Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pardon the Intermission...


I have no idea if anyone is actually keeping an eye on this site, but if you were a constant reader of my Xanga blog or have followed my reviews in the newspaper, you know that my recent productivity is pretty odd for me. Within the last two months I've only posted reviews of 2 movies--"District 9" and "The Informant!" Whereas in the past I've been putting out reviews several times a week, this lapse in writing is very out of character for me. And, as someone who loves film and writing about it, I've been very frustrated about my lack of output.

So first a word of explanation. Then, a word of promise.

This summer, August in particular, was a killer. Work at my day job became crazy hectic for about an entire month and, honestly, there was no way I could fit in moviegoing, writing and my real job without going absolutely insane. Add to that the fact that I've had some things going on in my personal life--very good things, mind you--that have kept me away from theaters for that long. Whereas I used to see a movie every weekend and sit at home watching a new DVD every week, work, relationships and other obligations took priority. The reason there were no reviews between "District 9" and "The Informant" is simply because I was not watching movies. Sure, there were a few--I particularly enjoyed "Adventureland" and one day I will sit down and write that lengthy entry on "Inglorious Basterds" that it kills me not to have addressed yet (short review: Tarantino's best since "Jackie Brown.") Other than that, I simply was not at the movies.

I should also point out that there's been a tough transition in the way I approach this. Previously, I could have this be part of my day job. Technically I worked as a reporter, but the film criticism was something I took on as a side project and could devote time to at work. It was considered work time to go see a movie in the evening and my schedule afforded me the flexibility to set aside a few hours to mull over an article. Doing it freelance does not offer that luxury--I often see a screening on Tuesday night and need to go home and write the review right away for a Wednesday deadline (I'm actually doing that tonight with "The Invention of Lying.") Other responsibilities at work have pulled me away (temporarily) from that love of film.

And frankly, I don't like that.

Whether I'm doing it for freelance, posting to a blog or simply writing something up for my own enjoyment, I love immersing myself in film. Some people say they go to a movie to have fun, not to think. I'd argue that going to a movie and having my thoughts provoked IS fun. More than I love a good tv show, more than I love a good book, I love being utterly enveloped by a film and mulling it over again, chewing over every scene and line of dialogue and then writing my thoughts out for whoever will read. While I might not have written anything about "Inglourious Basterds," the truth is that the film is on the fast-track to a high spot on my year end list. One day--most-likely after the DVD has been released--I will right the lengthy love letter that's inside of me to Tarantino's war movie.

But lately, I've been rusty. And that's due, in large part, to the fact that the majority of my professional writing is of a new nature. It's dry, technical and--to be honest--a bit boring.

Which is why I need side projects like this to keep my sanity. And thus, a re commitment to this blog.

We're quickly heading into my favorite time of the year: the Fall movie season. Just last week I renewed my membership in the Detroit Film Critics Society. There are films I'm excited about reviewing for The Source that are starting to screen--"Invention of Lying" is one of them. I have another site asking for reviews as well. And if I'm going to give it my all and be the best critic I can be (regardless if it's part-time), I need to focus.

So this site will get a renewed attention. I'm committing to at least two reviews a week--including at least one older film, as I continue my attempt to improve my cinematic knowledge. I've been working my way through "The Up Series" and hope to have, in the coming months, an essay about those films. With Halloween coming up, I plan on dedicating a significant portion of October's entries to the horror genre. I'm considering taking another attempt at "The Alphabet Project" in 2010...it was a fun project that I began earlier this year to go through my DVD collection. I got through a few but I'm hoping that we'll start that up again near the end of this year or beginning of next. There are directors whose works I hope to delve into. And I hope to start really digging into more columns, including an updated list of my favorite movies and a ranking of the best films of this decade.

So keep this site on your radar. This Friday I'll have my thoughts on "Lying" and over the next week I hope to make it out to the theaters to see "Zombieland," "Capitalism: A Love Story" and the rerelease of "Toy Story/Toy Story 2." It may mean more reliance on my DVR and a willingness to sacrifice a night of TV for a night of film. It may mean forgoing an afternoon nap in favor of a day on the couch with "The Big Lebowski." It may mean finally convincing my girlfriend to sit and watch "Die Hard" with me. But my hope is to really get back to work on this site, especially as we head into the home stretch of 2009 and start to see what are--hopefully--the year's best films.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Movie Review: "The Informant!"

Originally published in the 9/20 edition of The Source.

Had anyone but Mark Whitacre been involved in exposing price-fixing in the lysine industry, I doubt the new film "The Informant!" would be worth watching.

Face it: Despite the fact that lysine manufacturer ADM was fixing prices on a product that appears in hundreds of products, robbing the American public of millions of dollars, no one wants to see a movie that is, essentially, about the price of food extracts. Wall Street and the tobacco industry have made for sexy corporate thrillers; audiences probably wouldn't get too worked up about corn.

But at the center of this case was Mark Whitacre, the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history. As played by Matt Damon in Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!," Whitacre is a doughy, bumbling executive whose clumsiness and naivety frustrated the FBI, and whose secrets nearly unraveled a 7-year investigation.

The story begins in 1992, as Whitacre approaches his bosses to report being contacted by a possible extortionist. The execs soon call in the FBI and Whitacre is soon revealing important information to Agent Brian Shephard (Scott Bakula). It seems that Whitacre is aware of price fixing in the lysine business, a scheme bilking consumers across the world of millions of dollars. Whitacre agrees to act as an informant for the FBI, taping and transcribing conversations to help trap his bosses.

So far, we're in typical corporate thriller territory. What elevates the story into the realm of the absurd is Whitacre's bizarre behavior. He quits returning FBI phone calls, and then begins saying that everything has changed and there's no case, only to reveal even more information about the underhanded dealings surrounding him. He bumbles through sting operations, stopping to stare directly into surveillance cameras and, at one point, even fumbling with a tape recorder concealed in his briefcase during a corporate meeting. A fan of the books "Rising Sun" and "The Firm," Whitacre is fueled by his desire to be "the guy in the white hat" and the chance to play a role in the espionage game he so loves; it's just that he's no good at the spy game.

Or, as later revelations show, maybe he's a bit more skilled at covering up the truth than he's suggested.

Soderbergh, never content to make the same film twice, is not interested in the details of corporate malfeasance or structuring the film like a standard thriller. He's more interested in the character of Whitacre, a man convinced of his own brilliance, prone to flights of fancy and daydreams (Damon's constant interior monologues, about everything from butterflies to hotel pools, are hilarious), and unsure of where his loyalty lies or the consequences of his cooperation with the FBI. At one point Whitacre muses about his chance to take over the company once he exposes all his bosses.

Soderbergh is well aware of the inherent dryness of this story's setting and seems to delight in the deadpan, dully serious corn industry, which is paralleled by revelations that constantly get more and more bizarre. Many of the laughs in the film come not from jokes or gags but simply from the pure absurdity of the situation, and the constant twists and turns Whitacre puts the FBI through. He populates minor roles with popular comedians - including Paul F. Tompkins, Tony Hale, Joel McHale and Patton Oswalt. Even though they play relatively straight characters, their mere appearance will likely elicit chuckles and poke fun at the seriousness of the situation. Marvin Hamlisch's jazzy score also adds a nice little counterpoint to the relative blandness of the surroundings.

But make no mistake, this is Damon's film. With an extra 30 pounds, a horrible hairpiece and even worse mustache, Damon perfectly embodies the role of the fat, boring businessman prone to Walter Mitty-like daydreams of heroism. Damon has an underrated comedic ability that serves him well here; he finds humor in simple reaction shots and line delivery, and even shows a flair for subtle physical comedy.

But there's also the hint of something deeper and sadder here. Damon plays Whitacre as an almost comedic counterpoint to his character from "The Talented Mr. Ripley," a man who doesn't know the next step to take and is hiding secret upon secret. Soderbergh plays many revelations close to the vest, keeping vital information about Whitacre hidden from both the characters and the audience, and not always letting each piece connect. The film sometimes gets lost amid the plot's complexity and the film's dry humor may grate on some filmgoers' patience. But for the most part, Soderbergh and Damon present an intriguing, fascinating and very funny portrait of the most complex, bizarre and polarizing "American hero" ever known.


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.