Friday, September 25, 2009


SURROGATES (Jonathan Mostow, 2009)

In the futuristic world of SURROGATES, most people stay at home and mentally control human-looking androids that they send out to work and play. Since it's rare for people to leave their private spheres, crime has plummeted.

If a surrogate is damaged in any way, the operator remains unharmed. Or at least that's always been the case until cop Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) discovers that two operators died when their surrogates were attacked and terminated. The possibility that users can be harmed through their surrogates threatens to upend civilization's current way of functioning.

SURROGATES establishes an intriguing premise for exploring a world in which virtual life trumps physical reality, but the thematic potential is squandered in favor of a by-the-numbers police procedural. Who's responsible for murdering people through their surrogates is much less interesting than thinking about technological innovations and the foreseen and unexpected social and ethical implications they can have on society.

In SURROGATES who one can be depends on the mechanical avatar chosen to represent oneself. But what are the costs of putting forth a false or idealized image and withdrawing from an existence outside one's home? SURROGATES is a movie that has a lot on its mind but chooses the least compelling aspect to focus on.

I've read nothing to suggest that the film was tampered with in the editing room, but SURROGATES has the marks of a movie that's been oversimplified due to a studio's lack of confidence in its complexity. Most noticeably, the surrogate resistance movement gets short shrift when it would seem to be critical to digging into the film's themes.

The sleek visual texture and rich thematic potential make director Jonathan Mostow's inability to corral the ideas all the more disappointing. Technology often moves faster than society can deal with the moral quandaries it creates. SURROGATES poses some provocative questions. If only it had debated them.

Grade: C

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jennifer's Body

JENNIFER'S BODY (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

In JENNIFER'S BODY Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried are unlikely best friends who find themselves at odds when one of them becomes possessed by a demon. Carrying the unflattering nickname Needy, Seyfried's character is a regular teenager who has always played second fiddle to Fox's Jennifer, the hottest girl in high school.

Jennifer knows how desirable and popular she is and flaunts the power her looks give her. The wounds Jennifer inflicts are purely emotional until a demon enters her body and takes control.

Rather than an out-and-out horror film, JENNIFER'S BODY is a supernatural high school dark comedy with a feminist bent courtesy of director Karyn Kusama and JUNO screenwriter Diablo Cody. In blending so many genres it's inevitable that JENNIFER'S BODY is somewhat confused about its identity and can't withstand the strain of a disjointed plot. An inciting tragedy and Jennifer and Needy's connection are among the points that lack sufficient explanation for what follows in the film.

Kusama and Cody aim to examine the power and fear of female sexuality, particularly among adolescents, but the muddled second half can't fulfill their ambitions. Seyfried, the film's true lead, turns in a solid and sensitive performance while Fox fails to locate the nuance in her character. She's not entirely to blame. The script doesn't clarify her motivation for a decision in a key scene and then leaves the audience in the dark about what makes her behave so monstrously.

Cody has received some backlash for her signature slang-heavy dialogue. Such criticism has merit, mainly because of the showy but empty nature of her words, but her sharp conversations occasionally draw blood and laughs, such as when she takes on disparate subjects as the tween flick AQUAMARINE and 9/11 fetishization.

Like a girl transforming into a woman during adolescence, JENNIFER'S BODY aspires to be smart, hip, sexy, and scary. Kusama and Cody don't fully succeed in making JENNIFER'S BODY as clever as intended, but in deploying Fox's physical allure as a weapon in the film and to prospective viewers of it, they unleash some potent ideas and subvert the genre.

Grade: C

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Informant!

THE INFORMANT! (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)

In the fact-based comedy THE INFORMANT! Matt Damon stars as a corporate executive turned whistleblower in a major multi-national price-fixing case in the early 1990s. Damon is Mark Whitacre, an up-and-coming divisional president at agri-business giant Archer Daniels Midland.

Mark's first contact with the FBI comes when he tips off his superiors that a Japanese competitor claims to know of a mole at ADM and wants ten million dollars to reveal who it is. He worries that the bureau's tapping of his business phone line at home will reveal what else he's involved in, so Mark confesses that his employer has him conspiring with other corporations to set the global market on lysine.

Mark agrees to cooperate with the FBI and make tapes documenting the illegal business practices, but for all of his help, the confident and bumbling informant complicates the case far beyond anyone's expectations.

Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns could have adapted Kurt Eichenwald's book as a thriller. Instead THE INFORMANT! treats the true story as a comedy set to a jaunty Marvin Hamlisch score. The music and light tone serve as counterpoint to the serious business of corporate criminality and the drudgery of collecting and understanding the complex evidence needed for prosecution.

Soderbergh and Burns deftly present the puzzling information in a clear and highly entertaining manner, but for all of their hard, workmanlike efforts, the film is Damon's through and through. At first Damon's hilarious performance appears to be little more than playing the clueless schlub who narrates his exploits with an internal, analytical yammering, which is funny enough in its own right. Damon's layered work gradually transforms this unlikely hero into the type of person Whitacre's FBI handlers couldn't have anticipated encountering.

Whitacre was the highest ranking executive informant who ever cooperated with the bureau. The story about why he chose to help is fascinating, perplexing, and, in a certain light, outrageously funny.

Grade: A-

(Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sorority Row

SORORITY ROW (Stewart Hendler, 2009)

In SORORITY ROW five sisters of Theta Pi pledge to keep quiet about the accidental, prank-related murder of one of their friends. Cassidy (Briana Evigan) is not in favor of covering up the death, but she doesn't feel she has a choice when the others threaten to pin the blame on her if she won't keep their terrible secret. Eight months later at graduation a killer with a lethally customized tire iron goes about avenging the dead girl the sorority sisters dumped in a mine shaft.

About halfway through, SORORITY ROW seems to abandon being a horror movie and gives itself over to comedy. Perhaps that is the best course of action as this remake of a 1983 slasher film is certainly more successful producing laughs than scares. Leah Pipes is very funny as the imperious and emotionally frigid leader of these morally repellent sorority girls. If she wants a future playing wicked queen bees, this performance shows she's cut out for it.

Rather than its partial tongue-in-cheek approach, SORORITY ROW would benefit from full commitment to dark humor, a la the 1988 Winona Ryder film HEATHERS. The movie is clearly sympathetic to the killer's blistering assessment of Greek life. Even its conflicted protagonist Cassidy is far from blameless in hushing up her friend's murder.

SORORITY ROW drops hints of a potentially withering commentary on group-think, but ultimately it's as conformist as its characters. The film caves into the demands for brain-dead horror cliches, gratuitous nudity, and run-of-the-mill suspense captured in needlessly shaky camera work. SORORITY ROW can laugh at the fact that it falls in line with genre conventions, but it doesn't excuse how easily it adopts them. After all, isn't going along with a plan despite knowing better the same thing its main character is guilty of?

Grade: C-

Sunday, September 06, 2009

All About Steve

ALL ABOUT STEVE (Phil Traill, 2009)

In ALL ABOUT STEVE crossword puzzle creator Mary Horowitz (Sandra Bullock) grudgingly accepts a parentally-arranged blind date with cable news videographer Steve (Bradley Cooper). Upon seeing her handsome date Mary becomes hot to trot, but her intensity and incessant chatter lead Steve to cut short their time together. His job provides the convenient excuse of a breaking news assignment out of town. Steve politely but insincerely says that he wishes Mary could accompany him.

Instantly obsessed with Steve, Mary misreads the situation and decides that fate is telling her to follow him around the country. The situation worsens when Steve's co-worker, pompous news reporter Hartman Hughes (Thomas Haden Church), encourages Mary's seemingly delusional actions.

ALL ABOUT STEVE is constructed as a romantic comedy, but Mary's tireless, stalker-like behavior suggests that this ought to be a horror film. There's that and the matter of ALL ABOUT STEVE being dreadfully unfunny. Hartman feeds her delusions, but Mary's inability to decode social cues and her ceaseless cheer are intended as cute quirks, as though she's an innocent venturing into the world for the first time.

Bullock plays Mary as a sweet savant with no concept of how demented she is. Twinkly tics and all, Bullock's performance is an irritating one, to say the least. It's as if Poppy, the positive thinking main character of HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, wandered into this movie and lost all self-awareness.

Propagating ALL ABOUT STEVE'S spectacular misconception is its drumbeat of up with the unusual, down with the press. There's a touch of Billy Wilder's ACE IN THE HOLE to ALL ABOUT STEVE'S media criticism, although if that parallel was intended, director Phil Traill and screenwriter Kim Barker missed that the gathering gawkers and carnival building up around a rescue site were not positive developments.

ALL ABOUT STEVE is an atypical romantic comedy, but different for different's sake doesn't automatically equate to good.

Grade: D

Friday, September 04, 2009


EXTRACT (Mike Judge, 2009)

In the comedy EXTRACT Joel (Jason Bateman) might appear to have everything he could want, but he's struggling to keep it together. He's founder and owner of Reynold's Extract, which is doing good business and has a large corporation inquiring about a buyout. Joel is also married to a woman he loves and has a nice home and car.

Unfortunately for Joel an employee injury on the factory floor could be financially devastating to the company and jeopardize the potential sale. Factor in Joel's nonexistent sex life and temptation in the form of Mila Kunis' flirtatious temporary worker Cindy, and it's a recipe for constant aggravation.

EXTRACT writer-director Mike Judge, whose credits include OFFICE SPACE and the animated series KING OF THE HILL, may be the filmmaker who best understands today's working middle class. Although EXTRACT is far from his greatest accomplishment, primarily due to the film's underwritten feel, he remains a sharp and humorous observer of the small, common nuisances that slowly and quietly crush spirits.

With EXTRACT Judge collects and loosely connects amusing vignettes from middle class life, be it the overly friendly neighbor whose nose is always in one's business or the pettiness of one's employees when they detect the slightest hint of favoritism. The plot is pretty much a mess, but Judge strings together plenty of minor laughs to disregard the film's structural chaos.

Bateman is a dependable lead in a role not far removed from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT'S put-upon Michael Bluth, and he has good chemistry with a badly bearded Ben Affleck as Joel's bartending best friend Dean.

The film gets stolen, though, by Dustin Milligan as a dim-witted gigolo that Dean convinces Joel to hire to test his wife's fidelity and possibly give him an out for hooking up with the foxy temp. Milligan plays stupid convincingly, but he doesn't overdo it. You can practically see and hear the gears working in his head as he tries to process the instructions he'll inevitably fail to follow properly.

EXTRACT works better as a bunch of miniature observations than as a singular piece, but viewed within the context of Judge's body of work, it's a funny and worthy addition to his suburban comedies.

Grade: B-