Tuesday, January 26, 2010

That Evening Sun

That Evening Sun is a true diamond in the rough: a masterfully-woven tale of the American South. The characters in That Evening Sun are as believable as any I’ve seen, and at the heart of it all stands an Oscar-worthy performance from veteran Hal Holbrook. This film seems destined to fly under the radar, but positive word of mouth should help extends its reach. I doubt that anyone who sees it will quickly forget this riveting story of anger, ownership, and the agony of aging.

Hal Holbrook gives the performance of his film career as Abner Meecham, a retired farmer who spends his days in a retirement home. Determined to regain his old life, Meecham escapes the nursing facility and returns to his farm, only to find that his son has leased the property to the Choat family. Meecham takes up residence in the guest house, demanding that Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) take his wife and daughter and get off his land. The two men lock horns over who has the right to the property; Choat fights to provide for his family, and Meecham fights to hold on to the life he feels slipping away.

Like most great stories about the South, That Evening Sun centers around land (throughout the film, I heard Thomas Mitchell’s voice from Gone With the Wind: “Land’s the only thing that matters; it’s the only thing that lasts.”). Land ownership has always been the American Dream, and That Evening Sun wonderfully depicts that strange period of time when land passes between owners. The farm is a crucial piece of the identity of both men; one man sees the farm as his future, while the other sees it as a link to the past. The legal right lies with Lonzo Choat, but neither Meecham nor Choat have too much respect for the rules.

Hal Holbrook immediately sells the story as the grumpy old man refusing to go quietly. His performance doesn’t stand out in a big, attention-grabbing way; it just feels authentic, and that goes for the rest of the cast as well. Instead of focusing on the performances, I was completely absorbed by the story and setting. Ray McKinnon had a bit role as a football coach in The Blind Side, but I had no idea how capable he was before this. He gives Lonzo Choat so many dimensions: he’s fierce, pathetic, desperate, and dangerous.

Before any image appears onscreen, the chirping of cicadas fills the theater, and the atmosphere only thickens from there. That Evening Sun completely transported me to rural Tennessee. There are plenty of “throwaway” shots of the breeze blowing through the tall grass, of wasps dancing, of windmills turning, but these little details go a long way. The hot, humid days contribute to the drama, bringing everyone’s hopes and fears to a boil.

That Evening Sun marks an impressive debut for writer/director Scott Teems. He adapted the screenplay from a short story, and he populated his script with rounded, multi-dimensional characters. This story doesn’t have good guys or bad guys; every character has varying degrees of both qualities. You may decide that some characters are more respectable than others, but those decisions will be your own. That Evening Sun addresses change, loss, legacy and aging and does so with subtlety and grace. When the evening sun goes down and the credits roll, the story has ended perfectly and gone everywhere that it needed to go. Lovers of quiet, character-driven drama would do well to follow That Evening Sun into the backwoods of the South.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for brief strong language, some violence, sexual content and thematic elements.

That Evening Sun would likely bore most kids, and the language (including an F-word or two) and anger between the two men would be a bit much. I think most teenagers could handle it. The sexual content and violence aren’t graphic by any stretch, and the film could open interesting discussions about aging. The trailer gives a good indication of the pervasive levels of drama and tension.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Up In the Air

Few aspects of life were more directly affected by the attacks of September 11, 2001, than air travel. Additional security measures made airport navigation more difficult. Friends and relatives could no longer greet arriving passengers as they stepped off the plane and walked through the gate. On the whole, everything became less personal, but for impersonal people, all of those “restrictions” became perks. Up In the Air tells the bittersweet story of a man who has no meaningful human connections. In a time of economic hardship when most people suffer, he thrives like never before.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) lives for air travel. “Last year,” he says, “I spent three hundred and twenty-two days on the road, which means that I had to spend forty-three miserable days at home.” He works for a company that helps businesses outsource the firing of their employees. If a manager doesn’t have the guts/decency to dismiss an employee in person, Ryan Bingham shows up as a corporate executive and takes all the heat. When Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a bright, young co-worker suggests cutting travel costs company-wide by firing people via online video, Ryan fears that his entire way of life faces extinction.

Ryan understands the importance of firing someone face-to-face, and he really does care about others, but he doesn’t understand the importance of personal relationships. When his sister accuses him of being totally isolated in his airport life, he says, “Isolated? I’m surrounded.” But she’s right. If the Internet were to make Ryan irrelevant, he would have no excuse for his lonely, unsentimental lifestyle.

George Clooney brings Ryan Bingham to life, giving complexity to a character that lesser actors would have simplified. Ryan exudes confidence, much of which is authentic, but he has another side, too. Some part of him does wish for real relationships, and he’s lonelier than he even knows. In a movie that dips frequently into satire, Clooney keeps the experience grounded by making Ryan Bingham as layered and believable as possible. He’s kind of a jerk, but we like him. The entire cast turns in fine performances, but Clooney anchors the ship.

Writer/Director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking and Juno) adapted the screenplay from a pre-9/11 novel, but the film completely captures our current recession-era culture. If the script does follow the book closely, I would be amazed, because Up In the Air is truly a film for our time. It’s often amusing, featuring some laugh-out-loud moments, but sadness is never too far away. Recessions are hard on almost everyone, and relationships provide the primary comfort amidst hard times ... for most people, at least. The scenes of employees being fired ring terribly true, but even more painful are the employees’ statements along the lines of, “At least I have my family.” Ryan Bingham doesn’t. For all his success, he doesn’t have anyone to share it with.

I expected for Ryan to learn some important lessons, but I was surprised by the harsh reality that accompanied those lessons: long-broken relationships don’t heal overnight. This isn’t “A Christmas Carol” where the spirits do it all in one night (or by the end of the 109-minute running time). Up In the Air boasts superb acting, a tight script, and some very relevant morals, but the experience can only be described as bittersweet. On multiple occasions, the movie heads straight for some comfortable film clich├ęs only to yank the rug out from under us. Contrary to ingrained belief, movies aren’t required to give their characters all that we would wish for them, and Up In the Air doesn’t shy away from sadness. It belongs in the category of “Dramedy,” and while it leans more towards comedy, it doesn’t deliver all of the feel-good goods that many comedy-lovers would hope for. It’s a timely cautionary satire about struggle, success, and loneliness, and as Jason Reitman’s third feature, it marks the third time that he’s made one of the year’s best films. Not a bad track record.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content.

Up In the Air has a steady flow of language, as well as some brief, rear female nudity. More than any objectionable content, though, the film is for adults because of its themes. The character arcs, the struggles, and the primary forces that move the plot would all be lost on children. It’s a movie about grown-ups and for grown-ups.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Road

Post-apocalyptic movies are a bleak bunch, but The Road is depressing even by the genre’s standards. I’ll go ahead and preface this review with the confession that I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-Prize winner of the same name. Having read some of his other works, I knew that The Road was apt to be heavy, perhaps even hopeless. I was right. The setting is remarkably well-realized and the performances soar, but I’ll wager that some of the same viewers who loved the film version of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (myself included) will find The Road less enjoyable. It’s a well-built, dark, dangerous road.

At some point in the near future, the world is a wasteland. An unexplained cataclysm has destroyed almost all life, including plants and animals, and only a few unfortunate humans have survived. A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are among the survivors, and they spend their time walking south trying to reach the coast. They’re not even sure what they hope to find there. Along the way, they try to stay warm, scour for food, and avoid the gangs of rapists and cannibals that threaten all who traverse the road.

The Road is very minimalist in its approach. There’s little dialogue, we don’t know what happened to the world, and we don’t even know the characters’ names. That’s the way McCarthy writes, and it translates to the screen effectively, just as it did in No Country. The big difference for me comes in The Road’s pervasive feeling of hopelessness and despair. Whatever happened to the world to destroy all life, there’s no coming back from it. The soil can’t support crops anymore, so the characters know that sooner or later, supplies will run out. The few humans who survived the apocalypse by mistake will starve. As Viggo Mortensen’s character says in one scene, “There is no other tale to tell.”

Viggo Mortensen gives what may be the most compelling performance of his career as a father caught in an impossible situation. Having lost his wife (Charlize Theron), his only reason to go on is his son. He instills in his son the desire to stay alive but also teaches him how to quickly commit suicide if the cannibals should capture him. Kodi Smit-McPhee seems completely genuine as a child who has grown up far too quickly but still has some of the innocence and curiosity of youth. His conversations with his father show the confusion and moral dilemmas always on his mind, as he asks questions like, “We’re still the good guys, right? ... We would never eat anyone, right?” The Road holds some haunting, unforgettable moments.

There aren’t many actors in the film, as there aren’t many people left alive on the planet, but all performances are strong. One cameo stands out in particular from a near-unrecognizable Robert Duvall playing an old man who crosses paths with the father and son on the road. The Road offers snippets of hope here and there, but in the end, it’s mostly hopeless. I’ve heard people say that the book shows humanity at its best and worst, and again, I can’t speak for the book, but the film spends most of its time showing humanity at its worst. The overall tone of hopelessness swallows up any small measure of optimism offered once every thirty minutes.

The ruined world looks frighteningly real, with abandoned cars and empty houses scattered about. Many trees still stand but are dead. “Eventually,” says the father, “all the trees of the world will fall.” When I reached the end credits, I admired the film’s technical achievements, as well as its unwavering commitment to the darkness of the parable. I think The Road leads where many viewers simply can’t follow, because most of us like to think that the future holds some measure of hope (beyond eventual starvation). Still, through solid execution and strong performances, The Road does everything that it set out to do. I admire the artists, but I expect the art itself to be widely rejected. The world needs something to believe in right now, and The Road leads unapologetically to a dark dead end.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.

The Road would probably give nightmares to the bravest of children, and that goes for children of all ages. Nothing jumps out and scares you, but for two hours, a feeling of hopelessness consumes you. One scene in particular involving a basement full of cannibal victims would keep kids awake for a week. Don’t take anyone who can’t buy their own ticket, and even then, be cautious. There’s nothing about this story that can be written off in the “Don’t worry, it’s not real” category. The Road will stick with everyone who sees it.