Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Informant!

In Steven Soderbergh's new movie The Informant!, based on a true story, Matt Damon gives one of the years best performances as a man seemingly in love with self delusion. It starts around 1992, and Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a high level executive with Archer Daniels Midland, a Fortune 500 company. He makes up a lie to cover his ass with the higher ups, and the lie ends up bringing in the FBI, whom he then confesses to about an international billion dollar price fixing scheme that ADM is a part of. He almost casually tells them that the initial thing that brought them there is a lie, but it doesn't matter because screwing the people of the world out of billions of dollars is a bigger deal, right? Absolutely Mark! Of course, the FBI doesn't take this position on every part of Mark's life, but that's getting ahead of myself. Whitacre begins seeing himself as a sort of white knight protecting the public interest, or as he christens himself "0014" (because "I'm twice as smart as 007"), while the FBI agents start to view him as an annoyingly necessary evil in building their case.

Soderbergh, writer Scott Burns, and Damon do something here I've never quite seen before. As a kind of way to aid in showing us Mark's delusion, they supply us with internal thoughts which are typically completely unrelated to the action currently happening. After having a meeting with a friend about some embezzlement schemes, we hear Mark's thoughts of "I like the idea of an indoor pool. Swimming year round. I'd like the fog coming off of it in the winter. Very mysterious, that fog." The comedic brilliance of Damon's performance probably doesn't come through in that line if you haven't seen it, but his timing is extraordinary. Damon is a really underrated actor (check out his Tom Ripley, it's pretty frightening), but shines brightly here. We can often see the compulsive lying sections of the brain take effect by watching his eyes, and his line delivery almost never failed to get a laugh from me.

The movie isn't a straight ahead comedy, but that's because it isn't really a straight ahead anything. It has some dramatic elements, but isn't really a drama. Has more than a few FBI agents, including the main one played by Scott Bakula (who is terrific, where the hell has he been?), but it's definitely not a cop movie. Same for the number of lawyers, but it's not a "legal" movie. Whatever you want to classify it as, it's Soderbergh's most fun and entertaining movie since Ocean's 11, or maybe even his masterpiece Out of Sight. Amazingly as well, Soderbergh handles things in such a way that even with the endless stream of cameos in the second half, nothing ever feels out of place.

I don't know about how true to life the events depicted are, but I never really care about that. I just know that The Informant! is a lot of fun, mostly because of Matt Damon's wonderful performance. I would highly recommend going to see this, and I actually wouldn't mind seeing it much while I wait for a couple of weeks from now when some other good movies should be coming out.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Apartment

Sometimes a movie aquires the title of "classic" over the years despite not being that great. It's just that nobody wants to acknowledge that they don't think it's worthy of the title and go against the masses. Billy Wilder's The Apartment is not that movie. This is, without a doubt, one of the great American movies ever made. It stars one of our greatest actors, Jack Lemmon, in quite possibly his greatest performance. A very young, and very beautiful, Shirley MacLaine, also giving a terrific performance. And Fred MacMurray giving us one of the great "boss" roles of all time. It is also, surprisingly to me, a wonderfully humane portrait of these three lonely people.

What's fascinating about it is that these three people are lonely in three different ways. MacMurray is lonely because he has spent years in an unhappy marriage, having affairs with whatever pretty young woman would have him. MacLaine is lonely because she keeps falling in love with the wrong guys, who promptly reject her once she fully commits to them. And Lemmon is lonely because, well, he doesn't have anyone to care about or to care about him. He is ambitious, and lends his apartment to higher ups in his company, so they can have a nice place to take their girlfriends to (if they can get away from their wives long enough) that's cheaper than a hotel room. But he keeps his sense of humor about him, and flirts with MacLaine's elevator operator whenever he can. These personal relationships begin to become entangled with one another, and it's a credit to the script (by Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, for which they won one of the films five Oscars) that it's not done too melodramatically, but isn't played strictly for laughs either. It's a remarkably efficient in its script and in Wilder's direction. Despite running slightly over 2 hours, the movie speeds by without ever seeming to. It actually plays quite laid back, but there's just always something going on, character or story-wise, that we're never bored for a second.

Wilder and Diamond had just come off of making the classic Some Like it Hot, and wanted to work with Jack Lemmon again, so he was cast in this movie. Lemmon has long been one of my favorite actors, but I think he shines more here than he ever really did. He shows us so many different sides of C.C. Baxter that although I was always aware I was watching Jack Lemmon, I also felt like the character I was watching was real. Lemmon had an ease of presence on screen that hasn't ever really been duplicated. He also had eyes that were some of the most expressive we've ever seen in an actor, and I felt his loneliness because he expressed so much of it simply through those eyes and his body language. When he actually comes right out and says that he never realized what a lonely man he was until he fell for MacLaine's character, we get a sense that he really didn't ever realize it, and is probably verbalizing it for the first time. But because of Lemmon's grace onscreen, and his impeccable comedic timing, the character (and therefore the movie) never gets bogged down in the loneliness. It's just part of who he is.

It's very refreshing when you watch a "classic" for the first time and it not only doesn't disappoint, but makes the term "classic" seem insufficient. Although The Apartment will be 50 years old next year, it doesn't feel dated or out of touch. It could've been made this year and it would still have the same impact on me. The way it deals with its characters allows it to stay relevant, because it's about people, and people will always be relevant. Loneliness is a surprisingly universal emotion, and one rarely explored in this manner. As such, this movie will never lose its ability to connect with people. The Apartment is one of the very best movies I've ever seen, and I can't recommend it enough.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

9-a brilliant disappointment

"We had such potential. Such promise. But we squandered our gifts. And so, 9, I am creating you. Our world is ending. Life must go on."

Shane Acker made an animated short film called 9 in 2005. It was nominated for an Oscar (for Best Animated Short Film), and allowed him to expand on it into his 2009 feature length movie, also simply titled 9. It's about these tiny little rag doll creatures in a post apocalyptic city trying to figure out what they are, why they're there, and how to survive "the Cat", a robot animal seemingly programmed only to destroy anything that moves. Into this world awakens 9 (Elijah Wood) whom we see being created and awakening during the brilliant opening sequence. 9 quickly crosses paths with 2 (Martin Landau), who saves him from The Cat, gives him a voicebox, and temporarily mentors him through the world. Eventually 9 meets up with some of the others like him, the fearful leader of the community 1 (Christopher Plummer), the kind hearted 5 (John C. Reilly), obsessive 6 (Crispin Glover), and rebellious warrior 7 (Jennifer Connelly). They soon have to band together to outwit "The Beast", an newly awakened machine which can create many smaller machines, all for the purpose of destruction.

The design of the movie is endlessly fascinating. An unnamed city that our tiny heroes crawl around in, leading to a number of beautiful scenes and shots. The creation of the characters is wonderfully detailed, as we can even see the threads in the fabric that 9 is made from. I love the little things like that that Acker and his animators throw in. Just something like the fastener for the zipper that holds 9 together bouncing around as he moves, with a slight tink every time it does. The sound design is really extraordinary in creating the atmosphere for this world. Little details like the tink of the zipper are all over this movie. The design of "The Beast" is less interesting, since it's just kind of a big red light surrounded by all kinds of little details that we don't really care about.

The voice cast is top notch. With veterans like Landau and Plummer turning in quality work, while Wood is the perfect fit for 9, since the character is much like Wood's Frodo Baggins in his mixture of innocence and intelligent resolve. John C. Reilly is also a happy surprise as 5, lending the character the exact amount of curious smarts, and genuine kindness that he needs. Jennifer Connelly is good, if unremarkable, as 7.

I guess I'll now get to the disappoinment I felt. The opening minutes of the movie (really until 9 gets a voice) are absolutely extraordinary at putting us into a world that we've not really ever seen before. I felt like I was watching something new, and got excited for where the movie was going to take me. But I soon found out that the movie (much like the similarly titled District 9 a few weeks ago) uses its brilliant setup as a framing device for nothing more than an action movie. Also like District 9, the action is terrifically done. But with such dazzling opening moments, I wanted it to be more than just an action movie. It tries in its final stretch to bring itself more meaning, which I liked, but still felt disappointed about overall.

It has its moments, and it is periodically stunning, but I think it could've been a transcendent movie if it had realized the promise of those first few minutes (which are very close to the entire contents of the short film). I most certainly recommend people see it, because it is absolutely a good movie, but I felt it could've been so much more. I do find it hysterical that there were many parents at the screening I went to who had brought their young children to a PG-13 movie that had been advertised as darker than usual (I believe one of the marketing taglines has been "This isn't your little brothers animated movie") and sometimes complaining about the darkness (beheadings, crushings, and other rag doll-on-robot violence) that is in the movie. It reminded me of offended parents walking their kids out of the "new Christmas movie" they went to see, Bad Santa, a proudly R-rated movie that they had obviously ignored the rating for.