, too fluffy.
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
>>She rather recently won for The Queen. It seems doubtful she’ll ever win again. Oscar loves to spread the wealth.
Carey Mulligan, An Education
>>No way. Oscar gives Best Actress awards to name actors, not ingénues.
Gabourney Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia
>>The Oscar love affair with Streep has become something of a joke to the Cheese Fry. She’s amazing, yes. But this is getting silly. Streep racks up nomination after nomination but hasn’t won in over 25 years. It’s practically an automatic nomination, like Kelsey Grammer at the Emmys in the 1990s. We think her problem is that she won two Oscars very early in her career (Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice) and now the Academy isn’t sure what to do with her. We think they’re waiting for a huge, career-defining performance to give her a third Oscar (to join the rarefied ranks of three-peats Ingrid Bergman and Jack Nicholson). This ain’t it.

Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon, Invictus
>>No one saw the movie.
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
>>Double ditto.
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
>>He was good and it’s his first nomination, so it could be a make-good on past slights, but…
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
>>..everyone seems to agree that he’s the best thing in the movie. A lock.

Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Nine
>>No way. No one saw it.
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
>>Very strong, but may split votes with her co-star. If Oscar wants to follow tradition and use this award to anoint a glamorous newcomer (see also: Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Hudson, Penelope Cruz, Renee Zellweger), this is the best chance to do so.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
>>We think the Bridges win will be all that Oscar chooses to offer for that movie.
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
>>See above, though we give the glamour nod to the more seasoned Farmiga.
Mo’Nique, Precious
>>She’s riding a wave of buzz and liberal Hollywood likely can’t pass up a chance to congratulate themselves on being color blind and supporting such an Important Film. Very close to a lock.

>>As groundbreaking as the film may be, Hollywood considers Jim Cameron a jackass. A win here would be a surprise.
The Hurt Locker
>>Oscar likely can’t pass up the chance to bestow its first directing award to a woman. Bonus points because Kathryn Bigelow actually, like, deserves it.
Inglourious Basterds
>>We honestly can’t ever imagine Tarantino winning this category. Flashforward to 2040 when he wins a lifetime achievement Oscar. That's what seems more likely.
>>No way. An honor to be here.
Up in the Air
>>Ditto, though Jason Reitman has an incredible track record (Thank You for Smoking, Juno). He’ll be back. His films so far have gotten exponentially better each time.

Best Original Screenplay
The Hurt Locker
>>The directing award may be enough, though this one is deserving. It's the odds-on-favorite since it's also in the running for the Writers Guild award, always a strong indicator of who wins the Oscar. Only this and A Serious Man were also nominated for the WGA award.
Inglourious Basterds
>>The supporting actor award may be enough, though this one is deserving.
The Messenger
>>No one’s seen it.
A Serious Man
>>This is intriguing. Could this be a way to honor Pixar? If so, it’d leave a bad taste in our mouths. Up isn’t nearly as well-written as The Incredibles or Ratatouille.

Best Adapted Screenplay
District 9
>>We’d love a world where Oscar rewards science fiction, but we can’t see it.
An Education
>>No one saw this movie.
In the Loop
>>It would seem to be a run-off between Precious and Up in the Air. Both are the only ones from this list also nominated for a WGA award.
Up in the Air
>>We loved this script and hope it wins.

Best Picture
>>For the record, consider us among those who hate this new format that allows ten nominees rather than five. It's clearly a decision based solely on Oscar’s craven need to pander to the TV audiences and do everything it can to get in “popular” movies as possible – history tells us that in the years that populist movies win Best Picture (Titanic in 1998, Lord of the Rings in 2004), the TV ratings go up. The real problem, perhaps, is the disconnect between high-minded, slightly snobby Oscar voters and the moviegoing masses who can actually enjoy a big popcorn spectacle without feeling guilty in the morning (see: The Dark Knight or Star Trek).
>>The likely winner, if only because the Academy may want to avoid repeating past mistakes that embarrassingly gave the win to the lesser of two frontrunners, like Gandhi over ET or Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. Avatar changed filmmaking and has broken all box office records. That may be tough to ignore.
The Blind Side
>>No way, people.
District 9
>>Science fiction doesn’t win... unless it changes filmmaking and breaks all box office records.
An Education
>>We didn’t see it, either.
The Hurt Locker
>>The supposed other frontrunner is peaking at just the right time in terms of buzz and popularity, but we’re figuring the Bigelow win for director will be all that Oscar allows. Without Avatar, would have been a probable lock.
Inglorious Basterds
>>In the old days, this would have been the classic “fifth slot” surprise, the unexpected nomination that fills out the list. The nomination is reward enough.
>>Worthy, respectable, deserved. Won’t win.
A Serious Man
>>The esoteric, British-themed, stoic drama. There’s one every year. Won’t win.
>>Kudos to Pixar for getting its first Best Picture nomination. Only the second animated film to ever get nominated. Won’t win.
Up in the Air
>>The kind of finely-crafted, smart drama that Oscar loves, though it’s been suffering a strange sort of backlash (“It’s not that great”) at the wrong time. This is the dark horse.

A word about "Fringe"

Last season, when “Fringe” premiered, we weren’t interested. Not only did it look like a rip-off of the late, great “X-Files” (or at least the first few seasons before Duchovny and Anderson lost interest), but we were neck-deep in a seemingly unending commitment to the serialized mystery of “Lost.” As one fellow “Lost”-ie so aptly puts it, watching “Lost” is like dealing with a bad relationship: you hang in there hoping the good times outnumber the bad times, praying for a satisfying resolution deep down you know will never come. In short, the Cheese Fry was not willing to invest in another TV show from J.J. Abrams (is he a hack or a genius? we can't decide) that would spend five years teasing us with little reveals that raised more questions than they answered, slowly revealing a byzantine backstory that could not possibly be answered in a satisfying way because the writers were making it up as they went along.

But then we learned that last season’s "Fringe" finale involved the series’ big twist: parallel universes. As in, another universe – full of strange alien technology including shapeshifters – is plotting an invasion of our universe.


We tentatively sampled “Fringe” this season. If we’re not exactly hooked, we do look forward to the episodes. Our fears about the show being an “X-Files” rip-off were indeed well founded. The show alternates between stand-alone supernatural-mystery-of-the-week episodes and serialized parallel-universe mythology episodes. And a lot of the supernatural science stuff seems lifted wholesale from “The X-Files.”

But “Fringe” has a secret weapon and that is John Noble as Dr. Walter Bishop, the brilliant, slightly agoraphobic scientist with a nebulous past involving black-book government projects in what the show calls “fringe science.” Today, he’s a consultant for the FBI unit charged with investigating paranormal activities (sound familiar?).

Part of Walter’s charm is surely his eccentric genius. He knows a lot about a great many subjects... but he also insists on keeping a live dairy cow in his lab so he can enjoy fresh milk... and he makes frequent mention of the many enjoyable psychotropic drugs he’s tried over the years. We stipulate that he’s the kind of quirky character, full of amusing idiosyncrasies, that exists more in TV shows than in real life. Doesn’t make him any less fun to watch.

More important, perhaps, is Walter’s vulnerability. He’s oftentimes like a helpless 8-year-old or, read another way, a senior citizen in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Walter is still grappling with the fallout of a recent mental breakdown (we think – that stuff was probably explained more clearly in season 1 but we get the gist) that’s turned him into a kind of child prodigy: all intellect, no common sense. Walter can suss out the inner workings of the human brain’s natural ability to receive psychic signals, but gets hopelessly lost after a bus ride and can't remember how to call for help. Walter deduces the natural cause of a seemingly unnatural spontaneous combustion death, but displays a petulant tendency to pout if he doesn’t get his way.

What this means is that Walter needs a guardian, someone to act as his parent. And that person, of course, is his estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson), who as a boy Walter essentially abandoned as Walter threw himself into his work. The heart of the show is Walter and Peter’s rocky reconciliation as they draw boundaries, forgive past sins, and develop a familial bond that they never before shared (e.g. Peter calls his father by his first name). Those family moments form the heart of the show, just as the sexual tension of Mulder and Scully gave “The X-Files” its emotional center. Clever plotting may be fun, but it’s always the characters that make a show resonate with viewers.

“Fringe,” we’re sorry we didn’t watch you sooner. But that’s why they make DVD box sets.

Non-knee-jerk review: "The Lovely Bones"

1. We can’t be sure (because we read the novel so long ago), but it seems like the filmmakers changed quite a bit of the story.
2. Sorry, Rachel Weisz. We cared not a whit about your annoying character. We're not even completely convinced you didn't have an affair with the detective.
3. Some truly amazing, beautiful imagery in Susie’s limbo afterlife. Example: the tree whose leaves turn into birds that fly away. Like, wow.
4. We liked it, but we can’t say that we loved it. Every beat felt so… very... drawn… out. Didn’t need be so long. As David Spade once famously joked about Malcolm X: “It’s called an editor. Hire one.”
5. Susan Sarandon sure looked like she was having fun. How old is she now, anyway?
6. No way Susie’s classmate crush was anywhere near her in age. Dude looked 25 at least. That’s the kind of poor casting choice that drives us crazy.
7. We think the killer got off kind of easy, too.
8. What was the purpose of the fake-looking contacts for Stanley Tucci? Distracting.
9. Remember the days of having to go get your film developed?
10. Without question, a movie about the rape and murder of a teen girl isn’t as escapist as it might have been a year ago, before we had a daughter of our own.

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