Hereafter (Eastwood, 2010)

Hereafter suffers from a devastating split personality, a crippling conflict between modes of storytelling competing for attention. Director Clint Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern, master builders of shadowy interior spaces, construct a fascinating infrastructure of corridors and walls drenched in mood and contrasting light. Matt Damon’s psychic, so thoroughly conflicted by his desire to lead a normal existence, is often framed in brilliant medium shots with multiple layers of texture. Eastwood and Stern put an emphasis on static faces looking out windows, longing for what’s just out of reach. The comfort of reflection is rarely available, and this establishes the loneliness streaming through every scene. Yet the segment with Cecile de France, who plays a French reporter and survivor of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, contains a very different visual approach, one defined by bright sunlight, glare, and glean. Hers is a conflict about clarity, and the visual aesthetic matches up perfectly within glossy hotel rooms, posh restaurants, and clean corporate meeting rooms.

Yet Peter Morgen’s insufferable screenplay, most notably the entire thread in England, undermines basically every formal flourish the film has to offer. Even worse, the script ignores its own best elements, belittling the dynamic tension between mainstream discussions about the afterlife and personal experiences with death. The character’s blunt emotional words don’t allow for any subtext, any thought processes beyond the surface melodrama. The use of recent tragedies like the tsunami and the London bombings of 2005 isn’t intrinsically insulting, but the way Morgen manipulates the characters within those events is certainly heinous. The script hinders Eastwood and Stern’s formalism from ever transcending the haunting levels of imagery on the screen, keeping the mysteries of Hereafter hidden in plain sight. This is a film aesthetically obsessed with the humility and innocence of the modern world, a very refreshing approach in our current cinema landscape. But Morgen’s flimsy, suffocating narrative is unwilling to position these elements within an incomplete vision of fledgling humanity. In short, everything gets spelled out for easy consumption. This catch-22 makes Hereafter simultaneously enthralling and reprehensible, a strange combination that will haunt Eastwood fans forever.

Green Zone (Greengrass, 2010)

Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone orders a problematic opening mission – remember a world convinced Bush Administration politics were transparent and tactile. It all seems horrifically absurd now, some seven years after WMD’s, Saddam, and a loaded little word called insurgency. But Greengrass’ disturbing and self-serious reminder of the corruption, manipulation, and treason perpetrated during those early moments in Operation Iraqi Freedom eludes inconsequence by staying brilliantly on task. Greengrass frames the great deception of our country around the convincing patriotism and singular desperation of Sgt. Roy Miller (Matt Damon), an old-school military believer pushed off reservation by his burning need to uncover not just the truth, but the reasons behind the lies. And for every step forward, Miller’s fragmented and bloody quest through the dark alleys and cramped interiors of a fiery Baghdad takes two steps back. Continue reading

The Informant! (Soderbergh, 2009)

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A tragic comedy without laughs, Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! purposefully poses as a genre film to shroud the multi-faceted character study hiding at its core. But what genre exactly is indeed a tough question to answer. Lead chameleon Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a scientist/VP for a giant corporation now turned whistle-blower, fuels this battle between surface and subtext, perception and reality with his relentlessly shifting personality. This is best represented by a stream of consciousness voice over vitalizing the sense of random purpose inherent to the man’s personal self-worth. For Whitacre, playing coy and deceiving is his equivalent to James Bond’s lethal PP7.

The rise and fall arc never achieves a grandiose sense of emotion, and it’s not supposed to. Soderbergh deliberately manipulates the viewer throughout with fascinating asides, overemphasized scenes of dialogue, and cunning moments of action, allowing Damon’s layered performance to reveal itself slowly and surely. He frames the entire film within a blinding yellow haze of a world, a purgatory of sorts between the economic hell of one decade and the expansive globalization of the next.

The Informant! is a deceptively poignant film, tough to pin down in many respects as it peels away the personality of man protected by a thick wall of lies and compromises.¬†Even if the extremely ambitious story structure and critique of big business are not always ¬†successful, Soderbergh’s strange and hypnotic film is about as audacious as Hollywood comes, challenging the viewer at every turn to unravel an anti-mystery worth solving and contemplate what kind of man and system would allow such folly to exist.

The Departed (Scorsese, 2006)

Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, a brutal and exhausting American remake of the Hong Kong crime drama Infernal Affairs (2002), uses pitch-perfect rock music cues and unnerving, relentless violence to create a hypnotic tone and speed all it’s own. Set in Boston, the story follows the rise of two moles, one (DiCaprio) a cop infiltrating the mob, the other (Damon) a worm for the mob (led by the maniacal Jack Nicholson) infiltrating the Special Investigations Unit of the MA State Police. As each ascends, they work to uncover the other’s identity, creating endless problems for all involved. There’s also a love interest thrown in the middle, a psychiatrist (Verma Farmiga) who’s involved in one way or another with both Damon and DiCaprio’s characters.

The story has plenty of holes, but you can’t keep your eyes off the screen due to the dynamic performances by the leads, especially Damon, whose ambition and weak morality sit side by side with the ultimate themes of the film. The final image speaks volumes about his character’s need to succeed, no matter how much institutional deception and needless death stare him in the face. The Departed seems to be playing by it’s own rules, defying traditional narrative and editing techniques that make the experience exhilarating and frustrating.

Scorsese owes much of the success of this film to his life-long editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose rhythm and finesse enable a sometimes overcomplicated story to remain based in character and consequence. The film shifts into a higher gear with each scene, the story finally morphing into something that transcends genre. Scorsese and his cast and crew have created a template/critique of American power, revealing the hidden impotency behind the aggression and weakness that makes these characters deceive and destroy. The Departed stands as an unsettling and conflicted masterpiece, a bloodletting of corruption and ambition that paints the town red more than once, but never without rhyme or reason.