UP IN THE AIR
In the cinema of 2009, Ryan Bingham should by all accounts emerge as the Protagonist Least Likely To Be Embraced By The Nation's Moviegoers. That's because Ryan works as a downsizing expert, hired to come in and dismiss employees that their own bosses are too gutless to fire face to face. Ryan is excellent at his job, which would make him the antagonist in virtually any other film. But because he's played by charismatic George Clooney, Ryan becomes less a villain and more a representative of the modern American, a tech-age person trying to reconcile his buried humanity with what he or she believes is necessary to survive in this increasingly disconnected world. That's the starting point for this superb adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel, but the film covers a lot more territory -- both literally and figuratively -- before it reaches the finish line. As Ryan jets all over the country doing his job -- the opposite of The Accidental Tourist's Macon Leary, he loves traveling and hates the handful of days a year he's forced to spend at home -- he makes the acquaintance of a fellow frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga), and they strike up a romance that's among the sexiest and most adult placed on screen in some time. Yet Ryan's carefully constructed life threatens to crash and burn when his company's latest hire (Anna Kendrick), a whiz kid just out of college, implements a plan that will require the grounding of all employees, including Ryan. Penning the script with Sheldon Turner, director Jason Reitman (now 3-for-3 following Juno and Thank You for Smoking) has created a timely seriocomic work that manages to be breezy without once diminishing the sobering realities that constantly hover around the picture's edges (for starters, the fired employees interviewed in the film are not actors but real workers who were let go from their jobs). Farmiga and Kendrick are excellent as the two women who unexpectedly alter the direction of Ryan's life, yet it's Clooney, in his best screen work to date, who's most responsible for earning this magnificent movie its wings.
Zombies seem to be de rigueur in today's strain of post-apocalyptic motion pictures, yet this adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) offers nothing quite so fanciful. The undead shambling through this bleak movie's ravished landscapes are, technically speaking, still human, though many have taken to eating human flesh, and all seem to be moving forward as though propelled by a natural instinct to survive at all costs. Among the ragtag survivors are a father-son team identified only as Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee); solely dedicated to protecting his child, Man does his best to steer clear of all other humans, lest they be what he tags "bad guys" (those with murderous, cannibalistic urges); his paranoia makes him even wary of seemingly harmless strangers, like the elderly man they encounter on the road (Robert Duvall, doing the most with this juicy morsel of a role). Director John Hillcoat, whose Aussie Western The Proposition should be Netflixed posthaste by all who haven't seen it, creates a credible futureworld in which even the "good guys" struggle to retain some semblance of decency, and Mortensen comes through with another haunting performance that mixes the cerebral with the physical.
The stench of Van Helsing hung heavy over the trailer for this interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's sleuth extraordinaire -- hyperkinetic editing, loopy deviations from the source, an unintelligible plot -- but the end result turns out to be far more successful than those early warning signs indicated. Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, director Guy Ritchie's full-speed-ahead effort still qualifies as decent holiday-season fare, with Robert Downey Jr. vigorously portraying Holmes as a brawny, brainy gentleman-lout and Jude Law providing measured counterpoint as sidekick Dr. Watson. The storyline isn't always interesting as much as it's overextended -- at least one plot strand could have been excised -- and Ritchie's pumped-up techniques often make this feel less like a movie and more like a video game promo. But there's still plenty to enjoy here, and the ending all but guarantees a sequel -- box office returns be damned.
THE YOUNG VICTORIA
Skewing closer to the likes of Marie Antoinette and Lady Jane than to stately biopics of more seasoned rulers, The Young Victoria turns out to be as interested in charting the sexual and societal awakening of a royal naif as in examining the historical events that shaped her destiny. Building upon her already diverse portfolio, Emily Blunt handles all of the heavy lifting in the picture's titular role, first seen as a teenager refusing to relinquish control of the empire to her mother (Miranda Richardson) and her conniving advisor (Mark Strong). Once her uncle, King William (Jim Broadbent), dies and she becomes queen, Victoria finds herself free from her mother but now being wooed politically by Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) and romantically by her cousin Albert (Rupert Friend). Less probing than many costume dramas yet also lighter on its feet, The Young Victoria won't break out of its niche market but stands to service its target audience in satisfactory fashion.
After the triumph of Julie & Julia, Meryl Streep heads back to the kitchen for It's Complicated, an erratic comedy in which she plays Jane, a successful baker and restaurateur who, a decade after divorcing Jake (Alec Baldwin), finds herself cast in the role of the "other woman" once she embarks on an affair with her remarried ex. Writer-director Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give) surprisingly goes too easy on the character of Jake, a decision that leaves a bad taste and drains some of the fun out of this otherwise agreeable (if rarely uproarious) bauble. But Streep's comic chops remain strong, and the film gets a significant boost from the presence of Steve Martin as a sensitive architect who finds himself drawn to Jane.
The biggest disappointment of the holiday season -- make that the biggest disappointment of the year -- Rob Marshall's second celluloid musical (after the accomplished Chicago) proves to be both tone deaf and flat-footed. Based on the Broadway musical (itself loosely based on Federico Fellini's classic movie 8-1/2), this lumbering eye sore (mis)casts Daniel Day-Lewis as egotistical film director Guido Contini, who juggles all the women in his life (played by five Oscar winners ... and Kate Hudson) while attempting to jump-start production on his next picture. Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren and (to a lesser degree) Penelope Cruz -- all are lined up against the wall and mowed down by Marshall's indifference to their characters, a massacre that extends to his handling of the film's aimless plotting and ugly musical numbers. An inspired sequence bursts through the gloom now and then, but the only true success story here belongs to Marion Cotillard: As Guido's long-suffering wife, she adds the only warmth to this otherwise chilly undertaking.
ME AND ORSON WELLES
In 1937, high school student Richard Samuels (Zac Efron, just fine) lands a small role in a theatrical production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. But it's not just any production: It's the one being mounted by the innovative Mercury Theatre and its brilliant star-director, an arrogant and demanding force of nature named Orson Welles. Lacking the sociopolitical context of Tim Robbins' 1999 Cradle Will Rock (another look at the early days of the Mercury), Richard Linklater's entertaining picture nevertheless does an admirable job in its dissection of Welles' fascinating -- and infuriating -- personality, although the movie wouldn't be half as successful without Christian McKay's commanding performance in the showy role.
DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS?
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Two city slickers whose knowledge of world history extends only to the NYC boroughs are forced through contrived situations to stay a spell in rural America, where they adapt to the regional cuisine (lots of mayonnaise employed), view animals as alien beings (horses and cows and bears, oh my!), and remain leery of the locals (gun-toting Republicans who love their rodeos but hate those liberals). If you've heard that one, then you've certainly heard about the Morgans, a dimwitted comedy in which an estranged couple (Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker) find themselves hiding out in Wyoming after they witness a murder back in the Big Apple. Old pros Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen (representing the small-town law) provide some lift, but otherwise, here's yet another movie that should be neither seen nor heard.
THE DAMNED UNITED
Anthony Hopkins has long been heralded for playing a wide variety of historical figures -- Adolf Hitler, Pablo Picasso, Richard Nixon and a dozen others -- but Michael Sheen isn't exactly a slouch either when it comes to turning real life into reel life. The talented thespian who previously tackled David Frost, Tony Blair, H.G. Wells and Emperor Nero now essays the role of Brian Clough, and if most American viewers draw a blank on that name, rest assured that British soccer fans are more than familiar with his legacy. Refusing to degenerate into a routine sports flick (see Invictus), The Damned United is instead more interested in the off-field clashes than the on-field skirmishes, as the talented soccer manager Clough moves up into the major leagues and ends up taking over the championship team vacated by his rival, Don Revie (Colm Meaney). The beauty of the script by Peter Morgan (The Queen) is that the feud between the two men isn't black-and-white: Clough often reveals himself to be as much of a prick as Revie (especially when ignoring the advice of his longtime friend and partner Peter Taylor, well-played by Timothy Spall), and it's this entanglement of audience emotion and expectation that allows this rollicking saga to score.