Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Informant! (***)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh


There's something fascinating lingering under the surface of Steven Soderbergh's latest film, The Informant!. Based on the true story of ADM Vice President Mark Whitacre and his role in the uncovering of the ADM price-fixing scandal, it's plot lends itself easily into the thriller genre. Yet, Soderbergh seems to do everything within his ability to make the film seem whimsical and absurd. Led by a superb performance by Matt Damon, The Informant! pulls off this experiment pleasantly, and still has room to be exceptionally stylish.

Mark Whitacre (Damon) is a well-liked member of upper-management within Archer Daniels Midland, which is a conglomerate that produces grains, and is involved in nearly everything we use in our everyday life. Mark was a former bio-chemist, and is now living a life of luxury in a large Illinois farm house, with his lovely wife Ginger (Melanie Lynsky) and their adopted children. He has no qualms with his more beneficial position, even if it does expose him to the more unattractive aspects of the business world.

When one of Mark's plants isn't producing to the tune of what it's supposed to, he goes to his colleagues to tell them that he is receiving cryptic phone calls from a man who wishes to extort money from ADM, in exchange for the identity of a man who may be a mole within the company and sabotaging the plant's production. Weary, but out of superior options, one of the company heads Mick (Tom Papa), informs Mark that they will allow the FBI to help with the investigation to discover who is making the phone calls. Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) visits Mark's home, and explains that they will tap his phones, which makes Mark all kinds of anxious.

Goaded by Ginger, Mark begins to confess to Shepard that he has been involved in a price-fixing scandal with ADM. Mark agrees to cooperate with Shepard and the FBI in helping them convict Mick and the other company heads in their illegal activity--in exchange for some immunity of his own. Mark agrees to wear a wire, and construct taped meetings wherein he will attempt to capture the company heads plainly discussing their wrongdoings. Problems arise though, when Mark proves not to be the most dependable or honest person, and seems more interested in his own well-being within the company than persecuting the bad guys.

I'm not sure what Soderbergh's motivations were when he decided to take the somewhat tragic tale of Mark Whitacre and turn it into a farce; nor am I positive that this route was the best way to tell this story. What is obvious is that Soderbergh had no interest in taking the plight of Mark Whitacre seriously. That's evidenced by the employment of numerous comedians in small parts (Papa, as well as Patton Oswalt & Paul F. Tompkins, among others) and a preposterous (though effective) musical score by Marvin Hamlisch which conjures more thoughts of Get Smart than a corporate thriller.

Soderbergh's madness pays off for the most part, though. The Mark Whitacre we see in The Informant! is a disturbed man, rolling off lie after lie to the point where he almost has no choice but to believe his own falsehoods. Soderbergh has no interest in telling his story through the complex plot devices he usually utilizes in his films. Instead, he makes mincemeat of the film's potential gravitas, and capitalizes on the story's ludicrous turns for laughs. This is something that is difficult to execute, and even harder to appreciate.

Though it must be said that none of Soderbergh's work would have been worthwhile without the stunning work from Matt Damon. There's something deeper to this performance than just the humor, though it is very funny. Sporting a few extra pounds and a thin, bristly mustache, Damon plays Whitacre like he's the only guy who isn't in on the joke, and without his sincere portrayal, the audience would be unable to generate any sympathy. It's stunning that Jason Bourne has delivered such a beautifully delivered Everyman performance.

In the end, Mark Whitacre's evidence lead to the conviction of the heads of ADM. Unfortunately, it was discovered that Whitacre himself was embezzling money, to the tune of over $10 million. When it was all said and done, Whitacre ended up spending more time in prison than anybody else at ADM. It's a fitting, if not heartbreaking conclusion to the madcap investigation, but if the title suggests anything, it's that this film puts a whole lot of thought into punctuation.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Trailer Watch: A Single Man

Tom Ford's A Single Man is the first real film to have a true emergence from the festival circuit. Most notably, the film's star, Colin Firth, won the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival. Supposedly about a man (Firth) mourning the death of his lover, the trailer contains many things: wonderfully photographed images, a sophisticated soundtrack, and most importantly Julianne Moore (who I'd be willing to watch in anything, including Next, where she acted so poorly I tried to convince myself it was avant-garde). Will A Single Man's buzz last till Oscar time? I'm not sure, because even mid-September is too early to tell, but it's exciting to see the usually flighty Firth in something with true gravitas.

Patrick Swayze (1952-2009)

Much in the case of Michael Jackson, the death of Patrick Swayze effects most people, whether or not they were fans of his work. It may seem strange to compare the death of an actor with such a limited time in the spotlight to the death of a man who is generally referred to as the King of Pop, but many should remember just how big Swayze was at his peak. Breaking through with films like Red Dawn and Youngblood, his major breakthrough came in 1987 with Dirty Dancing, which was not only a gargantuan hit, but also a remarkable showcase of a performer whose physicality was unmatched. His supposedly sexual gyrations and dance moves created a flurry of young girls to swoon, but it was only the beginning of a string of hit films.

He was the lead in the notorious guilty pleasure Road House in 1989, but his biggest hit would come one year later in Ghost where he played a murdered man trying to connect to his former lover, and extract revenge on his murderer using Whoopi Goldberg as a medium. Even writing the facets of the plot seems outlandish, but that unlikely Best Picture nominee became the staple of Swayze's career, and holds what is usually considered to be his greatest performance. Throughout the rest of the 90's, he continued working, finding varying success with such films as Point Break, Father Hood, and the campy draq queen cult classic Too Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and though he never quite returned to the pinnacle of Ghost, his image is always a representation of that gloomy transition from the glamorous materialism of the 80's to the murky cynicism of the 90's.

Patrick Swayze, at age 57, was taken too soon...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

George Clooney: The Man Who Stares At Awesomeness

With three films lined up for the end of the year, George Clooney seems primed for another spectacular year of exceptional projects (and possible overexposure--but that never seems to happen to him, does it?). He plays a mischievous fox in Wes Anderson's animated film version of Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Fox; he is a mustachioed former Army man who thinks he's a Jedi knight in Grant Heslov's The Men Who Stares At Goats; and in December, he will play the lead in Jason Reitman's solemn meditation on commercial flight addiction, Up In The Air. Even for Clooney, this is an especially loaded year of prospective excellent motion pictures, and with his string of enormous success since 2005 (can we agree that his doubleheader that year of Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck was the moment that we found out how good he truly was?), it is not unnecessary to pose this question: is there anyone bigger in movies right now than Clooney?

George Clooney staring down the total awesomeness he may or may not be coveting...

But despite the temptation, I won't answer that question. If only because I think it's one that everybody knows the answer to. Buzz for Up In The Air has seemingly exploded within the last few weeks, and the release of a superb trailer within the last few years has only heightened the mania. It is the third film from Jason Reitman (of Juno fame), who has shown that he can tackle the surprising depths of youngsters, and is now peering into the world of middle-aged malaise. George Clooney, always one to turn on the charm, seems entrenched within this character; his long monologue rumbling graciously throughout the whole two-minute preview.

Not to say that Men Who Stare At Goats or Fantastic Mr. Fox seems like small potatoes. I only speak about Up In The Air with more fervor because it is the flavor of the moment. I don't doubt that all three can be special (or terrible, for that matter), but that is not what is on my mind exactly. Which other actor can have this many buzzed-about films coming out within months of each other, and you're still willing to assume that he's giving first-rate performances in all of them? By the end of 2009, many bloggers and film dweebs will recount the decade's greatest films and directors, but how will we look down on Clooney? Because no other personality has dominated Hollywood more during that time span.

**Really, though, who else has the ability of playing a defeated frequent flier, an animated fox, and a middle-aged, bumbling field agent, and still look like the coolest guy in town? God, all men wish they were him.

Trailer Watch: Up In The Air

Jason Reitman's latest film, Up In The Air, has had a sudden bubble-burst of buzz since it's arrival at the Telluride Film Festival. Based on this trailer--which is executed with stunning grace--the film takes a solemn look at the supposed lonely, but advantageous lifestyle behind constant commercial flying. Having read the book the film is based on, I can say that it does not seem to reflect the overbearing irony that Walter Kirn had in his novel, and the trailer-long monologue by Clooney seems to reflect some serious, unexpected (by me) pathos. Reitman's follow-up to Juno seems like an exceptionally grown-up film.

**Sorry for the double-dip of trailer watches, and no film reviews. Too much reading and writing to attend the cinemas recently. Hope to get some reviews to you soon.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Trailer Watch: The Men Who Stare At Goats

Coming from Grant Heslov, The Men Who Stare At Goats seems like the excellent military satire we've all been waiting for. Surely, there hasn't been a good one since 1999's Three Kings, and it's no coincidence that both Kings and Goats stare the seemingly always exceptional George Clooney. Heslov has worked with Clooney previously on the screenplay for Good Night, and Good Luck, and now Heslov is getting the chance to direct his first feature film. Featuring an excellent cast (am I the only one wondering where the awesomeness of Kevin Spacey has gone?), and what seems to be an intelligent script from a nonfiction source, this film has a great opportunity to be a sleeper hit later in the year.