Away We Go (US - BD)
Gabe Powers takes a cross country trip with two very charming future parents...
Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) are expecting their first child, but find themselves somewhat unsatisfied with their station in life otherwise. Besides their undying love there isn’t a whole lot they have going for them. After discovering that Burt’s parents are moving to Europe before their grandchild is even born the couple takes to the road in search of a new place to call home.
Sam Mendes’ career trajectory has been a slow trickle to the bottom since it began at the top. After winning several Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) for his first feature directorial effort, American Beauty, a film that does not hold up nearly as well ten years on as the similarly themed, but Oscarless, Fight Club, the director’s films grew increasingly detached from their characters and stories, eventually becoming a series of perfect images without a home. Away We Go almost delivers on the promise of American Beauty, and is really the film he should’ve made after Jarhead, which I see as a very respectable failure that swung for the fences and missed (with a plot it may have been a perfect film). Instead he made the Oscar baiting Revolution Road—a dully over-directed slice of Mad Men-lite that did nothing but perpetuate his reputation for overstating the obvious. Three films aren’t enough to judge a budding career on, but the writing was on the wall. Who knew that the guy would had something as wistfully amusing as Away We Go in theatres less than a year later? I was certainly surprised.
Mendes doesn’t forgo the angst that has slowly sucked the life out of his work over the years, but Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida’s script utilize a more sweet-natured brand of angst, better described as neurotic. The characters are easily frightened and somewhat self-obsessed, but their anxieties are understandable, and never come out of a rude sense of self importance. The leads are mostly presented as the sane centre of the quirky salad, while the people around them turn the strange side up to about eleven and a half. The formula gets a little old pretty quick, but enough sweetness permeates the film to keep it moving along, and it’s really quite funny. If Kevin Smith had himself fulfilled on his promise of growth seen in the still relatively immature Chasing Amy, this is the kind of film he might’ve been making today, and Mendes doesn’t do some kind of pompous British impression of Judd Apatow either. The comedy doesn’t have a totally original voice, but it doesn’t play in an overflowing sandbox either. It’s also important to note that Away We Go is just as much a road movie as it is a situation comedy about the real life oddities of pregnancy and impending parenthood. Mendes has a habit of finding his way to a subject a little too late ( Jar Head was preceded by Three Kings and Revolutionary Road by Mad Men), but this time the playground is well travelled enough that the lack of novelty isn’t really an issue.
The best on-going gags are those pertaining to how awful every parent around the leads acts concerning their children. It’s actually necessary to the plot that these people are intolerable without being particularly mean-spirited, and the more comedic members of the supporting cast revel in the chance to crawl under our skin. The capable cast also manage to keep a Sam Mendes film spontaneous, which is something I can’t really say for any of his pictures, not even the exceeding weird Jarhead. The more dramatic stuff that marches rather implicitly through the top of the third act (the shift to tragedy is relatively subtle, but the placement is remarkably clear) is less spontaneous, but the lead characters don’t change in dramatically unnatural ways. The latter half can be critically picked apart more easily than the first half, but these picks refer more to the listless nature of the story. There aren’t any surprises so far as the plot is concerned, and the emotional conclusion seems a bit predestined, even productively saccharine, but the film is clearly stated from the top as a story of hope. I’m personally very thankful for the pure buoyancy from this particular director.
Away We Go is a pretty picture, as Mendes is incapable of making an unattractive movie (he even manages to find beauty in the unmitigated ugliness of Phoenix, Arizona), but it’s not a heavily stylized movie so far as lighting schemes go. The look is surprisingly natural for Sam the Stage Director, as if he and cinematographer Ellen Kuras found a way to physically remove the audiences’ eyes to understand exactly what we see when we look at America, but the disc isn’t overflowing with the stuff that makes Blu-ray special. There’s a club scene with really bright red lights that are cleanly edged against deep blacks without any blatant compression noise or bleeding, but my vote for the most colourfully effective scene in the whole film comes when the couple discusses their adventure in Miami beneath an orange tree. The greens and blacks of the tree are rich enough to touch, and the oranges pop without bleeding against the otherwise jade-baked frame. Some wider daylight shots are a little grainier than others, and I did notice some white edge-enhancement a few times throughout, but overall the transfer’s details are consistent. The lack of high contrast and extreme close-up means that the details aren’t as tactilely overwhelming as some 1080p transfers, but there’s plenty achieved that could not be achieved via standard definition discs. Please take the time to notice the more idiosyncratic details of Burt and Verona’s little house at the beginning of the film.
Away We Go doesn’t feature a lot of aural aggression outside its music, but that’s just fine. The most important stuff is the dialogue, and it’s all centred and neat and squeaky-clean. The fidelity is the most important element, and it takes precedence in the dialogue and music. The sound effects rarely escape the track with a lot of notice, and I cannot recall and big directional or surround moments. The film’s soundtrack is a relatively high selling point, and the music is made up of some really great choices that haven’t been overused in film (save The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’). The music is the only unnatural element on the track, but only on a few occasions. For the most part the music comes from screen sources, so it is realistically effected to sound as it would to the characters. The Montreal scenes feature the most LFE action because of the music, including live jazz and dancey club bits. Alexi Murdoch’s folksy original soundtrack additions are presented in a more ‘ear of God’ manner, but are mixed in a relatively natural fashion, usually only using the stereo and centre channels for the actual music.
The somewhat stunted extras begin with a commentary featuring director Mendes and writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The track’s tone is just as buoyant as the film’s, reminding us that Mendes works much better with others than himself in cases like these. A lot of the tone comes out of the fact that Eggers and Vida weren’t on set, and are genuinely excited to talk to Mendes about the film. The commentators often act as moderators and interview each other, insuring the track is full of information from top to bottom. The most satisfying moments are those where Mendes speaks about revelling in doing something different, which fills me with hope for his future productions. It’s also satisfying to hear the gang complain about the disgusting heat and dryness of Phoenix, but that just a personal preference thing.
‘The Making of Away We Go’ (16:00, HD) isn’t going to shock with its insight, but it’s not a wash of EPK stereotypes either. Behind the scenes footage is mixed with cast and crew interview segments, and a few comparison shots from the final film. Briefly covered over the brief runtime is Mendes’ intent, the intricacies of the script, casting, cinematography, location scouting, Mendes’ contributions, and Alexi Murdoch’s musical additions. ‘Green Filmmaking’ (06:30, HD) wraps things up with a look at the cast and crew’s environmental efforts, which isn’t a total rarity these days, apparently.
Away We Go isn’t a perfect film, but it comes highly recommended, and surprisingly enough exactly what I needed out of director Sam Mendes at this time. It’s an actor friendly film, pulling fantastic performances from occasionally unexpected comedic sources, and just as pleasant to look at as American Beauty, but it isn’t a studied approach to a studious subject. I’m not ready to take back my insistence that he’s the wrong guy to adapt Garth Ennis’ perfectly black, God murdering comic book comedy ‘Preacher’, but he’s shown me a range I didn’t think was there, and made me laugh out loud on at least three occasions here. Maybe he can do a really darkly comic and gory movie next and instil a little more faith. Anyway, the disc looks and sounds quite good, and features an ace commentary track, so fans should be pretty happy.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 29th September 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS 5.1 French, DTS 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French and Spanish
Extras: Director/Writers Commentary, The Making of Away We Go, Green Filmmaking
Easter Egg: No
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Paul Schneider, Carmen Ejogo, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Josh Hamilton, Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Genre: Comedy, Drama and Romance
Length: 98 minutes
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