Public Enemies

A major disappointment.  The movie has an interesting “look and feel” (the director, Michael Mann, used to do Miami Vice), although many of the shots were too poorly lit for my taste. But the story of an improbably-popular Depression-era bank robber and his lovely girl friend hunted down by implacable government agents has been told before, and Bonnie and Clyde was a much better movie.  French actress Marion Cotillard is suprisingly good as the half-French, half-Native American girlfriend.  But Johnny Depp gives an uncharacteristically restrained and emotionally empty performance — an earring might have helped.

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The Soloist

We’re suckers for feel-good tales about the redemptive power of music, but that’s not what this filme is. The story of an LA Times columnist who befriends a homeless black street musician, who turns out to be a mentally ill Julliard dropout, is far from facile.  The film provides a gritty, realistic view of people living on the street– a world rarely seen by most of us, outside of crisis situations like Hurricane Katrina (which, ironically, appears on several TV screens during the movie).  The film is also realistic about what it is possible to achieve with the long-term mentally ill, where progress must be measured in millimeters. There are fine performances by Robert Downey, Jr., who has had his own experiences with life’s underside, and Jamie Foxx, understated and surprisingly effective as the homeless guy. And it’s quite a leap forward for British director Joe Wright, whose previous big screen efforts (Atonement and Pride and Prejudice) were stylized costume dramas featuring Keira Knightly. This film, once heralded as an Oscar candidate for 2008, was unceremoniously dumped in theaters in early 2009 and didn’t find much of an audience.  It deserves better.

Summer Hours

This French film, released for about 2 minutes in New York, appeared on the Top 10 lists of all three NY TImes movie critics.  It is, nevertheless, a good film.  The opening scene shows us a French matriarch, entertaining her three grown children and their families at her annual birthday party.  The old lady has devoted most of her life to protecting the reputation of her uncle, a (fictional) early 20th C artist, and she lives in an elegant country home filled with beautiful art.  Six months later, the old lady is dead, and her children have to divide up the estate.  Death taxes are high in France, two of the children live abroad and need money, and the third doesn’t have enough money to buy out his siblings.  If this were an American film, the story would decompensate at this point into sibling warfare, but here, the children reach a relatively amicable, if ultimately unsatisfying, resolution.  The movie becomes a meditation on the meaning of art, and the importance of places and objects in preserving memories. Some of the most emotionally affecting scenese are almost wordless.  With Juliette Binoche.

Up in the Air

Ryan Bingham ia a successful 40-something businessman who’s never been married, has no children and an inordinate interest in with collecting airline frequent flyer miles.  From this slender idea is built an unusually affecting, almost Chekhovian, meditation about our life choices.   What does it mean when you discover, in the middle of your life, that your most durable long-term relationship is with an airline?

The film is a comedy, in the Shakespearean sense — a wedding is involved.  There are some very funny scenes built around the absurdities of modern airline travel, and lots of  witty dialogue.  I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Clooney’s young female colleague argues with Clooney’s older girlfriend about the proper meaning of feminism.  But the subject matter — Ryan’s job is firing people, on behalf of third parties — is unavoidably serious.

To play the parts of  fired employees, the director, Jason Reitman, cast non-actors who had been fired in real life. The unexpected reactions of these folks keep the movie firmly “grounded” in reality.  And it’s not every day that Omaha, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Detroit appear as movie locales.

George Clooney is often criticized for “playing himself,” and there are certainly similarities between this character’s backstory and Clooney’s own life.  But I think it’s harder than it looks to give the kind of emotionally genuine performance Clooney gives us here.

The two women, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, are also very good.  It’s not often you get to see positive, complex portrayals of successful businesswomen.

A few quibbles:  In the few scenes where we actually see Clooney doing his job, he doesn’t seem very good.  Milwaukee is not in “northern” Wisconsin.  And the Farmiga character’s behavior choices are not always consistent with the personal life she turns out to have.

But on the whole, it’s an adult movie with adult themes — a welcome respite from the barrage of vampire flicks and comics-driven action films that seem to take up most of the screens. The theater was full when I saw it on Saturday, with most of the audience of “a certain age” and not a teenager in sight.  Are you listening, Hollywood?