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Cold Souls

Written and directed by Sophie Barthes
“We only offer the possibility to de-soul the body or disembody the soul” is the pitch from soul-storage facility manager (David Strathairn) to actor Paul Giamatti (played by Paul Giamatti – is this typecasting?). Paul is weighed down by a role he is attempting and decides to lighten his load by temporarily storing his soul in this strangely disturbing quasi-comedy. Meanwhile an enigmatic Russian woman is engaged in international soul trafficking as a mule, agent, and pimp. Paul embarks on a literal soul search in a gray market world where the bleakest of characters are described as poets to enhance their marketability.  

It’s hard to know which is more believable and unsettling here: our eagerness and propensity towards cutting out or replacing anything that we deem as imperfect, rather than attempting to improve it, or our collective willingness to buy and sell virtually anything that isn’t nailed down. In a real world of organ dealing, quick-fix approaches towards everything from weight management to wealth accumulation, and rampant contraband smuggling, the concept of coercive soul transfers and theft may be science fiction in its plausibility. But it’s also relatively factual in its parody of the darker side of human nature.

There’s a Kaufmanesque air to all of this in a story that is otherwise quite straightforward in its simple linearity. Giamatti, Strathairn and Emily Watson (as Paul’s wife) are well-chosen. Dina Korzun is appropriately emotionless, yet empathetic, in the soul-destroying and intermittently hollow role of Nina the mule. “Cold Souls” is at its best and most comedic as the premise is set up, especially in the exchanges between Giamatti and Strathairn in the storage facility office. There’s a neat running metaphorical gag about size not mattering. Outside of that setting, it’s dark and tragic—like the production of “Uncle Vanya” that Paul initially struggles with.  

This combination of primarily early chuckles and later brooding moodiness will appeal to the “Requiem for a Dream” crowd—but it isn’t likely to please the pratfall and fart-joke audience. This is comedy that is as much funny “peculiar” as it is funny “ha-ha.” Some may simply find the “comedy” label misleading. But if you enjoy dark and twisted tales of the underdoggedly absurd, this one might be for you.

Movie Roundup

On the upside:
“The Informant” is like some sort of hybrid of “The Insider” and a solo version of “Oceans Eleven” – maybe “Oceans One.” It tells the (paraphrased) true story of a top employee (Matt Damon) of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, at a time when they were accused of price fixing in the international food additives market. What sets it apart is the lead character himself and the fun Damon seems to have playing him. If the portrayal was limited to the onscreen antics, it would be amusing enough, but we’re also treated to a steady stream of his bizarre and reality-free internal monologs as he bounces around the world wearing a wire and a bad toupée.

“World’s Greatest Dad” (written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait) is an amazingly dark and twisted look at parenthood and popularity. Robin Williams is the father of Daryl Sabara (“Spy Kids”) – an obnoxious teen with one long-suffering friend. Dad is also a frustrated and unpublished author and a teacher who can’t attract enough students to fill his poetry elective. It’s an essay on much of the ugliness of human nature, but it’s also funny and engagingly different from the normal multiplex fare.

“The September Issue” is essentially the documentary version of “The Devil Wears Prada.” It examines the process behind the compilation of Vogue Magazine’s largest annual publication. It’s a treat for anybody interested in fashion, publishing, photography…or bitchiness.  

Meanwhile, “9” is a successful expansion of an earlier short film, by director Shane Acker, into a feature-length animation. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, at times it’s like a combination of “Terminator” and “Lord of the Rings” with doll-like characters on a quest to overcome an evil machine overlord.

On the downside:
“Whiteout” is a remarkably dull and predictable murder mystery that has nothing unusual going for it except for its Antarctic location. The key point being … it’s cold. I apologize for giving that away. In conclusion, a location can’t carry a movie, especially a narrative that’s about as attention-grabbing as a snowdrift in a blizzard.

“Extract” is a big disappointment given the appealing cast (Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Mila Kunis, Ben Affleck) and writer/director Mike Judge (“King of the Hill,” “Office Space”).  The premise of an attempted scam in a factory owned by sexually-frustrated Bateman is poorly executed. The outcome is barely any funnier than the preview, despite several scenes that are stolen from more established players by Dustin Milligan as a male hooker with a heart of golden stupidity.

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