‘The Informant!’ Puts a Comedic Spin on an Insanely True Story

The Informant movie poster

“This film is based on real events, but not everything you’ll see is real, some are a fabrication. So there!”

-opening disclaimer

The Informant!” is not just your typical corporate corruption film in which the main characters are on a mission to uncover the truth and expose wrongdoings. The movie is really about getting to the truth of who Mark Whitacre is. As the film goes on, we find he is not only being dishonest to everyone around him, but also to himself. Whitacre ends up being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder which makes clear how far his mental health has unraveled. Soderbergh gets us to trust Whitacre along with Damon, and the rest of the movie involves us getting deeper into his psyche. Whitacre doesn’t just deceive his employees, he deceives the audience watching this movie as well.

Much has been said about how Damon went all Robert De Niro (or Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale) on this role by putting on 30 pounds and a mustache to play Whitacre. But he more than succeeds in bringing an everyman quality to this role which is not at all easy with a star like him, known for his good looks (the term actor fits him better anyway). It certainly sets his character apart from Jason Bourne, who Whitacre is clearly not like (he does liken himself to James Bond though). Damon has never been given a role like this before, and it should be considered further proof he is a better actor than many give him credit for.

Soderbergh’s decision to give “The Informant!” a comic tone is an interesting choice, and it is a reminder of how he is still one of the most unpredictable filmmakers working today. Earlier in 2009 he gave us one of his indie film experiments, “The Girlfriend Experience,” which starred Sasha Grey. While this one was done on a bigger budget, my understanding is he shot it almost as fast (30 days to be exact) perhaps because the studio wasn’t sure if people would see it or not. Looking more closely at the script, this could have been Soderbergh’s “Michael Clayton,” but he had taken this story, the kind we see in the papers every day, and made it into something a little different. While the tone is a bit inconsistent throughout, and you are not sure of how amusing the film is meant to be, that may be the whole point of this cinematic endeavor.

The humor throughout is very dry, and it sticks in your throat for good reason. Whereas everyone here looks like they are having a blast with the material, you have to remind yourself once in a while that “The Informant!” is, yes, “based on a true story” and that Whitacre’s conviction gave him a prison sentence three times longer than those he exposed. This may be one of those movies designed to thwart expectations as it has been promoted and advertised as a full out comedy. Still, it is not meant to be a laugh a minute comedy like “Airplane!

When all is said and done, “The Informant!” really belongs to Damon as much as it does to Soderbergh. As Whitacre, Damon never looks like he is just acting or simply doing an impersonation. This is also clearly not a performance that stopped at the physical appearance, but one which really gets into the inner trappings of this bio-chemist’s mind. From start to finish, we keep hearing Damon’s narration about the little things he knows and what he makes of the people around him. I somehow figured this would all lead to a big realization at the film’s climax, but it really illustrates the deteriorating state of Whitacre’s mind. Damon actually makes you empathize with this man even while he comes across as a Bernie Madoff in training.

I also have to say that for the life of me, I cannot remember the last time there was a character which inspired so many dead or befuddled stares from other people. It’s like every single character he comes into contact with has at least two or three moments where they look at Whitacre with their jaws dropping all the way to the floor. Have you ever seen another movie where so many characters look like they are about to say, “Excuse me? Would you mind repeating that? YOU WHAT??!!”

The two actors who end up giving Whitacre the most dubious glares throughout “The Informant!” are Scott Bakula and Joel McHale. Both play off of Damon perfectly, and their expressions mirror our own as we come to discover the secrets of Whitacre’s ways at the same time they do. Bakula gives us a coolly collected FBI agent instead of the intense and easily aggravated ones we see in these movies. But not to worry, he does lose his temper eventually. McHale proves to be even drier here than Bakula, and at the movie’s end, he still cannot figure out if Whitacre has been completely on the level with him. Then again, Whitacre probably can’t figure that out either. Someone once said if you believe in a lie so much, it eventually becomes the truth, and this proves to be Whitacre’s biggest affliction.

The seriousness of the story is offset by the wonderfully breezy music score by Marvin Hamlisch which treats the goings on as a bizarre farce that goes further out of the hand than anyone could have imagined…and then it gets even more bizarre from there. Even as the situation becomes increasingly serious with the walls closing in on Whitacre, Hamlisch’s score remains surprisingly upbeat throughout. Along with the retro opening credits, it’s almost like Soderbergh was trying to give the film a 1970’s look even though it takes place in the 1990’s.

So, while it’s not quite a great movie, “The Informant!” does have a lot going for it, and it is very inventive in how it presents this morally corrupted yet well-meaning character. While Whitacre may think he’s like Tom Cruise’s character in “The Firm,” he is nowhere as lucky as him. Perhaps a more dramatic motion picture could have been made about this man’s life, but none would be anywhere as entertaining as Soderbergh’s.

SO THERE!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ is a Better Than Expected Sequel

Oceans Thirteen movie poster

Ocean’s Thirteen” was one of the few threequels from 2007 which really delivered without any frustration, and I was relieved how it did not suffer from an overabundance of plot and characters. True, the story and twists in plot are a bit hard to follow at times, but this was also the case in the last two movies in this trilogy, so why should this one be any different? This is a movie which invites you to sit back and relax and to have some fun, and for me it delivered.

The gang is back with the exception of Julia Roberts who was in the previous two movies, and Catherine Zeta-Jones who appeared in the last one. It’s just as well because there really is not much they could do here. They would have been wasted in bit parts which would not have required much from their presence. As George Clooney and Brad Pitt point out at the beginning in regards to the characters Roberts and Jones played, “IT’S NOT THEIR FIGHT!”

This one starts off with their friend Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) in the hospital where he is recovering from a nasty heart attack. This was brought on when he got screwed out of a partnership by the devious Willie Bank (Al Pacino) who is legendary in Las Vegas for stabbing everyone who ever worked for them in the back without any remorse. None of Ocean’s gang is happy about this, and they quickly begin to plot their revenge against him. Their plan is to essentially bankrupt Willie on the opening night of his new casino, and whether or not they win is irrelevant as long as he loses big time.

Clooney and Pitt are as cool as ever in returning to Las Vegas, the scene of their insidiously clever crime from the first movie. They never miss a beat as their confidence remains unbreakable while they attempt to screw over Pacino’s character. Matt Damon is great as always as Linus, the guy who always wants to put more into the plan, and he remains convinced of how he can pull it off if those around him would just give him a chance. However, I could easily spot who his character’s father was from a mile away. Don Cheadle has some great scene stealing moments as Basher Tarr, especially when he tries to divert Pacino’s attention in one key scene.

Pacino has been ridiculed for some time now as he is constantly accused of giving the same bombastic performance over and over again. Ever since his Oscar winning turn in “Scent of a Woman,” people keep saying he overplays every role given to him, and while there is a lot of evidence to this fact, I don’t think it’s always the case (“Donnie Brasco” anybody?). He succeeds in underplaying his role here, and his usual bombast is not on display as much. He has a quiet menace in some scenes which really works, and Clooney plays off of it very effectively to where they both generate some good chuckles along the way.

It’s also great to see Ellen Barkin again and reuniting with her “Sea of Love” co-star Pacino as his chief assistant, Abigail Sponder. She still looks very hot, and it’s nice to see her acting again instead of hearing about all those divorce stories between her and her millionaire ex-husband. She is a lot of fun to watch here, and there is a great moment where she ends up getting seduced by Matt Damon’s character, and the way she plays her inevitable seduction is both hilarious and quite believable.

Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould return as well to the Ocean’s franchise, and their presence is very welcome. Hollywood is as always obsessed with youth, so it’s nice to see two older guys still being allowed to make their mark in a big Hollywood movie like this. And I don’t want to leave out Shaobo Qin who plays Yen. Qin gets more to do here than he has in the other Ocean’s movies, and his acrobatic skills come into focus when he has to make his way across a very unpredictable elevator system.

Andy Garcia is also back as Terry Benedict, and the Ocean crew is forced to partner with him in order to complete their revenge against Pacino’s character. How Garcia’s character gets done in is too good to spoil here, and it results in one of this sequel’s most inspired moments.

Steven Soderbergh, or Peter Andrews if you really want to call him that, keeps the coolness factor up and running, and he provides us with what this movie is supposed to give, a good time at the movies. With a movie like this, you can’t ask for much more. This must serve as a vacation for Soderbergh from all his more serious movies like “Traffic” and “The Good German,” and it is always great to see him jumping from one genre to another.

Whereas a lot of sequels have underwhelmed mostly because of constant overhyping, this one is smart enough not to fall victim to that. I was always surprised when I heard they were going to do a sequel to “Ocean’s Eleven,” and then another sequel after “Ocean’s Twelve.” Each one delivered for me, and this one does as well.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘The Girlfriend Experience’ has Sasha Grey Teaming up with Steven Soderbergh

The Girlfriend Experience movie poster

The Girlfriend Experience” represents one of Steven Soderbergh’s more experimental films as well as the occasional escape he gets from mainstream filmmaking. Like “Bubble,” he shot it with a very low budget and a relatively inexpensive camera, and he cast actors in it with no previous experience. There is, however, one exception to this, and that is Sasha Grey. Known to people, though they probably wouldn’t openly admit it, as one of the biggest stars in pornography films, she gives the term “Grey’s Anatomy” a whole new meaning. Her being cast in the lead role should show just how big of a breakthrough the world of pornography has made into the mainstream media, something which can no longer be denied.

This movie takes place a month or so before the 2008 Presidential election between Obama and McCain. Sasha plays Christine, a high-priced escort who goes by the alias of Chelsea, as she services the rich commodities brokers of New York. Sex does play a part in her job, but this is not the only thing she provides. Chelsea gives herself over to you as your girlfriend for the evening; one who will listen to your problems over a dinner at a nice restaurant, and she is there for you when the reality of life hits you too hard, or if your wife and kids are giving you too much to deal with. Basically, she is selling companionship as a commodity, and she has become independently wealthy because of it. Throughout the movie, she seems to have a disconnect between what she does, and the life she has outside of it. But as the story goes on, you will see this façade take quite a beating.

Sasha’s life outside of being an escort includes having a boyfriend who works as personal trainer at gyms. He is played by Chris Santos, and his relationship with Sasha is a stable one. While their chosen professions differ from one another, they are essentially the same; they sell their services for a price and try to remain independent while running their individual businesses their own way. Chris and Sasha are, to put it bluntly, pimping themselves for a price, except Sasha is getting a better price for her services. Unlike others, Chris is comfortable with what Sasha does for a living, assuming it remains in certain parameters the two of them have set for one another.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is really not about sex, and there is no simulated or non-simulated sex to be found here. Those looking for the typical Sasha Grey experience need to be made fully aware of this before they sit down to watch this film. She does have one nice full-frontal scene near the beginning of the film, but it is hardly titillating in the way you would expect. What this movie is really about is the practice of buying and selling certain commodities, and of how even the feel of loving companionship has become an ever-growing business. The question presented to us is, are we so drained of feeling and morality that we feel more comfortable buying companionship than we are in obtaining it naturally? Furthermore, what if the line between what you do for a living and what you do outside of it becomes blurred? Can you remain objective in such a situation?

Soderbergh gives the movie a non-linear approach as the movie shifts back and forth in time, and we see the characters in different emotional states. This will undoubtedly annoy many who are so used to watching movies where everything is shown in chronological order. I, on the other hand, welcome this approach because it is always refreshing to see any filmmaker challenge the medium especially when movies these are mostly about tried and true formulas. This method makes this movie seem more unpredictable in regards to what will happen next, and it also gives the audience a somewhat alienating feeling which forces us to view these characters from a clinical distance. “The Girlfriend Experience” doesn’t want us to feel like we are in the same room with these characters. Instead, it wants to observe them and think about what they are going through. The movie also wants us to question if there really can be an unbreakable line between work and play. If we lose sight of this, is it even possible to bring ourselves back to where we once were?

As an actress, Sasha Grey is no Meryl Streep, but she does do good work here. Soderbergh made it clear he chose her in part because of her name value in porn films, and that is understandable. It will certainly bring a bigger audience to this film than it would have gotten if another actress played her part. Soderbergh also said he chose Grey because she is a lot like the character in that she runs her own business and is her own agent; she runs herself and has no one managing her. Indeed, looking at Grey’s career overall, it’s hard to think of another actress, let alone a more accomplished one, who could have been more believable here. In many ways, Grey is Chelsea, and she may even be the first to admit this.

Shooting this movie with a digital camera, Soderbergh makes it clear “The Girlfriend Experience” takes place in the real world and not some fictional one. The Elliott Spitzer scandal which came about because of his dealings with escorts like Chelsea could make this film seem like a documentary. In casting people with no previous acting experience, Soderbergh succeeds in giving us characters we recognize from our daily lives. Still, he doesn’t let you get too close to them. Just as you’re about to get closer, he moves the story in another direction to where you are just as starved for feeling as the characters are.

The film’s final image, of two characters locked in an embrace, seems to define it completely. We want this closeness to another person just as much as we are frightened of it. It makes us wonder if it is possible to achieve it without having to pay a price for it. The movie does not lay judgment on escort services or other forms of prostitution, but simply acknowledges how one of the oldest professions in the world still plays a significant part in our world whether we admit it or not. It has since evolved to another level where it is being offered for more than just a quickie in a motel.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is one of Soderbergh’s more interesting films of the past few years. It runs at a scant 77 minutes, but it feels longer as there is much to take in. Many will say he owes us a movie this short after splitting his previous movie, “Che,” into two. It’s not quite a great movie, but it is very good and willing to take chances other movies in 2009 have not. It will be interesting to see where Grey’s career will go from here. Porn actors and actresses rarely, if ever, make a break into mainstream films because of the stigma attached to their profession. But even those who consider themselves “morally superior” to pornography are probably bigger fans of it than they will ever admit. It all plays a big part in our lives, probably on more of an unconscious level more than anything else.

Of course, it will become a very lonely world if the only way we can get intimacy is to pay a high price for it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Logan Lucky’ Rescues Steven Soderbergh From His Unintended Retirement

Logan Lucky movie poster

I never really believed Steven Soderbergh was all that serious about retiring from filmmaking. Since calling it quits after “Behind the Candelabra,” he directed the Cinemax television series “The Knick,” helped Spike Jonze edit his Oscar-winning film “Her,” executive produced the television series version of “The Girlfriend Experience,” and he has even gone out of his way to recut famous movies like “Raiders of the Ark” and “Heaven’s Gate” (the latter which has been referred to as “The Butcher’s Cut”). This man has had filmmaking in his blood probably since birth, and you can’t keep a good filmmaker like him down.

Soderbergh is finally back in the world of motion pictures with “Logan Lucky,” and it’s another heist movie but one with a cast of characters nowhere as smart or as gloriously debonair as those from the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies. In fact, during a newscast we hear someone describe this gang of thieves as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven,” and this description feels more than appropriate given what we have seen.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is a hard-working construction worker at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but this soon doesn’t matter as his boss is forced to terminate his employment after he is seen limping around the workplace due to an injury which ended his ever so promising football career. Jimmy is told his limp represents a “pre-existing condition,” a term which these days should be seen as the equivalent of a four-letter word. On top of this, his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) informs him she and her husband will soon be moving to Lynchburg, Tennessee which will make visiting his daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), all the more difficult.

So, what’s an unemployed father with few prospects to do? Well, rob the race track of course. For this, he turns to his brother, the one-armed war veteran and bartender Clyde (Adam Driver), to pull off this challenging heist (is there any other kind?) without a hitch. Together they assemble a team which includes convicted safecracker and explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) who figures prominently in Sadie’s beauty pageant contest and can drive a Ford Mustang better than Bobbie Jo’s car salesman husband Moody (David Denman), and a pair of brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) who are willing to participate in criminal activities as long as it doesn’t interfere with their religious beliefs.

Is “Logan Lucky” among Soderbergh’s best movies? No, but it does provide the audience with a fun time, and you can sense the director’s giddiness as he tackles the screenplay written by Rebecca Blunt with an unrestrained relish. This is familiar territory for the Oscar-winning director, but we can easily sense how inspired he felt while making this feature. There have been many heist movies and there will be many more after this one, but Soderbergh makes this one breathe as it has a lively setting and characters who could have been mere southern clichés but who are instead brought to wonderful life thanks to the actors portraying them. Soderbergh is also well-served by his frequent collaborators which include composer David Holmes, cinematographer Peter Andrews and editor Mary Ann Bernard (pay special attention to those last two names) as they help realize his vision in a way few others could.

This is one of those movies which features a big-name cast, and watching it reveals even more big names than what you may have noticed when looking at the poster. One actor I got a huge kick out of seeing here was Daniel Craig as Joe Bang represents a much-needed change of pace for the actor best known as James Bond (by the way, I’m thrilled to hear he will be playing 007 for a fifth time). Adapting an Appalachian accent which could not have been easy to pull off, Craig is an utter delight playing someone who is not the least big refined or tasteful in the clothes he chooses, or is forced, to wear. Also, seeing him deal with an explosive device he made out of household substances is especially hilarious as he has us in suspense until he doesn’t.

Adam Driver, who is quickly proving to be one of the most talented actors of his generation, is a deadpan delight as Clyde Logan as his face remains an impenetrable one incapable of showing emotions. In fact, I think he is as deadpan here as Steven Wright is in his comedy routines, and that’s saying a lot. Despite the seeming lack of emotions, Driver makes Clyde a fascinating character whose loss of an arms says more about him than he could ever say about himself.

There are many other actors worth mentioning here, but I would rather not as it might spoil the surprises you will find in this movie. I do, however, have to mention Dwight Yoakam who plays Warden Burns as this role represents something of a departure from the typical bad guys he has been known to play. Yoakam is hilarious in scenes where he tries to control a prison riot by explaining to the inmates how “Games of Thrones” show no longer follows the books it is based on. It also took me far too long to recognize Seth MacFarlane as the pretentious British businessman Max Chilblain or Sebastian Stan as NASCAR race driver Dayton White. Then again, this should testify as to what they both can get away with as actors.

“Logan Lucky” goes on a little longer than it should as various loose ends take an extensive amount of time to tie up for us to have a satisfying conclusion, but it is still a wonderfully inventive movie which represents a welcome return for a filmmaker we never wanted to see retire. While it doesn’t match up to Soderbergh’s greatest masterpieces, it does show how his enthusiasm for filmmaking is still strong even after it appeared to be burned out forever. This movie also gives me an increased appreciation for the word cauliflower as well as the music of John Denver. You may ask why, but to discover why, you have to watch this movie.

* * * out of * * * *