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Screen Shots: The Road, Up in the Air, It's Complicated
Viggo Mortensen in "The Road"

The Road

Zombies seem to be de rigueur in today’s strain of post–apocalyptic motion pictures, yet this adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) offers nothing quite so fanciful. The undead shambling through this bleak movie’s ravished landscapes are, technically speaking, still human, though many have taken to eating human flesh, and all seem to be moving forward as though propelled by a natural instinct to survive at all costs. Among the ragtag survivors are a father–son team identified only as Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit–McPhee); solely dedicated to protecting his child, Man does his best to steer clear of all other humans, lest they be what he tags “bad guys” (those with murderous, cannibalistic urges); his paranoia makes him even wary of seemingly harmless strangers, like the elderly man they encounter on the road (Robert Duvall, doing the most with this juicy morsel of a role).

Director John Hillcoat, whose Aussie Western The Proposition should be Netflixed posthaste by all who haven’t seen it, creates a credible futureworld in which even the “good guys” struggle to retain some semblance of decency, and Mortensen comes through with another haunting performance that mixes the cerebral with the physical.

Up in the Air

In the cinema of 2009, Ryan Bingham should by all accounts emerge as the Protagonist Least Likely To Be Embraced By The Nation’s Moviegoers. That’s because Ryan works as a downsizing expert, hired to come in and dismiss employees that their own bosses are too gutless to fire face to face. Ryan is excellent at his job, which would make him the antagonist in virtually any other film. But because he’s played by charismatic George Clooney, Ryan becomes less a villain and more a representative of the modern American, a tech–age person trying to reconcile his buried humanity with what he or she believes is necessary to survive in this increasingly disconnected world. That’s the starting point for this superb adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel, but the film covers a lot more territory – both literally and figuratively – before it reaches the finish line. As Ryan jets all over the country doing his job – the opposite of The Accidental Tourist’s Macon Leary, he loves traveling and hates the handful of days a year he’s forced to spend at home – he makes the acquaintance of a fellow frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga), and they strike up a romance that’s among the sexiest and most adult placed on screen in some time.

Yet Ryan’s carefully constructed life threatens to crash and burn when his company’s latest hire (Anna Kendrick), a whiz kid just out of college, implements a plan that will require the grounding of all employees, including Ryan. Penning the script with Sheldon Turner, director Jason Reitman (now 3–for–3 following Juno and Thank You for Smoking) has created a timely seriocomic work that manages to be breezy without once diminishing the sobering realities that constantly hover around the picture’s edges (for starters, the fired employees interviewed in the film are not actors but real workers who were let go from their jobs). Farmiga and Kendrick are excellent as the two women who unexpectedly alter the direction of Ryan’s life, yet it’s Clooney, in his best screen work to date, who’s most responsible for earning this magnificent movie its wings.

Sherlock Holmes

The stench of Van Helsing hung heavy over the trailer for this interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth extraordinaire – hyperkinetic editing, loopy deviations from the source, an unintelligible plot – but the end result turns out to be far more successful than those early warning signs indicated. Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, director Guy Ritchie’s full–speed–ahead effort still qualifies as decent holiday–season fare, with Robert Downey Jr. vigorously portraying Holmes as a brawny, brainy gentleman–lout and Jude Law providing measured counterpoint as sidekick Dr. Watson. The storyline isn’t always interesting as much as it’s overextended – at least one plot strand could have been excised – and Ritchie’s pumped–up techniques often make this feel less like a movie and more like a video game promo. But there’s still plenty to enjoy here, and the ending all but guarantees a sequel – box office returns be damned.

It's Complicated

After the triumph of Julie & Julia, Meryl Streep heads back to the kitchen for an erratic comedy in which she plays Jane, a successful baker and restaurateur who, a decade after divorcing Jake (Alec Baldwin), finds herself cast in the role of the “other woman” once she embarks on an affair with her remarried ex. Writer–director Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give) surprisingly goes too easy on the character of Jake, a decision that leaves a bad taste and drains some of the fun out of this otherwise agreeable (if rarely uproarious) bauble. But Streep’s comic chops remain strong, and the film gets a significant boost from the presence of Steve Martin as a sensitive architect who finds himself drawn to Jane.