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UP IN THE AIR, BUT WATCHING ON DVD
By Joe Brancatelli
December 3, 2009 -- I never read Up in the Air, the Walter Kirn novel about frequent flyer program freaks. I don't know a lot of frequent flyers who did, although enough folks did because it became a best-seller.
Up in the Air hits what the motion-picture industry calls "select theaters" tomorrow and the advance buzz on the flick has been great. A lot of critics are touting the star, George Clooney, for an Oscar nomination, too.
Tell ya what: I ain't gonna see it. For starters, I don't go to movie houses. If I really want to see a film, I wait for it to hit DVD and then I buy it and watch it in the comfort of my own home. Or I catch flicks randomly in-flight when I'm really bored on a long flight. (By the way, this was a lousy summer for movies, so don't expect much on the in-flight systems just now. I was reduced to watching 500 Days of Summer on a flight last month.)
Then there's this: I find miles-and-points freaks just a bit creepy in their obsession with the game. And since Clooney's character is apparently a corporate hitter who goes from place to place firing people, I do not need a celluloid representation of a life I used to live, albeit without Clooney's very good looks, great hair and tailored wardrobe.
Mostly, though, I think movies about our lives on the road need to breathe a little, mature a bit, before we tackle 'em. They work better as historical set pieces than as reflections of the lives we live now. Besides, not rushing to the movies when a new travel-related flick hits the theaters saves us from turkeys like Snakes on a Plane.
So with all those caveats, let me give you my current list of favorite life-on-the-road movies. Grab 'em where you can, throw one or two into your laptop bag to make up for the lousy in-flight movie choices this month and maybe buy a few as stocking stuffers for your family. It'll help you explain why you are who and what you are…
Weekend at the Waldorf
An all-American remake of 1932's Grand Hotel, this 1945 version has a gorgeous cast (Lana Turner, Ginger Rogers and the almost-as-pretty Van Johnson and Walter Pidgeon) and a zillion beauty shots of New York's Waldorf-Astoria in its heyday. It's also got Xavier Cugat, who really ran the Waldorf house band back in the day when hotels had house bands. This is the antidote for too many stays at Hilton Garden Inns, Courtyards by Marriott and Four Points by Sheraton. I should know: I did a long weekend at the Waldorf with my frequent-flying wife the year before last and we had a grand old time comparing the hotel then and now. (Tip: There's a gift and sundries shop where Lana Turner's in-house notary/stenographer's office used to be.) And here is great news: Weekend at the Waldorf is finally available on DVD, burned by request onto a DVD-R disk by Amazon for $27.
Another big remake of Grand Hotel, this 1963 British flick moves the action to London's Heathrow Airport in the early days of jet travel, when the "jet set" was a new phenomenon. An awe-inspiring cast (Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Louis Jourdan, Rod Taylor, Orson Welles, Margaret Rutherford, Maggie Smith and David Frost) is thrown into a V.I.P. lounge to wait out a long, fog-induced delay. The Terence Rattigan script is supposedly based on Vivian Leigh's real-life attempt to leave Laurence Olivier for Peter Finch. Which might explain why everything about the movie is bizarre: the fashions, the acting, the plot lines and the depictions of global business and business travel. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll make fun of Elizabeth Taylor's Givenchy togs--and then you'll wonder why your life on the road isn't nearly so glamorous. This truly is my favorite life on the road movie of all time. The bad news: The V.I.P.s is only available in a five-disc set with three other awful Taylor-Burton movies. The good news: You can get the set for just $19 from Amazon. Even I'll watch a Taylor-Burton movie for $4.75 a pop.
North by Northwest
The 1959 Hitchcock classic is best known for the remarkable scene where Cary Grant is chased through a field by a crop-duster and its dazzling climax atop Mount Rushmore. But check out the business-travel atmospherics: Grant at the Oak Bar in New York's Plaza Hotel; Grant and Leo G. Carroll at Midway Airport, when it was Chicago's only airport; and Grant in a battle of wits with an officious front-desk clerk at Chicago's Ambassador Hotel. And don't miss the scenes on the overnight New York-to-Chicago train. You'll wonder why you've never met anyone as gorgeous as Eva Marie Saint or Cary Grant on a flight. (It's $15 from Amazon, $20 from Barnes & Noble and available from the iTunes store.)
Grosse Point Blank
This may be the best movie you've never seen. It was in and out of theaters so fast in 1997 that I'm not sure it ever made in-flight movie rotations. It is dark and disturbing--an assassin (John Cusack) goes to his 10-year high school reunion in search of his life and his true love (Minnie Driver)--but it is also a laugh-out-loud comedy. Watch how Cusack plays his character, especially in the hotel-room scenes, and then tell me he isn't playing a stressed-out business traveler. Pay attention to Joan Cusack in the tiny but extraordinary role of the office assistant who keeps her frequent-flying boss on track and on schedule. There are also wonderful supporting performances by Jeremy Piven, Dan Ackroyd and Hank Azaria. (It's $18 from Amazon and $20 from Barnes & Noble.) By the way, there is a spiritual successor to Grosse Point Blank called War Inc. Both Cusacks sort of reprise their roles, Ackroyd does a take-off of Dick Cheney and it also features Marisa Tomei, Ben Kingsley and a surprisingly effective Hillary Duff. Released last year, it disappeared even faster than Grosse Point Blank. I can only recommend it if you're a hard-core film buff and a BIG Cusack fan.
Seven years after he struck gold with Moonstruck, producer-director Norman Jewison tried a similar formula in Italy. The result, 1994's Only You, is a clunker. But there's a hilarious, if hokey, scene at Rome's Fiumicino Airport, a nice set piece involving the concierge at the Hotel Danieli in Venice and breathtaking scenery shot in and around Le Sirenuse Hotel in Positano on the Amalfi Coast. Watch for wonderful performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Bonnie Hunt, who steal every scene from the star, a very young Marisa Tomei. The payoff involves a no-nonsense (and previously unseen) business traveler who solves the entire dilemma of the 109-minute movie in about 30 seconds--as he's rushing to catch a flight. That guy's my hero--and the movie is worth it just for his one scene. (It's $11.50 from Amazon and $15 from Barnes & Noble.)
No Highway in the Sky
A British import from 1951, with an international cast led by James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich and Glynis Johns. Stewart is Stewart--bumbling, befuddled, distracted, lovable and heroic--and he saves the day by bucking the establishment over the safety of an important new passenger plane. Johns plays a quintessential 1950s stewardess who falls in love with Stewart, moves in with him and then organizes his life. Corny, charming--and weirdly compelling because the plot is eerily predictive of the mid-50s catastrophes that befell the De Havilland Comet, the world's first commercial jet. (It's not available on DVD, but Amazon "rents" it for $2.99 and "sells" it for $9.95 via its Video on Demand digital service.)
Retitled Jet Lag for its American release, this 2002 French film was Juliette Binoche's first outing after Chocolat. She plays an unhappy hairdresser running away from her life and into unhappy celebrity chef Jean Reno at Paris' Charles DeGaulle Airport. They dislike each other intensely on sight, which, by the laws of fiction, means they must share the last available room at the airport hotel during a flight disruption. You know how this goes: brief affair, lots of angst, two lives altered and what the French consider a happy ending. But the film is surprisingly effective in showing how a business traveler and a tourist react differently to basic travel snafus. (It's $15 from Barnes & Noble in a version with English subtitles.)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Everyone knows Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the 1987 life-on-the-road comedy starring the late John Candy and Steve Martin. It was a huge box office hit and it is probably the most successful business-travel film of all time. It's funny, of course, but, for my tastes, a little too much like our real lives--and it makes me squirm. It's on this list because it is a good movie. But it's not one I want to watch again. Just too close to the bone. (It's $10 from Amazon, $12 on Barnes & Noble and available at the iTunes store.)
A note to readers: Barnes & Noble's prices are cheaper for members of its $25-a-year club. And check with your preferred frequent flyer and frequent guest plans because they offer bonuses for online shopping during the holiday season.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.