Friday, September 18, 2009

Movie Reviews: Have the Oscar Races Begun?

With the summer movie season over, it is now time for higher quality films to premiere. And two early fall entries showcase some impressive acting performances that may be considered when Oscar nominations are named early next year.

The Informant!

From Steven Soderbergh, the director of Oceans 11, 12 and 13 -- and his Oscar-winning Traffic -- comes this dark comedy based on a true story. Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a rising star at an Illinois-based food processing company who wound up blowing the whistle on the organization’s price-fixing tactics in the early 1990s. I have to admit, it actually felt like I was watching a 1970s period piece instead. The film has a hokey score from composer Marvin Hamlisch -- whose strongest work came in the 1970s -- and equally dated graphics and styling. So at the onset, I wasn't really connecting with the quirkiness -- especially when Damon was delivering meandering narration.

But then something happened about 20 minutes in -- I began to realize that Damon was turning in an excellent performance in a unique story. And my whole attitude changed -- I even started to appreciate the importance of the narrations. Damon gained 30 pounds for the role -- and sports a wig and moustache. But he does much more than pull off Whitacre's doughy appearance. He also manages to channel Whitacre's bizarre personality that lead him to gradually believe that he was a true secret agent. TV's Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap) and Joel McHale (The Soup, Community) co-star as the real FBI agents - who are also portrayed as somewhat bumbling. But it's Damon who commands the screen as we learn that something more unbelievable than price-fixing is at the heart of this story.

I do think that Soderbergh took satirical liberties a bit too far at times -- and the subtle humor style may disappoint some viewers expecting a raucous comedy. But this film is worth your time to see a powerhouse performance by Damon -- in quite an unusual story. [Rated R, opens today]

Grade: B

The Burning Plain

Written by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel), this gripping drama is also his directorial debut. Once again, Arriaga uses multi-part story strands woven together like in his previous screenplays -- and I could sense from the audience that some were having difficulty following the non-linear style. But fear not, just knowing the story-telling approach ahead of time will ease any confusion. And you'll be captivated to see how all the pieces come together.

Charlize Theron bares all (both literally and figuratively) as a beautiful Portland restaurant manager whose cool, professional demeanor masks the haunting pain within. When a stranger from Mexico confronts her with her mysterious past, she is launched into a journey through space and time that inextricably connects her to others who are grappling with their own complicated lives. In Mexico, a young motherless girl lives happily with her father and his best friend until a tragic accident changes it all. In the New Mexico border town of Las Cruces, two teenagers find love in the aftermath of their parents’ sudden deaths. In an abandoned trailer, a troubled housewife (Kim Basinger) embarks on a passionate affair that will put all the others on a collision course with the explosive power of forbidden love.

The film is an achievement for Arriaga and his female stars. Theron (Monster) and Basinger (L.A. Confidential) both prove again why they deservedly won their Oscars - in very raw, moving performances. And keep your eye on the young Jennifer Lawrence who also delivers a moving performance as the conflicted teenager. The Burning Plain is a compelling story of women dealing with much pain while searching for love and redemption. [Rated R; opens today]

Grade: A-

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