22 September 2009

The Informant!

Based on a memoir/novel/autobiography of a whistleblower at a large chemical company, The Informant! is a quirky comedy that avoids the pitfalls of most similarly-tilted films. Matt Damon plays the protagonist, Mark Whitacre, an uncomfortable chemist at Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM). He is working to solve a problem with one of their components when he stumbles upon evidence of a price-fixing scheme. He reports his suspicions to the FBI and agrees to spy in order to gather actionable proof.
The casting of this movie is impeccable. Damon draws on the awkwardness (and frightening intelligence) of Tom Ripley, the paranoia of Jason Bourne and the deadpan comedy of the Ocean's franchise to sketch this absurdly funny character. Melanie Lynskey is his sweet, trusting and naive wife with a cutesy voice and perky smile. The combination is so saccharine that if it weren't tongue-in-cheek it would be sickening. There are several character actors and recognizable-but-not-too-famous faces in the group, but the most brilliant piece of casting is Scott Bakula. He plays the (un)lucky FBI agent who picks up case. His portrayal of an overworked, under-appreciated g-man who hates wearing a suit but loves catching bad guys is spot-on. Additionally, the very funny Joel McCale, as Bakula's partner, makes a great foil to the disillusioned agent.
In fact helmer Steven Soderberg manages to make a style out of the hideous Federal office buildings that cropped up in the late 60s and early 70s. Indeed, the film, at times, seems set in the 70s rather than the mid-90s. Decorative cinder blocks, translucent window inserts, floor tiles that look like pebbles were rolled into cement and then cut flush, and molded plastic chairs with uneven feet create an atmosphere of alternate reality in these government buildings. For an Illinoian, one of the most incredible details was the inclusion of Abraham Lincoln in every office interior of the movie. As any native knows, Illinois calls itself the Land of Lincoln and touts this honor with great pride.
This movie is fresh, funny, and quirky - without being full of self-referential insider humor that is too busy being proud of itself to tell a good story.

06 September 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino's most recent outing is, well, Tarantino. He was both writer and director for this one and it is entirely referential of something else, but never anything original. Some think this makes him genius. Most find this to be proof that he is actually incapable of entirely creative thought and devoid of the ability to bring anything new to cinema. And, as if that weren't bad enough, he is now selling his film as something other than what it is. Anyone who saw a trailer, clip or poster would think this film was going to be a bloodbath of vigilante Nazi killings, complete with gore and sound effects to make an audience squirm (think Grindhouse and the jar of eyeballs). Instead, there is very little Nazi scalping to be found. The film is more of a spy drama, with two plots set to converge at a small movie house.

We are introduced to Brad Pitt's crew of cutthroats, but then the plot veers away and follows a young woman (who narrowly escaped the clutches of the Holocaust) who now runs a theatre in Paris. When the Germans hire the hall to show their latest propaganda film, Melanie Laurent sets about to bring down the Third Reich. Sadly, although her character looks the part, she has little passion to back it up. Her acting does not carry the coldness well. Cold should not come across as bored.

Simultaneously, Pitt's men go undercover to make contract with an Ufa actress turned British spy in a ratskeller. Unfortunately, this scene, like most scenes, drags on interminably. It seems like it was supposed to heighten tension, but it was ineffectual. And Diane Kruger, accomplished though she is, could not carry the scene either. It was simply too long and too dry for anyone to save.

Brad Pitt is a caricature of a staunch American that thinks the bad guys get what they deserve. He has no qualms and no reserve. The annoying part is his accent and carriage. It doesn't fit. He looks awkward and stilted -- much like John Wayne in an old Western. Unless Tarantino was referencing that too.

The best thing about the film by far is the superb performance by Christoph Waltz, as Col. Hans Landa. He is extraordinarily frightening as the Nazi operative who finds hiding Jews. The opening scene, which could easily be too long, is held together quite adeptly by his metered portrayal of a patient and exacting hunter. He manages to be cold, without being bored, or boring. He is so believable and scary. The very sound of the creaking of his leather jacket sends up chills.

If Tarantino wanted to make a nazi slasher movie, he should have done that. If he wanted to make a taut spy drama, he should have done that. Instead, he tried to put the two together and both halves suffered for it. To be fair, no matter what he might have done to pare it down would have only helped in the slightest, because what you are left with is still trite, annoying, transparent and vain.

04 September 2009

The Goods: Live Hard. Sell Hard

This silly movie is pretty much what you expect from it. James Brolin owns a used car lot but is having trouble moving the merchandise. He brings in a team of ringers to help his clear the stock. Jeremy Piven, Ving Rhames, David Koechner, and Kathryn Hahn round out the cast of itinerant hucksters.
There is very little surprising from this comedy. Each character is crass in their own way. They elicit chuckles and a bit of pity for their sad lives but not much happens in their lives. Even the subplot of Piven and the love interest is terribly predictable. What it does have going for it, is a quick pace that rarely lets up. Probably the most brilliant thing the film did was jump into the comedy immediately out of the gate. Within the first 90 seconds, the tone and pace are set before the audience can catch its breath. By keeping the audience in its toes, we aren't able to notice the rather loose plot or details.
The other rather fun surprise were the cameos that appeared out of the blue. Will Ferrell (who also produced) and Alan Thicke being the most funny.
The Goods is amusing and good for a few laughs. There are a couple of good "take home" lines, and make sure you stay through the credits for a odd but laughable detail. But it is not something you will want to watch over and over. Enjoy it for what it is, but don't expect more. I have a feeling they weren't trying to make anything more either.