Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The American

Anton Corbijn’s second film as a director is a stylish, existential drama about an enigmatic American hiding out in a remote Italian town.

Beginning with a prologue in wintry Sweden, we first see the titular character, Jack (George Clooney), as circumstances force him to relocate to the Abruzzo region in Italy.

There we slowly learn more about him: he makes a rifle for an assassin (Thekla Reuten) under the orders of his handler (Johan Leysen), befriends a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and falls for a local prostitute (Violante Placido), as he begins to think about changing his life.

Although The American appears to be channelling the minimalist crime dramas of Jean-Pierre Melville (especially Le Samouraï), the form and structure resemble a Sergio Leone western, with its story of a stranger arriving in a new town, extended silences and widescreen visuals.

Careful viewers may note that Leone’s Once Upon A Time in The West can be seen on a television in one sequence and that some of his westerns were shot in the same region back in the 1960s.

Despite the crime elements, this is not an action movie and is essentially a suspense drama revolving around Jack’s gradual construction of a gun and his relationships with various characters, who may or may not be trusted.

It is also deliberately ambiguous about various elements: Jack is a gunsmith but could also be a hit man; a group of characters are simply referred to as ‘the Swedes’; and there is the mystery of why the gun is being constructed.

As a vehicle for Clooney, this is an unusually European film – despite being a US/UK production – and the slow burn pacing and gradual revelations will probably limit its appeal to a mass audience.

The trailer and TV spots have misleadingly sold it as an action thriller (Corbijn recently said that he directed the film ‘but not the trailer’) but its respectable opening in the US probably meant the box office ends were justified by the marketing means.

But there is much to appreciate and right from the opening sequence Corbijn and his cinematographer Martin Ruhe, working together again after Control, demonstrate their considerable visual abilities.

The snowy landscapes of Sweden and the misty, old world charms of rural Italy are captured with exquisite clarity and the artful compositions are often stunning.

Rowan Joffe’s screenplay appears to have some key differences with the novel it’s based on (A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth), but the sparse dialogue provides a neat fit for Corbijn’s visual approach.

Clooney is in downbeat mode, but like his performances in Michael Clayton and Syriana it plays against his usual charming screen persona and he convincingly conveys the weary solitude of the central character.

The supporting characters tend to fit in to types: the impossibly soulful and glamorous prostitute, the wise old priest and the impatient boss, but the actors who play them are convincing.

Their chemistry with Clooney also works well, be it in the unusually frank sex scenes, chats in the graveyard, gun tests in the forest or sinister conversations in a restaurant.

Another captivating aspect is how the rifle is actually constructed. Corbijn depicts Jack’s handiwork in detail as each part is assembled with a loving care that contrasts with its ultimate use as an instrument of death.

There is also an effective sense of unease that is gradually teased throughout the film, as everyday events gain a sinister edge due to the danger and mistrust involved in the business of killing people.

This atmosphere is enhanced by Herbert Gronemeyer‘s minimal, atmospheric piano-and-percussion score which, like the poster, evokes the tone of similar films from the 1970s.

As with his debut feature, Corbijn has crafted another considered and tasteful film.

Although the cool, European flavour won’t be for everyone, it bodes very well for his future career as a director.

The American opens in the UK on Friday 26th November

> Official site
> The American at the IMDb
> Reviews of The American at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes
> Interview with Violante Placido about The American

Cinema Interviews Podcast

Interview: Violante Placido on The American

The American is a new suspense thriller about a mysterious American named Jack (George Clooney) who arrives in a small Italian town after problems with a job in Sweden.

Whilst waiting for orders, he befriends a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and falls for for a local prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido), whilst taking on a new assignment to construct a new rifle for a professional assassin (Thekla Reuten).

Directed by Anton Corbijn, the film is a stylish, existential drama that harks back to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, Michelangelo Antonioni and Sergio Leone.

I recently spoke with Violante Placido about her role the film and what it was like working with Corbijn and Clooney in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

You can listen to the interview here:


You can also listen to this interview as a podcast via iTunes or by downloading the MP3.

The American is out at UK cinemas from Friday 26th November

> Violante Placido at the IMDb
> Official site for The American

Events News

Up in the Air premiere on Livestream

The red carpet action at the US première of George Clooney’s new film Up in the Air was shown on Livestream earlier (above is a repeat).

Clooney plays a man employed to fire people, who spends most of his life at airports and on planes.

It is the third – and so far best – film directed by Jason Reitman with Oscar and BAFTA nominations a very strong possibility.

Clooney seemed to be getting into the spirit of things on the red carpet.

UITA Premiere on Livestream

Read my full thoughts on the film here.

> Official site for Up in the Air
> An interesting official Tweeting site for the film
> George Clooney and Jason Reitman at the IMDb

[Image via Rachel Sterne and Twitpic]

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Thoughts

LFF 2009: Up in the Air

Natalie (Anna Kendrick) and Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air

The recession, human relationships, jobs and travel are just some of the issues explored in this smart, funny and thoughtful adaptation of Walter Kim’s 2001 novel.

When we first meet Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air we discover that his job is to inform people that they no longer have theirs. Employed by an Omaha based company, his life is spent flying around the US firing people in a smooth and efficient manner because bosses want to outsource this awkward process.

Free of human relationships, he has become attached to frequent flyer miles and the buzz of being a master at living out of a suitcase. But when his boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that he must train a new recruit (Anna Kendrick) who is advocating firing people via video-link, things begin to change.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Up in the Air is how it makes you ponder gloomy subjects whilst you laugh at the jokes. Much of the film is a breezy, observational comedy with finely honed lead performances and sparkling dialogue. It feels like a road movie set amongst airports (a ‘plane movie’, in a sense) as the characters go on a literal and emotional journey across America.

Underneath the witty, often hilarious, surface lies a more serious and perceptive exploration about losing work and finding love. The script even updates the themes of the book to the current era (one sequence is dated as happening in February 2010) by having recently fired workers essentially play versions of themselves.

This potentially clunky device is weaved in skilfully (some audiences may miss it first time, although subconsciously it will register) and sets us up for the latter stages, which show an admirable restraint from the usual Hollywood resolutions. But before we reach that point, there is much to feast on.

Up in the Air PosterOne of the key selling points is George Clooney, a Hollywood star with the charm and wit of a bygone era. Given his commendable passion for doing different kinds of films (some behind the camera) it is easy to forget what a magnetic presence he can be as a screen actor.

With its one liners, speeches and sly underbelly of emotion, this is a role he was almost born to play and he delivers the goods in spades. Not since Out of Sight has he been this Clooneyesque. One line in particular (actually scripted by Reitman’s father) is an absolute zinger delivered to perfection, which you’ll know when you hear it as the whole cinema will be laughing.

In the key supporting roles Anna Kendrick (who first stood out in 2007’s Rocket Science) shows excellent timing as the peppy graduate keen to prove her worth whilst Vera Farmiga is a superb foil for Clooney as his air-mile obsessed love interest. Jason Bateman adds some sly touches as Clooney’s boss and there is a nice cameo from Sam Elliott (which may or may not be a reference to the 1988 thriller Shakedown – released in the UK as Blue Jean Cop – which also involves a plane and Elliott).

The technical aspects of the film are first rate across the board; with Dana Glaubetman‘s editing worthy of special mention as it helps keep proceedings ticking along beautifully. Jason Reitman co-wrote the script with Sheldon Turner and directs with an energetic but delicate touch. Compared to his previous films, it has the delicious wit of Thank You for Smoking and the unsentimental emotions of Juno, but actually surpasses both in terms of mixing up the light and heavy elements.

Unlike a lot of book to screen transitions the film arguably improves the central drama by throwing more profound doubts at the protagonist. I won’t spoil the final movement by revealing key details (because that would be silly) but I can’t help feeling it will provoke an interesting kaleidoscope of reactions.

When I saw it, an audience member in front of me was laughing loudly at some of the firing scenes (presumably unaware that the people on screen were drawing on recent painful experiences) and it raised some interesting questions. Is this a comedy or a drama? Is their laughter in pain and sadness in humour? How will mainstream audiences in a recession – for whom cinema is traditionally an escape – react to such a film?

Perhaps the human experience of life, work and relationships is bitter-sweet, no matter how rich, employed or happy you consider yourself to be. But that a film from a major Hollywood studio would probe such areas in such an entertaining way is refreshing, particularly as the laughter here provokes genuine thought rather than providing simple relief.

One idea that some audiences will possibly mull on as the end credits roll is that human relationships are what really counts in an increasingly impersonal and technology driven society. But I am not so sure that is the case, even if it is what the filmmakers intended. Wisely, the film leaves out the pat focus-group approved resolution.

Finally, if you actually stay until the very end credits (which audiences often don’t) you’ll hear something unexpected. I won’t reveal what happens but it sounds like the essence of the film, that of connections trying to be made in a world where they are increasingly drying up.

Like the movie, it is funny, sad and makes you think.

Up in the Air screens tonight, Monday and Tuesday at the London Film Festival and opens in the US on December 4th (wide release on Dec 25th) and in the UK on January 15th