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Monday
Sep212009

The Informant!, 2009

Lysine and Lie Scenes

Back when Jennifer Connelly was really attractive—in the baby-fat years, before she looked like a cast reject from Schindler’s List—I was obsessed with watching anything in which she appeared; not for any good reasons, understand, but simply because I thought she was hotter than sin (it wasn’t until I grew out of my teen years that I discovered how solid an actress she really is). The movie that made me fall in love with her was called Career Opportunities. It wasn’t very good, and Connelly hadn’t matured past the Megan Fox stage of her acting career; but what stood out was Frank Whaley’s performance as Jim Dodge, a good-hearted, fast-talking liar.

Career Opportunities began as a character study of a small-town loser with big dreams and a bigger mouth, and ended as an ad for Target stores disguised as a wacky heist picture. I’ve forgotten a lot of that movie’s silliness, but I’ll always remember Jim Dodge and his fabled trip to Paris on an F-14.

Yes, this is a review of Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, starring Matt Damon.

Damon plays the real-life Mark Whitacre, a former biochemist from Central Illinois who became a division president at Archer Daniels Midland in the early ‘nineties. As the film opens, Whitacre learns of an industrial sabotage plot at ADM and tells his bosses that there may be a mole at the company. The FBI is brought in, and things spiral out of control. That is all I’m going to say about the plot of The Informant! because it absolutely should not be ruined.

This is one of the year’s best movies. It’s the rare comedy that engages the mind and simultaneously elicits gut-laughs from anyone paying attention. And it is very important that you pay attention. I was honestly lost for about the first twenty minutes of the film because the dialogue and subject matter are so dense as to be almost impenetrable; I felt at a disadvantage not having followed the Whitacre story in the real world. Fortunately, the confusion was not due to a deficiency on my part, but to a brilliant, complex web of obfuscation by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. By film’s end, everything made perfect sense, and like half the characters in the movie, I felt like I’d been made a fool.

Steven Soderbergh took a risk with this movie—one that paid off, by the looks of the number-two opening weekend spot. Everything is off-kilter, from the slide-whistle zaniness of Marvin Hamlisch’s score to the weird 1980’s cinematography, to the brilliant decision to populate seventy percent of the supporting cast with comedians, all playing completely serious roles (Patton Oswalt and The Smothers Brothers have never enjoyed this much gravitas).

The topper, though, is Damon’s narration. The actor packed on some pounds to play a comfy-living Midwesterner, but the spark of his performance comes from the Jack Handey-style musings that play over mundane scenes. Whether he’s driving his car or sitting in a meeting with lawyers, these monologues convey deeper levels hidden by Whitacre’s overeager, good-natured demeanor. They’re funny, but tinged with pathos, and when the movie’s over, you’ll understand why.

The genius of The Informant! is the way in which the story evolves from the sweet man-vs.-corporation tale sold by the trailer into a savage portrait of greed and corrupted values; it keeps changing and twisting until, ultimately, we’re left with a dark farce whose moral we never saw coming. I haven’t been this surprised by a film’s resolution since The Usual Suspects; it’s that good.

Which brings me back to Career Opportunities. Mark Whitacre is like the flesh-and-blood version of Jim Dodge. Both are optimists hobbled by a terminal lack of coolness. Both have outsized imaginations and a penchant for storytelling that lands them in big trouble. But only Whitacre’s movie is consistently real and entertaining from beginning to end; since I was a teenager, I’ve wondered what would’ve happened had Career Opportunities not abandoned its truly interesting parts in favor of romance and shtick. In a strange way, The Informant! is the answer I’ve been waiting for, a movie that takes its premise to the nth degree and takes us down all the hilarious, horrifying avenues it implies.

Monday
Sep212009

Fair Game (1988)

Hiss-piria

Here’s the second Crypticon Edition Home Video Review. It’s also the second film to feature future dinner guest Bill Moseley; though it’s not what could be called a “Bill Moseley movie”. Hell, it can barely be called a movie.

There are only three reasons to watch Fair Game (aka Mamba):

1. To prepare for some kind of “Cinema Worsts” test
2. To take a shot every time a character says “game”
3. To live, should someone put a gun to your head and say, “Watch this!”

This movie is so bad, yet so infinitely enjoyable that everyone should see it; if only to provide a new standard against which to measure shitty cinema.

Fair Game tells the story of Gene (Gregg Henry), a video game designer who plans to murder his wife, Eva (Trudie Styler), who’s left him. He meets with a snake specialist named Frank (Bill Moselely) to procure a mamba that, when released, will die within a few hours from the dangerous amount of venom in its body; the venom overload, Gene is told, also makes the beast more aggressive—perfect for stalking and killing other animals and ex-wives. Gene buys the snake and then kills Frank by locking him in an SUV with the mamba, via remote control. You see, Gene is both game designer and supervillain, and now he possesses the ultimate weapon: a hissing time bomb!

Cut to Eva, who lives in the weirdest movie apartment I’ve ever seen. It’s a sprawling wood-and-metal Escher playground with no windows and stairs that lead nowhere; at first, I thought the harsh angles were simply the result of shoddy camera work, but, no, the place is simply jacked. It’s also the only kind of place one might imagine Eva living, seeing as she’s a flighty mess of off-angles herself.

She bops into her home carrying bags full of groceries, listening to music that is apparently only audible on the film’s soundtrack, but whatever. Eva’s the kind of late-80’s free spirit that can spill a bag full of apples on the floor and leave them be to watch television. Her intro scenes play like a lost Olivia Newton-John video, and for a while it’s unclear whether this storyline will connect with the film’s opening at all.

Gene eventually comes knocking. He’s all neckties and seriousness; Eva is aloof and oblivious to the long black document tube he’s carrying.

After Gene leaves, the rest of the movie plays out like Extremities with snakes. Eva is locked in her apartment (or loft, or whatever the hell it is) with the mamba, who slithers and stalks and generally makes like the creature from Alien. Meanwhile, Gene monitors both hunter and prey from the comfort of his truck, thanks to a charming suitcase computer (he should have hired an artist to create the “snake” avatar, which takes up about a quarter of the apartment in his virtual floor plan). I won’t give too much away regarding Eva’s epic struggle with the mamba; there are things in this movie that need to be seen to be believed—not only bad character choices, but weird edits, out-of-context zooms, and some truly bizarre sound design (why is the snake-POV-cam accompanied by a chorus of screaming monkeys?).

I guess there’s a fourth reason to see this movie, and that is to witness the early careers of two really interesting actors and Trudie Styler. Gregg Henry went on to star in movies like Slither and United 93, and television shows like The Riches and Gilmore Girls; it’s cool to see him construct the prototype for his delicious brand of sleazy smarm in this movie. Bill Moseley became one of Rob Zombie’s stable of actors; he’s almost unrecognizable in Fair Game, due to his not playing an overt psychopath. And Trudy Styler, of course, is married to Sting.

I can’t say enough about Styler’s acting. It’s the perfect compliment to director Mario Orfini’s awful, awful “style” and “story”. Her choices make for a grating portrait of a mentally deranged artist, as unsympathetic a heroine as I’ve seen; at one point, considering Eva and Gene’s failed marriage, I wondered aloud, “Wait, she left him?”

Orfini deserves a lifetime Razzie Award for Fair Game. I’m not at all familiar with him or the film’s production, but the end product is like a dream collaboration between Ed Wood and Dario Argento. This is the rare movie that is so terrible and unwatchable that it becomes fantastic, required viewing. I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so hard at a thriller—or a comedy, for that matter.

Note: The Fair Game DVD maintains the low-fi spirit of the movie. The menu looks deliberately un-designed, and the theatrical trailer plays like something out of Grindhouse.

Sunday
Sep202009

Love Happens (2009)

The Legacy of Two-Face

I’ve lost a bit of weight this year. A few weeks ago, my wife and I went shopping to find me jeans that don’t sag like a gangsta rapper’s. After an hour of trying things on, I left the store satisfied that I wasn’t quite ready for new pants. While the idea of trading up my old, worn jeans was tempting, I realized that the subtlety of the non-fit would ultimately make me feel uncomfortable and look ridiculous.

If only the studio behind Love Happens had that kind of restraint. It’s as if Universal Pictures took two half-formed movies of different genres—one great, one awful—and mashed them together like some celluloid Frankenstein monster. In fairness, Halloween is right around the corner.

But there’s nothing fun about the end result. This is an emotionally jarring mess that engenders anger rather than sympathy. In the movie, Aaron Eckhart plays Burke Ryan, a self-help guru on the verge of household name recognition. Having lost his wife in a car accident three years earlier, he now counsels people on dealing with grief. He touches down in Seattle for a weeklong seminar; this coincides with a big meeting that his agent (Dan Fogler) has arranged that will net Ryan millions of dollars as a Dr. Phil-type media star. The people Burke encounters range from stock comedic cat-lady-types to genuinely damaged people such as Walter (John Carroll Lynch), a former construction worker who lost his 12-year-old son. For its first fifteen minutes, Love Happens promises a compelling film about loss, with just enough airiness to not be a complete downer. Then Jennifer Aniston shows up and ruins the entire goddamned movie.

I like Jennifer Aniston, and consider her a good actress. For those who can only picture her as Rachel on Friends, I highly recommend Office Space, The Good Girl, and The Break-up; all of which showcase her dramatic and comedic talents, all of which (to varying degrees) share strong, complex scripts about relationships. For this reason, I can’t forgive her decision to appear in the soulless cash-in that is the rom-com portion of Love Happens. Sure, it’s being sold as a “romantic drama”, but Aniston’s Eloise character—a florist with a penchant for graffiti-ing obscure words in hotel hallways—is pure chick-flick caricature.

It’s fascinating to watch Eloise and Burke’s first few scenes together. In keeping with hack-movie tradition, they don’t like each other at first. But after a couple of dates, their barriers begin to break down; what makes the meet-curts of Love Happens worthwhile is that they are so awkward and painful that I stopped seeing them as conveying the characters’ apprehensions and started believing that the film itself was gagging on the bogus storyline that had been shoe-horned into an otherwise solid screenplay.

This should have been a smaller, truer film, like John Swanbeck’s The Big Kahuna. I thought about that movie a lot during Love Happens, remembering fondly the way it treated its characters with dignity and allowed them to explore grand issues by simply checking into a Wichita hotel and talking with one another. There was neither a need nor a place for a phony love interest or a tears-filled climax. The people behind Love Happens either didn’t trust the Burke Ryan material to stand on its own, or they were instructed to make the film more marketable by adding some artificial sunlight.

I’m beating up on this picture a lot because the stuff that works really works. I cried a number of times thanks to John Carroll Lynch’s tortured sincerity, and I hoped to God that Burke and Walter would help each other to move past their pain and their secrets. Martin Sheen also makes a welcome appearance as Burke’s father-in-law, who—for reasons I won’t reveal—was never allowed to move on from his daughter’s death. But these scenes were consistently cut short by another date with Eloise, or a beyond bizarre sub-subplot about kidnapping a parrot. I couldn’t participate in the emotional conversation that half the movie was trying to engage me in because of all the wacky horseshit; it was like watching a drunken standup comic give a eulogy.

The movie is worth renting for the performances in the main story, including Eckhart’s, who has redeemed himself after his schizoid bombast in The Dark Knight (though the script was mainly at fault there, too). It would be great if the DVD had a special chapter search that would allow the viewer to watch only the self-help scenes and skip the fluff; the result would be a solid 45-minute viewing experience. That won’t happen, though. We’re stuck with Love Happens as it is, not as it should have been: an honest, comforting movie that avoided looking ridiculous.

Note: Am I the only one who absolutely hates the title of this film? Why not name it after Burke Ryan’s self-help book, “A-Okay”? Love Happens is something you’d see ironically bejeweled on a Hot Topic baby-doll shirt.

Friday
Sep182009

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Junk or Genius?

A couple months from now, I will be co-hosting a Chateau Grrr dinner whose celebrity guest list sounds like the setup of a really weird joke: Margot Kidder, Ricou Browning, and Bill Moseley. In preparation for this special event at Crypticon Minneapolis, CG founder Chad Hawks and I have begun researching the stars’ various roles. Our hope is to keep the conversation lively and informative for everyone involved, or at least keep ourselves from looking like uninformed jackasses.

 

Here now is the first of several Kicking the Seat Home Video Reviews, Crypticon Edition!

I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a very young age. My Dad loved watching horror movies, and made no attempt to convince me that the on-screen carnage was make-believe; to this day, I can’t walk by a deep freezer without imagining a half-dead body inside.

Which I believe was director Tobe Hooper’s aim. His cinema verite approach to the story of a Texas cannibal family elevates the film above conventional slasher status: he set out to not only scare the audience but to instill in them an unshakable fear of being kidnapped and turned into award-winning chili.

Twenty-two years after the original film, Hooper made a (literally) head-scratching sequel that took a chainsaw to the subtlety and suspense he’d established. Perhaps hoping to capture the success of the many iterations of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, he turned his masterpiece into a franchise that—like those films—completely undermined the point of the original creation. To this day, however, it is debatable whether The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a sloppy cash-in or a brilliant Warholian experiment.

The plot is barely worth mentioning, but here goes:

A couple of drunk-driving yuppies crank-call an Oklahoma radio station. On the road, they encounter the murderous Leatherface and his family of psychopaths, who have lots of fun dismembering the boys and driving them off the road; all of this happens live on the air as DJ “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams), listens in horror. With the help of Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper), Stretch uses the tape to lure the killers back to the radio station; the plan to arrest them on sight fails miserably—as must any plot to foil movie villains, if introduced fifteen in—and Stretch and Lefty find themselves trapped in the bowels of an abandoned Texas amusement park littered with body parts and ghoulish secrets.

That paragraph was my homage to 1980’s video box synopses; it’s the only way to describe this movie without falling asleep.

Unlike other films that I’ve viewed multiple times, my perception of TCM2 never changes. It’s always a boring, frustrating experience. The opening twenty minutes build relationships and set plot points in motion, but once the radio station debacle begins, we’re left with sixty minutes of running, screaming, climbing and mutilating. And, yes, I do expect more from a movie called Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, especially if it was written and directed by the same person who created the far superior original; Tobe Hooper can’t blame young hacks for ruining his vision.

This brings me back to the notion that the whole project is a deliberate joke played on the audience. Why else would one spend the money to hire Dennis Hopper, only to have him scream, “Bring it all Doooown!” for the last half of the movie while demolishing support beams? How else to explain Leatherface’s obsession with chainsaw-fucking Stretch while licking “his” lips? Then there’s Chop-Top, a heretofore unseen member of the family, who was apparently in Viet Nam during the events of the first film; as played by Bill Moseley, he’s a nigh-incoherent masochist that enjoys scraping off pieces of his scalp and eating them. There’s a tremendous energy to the movie; everyone seems to be having fun and really getting into their roles—but if Ocean’s Twelve taught us anything, it’s that the only good time that matters is the one had (or not had) by the audience.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s only triumph may be that it is a spiritual predecessor to Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2. Both films celebrate psychosis and fuse surreality with reality. Zombie has a leg up on Hooper in that he’s populated the real world with damaged people as opposed to creating a parallel dimension where everyone is a cartoon character. TCM2 plays out like a survivor’s PTSD flashback, and that gets tiresome after ninety minutes; wholly experimental films often fail because they forget that the viewer needs something sensical to latch onto in order to go for a ride. While Hooper establishes a plausible universe for five minutes, the majority of his picture is a descent into madness, and it throws everything off balance; Halloween 2 is even-keeled in its use of bizarre intrusions on everyday occurrences.

It just occurred to me that Rob Zombie actually remade TCM2 a few years ago, though he called it House of 1,000 corpses. That movie was also not very good, but it did improve on some of Hooper’s problems—such as casting Bill Moseley in essentially the same role, but with a slightly dialed-back brand of hysteria.

I’ll probably watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 again in a few years, if only to dispel this feeling that I’m missing something. As I said earlier, it’s not a pleasant or compelling experience, but neither was Napoleon Dynamite the first time I watched it. I have to believe that the man who gave me a paralyzing fear of deep freezers is incapable of making an utterly disposable sequel—the alternative is too frightening to ponder.

Thursday
Sep102009

Sunshine Cleaning, 2009 (Home Video Review)

Clouded Judgment

Here’s another movie I avoided like the plague when it was in theatres, and it’s comforting to know that my instincts are sharp as ever. Sunshine Cleaning is that form of unmarketable film that is half crappy drama, half laugh-free comedy known as the Independent Film; I know not all indies are like this, but there have been enough bad ones in recent years to warrant instant skepticism—much like romantic comedies.

I can’t think of another film that is so well acted and so poorly written. Sunshine Cleaning is the story of Rose (Amy Adams), a single mother and maid who balances raising her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), with her father, Joe (Alan Arkin), and sleeping with a married police officer named Mac (Steve Zahn). Rose’s misfit sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), lives with Joe because she can’t hold down a job long enough to live on her own. On Mac’s advice—and with his money—Rose opens Sunshine Cleaning, a crime scene cleanup service that pays very well. This is a fine premise, and the cast is more than up for the challenge, but writer Megan Holley mistakenly injects about five additional plotlines into the story and handles all of them poorly.

Half the problem is that none of the characters is redeemed by movie’s end. Nearly all of them are people who’ve fallen on hard times due to lives full of bad decisions and an overall lack of smarts. For example, when Rose and Norah visit a store that specializes in industrial cleaning supplies, the clerk asks them a series of questions regarding their license and the various processes they use to remove hazardous materials from crime scenes. The women are caught completely off guard, and I found it inconceivable that they would have done absolutely no research beyond slapping a logo on a used van and buying a few bottles of bleach and Windex. The scene is played as a meet-cute between Rose and the clerk (a one-armed model-maker named Winston, played wonderfully by Clifton Collins, Jr.), but there’s nothing cute about that kind of ignorance in the Internet age.

This scene also establishes what could have been a great conflict between Sunshine Cleaning and one of the other professional cleanup companies; a worker comes in, complaining about a startup that’s been “stealing” jobs. Rose and Norah listen worriedly while hiding in an aisle, emerging after the guy leaves. Fortunately for them—less so for we, the audience—the issue is never brought up again.

Another example of the film’s penchant for hinting at plotlines and then refusing to do anything with them involves Oscar’s getting kicked out of school. Rose gets called to the principal’s office and learns that her son has been spreading the story that Norah told him the night before; the last in a long line of bizarre offenses, the principal recommends Oscar be put on drugs. Rose refuses, and tells Oscar that they’ll try private school. She assures him that he’s just fine; it’s the faculty’s problem that they don’t understand him.

Fair enough. But Oscar continues to get into trouble throughout the film, and at no point do any of the adults discipline him; not even a simple, “Don’t do that.” Instead, we get tired inferences that Oscar is some kind of prodigy, as evidenced by an exchange with Grandpa that goes something like this:

“Are you bored in class?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you stare out the window a lot?”

“Uh-huh.”

“See? That’s a sign of genius.”

Or, it’s a sign you’re grandkid's a shithead. Now, I’m not for drugging up imaginative children, but the case for Oscar is flimsy at best.

The other half of the film’s problem is that it’s derivative of either bad sitcoms or bad parts of okay movies. Instead of delving into what it’s like to have to clean up after a murder or a suicide, we get a scene where Rose and Norah must carry a bodily-fluid-stained mattress out to a dumpster; it’s really heavy and awkward to maneuver, and I’ll give you one guess as to what happens before they make it to the trash. Then there’s the scene where Norah hangs from underneath some train tracks while the train rushes by overhead. It’s meant to showcase her rebellious inner turmoil; instead it demonstrates why she’s wholly unemployable (and lets us know she’s a huge Lost Boys fan).

I really wanted to like Sunshine Cleaning. Adams and Blunt—and even Arkin, who essentially plays a resurrected version of his Grandpa character from the terrible Little Miss Sunshine—are great in their misshapen roles. In fact, this appears to be a theme of Amy Adams’ career lately: starring in movies with a great premise and lousy execution (see Julie & Julia—better yet, don’t). I just wish the filmmakers had trusted that the adults who would show up for their small film would be savvy and hungry enough for grown-up entertainment that they wouldn’t feel the need to rely on sub-moron crutches.

The movie has been marketed as a cute indie film, but there’s nothing independent about it. Sunshine Cleaning caters to the same dumb herd that made The Final Destination the number one movie in America two weeks in a row. Talk about a crime.