The Maid’s Brothers in the Air (Weekly Links)

Clooney in a locked and upright position

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Up in the Air. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

You don’t usually think of a scene with two strangers comparing their frequent-flyer awards cards as a seduction. But “Up in the Air” is full of out-of-the-blue twists on what we expect from a movie.

One of the frequent flyers is our main character, Ryan Bingham (impeccably embodied by George Clooney). His peculiar job is flying from city to city in order to fire people.

That’s right: his company is hired by other companies to conduct layoffs. He sits across from workers, fires them, hands them a helpful information packet, and goes on his way.

Bingham has gotten acclimated to living on an airplane, in hotel rooms, in office buildings. His company is based on Omaha, but he spends only a month or so there annually, preferring the weightless, responsibility-free life he sometimes lectures about.

A couple of things break his gliding pattern. His boss (Jason Bateman) announces the company is about to switch from in-person firings to remote work. Bingham is supposed to hit the flightpaths one last time, accompanied by the hotshot (Anna Kendrick) organizing the switchover.

Also, Bingham has met his match, in a fellow traveler (Vera Farmiga, late of “Orphan”) who crisscrosses the nation’s airports in a similar way. She’s just right for his no-baggage approach to life…until he has doubts.

“Up in the Air” is based on a novel by Walter Kirn, adapted by Sheldon Turner and director Jason Reitman. It’s an ingenious idea, beautifully cast, with a wry sense of humor about itself.

The movie’s theme, of a superficial man whose philosophy of life is all too neatly worked out, is easy to grasp. But Reitman doesn’t necessarily follow the story down the expected paths, and he veers off nicely just as you think you’ve got things figured out.

Also, the film is enormously amusing from scene to scene. Clooney and Farmiga navigate the flirtation with great charm, and Anna Kendrick is terrific in her most prominent role to date (she’s a supporting player in the “Twilight” movies and made a great impression on “Rocket Science”). She has the rare ability to be brittle and vulnerable within the same shot.

Reitman’s first features, “Juno” and “Thank You for Smoking,” were well-received, but somehow too easy—it’s no trick staying afloat in the shallow end of the pool. “Up in the Air” is a graduation of sorts, definitely qualifying for bonus miles.

Everybody’s Fine. “Festive it ain’t.”

The Maid. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Why does watching the new Chilean film “The Maid” provoke such an unusual combination of amusement and anxiety? Maybe because director Sebastian Silva and his lead actress, Catalina Saavedra, are completely poker-faced about their intentions.

We are in an upper-middle-class home in Santiago, Chile, where Raquel (Saavedra) works as the live-in made to the Valdez family. She’s been with the family 20 years and turns 41 as the film begins. She might be cracking.

Suffering from mysterious fainting spells and increasingly cranky, Raquel clearly needs assistance. But when Mrs. Valdez (Claudia Celedon) tries to hire some part-time kitchen help, Raquel goes out of her way to sabotage the intruders.

For much of the film, we study the clues and wonder when something awful is going to happen. Raquel dotes on an adolescent Valdez son, but is weirdly hostile to his older sister. And the tricks she plays on the other maids border on the sadistic.

But then comes the new maid, Lucy (strapping, bespectacled Mariana Loyola), whose cheerful approach to life is almost as bizarre as Raquel’s sourpuss attitude. The difference between these two personalities is what takes the film into the pleasurable surprises of its final third.

At that point, I no longer had any idea what kind of movie this was. But I was happy to watch something that was no only unpredictable, but actually messing with my expectations about what was coming.

Silva shoots the film in a handheld, grungy style that makes you feel you’re right in the middle of this off-kilter domestic comedy. Apparently he based the story on his own upbringing, which accounts for the telling details and how they reveal character: Mr. Valdez and his hobby of making model ships (a classic father’s excuse for avoiding his family), for instance, says a lot about the family dynamic.

Although Saavedra’s dowdy performance communicates a lot, we are not told why Raquel is the way she is. But this is just right: we can infer that her hostility comes from the years of servitude, or perhaps from her own self-imposed oddness. “The Maid” itself looks dowdy, too. Looks can be deceiving, as this movie proves almost every minute it’s onscreen.

La Danse. “The greatest concentration is on dancers dancing, and this is superb.”

Brothers. “An extra air of lost youth to the story.”

The Strip. “Warmed-over jokes and offkey timing.”