April 22, 2010

The Informant!

Director Steven Soderbergh has a penchant for movies about crime with a neo-noirish feel. The Informant! isn't exactly film noir, maybe film noir light. It hits on a subject that resonates clearly in the 21st century: corporate crime. Based on the apparently true story of Mark Whitacre, an employee for a company called ADM who decides to blow the whistle on some illegal price-fixing going on in his company, The Informant! is a movie that refuses to let you rest comfortably in your assumption that you've got its main character (played very well by Matt Damon) figured out.

Damon is surrounded by wonderful co-stars: Scott Bakula and Joel McHale (from Talk Soup and Community), Melanie Lynskey, Scott Adsit (Pete from 30 Rock), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff from Back to the Future), Tony Hale (Buster from Arrested Development), and Ann Cusack, among others.

The Informant! is rather interesting when compared to Food, Inc., the documentary I recently reviewed. The company for which Damon's character works is involved in the processing of corn, a food that seems to be almost magical in the variety of its utility.

Perhaps the standout of this movie is Marvin Hamlisch's music score, which is reminiscent of old spy and cop thrillers from the 60s and gives the movie an impressive, ironic feeling, particularly when the music that should be accompanying a chase scene or something else very exciting is layered over a quiet, seemingly blase moment in the film. It's a nice touch, and one that reminds us we're watching a parody.

It's not as laugh-out-loud funny as In the Loop, my favorite comedy of 2009, but it's certainly up to par in smarts, and has such wonderful irony that it demands a second viewing.

April 19, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

I finally watched Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, Inglourious Basterds, a film that, unlike most historically-themed productions, is blatantly upfront about its historical revisionism. And indeed that is where all the fun is to be had.

While Brad Pitt and his troupe of American Nazi-killing soldiers (incuding Eli Roth, B.J. Novak, Til Schweiger, and Omar Doom) may be the eponymous "basterds," their screen time seems a bit minimal as Tarantino takes us into Paris, where the basterds, in cahoots with a German actress (Diane Kruger) working for the Allies, are planning a show-stopping Nazi judgment day at the screening of a German propaganda film featuring a Nazi soldier (played by Daniel Bruhl) who single-handedly killed over 300 enemy soldiers. Those in attendance include prominent figureheads of the National Socialist German Workers Party, including Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and the Fuher himself, played by Martin Wuttke. Meanwhile, the owner of the cinema (Melanie Laurent), has her own plans of "painting the town."

Brad Pitt's performance is funny, but his sporadic screen time makes it difficult to decide who's supposed to be carrying this movie. Laurent's character certainly has the most fictional backstory and motive. Pitt is just there to crack quasi-ironic jokes in a Southern drawl while his men butcher Nazi soldiers. The story shifts back and forth to different storylines, most of which are fascinating to watch even if they render the movie somewhat discombobulated (and they're not without ample bloodshed). As per usual, Tarantino manages lots of engrossing conversation between his characters, something for which he certainly possesses a knack.

Much good talent is on display here, and the Nazis are successfully represented as slimy, calculating and cold. (But what about the "heroes"?) Christopher Waltz is particularly convincing as the primary villain in this film, a detective working for the SS to track down Jews in hiding, known all over Europe as "The Jew Hunter."

Even if a historian might be mortally offended about how Inglourious Basterds laughs in the face of history, its very audaciousness makes it worthwhile. Tarantino made a lot of people notice him with his debut Reservoir Dogs (1992) and exceeded that with the tremendously successful Pulp Fiction (1994). He really had nowhere else to go but to take something on an epic scale such as World War II and manipulate it into his particular style of gory, violent, loquacious insanity.

Whether or not Tarantino reduces Jews to the same level as their torturers is an interesting question to pursue. Or perhaps this movie is more cathartic than that.

April 07, 2010

Food, Inc.

Some things to remember when viewing a documentary: 1) Images can often be manipulated out of their original context; 2) Use of music and editing techniques can heighten the emotional wallop of a scene in the documentary to manipulate the viewer 3) since a documentary is not a research paper, the filmmakers aren't really required to "cite their sources" or even explain beyond any doubt the facts they present and the arguments they make.

That being said, I highly encourage everyone to see Food, Inc. It's a powerful examination of the food industry in America. I listed the above criteria for viewing documentaries because I think it's absolutely important to remember that everyone has an agenda--even the seemingly well-meaning documentarian, and so it's not enough to simply swallow everything you're fed (pun intended, obviously). However, the claims made in this movie are provocative, and the evidence presented in the movie very convincing. When I examined their points at face value, everything they argued (mainly, that the food industry is for the most part controlled by a handful of gigantic corporations more concerned with making money than making healthy food that respects animals, the environment, and the consumers) seemed very straight-forward and common-sensical.

I'm not a very adept economist or businessman, so I can't really examine the logistics of the food industry with much expertise. But I get (I understand, but do not necessarily support) why companies are trying to produce more food at less cost. However, it seems like the cost is not really that cheap...it may indeed be deadly.

Immediately, however, I am reminded that our current life expectancy in America continues to rise. On the other side of that argument, it seems that cancer is becoming more and more pervasive. Every time we turn around it seems, someone else we know is diagnosed with a type of cancer. I have to wonder if what we eat is a huge part of this problem.

Food, Inc. reaffirms some of the things a lot of us have already been thinking for a while: it's worth it to pay extra for milk retrieved from cows not being abused or fed weird chemicals; it's worth it to pay extra for vegetables at a farmers' market that were grown locally and support farmers who are trying do things right. It is quite ridiculous to gripe about the cost of vegetables if we're buying soda and fast food left and right.

Is Food, Inc. just promoting yet another anti-capitalist movement? I'm not sure. Someone being interviewed made a comment that "we're not going to get rid of capitalism fast enough for that to be the solution" (I'm paraphrasing). However, the narrator made the comment that the control our government has over the food industry is just a really insidious form of socialism. It would be better for everyone if this issue veered away from becoming another left vs. right debate. I think the pitfalls of capitalism AND socialism are problems we will always be dealing with. As the Wal-Mart execs say in the movie, the market will decide what they choose to sell. If we buy healthier products, companies like Wal-Mart and Publix will be only too happy to oblige us.

Before I give away everything, check out this movie, nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar this year.