Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh is determined to do two things with this movie, an adaptation of Kurt Eichenwald's true-crime story of corporate criminality. First, he wants every natural light source to flare in the camera lens. In that respect, he succeeds; of all of Soderbergh's previous films, The Informant! most resembles his underrated meta-comedy Full Frontal. The effect is only mildly distracting, and serves to emphasize the boardroom and courtroom banality of the film's environment. Soderbergh's other goal, even more audacious, is to build a film around a character who appears in nearly every scene, directly addresses the audience in a voice over narration, but whose motivations and essence remain entirely opaque. Matt Damon's flighty agribusiness executive lies to his bosses, lies to the FBI, lies to his family, and, yes, lies to the audience, and the contours of his interior life are never exposed. It's fascinating to listen to his logical curlicues and flights of fantasy that dominate his inner monologue, especially as they contrast to the low wattage intrigue of price fixing and bugged hotel rooms. However, it doesn't really illuminate anything about the nature of corporate ethics. Instead, it's part of Soderbergh's existentialist effort to explore the futility of human communication.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Coen Project: The Man Who Wasn't There

"What kind of man are you?"--Big Dave Brewster

Anyone who says that the Coen brothers are incapable of putting aside irony in favor of earnest emotion need to watch the last scene of The Man Who Wasn't There. This movie is often overlooked. I think a lot of people see the fetishistic devotion to post-war costume and set design, not to mention the plot, thick with noir allusions, and the black-and-white, and write it off as more of the Coens mucking around with their vast tool kit of film references. And of course, there's plenty of that in The Man Who Wasn't There: the hilarious parade of kiddy haircuts, that gorgeous black-and-white photography, Billy Bob Thornton's deadpan narration, Tony Shaloub channeling his Barton Fink character... But all the period trappings can't obscure the fact that the existential struggle of reluctant barber (and murderer) Ed Crane is the most powerful emotional arc that the Coens' have ever created.

Crane finds himself presented with a post-war world where the promise of earthly utopia blares from every billboard. The war is over, the economy's booming, and inventions like dry cleaning and paved driveways. A nuclear bomb has unleashed unfathomable destruction. UFOs have been sighted in New Mexico. High culture is accessible to the masses: even sleepy little Santa Rosa, California has a hotel with suites named after operas! All across the land, transcendence beckons. Meanwhile, Ed Crane, second chair barber at his loud-mouth brother-in-law's shop, looks on in puzzlement and envy. He knows that he's not satisfied, he knows that the dawning of the space age promises wonders to behold, but beyond that, the world is a wearying mystery. So he embarks on a series of disastrous stabs at fulfillment, culminating in his execution in a delightfully old timey electric chair. He's a tragic dummy in the Coen mold, but his pathos is real, and there is never a hint of the brothers' usual mockery; they feel for Ed, they agree with Freddi Reindenschneider that Ed IS "modern man." Ed is Joel, Ed is Ethan, and Ed is every dope out there seduced and befuddled by the promises of understanding and happiness held out by the world around us. A world that fails, at every turn, to reveal its mysteries to even the most ardent seeker.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


For the most part, the action genre is a flailing, wheezing beast of suckitude. Most of the great action directors are on the steep downslop of their careers. Walter Hill hasn't made a straight action movie for over a decade. John McTiernan hasn't made a decent movie for nearly twenty years. James Cameron, after making two of the best action films of all time, The Terminator and Aliens, fell victim to George Lucas Disease: becoming so enraptured by emerging special effects technology that paltry considerations like story and character and even visceral impact fall by the wayside. Have you seen the Avatar trailer? Dude's been spanking it so vigorously to the revolutionary 3D digital cameras and whatnot that he has failed to notice that his aliens look like furry's Second Life avatars. And so Michael Bay and his pale imitators rule the action universe, spitting out massively budgeted, soulless monstrosities that hit the same tired beats and adhered to the same loud and dumb aesthetic.

And so it falls to the visionary writer-director team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor to take the action genre into bold new territory. Neveldine and Taylor survey a cultural landscape of poisonous sensory overload and respond with action films that obliterate notions of restraint or coherence. The brilliant Crank films reach heights of surreal delirium, dumping prosaic concerns for plot and character in favor of operatic displays of violence and perversion, pushed to into the realm of the surreal. Crank 2, especially, points to a new wave of action films that embrace the over-the-top frenzied mayhem of video games, where logic and proportion fall sloppy dead and the parameters of good taste and the limitations of physical possibility have been shotgunned in the anus. Neveldine/Taylor movies are perfectly crafted for a generation coming of age with the stream of consciousness bloodletting of Grand Theft Auto.

Their new movie, Gamer, takes the Neveldine/Taylor video game aesthetic from sub-text to text. In a near future, nanotechnology allows video gamers to control actual human beings, either in a Sims-like world of wacky outfits and kinky sex, or in a hellish arena of deadly combat called "Slayers." It's a clever bit of future-casting: if the kids who were brought up watching The Rock went on to play Halo, then the kids who were brought up watching Crank went on to play Slayers. The cleverness somewhat helps make up for the fact that, plot and character wise, Gamer is pretty much identical to The Running Man. Gerard Butler is a wrongly-imprisoned death row inmate, forced to fight for his freedom in the Slayer death matches, which play like live-action sessions of Gears of War. He escapes with the help of a band of revolutionary hackers led by Ludicrous(!), who are out to bring down the techno-genius behind Slayer, a Bill Gates-type played with a nice mix of megalomania and nerdiness by Michael C. Hall. Gamer lacks the audacious one-upsmanship that makes the Crank films so giddily exhilarating, but it definitely ups the ante on surrealism. A climactic dance sequence featuring Hall and a bunch of mind-controlled goons in particular presents itself as a haunting and innovative touch. Unfortunately, there's more screen time devoted to Gerard Butler angsting it up over his family than him puking into gas tanks. Unconvincing emotional elements and recycled plot points are sooooo Michael Bay, guys. Let's get our heads back in the game.

Twelve (Million) Angry Republicans

In his masterful social history of the 1960s, Nixonland, Rick Perlstein describes the mindset of establishment liberals who ever certain, even in the face of overwhelming polling data, that purehearted George McGovern was going to defeat the criminal, war-mongering butcher Richard Nixon in the '72 election: "It would end like a Henry Fonda movie--something like Twelve Angry Men, where only the jury's prejudices had blinded them from seeing that they were about to condemn an innocent man, and where the liberal's gentle, persistent force of reason had compelled the brutish conservative, by the last reel, to realize the error of his ways."

And so we've entered a national reenactment of Twelve Angry Men, with the defendant being Health Care Reform. For the entire summer, the nation's Teabaggers, Birthers, Deathers, LaRouchies, Crypto-Racists, Zombie-Birchers, Carlists, Silvershirts, Kluxers, Falangists, Minutemen, Pseudo-Libertarians, Know Nothings, Black Helicopters jockeys, Militiamen, Skinheads, and Buchananites have staged a giant, idiotic, reactionary freak-out at town hall meetings around the country. It's like somebody cloned Lee J. Cobb's Juror Number Three and set him loose in front of every cable news camera they could find. The stream of hysteria, ignorance and barely-concealed racism had their desired effect, muddying the waters of the health care debate sufficient that most of your dumbass, disengaged public didn't know whether to shit or wind their watch...or whether the inability to figure out whether to shit or wind their watch would be covered by the public option.

And now, stepping into the breach to turn back the tide of fear-mongering and self-serving misinformation, is Juror Number Eight, Barack Obama, Henry Fonda for the 21st century. With his speech, Obama cut through the bullshit to point out the undeniable truth at the the heart of the problem: the current system is broken. It costs too much, it leaves tens of millions uninsured, and it leaves even the people with insurance precariously balanced on the knife edge of revocation of coverage or lifetime caps. It's a fundamental responsibility of government to provide a basic level of security for its citizens, and its time we accept that.

We know how Twelve Angry Men ended. And we know how the 1972 presidential election ended. Now we're going to get a front-row seat for another edition of this timeless morality play. Will the voice of reason and compassion quiet the voices of avarice and bigotry? Or will the brainless, hate-filled howls of insurance company shills and Medicare-exploiting retired racists win the day? Remembering poor, pure George McGovern, I'm not putting my money on Fonda.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


From featureless office parks to sad chain restaurants to sterile residential developments, Mike Judge captures the soul-raping banality of the American exurbs like no other. These factory-issue surroundings, with their grinding mediocrity, have a deeply enervating effect on his characters. It's like all that fluorescent light and fake wood paneling are sucking the their life-force out of them right there on camera. This makes Judge's movies pointed critiques of life in the suffocating embrace of runaway sprawl of ugly McMansions and compulsive consumption of useless gizmos and gray-tasting meat. This also means that the characters in Mike Judge movies are so anaesthetised and demoralized by their environment that they can barely be moved to speak complete sentences, let alone express vivid emotions. Judge's zombified protagonists, coupled with his indifferent attitude towards plotting, runs the risks of making his work feel as flat and listless as one of his cubicle-jockies. Office Space, Judge's first directorial effort and a certified cult classic, avoids this pitfall thanks to a set-up painfully familiar to office workers nationwide, and a bevy of colorful supporting characters bristling with quotable dialogue. Judge's new film, Extract, lacks both of those attributes, and as a result, it feels as lifeless as a TGI Friday's waitress at the end of a particularly birthday-intensive shift.

The story, such as it is, concerns the sexual and financial travails of Joel (Jason Bateman), the owner of a food extract company.. Ah, who can't relate the the difficulties inherent in running a chemical plant and commuting to a mini-mansion? Bateman moves from one scenario to another, involving his stoned buddy Ben Affleck, who's actually pretty funny, a comely young con artist (Mila Kunis), and a grievously injured factory hand (Clifton Collins, Jr.). None of the plot strands boast much in the way of plausibility or narrative momentum. Things just sort of happen, and then other things sort of happen, and at the end of the movie, not much interesting, or particularly amusing, has happened, except for one great, surprising turn near the end. It's a fairly accurate depiction of the ennui and mundanity of life in the commuter-zone where people have to get in their SUV's to get a pizza, but that accuracy comes with the price of robbing the characters and plot of zest. It's sort of like a TGI Friday's appetizer platter on film.