Film Carew

1 August 2012 | 6:38 pm | Anthony Carew

Soderbergh soliciting great work from such unlikely figures as Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, and Olivia Munn.

Jesus Christ, Magic Mike. The cinematic surprise of the year, no? Let us count the ways: 1) This is clearly the best commercial/Hollywood/multiplex movie to screen in 2012 so far. 2) This is Steven Soderbergh's best film since, what, the Ché movies? Solaris? 3) No film this year may feature a more surprising quality of acting; Soderbergh soliciting great work from such unlikely figures as Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, and Olivia Munn; And 4) This surely has to be the heterosexual-coupling's date-movie of the year; hell, it could be the gay date-movie of the year.

I feel like I've never rated a film on its date-worthy credentials before; and, apologies for being so popcorn and anodyne, I'll get to teasing out the themes of the text and interpreting the compositions and colour-grading soon (no, like, really). But let's, for the moment, happily put a film about selling sexuality as practical currency into the realm of mainstream cinema, where, um, sexuality is sold as practical currency, and people file in to cinemas in anticipation of seeing, say, Channing Tatum's ass. It arrives roughly one minute into Magic Mike, and the audience I was its witness in, there was a grandiose gasp from the crowd at the sight of each chiselled cheek; women verily swooned as GI Joe strode away from camera with a chewing-gum walk. Soderbergh's film is, in so many ways, a shrine to the male body; or the male body sculpted, shaved, and trussed in assless chaps, at least (the only other film I've seen this year as comparably obsessed with the masculine form would be Christophe Honoré's Man At Bath, a provocative piece of queer unsimulated-sex-art that leers endlessly at chiselled French porn-star François Sagat). Were there some in-cinema drinking game involving swilling every time one of Magic Mike's coterie of male strippers jackhammered their pelvis in proud pantomime of penetration, you'd be as slaughtered as any of the crowds of rowdy sorority girls or clucking hen's-night harridans who clamour, clutching small bills, around the Cock-Rocking Kings of Tampa(!). Needless to say, if the purpose of the date-movie is to serve as essential foreplay for subsequent off-screen fornication, what better than a flick built on dance-moves suggestive of sex acts, yet filled with little in the way of actual sex? That sustained sexual tension is the very currency of strip clubs; dens of incongrousness in which flesh is plentiful yet acts of the flesh are verboten; where the age-old transactions of whore/john are rewritten along All-American lines of Calvinist repression —there no sin to be pardoned for if there was no actual intercourse, only the mass-public suggestion of it— and hyper-capitalism; sex now just another consumer product sold in an ersatz version that doesn't resemble the original; stripping to fucking as Orange Drink is to actual orange juice; or, given the comic array of phallic props used herein, as Banana Flavouring is to an actual banana.

The strip-club is so in tune with the American cultural psyche that it has proliferated to the point of mass-consciousness, crossed-over into socially-acceptable mainstream banality; a virtual chainstore amidst the endless stripmalls offering yet more veritable McJobs for America's surfeit of self-obsessed, service-industry youth. The screenplay —penned by recurring Soderbergh collaborateur Scott Z. Burns (who also authored the scripts for The Informant! and Contagion)— is based on Tatum's experiences as a 19-year-old stripper in Florida; and the actual narrative isn't exactly teeming with transgressive writing: Tatum's titular character desperately saving in hopes of a better life; his 19-year-old protégé, The Kid (Alex Pettyfer) getting seduced by the easy cash, randy babes, and copious drugs; and McConaughey's boss (in a turn with shades of Tom Cruise's Magnolia evangelist-of-misogyny) a leathery lizard and strippin' veteran who rules over his club with a mixture of comedy, bonhomie, and subtle tyranny. The fact that The Kid's sister doubles as the perfunctory love-interest seems like an uninspired stroke, doubly so when she turns out to be a frowning wet-blanket who doesn't approve of her brother's new lifestyle nor Tatum's ass in chaps. Except, the barely-known Cody Horn turns in the most transcendent turn in a film filled with way-better-than-expected acting across the board (especially from Tatum); carrying herself with an awkwardness that gives her scenes this alive, electric energy; as if the actor and character, both, are on edge, out-of-place in either in-story strip-clubs or motion-picture approximations of them. I can't believe I'm going to write a review that both praises a film as a 'date-movie' and remarks on the 'chemistry' of its leads, but the slow-budding romance is, no matter how signposted, realist and sweet; based on shared banter and smirking ribbing; with Horn's awkwardness giving it the feeling or an unsure, perhaps even unwise flirtation. When they tease each other, it's warm and funny; with they laugh, it rings with truth; when they walk together on the beach, dappled by sunlight splattering the lens, it's an actual cinematic moment.

Which, in turn, leads us to talking about the direction; which is genuinely great, and worthy of study. Where the house style for commercial American cinema is incoherence —something shared by shitty rom-coms and, like, The Dark Knight both; Hollywood comprehension characterised by copious unnecessary edits and poor spatial understanding— here Soderbergh is in complete command; making his male-stripper movie far more formally brilliant and beautiful to look at than you'd ever dare hope. Soderbergh has always used colour radically: back in the celluloid era he re-wrote noir lighting in inspired shades of polychromatic colour; The Underneath casting mosaics of suggestive shadow and light through stained-glass panels; Out Of Sight creating a surreal, meta-theatrical cinemaworld through its amplified, excessive colours. Magic Mike continues this, using the infinite colour-grading possibilities of the digital studio in inspired ways. One 'descent-into-debauchery' type trance-out flickers back and forward between images soaked bright red or blue; monochromatic studies in single colour and dark shadow that, as they alternate towards sensorial overload and state-of-confusion, actually betray hints of Soviet proto-montage and German expressionism. Yet, even in its 'reality', Soderbergh paints with a fascinating palette; his vision of Tampa swallowed by a smoggy haze; the deep, muddied yellows and burnt-salmon pinks conveying the 'dirty light' of Central Florida; the supposed 'glitz' of the Sunshine State, in reality, a parade of dead oceans, industrial haze, and fog of erected unreality. There's lots of scenes in SUVs, shuttling through the streets, but they're some of the best in the film: a shot/reverse-POV of the semi-conscious Kid laid out on his sister's backseat a pair of brilliant framings, back-to-back. It's a reminder of why, at times, people have been excited by Soderbergh's work, have acclaimed his auteurist credentials. It's only ever been at times, because Soderbergh is very much the director-as-tourist, his hectic and convoluted filmography ranging from tiny, experimental essays to mega-budget pieces of Hollywood shit. When he deliberately divides the two —making an awful Ocean's sequel to, say, bankroll some tiny labour-of-love— Soderbergh does both himself and his audience a disservice; bifurcating elements of artistic self —crowdpleasin' entertainer and expressionist auteur— that can, when given the opportunity, work together in perfect harmony.

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Cosmopolis marks the first-ever adaptation of Don DeLillo to screen; and, well, it would've been great if it was better. DeLillo's work doesn't suggest ease of adaptation, or, even, the promise of particularly good ones; the great post-modernist's greatness about the vividness and rhythm of his language; the way the words pile up on the page. Where his major works seem unadaptable due to their grandeur —Underworld erects enough text to be a television series, not a feature— Cosmopolis is a tougher thing to pull off given it largely takes place inside a limousine; a futuristic pseudo-spaceship silently piloting through the black void and imaginary unreality of a collapsed social dystopia. Such a story bears persistent, unintentional similarities to the coincidentally-released Holy Motors —each a day-in-the-life chronicle of a character riding in the back of a white limo, engaging in episodic scenes with one-off foils, and continuing into the symbolic near-future night— and the comparison is most unflattering: where that film was blessed with the visionary direction of Leos Carax and the rubbery expressiveness of Denis Lavant, here we only get the glorified hackdom of David Cronenberg and the blank visage of Robert Pattinson. Dully reciting his lines as if regurgitating required-reading text, Pattinson —like the vampire he is— drains the life from the flick; which is plenty problematic given the entire picture is predicated on his parrying conversations with an ensemble of one-off guests (wherein top-line thesps like Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, and Paul Giamatti make their fleeting appearances veritable masterclasses).

Cronenberg doubles the pain by going hyperactive with the edits; seemingly believing that a single static shot in the back of a car would be 'boring', the very overrated filmmaker needlessly, disorientingly leaps around; an early conversation between Pattinson and Jay Baruchel borderline unwatchable thanks to crappy, hyperactive direction. The dense thematic grist of the text could still overcome this, but, sadly, it doesn't quite; DeLillo's satirical evocations of the American obsession with its oligarchical overlords translated with a topical opportunism; Cosmopolis following The Dark Knight Rises into the realm of troubled-on-screen-evocations-of-the-Occupy-movement. As it descends into the dark night, and Pattinson's once-composed billionaire playboy begins to fall apart at the seams, the film should be verily heaving with dread and tension, be revelling in decay both social and personal; feel as if the 99 and the 1% really are at war. Instead, it plays as bloodless coup, uninspired demise; more a formalist theatre-piece, perhaps; an offbeat black-comedy that, for the most part, feels misconceived and misdirected; another misfire for a director hardly known as a sharp-shooter. Magic Mike may be Soderbergh's best film in a decade, Cosmopolis is just Cronenberg's worst since the last one.