Archive for August, 2012

The Informant! (2009) – Steven Soderbergh (Dir.), Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Tony Hale, Joel McHale

He’s so happy! YEAH! (slow motion high-five followed by inexplicable explosion)

Once again, we stand at the ever-changing gates of the Soderbergh, our hands quivering as we reach for the handle, unsure of what dangers, what wonders might lurk within. Will it be a taught, engrossing exploration of drag-trafficking? Perhaps a porn star known for anal play ‘acting’? What about a sexy and stylish heist movie featuring Brad Pitt eating? What about a sequel to that movie packed with famous cameos and yet it’s utterly lifeless and bland? Maybe even the greatest cinematic jewel of all, the utter cranial mutilation of Gwyneth Paltrow? The only way to discover what awaits us is to duck our heads and charge into the thematically/stylistically muddled mind of Mr. Soder-Is-He-Pretentious?-Probably-bergh.

What do we have here? It is certainly one of the oddest movies I’ve witnessed in a while, its utter strangeness existing not only in the head of its lead character, but carefully woven throughout every fabric of this insane pastiche of styles and tones. On the surface this is a by-the-numbers tale of befuddled corporate espionage, but what really lies beneath is something far more disconcerting. While watching this with my sister Hannah, (who, for the record, has been my favorite house guest of the year (sorry Mom, Dad, Alex, college friends etc. (also, I’m aware that I just put a parenthetical within a parenthetical (yes, and I just did it again, just remember PEDMAS and you should be fine. That is, unless I start throwing about exponentials willy-nilly – ha. Willy.))) because whenever I asked “What do you want to do?” she replied with “Fuck, I’m in my thirties and I’m married. Get me wine and take out.” It was the best.) I was immediately consumed by a thick veil of bemusement. Matt Damon’s mesmerizing portrayal of real-life whistle-blower Mark Whitacre takes center stage instantly with his hair-Inception, a toupee-on-top-of-bald-cap-on-top-of-luscious-Damon-mane. We’re thrust into the center of a price-fixing scheme with the dastardly folks in agra-business, the people almost directly responsible for what is misleadingly named the Omnivore’s Dilemma (I picked up that book really hoping for it to be the long lost sequel to Jurassic Park. I was disappointed. And horrified. CORN WILL KILL US ALL); we’re served wire-tapping, blackmail, viruses destroying product, a whole panoply of plot-points so perfectly preposterous they’d give Michael Crichton a boner.

“You want to put that pineapple where?” ~ Matt Damon, discovering that Texas S&M and Texas A&M are NOT the same thing.

Here’s the thing: none of it makes sense. It’s like watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy where a good two thirds of the tale feel as though they’ve been hacked out in the interest in time. We never see the antecedents to these intricacies, leaving everyone in the audience scratching their skulls and grasping at straws. Soon, the FBI are brought in and Whitacre turns into the exclamatory agent of the title, dishing the dirt on his crooked coworkers and dragging his company through the metaphorical muck. Scott “That Dude Who Sometimes Goes to Other Dimensions And Looks Like Other Dudes” Bakula is the hapless and helpless agent dragged along on the goose chase of insanity, also bringing along a terrifyingly not-Jeff-Winger-and-not-making-fun-of-celebrity-wastes-of-existence Joel McHale. It becomes clear as the mystery deepens and the plot thickens and the milk curdles and the hand shakes the barley, that the audience isn’t the only party left in the dark. In fact, everyone is. One by one, they all start tumbling into the pit of crazy that is Mr. Damon. Piece by piece, the fabric unravels revealing the deeper truths. Yes, this is technically a spoiler, but it doesn’t matter. This ain’t about plot. This is about crazy. This is about a man who fundamentally doesn’t understand concepts such as ’empathy’, ’emotional causality’, ‘trust’ and ‘honesty’. You know all those narrative threads that didn’t seem to coalesce into anything resembling sense? Yeah, they didn’t happen. It was fabricated. Everything. Matt Damon is, in actuality, a dirty liar, liar whose pants are perpetually on fire. What Soderbergh does so skillfully is draw you into the mind of a man who misses the basics of human emotion on several essential levels. The more we look into his mind, the more confused we see that he is. Once the other shoe FINALLY drops, smashing through of window of sensibility we’ve come to assume from the world of this movie, everything is called into question. Nothing Damon says can be trusted (I feel like that’s a good rule for life. NEVER TRUST MATT DAMON. He knows what he did.)

“Hi, my name is Joel McHale and I’m looking for the set of Community and…wait…Mr. Soderbergh…I DON’T WANT TO DO YOUR MOVIE! NOOOOO!” ~ True story.

Once again, this bad boy is all style over substance, as will of Soderbergh ventures. Luckily, this is some good substance. Though the movie is set in the early nineties, almost every frame seems stolen from a 70s spy flick, taking what is, at its basic level completely banality, and elevating it to a camp extreme. It’s as though Matt Damon is constantly singing his own theme song in his head and we, the audience, get to hear it. There are glaringly obstructive musical cues during even the most uninteresting scenes of people walking down hallways or driving through the mid-west. The exclamation point hidden within the title is the perfect punctuation for this tale. It is the overwhelming sense of extremity flooding every aspect of this movie, an unnecessary weight paid to what is essentially a failed court case. In any other hands this would have been a dirge of such yawnful proportions that the FDA could have graded it a lethal horse tranquilizer. But it isn’t in anyone else’s hands. This is a Soderbergh. This is no tale about how US agriculture is ruled by the greedy monolithic corporations dragging us into an Inferno of obesity and poor health. This is about the labyrinthine workings of Mr. Whitacre’s brain and how utterly confuzzling the whole thing is.

Possibly the best example of his misunderstanding is when, after wearing wires and implicitly sending all of his coworkers to jail, he declares that after all of the dust has settled, he’ll be CEO. Bakula looks at him with a visage of pure befuddlement and says, “Mark…you won’t be able to work at this company again. You’ll have destroyed it.” We see Mr. Damen’s face, we see it hear, calculate and keep it’s resolve, its impenetrable crazy. It is the face of the girl that shows up at your door at 3am asking why you didn’t propose on the second date. It is the face of a serial killer after being told that having seven severed legs stocked in his closet isn’t normal. It’s the face of something beyond us, a being with a cloud of comprehension constrained to a plane of existence that is not our own.

“Man, this VHS has incredible visual quality!” The 90s, a simpler time.

This movie is confusing, hilarious and bizarre. See it. Also, I wish everyone had jumped in the air and freeze-framed in high-five position while the end credits rolled. That would have been way better. But then again, I want that ending for every movie (notable exception: Schindler’s List).

Small Soldiers (1998) – Joe Dante (Dir.), Gregory Smith, Kirsten Dunst, Denis Leary, David Cross, Jay Mohr, Phil Hartman (*le sigh*)

‘Big Movie’ might be a sliiiight exaggeration. I don’t think ‘Decidedly Medium, Completely Forgettable Movie’ had quite the same ring to it.

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but there was this period of time called the ’90s’. Specifically, the late 90s. It’s a time, after the cocaine riddled nightmare/dreamscape of the 80s and darkest of human days that was the early 90s, from which came all the kids that told the Generation Xers to shut up because, sweet Jesus, we get it already, you grew up in the eighties. Here’s a fucking medal now get back to running our economy into the ground. Well, I grew up in the late nineties and I’m gonna tell you all about it and yes, I want a fucking medal, because I’m one of those assholes, Rugrats or not, who is stuck in this economic quagmire because you cokeheads.

Ah the late 90s. A simpler time. A time with a Federal surplus. A time when children went to school asking teachers what a ‘blowjob’ is and ‘who the fuck would touch Monica Lewinsky with a ten foot pole? Oh right, Bill ‘Corndog, well any kind of dog’ Clinton.’ A time of the great Hollywood Blockbusters such as Independence Day, Stargate, The Rock, Wild, Wild West, The Mask of Zorro, The Matrix, Con Air andwell, the list goes on. And on. And on and on and on. It was a time unfettered with the need to be bashful for our misunderstanding of Middle Eastern people, where villains were flagrantly British, no matter what their country of origin. It was a time of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Hey Arnold, Doug (without those brand-ass-spankingly terrible sleeves) and the rest of Nickelodeon’s good shows were forced on a Bataan Death March to the cemetery of childhoods-past by a fucking talking sponge. Basically, what I’m saying, is that I was a child in the late 90s. And it was amazing. I was also a fucking idiot, as I have previously expressed.

Elijah Wood called, he wants his everything back. Also, he’s suing you for sucking and not being in Lord of the Rings.

So, when my friends and I decided to surf the Flix of Net for some lighter fare, when we discovered this little gem, this artifact of Joe Dante’s post-Gremlins career, just resting there, waiting to be oggled by our ravenously bored eyes, a cheer echoed through our house. A cheer fueled by the agonizingly annoying nostalgia we so hate from our Generation X companions. A cheer fueled with a need for David Cross to be back in our lives, even if he isn’t covered in blue paint and wearing denim cut-offs. A cheer fueled with the desire to witness the late and divinely great Phil Hartman mildly phoning it in. And so…we watched.

To those of you not in the know, Small Soldiers was Joe Dante’s belated follow-up to the manically brilliant and positively insane Gremlins 2: The New Batch. If you have not seen the entirety of the Gremlins franchise, I demand you flagellate yourself for such insolence and then buy both movies immediately. They are genius. Also…Pat Morita. ‘Nuff said. This movie is about a defense company, run by the beautifully non-acting Denis Leary, purchasing a toy developer and accidentally designing a line of action figures that gain sentience and try murdering each other and any other human that gets in the way. Home run, right? Well it certainly fucking was when I was ten. Now it’s a little, how should I put it lightly? Um…dated? Trite? Paralytically stupid? Please, don’t mistake me, this movie is neither good nor bad. It transcends such meager definitions, floating above us in the heaven of pure batshittery, resting next to works of genius such as From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns and anything else made by Stephen Sommers. One cannot denounce this film for its basic laps in human logic (Why are toys dangerous? You can just kick them. Also, how can you turns Barbies into self-aware killing machines  using a fucking static ball and a cupcake tray?) you simply must sit back and all its glory to wash over you.

Even with the curses of its bland lead actor (Gregory Smith? Ever heard of him? Unless you have a rather traveled heroin addiction, probably not), its use of a decidedly not-legal Kirsten Dunst and Frank Langella cursing his agent with every line-reading, this movie shines with its supporting cast. If one were to do a cross-section of the late-nineties comedy circuit, Dante basically employed EVERYONE. We have Denis Leary being, well, Denis Leary. He’s a penis and he’s hilarious. Next, David Cross during his fascinating “being in things” period of his career. There’s Cheri Oteri, that terrifying, tiny lady who was in sketches with Will Ferrell back in the day. Kevin Dunn, the man who has apparently made a career of playing incompetent fathers. Voices from Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer (that’s right ALL of Spinal Tap, bitches). And finally, last and least, Jay Mohr that guy from SNL and other things no one gives a shit about and acts as a litmus test for all movie watching. All one must do is ask “Is Jay Mohr in it?” If the answer is ‘yes’, the movie must be from any time between 1995-2000. Dude hasn’t been in shit since. What is a hilarious choice on Dante’s part is that every single executive/official is played by a bumbling stand-up comedian, thereby suggesting that our entire Military Industrial Complex (that’s right, I took notes in history class) is a complete joke. See what I did there? I went to college!

“Kill all of them except for the big one. I really like him on the Simpsons.”

May I take a moment here to remove my hat, hold it over my heart and remember the greatness that was Phil Hartman. He will forever be one of my favorite comedic actors of all time before he was gunned down by his wife in a fit of rage. The man was brilliant. Troy McClure, Lionel Hutz, News Radio, SNL, and all the rest. He will be missed. Let’s take a moment to remember.

That was a good moment. You can’t tell I took one, because I’m writing. But I did. So shut up.

Back on track, this movie’s biggest issue, fourteen years down the line…wait…14 years? It’s been FOURTEEN YEARS? What the fuck am I doing with my life? How…? When…?

Sorry about that. I’ll weep in a corner later. Anyway, it’s biggest issue is that Dante is clearly attempting to make a point of how technology is infiltrating every aspect of our lives. In almost every frame there is a piece of media technology, from TVs, to walkmen, to…wait did I just say ‘Walkmen’? Oh god I remember those. At one point the kid makes reference to ENCARTA 95. Do you know what that is? No, you don’t. It’s wikipedia on a CD. Do you know how useful it is? That’s right, about as useful as a thumb up the ass. Uncomfortable and ending without the desired result. Of course, he makes his point, one that is intelligently prescient and salient, but with the side effect of causing everyone in the room to laugh at how hysterically terrible living in the 90s actually was. Dial-up internet? No text messaging? Cassette tapes? Jay Mohr? The whole prospect of those dark days is enough to give you nightmares. Jay Mohr nightmares (I’m trying to say that he is fucking terrible. Get it? Yes? Good. Moving on.)

It’s a fun piece of nonsensical fluff, wrapped in a surprisingly hilarious score (Spice Girls, anyone? I believe they were all recently bitten by zombies raised from the dead and forced to sing like dancing abominable monkeys at the Olympics). Never once do the toys ever seem like they might do any damage because, honestly, they’re fucking toys. Also, Joe Dante hates the military. That much is clear. But, beyond the flagrant misunderstanding of the capabilities of hardware vs. software (artificial intelligence is software, David Cross, not hardware,you bald-headed sexually inanimate boob. I still love you, though) it’s a little too silly to take seriously. While it attempts to satirize and attack America’s obsession with the intersection of violence and entertainment, it succumbs to its own demons, reducing the affair to a game of ‘Hold the Fort’. Even the tritely named Gorgonites have to let go of their pacifistic ideals to kick some ass.

Brick Bazooka took the advice to “Break a Leg” a little too literally. He also decided to detach his pelvis. Because he’s a fucking MAN. Well…toy.

Perhaps the best dig in the entire film at this prevailing violence-fixation epidemic is a one-off line from Mr. “Angels Sing When I Think of You” Hartman. While watching his massively high-def television, he declares “I think World War II is my favorite war.” Think about that for a second. If we take Sherman’s quote, “War is Hell” for granted…how in God’s name can we have a ‘favorite’ war? It’s such a side-line joke and yet it encapsulates Dante’s Thesis (the less exciting sequel to Inferno though the Thesis Defense was as horrifying as the lowest ring of hell, trust me) far more wittily and succinctly than a bunch of facially deformed super-toys blurting tired puns and building Might Morphin’ Shitter Ranger Mobiles to kill pacifists.

That is the power of Hartman. Long live the Hartman.

Raising Arizona (1987) – The Coen Brothers (Dir.), Nicholas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Frances McDormand

I want a baby-sized lawn chair. Not for using. Just for having.

Aaaaaaaaand we’re back. I’m sure you’re all sick of my incessant posts and musings on the storied history of the less-than-consistent Batman franchise. So, like Alfred at the end of the trilogy, I have left the streets of Gotham and have returned to regular movie-watching life. However, instead of relaxing at a Venetian villa, sipping a quarter cup of mallort and boning up on my Italian periodicals, I have the mustachioed Nicholas Cage sprinting at me with diapers while being chased by a harem of rabid pooches. Yes, that is just a small snippet of what I witnessed during the runtime of the Coen Brothers baby-heist movie Raising Arizona. Holy Jesus Henrietta Christ on a Cross with Joseph, Mary and the other Joseph playing cards.

Now, I haven’t even attempted to touch any of the Coen films throughout this ordeal for one of two reasons: either a) I’ve seen it or b) those stingy assholes at Netflix are yet to make them available. I am an unabashed, slobbering, squealing Coen Brothers obsessive. I will see anything they make. Well, almost anything (Intolerable Cruelty, anyone?). And even their turds smell like fucking roses. These boys are two of the darkest, funniest mutherfuckers to ever grace the silver screen. Also, they created the Dude. All hail. I have seen and loved: Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man and True Grit. I am yet to see Blood Simple, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Miller’s Crossing (I attempted once at about 1 in the morning. Pro Tip: never watch anything with Gabriel Byrne after 11pm unless it’s the criminally underrated Ghost Ship. Did I say ‘criminally underrated’? I meant ‘abortion’.) and anything else they make ever. Netflix, you’ve been warned. Make them available now or else I will murder a box of Australian Red Licorice every day until you do. Maybe a box and a half, depending on my mood. So, that being said, it may startle and/or appall you and/or make you take off your sunglasses and declare to the heavens ‘Dear God’, but I had never seen Raising Arizona. To everyone who has seen it: holy pill-popping, monkey-loving Christ. To those who haven’t: Dear Willy-Wagging Jesus. It is one of the most cracked out, yet witty black comedies I have ever had the pleasure to witness.

That’s the face Nic Cage makes every day he wakes up and realizes he’s Nic Cage. And then he remembers “I’m Nic Fucking Cage” and he buys a Lamborgini. True story.

This little gem of pure insanity is about H.I. McDunnough (pronounced ‘hi’), a simple fellow who tends to rob convenience stores with an unloaded pistol and spots a follicle pattern on his head-region similar to the hellish spawn of Freddie Mercury and David Lee Roth. In other words: he’s Nicholas Cage. He falls in love, in true Coen fashion, with the lady-cop, Ed, who takes his mug shots every time he’s arrested. She’s got a lisp, is batshit insane and needs a baby to make her happy. Basically…she’s Holly ‘Coolest Badass Lady Ever’ Hunter. Anyone who doesn’t know Holly Hunter must rent Danny ‘The Olympics Made Me Shit My Pants’ Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary right now because she and Delroy Lindo play a pair of assassin angels whose only goal is to get Ewan MacGregor and Cameron Diaz to fall in love. It’s not very good, but it’s amazing. Anyhoo, they want kids, but she’s barren. So, they do the only logical thing: they steal a baby from a rich family with quintuplets. Also, John Goodman with horrifying facial hair and the crabby cop from The Rock escape from prison and live in their house. It’s 90 minutes of pure Nic Cage bliss. We have baby-stealing, an extended chase scene through multiple houses and supermarkets with flagrant suburban violence and a horde of barking dogs (also, a handful of Huggies), the most awkward fight scene you’ll ever see in a bungalow and a grungy vigilante who throws grenades at bunnies. There isn’t the slightest hint of sanity on display here. And it’s wonderful. Perhaps the strangest of the sequences takes place during the initial infant-heist. While the parents are downstairs reading, Nicholas Cage is upstairs in the nursery picking up babies and putting them back. Then losing them. Then chasing them. Then putting them back. Then picking them up. Then almost getting caught. And then he leaves.

WHAT?

Yes. People actually dressed like this. Fashion…you have a lot to explain for yourself.

It was like witnessing a Three Stooges Scene as directed by Samuel Beckett. You’re aware that slapstick comedy is occurring, but it’s so piecemeal and bizarre you can’t quite wrap your head around it. In fact, the entire movie could almost be construed as a Farrelly Brother’s romp, except, you know, good. Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I cried. Sometimes, I stared at the screen, drool dripping from my jaw as my brain felt as though it had been transported to a parallel dimension where Nic Cage opened it with a crowbar and then took a shit in the hypothalamus before kicking it back through the time/space continuum and back into my cranium. Is there a deeper meaning to it all? Uh…maybe? It’s the Coen Brothers. I’m sure there’s something…somewhere…or maybe they just really love shitting on stupid crazy people? They did that with Fargo, but made it into a stomach-churning tale of how far the rabbit hole can go when humans are pushed to the brink. I mean…they get the baby back to the parents. And they get off scott-free. And someone explodes. But he has the same tattoo as H.I. And there are the prophetic dreams about happiness and offspring…My head hurts.

I would like to take a moment and discuss Nicholas Cage. I am sure that this will not be the last we see of him on my journey through the finer points of modern cinema. In fact, I am so certain, I might as well cut John Travolta’s face off and stick it over mine. By the way, that’s the plot of a movie. Think about that for a second. Did you have an aneurism? Not yet? Well, watch Ang Lee’s  John Woo’s Face/Off and then you will. Nicholas Cage is a Coppola, so, no matter how many times he might defecate on the collective creative consciousness of the universe, he’s always allowed back for more. Also, because he’s Nicholas Cage. It doesn’t matter what movie, what role, what hairstyle, what eye-style (there is a ‘crazy’ spectrum based on how open his eyes are at any given moment, going from Con Air’s 1 to Face/Off’s 10 and then Bad Lieutenant’s 19), he is always the most enjoyable thing on screen. Is he good? Ask Season of the Witch (that’s a resounding ‘yes‘ ‘what the fucking fuck just happened to my brain?). Here, he’s still in his young Valley Girl/Leaving Las Vegas, nubile period. His comedy is moderately restrained, his scenic presence is subdued and if your child watched him talk, they wouldn’t ask ‘Why does that man look like an exploding peach with a mullet?’ In fact, it’s a wonderful counterpoint to Holly Hunter’s impersonation of what would happen if the virus in Contagionwas actually the far more dangerous ‘Baby Fever’. You feel for the guy, though you understand that his mentally-deficient character is the poster child for why modern eugenics might not be the worst idea (kidding).

Probably the worst and most confusing ad for ‘Full Metal Babysitting Inc.’ It took some time to convince parents that he was protecting the child by murdering everyone else.

To the average movie viewer, who loves to cram handfuls of buttered/baconed (that’s right, bacon is now a verb, mutherfucker) popcorn into their gobs while witnessing giant robots beat the shit out of each other in 3D, Coen Brothers’ movies are weird. You know what? Those sad, carb-filled monstrosities (i.e. everyone) are right. They are weird. Over the course of their careers they have opened the doors to the oddest subsections of humanity, all folded between the cracks of every day life. Their writing has a sinister quality to it, rarely glorifying its subjects but rather mercilessly and mirthfully ridiculing the ever-loving shit out of them. Even in a movie like Fargo, where you care desperately about the extremely pregnant Frances ‘Awesome Sauce’ McDormand…they still have extended scenes of her just saying ‘oh ya’ over and over again. I can’t tell if they hate all of humanity or love it. On the one hand you have the devastating and enthralling No Country For Old Men and it’s labyrinthine exploration of what it means to be a man in the modern-day west (maybe that’s what it’s about…I was thinking about it for weeks) and on the other you have the epically nihilistic retelling of the Job parable that is A Serious Man.Perhaps the Coen brothers are what would occur if Hannibal Lecter made movies. Simultaneously curious as to the intricacies of existence and yet entirely flippant about its subjects. It’s as though humans are fruit flies and they are the scientists overseeing their interactions. The outcome is important to observe yet they are unaffected by death and pain. It’s all just data points.

The children are our future.

In any case, I will slurp up anything those crazy gentlemen choose to eject into the film-verse. They’re two of the most talented, darkly-hilarious men armed with a camera to waltz through the hell-scape that is today’s Hollywood. I will see everything. I will laugh. I will squirm. I will scratch my head. And I will enjoy myself. Even if it does make me feel dead inside.

And now: a montage of Nicholas Cage’s hair through the years. You’re welcome.