Thursday, February 28, 2013

Flashback Recommendation: THE INFORMANT! Still Works Anywhere, Anytime

(dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2009)
 "The Informant!" is, above all else, one really really neat movie.

Neat in its freewheeling mix of comedy and doom. Neat in its boppy Marvin Hamlisch score that wouldn't feel far from home as a soundtrack to a man pushing one of those giant wheels down the street with a stick. Neat in its withholding of information from different characters, plus often us, at all times, making all scenes play on two levels in retrospect. Neat in the zeal from Matt Damon (at his finest), screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, and director Steven Soderbergh, who were probably all told they had more important things to do, but attack this project with the thrill of people knowing they're trying something.

One of its neatest tricks, though, is pulling off an unreliable narrator with whom we have constant, intimate access. Damon's Mark Whiticare seems in a perpetual state of "sorta there," offering voice-over throughout the movie that rarely, if ever, comments on the action at hand, instead delving into increasingly ridiculous non sequiturs. 

Are we inside his head? Always. Does this take us closer to who he is? Dear god, no. One of the many lingering fascinations of "The Informant!" is its have cake/eat too dichotomy of feeding us information that decidedly robs us of any possible information.

So where does this movie live if the big picture lingers out to sea? In the details. It lives, breathes, and thrives in the details. Its arc might be rotely familar - man makes series of self-destructive choices that send his life spiraling downward. But Soderbergh and Burns paint in the corners. They paint in the edges. They paint outside the lines. And they always do it in the boldest colors they have.

I mean that literally too. Despite staging his film in mostly drab motel rooms and fluorescent offices, Soderbergh bathes his shots in lush orange, better than any of these places deserve. At first, like the score, this feels like an ironic counterpoint to the action, mocking how ridiculous - at times sternly ridiculous - it all is.

Soderbergh has more up his sleeve. As "The Informant!" progresses and Whiticare unravels, the colors and the score cease to function as an ironic manifestation of our perspective and reveal themselves to be a sincere manifestation of Whiticare's perspective. Like any pathological liar, he lies to the point that he sincerely believes it to be true. As the narration places him light years away from his world spinning out of control, Soderbergh's techniques demonstrate he's occupying a world of nothing but sunshine and polar bear noses.

Along with varied movies like "The Social Network" and "The Master," "The Informant!" introduces a distinct character and subtly crafts a world to reflect his innerworkings.

Four years down the road, "The Informant!" stands as a work that slipped under the radar but somehow still lingers, holding firm its own little mischievous spot in my consciousness. Everything that it shouldn't pull off, it somehow pole vaults over. I saw it once in theaters, maybe three more times on TV and DVD, and it remains everything it always was. A comedy that still maintains its sense of fun. A mystery that still surprises and teases. A tragedy that remains palatable. 

This movie earns its exclamation point. It's a gleefully entertaining gem.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Greatest Trick Misogyny Pulled Was Convincing The World It Didn't Exist

A confession: At roughly midnight on Sunday night, as the social media sphere found itself aflame with the torch it put to Seth MacFarlane's Oscar performance, I simply poured another Maker's Mark and carried on with my life.

I didn't think it was misogynistic until you told me it was. I didn't think it was offensive until you told me it was. It was a comedian doing comedy. As far as I was concerned, the conversation needn't proceed farther than, "Did he make me laugh or not?".

Should I feel bad that such thoughts never occurred to me? Short answer yes with an if, long answer no...with a but.

Even as I write this, I know what my thesis for this post is. I know what I'm trying to say. If it seems as if I'm rambling and having trouble finding my point, though, it's because I am. I'm confused and torn, but believe me, I'm trying to understand where the other side is coming from.

Eh. That'll do for the point right there: Often, if not always, it's best to shut the fuck up and listen.

Do I think MacFarlane is a misogynist? No. I'd even teeter into the territory of "absolutely not." In his hands were concepts that might have birthed satirical fruit, but he never took it beyond the initial phase of shock humor (watch the masterful stand-up of Louis CK to learn how a straight white male can use the words "faggot," "cunt," and "nigger" and get away with it). But none of it struck me as overtly sexist. Comedy is a sacred ring where anything goes. I sing among the Greek chorus that in comedy, if you find it offensive, you suck it up and move on.

My views on comedy haven't changed. Anything can still be funny if you find the right target and use the right spin. Many women found MacFarlane's antics misogynistic, and I didn't get it.

Now cue the world's most obvious lightning bolt. Not only did I not get it, I absolutely can't get it.

Contrary to high school taunts, I am a male. I'll never feel sexism the same way a woman will because I've never experienced it. I'll never notice sexism in society the same way because it doesn't stand out to me. I've never had to walk on certain sides of the street or worry about the message my clothes might send or lie about dating someone to leeches trying to pick me up.

These are things I don't understand, but that sure as shit doesn't give me the right to dismiss them.

I'm neither trying to defend nor attack MacFarlane. God knows his bruises from Internet cyber punches stand on their own. I'm also not trying to explain why I'm not a sexist or walk McClane-style across broken glass to explain the views of other men. Such battles miss the point.

It's not men vs. women, misogyny vs. acceptance, us vs. them, black/white, wrong/right. It's me taking the pathetic little step I can to hold eye contact and listen. To not be a brick wall and say, "Oh, you just can't take a joke." To be a willing partner in an ongoing, evolving understanding

My job as a man isn't to be the savior of women. My job doesn't even revolve around being a man. My job is the same one we all share. If someone says they're hurting, then shut the fuck up and ask why.

Maybe Seth MacFarlane really is a misogynist. I truly don't think so, and I truly think his jokes were simple attempts at humor that missed the mark. Maybe it's indicative of how systematic misogyny is that he didn't notice and I didn't notice.

These are all questions best left to people wiser in the non-pop culture world than I. At least I can recognize the questions' validity. No doubt that on the epiphany scale, this piece ranks one step above, "Water chases the thirsties away." My apologies. But sometimes it's just easier living in the box.

Now weren't we supposed to be talking about movies?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Movie Catch-Up: THE HOBBIT Is Boredom Captured In Real Time

(dir. Peter Jackson, 2012)
What’s the sound of one hand counting money?
That’s not a riddle. The answer’s easy.

As blatant a cash-grab as it comes, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” offers a nearly three hour glimpse into the mind of whatever Peter Jackson was dreaming before he decided to shoot. Nothing feels vital. Nothing feels built to last. It’s all a blank canvas for Jackson to regurgitate his ideas without a filter and charge us 10 bucks three times over for the privilege.

I can think of movies I hated more. But few in recent memory made me this angry. Like I had been handled by a filmmaker who didn’t give a damn if we were entertained, didn’t give a damn if we were bored, and didn’t give a damn whether his movie was working. With his (deserved) Oscar gleaming on the mangle, he set forth to build an extended preview for two other movies.

Most of the problem seems to be lack of constraints. When he made the “Lord of the Rings” series he was a director with a mission to make fantasy a viable mainstream genre, up against a system assured of his failure. Every step he took, fans held their breath waiting for their dreams to be rendered moot. Making those movies was one long string of “No.”

And now the lyrics to the song are nothing but “Yes.” Three hours covering 100 pages of novel? Yes! An extended 20 minute sequence where Bilbo wonders why people are arriving for dinner? Yes! Random giant living mountains that fight when thunder spews or something, leaving our heroes stranded on the side until the scene ends and the story resumes? Why not!

Creativity doesn’t live in unfettered access. It lives in a box. You’re put in the box, shown the boundaries, and use your brains to fight your way out. With Jackson now appearing to be a man without rules, his thoughts just ooze across the landscape.

What a series of aimless, borderline lazy thoughts they are too! His “LOTR” films had a drive. A propulsion. You knew what the characters’ goals were, what they needed to get there, and thus their actions carried genuine weight. No such weight exists here. Instead it feels oddly like some hang-out TV show like “Dukes Of Hazzard.”

You want one scene leading logically to the next? No such luck. Just a mishmash of dwarves getting’ into random jams and Gandalf getting’ ‘em out. How are them Middle Earth boys gonna get out of this one, you wonder!? Oh right. They have a fucking wizard with a magic stick. Enjoy your movie, suckers.

That lack of structure leads to lack of tone – “The Hobbit” never quite pins down what kind of movie it wants to be. J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel was essentially a kid’s book. Fantastical creatures go on a quest of relatively little consequence, fight a few battles, and that’s that. Light breezy stuff requiring a light breezy movie.

And that’s what Jackson provides…among many other movies. While he is indeed adapting “The Hobbit,” he’s also making what is now consciously a “LOTR” prequel. As such, he makes the clumsy effort to meld the whimsy of “The Hobbit” with the direness of “LOTR.” Entire scenes vault back and forth, like a plane guided by dueling air traffic controllers with a grudge over a woman.

If the movie struggles over tone and plot, there is certainly no struggle between personalities. Remember Aragorn in “LOTR”? What about Frodo? Gimli? Can you describe them in ways besides their individual actions or looks? Now try doing the same thing to the new characters in this movie (apart from established ones like Gandalf).

Abandon all hope, ye who want distinct characters here. All you’re greeted with are hollow vessels to spout exposition. 

I admit it. I’m not a Tolkien fan. As one not among the faithful, I have no right to demand what a “Hobbit” adaptation should be. For all I know, this is the movie Tolkien fans dreamed of. Like I said, I’m not one of them.

I am, however, a movie fan. And as such, this one blows. Bad movies I can get over. What bothers me is the insinuation that this is all I deserve. “The Hobbit,” in its entire interminable glory, shows such lazy disinterest in its audience. 

Like a victim whose loved one has been kidnapped and dismembered, we can only dread the remaining pieces down the road.