Movie Review: The Informant!

Matt Damon Reinvents the Moustache

Talk about a step in the right direction for Stephen Soderbergh! After a half decade of commercial wankfests (see any movie with Ocean in the title) and self-indulgent spankfests (how is Sasha Grey doing by the way?) Stephen Soderbergh finally decided to make a movie that was both commercial AND had a point. The result? The Informant! is a smart mix of clever screenwriting, solid performances and enough comedian cameos to keep your peepers percolating until the credits roll.

Matt Damon stars as corn-loving businessman Mark Whitaker. Mark decides to become an informant for the FBI because he suspects members of his own company are up to foul play. As the story unravels, Mark’s reliability as an informant comes into question as his Midwestern charm butts heads with his new life as a secret agent.

I have a special bias toward comedy in most if not all cases. So I immediately fault the movie for not taking advantage of its capable cast of comedians. However, the performances are believable and the entire film takes place in a sepia-toned late 80’s/early 90’s wonderland. Basically everything this movie does is pure class from beginning to end. (Apparently some of George Clooney’s smugness must have rubbed off on Soderbergh? It’s an epidemic!) And it’s hard to fault a film with such a subliminal advertising campaign. The poster is yet another in the line of movie posters to steal the 40 Year Old Virgin’s single color backdrop and innocently goofy central character. Take a gander:

Pretty much the same exact poster, right? But it’s not the only culprit.

A little more forgivable because it’s still Apatow. But how about this?

Anna Faris once gave me a junior mint. True Story.

The reason The Informant’s poster stands above the sea of cheap money-loving imitators is its boldfaced optimism. Check out that tagline: “Unbelievable.” No attributed publication, no indication that it’s a line of dialogue. That is a direct endorsement from Stephen Soderbergh himself that this movie rocked his shit. As if that wasn’t enough, Soderbergh slaps on an exclamation point to the title’s backside, so the movie can literally shout about how much it loves itself. Even Matt Damon seems thrilled that his story of lies and intrigue is so mind-blowing. You don’t see that kind of gung-ho endorsement on the cover of Bubble, do you? Nowhere on the cover of The Good German do you see the words “psychotropic”. It’s as if every person who sees the movie sees something so life altering, they never go back to the same way they used to think about Matt Damon with a moustache. Clearly Peter Moore ran the marketing campaign for this movie, because every indication states that The Informant! will be ten times more vivid than a lucid dream.

And you know what? The movie is really, really good. I honestly wouldn’t call it unbelievable, but any movie that’s going to change my belief structure better have a forty-minute Bill Maher monologue at the end of it (just kidding). I don’t want to spoil for you the many twists and turns of the plot, but I will tell you that the fact that the movie was inspired by a true story makes it all the more incredible. No, maybe incredible isn’t the right word for it. Unmistakable..? Incorrigible? If only there was some soothing orange poster to give me the perfect word for this film! Urgh! This is so frustrating! Damn you brain! Why must you think for yourself?!

Grade: B+

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Movie Review: District 9

This Website for Humans Only

It’s taken me a long time to wrap my head around my own reactions to District 9. That’s not to say that this movie is needlessly complicated in terms of plot, story or satire. In fact, it’s rather straight-forward. But District 9 is a total anomaly in the Hollywood structure. How else can you describe a film with no celebrity actors that starts as a sci-fi pseudo-documentary and ends as an action shoot-em-up? If Children of Men made a baby with Flight of the Navigator you might find something similar to D9, but you might as well count on your 1,000 monkeys and typewriters script-writing scheme for better results. I was blown away by District 9. The special-effects, the creature and weapon designs, the not-so-subtle commentary on human nature, the moronic anti-hero, his reasonable yet grotesque alien sidekick, they all conspired to create one of the most creative motion pictures ever conceived. No summer movie since Spielberg’s Jaws or Jurassic Park has managed to captivate me so constantly while leaving me completely baffled as to what was going to happen next.

To clue you in, the basic premise of D9 is that twenty years ago an alien craft settled above the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. The aliens- prawn-like creatures, some adorable, some horrifying- cannot fix their spacecraft and are forced to migrate to Earth. The South African government builds the aliens a temporary living space, a slum, and the aliens become immediate social pariahs. All native South Africans are united in their xenophobia toward the creatures. To alleviate the rioting and illegal profiteering on both sides of this conflict the government decides to evict the aliens from the slum and transplant them to a new “safer” environment. The aliens fight back. They do not want to move.

The man leading the government’s efforts to suppress and torture the aliens in District 9 is Wikus van der Merwe (yeah, try saying that with a mouthful of peanut butter). He’s a foolish and overconfident man, but compelling in a strange way. It’s almost like watching Ricky Gervais’ David Brent dealing with an alien invasion. He’s totally unqualified to be in this position, but he makes up for it with sheer enthusiasm. When you see him burn down a building, he’ll bear a sickeningly sweet smile as he describes the little “pop-pop” sound it makes.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot of this movie, because half the fun of D9 is the insane pace at which unpredictable events occur, throwing you into unbelievable situations at the drop of a hat, showing you things that have never been done this well on film before. The real story behind D9 is Neill Blomkamp, the writer/director formerly slated to helm the video-game mega-blockbuster Halo. When Halo cracked because of bickering studio mumbo-jumbo, big-time producer Peter Jackson decided to let Blomkamp do a pet project utilizing Jackson’s extensive Lord of the Rings effects experts. The result is a movie that probably should have been released earlier in the summer, because it would have been nice to see a real science-fiction blockbuster take down an ugly red-headed stepsister like Revenge of the Fallen.

District 9 is not the greatest story ever told, nor is it the finest film ever conceived. But for a first time feature for this up and coming filmmaker, I think it’s a movie to see this weekend, even if it means seeing two movies. My recommendation? See District 9 twice, QT will be in theaters til October. (Just kidding, you Basterds.)

Grade: A+ (for arm-ripping)

Movie Review: Funny People

Talk About a Misleading Title

Funny People takes a painfully long time to say nothing and go nowhere. It’s the kind of screenplay that should have been cut in half, redrafted and then sent back to film school for notes. Unfortunately Judd Apatow is now at the point in his career where, as he put it plainly at last year’s Comic-Con panel, he has the studios by “one ball” if not both. This would explain why at the hour-and-a-half mark of a movie about comedians in Los Angeles the film pointlessly transplants itself to San Francisco to become a love story about Apatow’s wife, actress Leslie Mann, and conveniently reiterates how desirable and talented she is. While Mann is admittedly very funny and generally skilled at conveying a point, this movie is not and should be chastized heavily for leading its audience down two distinct and contrary trails, neither of which resolves itself or lives up to the funny promised in the title.

I don’t want to sound like an Apatow-hater. The man has done more for comedy than Bill Clinton’s dick. But at some point, like an aging musician who survived a whirlwind of success in his youth, old dog Apatow got lazy and started shoveling out anecdotes and instances in lieu of story and character. If you’ve seen the theatrical trailer for Funny People you know exactly what happens in the movie, point-by-point. The only things you’re missing are the briefly hilarious moments featuring Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman as Seth Rogen’s roommates, performers in one of the best sitcom parodies ever conceived. Everything else in this film is ancillary. The love story, the medical drama, the relationship between Rogen and Sandler- none of these threads result in anything funny, touching or particularly memorable. Whereas 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up had heart, Funny People has a gaping void where the soul should be, throbbing in agony as it listlessly stumbles to its conclusion.

I’d like to write more positively on the subject, but I really don’t know what to say. Many of my friends have claimed that Funny People is two movies in one, to which I reply, “Yeah, two bad movies.” If either movie was valuable on its own, we might have something to work with here, but neither Rogen’s or Sandler’s journeys are particularly noticeable or interesting. While Rogen is back to basics as a sweeter version of himself (after a brief and tremendously lousy stint with acting in Observe & Report), the real culprit here is Sandler, a generally fantastic performer capable of intense and powerful characterizations (i.e. Punch-Drunk Love) as well as moments of shocking hilarity (i.e. You Don’t Mess With the Zohan). In Funny People, Sandler transforms into an old Hollywood douchebag, the kind of person we hope he’ll never be in real life. It’s neither fun or compelling to see him fill this role, and it’s almost a shame we don’t get to see him transform into a baby or portray a Merman like he does in the fake movie clips within Funny People. While patently retarded, at least those concepts have more legs/fins to stand on than Funny People, a movie that never decides what it wants to be, what it has to say (if anything), and why it deserves to exist other than to pat Apatow and his wife on the back for all the better movies they’ve made. By the time we reach the third act (of twelve) and Apatow shuffles all of his old comedy cohorts into one of many needless cameo compilations, the whole thing seems more self-indulgent than anything even Wes Anderson could have concocted. Rather than too-precious characters, we’re dealing with characters and a universe that aren’t precious enough, with nothing remarkable or interesting to take away from it. In the same way that Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, New York perfectly simulated real life by being both terrible and boring, Funny People perfectly simulates the life of a comedian in Los Angeles: it’s painful, not as funny as it looks, and you definitely lose money on the deal.

Grade: C- *

* This grade is slightly higher than it should be because of the Jason Schwartzman factor. Plus Aziz Ansari, while painfully underused, is featured in this movie. Like twice. That has to count for something.