Up in the Air (Reitman, 2009)

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 22 January 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This blog contains spoilers.

Although the protagonist of Up in the Air is a man who flies across America firing people for a living, it is not a movie about losing your job or being unemployed. And although the plot is set in motion by his lifestyle (though probably not his livelihood) being threatened by a new, young recruit who puts forward a case for firing people by videophone, it is not really a movie about new technologies and their alienating effects either. One of the most fascinating things about Up in the Air, in fact, is all of the potential films one can see in it that it refuses to become.
In the movie’s first phase, we learn about Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, through a blend of narration and dramatisation. As the image track cuts between luggage being zipped up and gliding with ease over airport floors, and a series of card swipes and polite but scripted exchanges with service personnel, Ryan tells us, ‘Everything you probably hate about travelling are warm reminders that I’m home.’
In the 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock made films about irresponsible males learning to become responsible. In Rear Window, Grace Kelly describes James Stewart as ‘a tourist on an endless vacation’. He refuses to see her as a viable partner – until, that is, she crosses over into his fantasy world, and helps him solve a murder. InNorth by North West, Cary Grant plays Roger O Thornhill, an advertising man with two ex-wives who has to be torn out of his comfortable existence in order to become a hero worthy of our esteem. Cary Grant was fifty-four when he made North by North West. There’s a witty scene in an auction where characters are subtly identified with lots; Grant is ‘a lovely Aubusson settee, in excellent condition.’ Clooney is pushing fifty (and seems to be getting better looking by the year), and a similar thing might be going on when a woman he meets in a bar tells him ‘If a car has over twenty thousand miles, I don’t drive it.’ They exchange opinions about car rental firms, then they each put their cards on the table – that is, to compare their various loyalty scheme memberships. Making a conceit like this work, in terms of both plausibility and sympathy, is a tall order (‘We’re two people who get turned on by elite status: I think cheap is our starting point.’/’There’s nothing cheap about loyalty.’). As with director Jason Reitman’s previous movie, Juno, there is a brittle smartness about which one doesn’t quite know how the film feels.
I did feel at times that the dialogue would have worked better on the page – or perhaps on a stage – than it did on the screen. But there are some magical moments too. When the movie first decisively breaks its very deliberately established pattern of businesslike exchanges (the first meeting between Clooney and what will turn out to be his love interest being a variation rather than an exception), the audience can share the relief of the new, young recruit who breaks down in the middle of a hotel lobby and wails ‘My boyfriend left me!’ There follows a very nicely scriptedand performed scene between the three principals, where they discuss love and relationships. Natalie’s soul-bearing about where she thought she would be now (aged twenty three) when she was sixteen (married, maybe with a kid, and a Grand Cherokee) and how her now-ex boyfriend ‘fit the bill’ (‘white collar, grad school, six foot one, loves dogs, in finance – but outdoorsy – at the weekend…’) manages to be incisive without being cruel. Similarly, later, Ryan is sent in to talk his sister’s fiancee out of his cold feet, and is faced with an amusing and touching anxious splurge of milestones on the way to death: children, Christmases, Thanksgivings, Easter breaks, graduation, grandchildren, grave.
Visually, the film gets a fair amount of mileage out of the fact that a lot of places in America look the same from the air – and then once you get down on the ground the offices do too. There is also a very nice shot of Natalie surrounded by a roomful of empty office chairs. And the conceits that it builds into its plot are very smart. Ryan’s goal is to clock up 10 million air miles – a feat achieved by only six other people. When Natalie is probing him about this, puzzled by the fact that Ryan is not interested in using the air miles, she opines that what a person with that many miles should do is show up at an airport and take their pick from the board. For their wedding, Ryan’s sister and her fiancee have requested that their guests take a cardboard cutout of them, and photograph it/them in front of exciting locations, in lieu of a honeymoon they can’t afford. As well as being a firer, Ryan is also a motivational speaker. ‘What’s in your backpack?’ is his thing. (This also leads to a nice exchange between Ryan and Alex: ‘You know about my backpack?’/’I googled you. It’s what us modern girls do when we have a crush.’) Ryan asks his listeners to imagine filling up their backpacks with all their possessions, and then all the people they know. He preaches travelling light (‘Drink some gingko and let the photos burn.’).
As one might expect, all these threads pay off. Ryan hits his 10 million mile target, but on the flight taking him away from Alex, and the moment feels meaningless. After taking Alex to his sister’s wedding (and showing her around his school), Ryan flies across the country and steps up to deliver ‘What’s in your rucksack?’ in a prestigious venue, but the words fall hollow, and we then get ‘the run’ to Chicago, to Alex’s doorstep. After the wedding, Ryan calls the airline to get enough of his airmiles transferred to his sister and her husband to send them around the world. And the movie ends with Ryan looking up at the departures board.
But they do not weave together to form the ending one might have predicted. Alex, it turns out, is married. She barely hesitates before closing the door on Ryan when her husband asks who is there, leaving him standing in the snow. Although Ryan calls the airline to transfer the miles to his sister, the conversation is interrupted, and that is all we see or hear of it. Similarly, although he says he will call Natalie (who quits the firm by text message!), we only see her new employer reading the reference that Ryan wrote for her. Ryan has reached out, but has not been invited in. ‘Where are you from?’ asks the pilot who emerges from the cockpit and sits with Ryan to share a congratulatory drink. ‘I’m from here,’ he answers. At the end of the film, the only home he has to go to is that to which he laid claim at the beginning.
This is a surprising conclusion to what we would probably categorise as a romantic comedy, but it is true to the (very extreme) logic of Clooney’s character, who, in Natalie’s words, has created for himself a ‘cocoon of self-banishment’. Families and intimacy are kept on the fringes of Up in the Air, spoken of rather than lived through. We only see Natalie’s boyfriend from a distance, once, before he ends their relationship (by text message). The wedding of Ryan’s sister is treated as a montage of smiles and dancing. Beforehand, Ryan reaches out to his sister, offering to give her away, but she already has someone (someone who has been supportive, and present, all along), and there is no suggestion that from now on the siblings will have a closer relationship.
Clooney’s final words are a fitting end to a pretty good, and very interesting, movie:

Tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day, and tonight they will sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places. And one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip, passing over.

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Shrek Forever After (Mitchell, 2010)

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 2 July 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This blog contains spoilers.

The Shrek franchise has always riffed on surrounding culture to humorous effect. And like most contemporary franchises, it surrounds itself with merchandise: action figures, duvet covers, video games, clothes. This sort of activity has been around for a long time. However, I discovered this evening another form of diffusion/repurposing that is at least a little newer. There is a particularly memorable ‘turn’ early in the movie, and at what turns out to be a crucial narrative juncture, which involves a young boy, reminiscent of Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, repeatedly demanding that Shrek ‘do the roar’. The repetition, editing pattern and timing of this in the movie make it very funny. And ‘do the roar’, a web search reveals, has, to use an ostensibly vague trio of words which in fact precisely captures the nature of the phenomenon we are faced with, ‘become a thing’. When I google ‘shrek do the roar’ this is what I get: http://tinyurl.com/shrdtr. There is a YouTube video that re-edits the movie to MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’, to great effect. There is a link to a Facebook group page which bears the following description: ‘Welcome to a Facebook Page about The kid from shrek who says “Do the Roar!” Join Facebook to start connecting with The kid from shrek who says Do the Roar!“‘. And, perhaps inevitably, there is an iTunes App: ‘Do The Roar, will allow anyone to annoy Shrek, and cause him to bellow out his enormous Ogre roar. Use Butterpants to help you annoy Shrek,‘ And those are just the first three hits!

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The Road

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 10 August 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This blog contains spoilers.

Most of last week I was camping in the Lake District, and I managed to read a novel that I’ve been wanting to get around to for a long time.

I spend more time than might be healthy worrying about fuel and food shortages, resource conflict, and social collapse – thinking about all the things that need to keep happening to keep society going, and about how I’d cope if I found myself in the position of Robinson Crusoe, or the ‘castaways’ on Desert Island Discs. Should I be spending time learning how to grow my own food? Build drystone walls? Fashion spectacles for if my eyesight continues to deteriorate?! For this reason, and because I was so gripped by No Country for Old Men, I felt primed for The Road.

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Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016)

This post contains spoilers.

Communication is at once one of the great themes of fiction, and the very stuff of most fiction most of the time. Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and based on a short story by Ted Chiang, is a ‘first contact’ film that holds in check spectacular views of alien spacecraft and scenes of high-tech battle, and instead focuses most of its energies on dramatising the attempts of a group, organised and commanded by the US military but led by two professors (one of linguistics, one of physics), to communicate with a pair of newly-arrived extra-terrestrials. It is very much a film about communication, and one that has been warmly received in many reviews. But its view of communication – and especially of how we might overcome our limited human skills in this regard – seems to me to mainly waver between the peculiar, the limited, and the naive.

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Brief reflections on The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013)

I saw The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013) at Hull Independent Cinema Project last night, and I enjoyed it more than its trailer had led me to believe I might.

The set design, as per the trailer, is indeed meticulous and overbearingly atmospheric; much of its character is captured in José Arroyo’s description of it in his short review as ‘the present… imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely’.  (In terms of its look, the film’s closest relative in many ways is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, as Ayoade has acknowledged, but in terms of feel, The Double does not have, or go for, Brazil’s wide streak of mania, opting instead for humorous deadpan.)  Dim, artificial light pervades the film (I don’t remember any scenes in daylight), punctuated by moments of elaborate lighting design, another way in which the film sometimes feels, a bit like its characters, organised to within an inch of lifelessness.  The film’s opening scene thoroughly embodies these qualities.  Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), the film’s protagonist, sits on an underground train, tunnel lights flashing across his face, the rhythmic clacking of the tracks dominating the soundtrack.  A man, whose face we do not see, curtly informs Simon (the film is not afraid to prefigure its central theme as boldly as it introduces its style) ‘You’re in my place.’  A monotone exchange, with long gaps between turns in the ‘conversation’, ensues.  Simon protests, but without conviction.  After a long beat, the close shot on Eisenberg is replaced by a wider one which confirms that, as we probably suspected, the man is demanding that Simon vacate the one seat in the carriage that is occupied.

Such archness has its pleasures, but they are pleasures of a limited sort.  Likewise, achieving such a tone is an achievement, but again, a limited one.  But then, just as I was turning against the film, it modulated.  Mia Wasikowska’s character, Hannah, the object of Simon’s romantic fixation, becomes the film’s much needed locus of authenticity and tenderness.  Her apartment, which Simon views (much in the style of L B Jefferies in Hitchcock’s Rear Window) via a telescope installed in his own apartment across the courtyard, is noticeably softer and warmer, in its set design and lighting, than anything else in the film.  I am not so much praising the fact of the film’s positioning of a woman as the object of a man’s desiring and often intrusive gaze and as a means of alleviating that man’s sense of the harshness and futility of his existence, but the way in which the film so successfully captures the feel of such predominantly one-way relationships as these (with their combination of deep feeling on the one hand, and repression and stuntedness on the other), and builds this feel into its architecture, using it to offset, and be offset by, the gloomy environs and affectless exchanges that characterise the rest of the film.  The pauses, repetitions and poker-facedness of much of the film’s dialogue gives way to rapid-fire, overlapping, engaged exchanges during some of Simon’s encounters with Hannah (and some with his doppelganger, James).  It would be an exaggeration to describe Simon’s exchanges with Hannah as fully authentic or communicative, but there is at least the sense that both parties are invested in making the effort, and Wasikowska’s performance is, for the most part, in a significantly more ‘authentic’ register than the performances in the rest of the film.  In the moments where Simon observes Hannah, Ayoade finds perfect details or framings to hang these moments on: as Hannah sleeps, her inhaling and exhaling disturbs a few strands of hair hanging in front of her face; whilst Hannah photocopies a document for Simon, the camera’s angle and close framing, combined with Hannah’s posture, emphasises the nape of Hannah’s neck, and its elegance.  There is also a nice moment where Simon returns to his cafe table to discover that Hannah has left, but that she has left behind a note and a coin, instructing him to play a song for her on the jukebox, a moment which Simon embellishes in his head in a well-crafted moment of fantasy.

The things, then, that I admired most about The Double revolved around its (probably) secondary relationship, between Simon and Hannah, rather than the (probably) primary one between Simon and James which more straightforwardly drives the film’s plot and themes (and its marketing).  This also explains why I was most engaged by the film’s middle, rather than its beginning or end.  However, precisely this tension between ‘foreground’ and ‘background’, and the way the two play off each other, was one of the key pleasures I experienced whilst watching the film, and whilst reflecting afterwards on the experience it offers.  Ayoade managed to pack more arresting, eloquent images into this one film than one often sees in a dozen, and he demonstrates a sure hand for combining the elements he works with.  On the strength of The Double, I’ve just ordered Submarine (Ayoade, 2010), and I’m very much looking forward to watching it.

In Your Eyes

I’d been keeping tabs on the progress of In Your Eyes (Brin Hill, 2014) for a while – because it was written by Joss Whedon.  A couple of weeks ago I saw that it would be premiering at Tribeca, but even at that point I could still see no news of a UK release.  Given how tricky it was for someone living in a city without an independent cinema to get to see Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012), I wasn’t optimistic about getting to see In Your Eyes any time soon.  So I was delighted when a friend texted me this lunchtime with the news that the film is available to stream now on Vimeo, for just $5, via http://inyoureyesmovie.com/.  I have now watched it, and it may well be my favourite film that Whedon has written and/or directed (not including Toy Story, for which Whedon gets first screenwriting credit but which clearly remains John Lasseter’s film first and foremost).

The first part of the review below is spoiler-free (aside from discussing the concept that drives the film, which is introduced at a very early stage), then there is a clearly-signalled division before I proceed to discuss the film as a whole, including its ending.

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Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary: Mad About the Boy

This review contains spoilers.

As I suspect it was for many people, the publication of an unexpected further instalment of Bridget Jones’s Diary (after the first two novels came out not far apart in 1996 and 1999, having been preceded by a newspaper column) was for me a literary event.  I purchased the book as soon as it was released (something I hardly ever do), and started reading it as soon as I had purchased it (even more unheard of: my shelves and my conscious alike sag under the ever-growing weight of unread books, making me feel like Gatsby, telling myself with each new purchase that tomorrow I will be able to run faster, and catch up with all this stuff)!  My original plan was to get through the book within a few days so that I could post a timely review of it on this blog.  Unfortunately, this plan was frustrated partly by a stomach bug working its way through the members of my household, and partly by the various demands of the start of term…  This, with its reference to the plans we enthusiastically make, the always time-consuming and unpredictable and often messy demands of everyday life, and the gap that opens up between these two things, is already taking us deep into Bridget Jones territory.  Indeed, for me, this may be at the heart of the genius of Helen Fielding and her most famous character.  Bridget is a dramatization of how time feels when one has goals, demands, distractions and desires – and the particular ones that modern middle-aged middle class Westerners have: writing deadlines; an inbox that rarely sleeps; a work life and a sex life and a family life; communications devices, social networking profiles, search engines, and fridges full of food that all lure you with their promises of connection or consumption.

I have dipped my toe in the online critical response to the novel now that I have finished it, and I agree with those people (of whom there are a fair few) who point out that there is quite a lot wrong with Mad About the Boy.  It lacks the elegant plotting of the first instalment (and it is not to qualify Fielding’s achievement too greatly to observe that that elegance derives from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which, as most people will know, lends the first Bridget Jones’s Diary not only the name of its male romantic hero but also its overall plot structure).  But I also enjoyed the novel hugely.  Given that I found its pleasures to be many, and miscellaneous, I thought that a good way to approach this review would be to write in a series of bullet points, rather than to try (much as the novel does not appear to!) to do something more neat and well-wrought, and in this way try to give appropriate weight both to the novel’s great successes and to its major flaws.

  • At the level of plot structure Fielding is certainly more than a little shaky, but her sharp eye for details and her gift for prose that is descriptive and humorous is hard to beat.  There are countless examples of acute distillations of bits and pieces of lifestyle that other popular media texts offer as things to aspire to and emulate (one example I enjoyed is Bridget’s desire to have a ‘mixy-matchy “capsule wardrobe” so that getting dressed becomes a calm joy instead of hysterical scramble.’  There is also the phenomenology of everyday frustrating activities.  I could identify with this one, for example: ‘Managed to get Mabel […] into the car, leaning over in the traditional body-wrenching movement […], fastening the seat belt by waddling my hand in the mess between the seat back and booster seat.’
  • One can also marvel at and savour the poetic terseness and expert tonal modulations of individual sentences.  Simply by dropping articles, pronouns, and so on, Fielding has created a mode of speech that is instantly recognisable as Bridget’s, helping us to enter her mental universe.  On the subject of modulation: the comic effect in the following sentences derives from the way in which a familiar complaint about technology gradually becomes more and more hyperbolic and baroque: ‘Why does turning on a TV set these days require three remotes with ninety buttons?  Why?  Suspect designed by thirteen-year-old technogeeks, competing with each other from sordid bedrooms, leaving everyone else thinking they’re the only person in the world who doesn’t understand what the buttons are for, thus wreaking psychological damage on a massive, global scale.’  (Just one more example in this vein – Bridget’s flights of fancy when extrapolating the consequences of her actions are also marvellous rapid accumulations of evocative and humorous details: ‘If I shrivel and become bitter, then what use will that be to the children?  They will become child-centric, demanding King Babies: and I a negative, rasping old fool, lunging at sherry [that clause is especially good], roaring “WHY DON’T YOU DO ANYTHING FOR MEEEEEEEEE?”‘)
  • This gift for the thumbnail sketch is also put to use in moments where Bridget remembers her life before Mark is killed, and some of the difficult moments of her widowhood.  For example: ‘Did not want it to end up like last year, with me trying to stop my heart from breaking into pieces at doing Santa without Mark and sobbing behind the kitchen counter, whilst Mum and Una squabbled over lumps in the gravy and commented on my parenting and housekeeping, as if, rather than inviting them for Christmas, I had called them in as Systems Analysts.’  The book reduced me to tears (albeit only briefly) on more than one occasion.
  • Bridget remains as vivid as ever, but many of the other characters are unsatisfying.  Of the recurring ones, it is Daniel Cleaver who is most disappointing, as he has been reduced to a one-note sexaholic.  Of the new characters, it is the ones at ‘Greenlight Productions’ who are least well-realised.  It is in the passages where Bridget attends meetings at Greenlight where Fielding’s grasp on her material feels least assured.  As one person whose review I read pointed out, correctly, the subplot involving Bridget’s screenplay is almost entirely redundant.
  • This lack of cohesion even extends to the two main male characters.  These are ‘Roxster’, the 30 year old whom Bridget spends most of the novel with, and Mr Wallaker, who watches Bridget with Darcy-like loving chastisement from a distance for most of the novel before revealing his warmth and love for Bridget towards the end.  It is hard when reading not to view characters and events through the lens of Pride and Prejudice.  In the first Bridget Jones, Daniel was the Wickham character, and Mark Darcy was, of course, Mr Darcy.  And this schema is partially repeated in the new novel.  Like Wickham, Roxster is the more immediately charming, but ultimately the more unsuitable.  Like Darcy, Mr Wallaker is stand-offish but ultimately utterly noble, and a red hot lover to boot.  One effect of the second-guessing that the echoes of Bridget Jones’s Diary and, in turn, Pride and Prejudice encourage is that we are likely to spend most of the novel waiting for Roxster to turn out to be a louse.  In the end, this does not happen.  Bridget and Roxster part amicably, without blame on either side.  (Eventually the age gap of twenty years between them is the deciding factor, which raises a whole other set of issues that I won’t try to address here.)  There are some instances where the pre-judgment of the Wickham character or equivalent is used in a principled and interesting fashion – Lost in Austen being the best example I can think of – but here I wasn’t sure how I felt, or how I was meant to feel, about Roxster.
  • Bringing together these two issues of lack of cohesion and slightly misfiring Pride and Prejudice echoes: in Pride and Prejudice and in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Wickham and Darcy/Cleaver and Darcy hold deep yet concealed grudges against one another, which propel the story along for most of its duration.  In Mad About the Boy, the same is not true of Roxster and Mr Wallaker, which further contributes to the novel’s episodic feel.
  • I wasn’t quite satisfied with the Wallaker character either.  This is the one aspect of the novel that I would say was both over-done (he’s so like Darcy that we can see the end coming) and under-done (Roxster is too present and too good for too long, I would suggest, for us to be completely satisfied by his replacement).  Having said that, the (again, not-subtle) comparisons with Daniel Craig in Skyfall and Russell Crowe in Gladiator did deliver me to the correct model of masculine desirability very efficiently, and made me wonder if the same trick could be pulled off with Daniel Craig in a film adaptation as was pulled off with Colin Firth in the first Bridget Jones movie.

I will end here, despite feeling that I haven’t quite done justice to the novel or to my experience of it.  The above strikes me as more negative than positive, whereas my experience of reading Mad About the Boy was definitely more positive than negative.  Which is to say that getting public acts of criticism to match up with the moment-by-moment, private experience of reading is difficult.  The things that are easiest to talk and write about afterwards (the overall shape of the plot, the depth of characterisation) are the things that this novel does least well.  The things that are hardest to capture after the fact, in critical prose, are the things that it frequently excels at.  Perhaps, then, that is why I liked it as much as I did.