Monday, September 28, 2009


Review: Bright Star
5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Not familiar with the work of 19th century English poet John Keats? No matter. Let the great Jane Campion enlighten you and awaken your senses with her rapturous new film, “Bright Star,” which focuses on the last three years of Keats' tragically short life (he succumbed to tuberculosis at 25 in 1821) and his brief, yet earth-shaking affair with Fanny Brawne, the girl next door who became his muse and one and only love. After landing a screenplay Oscar and the Cannes Film Festival's Palme D'Or for “The Piano” in 1993, following that with less successful titles like 2003's “In the Cut,” and then remaining inactive until 2007, writer/director Campion returns with what is undoubtedly one of the finest movies of 2009. Romantic in every way, it beautifully captures a moment in time that, for two people, was momentous, and it contains more passion and feeling in its nuances than some films do in their entirety. I relished every moment and I long to see it again.

Ben Whishaw, whose impossibly chiseled face has popped up in recent titles like “Brideshead Revisited” and “I'm Not There,” is Keats, playing the poet as a scruffy, soulful blend of Johnny Depp and Keith Richards (perhaps someone should phone him for “Pirates 4”). Abbie Cornish, an Australian who was last seen playing an American in Kimberly Pierce's “Stop-Loss,” is Fanny, who's immediately established as headstrong, opinionated and also artistic – a fashion designer who creates all of her own stylish and colorful garments. The couple's initial interactions are not ones of instantaneous attraction. Misled by his meddling roommate and colleague, Charles Brown (the film's sleazy but pitiful villain, played tenaciously by Paul Schneider), Keats sees Fanny as a flirtatious fashionista, while she, by her own admission, has little knowledge of any poetry, let alone his. But both, we see, are curious, and Campion, exercising a restraint that's present in every component of this picture, lets the subtle sparks of their relationship slowly catch fire until the exhilaration of that first kiss is shared by the audience. Once the other characters – including Fanny's siblings and her mother, played with touching tenderness by Kerry Fox – are hip to the courtship, it has quietly ballooned into a fervid infatuation.

Inspired in part by the biography, “Keats,” by poet Andrew Motion, “Bright Star” – which gets its name from Keats' famous poem, presumably written about Fanny – claims that the affair, though peppered with roadblocks, lasted until Keats' untimely death. Campion shows the lovers in separate locations on that fateful day (she stayed in London while he fled to Rome for a healthier climate), but no less entwined, and, like all great love stories, tragedy aggrandizes their romance. So, too, do a number of additional, less conventional factors, such as Keats' actual letters to Fanny, which also inspired Campion and to which she had access throughout production. Simply knowing these documents – which surely do play a key role in the film – exist adds layers of appeal and validity to the pair's already captivating bond. Also, Keats and Fanny never consummated their love, giving it an uncommon, forever frozen innocence. And while the subject is brought up repeatedly, nor did they marry, for Keats, a penniless writer, lacked the means to support a wife even before he fell ill. Fanny, though fully encouraged, a la “Pride and Prejudice,” to marry into wealth, cares not about his empty pockets, and couldn't if she wanted to. “Bright Star” is a portrait of the truest kind of love: one that is inconvenient and insuppressible.

The beauty of this movie is often so great, it is chilling, which is to say I literally had chills while watching it. Lovingly photographed by Greig Fraser, it delivers a cool, continuous current of ravishing imagery, which Campion unfailingly clips or subdues in such a way that it never feels forced upon you. Her plain, lived-in interiors of white walls and dark wood, and gray-toned or sun-soaked exteriors of things like barren forests contrast wonderfully with the vibrant costumes (which are themselves especially meaningful since we watch Fanny make more than a few of them). And then there are the flowers, which on more than one occasion flood the bottom half of Campion's frame, and contribute to a scene with a purple dress that I'd call the film's best if it weren't preceded and followed by scenes that affected me just as deeply. Gorgeous visuals – a bedroom filled with butterflies, Keats resting atop a tree in bloom – fade into one another here with the smoothness of silk. All the while there is the alternately playful and heartbreaking original music by Mark Bradshaw, and, best of all, Keats' own words, which, whether spoken in voiceover or between the two lovers, are together perhaps one of the most beautiful soundtracks one could ask for.

Whishaw, his voice sharp and articulate, is mesmerizing when reciting these lines, as well as when giving life to Campion's own verse about the nature of poetry itself. That said, he does not speak unnecessarily or at great length, nor is he a wellspring of emotion. Played by Whishaw with an old-fashioned aura of mystery, inner demons and sly charm, his emotions are not written outright on his face or in his actions because they are reserved for things that matter most like his work and his woman. Though certainly reciprocating her feelings, he is presented, more or less, as the tall, dark and somewhat dangerous object of obsession for Fanny, who is the principal character, and who, as played by Cornish, steals the show with ease. In a recent interview, Campion said that Cornish's performance “puts her in a category with the top actors of her generation,” and that's no simple biased praise. There isn't a single identifiable falsity in Cornish's work, a perfect match for the film's unforced naturalism. There couldn't have been a more aptly-titled project in which to showcase the breakthrough of this 27-year-old actress, who is indeed its radiant epicenter. The intensity in her eyes alone speaks volumes, her smile will astound you, and a shattering scene in the film's conclusion all but cements her a place among this year's Best Actress nominees.

Of course, what Campion has done is translated Keats' work (and life, and inspiration) into the language of cinema, thus creating a film that is its own kind of poetry. “Bright Star” is lyrical in ways beyond the inclusion of Keats' sonnets in the script – there is a fresh and flowing immediacy to it that makes it honest and ageless. Keats and Fanny created their own private world. Campion re-envisioned it and now it is ours to experience. It is, as Keats says of poetry, “an experience beyond thought.” See it with someone you love, or, better still, someone you can't bear not to.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Review: The Informant!
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The virtues of director Steven Soderbergh's “The Informant!” are plentiful and plainly recognizable: the script by Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) is almost dizzyingly intelligent; the cinematography by Soderbergh himself (under his usual alias, Peter Andrews) is alluring and elegantly moody; the original music by Marvin Hamlisch is gleeful and ebullient; and the acting, specifically from lead star Matt Damon, has a certain wry brilliance that never lets up. So why, then, did I emerge from this kooky dark-comedy-meets-paranoid-thriller feeling more than a little unsatisfied? The ingredients of greatness are certainly in place. But for all its strengths, “The Informant!” still leaves some things to be desired, not the least of which is even a mild release from its adamantly bone-dry tone.

Based on the 2000 non-fiction book of the same name (sans exclamation point) by investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald (who served as one of the film's producers), “The Informant!” tells the “tattle tale” of Mark Whitacre (Damon), a successful executive at the multinational, Decatur, Illinois-based food conglomerate, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), who in the early '90s initiated a whistle-blowing campaign against his employers, aiming to expose their alleged price-fixing schemes. The real Whitacre is said to have been the highest-ranking corporate snitch in U.S. history. It was only after years of wire taps, secret meetings, video surveillance, and mountains of paperwork that FBI agents Brian Shepherd and Bob Herndon – who led the case and who are played here with great instincts by cunningly-cast TV favorites Scott Bakula (!) and Joel McHale (!!), respectively – discovered that Whitacre was a deranged, bipolar embezzler whose own crimes eclipsed those committed by ADM's higher-ups.

I'd be lying if I said I had no trouble keeping up with the movie during its first act, in which Damon's character, in a wild voiceover narration that continues throughout, breathlessly expounds the specifics of ADM and its operations. (His rants include, but are certainly not limited to, likening ADM's turning a profit to the digestion of corn, the company's hottest product.) The language is shrewdly complex, and I'd never condemn a script for sticking to its intricate guns, but the convoluted corporate jargon is merely the first way in which “The Informant!” keeps the viewer at arm's length. The narration lays the groundwork for what will transpire, and it definitely establishes the film's theme of comical duplicity, but there's an impenetrability to it that forbids us from fully plugging into the story.

What works wonderfully is Damon's performance, easily the best and most pronounced in a career filled with solid, impressive turns. Just as Whitacre is painted as a man who's as alarmingly delusional as he is articulate and astute (many of his scatterbrained speeches veer off into entertaining and wise sermons about the minutiae of everyday life), Damon's approach to the role seems both precisely rehearsed and madly improvised. He's funny, deceptively convincing, and he handles the challenging dialogue with a tireless, whirling dexterity that's thrilling to watch. We eventually find that we're never on solid ground with Whitacre, a sort of haphazard sociopath whose absurd behavior and uncertain motives go from laughable to intentionally infuriating, but we're always on board with Damon, if only for the joy of witnessing the great actor he's evolved into. (It helps that he packed on roughly 30 pounds and grew out a bush of a mustache, keeping the-boy-next-door, Sexiest-Man-Alive persona out of sight and out of mind.)

One may argue that the look of “The Informant!” clashes with its setting (what with the action taking place in the '90s and the film appearing to have crawled out of the '70s), but I was smitten with Soderbergh's design. His movie has an assured, laudable style, and he knows how to pique an audience's visual interest. The hazy lighting softly radiates white in the background, or, when necessary, drapes the characters in a sultry amber glow. The compositions are artful and eye-catching, and the camera movements are rhythmically, harmoniously fused with the events at hand. (Lest we forget, Soderbergh has, to great effect, photographed most of his own movies, including the exquisitely lensed “Traffic” and “The Good German.”)

What's lacking here is any shred of emotional catharsis. Watching “The Informant!,” I started to feel the slight sensation that I was being choked, not just by Whitacre's boundless lapses in judgment and imbecilic tendencies, but by the entire film's insistence on being so damned sardonic. Though chuckle-inducing at times, the sheer height of its relentless cynicism becomes taxing, and it kills any chance of genuine viewer attachment. Beyond Whitacre's paranoia and questionable self pity, the only true feelings ever presented are those of the FBI agents, who attempt to console Whitacre once it becomes clear that they can no longer remain in contact. But even their compassion is rooted in utter exhaustion, after having put up with Whitacre's mixed messages and volatile demeanor for what must have seemed like ages. (Even Whitacre's doting enabler of a wife, played by the dependably meek Melanie Lynskey, finally throws in the towel: “Why do you do this to yourself?” she pleads.) If we feel anything, it's their pain, coupled with a “D'oh!” and a palm-slap to the forehead.

Soderbergh seems fully aware of his movie's absence of humanity, as he's tried to enliven it from promotion to production: the goofy, lighthearted irony of the posters; the groovy, colorful intertitles; the boisterous, circus-like exuberance of the evocative music (think “Austin Powers” meets “Leave it to Beaver”). Fun as these finishing touches may be, they're only touches, and they can't save “The Informant!” from being a film that, however easy to like, is difficult to love.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Review: 9
3 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The majority of films are driven toward, and at least somewhat dependent upon, a climactic plot twist that raises the stakes and brings greater depth and perspective to the events that precede it. “9,” an animated, post-apocalyptic fantasy-adventure directed and co-written by Shane Acker (who expands his 2005 Oscar-nominated short of the same name), has such a twist, but its effect is of little use. What's revealed doesn't just raise the stakes, it finally establishes them, after most of the movie has already passed. Prior to the revelation (which brings to light some heady stuff, indeed), we tag along with a gaggle of very thinly-written characters as they struggle through circumstances that only seem dire within the moments in which they're unfolding. The higher purpose is virtually nowhere in sight, the greater good doesn't appear to be all that great, and by the time we're privy to both, Acker no longer has our attention. It's a good thing his movie is a marvel to behold.

No doubt influenced by the macabre whimsy of Tim Burton (who, along with “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov, produced the picture), Acker inhabits a desolate, debris-ridden, post-war landscape with creatures who'd fit right in with Edward Scissorhands and Jack Skellington. Following an opening that's directly reminiscent of another Burton-esque creation (this year's “Coraline,” which also kicked off with a pair of hands carefully constructing a tattered-looking doll), we meet our hero, 9, a ragged amalgamation of a burlap sack and spare parts who awakens in the ransacked study of a crumbling, battle-ravaged residence. Carrying a curious talisman that he found beside him and stashed in a zipper pouch within his chest, 9 – who's ably voiced by Elijah Wood and whose number/name is etched on his back – ventures out into a world that looks like Ground Zero stretched as far as the eye can see. Stumbling over heaps of rubble, incinerated vehicles and the occasional human corpse, 9 soon comes in contact with another being like himself: 2 (voiced by Martin Landau), an inquisitive explorer who's similarly branded and has the same binocular-like eyes. Almost immediately, the pair is attacked by a cat-like beast made of bones and machinery that kidnaps 2, steals the talisman and darts off into the bleak horizon.

Once introduced to the evils of this world, 9 quickly falls in with the rest of his kind, who've been evading threats like the cat-beast since the earth fell to ruin. So typical are these characters that the numbers-as-names identification system is perfectly apt. Bearing the kingly accessories of cape, crown and staff, 1 (voiced with commanding coarseness by Christopher Plummer) is the group's stubborn, conservative leader who frowns on free-thinking; 6 (voiced by go-to weirdo Crispin Glover) is the resident nutjob whose feverish, ominous doodles will come in handy later; 8 (voiced by ubiquitous voice actor Fred Tatasciore) is 1's dim-witted, muscle-bound lug of an assistant; and 5 (voiced rather lazily by John C. Reilly) is the benevolent, yet easily-intimidated worrywart who eventually joins the noble and courageous 9 in attempting to rescue 2. Before long we also encounter 7 (voiced with little distinction by Jennifer Connelly), an adventurous feminist type who's separated herself from the rest along with the childlike, precocious twins, 3 and 4. Using the now-retrieved talisman, 9 unwittingly elevates the danger for everyone by awakening a super-machine that builds other killer machines and, as we discover, was responsible for the destruction of humanity.

Giving us only brief, sporadic tidbits of the backstory (which involves the familiar matter of artificial intelligence turning on its maker), “9” asks that we accept and be patient with this ragtag ennead's existential conundrum. Questions of why or how they exist are only slightly addressed by 9 and company because they're all faced with other, more pressing dilemmas. But from the standpoint of the audience, the characters are so one-dimensional that we cannot invest ourselves in them and only them. In order to feel the urgency of their conflicts (which for a long time seem to take place in a minuscule microcosm), we need that higher purpose, that greater good, as a foundation. Our endurance, curiosity and suspension of disbelief are swiftly trumped by our desire for clarity and connection, and, like 1, who repeatedly insists that 9 not ask so many questions, the movie is slow to oblige. Such is a fundamental flaw in the mechanics of Acker and co-writer Pamela Pettler's (“Corpse Bride”) already sub-par script. “9” is presented like a backwards banquet: we're served the meal before the appetizer, and when at last the first course arrives, we're full and ready for our check.

Though they are most certainly what distracts the narrative from being all that it could have been (Acker, after all, is not without some powerful and profound ideas), the visuals of “9” are superbly rendered. The protagonists, who are each given their own discernible traits, are an imaginative mishmash of the charming and the bizarre – they're like the distant, bedraggled cousins of WALL-E. The villains – which, in addition to the cat-beast, include a winged, bat-like monstrosity composed mostly of blades, and a frightening, caterpillar-type creature that slithers and shrieks – are even more impressive, calling to mind the misfit playthings of “Toy Story” crossed with the dreaded machines from “The Matrix.” The action is spectacular, and the editing and CGI are both tack-sharp. But a viewer can't live by eye candy alone, and, after a weak and non-redemptive conclusion, we leave wishing that the storytelling had been as inspired as the imagery.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Review: Extract
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

With his 1999 debut feature, "Office Space," writer/director Mike Judge tapped into the universal hilarity of the workplace to which so many cubicle dwellers could relate. Though it bombed at the box office, the comedy went on to achieve massive success on DVD and quickly became a major cult classic not unlike Judge's animated TV programs, "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "King of the Hill" (the latter of which, incidentally, wraps up its 13th and final season this month). It's safe to say that Judge's latest, "Extract," which is set in a different kind of work environment, won't gain the same devoted following of his previous efforts. For whereas they reveled in and thrived on the humor of the mundane, "Extract" simply wallows in it. Unfocused, rarely funny and utterly dispensable, it can't even qualify as a guilty pleasure since the eventual guilt of having spent money on it and time with it far outweighs the minimal pleasures provided.

In light of the recession, many viewers will undoubtedly find relevance in one of the film's disparate plot threads: a scenario in which dozens of factory workers may be in danger of losing their jobs. But since Judge has reportedly been toiling away on "Extract" for nearly a decade, such relevance is more conveniently timed than perceptively planned, and in light of another hot topic (the ever-burgeoning green movement), I offer a different observation that surely wasn't intended: Judge's indefensible wasting of his valuable resources.

For "Extract" (which gets its name from the flavor extract products manufactured in a plant where much of the action takes place), Judge assembled an enviable roster of comedic talents; however, under his fickle direction, hardly any of them are inspired to reach the potential they're known to possess. Though convincing as Joel, the disenchanted and unlucky chem wiz who owns the extract company, Jason Bateman is a little asleep at the wheel, giving us a dialed-down, less likable variant of his amusingly distraught characters in "Juno" and TV's "Arrested Develoment." As Joel's assistant manager, Brian, J.K. Simmons -- who also appeared in "Juno" -- provides the same smart-mouthed, straight-faced levity for which he's become famous, but his work here is perhaps his least remarkable. Clifton Collins, Jr. ("Sunshine Cleaning"), whose bottle-sorting employee, Step, sustains a groin injury and tries to sue the company, is reduced to a redneck stereotype, while Ben Affleck's pill-popping, advice-giving barkeep, Dean, is handed lines that are all-too-telling of the film's failings. ("I'm a bit of a character," Dean says in one of many foolhardy speeches. Quite right: a depthless character, just like the rest of these people.)

Judge's greatest sin is casting deadpan queen Kristen Wiig ("Saturday Night Live") and then assigning her the barren role of The Little Wife. As Suzie, Joel's neglected spouse who tends to choose reality TV over sex (the film makes much of her sweatpants, which, once donned, signify "No Action"), Wiig is given only one scene in which to cut loose and utilize her considerable skills. (Unsurprisingly, said scene, which arrives far too late, is arguably the movie's best.)

Those few who do excel include David Koechner ("Anchorman"), who duly infuriates as Nathan, Joel's grotesque nightmare of a neighbor whose exasperating disposition calls to mind that of Stephen Tobolowsky's Ned Ryerson from "Groundhog Day." (Hint: Nathan factors into Wiig's shining moment.) There's also the lovely Mila Kunis, whose alluring and enlivening presence as con artist Cindy nearly hides her character's poorly-conceived and relatively inconsequential contributions to the story (there's a growing sense that Judge called Kunis just so he could throw a hot girl into the mix). Lastly, there's the dependable and distinguished character actress Beth Grant, whose disgruntled and accusatory factory worker, Mary, slightly resembles the small role Grant played in 2007's "No Country for Old Men."

Grant's part isn't the only connection to the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. Judge might be described as the poor man's Coen brother, what with his similarly-themed but less artfully realized tales of average, (usually) working-class folks who behave badly and often engage in harebrained schemes. But Judge lacks the Coens' superior craftsmanship, their ability to insightfully transcend their subject matter, and their strong clarity of vision. Granted, "Extract" is meant to be an easy-going, absurdist comedy, but it's impossible to sit through its profoundly mediocre, disproportionate scenes and not wonder: "where is all this going?" The three major storylines -- Joel's predicaments at work; his domestic issues with Suzie; and Cindy's initially pronounced, then abruptly capped-off escapades as an expert deceiver -- battle for prominence until we realize they're all headed down the same dead-end street. The tagline for "Office Space" was "work sucks." What are we to believe is the message of "Extract?" Life kinda' sucks, too?

The film isn't without its funny segments. In addition to Wiig's character's confontation with Nathan, Joel, at one point, is forced into taking a monstrous bong hit that's momentarily uproarious; KISS frontman Gene Simmons delivers a notable cameo as a cheesy, temperamental attorney; and a subplot involving a moronic gigolo acts as a droll diversion. But this is hardly the type of comedy you run home and tell your friends about. Its most significant quality is its insignificance. If Judge is indeed more responsible than his characters, he'll aim higher when devising his next harebrained scheme.