Up in the Air

“Up in the Air,” directed by Jason Reitman. Cold Spring Pictures, 2009, 109 minutes.
Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen
Two films reviewed this month use a backpack as a metaphor for what really matters in life. In “The Road” a father and son make their way across post-apocalyptic America carrying their survival equipment and a few sentimental items in a backpack; in “Up in the Air,” a happily single man encourages people to empty their imaginary backpacks and live life unencumbered. It’s the difference between life seen as substance and sustenance and life seen as weightlessness.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), the protagonist-antagonist of “Up in the Air,” is a man with an unusual occupation: he gives people the news that they have been fired. Only he doesn’t use the words “fired” or “let go”; he tells them simply, “Your job is no longer available.” He is hired by companies across America for the anonymity he provides– it’s easier to fire people if you don’t know their background, haven’t met their children, haven’t swapped stories at the water cooler. It’s also safer; he’s out the door and on the next plane before the firee has a chance to go berserk and seek revenge.
Bingham remains upbeat and cheerful throughout the process, telling people, “This is the day you begin planning your future.” And he seems to mean it. To him, working 9 to 5 in the same office and returning to the same house inhabited by the same family day after day would be a nightmare. He sets these people free.
When he isn’t ushering individuals toward their new futures, Bingham gives speeches at motivational seminars. His topic: “What’s in your backpack?” It’s the age-old Thoreauvian question: how much of our lives do we spend supporting our “stuff”? Bingham encourages his audiences to imagine putting all their stuff into a pack and then lugging it around on their backs. He also tells them to imagine putting all the people in their lives into the backpack–family, friends, spouse, children, coworkers. Then he tells them to imagine lightening the load by eliminating all their stuff, and all those people. “What would you keep?” he asks. “Photographs? Keep memories instead.”
Bingham practices what he preaches. He travels 318 days a year, “leaving 47 miserable days at home,” he reports sarcastically. His own apartment, bereft of any ornamentation or personal memorabilia, stands in stark white contrast to the welcoming comfort of his hotel digs, with their richly colored wallpapers, thick bedspreads, gourmet dining rooms, per diem charge accounts, and warm cheerful greetings (triggered, he admits, by his VIP frequent traveler card). He lives “up in the air,” both physically and metaphorically.
The film opens with a tightly edited montage of a smiling Bingham making his way through an airport–a twirl of the roller bag, off go the shoes, up goes the ticket, poof goes the security machine, on go the shoes, bim, bam boom and he’s sipping a cocktail in his upgraded business class seat. Jaunty music establishes the rhythm, ritual, and routine of air travel in a way that suggests the comfort rather than the tedium of familiarity. This is a man who loves his job. He loves the travel, loves his frequent traveler cards, loves the VIP lines. He loves picking up women at airport bars and not having to call them again. In short, he has found a way to empty his backpack and simplify his life.
But, like the title of another film that opened at the same time as “Up in the Air,” Bingham soon learns that “it’s complicated.” Two women come into his life, setting the stage for self-reflection and a reassessment of his values. One is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a woman Bingham meets in an airport bar. She also travels almost daily, carries dozens of fancy VIP cards, and wants quick, easy sex with no strings attached. In short, as she tells Bingham crudely, “I’m you, with a vagina.” They share travel stories, brag about their sexcapades, and hook up in airport hotels. Before long, just as you’d expect in a film of this genre, Bingham isn’t just hooking up; he’s hooked.
Meanwhile, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is a young college grad who has been hired by Bingham’s boss (Jason Bateman) with a plan to revolutionize the business. She wants them to forego travel costs and face to face terminations, and modernize the process through email interface– sort of like flying the friendly Skype rather than flying the friendly skies. Not only is Bingham’s comfortable world up in the air about to be eliminated; he is assigned to take Natalie with him to show her the business so she can fine-tune her new electronic format.
Natalie is having romantic problems with her boyfriend, problems she discusses at length with Alex and Bingham in–where else?–a hotel lounge. Add to this a sister who is getting married and another sister who is getting divorced, and the film offers plenty of opportunities for Bingham to discuss the relative merits or demerits of longterm relationships.
“Up in the Air” rises above (no pun intended) the typical romantic comedy genre with its boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl-after-a-good-lesson formula. Today, marriage is no longer the default position, and children can be the biggest burden in the backpack. Discussions about the value of longterm relationships and the viability of marriage make this film very contemporary.
“What’s the point?” Bingham asks the optimistic Natalie when she tries to explain her desire for marriage and children. “We’re all on the way to death. All that matters is what you do along the way.” He genuinely believes that his love ‘em and leave ‘em life is more satisfying than being tied down to the same woman, same children, same four walls and a mortgage. Another character counters his argument with this challenge: “Think of the best memories you have–are you alone in them?” He makes a solid point: “Life is better with company.”
Another theme that makes this film distinctly contemporary is the business of letting people go. Jason Reitman began writing this screenplay in 2002 but became sidetracked with “Thank You for Smoking” (2005) and “Juno” (2007). It was a fortunate delay, since “Up in the Air” is much more timely now, when unemployment figures stand in double digits, than it would have been in 2002, when the economy was booming. The people who are seen being fired in the film are not actors, but ordinary people who were recently terminated from their jobs. Reitman advertised in St. Louis and Detroit, posing as a documentarian making a film about the effects of the recession. These volunteers were told to imagine the camera as the person who gave them the news that they were fired, and to say what they wish they had said. The results are heartfelt, eloquent, and completely unscripted. Their spontaneous candor adds a great deal to the film.
As the movie ends, Bingham is still up in the air, literally and figuratively. He’s in a plane, flying to his next termination assignment. His future is also up in the air–will he change? Or is it too late? Will he continue to carry an empty backpack the rest of his life?
I have a friend who was very much like the Ryan Bingham character: handsome, debonair, charming, and rich. He traveled the world looking for investment opportunities and attracting women the way a picnic attracts bees. Now he’s close to 70. He’s still rich, and he still travels. But his face is sagging, his hair is almost gone, and his stomach no longer resembles a washboard. Young sexy women are no longer falling all over him when he walks through an airport lounge. He never wanted to be bogged down with a wife and children or social obligations. Now he’s simply alone. I wonder if he wishes there was a little more heft to his backpack.

Crazy Heart

“Crazy Heart,” directed by Scott Cooper. Butcher’s Run Films, 2010, 112 minutes.
Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen
In “Crazy Heart,” Bad Black (Jeff Bridges) is a country singer whose albums once topped the charts. Now he performs in bowling alleys and country bars, using local pick-up bands as his back-up musicians and staying in seedy motels. He’s a chain-smoking alcoholic who drives himself to one-night-stands in his 1978 Silverado, relieving himself in a milk jug because he’s too lazy to pull over and find a bathroom. “I ain’t never missed a show,” he tells the anxious leader of the latest band as he arrives just before showtime, pukes in the garbage can, and enters the stage door. His fans applaud appreciatively as he walks onstage, and for good reason: his talent is still there, and his music is still strong. The next morning he wakes up with Jo Ann (60-year-old Beth Grant), a one-night stand of a different sort. Such is the life of an aging musician. The groupies have gotten older.
In the sixties, a friend of mine had a band that opened for Janis Joplin. Janis was completely stoned backstage, barely able to walk, and mumbling incoherently. My friend thought for sure that the show would be cancelled. But when her music was cued and she entered the stage, Janis was on fire, delivering a powerhouse performance as electrifying as any of her recordings. After the show she stumbled back off stage and collapsed in a stupor.
Bad Black is that kind of drunk. A “functioning alcoholic,” he is able to drive, communicate, and perform even when he has been drinking all day. This functionality places him in denial about his alcoholism and what it is doing to his body, his relationships, and his career. He recognizes that his career is waning, but he blames the unfair rise to stardom of his former protege, Tommy Sweet (Collin Farrell) and Tommy’s unwillingness to record a duet album that would put Bad back on the charts.
This attitude begins to change when Bad meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a music journalist who asks to interview him. For some reason, perhaps because she is familiar with his music and sees him through the lens of his past glory, she is able to look past the craggy beard, stringy hair, stinky breath, and squalid surroundings to fall for him. Bad is also charmed by Jean and by her darling 4-year-old boy, Buddy (Jack Nation). She makes him want to be better.
But Bad’s an alcoholic, and alcoholics have only one true relationship: with the bottle. After a frightening experience involving little Buddy (one has to wonder what kind of mother would be foolish enough to leave her son with an alcoholic . . . but women in love often do foolish things) Bad hits rock bottom and gains the courage to say, for himself, “I want to get sober.” “Crazy Heart” never implies that getting sober is easy, only that it’s worth it. This is a tale of redemption, not of squalor, and it is told with honesty.
This familiar story line could have made the film hokey, sentimental, and predictable. But “Crazy Heart” never falls short of wonderful, largely because of the brilliant performance of Jeff Bridges. One simply forgets that he is an actor playing a part. Anyone who has had the misfortune of dealing with a chronic alcoholic will recognize the perfection of his portrayal–the swagger that hides the drunken walk, the deep-cheeked draw on the cigarette, the protective manner in which he carries a glass of whiskey. Watch for the way he balances a drink nonchalantly on his chest while he talks with Jean on his motel bed, then deftly moves it to the night stand with a quick underhanded twist of his wrist that keeps the glass completely level, not risking a drop. For an alcoholic, the whiskey glass and the cigarette are permanent, sentient appendages.
Production values of the film are top quality. Cinematographer Barry Markowitz takes full advantage of the New Mexico landscape, with its rising red mesas, wide skies, and soothing sunsets. The supporting cast provide rich characterizations, including Robert Duvall as Bad’s longtime friend Wayne. But these performances are mere similes to Bridges’ metaphor; the others act their parts well, but Jeff Bridges is Bad Black.
The quality of the musical score is also something special. Bad Black is a songwriter, not just a singer, so a believable soundtrack was essential to the film. Grammy winner T. Bone Burnett (“O Brother Where Art Thou”) provides a dozen original songs that more than justify the film’s premise that Bad Black’s tarnished star is worth polishing. If I have one complaint, it is that the film cuts away from the songs too soon. This is a soundtrack worth owning.
Scott Cooper wrote, directed, and produced this film. His family members are listed in the acknowledgements. When I see this kind of dedication to a project in the credits, I know the filmmaker is driven by an overwhelming belief in what he is trying to do. Cooper has heart, crazy heart, and it shows throughout this excellent film.

Avatar

“Avatar,” directed by James Cameron. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009, 160 minutes.
Many critics have called “Avatar” “‘Dances with Wolves’ in Space,” but as a story line the film is worse than that: “Avatar” is about as predictable as an ABC After School Special.
When humans arrive on planet Pandora, local residents unite to protect their land from being destroyed by wealthy military-corporate industrialists looking for mineral deposits. The obligatory peace-loving anthropologist (Sigourney Weaver) tries to protect the natives while the renegade military hotshot (Sam Worthington) changes camps to join them. You can guess the rest of the story without shelling out ten bucks for a ticket ($15 if you choose the 3-D version) or spending a whopping three hours in the movie theater.
So why did “Avatar” gross over a billion dollars in box office receipts in its first two weekends? Despite the predictable storyline, the film is pretty spectacular. Computer generated imagery (cgi) technology has improved to the point where watching this film is as magical as watching Disney’s first full-length animated movies must have been. The line between live action and animation has blurred so seamlessly that you simply forget it isn’t real. Background scenes of the alien planet with its light-infused flora and colorful fauna are breathtakingly gorgeous, works of art worthy of their own exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and likely to be displayed there one day in a retrospective of cgi).
An avatar is a computer-operated, biologically correct robotic suit that allows a human to walk around in the body of a Na’vi, the alien life form found on Pandora. Like the characters in last year’s “Surrogates,” humans are hooked up to an EEG that allows them to control these alien bodies while they sleep. The devices have been developed at great expense to help the invading humans ingratiate themselves with the local tribes and obtain what they came for– “unobtainium,” the cartoonishly named mineral that sells for twenty million a kilo back on earth.
Jake Sully (Worthington) is an avatar whose job is to find out what the locals want and then persuade them to trade their home for it. (Did I mention that the mother lode of “unobtainium” is located directly beneath the Na’vis’ Hometree? It wouldn’t be much of an After School Special if it were located anywhere else.) As he lives among the Na’vi and learns their ways, he becomes more and more a part of them. After a while, he says, “Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here [the human camp] is the dream.”
One disturbing aspect of the film is the mythical choosing of the “banshee,” a Pegasus-like bird that provides transportation for the Na’vi. In Celtic folklore, a banshee is a female spirit whose wailing foretells impending death. In “Avatar,” the banshee, we are told, mates for life–not with other banshees, but with the Na’vi who becomes its rider. As Jake performs the rituals that will allow him to achieve Na’vi “manhood” and become a member of the tribe, he must choose a banshee–or rather, allow a banshee to choose him. “How will I choose the right one?” he asks Neytiri, (Zoe Saldana) the woman who has been his guide. “The banshee will choose you,” she replies. “But how will I know?” he asks again. “She will try to kill you.”
Sure enough, one of the banshees hisses menacingly at Jake, and he hisses back. He jumps on her neck and she tries to knock him off. Battling fiercely, he eventually subdues her by jabbing his penis-shaped braid into her vulva-shaped appendage, and after a startled snort and enlarging of her eyes she calms down.
“Quick!” Neytiri urges him. “The first flight must happen immediately for the bond to be complete!” And off they go, Jake upon the wailing banshee’s back shouting, “Shut up and fly straight!” Eventually they establish a beautifully harmonious relationship, with the banshee doing all the work and the avatar having all the fun. Although I think the marriage metaphor might have been unintentional, it’s one of the most troubling demonstrations of marriage that I have seen since the 1950s, when men gave their women a good slap to calm them down or kissed them stridently until their pounding fists melted into submission. Ugh.
So, what makes this very simple, predictable (and long!) film resonate with viewers to the tune of a billion dollars and counting? I think it is the mythical quality of both the art work and the many literary allusions. We seem naturally drawn to battles between good and evil, nature and science, war and peace. The film alludes to many biblical and mythical stories besides the banshee–to name a few, Pegasus, David and Goliath, Trees of Life and Trees of Knowledge, a chosen Savior, rebirth, and the Garden of Eden.
In one particularly striking scene, Jake and Neytiri choose each other as lifelong mates, after having spent several weeks together. They awake from their offscreen lovemaking in a Boticelli-like Garden, entwined in each other’s arms and covered in vines. This Eden ends abruptly, however, with the sound of tractors and backhoes ripping up the foliage to make way for the engineers. Their mating leads to the end of Eden and the beginning of Armageddon.
To the filmmakers’ credit, they do acknowledge the superiority of persuasion over force; the invading corporate bigwig (Giovanni Ribisi) tries to use diplomacy and trade before unleashing the military. But what happens when, as Jake discovers, “There isn’t anything we have that they want”? Does the invading company just say “Thanks anyway” and go back home? Or do they resort to force? You haven’t seen many movies (or read many history books) if you don’t know the answer to that question.