Monday, April 27, 2009

Movie Review - The Informers

Opening with a sudden accidental death, "The Informers" lures its audience into a 1980s world full of vapid, beautiful blonde boys and girls leading lives of empty decadence as they move through a glittering Los Angeles landscape where drinking, smoking, drug taking and vaguely kinky sex are the sum total of existence. Welcome to Bret Easton Ellis at his nihilistic best. Even a spinning overhead shot of the famous Hollywood sign reveals graffiti at the base of the letters. It's real time L.A. stuff. If you're not a fan of Ellis' writing this movie might not be for you since these characters typically have no social redeeming value whatsoever and are zombie-like at times -- in fact, at most times. Co-screenwriter Ellis (based on his own book of the same name) brings us two triangles, young and old versions. The young version is Graham (Jon Foster), Christie (Amber Heard) and Martin (Austin Nichols) while the older version features William (Billy Bob Thornton), his wife Laura (Kim Basinger) and a newscaster named Cheryl Laine (Winona Ryder). The youngsters pretty much hang out in bed together (yes, occasionally all three at once), go to raucous, inebriated parties or lounge languidly poolside. The older folks are more traditional with William trying yet another reconciliation with wife Laura while still carrying a very obvious torch for Cheryl. Then there's the father/son team of Les and Tim Price (played by Chris Isaak and Lou Taylor Pucci) along with Mickey Rourke as Peter, who offers up another dark side of L.A. as a sleazy loser who kidnaps a young boy. And don't forget an almost unrecognizable Brad Renfro in his last screen role as Jack, a rather pathetic doorman who's desperate to connect with celebrity. Wait, there's even more: Mel Raido plays Bryan Metro, lead singer of a band called The Informers (title alert!) who enjoys punching high priced call girls in the face without once changing expression.

Like Ellis' books, this movie should never work and might, in fact, turn an audience off to the point of leaving the theater. Since I happen to like his particular brand of human horror I found myself strangely mesmerized by these pointless characters. There's not a hero to cheer for anywhere and that's fine with me. When Tim continues to be upset by the tragedy of the accidental death of a friend featured in the beginning of the film, his other friends are annoyed. After all, it's been a week already, time to move on. Aussie director Gregor Jordan creates just the right tone of flat, bright L.A. enui, striking a delicate balance between meaningless and desperation as these disturbing people play out their little dramas. It's not that we necessarily care about these characters and yet there's something terribly sad in watching them casually self destruct. The final stark image in the film -- a black fly on a bone white bare leg -- says it all as the spectre of AIDS closes in on the hedonistic '80s.

Things to love about this movie: Mickey Rourke is great (as always); a terrific soundtrack; the young cast is classic Easton Ellis as well as pitch perfect L.A.
Things to hate about this movie: Brad Renfro doesn't look healthy & it's sad knowing that he probably wasn't
Pleasant surprises: Chris Isaak is surprisingly effective as Tim's nasty, smarmy dad
Unpleasant surprises: Billy Bob Thornton (a wonderful actor) didn't quite work for me in a very atypical role

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Movie Review - State of Play

Suspense thrillers aren't always my cup of tea, but with Russell Crowe as a rumpled, world weary journalist on the trail of a political scandal involving infidelity, shadow organizations and possible murder, what's not to like. Cal McAffrey (Crowe) has been assigned to cover the seemingly random shooting of a small time thief for his newspaper as the story opens, but soon there are much bigger fish to fry when the political aide to Cal's old college roommate Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) steps in front of a subway train. Or was she pushed? Collins, as one of the key members on a panel investigating a private corporation called Point Corp, becomes the center of attention when he breaks down publicly while announcing the death of his aide. Suddenly speculation shifts to the possibility of an affair between the dead aide Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) and the Congressman. Complicating matters further is a past connection between Cal and Collins' wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) along with Cal's difficult position as he covers a story that could mean the downfall of his friend. There's also an interesting, lively dynamic between Cal and an ambitious blogger on his paper named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) who wants in on the Collins story.

It all sounds a bit like a soap opera, but with a cast this good and some fun twists and turns all the drama is more or less believable. Based on a British TV series and co-written by Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton"), this is a more sophisticated brand of political intrigue than your average thriller, although the storyline involving Point Corp and the Congressional investigation were a little confusing for me. Director Kevin McDonald keeps things zipping along and there's enough character development to make the plot a little more than just suspense.

Things to love about this movie: Great chemistry between Crowe and McAdams; doesn't overdo the car chases; a terrific opening scene that sets up the murder/suicide of the aide perfectly
Things to hate about this movie: Creepy, out of control organziations seem to always turn up in these thrillers (not too original); Cal's moral dilemma about investigating Collins would work better if more of a relationship was developed between him and Collins
Pleasant surprises: The supporting characters and actors are dynamite, including a charismatic, stand-out performance by Jason Bateman, Michael Berresse as one of the scariest assassins ever, Harry Lennix as the detective on the Collins case, Viola Davis as a doctor in the morgue and the always reliable Jeff Daniels as a creepy Representative
Unpleasant surprises: The marvelous Helen Mirren was a bit underused as Cal's tough as nails boss at the paper, as was Penn as the typical stand-by-your-man political wife