Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Comedy for People Who Wish Movies Were More Like TV

(The following post is very biased because two years ago I unhooked my cable at my home and I think that everything on TV since then except for Eastbound & Down and Mildred Pierce (2011, Todd Haynes) sucks.)

When I first began enjoying classic Hollywood films of the 30s, the films of the Marx Brothers struck me as bold, inventive, and even timeless. But, as is my own personal dilemma, I have to test my ideas by looking at them from a completely different angle. A couple of years ago, I changed my long standing perception of the Marx Bros.

Somehow I became frustrated by suddenly seeing the photoplays of the Marxes as nothing more than filmed Vaudeville (still riotously hilarious nonetheless). This matter of opinion arose from a then infatuation with Chaplin's concurrent offerings, which were so much more ambitious--his slapstick schtick exists foremost for the camera because he understood camera angles' relationship to blocking and editing, whereas the Marxes could probably be performing on a stage without losing much of their punch.

I get absorbed into Modern Times (1936, Chaplin) as though I'm visiting another world. However, A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood) doesn't suspend my disbelief; its delight comes from being amazed at how witty and funny the dialogue is, and how well timed and perfectly it's delivered.

In recent years, I've nearly given up on comedy. Representing the two schools as I see them now are the rightful heirs to Chaplin, Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze) and Adaptation (2002, Jonze); and on the Marxes' side, Woody Allen.

Ted (2012, Seth MacFarlane) is not original or smart.

But, as Hawks said, "As long as you make good scenes you have a good picture--it doesn't matter if it isn't much of a story."

Ted is the creation of Seth MacFarlane: 1 part frat-shock humor/1 part obscure pop culture references/1 part boring bland nauseating musical selections.

I'm bummed out by his taste in music and it's personal. I apologize. Big band, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Norah Jones are some of the moments that made me look at my watch in the theatre.

So I laughed five times at pot jokes (and guiltily at one handicapped joke in poor taste, yeah I suck, I know) and was moved by two Mila Kunis scenes (overly effusive sentiment or pathos is a question of personal aesthetic tastes, but I'm'n'a say pathos). Mila Kunis is doing great work lately.

A lot of the pop culture name dropping just left me puzzled, and probably the rest of the audience too, because there were several instances where no one laughed. I wonder if others and myself just laugh because they get the reference? Is that comedy? I caught myself doing this once.

The gay scenes in Ted are a huge problem.

Okay, there are a few scenes where two men are dating and they stand out, disrupting the film's comedic momentum because there is nothing in the scenes other than the fact that the men are dating. Is that supposed to be funny? Everything else in this movie has some angle that makes them funny except the Patrick Warbuton gay scenes. One of his character's lines of dialogue goes something like, "Yeah we're dating."

There were also a couple of homoerotic moments that baffled me, but maybe I'm just not sophisticated enough to know how to respond to them properly. What starts as hero worship for another character turns quite homoerotic in a fantasy sequence, but I guess that scenes about latent homosexuality with no context or explanation are funny to MacFarlane. I don't know why this is so difficult for me to explain. I still crack up hugely over the progressively ridiculous Matt Stone gaffer scenes in Orgazmo (1997, Trey Parker): "Hey, I don't wanna sound like a queer or nothin', but I think unicorns are kick ass!"

The one sheet is cleverly effective. It advertises something like an experience in the theatre that's as fun as watching TV. People are supposed to see Mark Wahlberg and the bear watching TV and subconsciously desire the same experience for themselves. I'm just glad there weren't commercials.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mission Colon Impossible Line Break Ghost Protocol

0. Intro

Another stick-tap to The Flophouse Podcast, who have really helped me reconnect with my desire to watch movies I don't particularly enjoy, then say things about them, the movies. This time around, I decided to revisit a franchise I have--or, anyways, SPOILER, had--some real affection for, the Mission Colon Impossible Line Break Something Cryptic series. I'd missed a couple. Never saw the third, can't remember the second. Another Redbox hit!

I. Watching Mission Colon Impossible Line Break Ghost Protocol

Started accidentally w/ audio description on--a man dryly narrated the Paramount intro logo for a while before my horror-benumbed genitals fingers could work the remote keys to reset the operation. 'A five pointed star soars through the air and dips one point in a glassy lake before approaching a craggy bluff summited by a beefy peak. Paramount.'

If you were waiting for the first idiotic Matrix ripoff, it comes at 1.24.(One)

The first completely preposterous thing at 1.27.(Two)

The first flatly ridiculous thing--2.10. Kids, if your phone rings and it's a picture of a scowling blonde w/ the word ASSASSIN on it? Some chick may be about to shoot you three times, then hug you, shoot you two more times, and steal your satchel.(Three) I really can't stress this enough: caller ID is important and effective technology--please do not ignore it nor fail to harness its awesome life-saving power.

2.22: first Great Escape ripoff.(Four)

3.54: first reprehensible nihilism played for a desperately unfunny cheap laff. The tech guy is releasing prisoners from a Russian jail to cover something, and when the prison guard meets the first released prisoner, tech guy mutters 'Let's give him some more playmates', and releases more prisoners. When the three prisoners knock down the prison guard & start kicking in his teeth, tech guy mugs a 'sorry bro' at the camera HAW HAW HAW boots to the ribs = comedy gold.

I give the movie one eighteenth of a point for making me think for about 10 seconds about the morality of Russian prison guard (boo!) versus Russian prisoner (boo!). This will be the last time anything in this movie makes a human think that much in a row.

4.55: first gawdawful nonsense. Why is tech guy playing a Dean Martin song over the rioting prison's surprisingly good sound system? Why?

You guys? This isn't going well. We're not five minutes in and already I have said like five negative things, gotten up to four angry footnotes (Five) and damned the movie with faint praise as my lone positive act. It bears mentioning that this truly bizarre non-pop culture reference to Dean Martin is a complete one-off: in this movie, it will never be explained or mentioned again.

Oh! Tom Cruise is doing like superhero gymnastics moves in a Russian prison! Neat! Now he's ruining the rescue operation to wade into a Russian prison riot. Sure seems like an appropriate backdrop to a movie film, a Russian prison riot. (We're at about minute two of the isn't-this-hilarious kicking-to-death of a prison guard. Big laffs continue to abound. I am angry and miserable that I spent $1.30 to support this hate-crime-based piece of wretched pandering.)

The opening credits are literally a tv show intro, for no reason anyone can fathom. There is no reason for this. It is stupid. We are watching a movie but the credit sequence is the credit sequence of a tv show. Brad Bird, you have directed movies that weren't stupid. Not this stupid anyway. What are you doing?

Minute 13: we're now getting some deep exposition, explaining the initial mission. Two minutes in, we see the courier they're ambushing exhibit the most abysmal tradecraft imaginable. 'Ow this guy who's been walking behind me just put his hand on mine and it stung oh well, guess I'll keep walking oh I feel woozy guess I'll let him ease me to the ground hey I wish I'd worn my satchel in a more secure way than just on my shoulder where the guy can just slip it off oops I died.'

Note here that literally everything I know about "tradecraft" is (a) that it is a word vaguely associated with doing spy stuff and that (b) it kind of means "skill + professionalism" in William Gibson's Spook Country. That somebody with this little knowledge is rolling his eyes angrily at your movie is probably a bad sign.

Ahahahhaha! The ASSASSIN? (As seen on Caller ID!) Is described out loud by a human adult as 'Contract killer. She works for diamonds.'

Half-decent heist. They have to steal from the Kremlin to prove to the Russians that they, the Russians, know who is the big bad, b/c he worked for Russian intelligence at one point (maybe still). Apparently a phone call saying 'check yr archives, G money' to Russian intelligence is just out. Apparently stealing from the Kremlin will be a better move for convincing them of something than trying to talk to them like allies do. Simon Pegg/tech guy is babbling b/c he's nervous while heisting w/ TC. Nice unique character trait--haven't seen it before in this type of movie, and certainly I look forward to seeing it in future scenes. (Note: in all future scenes, this character will be cool as a cucumber.)

Minute 23 haha--we're rooting for the bullies! Tee fucking hee, it's awesome when Simon Pegg's nincompoop toady weasel gets some power & starts pushing around characters we'll not see again HAW HAW HAW!

Minute 26--the movie has decided that really what we're interested in is the iPhone/iPad-based holographic gadgets the 'characters' are using. Fuck, man, I thought this was some kind of Mission colon Impossible movie--where's the stunts? (There was one okay scene when Pegg's weasel tech guy inappropriately referenced the Cruise character's dead wife and Cruise did a wonderful bit of acting on the topic of 'why is this lesser being ruining my focus at this important moment?'. Reminded me strongly of the scene in movie one when DePalma exercised every iota of genius he had & made Cruise perfectly compelling as a threat when he snapped 'You've never seen me very upset.' TC is really good at stuff like that.)

Around minute 28, we have the first 'obvious thing gets narrated', as Cruise opens boxes, looks at library-grade microfilm spools w/ no film on them, and says out loud "they're empty". The Kremlin is apparently using the same archive technology and procedures for their level-one intelligence operatives the public library I used in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1985 did for the local newspaper. Seems reasonable.

It's an ambush! Somebody has 'piggybacked on their frequency'! (If you are wondering how the ambusher--it is the big bad--knew they were there and knew what frequency they would be using? You are sharing something with me and you are not sharing anything with the writers of this movie. Also: the piggybacker? When he talks, the Russians hear I guess the IMF team would have been heard if they talked? Except they were on their radios earlier no problem. Again: no sense is this making.)

Now there's a chase scene with no pursuers. Because that's what we like: people running and not being chased, like in noted spy thriller Chariots of Fire. And apparently the ground floor of the Kremlin is the Bastille, as we get lots of brick tunnels & brown arches for TC to run thru. Did I mention there's no pursuers, only an abstract countdown we weren't told about, but that is being figured by the music? There are no pursuers. There is an abstract countdown we haven't been told about. But the music is clear (also he's running): he's in a hurry. Wait--TC just called for the building to be locked down. I guess the hurry was for get to the door and make sure it was closed before he walked another 50 feet and left out a slightly different door?

I have no idea what is going on.

Tom Cruise is wearing a dickey! This movie just got about 8% better. His General shirt and General tie were just a dickey over his Bruce Springsteen shirt. (His disguisey General coat reverses into a bomber jacket! Good coat, but I worry about the lining of a spy's coat being an obvious indication that he's a disguised person.)

The Kremlin blows up after TC makes good his escape. Now he's in a hospitalish, 'cuffed to the bed. The nation's Travoltas sigh wetly. He's getting threatened by some Russian thugs who would have felt lame in The Saint(Six). They are using his coat as evidence against him. I knew that coat was up to no good. Cruise filches a paper clip--he is escaping his ass off!

Pretty rad scene--TC is on a ledge, couple stories high, looking at a dumpster--a hospital dumpster, for you medical waste enthusiasts--and pondering a-jumpin' on in. He has a rueful moment of chat w/ his Russian thug, & honestly it's pretty charming & nicely done. He makes his escape differently, no dumpster but no spoilers, and I'm not complaining about the no-stunts thing anymore, but I will say his instant subsequent escape thieving of conveniently-hooded coat, boots, & cell phone is less plausible than some other things I have seen in this movie. But he's escaped & called for extraction. If a team comes and pulls him out...I hope they take me too, b/c I want out of this experience.

Whoa! The big bad can move & infiltrate silently! Neat! This will surely prove significant later in the film! (Note: this will never come up again.)

Uh-oh. I think maybe TC is in trouble--his actual boss is extracting him! The secretary! From the narration! And we're getting a deep exposition shaft. The secretary is going to resign, b/c, you know: when the Kremlin gets blown up, American Secretaries of Things need to resign. The big bad is a Swedish physics professor who was once in the Swedish special forces. Erm. Guess we shoulda sent Chuck Norris playing Richard Feynman? There is a line about 'the Russians think we blew up the Kremlin--tensions between Russia & the U.S. haven't been this high since the Cuban Missile Crisis'. Guess we coulda blown up the Kremlin, then, b/c they sure backed the shit down over Cuba, amirite Patriots!? And not to belabor the point or anything, but when the Pentagon got blown up, we invaded several countries and stayed in them for more than a decade apiece so I kind of think if the Kremlin got blown up, modern not-exactly-paragon-of-political-stability Russia would probably do a little more than get tense. Shit--look at what they did to Chechnya.(Seven)

For, apparently, the 4th time, TC is disavowed and is gonna need to ZZZZZZZZZZ. Jeremy Renner is here, doing a pretty terrific stuffed shirt. Like that guy. Dig his acting. Would love to grab a coffee with him & chat about his script-picking procedure. (To which he'd likely respond "how you like my check-cashing procedure you little faggot?". To which I would respond with shutting my mouth.)

Escape with a stupid gimmick. A quiet moment--Renner is questioning the stupid gimmick. This is the second time that a stupid thing the movie has done has had a hat put on it (the ASSASSIN-on-your-phone bit earlier got turned into a Big Joke too). Dear This Movie: there is such a thing as being too clever for your own good. Particularly when you are not very clever. Renner's pretty funny tho.

Minute 51--idiotic red herringing about maybe TC is a traitor b/c he's forbidding murdering certain baddies. Yup. The guy who was like I'm playing a Nazi BUT A GOOD NAZI is gonna be a traitor CAN YOU PLEASE STOP WASTING MY TIME YOU KEEP TEASING PLAYING THIS CARD YOU WILL NEVER ACTUALLY PLAY THIS CARD.

Minute 52--just in case you missed it, Pegg is now bullying the fish-out-of-water Renner. We're rooting for the bullies. Tits. Also Renner's character is only here to say 'this is implausible & can't be done'. This: (a) corrodes the movie's metaphysics, making it less fun & (b) doesn't make sense in the movie, b/c he's the IMF's chief analyst, and therefore needs to have some idea of their operational capacity to do his job, right? Again: overclever.

Minute 55--in case you missed the previews, TC's gonna Spider-Man up the side of the world's tallest building to set up something that was done with tape recorders & mirrors in every iteration of the tv show. There is a moment where TC leaps out a window and runs down the vertical surface, meaning (a) he can run 32 feet per second--squared--and (b) his feet stick to the glass, which a minute ago his hands needed magic gloves to stick to. So that's cool.

Lookit, I'm not some kind of continuity/plausibility fetishist. I want these guys to be the savviest hackers, the robustest kickassers, the best drivers & deadeyest shots, and the villains to make things impossible, demanding surprising adaptations & unusual activities before triumph. But more than that I want to feel like somebody cared about what they were putting together--I want to feel like somebody thought for more than a quarter-hour about things, I want to think that somebody involved wanted as much to entertain as they did to profit. And those desires are left entirely--entirely, I say--unfulfilled by this cheap, shoddy, shabby, cynical nonsense.


Pretty nicely constructed doubling scene. Actual thought and talent went into this, and it...mostly works. Some dumb physical tradecraft/comedy business I could have lived without. And I am reasonably sure I just saw through one loop of the plot. More chase scenes--and another reveal, as the fish-out-of-water Renner flashes some swinging-dick field agent chops. (Better chops than his would be needed to explain exactly why TC did that whole operation in capri pants.)

Couple more reversals, & there's a catfight in which one character literally rips clothes off another. Guess the thought & talent ran out in the last scene. Second TC running scene. There's a sandstorm & all this shit is impossible to give a shit about in any way. The thing I liked about the first one--and maybe the second--is that all the stupid twists & recondite betrayals perpetrated on the audience also had in-movie exponents for the characters: when we, the audience were at sea, so were the characters, so we were invested in them figuring out what was going on. Here, though, we've got at least three teams pulling stunts on one another--but we only know what one team is doing: the other two teams only come in to clobber what we think we know. Which is to say, nobody in this movie except the ones we're following is doing anything coherent on their own behalf: they're just obstacling the Good Guys and obfuscating our understandings. Even the big bad? We have had maybe one minute of motivation--third-party motivation, at that--on his behalf and have heard maybe one minute of him talking. There Is No Villain--there are only heroes and minor obstacles, like hills or sandstorms or whatever, but nothing else.

As I finished typing that, the courier we were watching getting chased turns out to be the Big Bad in a Scooby Doo mask. This makes sense to zero audience members, in part b/c we were teased that TC had somehow managed to ensure that just that courier would be present, in part b/c why wd the big bad fetch his own laundry... But it was probably really fun to write.

Tiny note: TC is talking to a smuggler/arms dealer type. He sez 'I'm looking for a dude--you may know him as Cobalt'. Except 'Cobalt' is the codename the IMF has assigned to the Big Bad. So...why would the smuggler/arms dealer dude have any knowledge of this appellation?

More Renner peeing on the premises of the franchise. 'This awesome technology can't possibly work!' Also: he was working security when TC-on-vacation's wife got killed, so he's freaked out & guilt-ridden. Which is odd, b/c every line he's had w/ TC to this point has been mean-spirited sniping, including '[the picture you drew on your hand of the big bad is] a crude drawing, but [I guess I can tell who you mean]' and 'why did that work? What was your scenario? What did you assume they were thinking?'. For a guilt-ridden I-let-your-wife-die-sorry guy, he sure takes a lot of dipshit potshots. Also, all the fish-out-of-water stuff was nonsense, b/c he really is a kick-ass field agent. But wasn't acting like it b/c...if he had...then...we wouldn't've had a plot twist. I'm starting to hate this movie. Actual physical anger.

Now some explicit James Bond 80s riffage--except the characters are narrating it to us, essentially saying 'We're spies' over and over--which apparently has annoyed even characters in the movie, b/c the helper spy lady character just complained about it (she can hear the characters narrating over her earbud mic).

Renner just stole the entire film industry w/ a knee-bend stretch. Very happy right now. The plausibility of the entire scene was just sacrificed on the altar of a cheap gesture at suspense. Spies? Should probably not be stalking through parties screaming at other spies to execute the mission that the first guy is supposed to be being the diversion for. On cell phones. Less happy right now.

Pretty horrible lady-spy scene. Pretty great Renner scene/line, w/ the only non-hateful moment of sexual politics we've seen in the entire movie. Maybe the entire franchise. (I dunno--I missed III and was there one after that before this?)

Unimaginably bad special effect follows. The big bad continues to make no sense--and remember the courier? He's still alive. Why? NO ONE KNOWS. Was he being saved for something? Is that why the big bad dressed up as him? YOU WILL NEVER KNOW. But at least now main guy can kill big bad & 2nd guy can kill Only Other Identified Enemy Because Movies Don't Need Antagonists.

We're at an hour fifty-two. It's not clear to me that there are any hands on this wheel at all. The big bad--who was introduced as a physics professor--is a better fistfighter than TC, who has to this point been the world's kickassiest field agent ever. Guess Swedish Special Forces are no laughing matter--keep your eyes open, Finland! TC redeems himself SORTA by pulling a decent Michael Mann Miami Vice self-destruction thrill-seeker move. TC is good at that driven-dude stuff, so. Works pretty well. Shockingly, the big bad does not succeed: a nuclear war does not in fact start. Since we really thought it might and understood so clearly why he wanted to start one, this is quite rad.

One last this-was-stupid callout by special guest Ving Rhames. STOP BEING CLEVER YOU DUMB CRAPS. Spend less time poking fun at the actual enjoyable parts of this movie and more time trying to make the plot and characters not insult me, please.

Some dumb denoument. Pegg mugs more. I really wish he wouldn't take these roles. I enjoy his presence, but his characters' singular function is everything's that wrong w/ these movies. More dumb denoument--I thought we were seeing TC hand the franchise keys to Renner, but maybe not. Maybe Renner's just ready to go back to the field, since he now knows that not every time he goes out to work will he end up killing TC's wife. Anyway, who cares? It's over and that was a cynical, lazy, inept piece of filmmaking.

II. Some Notes on Film What It Is & Why This Was so Bad

Let's look back to the first instance of Mission Colon Impossible. At the very least, it's a movie that knows where the pleasures of movies come from at all--from Tom Cruise's weirdo intensity, from Vanessa Redgrave's sensual chuckle, from helicopters fighting trains in tunnels, from wall-sized aquariums exploding. These elements are far from making a great movie, but the movie they make was enjoyable and consistently entertaining. It's even modertately satisfying and intermittently memorable. MIGP is none of these things.

I think the main difference is that Brian DePalma, for all his faults, knows why we go to the movies: to enjoy some spectacle; MIGP knows only that when we do go to the movies, it costs us 10 bucks.

DePalma does a pretty good, convincing job of showing us the team's amazing technical toys, then taking them away to make their tasks harder and more meaningful. GP botches this badly: when they have to go do their tasks, they pick and choose what they want from an entire secret train car full of toys. There's just no sense of effort, no sense that they're really challenged or accomplishing anything.

One last weird plot moment. So the agency can just "disavow" any agent at any point. And the president can "invoke Ghost Protocol" and just unilaterally disband--and presumably defund--a governmental agency. So apparently these agents & their oft-mentioned support staff don't have pensions...much less a union...and no other branches of government have any say, so is the IMF the president's private military force? And does the agency get reestablished? At the end, it seems clear that, for example, Renner & Pegg have jobs to go to, so I guess the president can create a non-drone TOPICAL--ZING private muder force with the stroke of a pen? That seems sub-optimal. But, then, so do these times.

--Fat, who tried hard to have fun with this sneering, despicable exercise in contempt for the consumer

(One) For the record, it's the gag where you jump off a building & turn & shoot back up at the people who chased you until you jumped off the building.

Wait. If you were chasing somebody, and they jumped off a skyscraper...why would you bother racing to the edge to look down? Can they fly? Do people usually survive jumping off buildings?

(Three) I've watched this opening & recap four times & I still can't tell what spy dude does w/ the satchel. It's across his body when he jumps. He turns the corner, is checking the contents--b/c, I guess, paper documents are usually damageable by being in a satchel that just fell a couple stories--and it's on his shoulder, not across his body. So I guess in a scene we didn't get to see, he took it off his cross-body orientation, and put it on his shoulder.

But in the recap...spy dude gets satchel. Runs. Puts the strap across his body. Runs/fights. Then I guess it's...supposed to jump to the opening scene, where he jumps off a roof he was never shown to be on.

Two other dumbnesses about this intro. First--spy dude barks 'armed hostiles!'...but we haven't seen any arms at all. Second, spy dude has been shot *five times* by the contract killer--but spy lady says (and this is her character's *entire motivation*) 'ASSASSIN left him alive just enough to let me see him die'...b/c apparently ASSASSIN knew when spy lady would discover the spy dude she had just put five bullets into. Five bullets calibrate a death to the second, I guess.

(Four) In case you care at all, he's playing catch with himself, but instead of a manly and American baseball, he's got an irregularly shaped pebble, so presumably it's bouncing wildly and only his superheroic reflexes allow him to blah blah blah who cares boring CGI bullshit.

(Five) Footnote Angry will star Nic Cage as David Foster Wallace, returned from the middle ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell to remind us all that conversational structures with elevated register and incongruous matches of form and content are not actually mandatory for all pieces of writing. He may also pause to point out that it probably owes more to Melville than to Wallace, an observation I owe to David J. Roth.

(Six) I think often and semi-fondly of Val Kilmer's masively failed attempt to start a movie franchise, The Saint. Worth a look: the thing's a master class in Hollywood ineptness: story, casting, directing, acting: very little of it works, and what does work is immediately undercut by some other example might be half-bright collie Elizabeth Shue cast as "the only scientist brilliant enough to decipher her father's cold fusion notes". That works about as well as the story does after the tacked-on "oh, she didn't actually die" scene.

(Seven) Too soon?

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Laguna Beach and Lado

Oliver Stone's script for Scarface (1983, Brian De Palma) cemented his place as a seer, insider and observer of international drug smuggling. To refrain from over-citing influences found in his latest film, I'll just add that a decade later he was already practically heading for oblivion with his insane adventure Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone).

Savages (2012, Stone) is a pulp crime story about marijuana trafficking and boasts one of the all time best movie villains with its Lado (Benicio Del Toro), a sadist Mexican with a Joe Dirt mullet.

The themes etched out range far and pile up at high speed. Stone's interests seem to find their way into countless areas of the narrative--from Eastern religions and spirituality to the military and the global drug business.

Part of the film's appeal is its dedication to showing us things we've seen before, but with a new spin. Nothing ever felt stale, aside from Blake Lively's acting abilities. Elena (Salma Hayek) balances out Lado's sinister capacity for violence with an aged wisdom and psychological insight into this somewhat shallow milieu of desperate stereotypes engaged in the war that continuously escalates in Savages. Hayek and Del Toro, along with John Travolta as a DEA agent, saved this movie in the sense that I'm afraid to imagine what the film would be like without them. Travolta and Del Toro particularly seem to be the only actors who realize how much better the movie is with them knowingly acting over the top (Emile Hirsch also goes way big and reminded me that this isn't supposed to be taken too seriously).

The film falls somewhere in my imagination between what Domino (2005, Tony Scott) would be like if it was written by Jim Thompson, if, say, maybe he'd somehow decided to tell his version of Traffic (2000, Steven Soderbergh) and changed the focus from heroine to marijuana.

The Spanish dialogue isn't translated. I should emphasize that I'm really trying to put this delicately: but, I think the Mexicans are atypically fleshed out and are most of the reason for the film's verisimilitude. And on the other hand, I think the White characters are displayed as spoiled and mostly self-centered. But, I have to say I think Stone has ultimately treated both sides equally--they're of course neither all good or all bad.

The camera is always handheld and roving. In most of the shots the B.G. goes soft and the bokeh of the practicals resulting from the shallow depth of field vacillate between circles and octagons, which I found a little distracting. I'm also still trying to place the motivation behind some very brief black and white transitions.

I enjoyed this cynical world of power elites and their petty marijuana-related beefs. There was always some thematic subtext that I'd found interesting, and I've spent considerable time attempting to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the intricacies of who does what to who and why in Savages. So, needless to say, I wasn't disappointed.


Monday, July 02, 2012

Tampa and Xquisite

It's important to keep up with whatever Steven Soderbergh's doing because he's one of the most talented American Independent filmmakers currently working. He also does studio productions, but it is apparent that creative freedom means a lot to him. There are rumors that he's "given up trying to make important films"; however, his work is nevertheless intriguing because he's finding projects that cost less and he keeps churning them out. His worldview is sophisticated and typically seeks out nuances pertaining to mass media pop culture and to a lesser degree, historical and global political subjects; but, he also knows how to be sexy and gear vehicles toward younger or say, more lowbrow audiences.

Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh) is both fun and funny. The title character definitely anchors the narrative and Channing Tatum's role in the film is a star turn that capitalizes on his star persona and a reported real life stint as a 19 year old stripper in Tampa. But, in many ways, Matthew McConaghuey steals the show. McConaghuey stars as the owner of the Xsquisite all male revue club, Dallas, and projects such charisma mixed with pastiche of his own star persona that he can come across as the only character with any real life to them.

So if I may backtrack, Magic Mike is a fun movie about Dallas and his career. Dallas is flamboyantly over the top, larger than life, dripping with some West Coast type semblance of what must be an attempt at the country boy mystique, but all the while completely straight-faced about it. At one hilarious moment, Dallas is getting his troops motivated and waxes something like: "This isn't a joke."

But of course we know it is. The tone of the film is that of a familiarly over-recylced narrative: backstage performer drama, or ingenue + veteran performer + power producer/manager + one star ascends as another descends. See also 42nd Street (1933, Lloyd Bacon), A Star Is Born (1937, William Wellman), Stage Door (1937, Gregory La Cava), All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) Showgirls (1995, Paul Verhoeven), Velvet Goldmine (1998, Todd Haynes) or Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky) for examples.

What Magic Mike adds to the backstage performance genre is a well-placed sense of cheapness. The millieu here is morally and ethically on par with Showgirls; however, Showgirls celebrates excess, whereas there's something sad about all of these young dumb sexy kids in Tampa. Mike reminds me of a strata of subculture I perceive as dressing cooler, looking sexier, and partying way more than I do in real life. (I suppose the Olivia Munn charcter is offered as my surrogate.) So, while Mike has no problem getting paid or laid in Tampa, he also suffers from a stasis that he can't quite overcome. And in the film, he isn't equipped to. Mike's practically naïve
to the point of being stupid; or not just naïve, but disaffected. Normally I don't criticize qualms like this so harshly, but I found a few troubling issues with the script:
  • Why doesn't Mike ever tell The Kid more, like what's really bugging him?
  • Why does Mike give The Kid so much money and not seem to care?
  • Why does Mike quit right after giving away his savings?
  • Why does Dallas spend the whole movie refusing to dance, then does with no explanation?
In addition to all of this, the scene in the bank where he wears the clear lenses/fake glasses to look professional speaks a lot about what Mike's really all about. He seems to be performing the role of an entrepeneur as if he were onstage in Xquisite. And his table business at first was something I found virtuous, but by the end, like The Kid, I thought it was just stupid crap.

If I'm being hard on Mike, it's actually because I feel genuine sympathy for his character. He's like a Replikant out of Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott) in the sense that he's young and stupid and he knows he's about to die. In all seriousness, I find something poetically and profoundly tragic about a thirty year old male stripper.

Okay, so if Vegas is the locus of the glamorous excess found in Showgirls, then Tampa is more of a hotbead for dumb strippers and sorority sleaze. Everyone looks beautiful in this filmed Tampa, but in a cheap and trashy way. Soderbergh matches his content with a form that lets most of the strip club action play out in long takes from very wide angle masters. There's not a lot of camera movement, but Magic Mike doesn't suffer from the filmed-play look that marred The Girlfriend Experience (2009, Soderbergh). He's right--the club is filmed like a real strip club or a document of one, as opposed to a strip club that's been lit like a movie and filmed from a bunch of different coverage.

Finally, to support my claim that there's a cheap theme throughout this movie, I'll just bring up the Warner studio card from the 1970s and the montages. I can't figure out why they used the Seventies Warner logo. Because movies started showing a lot of sex in the Seventies? Because porno movies began being produced in the Seventies? I guess. The visuals are all glittery (the black and white ecstasy deal into red and blue sexcapades particularly proved eye-catching). But the montages in Magic Mike indulge the greatest strength of the montage. To compress time? No--to have cheesy fun. The montages cracked me up almost as much as wathcing the men dance.

No matter who you are, it's weird, but I imagine you'll find this movie hilarious. The theatre I was at was packed with women, but there were explosions of laughter continually throughout the screening. I think there is a sense of as laughing with/not at these courageous exhibitionists.

Riley Keough and her micro pig are awesome in the movie.