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Melanie Lynskey

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2009 in Film.

Merry Christmas, everyone. As we’re at the halfway point of the big decade list — Pt. 1, Pt. 2 — now seems like a good time to uncork the usual end-of-year movie list. Think of it as a new-stuff sorbet before we move to the final fifty.

I should say before we start that there are a few movies I’ll very likely see from 2009 — most notably The Lovely Bones, A Single Man, and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus — that aren’t included due to their limited release schedule — most don’t arrive around these parts until 2010. The better-than-expected Sherlock Holmes, which I saw yesterday and have not yet reviewed in full, is also not here, although I did think of slotting it in at #20 before the Victorian-era tazer and remote-controlled cyanide bomb showed up. And there are still a few other stragglers I wouldn’t mind catching at some point, most notably Invictus and The Messenger. But if any of these are really, really great, they’ll either get backdated in or show up in next year’s list, as per usual. So don’t worry — credit will get paid where due.

In the meantime, as has been the standard — and although the decade list has been working differently — we start at #1 and proceed from there. And without further ado, the…

Top 20 Films of 2009
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008]

1. In the Loop: “Tobes, I don’t want to have to read you the Riot Act, but I am going to have to read you some extracts from the Riot Act, like: Section 1, Paragraph 1: Don’t leave your boss twisting in the wind and then burst in late, smelling like a pissed seaside donkey.” Even if I hadn’t moved back to DC this year for a ringside seat to the clusterfrak, Armando Ianucci’s In the Loop would’ve been at the top of my list. I’m not normally a huge laugher at movies, but this flick had me rolling.

Basically, In the Loop is Office Space for people in politics, and it’s a smart, wickedly funny entertainment. And like Judge’s film and The Big Lebowski, I expect it will enjoy a long, happy, and very quotable renaissance on DVD. If you find The Daily Show or Colbert Report at all enjoyable, this is a must-see. And, even if you don’t, well the choice Scottish swearing should get you through.

2. Moon: While Michael Bay, McG and their ilk tried to top each other with gimongous explosions this summer, Duncan Jones’ moody, low-key Moon just aimed to blow our minds. A throwback to the seventies big-think sci-fi that has fallen out of favor in the post-Star Wars-era, Moon‘s big special effect, other than Sam Rockwell, of course, was its clever ideas. And in a year of hit-or-miss (mostly miss) blockbusters, Rockwell’s quiet two-man show turned out to be the sci-fi extravaganza of 2009.

3. A Serious Man: Oy vey. This existential disquisition into wandering dybbuks, sixties Judaica, quantum mechanics, and Old Testament justice was yet another triumph for those devilishly talented brothers from Minnesota. The Job-like travails of Larry Gopnik introduced us to several colorful, Coenesque personages (Sy Ableman, Rabbi Nachtner) and offered vignettes (the Goy’s Teeth) and quotable philosophy (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you“) that cinephiles will ponder for awhile to come. The Coens abide.

4. The Hurt Locker: Bombs away, and we’re not ok. Other than Modern Warfare 2 and Generation Kill, this immersive, nail-biting account of an IED team’s travails in the midst of the suck was the best pop culture simulator out there for feeling embedded in Iraq…and stuck at the wrong Baghdad street corner at just the wrong time. And with the tension ratcheting to uncomfortable levels in each of the ordnance disposal scenes, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Lockersorry, King of the World — was the action movie of the year.

5. Coraline: In an auspicious year for both regular (see #10) and stop-motion (see #13) animation, Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was the pick of the litter. It sorta got lost in the early-year shuffle, but Selick & Gaiman’s dark, twisted fairy tale delivered the goods, and hopefully it’ll find more life on DVD.

6. District 9: For those who find Moon a little too talky and slow, I direct you to Neil Blomkamp’s little (ok, $30 million) South African indie that could. Alien Nation meets Cry Freedom with healthy dollops of Cronenberg body horror and old-school Peter Jackson viscera-splatter, District 9 came out as more than the sum of its parts, and (with #8) was one of the most purely enjoyable films of the summer.

7. (500) Days of Summer: “This is a story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met The One. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total mis-reading of the movie ‘The Graduate’.” Speaking of said music, here’s a movie the early Elvis Costello would love. Sure, (500) Days is unabashedly for folks who’ve been on the wrong end of a break-up. But, even if it is ultimately Annie Hall-lite in a lot of ways, it had more truths to tell than most of the rom-coms out in any given year…combined.

8. Drag Me to Hell: Shaking off the Spidey 3 doldrums, Sam Raimi went back to his gross-out Evil Dead roots for this carnival concoction. Besides being easily the most explicitly anti-gypsy film since Borat, Drag Me to Hell was also, in its own way, as much of a Great Recession cautionary tale as Up in the Air. One hopes that when the Senate takes up financial services reform next year, our erstwhile reformers in that esteemed body will note what happened to Alison Lohman when she, against all better judgment, decided to do the bidding of the Banks.

9. Star Trek: There was admittedly a whole lotta stupid in J.J. Abrams’ Star Warsy revamp of the Star Trek franchise — Once exposed to the light, the movie’s basic premises completely fall apart. But, like the stomachache that accompanies eating too much candy, those regrets come later. In the moment, Star Trek was more fun than you can shake a stick at, and as solid and entertaining a franchise reboot as 2006’s Casino Royale. Let’s hope The Revenge of Khan or whatever it’s called turns out better than Quantum of Solace.

10. Up: If the movie were just the first ten-fifteen minutes, this might’ve been in the top five. But even more than WALL-E, the good stuff in Up is front-loaded. And, after the story of a lifetime ended a quarter hour in, I wasn’t much in the mood for talking dogs and big, funny birds (even birds named Kevin) anymore. Still, Pixar is Pixar, and Up carried their usual mark of quality.

11. The Damned United: Frost/Nixon for the futbol set, Tom Hooper’s ballad of Clough and Revie was a low-key character study that made up for an awkwardly-frontloaded bromance with another great performance by Michael Sheen and plenty of “Life in a Northern Town” local color to spare. You can practically smell the mud off the cleats in this one.

12. Duplicity: Perhaps I’m giving too many props to well-made breezy entertainments this year (see also Nos. 8 & 9). Nonetheless, Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity was a sleek espionage caper and a decently sexy love story that was all the more amusing because the stakes were so small. As it turns out, Clive Owen had just taken on evil corporations with a global reach a few weeks earlier in The International (a movie I caught on DVD, and which was most memorable for its Gunfight in the Guggenheim) — He’s more fun when he’s on the payroll.

13. The Fantastic Mr. Fox: If you see one clever stop-motion adaptation of a sardonic children’s novel this year…well, see Coraline. Nonetheless, The Fantastic Mr. Fox was also one of the better entrants in the 2009 line-up. It was ultimately a little too Wes Anderson saccharine for my tastes, but, of course, your mileage may vary. And at least Fox didn’t wallow in the emo like, you know.

14. Inglourious Basterds: After a decade of languishing in the shallows, Quentin Tarantino found a bit of his old magic in this sprawling alternate history of WWII. Yes, it needed a good and ruthless editor, and some rather longish scenes don’t really work at all (I’m thinking mainly of Shoshanna’s lunch with Goebbels and Linda.) But at certain times — the basement cafe snafu, for example, or the memorable finale — Basterds is the best thing QT has done since Jackie Brown. Let’s hope he stays in form.

15. Public Enemies: Michael Mann’s high-def retelling of The Last Days of Dillinger was a strange one, alright. Like Basterds, it was long and languid and sometimes seemed to move without purpose. But, like Mann’s last grainy-digital foray into tales of manly men and the women they love, Miami Vice, Public Enemies has stuck with me ever since. Say what you will about the hi-def video aesthetic, it somehow seems to match Mann’s haunted, Hemingwayesque sense of poetry.

16. The Informant!: The tragedy of The Insider retold as farce, The Informant!, like many of Steven Soderbergh’s films, was experimental in a lot of ways. Some things worked (the ADM-buttery sheen); Others didn’t (the distractingly peppy Hamlisch score); Others still were hit-or-miss (the in-head bipolar voiceover). Nonetheless, The Informant! is mostly a success, and it’s good to see Soderbergh out there trying new things — I wish I’d gotten around to catching The Girlfriend Experience. (Ahem, the movie, that is. Sheesh, some people.)

17. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: I had definite doubts going in, but Werner Herzog’s Grand Theft Auto: New Orleans turned out to be a surprisingly fun gonzo trip. After years of hanging with the Kinski, good ole Werner sure knows his way around the crazy, and by pairing Nicholas Cage on a savage burn with hyperreal iguanas, voodoo breakdancers, and the like, he’s done Abel Ferrara’s Gloomy Gus version of this tale one better. There’s no Catholic angst for this Lieutenant — just reveling in sordidness…but then again, isn’t that the whole point of Carnival?

18. Watchmen: “At midnight, all the agents and the superhuman crews go and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” True, Zack Snyder’s attempt to recreate the Alan Moore graphic novel on film is flawed in a lot of ways. (The longer DVD version smooths out some of these issues while introducing others.) And I still wish the project had stayed in Paul Greengrass’ hands. But, give credit where it’s due — For all its many problems (most notably the fratboy-indulgences into “cool” violence), Snyder’s Watchmen got a lot of things right, from Dr. Manhattan sulking on Mars to Jackie Earle Haley’s turn as Rorschach. Snyder couldn’t match the degree of difficulty involved in the end, but Watchmen was still a worthy attempt.

19. The Road: In the Future, There Will Be Cannibals: John Hillcoat’s film version of Cormac McCarthy’s dabbling in the apocalyptic form definitely captured the resonances of the book. And this is a quality production through and through, with solid performances by Viggo, the kid, Charlize Theron, and all of the HBO All-Stars (with particularly big ups to Robert Duvall.) Unfortunately, I didn’t think much of the book either, and in its monochromatic grimness, The Road never seems as memorable as Hillcoat’s earlier film, The Proposition. All work and no play makes Hobo Viggo somethin’ somethin’.

20. The Men Who Stare at Goats: I’m sure a lot of lists would’ve found room for Avatar or Up in the Air in their top twenty, and both have their merits (even if Avatar‘s are almost completely technical.) But if Avatar was too flat and Air too glib, The Men Who Stare at Goats was a frothy excursion that delivered on basically the terms it promised at the onset. Ok, there’s not much there there, but sometimes a couple of likable actors having an extended goof will go farther than Big, Oscar-Worthy Messages and World-Beating Tech. Hmmm, if you think about it, the “sparkly eye” technique probably would’ve gone over better with the Na’vi than all those Aliens-loaned cargo-loaders anyway. Score one for the First Earth Battalion.

Most Disappointing: Where the Wild Things Are, Terminator: Salvation

Worth a Rental: An Education, Avatar, Cold Souls, Eden (2006), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The International, Paranormal Activity, Sherlock Holmes, A Single Man, Taken, Up in the Air, Zombieland

Don’t Bother: 2012, The Box, The Brothers Bloom, Extract, A Girl Cut in Two (2006), The Hangover, Invictus, Jennifer’s Body, State of Play, The Tiger’s Tail (2006), Whip It, World’s Greatest Dad

Best Actor: Sam Rockwell, Moon; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds; Robert Duvall, The Road
Best Supporting Actress: Marion Cotillard, Public Enemies; Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds

Unseen: 9, Nine, Adventureland, Angels & Demons, Amelia, Antichrist, Armored, Astro Boy, Black Dynamite, Blood: The Last Vampire, Bright Star, Brothers, Bruno, Capitalism: A Love Story, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, Crank: High Voltage, Crossing Over, Everybody’s Fine, Funny People, Gentlemen Broncos, GI Joe, The Girlfriend Experience, Good Hair, The Education of Charlie Banks, The Great Buck Howard, Hunger, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Invention of Lying, It’s Complicated, Julie & Julia, Land of the Lost, The Limits of Control, , The Lovely Bones, I Love You Man, Me and Orson Welles, The Messenger, New York I Love You, Notorious, Observe & Report, Orphan, Pandorum, Pirate Radio, Ponyo, Precious, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, The Proposal, Push, The Soloist, Surrogates, The Taking of Pelham1-2-3, Taking Woodstock, Thirst, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Two Lovers, The Ugly Truth, Whatever Works, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Year One

    A Good Year For:

  • The Apocalypse (2012, Zombieland, The Road)
  • Demons (A Serious Man, Drag Me to Hell, Jennifer’s Body, Paranormal Activity)
  • George Clooney (The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air)
  • Going Undercover to Play Both Sides (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Duplicity, The Informant!)
  • Guy Pearce Cameos (The Road, The Hurt Locker)
  • Hipsters with Unresolved Childhood Issues (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Where the Wild Things Are)
  • “The Jews” (Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man)
  • Matthew Goode (Watchmen, A Single Man)
  • Melanie Lynskey (Up in the Air, The Informant!)
  • Stop-Motion (Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox)

    A Bad Year For:

  • Goats (Drag Me to Hell, The Men Who Stare at Goats)
  • Robots from the Future (Transformers 2, Terminator: Salvation)
  • Pithy Movie Titles: (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
  • Summer blockbusters: (GI Joe, Terminator: Salvation, Transformers 2, Wolverine)

2010: Alice in Wonderland, All Good Things, The American, The A-Team, The Book of Eli, Brooklyn’s Finest, Clash of the Titans, A Couple of Dicks, Daybreakers, The Expendables, Greenberg, The Green Hornet, Green Zone, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1, I Love You Phillip Morris, Inception, Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Kick-Ass, Knight & Day, The Last Airbender, Legion, The Losers, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Morning Glory, Predators, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Red, Robin Hood, Salt, Season of the Witch, Shanghai, Shutter Island, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Toy Story 3, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, The Wolf Man, Youth in Revolt, more needless ’80s remakes than you can shake a stick at. (Footloose, The Karate Kid, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Red Dawn), and…

TRON 2. 2010, y’all. It’s the future, and no mistake.

Stuck Inside of Mobile.

“You wake up at Seatac, SFO, LAX. You wake up at O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, BWI. Pacific, mountain, central. Lose an hour, gain an hour. This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time. You wake up at Air Harbor International. If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”

Sure, constant work-related jetsetting may have hastened Tyler Durden’s descent into borderline psychosis in Fight Club. But, if you need a second opinion, airports are the sea in which George Clooney thrives in Jason Reitman’s well-made but disappointing Up in the Air. I found it hard to pin down exactly why this movie bugged me at first, until I thought more about that memorable rant from Fight Club: “Everywhere I travel, tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter. The microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit. Shampoo-conditioner combos, sample-packaged mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight? They’re single-serving friends.

And Up in the Air? It’s a single-serving movie, albeit one you might get in business class — glib, pre-packaged, wrapped in plastic, and, alas, not as tasty, nutritious, or filling as it looks. (After coming to this realization, I discovered Stephanie Zacharek felt much the same: “The picture is brushed with a fine glaze of slickness, a product sealed in a blister pack. It’s like airplane air — it has a packaged freshness that isn’t really fresh at all.“) Sure, from moment-to-moment Up in the Air is engaging enough, but sadly it all adds up to the less than the sum of its parts. (And I have a sinking feeling the Oscar of Crash, Million Dollar Baby, and Slumdog Millionaire will love it.)

Even notwithstanding an 11th hour jag that makes for a more satisfying landing than I originally suspected, there’s a lot of rote here: the obligatory wedding scene, the standard-issue epiphany in the middle of a public speech, the in vino veritas, letting-the-hair-down night among co-workers (set to not-so-Young-anymore MC); the Elliott Smith-scored nostalgic reminiscences of those days gone by, etc. etc. Up in the Air is impressively made and a Quality Production™ through-and-through, but it’s also over-stylized and curiously hollow, and it too often feels like a movie conceived by a marketing department. Imho, it needed more of that ragged, hand-crafted, DIY flair that marked the other two recent Clooney flicks this year, The Men Who Stare at Goats.

To give credit where it’s due, Up in the Air does boast one of the more memorable credit sequences I’ve seen in recent years — lovely aerial shots of the American landscape, set to a funked-up version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.) But things get gloomy pretty quickly thereafter, with — ripped from the headlines! — a lot of people like you and me finding out that they’ve been given the axe. (Reitman apparently put out ads in Detroit and St. Louis looking for recently laid-off folks — It’s as close to home-spun as Up gets.)

Anyway, holding the handle is Ryan Bingham (Clooney): A professional firer by trade (when he’s not giving motivational speeches on the side), Bingham spends his days breaking employees the bad news so their bosses don’t have to. This job keeps him on the road pretty much constantly…which is fine by Bingham — he’s an Airportman, never happier than when he’s lounging at the American Airways VIP club, or checking into a hotel for a layover, or cruising at 50,000 feet above the heartland. (In his defense, he does live in Omaha — would you want to go home? Also, his travel experiences generally seem a lot less shoddy than almost all of the ones I can remember, but perhaps that’s a function of the miles.) In short, for Bingham transition is bliss: He’s a ship always at sea, never reaching port, and being a million miles from home only means he’s got nine million more to go.

But, naturally, new forces threaten Bingham’s airline Eden. Perhaps most importantly, his squirrelly boss (Jason Bateman) has recently made a hire out of Cornell — Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) — and she has the bright idea to start firing people over the Internets — Thus, no more endless junket. (To which I say, good idea! If I were getting fired either way, I don’t see how having smug-ole-George Clooney hand me a packet in person is going to improve my mood about it.) For another, his little sister (Melanie Lynskey) is getting married (Danny McBride), and their honeymoon plans (and the nagging family responsibilities they confer) make it harder for Bingham to pack light, as is his wont. And confusing the situation further, Bingham meets his female counterpart in Alex (Vera Farmiga), an eye-catching gal who shares a fondness for traveling constantly and in luxury. Does all of this mean it’s time for Ryan to put down some roots and live like the rest of us, or has he had the right idea all along?

In my Best of 2006 list, I said of Reitman’s amiable but botched take on Thank You for Smoking that “[w]hat Smoking needed was the misanthropic jolt and sense of purpose of 2005’s Lord of War, a much more successful muckraking satire…But Smoking, like its protagonist, just wants to be liked, and never truly commits to its agenda.” Well, Up in the Air has the same sense about it. I haven’t read the Walter Kirn novel this is based on, but I’m willing to bet Bingham probably comes across as more of a jerk therein. It sometimes seems that the sharp edges of this tale — “fly the unfriendly skies” and whatnot — have been filed off here. Similarly, I don’t want to give away the ending, which you deserve to experience unspoiled after sitting through the interminable high-school-nostalgia and wedding scenes. But it also feels a bit like Reitman flinched from the material in the end, or even that the finish we get isn’t the one he’d have liked to be building to.

I’m probably being harder on this film than it deserves, but if I was complaining about Cormac McCarthy’s relentless misanthropy just the other day, Up in the Air veered too far for me in the other direction. As in Reitman’s Juno, everyone’s likable and well-meaning perhaps to a fault, even when they’re acting horribly. And, when things go south, well there’s always some sugary-sweet, anesthetizing indie ballad that can soothe the pain and take you to commercial. It’s a sales job Bingham would be proud of.

Checks, Lies, and Audiotape.


[Ugh. It seems corporate ne’er-do-wells at Archer Daniels Midland conspired to erase this whole review just as I pressed publish. Here we go again…]

Give Steven Soderbergh credit: He’s astonishingly prolific — This is his second film of the year, after The Girlfriend Experience. He’s as at home in the arthouse (Sex, Lies, & Videotape; Kafka) as he is in the multiplex (Oceans 11, 12, 13.) He’s clearly animated by an interest in politics and a strong social conscience (Traffic, K Street, Erin Brockovich, Che 1 & 2.) When he’s on, he’s really on. (The Limey, Out of Sight.) And he’s not afraid to take stylistic risks to see what comes of them. (Solaris, Full Frontal, Bubble.)

The Informant!, a strange embellishment on the real-life story of whistleblower Mark Whitacre and the ADM scandals, shares many of these Soderberghian qualities. A merging of sorts of his indie and mainstream bodies of work, The Informant! also isn’t afraid to go out on a limb and try new things. But alas, partly because of those risks, the film doesn’t really hang together, and feels more like an experiment than an entertainment. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it sadly never really lives up to the Coenesque promise of that exclamation mark in the title. I’d say, Netflix it.

On the interesting side, Soderbergh has dolloped everything in this movie with a sickly, buttery orange-yellow sheen, as if this entire ADM-run universe has been dipped and slathered in high-fructose corn syrup. But other stylistic ventures go less well. Matt Damon’s Whitacre is saddled with an in-head voiceover — we hear what he’s thinking — that pays considerable dividends in the final act, but often results in a lot of pointless meandering on the way there. (Like all of us, Whitacre’s mind tends to wander, and he tends to go about porsches, birds, and sundry other randomness at various times.) And, in the Big Mistake department, Soderbergh has farmed out the score to 70’s maestro Marvin Hamlisch, and the incessantly perky, bells-and-horns retro sound he’s come up with feels both tonally off and is consistently distracting. It is, in a word, corny.

The thing is, it’s not entirely clear The Informant! even needed all this flair. As the film begins, Mark Whitacre (Damon) rhapsodizes to his son about the many splendiferous virtues of corn — it’s in everything, it binds us, surrounds us, permeates us. And putting it there is ADM, “Supermarket to the World,” where Whitacre works as a biochemist and the youngest vice-president in the company’s history. Life is good, profits are made, the corn flows. But the view from the top gets shaken up a bit when some Japanese competitors of ADM ostensibly try to extort the company using a lysine-eating virus. And when a friendly FBI agent (Scott Bakula) arrives on the scene to investigate this corporate crime, Whitacre — propelled by his wife (Melanie Lynskey of Heavenly Creatures) into a burst of conscience — furtively tells him of even more sordid goings-on in the ADM empire: price-fixing. Soon, with Whitacre as their Inside Man, the FBI are on the case, trying to unravel this criminal corporate conspiracy and get ADM’s Masters of the Universe to compromise themselves on tape. One big problem, tho’: Whitacre. To their dismay, the Feds soon discover that their mole — who learned everything he needed to know about espionage from Michael Crichton movies — is not only a risky asset, but a compulsive liar, one that’s been keeping some very big cards close to the vest. Sometimes, it’s not even clear if that boy is right in the head.

To play Whitacre, Matt Damon has gone through a pretty substantial physical transformation here. He’s gained thirty pounds of paunch and topped it off with a Ned Flanders moustache and a bad Shatner hairpiece. (Not that I’d advocate that he — or anybody — get on the Christian Bale method-actor binge-and-purge bandwagon, but he probably should’ve done something similar to make Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd even remotely plausible.) Even notwithstanding the corn-fed “young John Bolton” look he’s taken on, however, this part suits Damon. His inherent likability dovetails nicely with the congenial aw-shucks Midwestern blandness that Whitacre uses both as a shield and a key weapon in his arsenal of misdirection.

Damon aside, one of the minor pleasures of The Informant! is getting to see a bevy of character actors play against type. (The exception being Bakula, who once again is the still, calm center of the world. Then again, few do fundamentally decent as well as Quantum Leap‘s Sam Beckett.) Joel McHale of Talk Soup — soon, no doubt, to be Joel McHale of Community — is both deadly serious and believably earnest as Bakula’s partner. The Kurgan, a.k.a. Clancy Brown, exudes a ruthless professional mien as ADM’s top corporate lawyer — It’s his intelligence, rather than his bulk, that is sinister and frightening this time. Funnyman Patton Oswalt shows up in the later-going as an FBI accountant and plays it laudably straight and dull. And, perhaps most surprising, Buster Bluth (Tony Hale) also shows up in the third act and manages to come off as hypercompetent. (No small feat — every time he appeared on screen, my brain still went “Hey brother!“)

This, I think, speaks to yet another of Soderbergh’s strengths as a director — he’s clearly good with actors, and gives them the freedom to take the same types of risks that he does. The Informant! never really coheres, true, but I’d much rather see a talented director like Soderbergh continue to stretch himself and experiment, rather than bask in his safe, tried-and-tested wheelhouse. In the end, The Informant! probably counts as an amiable misfire, but those will happen. Stil, so long as Soderbergh keeps making movies, I’ll likely keep watching them…perhaps with some ADM-enhanced popcorn on hand.

Secrets and Lies.

In the July 4th weekend trailer bin:

  • Four couples (Vince Vaughn/Malin Ackerman, Jon Favreau/Kristin Davis, Jason Bateman/Kristen Bell, Faison Love/Kali Hawk) work out their issues in paradise in the preview for Peter Billingsley’s Couples Retreat, also with Jean Reno and Ken Jeong. (And, yes, that Peter Billingsley. Anyway, not my cup of tea, really — it looks like a paid vacation for the folks involved.)

  • Quentin Tarantino unleashes another look at what appears to be talky WWII torture porn in the international trailer for Inglorious Basterds, with Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, and Mike Myers with a variable accent. (This honestly looks worse with each trailer. Get it together, QT.)

  • And, most promisingly of the bunch, Matt Damon and a goofy moustache scour up the inside secrets of ADM in our first look at Stephen Soderbergh’s The Informant!, also with Scott Bakula, Tony Hale, Clancy Brown, Joel McHale, and Melanie Lynskey.

  • Flagging Fathers.


    Like Million Dollar Baby (and screenwriter Paul Haggis’ (sigh) Academy-Award-winning Crash), Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers is, alas, an egregious schmaltzfest, padded to the brim with shallow, one-note characters and ridiculous sentimentalizing. I said of Crash that it “mighta been the most daring movie of 1991,” and Flags has that same sense about it. At best, its attempt to demythologize WWII by making the Battle of Iwo Jima a bleak, desaturated deathscape feels like a retread of Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, and various other, better films. At worst, Flags of our Fathers subverts its own enterprise by trafficking in blatantly over-the-top symbolism, making the battle close to incomprehensible, and wallowing in “Greatest Generation” kitsch like it’s going out of style (which, pretty clearly, it isn’t.)

    As its conceit, the film follows the six soldiers pictured in the famous photograph of the Iwo Jima flag-raising, of which only three made it out alive: John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillipe, better than usual), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, also very good). As it turns out, surviving hell on earth was only the first of their trials: Once the federal agitprop powers-that-be figure out what a spectacular image they’ve stumbled upon, these three soldiers — who in fact were putting up the second flag of the day — are forced into a whirlwind publicity tour across the United States to drum up support for war bonds. For Gagnon (and his ridiculously golddiggerish fiancee), this is an unexpected stroke of luck. For Bradley, this is grist for several artfully timed flashbacks of the actual battle. And for Hayes, a Pima Indian forced to confront not only the twin demons of racism and alcoholism but also his own feelings of guilt and inadequacy on the road, the war bond schmooze train seems like it might just be worse than the battlefield… (There’s also a framing device involving Bradley’s son (the author of the book) interviewing the participants in the story, but it’s basically Greatest Generation filler.)

    Between the battle itself and the opportunity for trenchant social criticism offered by the war bond tour, this may sound like it has all the makings for a quality film. And, to their credit, the players all acquit themselves decently, with lots of good character actors (say, Robert Patrick, Harve Presnell, and look for Luther of The Warriors (David Patrick Kelly) in a cameo as Harry Truman) around to leaven the likes of grunts Paul Walker and Jamie Bell. That being said, virtually every character in Flags comes across as shallow and inert: From start to finish, Bradley’s a polite, well-meaning cipher, Gagnon a boyish opportunist, and Hayes a weepy drunk, and they’re the well-rounded ones. Moreover, as Ed Gonzalez of The House Next Door aptly put it, “the stink of Crash hovers over Flags of Our Fathers.” Cheap, reflexive sentiment is the order of the day here, and even scenes that should be powerful — say, Hayes being refused service at a white-only bar, or America learning of the death of FDR over the radio — are ruined by Haggis’s usual brand of in-your-face hokum, baldly sentimentalized and applied as a paste. By the time we’re forced to sit through some deathbed histrionics about daddys and heroes — a scene which would seem to undermine the film’s earlier emphasis on not valorizing war simply for its own sake — I’d pretty much completely checked out of the film. In short, Flags of our Fathers means well, I suppose…but it’s far too saccharine here to do its subject justice, and is basically a long-winded, ill-conceived bore.

    Sands of Iwo Jima.

    A trailer for Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming Iwo Jima double-feature, Flags of our Fathers and Red Sun, Black Sand, is now online.

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