Famous Filmmaker : Forgotten Film | Steven Soderbergh: The Informant!

Though this will be Steven Soderbergh’s first appearance as the featured director in this series, I can all but guarantee this won’t be his last. Throughout his career he has worn so many different hats directorally, ranging from thrillers to pulpy action flicks to intimate dramas, though Soderbergh does seem to have a penchant for making great docudramas, among them the oft overlooked 2009 gem, The Informant!. While this film is recent enough that it still exists in public memory, and was financially successful, this film is often overlooked when discussing Soderbergh’s extensive and diverse filmography. In addition, it is a movie that I feel is sorely under-seen, despite it being a terrific piece of cinema.

The Informant

Right off the bat, Matt Damon fits perfectly in the role of Mark Whitacre, a biochemist turned businessman working for ADM, a food processing mega corporation located in small town Illinois. Mark is almost instantly one of the most likable character I have ever seen in a movie. He is worldly, intelligent, motivated, and idealistic without seeming naive.  Mark has a childlike sense of wonder and seems to be equal parts imaginative and thoughtful. However, Mark is also just a touch paranoid, and when the FBI is called in to investigate the potential contamination of a compound Mark frequently works on called lysine, he immediately starts blabbing company secrets, concerned that this investigation might turn up some unsavory actions that Mark was forced into by his superiors.

As it turns out, ADM, along with most other lysine distributors international, have been engaging in price fixing. Since this could potentially be a billion dollar lawsuit for the government, and Mark has made the mistake of being the only person to leak this information, he is somewhat willing pushed into becoming an FBI informant to gather intel for this theoretical lawsuit. However, things start to take a bit of a turn later in the investigation, as Mark starts to worry about his job security after he likely sends all his friends and co-workers to jail. Coupled with his now ever growing ego, based on all the attention and acclaim he is receiving from the FBI for being a whistleblower, Mark starts to make a streak of increasingly questionable decisions as the investigation draws to a close, shedding double on the once unquestionable scrupulousness of his character.

Though this film often times feels like a “small” movie, it is among my favorite Soderbergh films. The screenplay is fantastic, all the dialogue is snappy and tight, and Matt Damon delivers some one liners that I still remember to this day from my initial viewing of the film on its release. The supporting cast is stellar, and full of comedians who rarely seem to make it to the silver screen like Tom Papa and Joel McHale. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see this film, try to work it into a viewing one weekend. Though I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a must see for everyone, I find it hard to picture anyone disliking this charming film.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Side Effects Review

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Perhaps you’ve heard the deliciously Catch-22-esque line of logic stating that after a person is deemed insane, everything they may do after that point, even if it involves laying down lasting and irrefutable proof to the contrary, will be essentially invalid because they have already been pronounced insane. As fellow author and arguably crazy person, Gabriel, likes to say, the feeling of being so completely trapped and imprisoned behind this impenetrable wall of logic is a truly terrifying experience. We’re quite familiar with the idea of the protagonist become entangled in this paradox, but not so much when it happens to someone who actually deserves it. Enter Side Effects, which tells the story of mystery and murder within the medical industrial complex, and very nearly pulls it off.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh of the Oceans franchise and more recently Magic Mike, it’s clear that Side Effects prefers style to substance. Indeed, as impressive as Soderbergh’s characteristic semi-minimalist visual aesthetic is, one can’t help but to feel strangely gypped in the end, as though the surf and turf dinner that you were excitedly expecting contained a mediocre steak and a baked potato instead of a lobster. Though stark and markedly atmospheric the visuals may be, they aren’t impressive enough to compensate from the shortcomings of the story.

Channing Tatum reprises his cooperation with Soderbergh as disgraced Wall Street big-shot Martin Taylor. Rooney Mara of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo likewise gives an admirable performance as mentally unstable femme fatale Emily Taylor. Mara seems almost tailor made for this role, as her meek, feeble exterior masks a smoldering deviancy which comes across beautifully in her performance. The always fabulous Jude Law also makes an appearance as ambitious psychiatrist Jonathan Banks, bringing some not unwelcome British charm and panache to the otherwise thoroughly American affair.

Side Effects is unique in the sense that it seems to shift directions entirely mid-way through the film. The first half generally focuses on Emily’s (Mara) supposed struggle with a life endangering case of depression. The focus then shifts to the plight of Dr. Banks (Law) as he attempts to unravel a nefarious conspiracy amid a crumbling family life. The switch, instead of feeling schizophrenic and unfocused, serves to create a sense of underlying intensity and urgency as our sympathies must necessarily lie with both Emily and Dr. Banks simultaneously, at least for a short time. For the most part, the gripping drama is extremely effective and presented within a very tight, cohesive narrative structure. Unfortunately, fatally, this psychological thriller skimps in the arena most vital to its success; the execution of the twist.

For fans of Prometheus, the grand revelation, or rather the manner in which it is delivered, will likely seem disappointingly familiar. Prometheus had the same problem Side Effects has, in that they succeed in crafting a beautifully engrossing world, both in a visual and narrative sense, and then proceed to unabashedly tell the audience the plot twist with nary a second thought. When you’re dealing with the psychological horror genre, intrigue is like a beautiful courtesan coyly exposing her upper thigh to entrance you and keep you involved in the proceedings as exposition is weaved into the narrative gradually, culminating in a shocking reveal, augmented with a feeling of both weight and substance. Explaining the twist to the audience outright is like revealing that the aforementioned beautiful courtesan is actually a hastily thrown-together cardboard cutout with a house dress thrown over it.

I admit that I’m disappointed in the film because it was within spitting distance of greatness but makes a wrong turn down Mediocrity Lane. The aesthetic was there, the characters were there, the plot was there, but the reveal is such a let down and ultimately makes an otherwise excellent film forgettable. Soderbergh fans will likely enjoy it for no other reason that it being rife with his trademark style. Though admittedly a disappointment, if you’re bored one evening you could certainly do worse than Side Effects.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Magic Mike Review

There are two groups of people who went to go see Magic Mike in theaters, the throngs of women wanting to see shirtless celebrities dance around, and the small minority of people like me who went because the movie looked interesting or had a good director.  After seeing the film, I think I can safely say that I enjoyed it more then many of the teenage girls at my showing, because when you strip away the gimmick of this film (no pun intended), it is a movie about the dangers of fame, egotism, and most of all, one man’s struggle to start a custom furniture business.

After meeting Adam (Alex Pettyfer) at a construction job, Mike (Channing Tatum) takes him under his wing and shows him the perks that come along with a job as a performer in a male revue.  Although the marketing campaign focused heavily on this aspect of the film, it is actually a movie with a lot of substance, and could easily be compared to a film like Boogie Nights, both thematically and even on a plot level in some regards.  Additionally, I was surprised at how well written and funny this film, not just from Channing Tatum who has proved himself as a gifted comedic actor in 21 Jump Street, but also Pettyfer in his initially awkward attempts to pick up women or explain his new career path to his sister.

Unfortunately, for me the biggest issue with this film was not its content, or even the slightly unsatisfying ending that I actually enjoyed, but the casting of Cody Horn as Adam’s sister as well as the central love interest in the film.  Horn, who is relatively new to the world of acting, apparently decided the key to success is to take a page out of the Kristen Stewart School of Acting and remain completely flat and monotonous for the entire film.  Even Tatum, who was such an onscreen presence, failed to salvage many of the one-on-one scenes in this film.

Now, before you run out and see this movie just because I thought it was good, I think it is important to take this review with a grain of salt.  I fully acknowledge that this film is not for everyone, many people will not be able to get past the fact that this movie does feature male strippers, but I would wager that a fair about of people wont enjoy the actual plot of the movie, as one later in the film you see a previously likably character spiral downwards towards a world of selfishness and depravity, again, much like Boggie Nights.  I thought the ending of this film was satisfactory, but I will admit it does not completely resolve the film, although not to worry, talks of a sequel are already in the works.  If none of this perturbs you from wanting to watch this movie, you really should see it its quite good.

Rating: 4 out of 5