#95 - United Appeal For The Dead
1935 - 2009
Hey Joe, whaddaya know! Welcome back to your Electric Theatre and let me wish you and yours a very happy autumnal equinox. We’re entering my favorite season of the year, so I hope you’re as happy about summer’s end as I am. If not, don’t fret. We can still be friends.
NOW IN THEATRES
Steven Soderbergh is a fascinating director and even when he makes a misstep, his experimental failures are usually more interesting than most filmmakers’ successes (Ocean’s Twelve not withstanding). I won’t necessarily make a point of seeing every one of his movies theatrically but two things about The Informant! made it a must-see. For one thing, I’m a sucker for exclamation points in titles, whether it’s Airplane!, Oliver! or Tora! Tora! Tora! The second was that poster, with Matt Damon looking eerily like a deranged character Bruce “Cancer Boy” McCulloch would have played on The Kids In The Hall. My curiosity was officially piqued.
Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a schleppy biochemist at Archer Daniels Midland who becomes aware of an extortion scheme by a Japanese competitor. ADM brings the FBI in on the case, led by Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula). Mark gets scared when the Bureau taps his home phone and tells Brian he thinks he might be being set up as a fall guy for a vast price-fixing conspiracy between the international agri-business giants. He turns whistleblower, gathering information for the feds, but Mark might not be the reliable witness they’d hoped for. With a knowledge of corporate espionage gleaned from the works of Michael Crichton and John Grisham, Mark’s perception of what he’s doing gets a little bit skewed.
Other filmmakers likely would have played this material straight and the end result would have been something like Michael Mann’s The Insider. But Soderbergh boldly mines the story’s absurdity for both laughs and drama. Damon deserves an Oscar nomination for his work here, which he almost certainly will not get since this is a comedy. But he’s pitch-perfect as Whitacre, skilled at leading a double life almost in spite of himself and striking a delicate balance between truth, half-truth and outright lies. Bakula is great as Mark’s contact and his belief in Mark allows us to follow suit. Soderbergh fills in many of the smaller roles with familiar stand-up comedians, including Joel McHale as Bakula’s partner, Patton Oswalt, Rick Overton and even cameos from Tom and Dick Smothers. But Soderbergh uses them as character actors rather than comics, relying on the story, Damon’s performance and the delightful, light-hearted score by Marvin Hamlisch (reminiscent of his music for Woody Allen’s Bananas) to provide the laughs.
Soderbergh is famous for experimentation but with The Informant!, he’s really gone out on a limb. It’s a serious subject played for laughs, told in a style that hasn’t been in vogue since the early 70s. Somehow it all comes together and credit for that mostly goes to Matt Damon. His performance is broad and funny but grounded in a reality that allows the real drama of the situation to come through. That’s the mark of great acting and over the past ten years, Matt Damon has quietly proven himself to be a very impressive actor indeed. The Informant! shows both he and Steven Soderbergh at their best. (* * * ½)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
When you think of foreign horror, a few countries spring immediately to mind. Japan is an obvious one and the UK has been a reliable wellspring of scares since the heyday of Hammer Films. But recently, some of the most unrelenting horror movies have come from a somewhat unlikely source: France, one of the most beautiful and romantic countries on the planet. Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension helped kick things off and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is one of the most disturbing and original horror pictures I’ve seen in years. Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s) fits squarely in the mold of the new wave of French horror: grim, harrowing and utterly without mercy.
The movie kicks things off in mid-riot as an extreme right-wing government has been brought to power and protests tear apart Paris. In the midst of all this, a gang of thieves pull off a score and flee the city, heading for Amsterdam. They decide to rendezvous at a secluded hostel that turns out to be run by a deranged family of inbred neo-Nazis. Needless to say, they are not welcomed with wine and cheese.
Gens takes his time at the beginning, establishing the turmoil of the city as a backdrop. On the one hand, it’s a bit unnecessary. The meat of the story takes place in and around the hostel and once there, you quickly realize we’re in Texas Chainsaw Massacre country. Once that becomes apparent, you can easily figure out where the movie is headed. Fortunately, Gens stages the horror extremely well, so even if this is familiar stuff to horror fans, it’s taken seriously. But the background information helps create a real feeling of despair that underscores the brutality at the hostel and gives it resonance. We know what’s waiting for them back home, so even if they manage to escape one situation, the alternative is still pretty bleak.
Horror is a transgressive genre, putting us face-to-face with our greatest fears. But that doesn’t mean simply showing a parade of atrocities. The new French horror filmmakers seem to understand that and the best of them, like Martyrs, leave you shaken, not numb. Frontier(s) isn’t as original or eye-opening as Martyrs but it is one of the most effective riffs on the classic Chainsaw formula I’ve seen in a long time. (* * *)
Thanks to John Wao for this week’s Tales From The Queue recommendation! As always, if your favorite movie about psychotic inbred Nazis hasn’t received the attention it deserves, please drop me a line. (NOTE: Movies that are not about psychotic inbred Nazis are also cheerfully accepted.)