Sunday, May 13, 2012

More summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2009)

This year’s Woody Allen disappointment, Whatever Works, uses Larry David as stand-in, playing a self-proclaimed genius and proclaimed-by-all pain-in-the-ass who somehow gets married to a much younger (but improbably both stupid and naïve) woman (Evan Rachel Wood). I don’t really know where to begin on setting out the movie’s problems – I suppose the fact of having virtually no laughs would be as good as anywhere. David is great on his own show Curb Your Enthusiasm, but isn’t at all appealing in this role; he’s merely cold and hectoring, whereas Allen himself would have lent all the drivel a greater inherent warmth (since it so plainly is drivel - everyone’s a loser and what’s the point since the universe is ending anyway etc. – it seems over-compensatory that the character is a former brilliant physicist who once came close to the Nobel Prize). The events that overtake the Wood character’s parents, once they turn up, might suggest a developing thematic interest in sexual unorthodoxy and self-discovery, if you’re in the camp that thought the three-way thing in Vicki Cristina Barcelona was more than an affectation; but even if you appreciate the intention, you’d surely hope for more (i.e. any) finesse in the plotting and characterization. The philosophy is pretty much laid out in the title, except of course it’s more a rejection of philosophy; a notion of life as a clumsy series of lurches, where you sometimes fall on top of someone else and out of exhaustion or apathy just decide to stay that way. I don’t mind that Allen’s given up on aspiring to be Ingmar Bergman, but you’d hope he could at least be more diverting than a random surf through daytime TV.

The Girlfriend Experience

Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience stars Sasha Grey as a high-end escort in Manhattan, alternating the nuts and bolts of client service with trying to build her profile and earning power, even as the economy crashes around her. Grey in real life is a porn star who seems to be doing the Madonna-esque thing of positioning herself as a conscious manipulator of image and affect (for research purposes I checked out the general access sections of her website, which are very snazzy), although on this evidence she’s a pretty recessive personality beneath that.

It’s only been a few months since the release of Soderbergh’s ambitious two-part experiment Che, and the new film surely carries more modest aims: to capture something of a time and place, set up some parallels and oppositions, and leave the audience mildly provoked and intrigued. It generally achieves that, but it’s such a narrow métier that the movie doesn’t ultimately feel very important. Grey’s character must surely be at the extreme high-end of the sex worker spectrum, and her white-bread relationship with a personal trainer going through similar entrepreneurial struggles (but with less focus and finesse) surely can’t be that representative either. I expect this is part of Soderbergh’s point though, that we’re watching a very particular (and likely short-lived) phenomenon; where for a determined or lucky few, a perverted economy and crazed notions of communication and self-definition (both technological and personal) seem to open up almost unlimited possibilities. The ending of the first half of Che, with the guerilla leader high on the success of the Cuban revolution, captured something similar; the much more downbeat and morose second half showed what generally becomes of such apparent new paradigms, and The Girlfriend Experience’s rather poignant final scene starts to return us to her profession’s more familiar mechanics and surroundings.

Tokyo Sonata

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films usually have at least a foot in the beyond – Pulse makes the Internet’s dehumanizing potential literal and murderous; Charisma concentrates a spectrum of environmental worry and paranoia into the tale of a mysterious tree. He’s an accessible storyteller, but flexible with narrative and behaviour in a way Hollywood norms wouldn’t allow. Tokyo Sonata is the most grounded of his films that I’ve seen, with no overt supernatural or otherwise inexplicable content; but then, since it’s about the modern Japanese economy and its dehumanizing impact on the nuclear family, the strangeness takes care of itself. The father loses his director of administration job when it’s outsourced to China, and can’t bring himself to tell the family; he becomes part of an army of briefcased liars, trying to preserve some notion of authority and viability while it all gets away from them. The movie doesn’t find too much positive in the twisted structures of modern Japan, and through references to Iraq casts a wider critique too; ultimately it suggests that the way forward (as individuals, if not for the economy as a whole) lies in a fuller attention to small pleasures (art, family, making the most of what there is. It’s maybe not that amazing an insight, but still one the policy implications of which are yet to be fully grasped.

Public Enemies

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is an exciting crime thriller, but may be most satisfying if viewed as an almost quasi-abstract meditation on image making and identity in an age of corporatization and depersonalization. I don’t mean today (although the contemporary resonances are a large part of the movie’s excitement), but rather the 1930’s, where a politically pressured FBI (led by a young J. Edgar Hoover) pulls out all the stops to capture bank robber John Dillinger, popularly regarded as the most wanted man alive. As played by Johnny Depp, Dillinger is certainly ruthless and capable of anything, but he’s also a romantic, leaping to create a classic love story with a hat check girl (Marion Cotillard), and apparently increasingly intrigued by his own public image; he never seems to take particular pleasure in the money or the rush (some have found Depp’s performance too opaque, but it’s much more allusive done this way).
The public, seeing him as a Robin Hood-type character, largely esteems him, but his type of crime is becoming a threat to the organized interests (who, as they exploit the new technology of the telephone to extend the reach of their gambling operations, make as much in a day as he does from any of his jobs). Mann never seems to be straining for easy present-day parallels, but his approach is inherently allusive, and the use of digital technology renders everything almost eerily vivid at times. The movie is frequently reminiscent of his earlier Heat, both in its overall shape and even in many specific scenes, but the historical period (although scrupulously recreated) allows the film to work more in a classic genre vein; it feels throughout both like a memory and a prediction.

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