Review: The Informant!I went into The Informant! with a pretty substantial bias, that director Steven Soderbergh is probably, if I had to pick just one, my favorite director. I haven’t seen literally all of his movies (I missed a few of his early ones, I somehow have still managed to not see Erin Brockovich, and I haven’t gotten around to his more recent indie experiments Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience), but I’ve seen most of them, and I love just about all of them (even Solaris!). The knack he shows for comedy in the Ocean’s movies and Out of Sight (which may be my favorite of his films, with the possible exception of The Limey) made me really excited about Soderbergh re-teaming with Matt Damon to tell the true story of Mark Whitacre, a senior exec at food giant Archer Daniels Midland who helped the FBI bust an ostensible price-fixing scheme. Everything I saw from the movie, from the ridiculous poster (seriously, tell me that thing isn’t genius) to Damon’s awesome mustache and paunch to the exclamation point in the title had me stoked. And credit to Soderbergh and Damon, they did not let me down.
But let’s get the basics out of the way early: The Informant! is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and Damon definitely deserves an Oscar nomination at the very least for his work as Whitacre. The movie is astonishingly funny in an absurd, Coen brothers way, and there’s also a lot of wonderfully subtle little things going on as well. While there’s certainly a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in The Informant!, most of the humor comes from the tone and the performances, none of which are “wacky” or what you’d normally associate with a comedy. (Even Damon’s sillier moments, many of which are on display in the ads and trailers, don’t come off as “jokey” in the context of the movie, but he’s still a non-stop riot.) Soderbergh and his cast play everything fairly straight, and let the comedy flow from that.
But as much credit as Soderbergh and his cast deserve for how funny The Informant! is, the movie has a secret weapon that I wasn’t expecting at all: Marvin Hamlisch. Soderbergh tapped the legendary Hollywood composer to do the score for The Informant! (which, despite being set mostly in the early ‘90s, has a definite ‘70s vibe), and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where the music contributed so much to the comedy. And I don’t mean funny cues of pop songs, but the score itself. Hamlisch never devolves into making fun of the action we’re seeing on screen (though he comes close with some flourishes that echo the James Bond theme in a couple of moments where Whitacre’s really getting into acting like a spy), but his music adds a lot to the absurd, tonal comedy that Soderbergh creates. I don’t remember the last time a movie’s score had me in stitches.
I don’t want to give too much away about where The Informant! eventually goes (even though it's based on a true story), but the further along Whitacre gets into his work with the FBI, the more red flags about Whitacre himself start popping up, and his story – and Whitacre himself – eventually falls apart. And that’s where the movie blew me away; without really changing too much in terms of pacing or style, Soderbergh shifts the tone of the movie in the final act, and it sort of stops being funny and starts being sad and weird (and I mean that in the best possible way). And that’s also where I began to appreciate the work Damon was doing; he manages to show Whitacre slowly coming apart without really changing his performance too drastically. But as the context for Whitacre’s increasingly erratic behavior becomes clear, so does the depth of the character Damon has created in Whitacre. It’s pretty amazing stuff, and it’ll be a shame if Damon being so damn funny works against his chances of getting some sort of awards recognition.
The other performance I absolutely have to mention is Scott Bakula as Whitacre’s FBI handler. I was never into Quantum Leap and I couldn’t have been less interested in Star Trek: Enterprise, but sweet Christmas is he brilliant in here. The amount of information – often hilarious information – Bakula conveys with just a subtle change of his expression had me amazed. And the dynamic between his character and Whitacre – he’s simultaneously an adversarial authority figure to Whitacre as well as being his confidant and something almost approaching a friend – is like almost nothing I’ve seen before. What a wonderful career jump-start The Informant! could be for Bakula; I’d happily watch him in just about anything after this.
Overall, I loved The Informant!, but I’m not sure how much of that was based in the fact that Soderbergh’s movies just seem to turn my crank. Whatever the reason, it’s funny and strange and sad and delightful, and I recommend it highly.
So apparently they’re making a movie about Facebook. Which isn’t news in itself, as the project was first announced months ago. The behind-the-camera talent has been in place for a while – David Fincher (Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is attached to direct, and West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin wrote the script – but this week the cast started to come together. Variety reports that Jesse Eisenberg will play Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake will play Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder who became president of Facebook, and Andrew Garfield will play Eduardo Saverin, the co-founder who had a falling-out with Zuckerberg as the site became a huge deal.
Now, I love me some Fincher, and while I’m not Aaron Sorkin superfan #1, I’ve seen a bit of the early seasons of The West Wing, and the guy can definitely write. So from that standpoint, as much as I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the idea of a movie about the creation of a website, I feel like The Social Network (which is the movie’s title) is in fairly good creative hands. And the basic story about friends creating something that becomes hugely successful and how that affects their relationship is certainly fodder for a good movie. But a lot of this will end riding on the cast, and this looks like a decent enough one. I like Eisenberg (he was fantastic in the excellent coming-of-age comedy/drama The Squid and the Whale, and I have high hopes for the upcoming Zombieland), and as much as part of my brain still tells me I should hate him, I’ve can’t say I’ve ever disliked Timberlake in anything I’ve seen him in. Garfield I’ve actually never heard of so I have no idea what to expect from him, but like Meat Loaf says, two out of three ain’t bad.
I’ll certainly be following the development of The Social Network as it moves along, if for nothing other than to try to figure out exactly what the movie will be like.
I got myself all worked up in this space a few months back after seeing footage from the upcoming sequel Tron Legacy, which is due at the end of 2010. At the time I mentioned that I’d heard that French electronic music duo Daft Punk had signed on to provide the score, which seemed almost too perfect to be true. Evidently they’re still on board, as the following track just turned up online from their score. I’ve never been a big Daft Punk fan, but I like this if for no reason than it reminds me of the music that played in boss fights in the video games I grew up playing. And what could be better for a new Tron movie?
At this point I don’t know what I find weirder, that they’re making a Tron sequel or that I’m this genuinely excited about it.
I’m far from what you’d call a Diablo Cody fan; by the time I got around to seeing Juno it had long since been the Indie Hit of the Year, and I was already sick of hearing about it. I certainly didn’t dislike it, but I thought the screenplay was too cute by half and Cody seemed to be a bit too in love with her own cleverness. (But apparently a lot of people online really, really hate her for some reason I don’t understand. The Internet can be a sad, weird place.) And I’m not enough of a fan of horror movies or Megan Fox to care much about Cody’s recent Jennifer’s Body.
But I can’t say I didn’t crack a smile when I read that Universal has hired Cody to write and produce movies based on the Sweet Valley High series of novels, about a pair of identical twin high school girls with totally different personalities. Cody’s apparently a huge fan of the series, which has something like 150 titles in print(!), and as much as Sweet Valley High obviously isn’t my thing, I think the property would probably produce some fun movies with Cody’s distinctive style and humor. And really, fair’s fair; women have long been getting the soiled end of the nostalgia-movie stick. My geeky ass has been treated to big-budget movies based on beloved comic characters and toy lines for almost a decade now, with nary a My Little Pony or Jem movie to be seen.
Now, I liked He-Man when I was a kid. A lot. I dragged my mom to see the cruddy 1987 Masters of the Universe movie starring Dolph Lundgren and Courtney Cox (it was bad even when I was 9). And I don’t know if I can adequately express how terrible an idea a new He-Man movie is. And Barbie doesn’t even have a story. (Though neither did the Sexand the City Movie, and that didn’t seem to hold that movie back from making a mint.)
It’s no secret that Hollywood loves to chase trends and capitalize on concepts and ideas that are financially successful. But this thing with movies based on toy lines and board games – plans are also afoot for movies based on Monopoly and Battleship, I kid you not – is going too far. Enough. Please just stop.
It’s been said that the sign of a good documentary is that it can engage a viewer even if that viewer has no real interest in the subject matter. And to say I’m not really that interested in fashion is a pretty staggering understatement, particular to those who have seen me in person. So I can safely say that my enjoyment of Valentino: The Last Emperor suggests it’s a good documentary, because it had me totally engaged for its entire running time, and I don’t know couture from a coat rack.
The film follows the iconic designer known as Valentino during what would turn out to be his final months working in the business, with the latter part of the movie focusing on the planning of a massive celebration in Rome to commemorate his 40th anniversary in fashion. He’s been an icon in the industry for decades – the film does a nice little recap of his career, which started in Paris in the late ‘40s/early ‘50s – and one of the main themes, alluded to in the film’s subtitle, is that the industry has changed significantly since his early years. The idea that Valentino is the last remaining great designer of an era that will never be recreated is one director Matt Tyrnauer spends a lot of time on – possibly too much, as most other designers are essentially skimmed over, but then again, the movie is about Valentino, not fashion at large, so that’s hardly a serious knock against it – and by the end of the film I felt like I had something approaching a real understanding of Valentino’s importance to the fashion industry, and for a newbie like me, that says something.
One of the main reasons I enjoyed Valentino: The Last Emperor as much as I did was that Tyrnauer and his crew provide a glimpse into a world I know nothing about, and they managed to educate me about its subject (both Valentino in particular and fashion in general), without ever talking down to me. The film deals with the nuts and bolts of fashion in a way that’s engaging, and manages to establish Valentino’s significance without spending huge amounts of time on old file footage or expository interviews with people telling the camera what a big deal he is; you just sort of feel it. It’s one of the basic rules of storytelling: show, don’t tell, and it’s one Tyrnauer grasps.
The film also has enough peeks behind the curtain that I’m sure it’s insightful for ardent fashion followers. I mean, what’s not to like about watching the 70-something Valentino throw a hissy fit hours before a huge show? Stuff like that certainly makes for compelling viewing – especially when Valentino threatens to quit the film entirely if he’s not left alone, or, at another point, if the cameras don’t follow him exclusively – and The Last Emperor has plenty of moments like that.
But the aspect of the movie that resonated with me the most was probably the relationship between Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti, the man who’s been his partner and companion for 50 years. It really forms the film’s emotional backbone, and there’s some genuinely touching moments surrounding the two, who can seem like a bickering old married couple one moment and a pair of businesslike colleagues the next. There’s a chunk of the film where Giammetti actually seems like the primary subject, as nobody else has known Valentino as long, or as intimately, so Tyrnauer naturally relies on his insight quite often, and Giammetti himself comes across as the more level-headed, rational yin to Valentino’s more fiery, emotional yang. Valentino’s relationship with Giammetti is among the most emotionally involving as any I’ve seen in a documentary any time recently, to the point where I was almost disappointed when the focus shifted back towards Valentino and his anniversary celebration.
One final thing I need to mention is the fact that Valentino: The Last Emperor is a great-looking film, one of the better looking non-nature documentaries I’ve seen. Which is totally appropriate, given the subject matter, but everything, from the lush dresses on display to the streets of Rome, is gorgeously shot by Tyrnauer and cinematographer Tom Hurwitz.
Like I said, I’m about as ignorant of fashion as you can be without being openly mocked by strangers on the street (though I usually have my iPod on, so it’s actually fairly plausible that this is already happening and I just don’t realize it), but I thought Valentino: The Last Emperor was great. I can only imagine how much of a treat it is for fashion fans. If you’re into fashion, then see this movie as soon as humanly possible.
The DVD for Valentino: The Last Emperor isn’t packed with extras, but what’s there is interesting. There’s a 30-minute featurette called ‘The Perfect Life: Around the World with Valentino,’ which is essentially an extended collection of some existing parts of the movie, expanding on the behind-the-scenes footage of a huge, celebrity-filled party thrown at the designer’s massive Paris estate, as well as extra footage from a Swiss skiing trip and a longer version of a cute moment in the movie with the designer, his entourage and his five small dogs on a private jet.
There’s also a pair of shorter featurettes that also expand on bits in the film, one about a red dress Valentino’s seen sketching early in the film, and another about the big anniversary gala thrown at the end. Overall this is a very nice DVD for a great documentary.
A-Team cast coming togetherHollywood's been threatening a movie version of The A-Team for years now (a team of wrongfully-convicted military squad taking mercenary jobs while on the run is a pretty great concept for an action movie), but it looks like it's finally going to happen. Like any child of the '80s, I was a pretty serious A-Team fan, though now I barely remember much about it beyond the usual stuff (George Peppard and his cigar, Mr. T, lots of gunfire but nobody getting seriously hurt, etc.). It's getting the big-screen treatment thanks to director Joe Carnahan, who wrote and directed a dark, brilliant little undercover cop thriller in 2005 called Narc (seriously, if you've never seen it, check it out, it's fantastic; Jason Patric vs. Ray Liotta!), and followed that with Smokin' Aces, a movie apparently hated by everyone except for me. So if nothing else, I'm guardedly optimistic his take on The A-Team will at least be a good time; one of the reasons I dug Smokin' Aces was that it's just a wacky, over-the-top action movie, which is exactly what The A-Team should be.
But a big-screen adaptation of a beloved TV show doesn't count for much these days without a cast of interesting actors, and the A-Team is looking like it'll be pretty crazy. Liam Neeson is apparently on board to step into Peppard's shoes as Hannibal (which seems like a good idea after Taken, a movie I haven't yet seen but have heard nothing but positive things about), current Hollywood It Boy Bradley Cooper will be pretty-boy "Faceman", UFC fighter Quinton "Rampage" Jackson will take over for Mr. T as "B.A." Baracus, and now Variety is reporting that District9's Sharlto Copley and Jessica Biel are in final talks to play "Mad" Murdock and, Faceman's ex, respectively. (I'm not sure if it's just confusing wording, but the Variety piece makes it sound as if Face is the guy pursuing the A-Team, or that she's a general, but neither of those sound right.)
The two people in the cast that have me the most intrigued are Jackson and Copely, for totally different reasons. I'm actually a pretty serious MMA fan, and have been for years (I got a pile of UFC DVDs at my old job a year or two before the sport really blew up, and I've been hooked ever since), and Rampage definitely has the right look to play the character that helped make Mr. T the pop-culture icon he is. He's also got a truckload of charisma, and he's funny as hell. But that's not the same as acting ability, so it's still a toss-up over whether this casting will turn out to be a mistake. It is an ensemble movie though, so if Rampage turns out to be a terrible actor, Carnahan can probably get away with limiting his role to the occassional tough-guy line and a few comical exchanges with Mad Murdock.
Speaking of Murdock, I couldn't be more excited by the idea of Copley in that role. Regular readers know of my torrid love affair with District 9 (check out my review here), and Copely was one of the things that truly blew me away in that movie. If he does indeed end up in this role, there isn't a doubt in my mind he will be brilliant as the A-Team's crazy, comedy-relief pilot. The A-Team starts shooting in the fall in Vancouver, and you can be sure I'll keep you in the loop with stuff as I come across it.
So Patrick Swayze died this week, and as much as this is sort of “old news” by now in our contemporary cycle of celebrity journalism, I feel I have to weigh in, because he was in some pretty excellent movies over the years, including one of my all-time favorites.
First off, I should get something out of the way: I never cared for Ghost and I don’t think I’ve ever seen all of Dirty Dancing. But one of the highest compliments I can pay any actor is when I don’t even think of them being in a particular movie because I so associate them with the character. A great example of this is Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski; I always have to do a mental double-take to remember that he’s in that, because when I think of that movie I always just think of The Dude. And Patrick Swayze does that to me in Point Break, which I think of as a Keanu Reeves movie in which the villain isn’t Patrick Swayze, but just Bodhi. He’s great in that movie, and takes a character that doesn’t really make much sense on paper – a surfing, sky-diving, bank-robbing adrenaline junkie who doubles as a quasi-Zen philosopher – and he just makes it work. Even after the film shifts gears and he begins to play Bodhi as a full-on villain (complete with kidnapping the hero’s girl), he gives the character a charisma and likeability that most other actors would have ditched in favor of more traditional scenery-chewing bad-guy stuff.
But Swayze’s death is also a rare instance where everyone knew it was going to happen, it was just a matter of time. And I think he deserves extra kudos for his work on The Beast, the A&E cop drama he made after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was determined to go out working, and that’s admirable.
Also, he was in Road House, for the love of god, one of the campiest camp classics in the history of camp classics. Patrick Swayze was the first man I saw rip out another man’s throat in a movie. And I’ll never forget it.
A week or so ago I mentioned a few movies playing at the Toronto International Film Festival that caught my eye (sadly, none of which I’ve actually gotten the chance to see), one of which was Peter Stebbings’ oddball indie superhero movie Defendor, starring Woody Harrelson.
It’s since been picked up by Sony for worldwide distribution (except for here in Canada, where it will be released by the fine folks at Alliance Films). I haven’t seen Defendor so I can’t say whether it’s good or not, but it certainly looks interesting, if nothing else. I can’t wait to check it out for myself. I’ll keep you posted.
Speaking of Sony and superheroes, do you know what you’re doing on May 6, 2011? Sony would like you to clear that date to see Spider-Man 4. Variety reports that director Sam Raimi, as well as stars Tobey Macguire and Kirsten Dunst, are set to go for a sequel. I actually like this idea for a couple of reasons: (1) it will hopefully free us from the notion of the trilogy as the accepted form that just about all sci-fi/fantasy/superhero stories must take, and (2) it gives Raimi a chance to redeem himself after the disappointing Spider-Man 3. I didn’t hate that movie as much as some did, but it was way too filled with stuff (there was easily two films worth of ideas shoehorned into one, presumably because everyone involved assumed it would be the last Spider-Man movie, at least with that cast and crew). With any luck, Raimi will be left alone to make the movie he wants to make, and no villains will be foisted upon him by Marvel or the studio or fans (which is apparently what happened with Venom in the last movie).
In related news (it’s actually in the same story), Marvel has announced that a few weeks later, on May 20, 2011, they’ll release Thor in theaters. Personally I’m more excited about Thor, as I like the character more and I think that if director Kenneth Branagh can pull off the balance between superhero action and the book’s more mythic, fantastic themes, it’ll be a take on the superhero we haven’t really seen yet. We’ll see how it all goes down, but I can’t until I start seeing more stuff about both films in the coming months.
Harper’s Island is a shining example of an absolutely brilliant idea completely botched in the execution. The premise – a self-contained, 13-episode murder mystery in which dozens of characters are killed off one at a time – is a phenomenal idea. But the people behind Harper’s Island seem to have little or no understanding of the mechanics of the slasher movies they’re attempting to emulate (albeit for network television, so they’re unfortunately starting with one hand tied behind their proverbial backs), and virtually no ability to properly build tension beyond superficial jump scares. Harper’s Island was an intensely frustrating viewing experience because of all the things the show does wrong, while a great idea filled with promise is sitting right there waiting to be properly executed.
Harper’s Island follows a wedding on a secluded island off the coast of Washington state that was the scene of a brutal series of murders seven years earlier. Naturally, the main character, Abby (Elaine Cassidy), has a very personal connection to the previous murders – her dad is the local sheriff and her mom was one of the victims – and has spent the past seven years in Los Angeles trying to forget her gruesome past. She returns to Harper’s Island for the wedding of her best friend, Henry (Christopher Gorham of Ugly Betty fame) and his wealthy heiress fiancée, Trish (Katie Cassidy, no relation), and finds herself, along with the rest of the wedding party, the targets of a new series of murders that echo the prior slayings. It’s a great premise – a wedding party of 25-plus characters getting picked off one by one as the viewer tries to figure out which one is the killer – and I was actually quite interested to sit down and watch Harper’s Island. So where does it all go wrong?
It actually starts off quite poorly. The first few episodes have an overheated, primetime-soap vibe (it somehow manages to simultaneously be over-the-top silly and totally straight-faced) that’s not even campy or fun, just bad. The first few hours are mostly devoted to introducing the paper-thin, clichéd characters, like Henry’s gang of buddies, straight out of central casting for a crappy beer commercial, or the effete, wussy British boyfriend of the token flirt/skank, or Trish’s evil, scenery-chewing, father (who would totally twirl his mustache in every scene if he had one), who seems like he stepped out of another, far more fun show. The producers seem to be shooting for Scream, but they hit somewhere closer to The Young and the Restless with graphic murders.
Fans of horror movies know that creative kills are one of the most integral parts of an enjoyable slasher experience, but the kills in Harper’s Island are just sort of stock, and nowhere near as clever or fun as the producers seem to think they are. Granted, the fun in slasher movies is usually largely because the films are so graphic, and they can’t really do graphic on a show that ran in primetime on CBS. But there’s also a sense of fun to slasher movies that Harper’s Island totally lacks. Slasher movies, even ones with a “whodunit” angle, like the Scream saga (chunks of which the producers lift wholesale, and the nautical-themed killer was already done in the mediocre I Know What You Did Last Summer franchise), are typically fun to watch, but for some reason Harper’s Island opts for a gritty, realistic sense of dread, and it simply doesn’t work. To make a slasher movie seem dark, you have to go really dark, into Halloween territory (either the John Carpenter original or the Rob Zombie remake, pick one), and that’s (a) far too oppressive a tone to maintain for 13 episodes, and (b) even less possible to pull off on network television. So Harper’s Island falls into the awkward middle of trying to pull off a dark, serious vibe (but still mixes in awkward, tacked-on comedy bits in a transparent effort to lighten things up) along with wacky kills, that, because of the aforementioned tone, just come across as overly elaborate and silly.
Yet for all my complaining about Harper’s Island – I made this weird sort of half-groan, half-sigh about 500 times while watching the show, usually at the latest dumb plot twist – I can’t pretend it didn’t get its hooks into me at least somewhat. I won’t spoil anything, but something happens around the fifth episode that changes the direction of the show; basically it’s the point at which all the characters come to understand that they’re being stalked by a killer (up until then people were being picked off without the others knowing), and from there the show gains a bit of momentum. Most whodunits can maintain at least some viewer interest, if based in nothing more than curiosity to find out what happens next and who the killer is, and Harper’s Island is no different. (I actually ended up correctly predicting the killer’s identity in about the second episode, not because I’m a genius but rather because I’ve seen enough movies to see through all the little red herrings the producers and writers tried to use, but I still wanted to find out if I was right and see what the explanation for his/her motives would be. I was ultimately unimpressed.) But I ended up tearing through Harper’s Island’s 13 episodes (about 9 hours of television in all) in a couple of days, and more than once I did the thing where I ended up watching two or three episodes in a sitting than I planned to, even if I was scoffing loudly most of the time.
Overall Harper’s Island is a failure, albeit an ambitious one. I usually have a soft spot for movies and shows that bite off more than they can chew, but in this case the pitfalls the show falls into are totally avoidable. There’s no reason beyond the producers’ lack of understanding of the genre they were attempting to play in that Harper’s Island shouldn’t have worked much, much better. It tries to be too many things at once – a primetime soap, a murder mystery, a long-form slasher movie – that it can’t make up its mind what it’s trying to be. Add to that the fact that anyone who’s seen the Scream movies will see just about all the twists coming a mile away, and I have to classify Harper’s Island as a disappointing failure.
As much as the show Harper’s Island didn’t work, I can’t fault the people behind the DVD edition for skimping on extras. There’s deleted scenes and commentary from the producers and writers on four of the episodes (including the first and last), which is sort of interesting if only because they largely seem to think they were successful in their endeavor – though I caught at least one semi-bitter crack about how frustrated they were by the constraints of working in network TV – as well as featurettes on the casting and production. There’s also a cute bit in which the cast members are questioned on the set about who they think the killer will be revealed to be (the writers kept them all in the dark as much as possible), and another segment called ‘The Grim Reaper,’ about the producer who had the task of informing each of the actors that their character was being killed off, and the lengths some actors went to to avoid him. It’s a fairly solid DVD set, it’s just a shame the show it’s built around isn’t better.
Review: 9I love animation, and I’ve used this space more than once in the past to complain that, for all the advances in computer animation technology over the past decade or so, Hollywood seems to be able to do little else with it than use it to make movies about talking animals for kids. It’s a reason that, aside from the occasional Pixar movie like The Incredibles or a genuine aberration like Beowulf, I don’t bother with big animated movies. Which is one of the reasons I enjoyed 9 as much as I did. 9 was produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (the crazy Russian who made Wanted and the totally insane Nightwatch and Daywatch), and it’s the directorial debut of former WETA Digital animator (the Lord of the Rings people) Shane Acker. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future in which humanity has been totally wiped out by a war with machines (sort of like The Matrix, but the machines are decidedly more analogue), and follows 9, a living, stitched-together doll a few inches in height who wakes up in a mysterious workshop with no memory of who he is or the world around him. 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) eventually finds several other doll-creatures, all of whom are similarly numbered. He soon accidentally reactivates the mechanical brain that started the war with humanity, and embarks on a quest to redeem himself, save his new friends and solve the mystery of his very existence.
If you’re thinking that sounds like pretty heady stuff for a digitally-animated movie aimed at younger audiences, it is. 9 never talks down to the audience or traffics in fart humor or pop-culture references, but that doesn’t mean it’ll fly over kids’ heads. It does deal with some pretty dark themes, and there’s some imagery in there that’s probably too scary for very young children, but 9 reminded me, in all the best ways, of beloved movies from my own childhood like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. All fairy tales have darkness to them, and 9 is no different.
The thing I loved the most about 9 was its look and feel. It really felt like a Tim Burton movie, not because it’s filled with superficial goth trappings, but rather because it has such a unique visual aesthetic and sense of design. But make no mistake, this is Acker’s show all the way. There’s such a clarity of vision on display, from the oversized world the characters inhabit, where crossing a city block is an epic quest, to the heavily industrial, vaguely facist/Nazi vibe of human civilization glimpsed in the flashbacks, that seems absent from the majority of other animated movies being released today.
The designs, especially of the twisted monsters the evil machine-brain sends after the heroes, are delightfully insane, like a cloth cobra with a twisted doll’s face beneath its "hood," or a bird of prey made of shear blades and a tattered old flag. The animation itself is also wonderfully detailed, with just about every texture or fabric looking almost photo-real, from the rough burlap of 9 to the softer, smoother look of the warrior-woman, 7 (Jennifer Connelly). I fell in love with little details like the tools and weapons the tiny characters use, like fishhooks and kitchen knives and needles, or how all the characters’ eyes are camera shutters and the way Acker uses them to show emotion.
If Burton’s partner in crime, Timur Bekmambetov, has a stamp on the movie, it’s in the action scenes. Granted, nobody in 9 curves bullets or drives a car up the side of a building, but watching 7 take down freaky mechanical monstrosities is a blast, and the action has a similar sense of speed found in Bekmambetov’s directorial efforts.
But as much as I enjoyed the darker aspects of the story and the technical details, the story and characters of 9 also work quite well. As much as I appreciated the lack of toilet humor, that’s not to say there isn’t fun to be had. The comic relief characters are a pair of twins who can’t talk but instead use their eyes as movie projectors; they’re cute and funny without being cloying, and Michael Bay and company could have taken some pointers when they were crafting their own ill-advised team of comic-relief twins in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Acker also manages to inject the story with emotion without slowing down the pace, and because 9 himself is essentially responsible for the mess the characters find themselves in, his arc has as much to do with redemption as it does the traditional hero’s journey.
Overall I was very impressed with 9. It’s a really unique movie with a real sense of style to it, which seems rare these days for what’s still basically a kid’s movie. It’s probably too much for very young audiences to handle (unless you relish answering post-movie questions about concepts like the end of human civilization), but it’s quite an excellent little film. Highly recommended.
The Hobbit, live-action Ant-Man and a new DC studioMan. Today is the official launch of the Toronto International Film Festival, considered the unofficial kickoff of the Oscars season, and here I am, writing once again about geek movies. Funny how that works. Anyway, time to get down to it...
A few days ago the news came out that the estate of autor J.R.R. Tolkien had settled its lawsuit with New Line Cinema over its cut of the profits from the Lord of the Rings films. The good news here is that this means the planned two-part Hobbit movie helmed by Guillermo del Toro can move forward (despite the fact that they're apparently well into pre-production, the suit meant the film was still technically up in the air). Del Toro is fantastically talented, and up until he was officially signed on, I was pretty underwhelmed by the prospect of a Hobbit movie; it sort of sets up the world and introduces some concepts that the Rings trilogy really runs with –it's got all the big, epic battles – so going back to do a Hobbit movie seemed like a literal step backwards, but del Toro's involvement, and the fact that the second film will apparently more directly connect the events in The Hobbit to those in Lord of the Rings, which sounds like a pretty cool idea. I guess casting news should be coming down the pipe relatively soon; I have to suspec this news means The Hobbit will soon find itself on the production fast-track.
I guess while covering the Marvel/Disney deal (click here for my thoughts), Entertainment Weekly mentioned something offhand about a possible Pixar version of Ant-Man, which has long been attached to director Edgar Wright (he made the utterly brilliant Shaun of the Dead), but Wright, currently finishing up his adaptation of another comic book, the indie sensation (and Toronto-set) Scott Pilgrim with Michael Cera, went online to quash that rumor. As much as I'd love to see Pixar do just about anything Marvel-related, if Wright wants to do Ant-Man in live action, great. Hell, if he wants to make it using sock puppets and cardboard sets I'll still be there opening day.
In related news, Warner Bros. is still reacting to the Marvel/Disney deal, this time announcing the formation of DC Entertainment and restructuring how DC Comics fits into the larger Warner machine. I like it, especially with Diane Nelson at the head; she was behind the marketing for WB's Harry Potter franchise, a little series you may have heard of, as well as the Warner Premier direct-to-DVD line, which has been producing some good-to-excellent animated movies based on DC characters for a few years now (the latest, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, is out Sept. 29), so she seems like a pretty awesome choice for the gig.
As I mentioned in my Marvel/Disney post, Warner has traditionally taken a fairly hands-off approach to its comics publisher, but I guess the one-two punch of Marvel establishing itself as a serious presence on the movie scene with Iron Man and then further cementing that with the Disney deal, Warner felt like it needed to respond somehow.
It certainly makes sense, as Marvel's really working on a cohesive cinematic universe, while Warner's strategy for its DC properties seems more one-off and random, so a more structured approach seems like a good idea. DC's next big superhero movie is Green Lantern, which is slated to start filming early next year with Canadian beefcake Ryan Reynolds in the lead and Casino Royale director Martin Campbell at the helm, and presumably Warner will use it as the tip of the spear for the newly created DC Entertainment, though they also have the supernatural western Jonah Hex, with Josh Brolin and Megan Fox, and The Losers, sort of a cross between a spy flick and an Ocean's Eleven-style heist/con movie, both due next year.
DVD Review: The SoloistTHE MOVIE The Soloist was a movie that, going in, I thought I knew what to expect: an Oscar-baiting movie about a schizophrenic former musician now living on the street who strikes up a relationship with a cynical journalist (and it’s based on a true story, no less). And I was mostly right. But the thing The Soloist has going for it – one of the only things, really – is its two leads, Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, and they’re both good enough to lift what would be an otherwise generically heartwarming would-be Oscar contender into something that wasn’t the waste of time I was expecting.
Maybe I’m being too harsh, though I actually did enjoy The Soloist more than I expected to. It’s just that I normally hate these kinds of movies, and in terms of the story itself, The Soloist didn’t really do much for me. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad movie by any means – director Joe Wright previously made Atonement, so at the very least he knows how to craft a nice-looking film – but it’s just sort of…stock, and not my thing. But having two talented actors at the center of the movie really makes it watchable and interesting.
The film follows Steve Lopez (Downey), an L.A. Times columnist who stumbles across a schizophrenic homeless man playing the cello while looking for something to write about. He does a little digging and learns the man is Nathaniel Ayers, a one-time Julliard prodigy whose bout of mental illness while he was studying essentially cost him his future as a virtuoso musician. Lopez begins writing about Ayers, and eventually forms a friendship with him. It’s fairly standard stuff for movies like this, though it’s based on the book the real-life Lopez wrote about Ayers, and it’s a genuinely moving story, but a recent 60 Minutes piece I saw about Lopez and Ayers was just as emotionally affecting, and it was only a few minutes long. It’s a great story that just tries too hard to tug on heartstrings, and Wright consistently hits the viewer over the head with themes and ideas that would be better accomplished through more subtle means.
But as I said, it’s the performances that kept me watching The Soloist. There’s a part midway through the film where Lopez, scared by the responsibility for Ayers he realizes he’s beginning to assume, tries to push him away. It would normally be seem like a standard plot twist, creating tension by throwing a proverbial monkey wrench into their budding friendship, but Downey makes it totally believable that he’s truly terrified of letting Ayers down, and is certain that he eventually will. And the scene later where Foxx shows the scary side of what was, until then, a somewhat pleasantly “quirky” take on schizophrenia was also expected, but again, he elevates it into something more, and I found myself genuinely scared for Lopez.
The other issue The Soloist deals with is the responsibility journalists have to their subjects. As a guy from a journalism background I find this sort of thing fascinating, and the film spends time examining the question of whether or not Lopez was exploiting Ayers even as he helped him get his life into some semblance of order. It’s not the focus of the film, but it’s a theme that I hadn’t been expecting the film to tackle, one that doesn’t get enough attention in our media-saturated world.
Ultimately I was more compelled by the performances in The Soloist than I was by the story, and I was more interested in the themes and subplots about journalistic responsibility and the death of the newspaper industry than I was by the actual relationship between Lopez and Ayers. The Soloist is certainly not a terrible movie, and I liked it more than I expected to, but considering I was almost dreading watching it, I’m afraid that’s damning the film with faint praise. There’s a very good chance some of you reading this will enjoy it a lot more than I did, but aside from the excellent acting, The Soloist never lives up to the lofty ambitions it clearly has set for itself. GRADE: C+
There’s a handful of deleted scenes, and director Joe Wright provides commentary, and he seems more than a little pretentious. It could have been the British accent, but when he says things like, “That blue toilet water is a reference to the first film I made,” it made me want to punch someone in the face. It really confirmed the highfalutin pretentions that I detected while I was watching it; The Soloist really was designed from the ground up to be an Oscar-winning movie that Teaches Us A Lesson about mental illness and homelessness. Noble causes, all, but the movie just isn’t up to that daunting task.
There’s a decent mini documentary about the making of the film, including interviews with the cast and crew, as well as the real-life Steve Lopez. It’s got a lot of the usual PR-fluff feel to it, but it’s well-constructed and I enjoy any opportunity to listen to Robert Downey Jr. talk about just about anything.
Also included are a few sort of PSA-style features (well one, called ‘Beth’s Story,’ actually is a PSA about mental illness), including a short piece about homelessness in Los Angeles – many real-life street people were used as extras – and the producers’ hearts are definitely in the right place. It’s a serious issue, particularly in that city, and it’s commendable that the DVD producers took the opportunity to try to say something about it.
Finally, there’s a featurette about the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers and their relationship (which continues to this day). It’s the best extra on the DVD, as there’s always something more interesting (to me, at least) about the real people who inspired the dramatized version of any “based on a true story” movie. Getting to watch Lopez and Ayers together (they call each other Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ayers, always) and the love they feel for each other is as affecting as anything in the film. Whatever my issues are with The Soloist as a movie, the story of Lopez and Ayers is a remarkable one, and it deserves to be told.
Trio of TIFF trailersThe Toronto International Film Festival begins next week, and in honor of my hometown film festival I thought I'd look at a couple of trailers for three films screening at TIFF this year that I'm personally very excited about.
I'll start with what's probably the biggest, most "mainstream" movie of the three (though that's a relative term), The Men Who Stare At Goats, starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor. The film was directed by actor/writer/director/Clooney pal Grant Heslov (he co-wrote and produced Clooney's truly excellent 2005 directorial effort about legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow, Good Night, And Good Luck.), and after watching this trailer this movie immediately took a position near the top of the list of movies I really want to see this year. It's a "based on a true story" tale about a reporter (McGregor) following a former "psychic spy" (Clooney) developed by the American government as part of a top-secret project. I have no idea how true any of the stuff in the movie is (though I suspect only the truly out-there stuff is real; life's funny that way), but this is one of the best trailers I've seen in a while. It's funny as hell, does a great job of selling the movie's bizarre premise, and it got Boston's 'More Than A Feeling' (one of my favorite songs of that era) wedged in my head for days. I gotta see this thing.
Next up is Defendor, a...unique-looking take on superheroes. I actually promised myself after all the comic book-themed posts I've been writing lately that I'd take a break from talking about anything cape-related, but this one just looks too promising for me not to mention. And it's not even really the geek in me that's interested in this one; the appeal is that it seems more like an indie film about a guy (Woody Harrelson) who thinks he's a superhero, and all the problems that sprout from that. (He's ostensibly in pursuit of a villain called Captain Industry, but I suspect he'll be revealed to be a figment of Defendor's imagination). A movie like this is definitely an ambitious debut for first-time Canadian writer/director Peter Stebbings, but the trailer definitely hooked me, and I'll do my best to see this one as soon as I can.
And finally, on a purely personal note, this year's TIFF will host the latest film from one of my favorite Hong Kong directors, Johnnie To. Vengeance is a bit of a change of pace for To, as it stars a French rock star, Johnny Hallyday, and seems to be mostly in English. Hallyday plays an aging chef whose daughter is seriously injured in a mob hit that also kills her Chinese husband and their children in Hong Kong, but the gangsters who whacked his family soon learn this "chef" is actually a retired hitman himself. I love revenge movies, and I love Johnnie To movies, so naturally I'm pretty stoked about Vengeance. I don't know a ton about this movie beyond the plot, but the trailer promises some beautifully-shot action and cool setpieces (To's 2006 movie Exiled has the best gunfights I've seen since John Woo went to Hollywood), so I'm sold.
Disney buys Marvel: A geek’s takeSo the big news this week is that Disney is buying Marvel for $4 billion (I’m still sort of wrapping my head around it), and considering the one medium I love more than film is comics, I feel almost duty-bound to comment on the deal. When I read comics growing up, I always preferred Marvel to rival DC (which isn’t to say I didn’t read plenty of DC books as well, but Marvel has most of the characters that helped get me through adolescence, like Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Avengers), so I have more interest than a lot of moviegoers in the future of Marvel’s cinematic universe. One of the things that was so exciting about the bulk of Marvel’s upcoming movies was that Marvel was producing them essentially as a big indie, with major Hollywood studios (like Universal for The Incredible Hulk and Paramount for Iron Man and several other upcoming projects like Thor, Captain America and The Avengers) essentially acting as the distributors. That meant no studio suits who don’t understand the comics or characters mucking with things, so my first instinct when I read that Disney, the studio that’s quite literally synonymous with “kiddie entertainment,” was buying Marvel, my heart sank a little bit. Would this mean Wolverine would stop gutting people with his claws, or the Punisher would start dealing with criminals with stern lectures instead of hollowpoint ammunition?
But after doing some reading (and thinking, always with the thinking) it seems pretty clear that Disney was primarily looking to gain a foothold in the lucrative young-male demographic that’s eluded them for so long. It doesn’t appear likely that Disney folks will actually involve themselves too heavily in Marvel’s business (though that’s what everyone always says when deals like this go down; we won’t really know for sure for months or even years after the deal is done how the companies are fitting together); I read a recap of the conference call that took place shortly after Monday’s announcement, and one Disney exec basically said the folks at Marvel seem to know what they’re doing with these movies.
And make no mistake, this deal was about movies and other related media and merchandise, and had didn’t have much (if anything) to do with what was once Marvel’s core business: comics. To say the modern North American comics industry is a speck compared to the movie business is a laughable understatement, so I’d be pretty astounded to find out Disney ownership gives that part of Marvel more than a cursory glance. Time Warner is the parent company of DC Comics, and Warner almost never concerns itself with what DC is doing in terms of comics publishing (though one time a few years back Warner brass apparently got all worked up when they learned that DC was publishing a comic featuring Superman and Batman analogues who were gay lovers), and I assume Disney will take a similar approach to Marvel’s publishing line. It’s about the movies, and about having characters like Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk in the same stable as Mickey Mouse, Goofy and WALL-E.
Which brings up another strange part of the Marvel movie landscape: the fact that some of Marvel’s best-known characters aren’t even owned by Marvel in the medium of film. Many years before the comic book movie bonanza, Marvel sold the film rights to several of its biggest characters in deals it would never agree to now, and as a result, 20th Century Fox technically owns anything to do with the X-Men (and all related characters, which easily number in the hundreds and include many of Marvel’s most popular characters, including Wolverine), the Fantastic Four (the book that quite literally launched Marvel as we know it in 1963) and Daredevil, and Sony owns the film rights to Marvel’s unofficial mascot, Spider-Man. I’m sure not a day goes by that someone at the Marvel Films offices doesn’t wish they had a time machine to undo those deals – Fox owns those characters in perpetuity as long as they continue to produce films based on them, which is why Fox has been making noise about rebooting its aggressively mediocre Fantastic Four franchise lately, and plans to crank out lackluster X-Men-related movies for the foreseeable future – so as much as my nerd-heart fills with joy when I think about, say, a Pixar-crafted Fantastic Four movie (I just bit the inside of my mouth I got so excited for a second there), it’s probably not going to happen.
The other thing that bears mentioning is that the Disney deal has no impact on existing agreements between Marvel and other studios, so Iron Man 2 will still come from Paramount, as will the little Avengers universe they’re establishing; the upcoming Thor and Captain America movies will apparently all tie into an Avengers movie in which those characters will all have to team up to fight off a massive threat (smart money on the Internet seems to be either a rampaging Hulk or an alien invasion…either one, if done right, could be amazing). All this really means is that after those movies (and possibly a comedic take on Ant Man, which has been talked about for a few years as a project for Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright), Disney will be the home for the bulk of Marvel’s movies. Which, if nothing else, will probably mean the movies will have a bit more big-studio cash behind them. In the mean time, there’s a wealth of lesser-known Marvel characters that would make for some cool movies (and TV shows and cartoons), and I’m looking forward to finding out more about Disney’s plans for the House of Ideas.