Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"The Invention of Lying"

Imagine living in a world with no concept of fiction; no one has ever thought to tell a lie, there's not even a word for it. Of course when you have no concept of fiction you also have no fictional books, no acting, no art, no sarcasm, and even no religion (I'm sure some people will froth at the mouth over this). You have a world where everybody is as good as their word, and if someone says it, it must be true. Now imagine that you learn how to lie, and you have the basic premise of “The Invention of Lying”.

Mark (Ricky Gervais: “Ghost Town”, “The Office”) lives in this fiction-free version of the modern world, and is the standard Gervais character; he's a sad little pudgy loser, and no one likes him. There are a couple of things that set Mark apart from previous rolls though. First of all, everyone lets Mark know what they think of him to his face with no problems because even lies of omission do not exist in this world. It's like a world full of young children who still say what they think, and believe anything they are told, no matter how outrageous.

Like all Ricky Gervais characters, Mark is getting older, is a failure at his job, and is alone, but the other thing that sets Mark apart from Bertram Pincus or David Brent is that he's not the worst person in the film; he's not even a bad person. Mark really is the good guy, and with the exception of his friend, Greg (Louis C.K.: “Lucky Louie”) and his neighbor, Frank (Jonah Hill: “Superbad”) it is pretty much everyone else in this movie that are the horrible people. For once Gervais plays the victim that his former rolls perceived themselves to be.

“The Invention of Lying” is a romantic-comedy, so naturally there must be a love interest; her name is Anna (Jennifer Garner: “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”, “Alias”). Anna is a successful executive (at what the film never says), and she's certainly friendly enough, but she is so shallow that even when she sees Mark for the great guy he is, she doesn't care. Anna is basically a self-absorbed teenaged girl for most of the movie, and that goes a long way to making her very unlikable. I found myself rooting for Mark to simply give up on her.

I will admit that I went into this movie disliking the concept; it seems like an idea for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch grown to horrific proportions, and parts of the film do feel like they were sketch ideas. Some scenes, like scene in the trailer where Mark tells a random blond woman that the world will end if they do not have sex, are almost standalone gags that demonstrate the relative innocence of the people in this world, but do little to add to the overall story.

That said though, I really wanted to like this movie. The cast is fantastic, with appearances by Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, Jeffery Tambor, Christopher Guest, Stephen Merchant, Jason Bateman, John Hodgeman, and more. It's like the movie is one giant in-joke to have attracted all of these actors, many of which only appear in one or two scenes, and all of whom are fantastic. In the hands of less talented performers this movie could have been truly dreadful.

It is almost impossible to not want to like this film, but I just didn't. It felt like a movie that had been made on a dare, or perhaps it was someone's idea of a joke that was taken as a serious idea and then got out of hand. The premise is just too flimsy to carry the film for a full hour and a half. T is just too hard for me the believe that the world could advance to this point without anyone lying, or even not voicing their opinions about everything.

One thing that really does make make this movie stand out to me is that it does provide a chance for Gervais to step outside of his normal awkwardness and have a little genuine emotion. I cannot recall ever seeing one of his characters show anything more than disappointment or annoyance before, but he pulls it off convincingly. I'm not saying that Ricky Gervais should start doing heavy dramatic roles, but it is nice to see that he does have some range.

Compared to Gervais' last Rom-Com outing, “Ghost Town”, this movie falls a little flat as it wanders around exploring the effects that the world's first liar has on the people around him, the film industry, and the concept of an afterlife. The romantic aspect of the film is seemingly forgotten for long stretches of time between sketches, and it isn't until around the last fifteen minutes that we get to the standard boy-has-to-get-girl-back portion of the story. Perhaps if the story had kept its focus a little bit better, it wouldn't feel so much like it was missing something at the end.

“The Invention of Lying” is fresh, quirky, funny, and entertaining, but it left me feeling a sense of dissatisfaction as I walked out of the theater. I could never get past the flaws inherent in the premise, but the parties involved deserve a lot of credit for making it work as well as it does. If you're not the sort of person who thinks critically about films, then you will probably like it. If you like Ricky Gervais, you will probably enjoy it. If you don't fit in one of those two categories, then you will probably want to wait for the film to hit DVD.

Maybe sometimes honesty is not the best policy, but if you want to find out for sure, you can when “The Invention of Lying” fibs its way into theaters on October 2nd.

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Friday, September 18, 2009


You know how it starts; a strange disease appears turning normal people into violent murderous cannibals. Humans respond badly, and rather than contain the infection and destroy the infected, they let it spread. Before you know it a couple of months has passed, and America has become the United States of Zombieland.

If “Shaun of the Dead” was a tribute to Romero's zombie classics, then “Zombieland” is a love letter to the modern “running zombie” (which is to say that not all of the zombies are undead, many are just infected living people) genre of films like the “28 ___ Later” films, and the “Left 4 Dead” games. A lot of people have been comparing this film to SotD, but a better comparison would actually be 1992's “Dead Alive” (or “Braindead”, depending on where you are), as both rely very heavily on violence and extreme gore to punctuate their humour.

To survive in “Zombieland”, you need to follow the rules, and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg: “Adventureland”) is a man whose rules range from wearing seatbelts and doing cardio (it was the fatties that died first, so I'm screwed) to avoiding bathrooms (this make sense in context) and not being a hero. All he wants to do is get home and see if his parents are still alive.

On his journey, Columbus meets up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson: “No Country for Old Men”), a man whose lack of discipline and rules is made up for by his sheer insanity and brutality. He enjoys breaking things, whether it be inanimate objects or zombie skulls. Columbus and Tallahassee join up, and do okay together for awhile, until they meet up with Wichita and Little Rock.

Wichita (Emma Stone: “Superbad”), and her sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin: “My Sister's Keeper”) survive by their own set of rules. After some initial problems, the two pairs eventually end up traveling together to California in search of the Pacific Playland amusement park and Twinkies.

The acting in this film is more than adequate. Harrelson plays the insane redneck that he is so good at, and steals many of the scenes from the other actors. Eisenberg seems to be channeling George Michael Bluth for much of the movie (the fact that he's stolen Michael Cera's hair contributes a lot to this, I think), but it fits the cowardly former Warcraft-and-Mountain-Dew addict character of Columbus well. Stone and Breslin both also give great performances, but they do come across as secondary to the male leads.

One of the brightest points of “Zombieland” is the appearance of Bill Murray. To tell you anything about these scenes would be to spoil what is one of the funniest parts of the film. I'll leave it by saying that it is great to see Murray in such a funny role after the more serious bit parts in films like “The Darjeeling Limited”.

If I were to have anything negative to say about this film it would be that it is maybe too gory in parts. I actually found the first ten minutes of the film to be uncomfortably disturbing for a comedy; these scenes are still funny, but the sheer amount of gore in them did bother me. After these scenes the gore stopped bothering me, which isn't to say that it's toned down any; there is still plenty of blood and guts in there just for the sake of having blood and guts, but I guess I got used to it.

The other criticism would be the film's climax. Again I don't want to spoil anything, but we suddenly find Wichita and Little Rock forgetting what genre of film they are in, and doing things that are incredibly stupid. In fact, this whole sequence is full of stupid, illogical, and highly improbable events, although it would make for a fantastic “Left 4 Dead” level. You may find it helpful to simply ignore all of the logic flaws in the climax, because if you can do that the sheer amount of awesome in it are very rewarding.

“Zombieland” is a overly gory, foulmouthed, violent film that uses way too many slow motion shots, but it is also exciting, well acted, and incredibly funny. If you like zombie films, even if you dislike running zombies (or “zoombies”) like I do, you owe it to yourself to go see this movie in the theater. There is something about being in a group of people laughing and cheering that adds a lot to this raucous roller coaster ride.

If you like violent gory comedies, then you're going to love “Zombieland” when it infects theaters on October 2nd, just remember not to take it all too seriously. If you sit there trying to nitpick this movie, you'll just spoil it for yourself.

Check out ”Mallville – A Journal of the Zombie Apocalypse”, my free ongoing blognovel.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"The Informant!"

I see a couple of problems with speaking critically about movies that are “based on a true story”. The first problem is knowing where fact ends and fiction begins; exactly how much of the story has been altered to make it more suitable for the screen? The other problem is that the characters represent real people; people who actually exist in real life, and lived through some version of these events. To that end, let me get this out of the way now; when I refer to characters in this film I am referring to the fictionalized version of the on the screen and not the real person.

“The Informant!” is a movie partly about the lysine price fixing scandals that Archer Daniels Midland found themselves in the center of back in the 90's, but mostly it's about one of the key figures in that scandal, Mark Whitacre. The film is based on the book “The Informant” (no exclamation point) by journalist Kurt Eichenwald, and is directed by Steven Soderbergh (“Oceans Eleven”, “Erin Brockovich”).

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon: “The Bourne Identity”) is a lot of things. He a biochemist, a PhD, a vice president at Archer Daniels Midland, a husband, and a father. He's also an idiot, a liar, and possibly mentally ill. His internal dialog frequently overruns important things that people are telling him, and ranges from such interesting topics as designer ties to Japanese vending machines to the German word for “pen”. I suppose he is meant to come off as lovable in spite of his actions, but he mostly comes across as too stupid to live.

When confronted with problems in his lysine production division, Whitacre goes to his superiors with a story about a saboteur and an extortion attempt by a Japanese competitor. The FBI becomes involved, and, at the urging of his wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey: “Two and a Half Men”), he tells FBI Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula: “Quantum Leap”) about a price fixing scheme between ADM and other lysine manufacturers around the world.

Agent Shepard and Agent Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) convince Whitacre to turn informant for the government and help them build a case against ADM. Unfortunately Whitacre is incapable of keeping it a secret, telling various people, including his secretary and gardener, about his involvement with the FBI.

“The Informant!” is an interesting, quirky, and unique film, but not a good one. It seems like Soderbergh was trying to recapture the dark dry humour of the “Ocean's” series , but ultimately ends up creating the mentally disadvantaged younger brother of movies like “The Insider”. You get neither an adventurous comedy, nor a corporate espionage thriller, you just get awkward humour as his bigger lies to cover his earlier lies snowball out of control.

For me, the part of the movie that I found the most fun was trying to spot all the cameos in it. Tom Wilson (“Back to the Future”), Tom and Dick Smothers, Clancy Brown (“Carnivale”), Patton Oswalt (“The King of Queens”), and Tony Hale (“Arrested Development”) all make appearances in this film, but they are not enough to save it from mediocrity.

With all the movies that are out and that are coming out, you can do better with your movie-going dollars that this. “The Informant!” is quirky, occasionally clever, and well cast, but it never lives up to its potential. Unless you make it a point to see anything starring Matt Damon, are really interested in the price fixing of lysine, or just like seeing bad movies, skip this; it is a rental at best.

“The Informant!” hits theaters nationwide on September 18th, but really, go see “Julie and Julia” again instead, or stay home and read a book, or go feed the pigeons in the park. Any of those things would be a better use of your time.

Check out ”Mallville – A Journal of the Zombie Apocalypse”, my free ongoing blognovel.