Monday, September 28, 2009

The Informant! Promises More Than He Delivers

That's the basic premise of Steven Soderbergh's latest film about an unstable, pathologically lying Archer Daniel's Midland executive who turns informant for the FBI, staring a corn-fed Matt Damon as the chunky executive who turns undercover agent on big Agri-business.

Soderbergh seems to be going for a film in the style of the breezy, kooky fun cops and robbers escapade that Speilberg did brilliantly with Leonardo di Caprio in Catch Me If You Can. He gives the film a fun, Seventy's font styling (even though it's mostly set in the mid-Nineties) and creates a similar exasperated cop (Scott Bacula of Enterprise fame) running the exasperating Damon as Mark Whitacre, a kind of introverted scientific genius and executive big-wig who has absolutely zero social intelligence but finds himself the center of international intrigue.

When Mark reports to his boss (Tom Papa doing a great job as ADM favored son Mick Andreas) that a mole in the company is poisoning the promising lysine-generating bugs in their grain silos and extorting ADM for a payout to uncover the mole, Andreas brings in the FBI, much to Mark's dismay (the poisoning story, we later find out, was just a ploy to deflect Mark's own failure with the bugs - but anyone with two sticks of wood to rub together can tell that Mark is one suspicious cookie). Mark quickly enlists the FBI into the intrigue of a greater scheme - international price fixing in the agri-business industry - and offers his services to help them create a series of tapes to make their case. Again, just how much of this is tall tale designed to extricate Mark from an uncomfortable situation is anyone's guess, but he does manage to get the FBI dudes to fall for it, and off we go.

Damon's Whitacre turns out to be a bit of a dunce when it comes to stealthiness, talking about the case with colleagues, showing his taping equipment to neighbors, and generally acting like a two-penny lout. Turns out that Whitacre isn't the shiniest penny in the bank, especially when push comes to shove and it turns out that ADM is wise to his antics.

Though the style of this sort of thing generally tends to be congenial and enjoyable (nine years in the poky is just a lark in movies like this), this effort just doesn't gel for me for a number of reasons: Damon's voice over, where he recites random thoughts in the middle of tense scenes that could make the top 20 of the ADD all-time-hits list, is continually distracting. In fact, Damon and Bakula both seem miscast - too "on-the-nose," as it were (one wonders if reversing the casting might have been more promising). By the end of uncovering the endless pathology that seems to be Mark Whitacre, we're no further along in sympathizing with the guy - and in fact, we kind of wish to get rid of him all together. This is the classic intentional fallacy, where the movie becomes obstreperous and boring when it's only the character that's supposed to be.

That's not to say that the audience didn't enjoy this type of acerbic humor, which I believe some certainly did. But Soderbergh has woefully under imagined this story, trapping it in a dull limbo between Fargo and Catch Me, but without either the menace or the thrill that either of those two movies supplied. Instead, we have a kind of lightweight Ocean's One, and one, as we know, is the loneliest number.

Perhaps the problem is that it's too early for the mid-Nineties to generate the kind of stylish bravado that Soderbergh is able to get out of his re-imagined fifties brat-pack, or Speilberg was able to mine with the mid-Sixties jet set. The main promise in this movie lies in dissecting the bi-polar insanities of farmland niceness and corporate culture: the intersection between paranoid small-town stability and the desire for greatness that leads one to perform great crimes against humanity and oneself. Soderbergh here has all the ingredients for such a film - he just doesn't have the temperament for it. Instead, we get a lightweight, aimless comedy that feels like water-downed Cohen brothers. It's a harmless enough thing to rent on date night. And if a fat Matt Damon is your thing, you might get a thrill. But Soderbergh can do better. This film only delivers a half Whitacre.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tim Burton’s 9: Dystopian Modern Art With Heart

A few months ago I went up to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, Massachusetts (Mass MOCA as it’s called). I love this museum, which always has some of the most nuanced and interesting contemporary artists exhibiting today, artists deeply influenced by movements such as deconstruction and postmodernism, yet who have often moved beyond those intellectual gestures to also create objects of formal beauty, electronic wonder, genuine feeling and humanity. This last visit, at the “Badlands” exhibit, there was an interesting diorama depicting scenes of desolation, with in the far distance, tiny human figures swallowed up by the destruction. The work was both serene and disturbing, dark shapes brightly lit from behind like a planetarium, yet suggestive of the massive pain and suffering of war.

Such is the feeling I get from Tim Burton’s recent post-apocalyptic cartoon, 9, directed by relative newcomer Shane Acker (and co-produced by Burton). The look of the film has the same Burtonesque exaggeration as his earlier work – movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Edward Scissorhands. Yet this film is at once more serious and more light – a kind of fairy tale of about human destruction and human spirit. It’s hard not to be both moved by this work and to find it deeply suggestive and artistic.

The movie starts in-medias-res – a technique that I sometimes find jarring, but works quite well here since when 9, a kind of sock puppet imbued with human life, wakes up, thrown into a world of destruction and danger, he has no idea how he’s come to be and what’s come before, and neither do we.

The movie is both an exploration of 9’s origins as well as, of course, a battle with an evil robot holding lord over the apocalyptic ruins, a nasty piece of spidery belching machinery that looks suspiciously similar to the round, indestructible iron baddie in The Incredibles. The artistic panorama here is a bit more finely nuanced than The Incredibles, though – not CGI but carefully arted backgrounds, hued in acid green, faded khaki, shades of black, and fiery red, reminiscent of a cross between the drawings in Coraline and World War I cinematography. The visual work in this film is truly incredible and had it not been a major motion picture, stills from this movie could have hung in Mass MOCA and been right at home.

What’s most enjoyable about the film, though, is the exploration of human character represented by the sock puppets. There are indeed nine of them, each with its own distinct character, and each, presumably, created in a significant order from 1 to 9: each one an incomplete attempt, it seems, to capture the human spirit necessary to defeat evil. Naturally, 9’s destiny is to have the necessary spunk and spirit to compel the others to rally to the task. But the other puppets each have their interesting significant place, as well – including 1, the leader who feels he must protect the others at all costs, 7, the courageous warrior, 6, the compulsive who secretly deduces the answers, and 5, the loyal friend. At a mere 1 hour and 20 minutes, it’s not an involved story or a convoluted plot, yet its very simplicity is what makes this a fine film.

As a somewhat scary bedtime story for kids, then, the film has an uplifting moral about loyalty, courage, and camaraderie that any parent would want their child to understand. There is a repeated gesture throughout the film where one of the sock puppet characters will put their arms around another – a gesture of intimacy, friendship, and humanity. Yet that gesture comes to mean so much more: a longed-for human connection that sustains us in even the darkest of times. For adults, the film may recycle the simplistic tropes of science-fiction cartoons: evil robots and mad scientists, assembling a movie from bits of cloth and string and borrowed movie scenes. But there’s no doubt that this fine movie isn’t also a moving portrait of the human spirit, and yes, a finely crafted work of art.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Extract Delivers Little Juice

Mike Judge, creator of such TV wonders as "Bevis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill," has taken to the big screen once again with the comedy Extract, which stars Jason Bateman as Joel, a successful small business owner, making flavored extracts with his hired assembly line of hicks, losers, immigrants, and complainers.

I wish I could say this movie was better than it is. Bateman is a sincere actor who often brings an air of refreshing reality to his performances. The movie is supported by SNL's Kristin Wiig as Bateman's wife, Ben Affleck as his best bud, and the ever entertaining J.K. Simmons (of Spiderman and "The Closer" fame) as his plant manager and business partner, yet despite the nice casting, it never gets off the ground.

Judge's film centers on the shenanigans of a female drifter and knock-out, Cindy (played by Mila Kunis, the "other girl" in Forgetting Sarah Marshal). We are given a demonstration of how Cindy's way with men allows her to perpetuate all sorts of small-time scams; and then Cindy thinks she's hit the big time when she reads about a testicular accident (don't ask) at Joel's plant, and sets her sights on scamming Joel. Meanwhile, as Joel becomes more infatuated with Cindy, he turns to his bud Brad for advice, who insists that he hire a brainless gigolo, Brad, to sleep with his wife so that he'll feel less guilty about wanting to get it on with Cindy.

It's hard to believe that a successful business owner heading into his forties - let alone one played with the kind of beleaguered sincerity Bateman typically brings to his performances - would engage in the kind of teenage juvenalia of this Cindy/Brad/Ben Affleck triangle dictates. The young and handsome Brad is essentially a good-looking Beavis to counter Joel's grown-up Butthead. But the forty-year-old Beavis and Butthead thing just seems rather charmless to me. I'd tell these characters to grow up if it weren't that Joel was already so serious about everything to begin with.

Meanwhile, Cindy gets her claws into one of Joel's employees and threatens to bring Joel's life crashing down with a frivolous lawsuit. Gene Simmons breaths a bit of life into the story as the greasy lawyer trying to shake down Joel and his partner. But it's just not enough to sustain a script that's filled with routine gags like a nosey neighbor, snooty assembly line workers, and a married sex life deadened by eight-o'clock sweat pants.

The film would like to turn the fear of turning forty, and the fear of success, into a black comedy of errors. It simply isn't black enough or comedic enough. Perhaps it goes wrong in trying to mix the "King of the Hill" culture of hicks and losers with a grown-up successful Butthead who's only issue seems to be that he needs more private time to whack it. The directing feels very TV-like and we're given only modest inconveniences for Joel to contend with. If Joel was really frightened by his life, he'd be looking for a lot more trouble than this silly Cindy and stupid Brad represents. Judge just doesn't seem to be the right person to try to tackle this subject matter. Success, it seems, is really not his forte.