Newbie Wednesday – The Men Who Stare At Goats


The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009, dir. Grant Heslov)

Starring Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang
If you remember the jokingly done reports in the media about prisoners of war in Iraq being exposed to Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You” song on a loop, then you have already heard of the writing of reporter Bob Wilton. In a mix of fantasy and reality we get this very suspect account of a secret unit of the U.S. Army, in operation since the Vietnam War. Director Heslov doesn’t deliver a film of any great magnitude, it has its moments, and we end up with a very quirky, very uneven comedy.
Bob Wilton is an Ann Arbor, MI reporter who ends up just outside of Iraq as the war is breaking out. Months earlier he interviewed an odd man who claimed to have been a psychic in the employ of the Army. By chance, Wilton runs in Lyn Cassady (Clooney), the man the interviewee claimed had been the best in their unit. Wilton and Lyn begin a strange journey across Iraq that ends with figures from Lyn’s past reappearing and culminating in an LSD fueled finale.
Jeff Bridges plays a ultra hippie, Bill Django, the founder of the New Earth Army, the unit devoted to using peace and love to combat enemy troops. A lot of these ideas won’t seem far fetched if you know anything about the experimentation the military has done on the paranormal for combat purposes. The film even brings up the infamous MKULTRA experiments done by the CIA on soldiers and civilians alike, where psychotropic drugs were added to water without the subjects’ knowledge and their reactions were recorded.
I never found myself laughing during this film, a few grins here and there, but was never really impressed with anything I saw. The film seems to not know what it wants to be: a satire of the army, a satire of the new age movement, a commentary on the absurdity of this current and all war. Because of this lack of a “thesis statement” the film seems to wander aimlessly with no point at the end. Coupled with very amateurish voice over (a big no-no unless you know how to do it right) and an original score that felt cheap, its a film that could easily be missed without regret.
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Film 2010 #7 – Up in the Air

Up in the Air (2009, dir. Jason Reitman)
Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman

I come to the table with a strong dislike of the work of Jason Reitman. I didn’t find Thank You For Smoking funny and reviled Juno like the swine flu. That said, Reitman had a lot to prove to me and I felt this film was his “last shot” before I wrote him off as a director who simply didn’t make the sort of movies I enjoy.

Based on the novel by Walter Kirn (he also wrote the wonderful Thumbsucker which was also adapted to the screen), the story follows Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a “career transition counselor”, or in plain english, the man your boss hires when he’s too scared to fire you himself. Bingham is at home in airports and first class seats. The entire process has evolved to an almost ritualistic state, and Bingham takes great pride in his impeccable ability to traverse and flow through the environment like water. The inevitable snag occurs when young upstart Natalie Keener (Kendrick) proposes a new video conferencing system to replace the face to face firings Bingham’s firm provides. Bingham is terrified that his entire life and soul is at stake and volunteers to take Keener on his route in an effort to prove that the face to face is an essential part of their job.

Reitman has begun to win me over. Gone is the smirking humor of Thank You For Smoking and the nails-on-chalkboard hip-speak of Juno. There are still traces of the director’s hand but it feels like a maturation has occurred. Bingham is developed quite organically from a simple pastiche of Clooney’s typical film persona and into a truly broken and incredibly pathetic man. Vera Farmiga plays Alex, a woman who refers to herself as just like Bingham “but with a vagina”. They meet in an airport bar and foreplay consists of showing off their voluminous elite status cards from luxury hotels and car rental services. Their relationship feels shallow and it is and how that relationship plays out was quite a surprise to me. There are a few beats in the film, involving the transformation of Bingham’s priorities and it feels like Reitman is taking us into heavily tread territory, but he completely reverses things in a very satisfying way.

The film is very much a product of contemporary events. Bingham’s firm is seeing a boon in business as the economy tanks. Bingham himself seems to be losing the assurance he normally feels in his job as he is contracted to fire an ever growing number of the workforce. The film comes across a bit heavy handed in some of these moments, particularly a ending montage sequence where real people who have been laid off in the last year talk directly to the camera about their feelings and reactions. While I thought they had good insight, the insertion of this into the film felt slightly pretentious. I think a documentary of said material would be a much more interesting venture though.

In the end, Reitman has duly impressed me. I went from having incredibly low expectations for his third film, to finding it to be enjoyable. I think his tempering and maturation as a filmmaker are very apparent, and I’m actually interested in what his next project will be.