A failed art student gets invited to the titular establishment.
Directed by Brie Larson
Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Mamoudou Athie
Review by Jon Kissel
I don’t think anyone would disagree that Brie Larson has had an incredible career, but one that hopefully didn’t achieve its greatest potential too fast. From her breakout roles in Scott Pilgrim and United States of Tara through her critical success with Short Term 12 that culminated a mere two years later with Room, Larson has since migrated to big blockbusters with Kong: Skull Island and Captain Marvel. Neither utilized her talents particularly well but both were big successes, and dollar signs frequently light the way to the blank check, some of which she’s cashed to make her directorial debut before her 30th birthday. Arriving on Netflix, Unicorn Store adds a new imdb tab to Larson’s page but it doesn’t return her to the heights of 2015, though I don’t think she’s returned to that level at all in the intervening years.
The trope of the detective whose mental irregularities manifest as brilliance has mostly been a part of recent television, since it provides an easy way into the protagonist as anti-hero, another preferred path for ‘prestige’ TV. House, The Good Doctor, Sherlock, Monk, even my beloved Hannibal are all examples, and Kenneth Branagh provides a cinematic equivalent in his adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. A story that has many versions, I don’t know if earlier ones needed to find a reason for star detective’s Hercule Poirot’s forensic genius, but it’s 2017 on this version’s release, so Poirot is portrayed as being crippled with the burning need to have everything in its right place, which therefore makes him adept at finding irregularities. Whether or not this added depth of character makes Branagh’s version better or worse is an open question, and one the film doesn’t spend enough time caring about. As much as Branagh attempts to update Agatha Christie’s mystery for the present, there doesn’t seem to be much to justify its existence beyond a popular taste for true crime stories.
I’m sure I’ve said this before, but writing about classic movies through a modern lens is difficult. I don’t know how novel a film was for its time, and its novelty may have been imitated so much that it loses all meaning, to say nothing of the evolution of tones and tastes over the decades. In the case of The Third Man, a film acclaimed as the greatest British movies ever made and currently #73 on Sight and Sound’s top 250 list of lists, this is especially true. Gray morality and anti-heroes were a new thing in the late 1940’s, but they’ve been old hat now for a long time. The modern version of The Third Man is easily imaginable now, but the original is so skewed in tone that it’s like looking at the chart of man’s evolution. Carol Reed’s film is barely walking upright while later films like Chinatown or Blade Runner or Collateral or Nightcrawler are running on two legs.
People need constant reminders that their brains crave what can only be called laziness and stupidity. The path of least resistance in comprehending any phenomenon saves precious glucose, and it takes energy not just to consider complex issues, but to force oneself to allow for the possibility of their existence in the first place. Any time someone says ‘common sense,’ they’re appealing to a worn-out brain that just wants to be told that things are simple. The Informant provides a sterling example of this, where the viewer is presented with a dramatic theft by one man and thousands upon thousands of imperceptible thefts that lead to a consequential bag of loot, but the former attracts all the attention while the latter is an afterthought that’s too boring to put in front of the camera. The directing and writing team extraordinaire of Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns compound this imbalance by making a farce out of what was a tremendous corporate crime, dressing up the details with bluegrass music and talented comedic actors playing stuffy lawyers and FBI agents. The Informant is the equivalent of waving something shiny in front of the viewer to distract from something hugely important just beyond the field of vision, except here, the shiny thing is an A-list star bulking out and dressing down to portray a Midwestern huckster knee-deep in corporate espionage.
Steven Soderbergh gave a speech in 2013 about the state of cinema, and what he interpreted as a dire future for the art form. Directors like him who operated in the mid-budget range were being squeezed out in favor of micro-budget horror and macro-budget spectacle, trends that haven’t abated in the last five years. If a studio didn’t envision a narrow, Academy-friendly path forward for a film that wasn’t either of those, it wasn’t going to get made, or if it was, it was going to be dumped and disrespected and kept away from wider audiences. In the time since that speech, Soderbergh has been the visual master behind a best-of-the-decade prestige drama series, experienced the exact mid-budget underperformance that he talked about, and gone experimental to conform to the low end of the budget continuum, namely shooting two movies on an iPhone. The first, Unsane, did marginally well in theaters, but the second, High Flying Bird, skipped theaters altogether and went straight to Netflix, the studio equivalent of HBO at the dawn of the Golden Age of Television such that they throw money at creators and take a big step back. Soderbergh is a director who thinks clearly and publicly about his next moves and how they fit within the framework of his industry, making him the perfect director to bring High Flying Bird into the world because it’s about someone very much like him.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.