Viewing Log: Summer 2012
By Fernando F. Croce

The Dark Knight Rises. The material is not without poetic possibilities. It is, after all, a tale of rooftops and catacombs and of the ground that crumbles between them, the netherworld of Fantômas and Mabuse. In the hands of Christopher "Strained Seriousness" Nolan, however, every shred of wit, mystery and humanity is pummeled out, leaving only a bullish mishmash of zeitgeisty anxiety. Nolan’s specialty is the laborious construction of gargantuan systems in which his ideas (the masks of heroism and vigilantism, say) rattle, the huggermugger here boils down to a sewer-dwelling Mussolini (Tom Hardy’s hulking Bane) whose tenebrous pronouncements ("The shadows betray you because they belong to me!") are somewhat undercut by the fact that he sounds like Sean Connery playing a subway announcer gargling mouthwash. On the positive side, the jet-crunching prologue is the sort of set-piece the Bond franchise can only hope for, Anne Hathaway is a welcome slinky sight as the feline free agent, and Christian Bale’s monotonous Batman stays off-screen a good deal of the time. The rest is dominated by dismal visuals, lurching rhythms, trauma free of emotional weight, and the notion that all the French Revolution really needed was Richie Rich in a leather armor to set things right.

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Post-Katrina wreckage as libertarian playground: "Afraid of a little water?" In a flooded Louisiana camp dubbed "The Bathtub," people carouse noisily, shoot fireworks every other night, navigate the marsh in sawed-off automobile carcasses, and hold impromptu rites of passage around seafood. It’s all filtered through the eyes of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old pluck-dispensing machine who struggles to bond with her choleric father (Dwight Henry) while envisioning prehistoric boars tearing through cities. Plenty of soaring sentiments in that tiny frame, as the narration labors to remind us: "When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces." In his feature debut, Benh Zeitlin stirs chunks of Charles Burnett, Werner Herzog and Hayao Miyazaki in a cauldron and serves up the stew in oh so colorfully cracked plates. His junkyard mise-en-scène is calculated for maximum naïf effect, every "accidentally" out-of-focus image is a fraud. From time to time something truthful, like Wallis’s grave, unformed gaze, slashes through the miasma of tinsel effulgence. I suspect this will be a launching pad for raw talent whose best work is still ahead. But as lyrical family portraits go, it’s counterfeit money next to Alamar.

Moonrise Kingdom. I remain unenchanted by Wes Anderson. When his admirers point to the soulfulness trembling behind his deadpan compositions, I mostly see a maniacally fastidious eye at the service of a self-consciously fey sensibility. Still, when the two 12-year-old runaways stood over a speared white pooch ("Was he a good dog?" "Who can say? But he didn’t deserve to die"), I felt the oddball intensity and was reminded of why it just won’t do to simply dismiss him as "cute" or "twee" anymore. The fable is a peewee reworking of Summer with Monika set in the year of Pierrot le Fou, acted out by a moon-faced, lisping boy who resembles Sartre in a coonskin-cap and a grave nymphet who’s forever bringing binoculars to her raccoon eyes. It peaks early, blessedly away from the suffocatingly art-directed interiors, with the divide between childhood and adolescence envisioned as a nature stroll, its enchanted fragility nicely illustrated when, discovered by the grown-ups, the young couple hide inside a tiny tent which is promptly lifted off the ground. Of the menopausal wrecks surrounding them, the most tender surprise is Bruce Willis’ rueful constable, sharing a memory with a drink and weaving a thread of Chekov into Anderson’s tapestry.

Cosmopolis. Das Cyber-Kapital, from the stretch limousine’s grinning skull to the fungus between the dissident’s toes, a thoroughgoing autopsy. Suddenly hankering for a haircut, a callow billionaire spends a long day’s journey into night inching across a metropolis, passes through a galaxy of employees and mistresses and protesters, penetrates and is penetrated, and seeks petulant deliverance in the pull of death. "Such science and ego combined!" That Robert Pattinson plays him is but one of David Cronenberg’s wily, astute moves: Not for nothing does the spacious, soundproof inside of the protagonist’s vehicle suggest a leather coffin. In this remarkable hallucination, the world is coagulated, gridlocked. Syndromes and complexes, Rothko and action painting, Bakunin in neon letters and money "talking to itself." Rats everywhere. Characters don’t so much engage in dialogue as play verbal ping-pong, flattened like paddles. (Juliette Binoche’s paroxysmal art-house sex kitten, Samantha Morton’s Randian oracle and Paul Giamatti’s boil-like malcontent are some of the standout insectoids.) What is the reality of people and things when Manhattan itself is clearly Toronto not quite camouflaged by digital backgrounds? A most dense work, baleful, very funny and sinuous, never afraid to excruciate its audience, a master filmmaker’s rumination on capitalism as a vision of diseased titanium.

Magic Mike. Even without comparison to Cronenberg’s steely, systematic demolition job, Steven Soderbergh’s own body-politic comedy is a pretty flaccid affair. Continuing his interest in the corporeality of commodities and the extra-textuality of inanimate performers, the director follows his studies of high-priced escorts (The Girlfriend Experience) and hired assassins (Haywire) with a vanilla panorama of beefcake for rent. Bodacious in Chippendales cuffs and collars and as charismatic as a sack of flour, Channing Tatum is the eponymous Mike, by day a struggling proletarian "entrepreneur" and by night the bumpin’ and grindin’ main attraction at an all-male strip revue. Nightclub razzle-dazzle is the current hustle, satisfying the female clientele shrieking for abs and asses is an economic necessity: "Fuck the mirror like you mean it," instructs the manager (Matthew McConaughey, good as an aging satyr who understands his merchandise). At its wittiest when lingering on G-strings stuffed with crumpled bills or on the shirtless Uncle Sam at a Fourth of July number, the picture is quickly swamped by rote plot mechanics, jaundiced cinematography that seems to infuse the screen with clouds of piss, and crummy improv. The idea that the characters are gods on the choreographed stage and hapless off of it can excuse only so much flatness.

Red Hook Summer. Noisy and jarring and slapdash as it is, this return to summertime Brooklyn (and to film-school rawness) is Spike Lee’s least crabby vignette in a decade. The old neighborhood is gradually succumbing to gentrification, pious pamphlets are distributed in one corner of the park while wannabe rappers crowd the other side, from the rooftops a mammoth ocean liner is seen looming in the shipyard like Fellini’s in Amarcord. In the sweltering heat, the grizzled local religionist (Clarke Peters) thunders from his basement pulpit: "Jesus will air-condition your soul!" For two-thirds of the running time, this is a slim coming-of-age dramedy centering on the 13-year-old Atlanta grandson (Jules Brown) who, stuck in town for the season, remains mainly a pair of surly eyes peering over his iPod tablet. Then Lee pulls a whale of a dark plot revelation out of his sleeve, and suddenly we go from tweens writing their names in fresh cement to a false prophet wearing a church tambourine like a crown of thorns on his stomped head. Lumpy with allusions to Do the Right Thing (including the filmmaker himself cameoing as Mookie, now with salt-and-pepper stubble but still carrying pizzas), the film hops back and forth from vibrant street theater to studied awkwardness. When it sticks to the leonine Peters, however, it sears.

Savages. After the PG-13 soft-pedaling of his last few films, Oliver Stone revs things up to a hard R in this combustible, chaotic, weirdly likable snapshot of new-millennium idylls and infernos. Lizard-brained drug business (independent operations as well as "Wal-Mart" cartels) propels the drama, the splitting of the hero between brutal (Taylor Kitsch) and soulful halves (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) harks back to the military schism of Platoon. The heroine (Blake Lively) bounces blithely between the two, until the bronzed tones of their beachside Eden give way to the burnt-orange hues of the deserts south of the border. Contemplating the trio’s Californian hedonism, the sadistic Mexican enforcer (Benicio Del Toro, looking like a schlumpy wolverine) can only shake his head: "Fucking savages." As the hacienda baroness orchestrating the dealings and killings, Salma Hayek strikes a fabulous balance of lethal professionalism and motherly dedication. And, as a squirming DEA agent grown doughy with venality, John Travolta’s eyes leap with quickness and desperation. His hopped-up editing alternately suggesting bong puffs and shiv stabs, Stone watches over them all with fury, verve and, most surprisingly, playfulness and affection. Macbeth references abound, but this is really the seasoned gonzo provoker’s blood-spattered The Tempest, blowtorch-wielding Calibans and all.

Lawless. Fascinated by masculinity tested, stretched and warped, John Hillcoat and Nick Cave keep heading to primitivistic netherworlds. The wild frontier here is the Appalachian Mountains during the Prohibition, the clash is between outlaw nobility and legal corruption. (Insert shot of roosters in the mud clawing at each other.) The good-bad guys are a clan of moonshine-peddlers, a bruiser who grunts out one sentence every other day (Tom Hardy, somehow less intelligible than in The Dark Knight Rises), a howling bear-man (Jason Clarke), and a piglet with Cagney aspirations (Shia LaBeoulf, natch). The bad-good guys are rolled up into Guy Pearce’s dandyish Chicago G-man, the film’s one element to approach the scabrous wackiness of the Hillcoat-Cave Outback western The Proposition. (Puffed up with depravity, decked out in pinstripe suits and Mickey Mouse gloves, his parted hair slick with oil-black pomade, Pearce is practically playing Donald Sutherland in Bertolucci’s 1900.) Awash in posturing vendettas, wan schoolmarmish female characters (Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are squandered) and finicky mixes of earth tones and murky blood, this very watered-down hooch tries to pierce macho mythmaking but instead just wheels it around and around like a spent lion in a cage.

Take This Waltz. Character-underling dialogue ("I’m afraid of connections... uh, in airports"). Bedroom baby-talk in gruesome close-up. Indiewood jobs and enormous Toronto lofts. Self-consciously "unself-conscious" nudity. Time-spanning montages set to circling camera movements and Leonard Cohen growls. Sarah Silverman stunt-casting. Sins and all, I ended up liking Sarah Polley’s sophomore directorial effort for its unresolved, warm-to-the-touch emotions. Like her previous picture, it’s about a couple helplessly drifting apart, with curiosity and desire replacing Alzheimer’s as the marital interloper. Michelle Williams is married to Seth Rogen (nicely tempering his brand of bullying humor) but becomes drawn to the rickshaw-pulling artist across the street (Luke Kirby), and all three are credibly unguarded. (By contrast, Julie Christie’s lingering glance of irony in the face of uncertainty made her character in Away from Her about as vulnerable as the figurehead in a battleship.) The results waver from dreamy to grating and back, but I won’t soon forget Williams whooshing across the screen in a carnival ride to "Video Killed the Radio Star" or trying not to lose control of her smile as she grows more and more moist before Kirby’s erotic monologue.


September 4th, 2012

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