REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JULY 2012
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
Student (Darezhan Omirbayev, Kazakhstan)
I try to make it a point to avoid reading other critics' reviews of films before I write about them, except perhaps to skim for fact-checking or just to get a general sense of the overall tenor of a film's reception, if I think that may be relevant. In the case of the latest from Kazakhstan's reigning modernist master (whose name was transliterated as 'Omirbaev,' last I was aware; the new latinate spelling does seem to be uniformly accepted now), I've noticed several negative notices that seem to be shrugging Student off as a Bressonian riff on Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, a mere academic exercise with very little in the way of embellishment or frisson with respect to its sources. I must say, this response perplexes me greatly. Omirbayev could hardly be more pointed in his exploration of what these now-classical ur-texts -- Dostoyevsky and Bresson -- have to tell us about the contemporary situation in Kazakhstan and, arguably, the former Soviet states more generally. Yes, Student follows the letter of C&P rather faithfully. The unnamed Student (Nurian Bajtasov) is indeed Omirbayev's Raskolnikov. He not only commits a rather senseless crime (in this case murdering a lowly shopkeeper and emptying the register) in a fit of arrogant pique. Student frames Dostoyevsky's characterization of Raskolnikov's Nietzschean übermenscherie within a specific set of social problems, something that some of Omirbayev's critics seem to consider mere window-dressing.
From the very opening sequence, the film is enfolded within autocritique, a familiar zone for Omirbayev. The director himself appears, leading a modest film crew on which the Student is serving as a production assistant. The first shot has a local beauty (Asel Sagatova) framed in a shot that pulls outward from a bouquet of flowers, an image whose on-the-cheap perfection implies an advertising shoot. At one point, a lowly PA spills the model's tea on her dress, she pulls a diva routine, and before long, her gangster boyfriend and his thugs are on-set beating the crap out of the poor kid. Our Student looks on, in silent shock. This sequence is directly echoed in a Balthazaresque scene in which a donkey-pulled cart blocks a young douchebag in his black Range Rover; the guy has a road-rage meltdown and beats the creature to death with a golf club. But beyond these dramatic outbursts, the Student is finding himself stranded in a society where unchecked power rules the day, and yet he is expected to stick to his studies, gain knowledge, evaluate ethical quandaries that no one in the urban jungle of Astana even remotely cares about.
Again, drawing from C&P, the Student meets an old man (Edige Bolysbaev), a drunkard who claims to have once been a major Kazakh poet. He's a bum now; who cares about poetry? Likewise, Omirbayev shows us exactly two classroom lectures from the Student's university program, one in which a young professor extols the virtues of unbridled capitalism, another (much later in the film) with a grizzled old Soviet diehard pleading for modified socialism and economic justice. What Omirbayev shows is is that, within the laboratory of the classroom, these concepts can be presented as equal; outside, on the street, the former has quashed the latter, and everything that makes the Student feel superior to the Thug is useless and irrelevant. All of this brings us to Student's exacting, almost Lego-like construction according to Bressonian principles. Like such films as Mouchette, Pickpocket and especially The Devil, Probably, Student charts the organization of space and movement in terms of micro-gesture, the control of objects as a particular form taken by the exercise of power. We see Bajtasov, with a dead expression, galumphing through frame after frame, a camera-like observer bobbing and bisecting the space around him, but never its master. Rather, negative space defines him. Omirbayev uses key close-ups, like the teacup, or the cash from the register, or the pen on paper, to demonstrate where actual power resides. When these object-shots lock together, they form a field, one that leads inexorably to the final shot (an homage to Pickpocket, naturally) where, once again, the Student is dead-eyed. (This is not a film about "subjects" or "identities.") Omirbayev's take on Crime & Punishment, much like his reworking of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in Shouga (2007), should perhaps be considered a Kazakh strike at the heart of Russian letters, what Deleuze called a "minor literature."
Danube Hospital (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria)
My extended piece for MUBI pretty much covers it, although I should note that there are a few little oddities I simply had no call to mention in that piece. For instance, the third segment has about seven or eight doctors (sorry, can't go back and look -- it was a one-shot Festival Scope "screener") sitting in an office listening to a rousing selection from the classical repertoire on a boombox. (I wish I could remember; I'm thinking it was from the Brandenberg Concertos.) After it's over, the head physician announces, "All right! We're ready to begin our day." So this strange little interlude was a form of good-vibe audio calisthenics, oh so very Viennese. On the other end of the raw / cooked scale (but also pointing to certain sensibilities), Geyrhalter thrusts his viewers into the autopsy room with no warning whatsoever, a blunt and bracing acknowledgment that (e.g.) pulling the skin from the skull, evacuating the brain cavity and slicing the cerebellum into thin observable layers is as much a part of the medical process as setting a broken arm. The sequence rivals anything in Brakhage's notorious The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, but is of course shot with a stock still camera, with no optical extremity or filmic distress. Whether this makes Geyrhalter or Brakhage the "tougher sit" is indeed an open question.
Magic Mike (Stephen Soderbergh)
A while back, around the time of both Che and The Girlfriend Experience, I wrote an article for Cargo discussing Soderbergh as the "neoliberalist auteur." (I wasn't quite happy with it, so never bothered to post the English version.) It was intended to be value-neutral but inevitably came off as a bit pejorative. My point, conditioned mostly by my negative first reaction to Che, was that Soderbergh could take on any project, regardless of subject matter, and treat it with a high level of detached professionalism. That is, he didn't seem to concern himself with whether he was "marketing" revolution, prostitution, poverty or glamour. It could all be reduced (or expanded, as the case may be) to a set of spatial gestures and physical operations.
What I failed, quite spectacularly, to see about Soderbergh's process, and what the recent films -- Haywire, Contagion, and Magic Mike -- have clarified for me, is that the man is indeed "a filmmaker within neoliberalism," but one with a set of deep critical insights regarding that system of exchange. In fact it matters quite a lot what kind of content "enters" Soderbergh's films, because to some extent they all engage with one of the fundamental questions of our era. How do laboring bodies negotiate spaces of freedom and constraint? How are bodies both conditioned by monetary relations and, in certain interstitial moments, able to parlay movement and gesture into partial expressions of identity, or at least some kind of inscription of meanings in excess of the world-system?
This may sound highfalutin but it's actually quite basic. Haywire is about a killer (Gina Carano) who defends herself through travel and professional violence (mostly hand-to-hand, or thigh-to-head), but it's also about a MMA champion inserted into a diegetic world, turning the usual psychological beats into direct physicality, the negotiation of actual obstacles. This is pretty much the same approach found in The Girlfriend Experience, where a porn star, albeit an uncommonly intellectual one (Sasha Grey) cuts a figure of "sexuality" and flat affect within conventional cinema, another body that operates on a literal pay-per-view basis. Che, now a mere emblem in a post-revolutionary period, is the obverse of this system, since Soderbergh presents Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) as 25% ideology and 75% activity, a body moving through, and actively shaping, History. And Contagion is flatly about the micro-invasion of bodies and the large-scale attempts of governments and other agencies to cordon off bodies or populations when, in fact, the "enemy" is a microscopic fait accompli.
All of this becomes crystal clear in Magic Mike, a film loosely based on Channing Tatum's own pre-fame experiences as a male exotic dancer. In a way, it could be said to be all too clear, since Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin play this one by the numbers. It's a shopworn genre piece, where an older more experienced but ambivalent pro (Tatum) initiates a novice called -- seriously -- "The Kid" (Alex Pettyfer), while trying to pull himself up by making hopeless deals with the shady former dancer (Matthew McConaughey) who paid his dues, probably broke some laws, and now owns the shop. The thing writes itself, but like the best Sam Fuller joints, Magic Mike invests the see-through pattern with muscle and conviction. It's not just that the inevitable betrayals and crises of identity are presented as though they're supposed to matter. They are, to some degree, but at the same time Soderbergh builds a tacit understanding with his audience that these are interloping passages between oiled-up ass-grinding numbers, not as pedestrian as outright porn narrative but certainly not out to convince. Arguments regarding the wooden acting of Tatum, Pettyfer, and to a lesser extent newcomer Cody Horn (as The Kid's older sister Brooke, a highly skeptical love interest for Mike), kind of miss the point. Like Carano and Grey, Tatum is present in Magic Mike as a unique form of working body, something other than an actor. The fact that he's achieved semi-stardom as a professional actor is, if anything, retroactively coded as a fluke by this film. The roles Tatum assumes are part of a specific kind of neoliberal youth entertainment that has everything to do with presence -- a wholesome Christian meatrack of masculinity -- and nothing to do with psychological thespianism. Tatum, or Pettyfer for that matter, are still dancers, only of a different ilk.
So the deep logic of Magic Mike, as with so much recent Soderbergh, is the anxious activity of the working body within spaces controlled by capital. What does it mean for Mike to perform for ogling eyes? Or, for Dallas (McConaughey) to code male stripper performance as a possession of phallic power when to such a high degree it's about ceding power and specularizing a somewhat feminized male form? (His "Women of Tampa" number lays bare some of this ambisexual / emotional bait and switch.) As buffed-out strippers, they are desired objects, but Magic Mike consistently engages in a gendered switcharoo that, on the one hand, foregrounds the objectification of women in the sex industry by placing men there instead. (Having women in these positions is culturally commonplace; putting men there instead produces cognitive dissonance. This is obvious.) But on the other hand, Mike makes a grand display of class discrepancy, to show that certain relations of exploitation are largely indifferent to gender. This is especially highlighted in Mike's (non-)relationship with Joanna (Olivia Munn), a grad student in sociology who hooked up with Mike while slumming in a participant-observation project. Mike's delusion that Joanna is his girlfriend (she literally tells him to "shut up and look pretty") is a direct reversal of a classic "He's Just Not That Into You" female-vulnerability trope. What Mike continually puts on the line is his body, and his subjectivity, naturally, cannot be separated from the bargain. He even takes a certain conflicted pride in his dancing, taking Dallas's challenge to shake up his old act, while at the same time always looking outward toward respectability. Soderbergh has located the fullest expression yet of the contemporary problem of how bodies (or, in Foucault's terms, bio-power) are conformed to the armature of capital. Mike wants to work with his hands, but it's his pecs and ass that pays the bills, and in Dallas's club, his is a body that can only move in specific, economically determined ways. He grinds and hustles, and the cash is literally affixed to his person. His only act of resistance is to iron the notes in the morning, like rumpled clothes.
Abendland (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria)
Again, not much to add to the MUBI report, except that I worry that my criticisms, and my preference for Danube Hospital, may have given the false impression that I found greater fault with Abendland than I actually did. There's quite a lot to admire here, even if the conceptual armature is a bit too broad to convincingly yoke all of Geyrhalter's material into a fully satisfying whole. In particular, the sequence on the railroad tracks, when German youth created a protest-rave in order to halt a train carrying what appear to be warheads, is rather remarkable. It's not just that the mode of civil disobedience is unique, and far removed from the more conventional modes that I'm used to seeing in North American activism. Even more remarkable is the care and equanimity with which the police responded to the protesters. Geyrhalter captured what appeared to be a mutual respect, with everyone doing their job in a trying circumstance. "You are not allowed to be here," the officers tell the protesters, one by one, "so I am going to pick you up and remove you from this location." And they do so, slowly and patiently, will no violence or ill-will. Is this for real? Is "Abendland" a world apart?
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
Here's a piece that sort of took on a life of its own, to put it lightly. I am pretty sick of discussing this film and this piece, but there are a few things I may as well clarify, yes, just a bit further, since this is my own self-indulgent film-nerd website.
1. Looking over the piece, I realize that what has become its key sentence is highly impacted and convoluted, and could have used some editing and revision. It's hard to see that "exacting" is the verb in the logjam of words, and it's possible that this could lead to the misperception that some have had (more on this is a second) that I was "attacking" not the angry fans who employed threats and hate speech in comment boxes on the Internet, but the Dark Knight audience / fanbase as a whole. My aim was to describe a harsh, steely form of cinema that harbored aggression toward its audience, not an audience that went looking for aggression within "the movies" or within Nolan's films themselves.
2. A particular commentator on Twitter took issue with my use of the term "egghead faggots," taking it as an indication that I held the Dark Knight audience in contempt. Specifically, it was seen as a sign that I felt bullied by "fanboys," and was using my review as a kind of ressentiment or revenge. In fact, I was responding to a very particular trend within the comments left on reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, IndieWire, and elsewhere. Commenter anger, both at criticisms of TDKR and at what the commenters considered to be "over-analysis" on the part of the reviewers, was frequently accompanied by homophobic epithets and invective. (Much of this has been deleted by moderators now, and rightly so.) In the future, I will take care to cite the targets of my criticism, should the need arise, to avoid any confusion. However, at the time it seemed more important not to give such ugliness any further platform.
3. On July 22nd, two days after the Aurora, Colorado shootings, Vancouver-based critic Tom Charity received this comment on his TDKR review at cnn.com: "If I had a Gun, I'd shoot a hole in Tom Charity's Head, and spill his brains out for all the world to see."
4. That same day, after several posts to Twitter which were critical of my initial review, NYC critic Steve Erickson wrote the following to me in a private email. (I take the liberty of reprinting its contents here because it only addresses the contents of my review.) "You never talk about the audience except in the most negative and general terms: 'online hordes.....a posse' You may not have intended these to refer to the entire audience, just the assholes among it, but that's not how the review reads to me. I can see that you're addressing the com-boxers, but you barely acknowledge the pleasure other audience members might take in seeing a familiar character and text reinterpreted. You never differentiate between the former and the latter." At first I was confused as to how my very specific comments about people hiding behind email and Facebook accounts, issuing death threats (however meaningless) to Marshall Fine and Christy Lemire, could be taken as somehow metonymic for the entire Batman audience. On reflection, however, I think Erickson has a point, and I bring this up because, although he and Glenn Kenny are the only two people to have addressed this with me, I'm sure they aren't the only ones to harbor these qualms. On the one hand, it's not my job to wave a hand and say, "Yes, lots of people will take lots of different kinds of pleasures from this film," since this seems like a rather obvious point to make about any cultural artifact. Besides, where mass-cult phenomena are concerned, the rah-rah strain of academic cultural studies has made a cottage industry of planting a flag on said pleasures and waving it. But on the other hand, there's a much larger question implicit in Erickson's and Kenny's objections. What is to be gained by diving into this particular wreck? I believe I was trying to engage in a certain type of Adorno-esque social psychology of a bully-type, but to do so with a degree of empathy. It's up to the reader to decide whether or not I succeeded in this. However, there is definitely a counter-argument that there are better, by far more productive stories to tell. Right now, I am still not convinced of this. But I concede the validity of that viewpoint, and may yet arrive there. Who knows.
Although it's possible that it's a critical injustice to see a film like this in any context other than in a movie theatre with an appreciative audience (the "infectious laughter" theory), I must confess, I never once found it funny. This is not to say Stooges lacked interest value, but it was much more clinical and intellectual, operating at a secondary remove. This is usually a good thing -- metacomedy, even when it's not conventionally funny, frequently strikes at the heart of certain cultural truths by dint of its studied anti- or dys-humor -- but here it's as though the Farrellys were already working out the think-piece that the Armond Whites of the world would inevitably generate based on the "film" that wasn't exactly there. The first act deposits the young Stooges at a Catholic orphanage. Once they grow up (sort of) their violent brand of chaos can be read as a kind of Jewish anarchic revenge against Christian order. (The fact that the sternest, most humorless nun is played by Larry David in habit-drag kind of drives the point home.) Meanwhile, the fraternal-humanist basis of the crudity and affection of the Stooges -- Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos) sacrificing for his less capable friends Larry (Sean Hayes) and Curly (Will Sasso) -- provides a "back story" the original Stooges lacked. But it's also the auteurs' stamp. The Farrellys' gross-out comedy and envelope-pushing (like John Waters') is rooted in a full embrasure of humankind, even when it turns goddamnned ugly. Naturally, the third act -- Moe joins the cast of "The Jersey Shore" -- is the clearest thesis statement of all ("stupid" then and now -- paging Ken Jacobs), but is no less insightful for having made a fried pie from low-hanging fruit. Throughout The Three Stooges, the Farrellys dodge every pitfall of the mere property-remake. Indeed, they have a project.
Still, it's never funny. So there's that.
When you consider Delpy's very active role in shaping the Linklater Before films, with their mature, poetic examination of romance, aging, and cross-cultural divides, I wouldn't have expected that she'd approach comedy like a second-rate Woody Allen (which, of course, means contemporary Woody Allen). There's not much substance here. There's not much conflict here either, since it's essentially Marion (Delpy), a Parisian photographer in New York, bringing her madcap Frenchie-French family as an invading force to bear on her beleaguered partner Mingus (Chris Rock), a music writer. (Both met while working at the Village Voice.Just shows how utterly out of touch Delpy is.) Crazy Dad (Albert Delpy, Julie's dad) tries to smuggle sausage and cheese into JFK, whimsically keys a Hummer limo, and expects a "happy ending" at the Thai massage. Sister Rose (Alexia Landeau) traipses around naked; she's brought along her boyfriend Manu (Alex Nahon), who used to be with Marion. The relationship "drama" soon unravels into a subjectivity crisis, yet another study of a woman agonized over not being able to "have it all" without some degree of neurosis. (Marion and Mingus both have kids, and conflicts over parenting vs. work inevitably arise.) But nothing Delpy attempts actually works; 2 Days is meaningful only in symptomatic ways, like her characterization of Mingus as Obama-obsessed (he talks privately to a life-sized standee of Prez #44). It's a film that's deviously dangerous in the sense that, indeed, it actively courts national biases with its baseball-caps-and-berets lampooning. But despite the ugly-American pitfall, I'll call it: Rock is the only actor remotely resembling a human being.
[I reviewed this for the Nashville Scene, and ordinarily I'd just post a link with some slight annotation. However, I actually ended up providing a shorter edit of the review that EIC Jim Ridley decided not to go with. All things considered, I prefer the shorter version, so I'm presenting it below. Just think! You lucky folks have a choice between my usual longwindedness and some slightly-shorter-of-breathedness...]
In this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin takes us into an isolated community colloquially known as the Bathtub. It’s a small mound of swampy thicket isolated from the mainland by a levee; although Zeitlin makes it a point never to tip his hand, the Bathtub appears to be just off the coast of Louisiana. Just in sight of this semi-primitive aggregate of dilapidated clapboard, free-roaming chickens and semi-communal living is the highway; just over the levee we see smoke-belching refineries. Wink (Dwight Henry), father to 6-year-old protagonist Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) points over Chevron-way, remarking, “Ain’t that ugly.” The divide is in place. The Bathtub is Zeitlin’s enclave of noble savages, holed up against the encroachment of civilization. Alas, Biblical Weather has its way with this supposed paradise, when a massive hurricane flattens and floods the island. Obviously much has been made over Beasts’ visual and mythical similarities to Katrina, but the film dips into this well of cultural signification without drawing any real conclusions. Zeitlin has a particularly handy system for draining any possible political implications from this swamp.
Beasts is narrated throughout by Hushpuppy, with a soft-spoken, poetic perspective that is preternaturally aware of complexity and subtext. (Wallis’s voiceover has been rightly compared to Terrence Malick’s work; Robert Flaherty’s landmark docudrama Louisiana Story is another key precedent.) However, when Zeitlin’s narrative structure demands it, Hushpuppy is age-appropriately naïve. She believes that her private misbehavior brought the storm upon the world as punishment, and that the titular prehistoric giants roam the earth. In this magical land, why not? The key image in Fox Searchlight’s publicity has been an image of Hushpuppy walking in the dark of night, illuminated by dazzling colored sparklers. This has been chosen, I think, because it’s so atypical. For a film so insistent on the raw force of nature, Beasts seldom attempts to capture its aesthetic power. Instead, Zeitlin employs choppy handheld camerawork that moves things along but is inadequate for putting the elements across as more than just an idea. When Beasts does bust through with wildness, it’s only by negation, and at its most ideologically specious moment. After forced government evacuation, the ‘Tubbers are held prisoner in a cold, white facility representing “civilization” as total bureaucratic callousness. (Is this a conservative stance against social services? Naturally, Zeitlin hedges all bets by refracting this Kafkaesque nightmare through Hushpuppy’s tiny point of view.)
But one thing is rather certain about Beasts of the Southern Wild in terms of how it depicts the culture of the Bathtub: This is a man’s world. Wink makes a point that Hushpuppy’s mother (who may or may not be be “The Cook,” played by Jovan Hathaway) fled the Bathtub because she couldn’t hack it. Oddly enough, all the kids in the Bathtub are girls, but their teacher, Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), warns them that ecological disaster is imperiling their ancestral home. “So you can’t be pussies,” she tells the young girls. Later on, in a moment of crisis, Hushpuppy says with equanimity and resolve that she “won’t be a pussy.” Likewise, in a post-storm seafood feast, a neighbor tries to show the girl how to crack open a crab with a tool. Wink howls in protest. “Beast it!” he insists. By this he means that Hushpuppy should break open the shell with her bare hands, like an animal. Soon everyone at the table is chanting “Beast it! Beast it!” and beast it she does. Upon splitting the crab in her hands, Hushpuppy mounts the table in triumph, flexing her muscles. She has proven herself to be a worthy heir to whatever’s left of the Bathtub; later on she’ll look the giant hulking mammoth of her fears square in the eye. Clearly she is now the beast, and no “pussy.” But I find myself taking issue with Zeitlin’s vision. Whether this nowhere-land is post-Katrina NOLA or simply the remnants of our own tattered civilization, it’s worth remembering that the rising tides of history are notoriously gender-indiscriminate