‘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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‘The Polar Express’ Deserves More Respect Than Most Christmas Movies Get

The Polar Express movie poster

The Polar Express” was directed by Steven Spielberg’s protégée Robert Zemeckis, and it is based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg which Tom Hanks was a big fan of when he was kid. It involves a boy who is selected along with many other kids to take a train ride to the North Pole and visit Santa Claus and see his intricate operation of present giving. This voyage will have this boy meeting other kids on their way as well as many other characters, most of who are played by Hanks.

That’s right, Hanks plays six different parts in “The Polar Express,” and it has me wondering if this was done to save money on what must have been a very expensive production. Among the parts he plays includes a hobo who may not actually be real, Scrooge, and Santa Claus himself. But the most prominent role he plays in this movie is the Conductor of the Polar Express itself. He’s a man who is constantly running the train on what he says is a “tight schedule,” and he cannot help but be occasionally convinced one of these kids is determined to keep the train from reaching its final destination. He also has this wonderful talent for punching out your tickets to form certain words in them. I mean really! He does it so fast! How does he do it?

The big thing about “The Polar Express” is it is an animated movie by the way of motion capture. This has become a popular way of making movies in an animated fashion as actors where these suits and have these tiny white balls glued to their face and bodies. With the help of computers, which at this point we cannot live without, they can be captured on film and manipulated to look like they are in a place too expensive to build as a set. It is remarkable stuff however, and it could serve as further proof of how actors will never be replaced by technology because we need them to make the technology work effectively. I cannot begin to tell you how relieved this makes me feel.

I was surprised at how much I liked “The Polar Express.” It’s not a perfect movie, but it does have a heart and emotions which are far more genuine than other Christmas movies. It is also exciting as we see the train and its main characters struggle to stay on board as it goes through many treacherous parts in a journey to one of the coldest places on the planet. Seeing it in 3D is a major plus as well because the effects seem so real to where the kids in the audience were literally trying to grasp at the snowflakes falling from the screen. Heck, I even found myself doing this a couple of times.

This is the one thing I want to mention; the audience was full of kids there with their families, and this initially was a problem for me. I saw “Cars” at the El Capitan in Los Angeles when it was released, and it was full of parents completely incapable of keeping their kids quiet throughout the entire movie. Here I am trying to watch one of the weaker movies from the Pixar catalogue, and there’s a little boy right in front of me who cannot get himself to sit down and kept asking his mother for more candy. If you can’t shut your kids up, don’t take them to the movies! Stay at home and watch “Finding Nemo” on DVD. My niece has already seen it hundreds of times to where her parents can recite every line (not that they want to).

But at the same time, seeing these kids get totally sucked into the magic of the movie with the 3D technology was really special. Hearing them talk back to the screen, especially my niece, brought a smile to my face as they got completely caught up in the journey “The Polar Express” took them on. This is the kind of movie you want your kids to see. When it first came out, many found the technology disturbing and scary, but that’s really ridiculous. While it doesn’t look like typical animated movies they loved from their past, it does aim to continue to preserve the innocence none of us are quick to lose.

If there is anything which takes away from the experience of watching “The Polar Express,” it’s the lame ass Glen Ballard song some of the characters sing in one scene which you hear again during the end credits. I am sick and tired of crappy love songs sung and written by white guys. They reek of lameness, and this movie is not even a musical!

Don’t worry about parents telling you about how creepy it is. This one is fine for the whole family. Those who disagree have long since lost the mindset of a child, and that’s just tragic.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Someone’s Watching Me!’ – The Lost John Carpenter Movie

 

Someones Watching Me Blu ray cover

Someone’s Watching Me!” is often referred to as the lost John Carpenter movie due to its unavailability on video and DVD for many years. It finally got released on DVD in 2007 (Shout Factory later released it on Blu-ray), but while there are some Carpenter movies I still need to catch up on, this may be the only one I haven’t heard of previously. I ended up buying it from a video store which was closing down as I am a huge fan of the director’s work, and I have no excuse for being this far behind on the films he has made.

The movie stars Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, a television director who has just moved to Los Angeles and has set herself up in a luxurious apartment in a high-rise building. But as soon as she starts unpacking her things, a stranger begins stalking her with his telescope and calls to leave threatening messages with that deep, ominous voice stalkers usually speak in. Things continue to get worse from there until she finally decides to take matters into her hands.

Carpenter wrote “Someone’s Watching Me!” back when he was primarily making a living writing screenplays. At that point he had only directed “Dark Star” and “Assault on Precinct 13,” and this movie was completed a few days before he began work on “Halloween.” You can see a lot of “Halloween” in this one as Carpenter gets some great shots of what’s going on behind a character, and the point of view shots really increase the tension as he puts you into Hutton’s shoes to where you feel as menaced as she is. It also shows how brilliant he was in not only creating suspense and tension, but in maintaining them all the way to the end.

This script also shows one of Carpenter’s strengths as a writer as he creates strong female characters which would inhabit all his movies. Hutton is very good as Michaels and I thought she made the character very believable in a way which wasn’t showy. As her anxiety gets increasingly worse, she stands her ground and refuses to move out of her apartment. Michaels is not about to be intimidated by this peeping tom, and you root for her to turn the tables on this guy at any given opportunity.

“Someone’s Watching Me!” also stars Adrienne Barbeau who would later become Carpenter’s wife for a time (this was the first project they worked on together) and starred in “The Fog.” She plays Michaels’ co-worker, Sophie, who is tough as nails and not easily intimidated by anyone around her. Barbeau gives Hutton great support throughout, and it’s great fun watching her steal one scene after another.

The movie also stars David Birney as Paul Winkless, the man Michaels ends up flirting with and falling for. It’s almost surprising Michaels would fall for anyone as she proudly asserts herself as an independent woman right from the start. Birney matches Hutton’s strength and wit throughout, and Carpenter’s direction successfully casts doubt on him as well as everyone else surrounding Michaels throughout.

Charles Cyphers, a member of Carpenter’s repertory company of actors, appears here as police detective Gary Hunt. It threatens to be a thankless part as the character seems brought in just to express disbelief in the protagonist’s fears, but watching Cyphers here makes you see why Carpenter loves working with him. Cyphers gives us a character who might be a cliché, but he imbues him with a worldliness which makes his actions and beliefs understandable. Some actors would just consider this a paycheck role they could just walk through, but Cyphers proves to be the kind of actor who doesn’t fall into such inexcusable laziness.

Carpenter gets to pull off a lot of shots which have long since cemented him a master of horror and suspense. He utilizes different camera moves like shooting handheld or panning back and forth to reveal something just around the corner. The fact this made for TV movie holds up today says a lot about his talent.

Granted, this movie was made back in 1978 when voyeurism seemed like a rarity at best. These days everyone’s a voyeur as technology allow us to peak into those dark corners which we assumed were inaccessible. To discover someone is watching you from afar and that your privacy is a thing of the past is not a hard scenario to believe in this day and age. This ends up making a movie like “Someone’s Watching Me!” scarier than ever before. Even with the constraints of a made for television movie, Carpenter creates a thrilling tale which holds you in its tense grip and never lets you go.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

First ‘Aquaman’ Trailer Promises a Big Rebound For the DC Extended Universe

Aquaman teaser poster

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) continues to thrive with one successful motion picture after another, the DC Comics Extended Universe (DCEU) keeps experiencing hits and misses. The latter failed miserably with “Suicide Squad,” then they redeemed themselves and hit a tremendous home run with “Wonder Woman.” But next we got “Justice League” which was their answer to “The Avengers,” and it did not live up to the fans’ expectations. While Marvel took its precious time setting up its cinematic universe, DC could only play catch up constantly to where they had to offer its biggest movie much sooner than they should have.

But one of the best things about “Justice League” was Jason Momoa who portrayed Arthur Curry, better known to us as Aquaman. Since then, I have been looking forward to a solo movie for this character, and news of its making has only heightened my anticipation. At Comic-Con this past weekend, the first trailer for “Aquaman” was finally unveiled, and it looks awesome.

“Aquaman” is being directed by James Wan who had worked on the indie horror franchises “Saw” and “Insidious,” and he has since graduated to bigger projects like “The Conjuring” and “Furious 7,” one of the very best “Fast & Furious” movies. From this trailer, he appears to have given “Aquaman” some truly amazing special effects, and he looks to keep the human element of this superhero film in balance with them. In addition, you have Amber Heard co-starring as Mera, Aquaman’s love interest who possesses hydrokinetic and telepathic powers, and she looks dazzling with all that red hair.

The moments I loved in this trailer include when Arthur is getting picked on by the school bullies while on a field trip at an aquarium, and all the fishes, a shark in particular, come to his defense. It really is nice to have Jaws on your side, isn’t it? I also liked how Aquaman and his fellow people are able to speak and move around in water as easily as they do on land. Everyone involved in this film’s making have made this seem very believable.

Of course, we learn in this trailer how Aquaman is reluctant to become king of the underwater nation Atlantis, and I fear this may be another one of those “no I can’t be the one” movies where the hero spends way too much time denying the destiny we know he or she will eventually embrace. A lot of these movies have the hero finally embracing the role society begs him to play in the last third, but by then they can seem like wasted opportunities. Hopefully this DC film will not be one of them.

“Aquaman” is set to be released on December 21, 2018. Please check out the trailer below.

First Trailer for ‘Creed II’ Enters the Ring

Creed II teaser poster

“Creed” may not have reinvented the “Rocky” franchise, but Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan succeeded in making it feel fresh and reinvigorated to where a sequel was not only inevitable, but more than welcome. Now we have the first trailer for “Creed II” which promises a powerful follow-up as Adonis Creed faces the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed his father Apollo Creed in “Rocky IV,” Viktor Drago.

In some ways this trailer is a bit anti-climatic as we have known for a while already how the son of Ivan Drago was going to Adonis’ next big opponent, and the trailer keeps building up to a reveal we can see coming from miles away. Viktor is played by Florian Munteanu who previously appeared in “Bogat.” Now we never get a clear look at his face, but when he turns around we see “DRAGO” stenciled on the back of his robe. Personally, I was hoping for a little more than just this reveal, but then again, this is a teaser trailer.

I also kept waiting for Dolph Lundgren to reappear as Ivan Drago as he is slated to be co-starring in “Creed II,” but no such luck. One of the things I am really looking forward to is seeing him come face to face with Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as I wonder how each character feels about the other following their bloody bout in Russia 30 years ago. I’m guessing Brigette Nielsen will not be back as Ivan’s wife and official spokesperson, so Lundgren will obviously have more dialogue to work with than he did back in 1985.

The trailer does have a lot of cool shots of Adonis training and throwing brutal punches, and the moment where we see him practicing punches underwater is especially cool to where I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene like this in the previous “Rocky” films. Using Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty” to score the trailer was a great move as it has a powerful beat which will stay with you to where downloading the song off of iTunes is a must unless you own it or the album it is on already.

But what I really liked about this “Creed II” trailer is how it reflects the challenges Adonis and Rocky face outside of the ring as opposed to in it. Both characters are still stuck in a past which will not let them be. Whether it is the guilt Rocky feels over letting Apollo die in the ring or the feeling of inadequacy which gnaws constantly at Adonis, their struggles are never limited to a boxing match. Seeing this quickly reminded me of when Rocky and Adonis were looking at themselves in a mirror in “Creed” and of Rocky telling him how he will always be his own biggest opponent. And as Rocky talks about the “cheap shots” life is constantly giving him, I was taken back to his great speech in “Rocky Balboa” in which he said the following:

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Taking this into account, I believe “Creed II” looks to focus on the characters even over the intense fight sequences we can expect to see. Besides, what’s a fight like without the psychological depth? You can have great choreography, but it won’t mean as much if you are not fully invested in the characters’ plights and of what they stand to win or lose.

Directing “Creed II” is Steven Caple Jr., and the returning cast includes Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad who proves she is still a badass with her brief appearance here. The sequel is set to be released on November 21, 2018.

Please check out the trailer below.

 

The Best Movies of 2008

2008 Year in Review

2008 was a year more memorable for those who died as opposed to the movies which were released. We lost Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro, George Carlin, and Paul Newman among many others, and their individual deaths spread through the news like an uncontrollable wildfire. Their passing left a big mark on us all. When we look back at this year, I think people will remember where they were upon learning of their deaths more than anything else. Many of us will remember where we were when we got the news that Ledger died, but they will not remember how much money they wasted on “Righteous Kill,” the second movie featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing the screen at the same time.

2008 did pale in comparison to 2007 which saw a wealth of great movies released. Many said this was a horrible year for movies as high expectations ruined some of the big summer tent pole franchises, and that there were too many remakes being made. The way I see it, 2008 had a lot of really good movies, but not a lot of great ones. There was a big drought of good ones worth seeing at one point in this year, and I started to wonder if I would have enough of them to create a top ten list. If it were not for all those Oscar hopefuls released towards the year’s end, I am certain I would have come up short.

So, let us commence with this fine list, if I do say so myself, of the ten best movies of 2008:

  1. The Reader/Revolutionary Road

I had to put these two together for various reasons. Of course, the most obvious being Kate Winslet starred in both movies and was brilliant and devastating in her separate roles. Also, these were movies with stories about relationships laden with secrets, unbearable pressures, and deeply wounded feelings. Both were devoid of happy endings and of stories which were designed to be neatly wrapped up. Each one also dealt with the passing of time and how it destroys the characters’ hopes and dreams.

The Reader” looked at the secret relationship between Winslet’s character and a young man, and of the repercussions from it which end up lasting a lifetime. There is so much they want to say to one another but can’t, as it will doom them to punishments they cannot bear to endure.

Speaking of escape, it is what the characters in “Revolutionary Road” end up yearning for, and the movie is brilliant in how it shows us characters who think they know what they want but have no realistic way of getting it. Each movie deals with characters who are trapped in situations they want to be free from but can never be, and of feelings just beneath the surface but never verbalized until too late.

Both Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes direct their films with great confidence, and they don’t just get great performances from their entire cast, but they also capture the look and setting of the era their stories take place in perfectly. All the elements come together so strongly to where we are completely drawn in to the emotional state of each film, and we cannot leave either of them without being totally shaken at what we just witnessed.

 

Doubt movie poster

  1. Doubt

Looking back, I wondered if I was actually reviewing the play more than I was John Patrick Shanley’s movie of his Pulitzer Prize winning work. But the fact is Shanley brilliantly captures the mood and feel of the time this movie takes place in, and it contains one great performance after another. Meryl Streep personifies the teacher you hated so much in elementary school, Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captures the friendly priest we want to trust but are not sure we can, and Amy Adams illustrates the anxiety and confusion of the one person caught in the middle of everything. Don’t forget Viola Davis who, in less than 20 minutes, gives a galvanizing performance as a woman more worried about what her husband will do to their child more than the possibility of her child being molested by a priest who has been so kind to him. Long after its Broadway debut, “Doubt” still proves to be one of the most thought provoking plays ever, and it lost none of its power in its adaptation to the silver screen.

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie poster

  1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

This is the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a LONG time. Woody’s meditation on the ways of love could have gone over subjects he has long since pondered over to an exhausting extent, but this is not the case here. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a lovely and wonderfully character driven piece filled with many great performances, the best being Penelope Cruz’s as Javier Bardem’s ex-wife. Cruz is a firecracker every time she appears on screen, and she gives one of the most unpredictable performances I have seen in a while. Just when I was ready to write Allen off completely, he comes back to surprise me with something funny, lovely and deeply moving.

One day, I will be as sexy as Javier Bardem. Just you wait!

 

Slumdog Millionaire poster

  1. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle, one of the most versatile film directors working today, gave us a most exhilarating movie which dealt with lives rooted in crime, poverty and desperation, and yet he made it all so uplifting. It is a love story like many we have seen before, but this one is done with such freshness and vitality to where I felt like I was seeing something new and utterly original. Boyle also reminds us of how “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” was so exciting before ABC pimped it out excessively on their prime-time schedule. “Slumdog Millionaire” was pure excitement from beginning to end, and it was a movie with a lot of heart.

 

 

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  1. Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard turns in one of the best directorial efforts of his career with this adaptation of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed stage play, “Frost/Nixon,” which dealt with the infamous interview between former President Richard Nixon and TV personality David Frost. Despite us all knowing the outcome of this interview, Howard still sustains a genuine tension between these two personalities, one being larger than life. Howard also has the fortune of working with the same two actors from the original stage production, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Langella’s performance is utterly riveting in how he gets to the heart of Nixon without descending into some form of mimicry or impersonation. You may think a movie dealing with two people having an interview would be anything but exciting, but when Langella and Sheen are staring each other down, they both give us one of the most exciting moments to be found in any film in 2008. Just as he did with “Apollo 13,” Howard amazes you in how he can make something so familiar seem so incredibly exciting and intense.

 

Rachel Getting Married movie poster

  1. Rachel Getting Married

Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” had a huge effect on me with its raw emotion, and I loved how he made us feel like we were in the same room with all these characters. When the movie ended, it felt like we had shared some time with great friends, and Demme, from a screenplay written by Jenny Lumet, gives us a wealth of characters who are anything but typical clichés. Anne Hathaway is a revelation here as Kym, the problem child of the family who is taking a break from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Kym is not the easiest person to like or trust, but Hathaway makes us completely empathize with her as she tries to move on from a tragic past which has long since defined her in the eyes of everyone. Great performances also come from Bill Irwin who is so wonderful as Kym’s father, Rosemarie DeWitt, and the seldom seen Debra Winger who shares a very intense scene with Hathaway towards the movie’s end. I really liked this one a lot, and it almost moved me to tears.

 

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  1. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” has grown on me so much since I saw it. While it may be best known as the movie in which Mickey Rourke gave one hell of a comeback performance, this movie works brilliantly on so many levels. To limit its success to just Rourke’s performance would not be fair to what Aronofsky has accomplished as he surrounds all the characters in the bleakness of the urban environment they are stuck in, and he makes you feel their endless struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. “The Wrestler” succeeds because Aronofsky’s vision in making it was so precise and focused, and he never sugarcoats the realities of its desperate characters. Rourke more than deserved the Oscar for Best Actor, which in the end went to Sean Penn for “Milk.” Furthermore, the movie has great performances from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood as those closest to Rourke’s character, and who look past his faded fame to see the wounded man underneath. The more I look at “The Wrestler,” the more amazed and thrilled I am by it.

 

Let The Right One In movie poster

  1. Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson’s film of a friendship between a lonely boy and a vampire was so absorbing on an atmospheric level, and it surprised me to no end. What looks like an average horror movie turns out to actually be a sweet love story with a good deal of blood in it. Widely described as the “anti-Twilight,” “Let the Right One In” gives a strong sense of freshness to the vampire genre which back in the early 2000’s was overflowing with too many movies. The performances given by Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli are pitch perfect, and despite the circumstances surrounding their improbable relationship, I found myself not wanting to see them separated from one another.

 

Wall E poster

  1. Wall-E

Pixar does it once again and makes another cinematic masterpiece which puts so many other movies to shame. With “Wall-E,” director Andrew Stanton took some big risks by leaving a good portion of the movie free of dialogue, and this allowed us to take in the amazing visuals of planet Earth which has long since become completely inhospitable. Plus, it is also one of the best romantic movies to come out of Hollywood in ages. The relationship between Wall-E and his iPod-like crush Eve is so much fun to watch, and the two of them coming together gives the movie a strong sense of feeling which really draws us into the story. The fact these two are machines quickly becomes irrelevant, especially when you compare them to the humans they meet in a spaceship who have long since become imprisoned by their laziness and gluttony.

I gave the DVD of this movie to my mom as a Christmas present, and she said you could do an entire thesis on it. Nothing could be truer as it is such a brilliant achievement which dazzles us not just on a visual level, but also with its story which is the basis from which all Pixar movies originate. “Wall-E” is the kind of movie I want to see more often, a film which appeals equally to kids and adults as this is not always what Hollywood is quick to put out.

 

The Dark Knight poster

  1. The Dark Knight

The biggest movie of 2008 was also its best. I was blown away with not just what Christopher Nolan accomplished, but of what he got away with in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. “The Dark Knight” is not just an action movie, but a tragedy on such an epic scale. Many call it the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Batman series, and this is a very apt description. Many will point to this movie’s amazing success as the result of the untimely death of Heath Ledger whose performance as the Joker all but blows away what Jack Nicholson accomplished in Tim Burton’s “Batman,” but the sheer brilliance of the movie is not limited to the late actor’s insanely brilliant work. Each performance in the movie is excellent, and Christian Bale now effectively owns the role of the Caped Crusader in a way no one has before.

Aaron Eckhart also gives a great performance as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, one which threatened to be the most underrated of 2008. The “white knight” becomes such a tragic figure of revenge, and we come to pity him more than we despise him. The movie is also aided greatly by the always reliable Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Everyone does excellent work here, and there is not a single weak performance to be found.

Whereas the other “Batman” movies, the Joel Schumacher ones in particular, were stories about the good guys against the bad guys, “The Dark Knight” is a fascinating look at how the line between right and wrong can be easily blurred. Harvey’s line of how you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain perfectly personifies the dilemmas for every character here. To capture the Joker, Bruce Wayne may end up becoming the very thing he is fighting against. I can’t think of many other summer blockbusters which would ask such questions or be as dark. “The Dark Knight” took a lot of risks, and it more than deserved its huge success. It set the bar very high for future comic book movies, and they will need all the luck they can get to top this one.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Super Fly’ (1972)

Super Fly 1972 poster

With the remake about to be released, it was time to check out “Super Fly,” the 1972 blaxploitation crime drama which is considered one of the biggest classics of the genre. I have been aware of this film’s existence for years, and the photo on its VHS cover of Ron O’Neal holding a gun and looking ever so cool in his white suit and pants has been burned into my memory for decades. But like many movies I perused at local video stores, all of which have since vanished, I never got around to watching it until now.

While I certainly understand why “Super Fly” is long considered a classic blaxploitation film, it is not necessarily a great movie. On one hand the signs of its low budget are very much on display throughout to where I was reminded of what John Carpenter once said about the rule of making independent movies: “Shoot as little film as possible and make it as long as you can.” But on the other, it presents us with a New York time which no longer exists in modern day America, and the gritty realism of the city streets is on display throughout to where the movie’s existence is especially important as you can only fake this kind of realism in today’s cinematic world.

Ron O’Neal plays Youngblood Priest, an African-American drug dealer who enjoys a luxurious lifestyle in Harlem, New York. He got the name Priest because of the cross he wears around his neck. While this cross may or may not reflect his belief in God or any religious deity, a closer inspection reveals that the tip of the cross is fashioned in the shape of a spoon, and this allows him to do lines of cocaine whenever he needs a hit. In addition to his high-class apartment, the kind which would fetch at least a million in today’s New York real estate market, he also has a dedicated girlfriend in Georgia (Sheila Frazier), a white girl mistress named Cynthia (Polly Niles), the best set of clothes any man would be lucky to own and wear at the time, and he drives around town in a 1971 customized Cadillac Eldorado. Looking at Priest is to be convinced this is a man who has a lot of power and confidence you would be foolish to question, and this is something he does not have to spell out to anyone in words.

But as successful as Priest is, he yearns for a life outside of the underground drug business. This, of course, leads to him to plan one last “big score” which he believes will allow him to retire and go straight, but those of us who have watched countless gangster movies know this last big score will be the one fraught with the most danger. It gets to where there I expected the one scene where Priest just shakes his head as if to say to himself, “I should have gotten out of the life sooner, and now it’s too late.” Still, Priest is much smarter than his friends and foes realize, and we watch as he plots his way to his biggest drug deal ever, and then attempt to stay one step of everyone else who wants to do him in.

It has been said that the screenplay for “Super Fly” was only 45 pages long, and this is why we get exposed to so many shots of people walking, driving and talking in restaurants. This is the kind of film editing you would never see today as everything needs to move at a fast pace. This ends up dragging the movie down a bit as certain moments play themselves out for much longer than is necessary. Still, it allows us to take a look back at the New York that was before it, for better or worse, was cleaned up to where much of the state if unaffordable to live in. This helps to make up for other scenes which are staged rather pathetically, especially one in which a character gets hit by a car.

O’Neal immediately comes across as the personification of cool from the first moment he appears onscreen. He was in his 30’s when starred in “Super Fly,” but his face has the look of a man who has seen a lot in life up to that point, and this makes his performance as Priest feel all the more powerful and authentic. I never got the feeling he was trying to glamourize Priest’s lifestyle, and he was not afraid to make this character a rough and unlikable dude at times. He simply portrays Priest as a man who makes his way through life the only way he knows how, and his methods as you can imagine are not always morally sound.

As for the rest of the cast, their performances range from okay to pretty good. Charles McGregor, who was released from prison before “Super Fly” began filming, has some good moments as Fat Freddie, and Carl Lee, who plays Eddie, has a strong scene in which he tells Priest if it wasn’t for him, he would have overdosed. This line of dialogue would later prove to be tragically ironic as Lee became a heroin addict, and he died of a drug overdose back in 1986.

When “Super Fly” was released, many African-Americans were said to have been displeased with the way the movie glamourized people like themselves as drug dealers and pimps, but it resonated deeply with others who saw the movie as an example of how to rise up in the American class system. Does this movie glamourize the lifestyles of drug dealers? Well, perhaps it does, but the scary truth is there is always an allure to a life like this as it affords us a wealth which constantly seems out of our reach. Still, it should be noted how we never really see Priest enjoying himself much in the movie. While he has many things a person would want in life, we see right from the start how he has long since tired of his role in society to where it is believable and understandable why he yearns to do something legitimate for a change.

For those who think “Super Fly” provides audiences with a rather ambiguous look at the world of drugs and drug dealing back in the 1970’s, you need to take the time to listen Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to it which, by the way, is one of the best of its kind ever. An exhilarating fusion of soul and funk music, Mayfield also provided lyrics which were very socially aware and took an even closer look at drugs and poverty in society. When you read the lyrics of the song “Freddie’s Dead,” you can see the evidence of this very clearly:

“Everybody’s misused him

Ripped him up and abused him

Another junkie plan

Pushing dope for the man

A terrible blow

But that’s how it goes

A Freddie’s on the corner now

If you want to be a junkie, wow

Remember Freddie’s dead

We’re all built up with progress

But sometimes I must confess

We can deal with rockets and dreams

But reality, what does it mean

Ain’t nothing said

‘Cause Freddie’s dead.”

Looking at this, it is no wonder the soundtrack ended up making more money than the movie itself, and the movie did make a huge profit.

So “Super Fly” may not be an example of great filmmaking, but it should be noted how its production succeeded in offering advances for African-Americans. The city of Harlem went out of its way to back the movie financially, and many black businesses helped with production costs. Furthermore, the majority of the crew were in fact African-American, something which was very rare at this time in cinema. Taking all this into account makes “Super Fly” all the more enjoyable as it was a movie made with passion and respect as the filmmakers sought to tell it like it is. Despite its glaring flaws, it is a very cool movie to experience, and I am glad I finally got the chance to check it out, especially before I went out to see the remake.

* * * out of * * * *

‘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 * * * *

 

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘The Shining’

I guess you could say this particular trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” was an early example of a teaser trailer. These days we get teaser trailers for all the big Hollywood releases, and they are designed to whet our appetite not just for the next big blockbuster, but also for the next trailer which will give us even more information of what is in store for us. These days, we even have teaser trailers for teaser trailers, something which I hope will be stopped soon because they are ever so annoying. We get teased enough as kids, so doing this at the movies does not help.

What I love about this trailer for “The Shining” is how simple it is in its design, and yet it still feels deeply unsettling. All we see at first is part of a hotel lobby with two elevators and chairs. The camera never moves an inch as the movie’s credits move upwards indicating the title, the actors starring in it (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall), the names of the screenwriters, how it is based on “Stephen King’s Best-Selling Masterpiece of Modern Horror,” and the one credit us movie buffs are always happy to see, “Directed by Stanley Kubrick.” Seeing this had me wondering what one could expect with this adaptation of King’s work, and the music composed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind certainly sends a shiver down my spine.

Watching this trailer reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as Kubrick, like Hitchcock, managed to find a sinister quality in everyday things and the ordinary. There’s nothing particular special about this hotel lobby here as it looks like any other we have ever been through. This makes it all the more horrifying when those gallons of blood start pouring out of the elevators and into the lobby,

Once again, the camera never moves or pans away, and seeing the blood wash over it is incredibly frightening as you feel trapped and unable to escape. Our instincts tell us to run away, but Kubrick is not about to let his audience off the hook. As the blood drips off the camera to reveal the damage left in its wake, it is clear how the “Dr. Strangeglove” director is more than prepared to take us on a most unsettling ride.

Opinions about Kubrick’s “The Shining” have varied over the years, and King himself has said numerous times how much he despised it. Whatever you may think of the film, this trailer for it is a brilliant piece of work. It’s a shame we don’t see more trailers like this one these days. Of course, if you know of any, please feel free to share them with me.

 

‘Klute’ Features One of Jane Fonda’s Best Performances on Film

Klute movie poster

Many keep wondering what draws people, and not just women, to prostitution. It seems such a sordid profession which offers nothing but degradation and humiliation to those involved in it. Other than money, what does draw people into a lifestyle like this one which has been around for so long? From a physical point of view, it’s got to get tiresome after a while. Maybe it is appealing from a psychological point of view; people profiting off the needs and weaknesses of others may very well be its selling point. To have control over another person is always an appealing prospect.

This is made clear in “Klute” which was directed by Alan J. Pakula who had a talent for taking familiar stories and populating them with characters you can recognize from real life. The movie revolves around the case of a missing man and a private detective named John Klute (Donald Sutherland) who has been assigned to find him. The only lead he has is a prostitute named Bree Daniels, and she is played by Jane Fonda in one of her best roles.

Fonda won one of her two Oscars for her performance in this classic 1970’s thriller. It is a wonderfully complex role for an actress to play as Bree is a struggling actress and model who finds a power and control as a call girl she doesn’t have elsewhere in life. In one of several meetings with her psychiatrist, Bree admits she doesn’t enjoy the physical part, but she does enjoy the act she plays for all her clients. When she is with them, she considers herself to be the greatest actress in the world and brilliantly exploits their weaknesses to gain a higher price for her services.

Bree, however, ends up finding a different view on life with John, a man as straitlaced and upstanding as they come. Donald Sutherland has one of his best roles here, and while his character ends up succumbing to Bree’s charms, he never completely loses himself in his desires. Throughout the movie, he remains the source of hope and strength Bree needs when she finds out someone wants to kill her.

When Bree does ends up sleeping with John, she thinks she has him right where she wants him. She quickly intuits her strength over him as a result of him not making her orgasm as a weakness on his part, but later finds herself losing this power she has over men while she is with him. Bree finds she likes being with him, and this scares her because love is not something anyone can have any control over. There is a beautiful moment when she is shopping with John at a local farmer’s market, and you can see the insecurity on her face. She feels strongly for John, and it frightens her as the addiction she has for being a call girl may overwhelm her true love for him.

Pakula does a great job of increasing tension throughout “Klute,” and this is heightened by the characters being very relatable and down to earth. This has been the case with the majority of his movies like “All the President’s Men,” “The Parallax View” and even “Presumed Innocent.” Even if the plots of some of his movies seem far-fetched, it is the reality of the characters and the world they inhabit which sucks us in.

“Klute” also features another great performance by the late Roy Scheider as Frank Ligourin, a pimp disguised as a record producer. Scheider makes him unlike other pimps we have seen in “Taxi Driver” or “Street Smart” as he makes his character much more casual in his cruelty and control over those who work for him. He doesn’t deal too much in force because it doesn’t suit him well, and it would affect the relationships he has with his employees.

We do find out who’s threatening Bree early on, so the whodunit element of “Klute” disappears rather quickly. This could have really sunk the movie, but Pakula gets away with it because we find it is integral to the themes the movie explores: perversity, sexuality and the mentality behind them. Many think they are above perversity, but there is a darkness inside of us which often goes unchecked. The more we repress it, the more explosive it becomes when finally released. There are no good or bad guys in this movie, just people trying to measure out what they feel is right and wrong, and some do a better job of figuring this out than others.

“Klute” does have an anticlimactic ending, but that’s probably because the one we expect a movie like this to have would have just taken away from the reality of the story. Either way, it proves to be one of the most memorable movies of the 1970’s.

* * * * out of * * * *