Saturday, July 28, 2012
Being unlikeable is a dangerous art form. Most films try to avoid it, for obvious reasons. They tell (or aim to tell) economically-paced stories about charismatic characters that end in one satisfying catharsis or another. It's the bedrock of classical drama, Hollywood cinema, Syd Field's screenwriting guide, and most movies you will ever get the chance to see in theaters. But there are filmmakers who deviate from this—it's a difficult trick to pull off, and it can inspire awe when it works. After all, it takes skill.
They say that a truly great actor could read from the phone book and hold an audience's attention. If the same could be said for filmmaker, the Hungarian director Béla Tarr would have to be near the top of the list. His films are known for extremely long takes, a near absence of what would conventionally be called action, and a disregard for the patience of anyone except the most dedicated. (One of his most famous films, Satantango, runs over seven hours). His latest, The Turin Horse, which he has fashioned as a swansong, collected awards around the festival circuit last year and landed quietly in the US in February. In its widest run, it played in 5 theaters. This month, it comes to DVD—you can find it on Netflix, though not Netflix Instant—giving audiences the widest-ever access to one of the year's most devastating masterpieces.
Saturday, July 21, 2012
Any discussion of director Steven Soderbergh begins with how hard he is to pin down, with a career that could only be defined by its diversity. His previous five films have been, in reverse chronological order: a mixed-martial-arts revenge flick, an ensemble drama about a global epidemic, a found-footage biography of Spalding Gray, a screwball comedy about corporate crime, and a minimalist low-budget character study about a prostitute (all of them, I might add, widely underrated).
So when it was announced that his next film would be a male stripper drama starring It-boy Channing Tatum, best known for combining abs and sensitivity in girls-night-out films like The Vow and Dear John, the question is less "why?" than "why not?". And cinephiles, as is their lot in life, were put in the awkward position of explaining to their friends why they were interested. (My only barrier to seeing it was a few odd looks from the ticket-taker). Soderbergh's latest features always sound on paper like you know what to expect, but feel very much like something else on screen. He's an outsider's insider, an expert on getting unusual movies made and distributed in a system that too often feels timid. Accordingly, Magic Mike may be the bait-and-switch movie of the summer.
The trailer above, which avoids Soderbergh's name and mines the film for a few rom-com moments, is selling it as a light-hearted, cute-meets-scandalous dramedy. Instead, it's a melancholy, understated, gritty, and frequently unsettling look at the lower rungs of American capitalism, centered on a group of socioeconomic dropouts who have little to offer except their bodies, and are happy to do so. The Mike of the title (Tatum) is a successful male stripper and self-described "entrepreneur." He's convinced that stripping is just a means to his real career, which will be a line of custom furniture he hopes to launch. Meanwhile, he'll have a good time and build up some savings. In short, he feels in complete control. The arc of the film is his realization, over the course of a summer, that he doesn't have nearly as much as he thought.
It's all shot and edited with Soderbergh's current signature, which is a very controlled, unconventional, and occasionally disorienting style that generally fucks with the film language that most Hollywood productions use. But it's never less than engaging—the story is swift, and as always with Soderbergh, the camera forces an almost analytical perspective of everything, even sex. (Olivia Munn appears topless in the first five minutes, and it's not erotic at all). You have to hand it to the man. There was a group of fourteen-year-old girls sitting a few rows in front of me who had apparently snuck into their first R-rated movie; instead, they were presented with their first art film.
The symbolic link between capitalism and prostitutes/strippers, who literally turn themselves into commodities, has been around in film for 50 years, and is more or less an arthouse institution by this point. (In fact, Soderbergh himself delved into this in The Girlfriend Experience). Jean-Luc Godard used this metaphor a lot, and there's even a bit of camerawork near the beginning of Magic Mike that references his Vivre sa vie, which was about a woman turning to prostitution while still convincing herself that she's in charge. Soderbergh's 21st century twist on this arthouse staple, aside from putting it in multiplexes to begin with, is that the victim of self-imposed objectification is not someone like Anna Karina, but a male star. In fact, the male star of Disney's Step Up 2.
So the movie, while not a masterpiece, is an unclassifiable triumph of pop art: it's too weird and explicit to be accepted as an adult drama—if it gets any major awards buzz, I'll be shocked—but it's as weighty as one nonetheless. In fact, a frustrating and uncharacteristically cute ending is the only part that feels compromised or less than satisfying. Tatum, whose appeal I'd never understood and who in large part is playing himself, does a fantastic job at being proud, wounded, vulnerable, flustered, charismatic. He also, without sacrificing any sensitivity, flies in defiance of his PG-13 Nicholas Sparks image with remarkable frankness. What can we say, except that Soderbergh, Tatum, and Warner Bros. have gotten away with it? They presented a film that's both commercial and unorthodox, and sold this bizarre digital grit as escapism. As we speak, the film is about to cross the $100 million mark at the box office.
One day in a bookstore, I stumbled across a history of American independent film, published in 1997. At that point, Soderbergh had won the Palme d'Or for his first film, but had followed it with a string of flops. The book spoke of him as a wayward talent, who had potential but hadn't built up an important body of work. His commercial revival with Out of Sight and Ocean's 11 was yet to come. Writing circa 2007, when the Ocean's sequels were cresting, critic David Thomson addressed Soderbergh with a downcast dismissal: "he is and was a producer" (ouch). A few years ago, Amy Taubin called him an "anti-auteurist auteur", for the way he switched styles—after all, how can auteur theory account for one man making Schizopolis, Ocean's 11, and Che?
I would say that today, none of these assessments ring true. The last five years have been Soderbergh's most unique and creatively fertile, with the array of genres united by his combination of restrained digital photography (which he shoots himself), a willful disregard of continuity editing, and relaxed, naturalistic, almost improvised performances. Together, they feel of-a-piece. Since the recession hit, he has also become more politically aware: all of his narrative features of the last five years, even the action film Haywire, have addressed the power of economic forces in some central way. His genre exercises are coy psychological studies of a society where money makes the world go round. It'll be a shame if he goes through with his threat to retire early. Much to my surprise, Magic Mike is one of the best movies I've seen all year. Really.
4 out of 5 stars.
Magic Mike is now in theaters.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Man, Wes Anderson has made enemies. In the days leading up to Moonrise Kingdom, I was surprised at the number of serious cinephiles who stepped forward to denounce the man as a fraud or an overrated hack, the chief quirk-monger in an era of quirk-mongers. The criticisms generally go as follows: that he's a smug and hollow stylist, pretentiously piling on eccentricities but capturing no human feeling; that he indulgently gets lost in his own little world; and that he's spent the last 10 years making the same movie over and over again with diminishing returns.
To answer the last charge first, it's true that Anderson has repeated the same themes, style, and casting decisions. But the same could be also be said of much more venerated directors (Ozu in the 50s, say), who are just as guilty of repetition and don't catch as much guff for it, nor should they. In retrospect, and divorced from post-Tenenbaums hype and comparison, even The Darjeeling Limited is looking better with age, a welcome stop on a director's quiet evolution.
As for the first charge, that Anderson's work has no human emotion, just hipster irony, I have very little sympathy. Anderson's style of whimsy has certainly set the trend for indie (and "indie") films of the last decade, and the years since Rushmore have turned "quirky" into a catchword so overused that I hesitate to even type it. But Anderson maintains a keen grasp of emotional subtlety and rich detail that none of his imitators have been able to equal. Even in Anderson's weaker films, there is always this undercurrent: a pathos, an aching desire to belong and a disappointment in the way life pans out. He eschews politics, realism, and film's more radical potential, but his sympathy for his characters—and his optimistic view of groups that get torn apart, then heal—is as effective and emotionally sincere as anything in cinema today.
And as for getting lost in his little own world, hang onto that, because getting lost in your own little world is a big part of what Moonrise Kingdom is about.