Steven Soderblogh’s THE INFORMANT!

23 09 2009

When it comes to the mighty Steven Soderbergh, one gets the sense that his lesser films don’t fly off the rails so much as they follow the tracks he’s laid out, for better or for worse. With his unique and brisk production style, Soderbergh, seemingly, can make anything – or not anything, but pretty close. And for his second feature of 2009, (how many features have you made in 2009, huh, tough guy?) Soderbergh brings us THE INFORMANT!, starring Matt Damon in the true story of Mark Whitacre, an Archer Daniels Midland Vice President, who, to expose a massive price-fixing scandal, turned Federal informant. Ahem, excuse me. Informant!

Which leads to my first question. Why that exclamation point? So that we know it’s a comedy, like AIRPLANE!? Soderbergh has indulged his self-referential side  before, (see: all the OCEANS,) and here, apparently just to make it crystal clear what genre he’s working in, he populates his scenes with recognizable (if not household name) comic personalities. Nearly every player, every stuffed suit, is known for their humorous stylings: Patton Oswalt, Tony Hale (of Luchas de Muchachos,) Scott Adsit (of 30 Rock), Joel McHale (of The Soup), Paul F. Tompkins (of Best Week Ever,) not to mention Tom Papa, Andrew Daly, and both the Smothers Brothers. And so it is: A self-proclaimed comedy! with a pedigreed cast, about the absurd avarice of American corporations. Hey, don’t mind if I do…

Matt Damon, as Mark Whitacre, on the toilet, in THE INFORMANT!

Matt Damon, as Mark Whitacre, on the toilet, in THE INFORMANT!

Matt Damon, in the role Philip Seymour Hoffman was born to play, punctuates the proceedings with some very amusing stream-of-consciousness narration. One aside recalling AMERICAN PSYCHO has him fantasizing about duty-free silk neckties. Whitacre, the American Sociopath!, is a chipper whackjob who convinces himself he may get a promotion after rolling over on his bosses, and remains cheery when facing prison. He’s corporate culture embodied, self-deluded and self-righteous, proclaiming himself the White Knight even as he embezzles millions of dollars. In other words, the joke of Whitacre, and the joke of this comedy, is on us, the consumers. “The customers are our enemy, our competitors are our friends,” says Whitacre’s boss, kicking off a session of illegal gluconate price-fixing. We are all at the mercy of the merry fool Whitacre, because, as his opening monologue points out, we ingest the products he makes every day without ever even realizing it. A corrupt monopoly is a galling thought, but this isn’t an angry film. It’s actually quite the opposite: it’s downright good-natured. Whitacre’s a fully cuddly figure, as portrayed by the flab-enhanced Damon, who is, I’ll say it, pretty much a fucking hoot here. But maybe it’s me, or maybe it’s the fever pitch of the current controversy over corporate control in the political process… I guess I personally just don’t have a lot of love in my heart for a kooky white-collar criminal right now, at least not one who isn’t Bill Murray in SCROOGED.

Even as he’s revealed to be himself a liar, a thief, and possibly even a legitimate loon, Whitacre is presented as a likeable gent. Soderbergh shifts the content of Whitacre’s narration in one of the final scenes, coming close to puncturing his moral justifications for his actions – but not too close. For better or for worse, this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s almost as if, because he’s making a comedy(!), Soderbergh keeps his protagonist at a distance to ensure that he stays funny. Or perhaps Soderbergh steers his focus away from the morals of Whitacre to suggest that morality simply never comes into the equation for guys like Whitacre. And motive? What motive? White collar crime is about taking what you can, because you can. Opportunity is all the motive you need.

Still, I can’t help but imagine that a darker, and more urgent film could have come out of this very timely story – not one that skates the surface of a white collar thief, but really goes about vivisecting him. (Guess I’ll have to wait for the new Michael Moore for the piñata treatment.) Whitacre’s final courtroom mea culpa, as presided over by the Honorable Dick Smothers, is, somewhat disappointingly, also a hoot.

The Scott Bakula comeback train, leaving the station RIGHT NOW... OK, NOW.

The Scott Bakula comeback train, leaving the station RIGHT NOW... OK, NOW.

Soderbergh’s eye as a cinematographer is keen as ever, as are the film’s design, costumes, and lighting. A bulk of the film is set in identically back-lit boardrooms, settings which, though they lend a sense of accuracy, have an adverse effect on the momentum of the thing. Marvin Hamlisch’s jaunty score does a surprising amount of compensation, bouncing when the movie’s pace wanes, which it does about half-way. Flawed as it is, THE INFORMANT! is a good time – perhaps as good a time as any treatment of this material could be. But that, I think, is the problem. It manages to be extremely topical, and extremely non-essential. Though it’s not a misfire exactly, nothing about THE INFORMANT! really earns that exclamation point.

_

THE INFORMANT!

Vista Theater, Los Angeles

Tuesday, September 22, 4:20pm showing

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Watch/Rewatch: ROB ROY (1995)

21 09 2009

Funny thing happened in 1995. And I’m not talking about my going through puberty – though that was hilarious… In retrospect… No, this is the Spielblog, the subject is film, and 1995 gave us one of those called BRAVEHEART, starring and directed by a guy named Mel Gibson, apparently. Artful bombast aside, I think the intervening decade-and-a-half has proven it to be what it always basically was – a protracted excuse for Gibson to do what he does best: portray Christ-like torture & sacrifice (See: LETHAL WEAPON, SIGNS, and the SOUTH PARK episode THE PASSION OF THE JEW.) For Mel’s defenders, here’s BRAVEHEART’s flaw in my eyes: it’s a revenge tale, the impetus of which is the death of William Wallace’s beloved wife. That’s all well and good, and I have a friend who’s one of the Scotsmen whose ass is flashed to the British, (Hi Eoghan!) but the vengeance loses its potency when Wallace starts up a flirtation with Sophie Marceau’s Princess Isabelle. And though you can’t fault Big Willy for his taste in women, this is weak – and, for that matter, it’s GLADIATOR. Same basic story, same basic flaw, same basic Best Picture Academy Award.

But the funny thing about ’95 was, there was another Scottish Highlander epic released that year – one unloved, but superior to Mr. Gibson’s. That’s not to say that it deserved a Best Picture statue. But it is a grand, unheralded work of entertainment, and it does deserve a look. I’m speaking of Michael Caton Jones’ ROB ROY. Put it on your queue, friends. Or better yet, watch it right this second, in full, on Hulu … Fuck, don’t you love the internet?

Liam Neeson in ROB ROY, givin' the ladies a little somethin' somethin'...

Liam Neeson in ROB ROY, givin' the ladies a little somethin' somethin'... And by that, I mean balls.

Like BRAVEHEART, ROB ROY is based on the true story of a larger-than-life hero, Robert MacGregor, whose clash with greedy British aristocracy in the 18th century is the source of this film’s drama. As played by a never-better Liam Neeson, MacGregor is a man of honor – and this film smartly highlights not only the romance of deeply-felt honor, but the hazards of it, and even the faults of pursuing such an intangible at the cost of the practical. MacGregor borrows a sum of coin from Marquis Monstrose (a wonderfully slimy John Hurt,) only to have it stolen by Montrose’s nephew, the sneering fop Archibald Cunningham. MacGregor’s framed for the crime of thievery, and so begins a battle of wits with Cunningham, that leads up to one of the best action sequences of the 1990’s. (And I have seen both UNDER SIEGE movies.)

As Cunningham, Tim Roth is perhaps the single best reason to invest yourself in ROB ROY. His work here is magnetic, portraying a man of such self-loathing that he destroys the lives of all around him – and has a ball doing so. Think Richard III, with a strut instead of a hump. Roth’s performance is indispensable cinematic villainy, and of a piece with his work as General Thade in Tim Burton’s PLANET OF THE APES remake – still one of the best ever examples of acting behind latex.

Tim Roth, I love you honeybunny.

Tim Roth, I love you honeybunny.

ROB ROY is strong, stately adventure, sharp and bloody from tip to hilt. If you watch it, give it time. It’s a decidedly old-fashioned slow-burn to start, but the payoff is remarkable. Specifically, what it does that BRAVE-GLAD-HEART-IATOR doesn’t, is to actually take time to establish the central romance of its hero and his beloved – in this case, Mary MacGregor (Jessica Lange.) Though spectacular, sadistic, and altogether mannnly, Mel Gibson & Ridley Scott’s films use their women as props: the too-perfect feminine ideal who’s killed before she can be fleshed out into a second dimension – and the aloof princess who bears witness to her hero’s self-sacrifice and, you know, grows a conscience as a result. By contrast, the marriage at ROB ROY’s core is as imperfect as it is passionate – and better for that. Lange’s Mary is a beauty, and, like the archetypal dames of GLAD-HEART, she’s worth fighting for – but she’s also a proud and secretive woman herself. She, like all the secondary characters in ROB ROY, takes on a full life on-screen. And isn’t that the mark of a good epic – depth that extends from the hero on out, to every subsidiary detail? In Hollywoodland development spheres, this is what they call “the world” of the film. And ROB ROY’s world is perfectly realized… it’s just a world without Mel Gibson getting his tenders hacked off at the end. Hence, no Oscar love. Perfectly understandable, if you think about it.

Oh, and did I mention that this ends with one of the best action sequences of the 1990’s? Consider this your Steven Spielblog Money-Back Guarantee if you don’t agree… In other words, please – please – send me money – and watch ROB ROY.





Stretched Out to the ‘9’s

17 09 2009

First-time director Shane Acker has made an exceptional movie. It’s called ‘9,’ and it’s ten-and-a-half minutes long. (Check it out here.) ‘9’ was seen by some of the right people a couple of years back, and as a result found funding to be stretched, like a wet sweater, into a feature film eight times its original length.

A scene from Shane Acker's 9, which was financed with government funds through the 'Haunt American Childrens Dreams Act' of 2009.

A scene from Shane Acker's '9,' which was produced with government funding through the 'Haunt American Children's Dreams Act' of 2009.

Taking place in a vaguely Italian post-apocalyptic wasteland, ‘9,’ the feature film, is the story of a sentient little creature with cameras for eyes and Elijah Wood for a voice. (The other vocal talents, John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer, and Jennifer Connelly, are sadly recognizable – though Crispin Glover is elusive as always. Oh Crispin Glover…) In design, ‘9’ evokes – well, it evokes the majority of everything, ever: There’s Prometheus by way of Mary Shelley and THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, with a dash of Nazi chic, and a heaping helping of STAR WARS, particularly in the whole “pretty-much-exactly-the-same-plot” area. There is also homage to the aesthetics of executive producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov: the opening scene is a total SCISSORHAND job, with an elderly scientist dying midway through making little 9 – and Timur’s doll-headed monster from NIGHT WATCH makes a cameo as this film’s best sinister contraption.

Yet watching ‘9’, there was one film above all that was never far from my thoughts: Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E. Of course that’s not really fair to ‘9,’ because WALL-E is never far from my thoughts. In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to ‘9’, for loving WALL-E so much…  But unlike WALL-E, and to its detriment, ‘9’ fails to elicit or even engage on any emotional level. Whereas Wall-E and Eve, in spite of being respectively a wall safe on treads and a 120 gig iPod, are uncannily empathetic, the homunculi of ‘9’ are bland to the point of being indistinguishable. 9 himself awakens with no identity, but within minutes he’s displaying bravery and wisdom that many more senior characters can’t muster. 9 doesn’t bear so much as blemish, spiritual or otherwise. He’s Frodo, without the crippling elf sex addiction. And as one watches earnest little 9 jumping and smacking into this and that, (and showing no pain,) it’s hard to think of him as anything but what he most appears to be: a rag doll.

The action sequences of ‘9,’ though well-choreographed and rendered, are all variations on a theme: big thing chases little things. Cat versus mouse – or mechanical bone cat. There are sharp touches here – the evil pterodactyl robot with a fascist banner for wings – but even as the robots get larger, the film never gets more exciting. It speeds towards a climax that’s heavy on metaphysics, and pyrotechnics – but when you’ve seen one Death Star blow up, haven’t you seen them all? Can we all just agree, Hollywood, that we don’t need to put big explosions at the end of movies anymore? It’s so deeply standard, it’s become the opposite of exciting. Let’s spread out the explosions, people, shall we? Surprise me, please!

‘9’ shares more than a certain titular numeral with another of this summer’s films, Neill Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9. (Wow, I like writing “titular numeral.”) DISTRICT 9 is also the work of a first-time shooter, and the expansion of a short film. See ALIVE IN JOBURG here. It’s far more intriguing than Blomkamp’s 90-minute treatment of the same material. WHA-BOOOOM!

See what I’m talking about with the explosions?

Robert Downey, Jr. in IRON MAN... basically.

Robert Downey, Jr. in IRON MAN... basically.

Now this is the point where I change my cell number, because I’m the guy who shits on DISTRICT 9. But I’d be no kind of blogger at all, sir, if I didn’t point out that these movies are two of a kind. After outlining its premise in its first twenty minutes, DISTRICT 9 becomes a video game: outer space weapons obliterate one-dimensional villains. Likewise, ‘9’ the short, (best summed up as ‘sack-guy-versus-mechanical-bone-cat-see-picture-above,’) is played and re-played in the feature. Both feature versions are constructed of repetitious action, with visual flair picking up narrative slack. Hey, that seems like a natural enough stumbling block for a couple of first-time full-length directors; the little things are always most interesting. But sizzle ain’t steak, and the details of ‘9’ and DISTRICT 9 are all that’s truly outstanding about them.

9

AMC Universal Citywalk, Los Angeles

Wednesday, September 16, 6:40pm showing

DISTRICT 9

Vista Theater, Los Angeles

Saturday, August 15, 8:30pm showing





Watch/Rewatch: GALAXY QUEST (1999)

8 09 2009

For cinema obsessives like your humble Spielblogger, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – more enjoyable than revisiting a good film. (And no, I have never had sex.) To that end, here’s ‘Watch/Rewatch,’ a diversion which I hope will inspire you to see a great movie you may have missed, or come back to a great movie you may have forgotten.

Today’s entry, Dean Parisot and David Howard’s GALAXY QUEST, a science fiction comedy with a fantastic premise, an exceptional cast, and enough big laughs to justify its existence many times over.

The GALAXY QUEST cast, in an unstaged, casual moment...

The GALAXY QUEST cast, in an unstaged, casual moment...

Tim Allen plays Jason Nesmith, a washed-up William Shatner proxy who’s long been milking the success of early ‘80’s cheeseball television program ‘Galaxy Quest.’ Our film opens as Nesmith, along with his former co-stars Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver,) Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman,) Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub,) and Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell) put in an appearance at a fully-accurate science fiction convention. When Nesmith is approached by Malthesar (Enrico Colantoni) and his odd entourage, he assumes they’re just another passel of costumed geeks, but in fact, they’re the real thing – aliens from a distant world, who have come to recruit Nesmith to help them fend off a vicious foe. In no time, Nesmith and his crew of C-listers are in outer space, and in way over their heads.

The comedic device of mistaken identity is tried and true, and its presentation in GALAXY QUEST is worthy of the classic mold it fits. (Suck it, TWELFTH NIGHT!) There’s a wonderful purity to the film’s concept, and the execution is note-for-note perfection. David Howard (who, it seems, has written exactly nothing else,) balances an obvious passion for his subject material, and a strong grasp of story structure, making this a piece of really divine entertainment. It all clicks – from the hilarious Guy (Sam Rockwell,) the self-aware expendable crew member living in constant fear that he’s going to be the first one killed off – to the chillingly straight villain Sarris (brought to life by the late, great Stan Winston,) – right down to the dramatic material. It takes a special sort of comedy to invest the audience in its non-humorous moments, and GALAXY QUEST succeeds marvelously on this level. Check out the climactic scene in which Rickman comforts a dying alien. There’s  nothing funny about it, and it’s one of the strongest scenes in this comedy.

The evil Sarris, as portrayed by Al Pacino... OK, not really.

The intergalactic warlord Sarris, as portrayed by Al Pacino... OK, not really.

There’s also a surprising depth to the whole thing. (I know, I know, it’s just a comedy.) Nesmith and crew find themselves on board a ship that has been designed to replicate the cardboard sets of their old show, and it really flies. Likewise, when the crew lands on an alien planet to seek out a beryllium sphere, the terrain is pretty clearly that of Arizona, in true STAR TREK fashion. These aren’t just actors finding themselves fish out of water in the universe; they have (perhaps unwittingly) helped design the universe. Life in the cosmos imitates art, and by undertaking an authentic adventure, the crew discovers the authenticity in the schlock they created – and in doing so, finally, truly connects with their earthbound audience, the fans of the show, who, like Malthesar & Co., have invested real emotional significance in a silly little science fiction spectacle. (I can relate.) Make no mistake: this is a thoughtful message, in a very smart film.

It should also be noted that the plot of GALAXY QUEST is at least as legitimately suspenseful as that of the newest STAR TREK film, and the decade-old special effects are arguably even better.





EXTRACT 2: Mike Judge-ment Day

6 09 2009

In spite of having been a film director for a decade now, Mike Judge is clearly still most comfortable in the format of his first, and greatest creation: Messieurs Beavis e Butthead. Each episode of that peerless program, if you’ll remember, was cut in half, divided into two small and small-brained situations, each lasting about ten minutes. Judge is undoubtedly a master of this length; unfortunately, he really doesn’t seem to have much of a grip on anything over that.

Heresy, you say! OFFICE SPACE is a work of genius! Jeeenyussss! Listen, I don’t wanna fight, I’m a weak, weak guy. But consider if you will: all that fantastic dialogue you’ve singed into your gray matter since college, the TPS report and that, it’s all from the first forty-five minutes of the movie. The back end of OFFICE SPACE is comparatively weak, cult canonization aside. And IDIOCRACY: such a brilliant concept, such a hilarious assemblage of riffs on it, but truth now people, the plot is just cohesive enough to qualify as worthy of a feature-length runtime. And this is coming from a fan.

Ben Affleck stars as Dean, and Jason Bateman stars as Joel, in a scene from EXTRACT.

Ben Affleck stars as Dean, and Jason Bateman stars as Joel, in a very, very dramatic scene from EXTRACT.

Now, we get EXTRACT, the weakest of Judge’s efforts on either the small or large screen, and one which brings the flaws of his previous efforts into even sharper focus. As in OFFICE SPACE, the best bits are front-loaded. Shit, they’re in the preview. Jason Bateman plays Joel, a less sympathetic version of his Michael Bluth character from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. Joel is the founder and owner of Reynolds Extract, a food additive plant peopled by the dumbest, meanest white people this side of Hannity’s America. Joel’s wife Susie (Kristen Wiig) is a typically bored wife, who’s lost all interest in Joel’s genitalia, and Joel’s only friend is bartender Dean, (Ben Affleck) a marginally more pro-active version of Diedrich Bader’s Lawrence character in OFFICE SPACE… This is Joel’s life, until sultry conman woman Cindy (Mila Kunis) enters it. She convinces Step, (Clifton Collins) an employee of Joel’s factory, to sue for damages stemming from an on-the-job injury to his testicular region. From there spring a small variety of situational mini-plots, all containing roughly ten minutes of material. But come together in any particularly clever way? No ma’am, they do not.

I know what you’re thinking: Hey Professor Asshole, who cares about plot shag if funny’s funny? Friends, not me. Not Professor Asshole. The problem is, EXTRACT isn’t nearly as funny as either OFFICE SPACE or IDIOCRACY. Not by quite a serious margin of funny.

The issue is basic, and it is big. It’s never clear what EXTRACT is about. What exactly is Judge’s comic target, here? Is this a comment on the neutering of the American male? If so, you’d be hard pressed to find any real perspective on that present here… Ball jokes aside. Perhaps it’s a jab at the dim-witted, self-possessed people who comprise the American working class. But that was Judge’s game in IDIOCRACY, and by comparison, this critique of their stupidity would be seriously off the mark (considering we have a pretty great comparison point for what is ‘on the mark’ for Judge.) If Judge’s target is the soul-crushing American workplace itself, the ladder and not simply its climbers, then he refuses to take the side of either worker or manager figure here. Unlike OFFICE SPACE, a fantasy about speaking truth to Management, the ultimate workers’ uprising in EXTRACT is dismissed as a foolish, shortsighted power grab. By making Joel, the plant owner, his central character, Judge would seem to be trying to make him sympathetic – but at no point does Joel garner sympathy, because nothing that he, nor any character in the film does, is intelligent, kind, or even interesting.

Mila Kunis, shown here just in case she Googles herself. Hi, Mila.

Mila Kunis, shown here just in case she Googles herself. Hi, Mila.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for misanthropy. Watch this: Fuck you. See?

But what’s Joel’s sole comic mistake in EXTRACT? What does he actually do – and do wrong? Spoiler alert. He accidentally doses himself with Special K, and hires a gigolo to have sex with his wife, so that he can justify his own infidelity. Are you laughing? A little? Well, that’s just about all that there is to this ninety-five minute meal: a situation worth about a half a CURB, which plays out more or less as inoffensively as possible.

Mike Judge has an exceptional – even unparalleled – ear for American Stupid. And judging (get it?!) by EXTRACT, his senses haven’t grown any duller. Judge just still hasn’t adapted to the medium of film. Sadly, EXTRACT barely registers. If it eventually comes to have a life on the DVD rental market, that will only be a testament to its slightness.

It’s not that this is a bad movie. It’s just barely a movie.

EXTRACT

Arclight Theater, Hollywood

Friday September 4, 5:05pm showing