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We're a man down for this episode, but that's not going to stop us rampaging across the cinematic landscape like a curiously culturally aware dinosaur. We dole out the truth on The Informant!, Harry Brown, Fantastic Mr. Fox, This Is It, Ong-Bak 2, 9, The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and A Serious Man. Phew!
We have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Steven Soderbergh around here, but his latest film The Informant! falls more into the love category. Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is an executive in a large bio-agricultural concern, Archer Daniels Midland, who quickly turns tattle tale for the FBI in an international price fixing investigation. While he's shepherded through the process of collecting enough information to take the cartels down by his FBI handlers, including Scott Bakula, we'll start to notice certain quirks in Mark's character. As the exclamation mark in the title and the odd 70's retro stylings given to events that occurred in 1992, this isn't exactly a Michael Mann / The Insider style serious affair, it maintains a level of gentle amusement throughout, and it's an eminently watchable piece of light entertainment.
Harry Brown features an excellent performance from Michael Caine in the titular role of a pensioner driven to take revenge on the local hoodlums tormenting him after the deaths of his wife and his best friend. Unfortunately it's a good performance in a ridiculous setting in a film that seems to be passing solemn moral judgements on a society that simply doesn't exist outside of the narrative convenience of the plot. Sort of entertaining in spite of itself, but we can't really condone this sort of exploitation.
Welcome back on-board the Wes Anderson whimsymobile, this time featuring weird, but somewhat effective stop motion type animation Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on the kiddywink book by Roald Dahl. Mr. Fox, who is Fantastic, and voiced by George Clooney, decides his family should not live in foxholes, so he moves up the property ladder by moving into a nice old tree. However, a return to his old career as fox thief, incurring the wrath of three local, unpleasant farmers who resolve to turf the family of foxes out in dramatic style, with all of the other woodland critters as collateral damage. It doesn't seem to be making a hell of a lot of concessions to the kiddy audience I'd assume that a Roald Dahl tale would be aimed at, but it doesn't seem to be pandering to adults particularly either, who together account for 100% of all potential audiences. So, who's going to watch it? I kinda liked it, but I've got to think for most audiences this in one whimsy too far from the Anderson playbook.
You may remember some dude called Michael Jackson. He's dead now. You might have heard. This Is It is documentary of sorts consisting of footage culled from the rehearsals in the lead up to his dates at London's O2 Arena, and shows enough to convince even cynical curmudgeons like myself that the man could still put on a show. While it avoids any attempts at character redemption by choosing not to get into his personal life (and incidentally avoids mawkishness by pretty much ignoring the fact he's dead), it does show for a man so supposedly hopped up on prescription goofballs, he holds a remarkable level of professionalism and pride in the outcome of the piece. While it's not in any way a "concert film" in the music video sense, Jacko still shows more stage presence blocking out dance routines while singing the odd line here and there than most artists treading the boards do. An interesting memorial to the man, but probably not one that's of much interest to those outside his fanbase.
After dissolving a successful partnership with director Prachya Pinkaew during the shooting of Ong Bak 2, seemingly quite acrimoniously during the shooting of this film, Tony Jaa co-directs this prequel with Panna Rittikrai. Well, it says prequel, but name and main star aside this has nothing whatsoever in common with the first film. Including, rather sadly the quality of it. It's lavishly produced, for sure. While the rumoured budget of $8-9 millions chicken feed by Hollywood standards, its a lot for Thai productions, and to be fair, you can see the money on the screen. The major problem with the film is that here's nothing like enough action in the film. I'm going to watch a Tony Jaa film for people getting beaten up, not some mildly confusing costume drama, but the ratio of thumping to posturing is all out of whack here. Not enough action and too convoluted a storyline means that there's very little joy to be had here.
9 is a post-apocalyptic animation featuring sack dolls embodied with part of the spirit of humanity being chased by evil machines. For, er, some reason. While there's certainly some potential in the directorial style of Shane Acker, overall it's no great shakes.
Grant Heslov is perhaps best known for co-writing the excellent Good Night and Good Luck. He returns to the directorial chair with The Men Who Stare At Goats. Starting with one of the best disclaimers in recent memory, that being "More of this story is true than you would believe", this goes on to tell of young journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor). After the break up of his marriage, he decides to head off to Iraq to make a name for himself. While waiting for clearance, he bumps into mysterious "contractor" Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who goes on to spin him a yarn. Or does he? McGregor's traditionally shonky accent aside, he delivers a pleasingly fun performance alongside Clooney, who may well have cornered the market in pleasingly fun performances in quirky, charming comedy roles. The firm has a knockabout, quirky charm to it, and if it's maybe not outright hilarious, it's at least consistently very amusing.
Like most of Terry Gilliam's work, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus looks, feels and for all I know smells unlike any other film out there. That's both its greatest strength and its biggest weakness. Perhaps overshadowed somewhat by the death of star Heath Ledger during the shooting, Gilliam has salvaged the work with the aid of Colin Farrell, Jude Law and Johnny Depp in such an organic fashion that it feels like it was always supposed to be this way. Great performances, gonzo effects and an imaginative tale involving... well, explaining that would take far longer than space here allows make this an entertaining and unique way to pass one's time in a cinematorium.
I hear from various sources that Joel and Ethan Coen's latest film, A Serious Man, is a semi-autobiographical tale of their combine childhood experiences, or a retelling of the Book of Job, or my own theory, a low-key re-imagining of Falling Down. After a seeming non-sequtaeur of a prologue, we switch to 1967 Minneapolis and physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). His life looks to be unravelling when his wife announces she wants a divorce, putting him on the couch next to Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), and there may be problems developing with a failing student that seems intent on bribing him and question marks over his applications for university tenure. It's certainly an odd fruit. Nothing much seems to happen in the film. A lot of it seems to be based around watching Stuhlbarg sort of flounder around as things start derailing unexpectedly. Certainly, I wasn't bored while watching it, but I can't bring myself to recommend it to anyone, and it's very rare you can say that about a Cohen bros. film.
That is all for now. We'll be back sometime soon, so until then keep your nose clean and if you can't be good, be lucky.