Up in the Air (US - BD)
Gabe sets his seat back, lowers his food tray, and thumbs through Sky Mall...
Ryan Bingham (Clooney) ‘lives in the air’, travelling the country and firing workers employers don’t have the gall to fire themselves. The job sounds unenviable, but Ryan actually revels in his isolation and seems to reap a genuine sense of satisfaction from his duty, and how close it brings him to his lifetime goal of achieving ten million frequent flyer miles. Two monkey wrenches are thrown into Ryan’s engine in the form of female companions. The first woman, another frequent flyer named Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), he enters into a casual sexual relationship with. The second woman, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), threatens his way of life by inventing a software system that allows for firing via digital link-up. Before he is grounded by the new technology, Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman) assigns him as Natalie’s mentor, and the two opposing personalities take to the sky.
It seems to me that writer/director Jason Reitman is getting a bit of a free ride to the top. Well, not a free ride—his films certainly haven’t been bad—but it doesn’t feel like he’s really earned the mantle of four time Academy Award nominee (twice for direction), especially not after only three better than mediocre feature films. The best American directors have usually cut their teeth for a while before being showered with such acclaim, and the few that have garnered early praise usually have a lasting impact both in terms of future output and indelibility of early work. Call me a negative nelly, but I just don’t see Thank You For Smoking or Juno burning any lasting space in film history. Up in the Air represents what should’ve been another stone on the road to Oscar success, and starts along the same subtly mean, dry-witted lines as Thank You For Smoking, and floats at a similar pace to the rap the doors of Fight Club’s corporate America. Our protagonist sits somewhere between the cocksure and curtailed ‘heroes’ of both films, and practices his own brand of over-thought, zen like life patterns, which are defined in the form of deadpan narration. Problems arise as Reitman begins to default to the usual sap and circumstance of modern romantic filmmaking, cuts his delectable cruel streak, and stands up a series predictable character arc dominos. Fortunately enough, for the most part, Reitman avoids the mega-clichés, and the happy ending does not feature the unrealistic, over-romanticized easy out.
The bigger problem is that Up in the Air doesn’t ever feel like a Jason Reitman film—it feels like Jason Reitman’s best impression of Alexander Payne. Tonally it sits somewhere between Election and Sideways, while thematically it follows About Schmidt in a sort of ‘equal opposite’ fashion. Ryan Bingham places himself purposefully into emotional isolation, while Warren Schmidt is dropped suddenly into the situation, but both characters deal with the isolation by moving cross-country towards a wedding they aren’t looking forward to. In both situations the wedding experience appears at first to be a release from isolation, but is eventually just another reaffirmation of each character’s inability to cope with their own families. In an alternate universe Warren Schmidt isn’t forced into retirement, but fired by a dejected and grounded Ryan Bingham, who does his best to offer condolence. Cosmetic similarities to Payne include the placement of Ryan’s home in Payne’s favourite American city, Omaha, and the use of composer Rolfe Kent, who is mentioned as a Payne collaborator on the commentary by Reitman, perhaps revealing some admitted intent in aping Payne’s style. These might all be coincidental and misleading readings on my part, but it certainly coloured my view of the film.
Most viewers will probably be fine with the less perfect predictability, but the actual plot, what little of it escapes the themes and dialogue, is just so blasé. It’s clearly a pertinent story, and has something important to say about the current state of the American dream (hint: it’s kind of in the dumper). The film will definitely touch some viewers for this reason, and the performances are honest enough to garner respect. Reitman does a good enough job finding the humour in these achingly normal characters, and finds time for a handful pretty little tone-poems and dialogue free montages. Visually the audience can definitely feel the emptiness of the businesses Clooney visits, and that’s certainly important. Part of me still thinks this particular story would be better told in a documentary form, where the lame little sappy bits are impossible to judge because they’re so tragically real. Reitman and his actors work the word play naturally, and the dialogue stays mostly clear of Diablo Cody-izms (which drove me to ignore Reitman’s previous film Juno). In the end the realism saves what I find an otherwise pretty unremarkable film.
Up in the Air enters the Blu-ray fray with an acceptable, unassuming 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer. I have very few complaints, but there aren’t any hugely praise worthy moments either. When the movie is aping Mad Men and hanging out in darkened, mahogany laced bars it looks nearly perfect, save a little minor grain on the flesh tones and reds. Bluer scenes are grainier, and a little less detailed, but more define the film’s overall pallet and intent. The harsher blacks and whites are plenty sharp, though details as a whole are rather average. The focus is usually set somewhere in the middle, so there aren’t many hugely detailed close-ups, or deep set wide shots. Well lit faces are a detail highlight, but not particularly amazing comparatively speaking. Colour quality and blending is the transfer’s high point (the blends of the dark blue suits is particularly nice), as is the separation of basic patterns.
Up in the Air comes fitted with an average DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which is mostly a centric and low-key affair. Dialogue is paramount, and it’s all clean and clear, from dithering whispers to boisterous shouts. The majority of the sound effects are also centred, and of the incidental variety. The scenes aboard planes feature a steady hum in the rear and LFE channels, and there are a few random city and office sounds, but the directional play is pretty minimal. The musical score, by Alexander Payne’s favourite composer Rolf Kent, is also unassuming, and even the pop music selections mostly whisper into the stereo channels. The club scene (including a triumphant performance from the one and only Young MC) is pretty bassy, and features some rear channel work. There is one solid bit of sound design during one of the view firing scenes that reveals the fired man is behind frosted glass right next to them.
Extras begin with a commentary track featuring writer/director Jason Reitman, director of photography Eric Steelberg and first A.D. Jason Blumenfeld. The track is friendly, full and informative. Reitman rules and moderates the track, and brings the other participants into the fold when he’s running out of material. Listeners will learn about the technical processes behind making a major motion picture, get plenty of humorous behind the scenes anecdotes, understand Reitman’s inspirations, and be let in on a bunch of minor flubs and in-jokes. It’s certainly isn’t the best commentary I’ve ever heard, but I’ve got no pressing complaints either, and assume fans will be happy.
‘Shadowplay: Before the Story’ (02:20, HD) is a quirky featurette about the company that put together Up in the Air’s title design. The company has so far created the titles for all of Reitman’s films. This is followed by thirteen deleted/alternate scenes, all with optional commentary from Reitman (24:00, HD). The film is plenty long as is, but there are some minor gems in this collection that might have been preferable to some of the stuff that made the final cut, specifically the first scene, which explores the relationship of people on airplanes (single serving friends, as Fight Club so wonderfully put it), and the final scene, which is a fun and original little dream sequence. The disc also features a ‘Help Yourself’ music video by Sad Brad Smith, a series of shots comparing the final film to amateur actor test shots marked ‘Storyboards’ (01:30, HD), a prank the crew played on American Airlines (00:30, HD), a teaser, and a trailer.
I certainly understand the love for Up in the Air, and enjoyed the film enough, but the film’s listless nature did little to endear the thing to me enough to go out of my way to recommend it. I’d actually recommend two other films in place of seeing it, or at least seeing it a second time. For direct comparisons I’d say re-watch Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, and for a better 2009 romantic road comedy I’d suggest viewers get their hands on Sam Mendes’ Away We Go. Both films are more emotionally satisfying, and the former is pretty clearly exactly the tone writer/director Jason Reitman was going for. The Blu-ray release is about average concerning picture and audio quality, and features very few substantial extras. The commentary is a keeper though, and the deleted/alternate scenes feature some pleasant surprises.
*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: 9th March 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Spanish and Portuguese
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Extras: Writer/Director, Director of Photography and Assistant Director Commentary, Shadowplay: Before the Story, Deleted Scenes with Director Commentary, Music Video, Prank, Storyboards, Trailer, Teaser
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton
Length: 109 minutes
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