Monday, July 30, 2012

China 9 Liberty 37, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Magic Mike

Monte Hellman's China 9 Liberty 37 starts out with a spaghetti-ish (not to mention noirish) premise. Legendary gunslinger Clayton Drumm (Fabio Testi) is offered a deal: be hanged or go shoot the railroad company's former killer-for-hire Matthew Sebanek (Warren Oates) whose farm stands in the way of said railroad's expansion. When Clayton arrives at Sebanek's farm, he chances upon Catherine (the luscious Jenny Agutter) bathing naked in a stream.

The stranger who comes upon an isolated house and an ambivalent marriage; we pretty much know how this plays out, only with Hellman we don't exactly know how things plays out, and character as much as conflict has a role in determining the narrative's wayward progress. Hellman's trademark pacing (something a bit more leisurely than a horse's lope) sometimes erupts in sudden, vicious, superbly staged and shot violence (a showdown between Clayton and one of Matthew's brothers comes to mind); said pacing also hides the tensions simmering beneath. Matt knows Clayton was sent to kill him; Matt and Clayton like each other (both are hardened professionals tired of their profession); Catherine and Clayton like each other too. If the actors look as if they're a little lost that's not a flaw in the performances but a natural reaction to being in a Hellman film: so many undercurrents and subtleties crossing each other you have to be careful not to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. 

Arguably the most confident performer here is Oates; having given Hellman the definitive portrait of American machismo at its most unconfident in Two Lane Blacktop he knows enough to armor Matthew with the most obtuse of surfaces, the better to hide his true intentions--which we learn about anyway, of course. Hellman puts up people with varying skills at deception and self-deception (even Testi's open-faced Clayton plays the game), that in the course of his films are gradually stripped of their defenses, leaving a raw, aching awareness. A great western, of course, not the least because it feels so much more than one. 

Tarsem Singh can't really tell a story properly, but he's such a heedlessly fertile imagemaker one doesn't quite care. Mirror Mirror is his modernized take on the Snow White legend, and frankly it's a mess; it's also fun, with Lily Collins as the impish heroine and Julia Roberts in full-on comic mode as the malevolently vain stepmother queen. Scriptwriter Marc Klein and playwright Jason Keller manage to come up with sparkling rom-com dialogue between Collins and her Prince Charming, the heroically game Armie Hammer (he gets considerable comic mileage out of a less-than-dignifying spell that compels him to act like a dog), but the true star of the film is Singh's distinct visual style--exuberant and restless (but not to the point of ADHD), with a gift for imagery (Snow White's minaret palace rising high over a crystal lake from an impossibly curved crag) and dramatic sets (the hushed winter forest; the dwarfs' underground lodge; the ballroom with its breathtakingly cavernous entrance). 

A good chunk of the film's visual appeal are the costumes, by Singh's collaborator Eiko Ishioka with their soaring collars, sweeping capes, and ridiculous swan and sailing-ship hats (sadly, this was to be Ishioka's final work--she died before the film was finished). Call me smitten, but I think it all works--the actors are content to be smart and sassy and shallow, leaving all the real magic to be worked by the filmmakers, toiling away in the background. Easily Singh's most enjoyable picture to date.

And if that isn't convincing, check out Snow White and the Huntsman, Rupert Sander's LOTR-ized version of the legend. Serious themes, dark magics, and Charlize Theron in full Monster mode--for all her talent and beauty, Theron has never struck me as an actress with much of a sense of humor. She's so driven to make us see the acting behind the beauty that we're put off by the pushiness: "you want to be taken seriously, we get that; now back off!"

If Theron is too in-your-face, Stewart is too, well, comatose. She sleepwalks through the film with the same vaguely distressed expression she used during all four (five? I forget) Twilight movies, and frankly the ploy has become a bit wearying, if not soporific. Between the two actresses, one pathetically passive, the other psychotically aggressive, there's no point of dramatic contact whatsoever; it's as if they were acting in two completely different movies, neither of which I particularly liked. 

Sanders directs big, but it's an empty, unevocative kind of big; big sets, big action setpieces, no sense of drama, inspiration, artistry, no acknowledgement of the essential absurdity of the story (A beautiful virgin living with seven dwarfs, unmolested? Really?). There's a suggestion of feminist sympathy for the evil queen, but poor Theron lost me some time back, when she wouldn't even crack wise on the idea of eating a young girl's heart--c'mon, Charlize, not even an Andrew Zimmern reference?

Possibly the picture's low point is when Snow White comes to the heart of the forest, and a mysterious stag with monstrous antlers rises up to greet her (sounds familiar?). Rule number one when making bad movies: don't ever remind the audience of a better film; they might not come back in heart and mind to finish this one.

Steven Soderbergh is the hardest-working serious filmmaker in the business, arguably; his Magic Mike is his low-budget take on favorite star Channing Tatum's life story. The star has a charming, low-key presence, but cedes center stage to Matthew McConaughey's slimy strip club owner, a combination of six-pack abs, long unwashed hair, and fine wrinkles.


Film is nicely understated, the dance sequences nicely shot and choreographed (I can see Soderbergh being capable of doing a musical, though I don't see him wanting to--he's such an odd combination of the canny and straitlaced); several points of contention in a largely competent production: I'm not sure club customers look that consistently good, and the level of homoerotic denial ("Got all these hot women, so I ain't gay") in the air is so intense you can't help but sniff suspiciously for smoke. 


Perhaps my biggest beef with the picture is that it ain't Lino Brocka; the club is too clean, the acts too wholesome, the melodrama too tidy. As I wrote in Cineaste, Brocka's Macho Dancer is unashamed exploitation (where Mike--again, too strenuously--keeps its head largely above the muck), and that's part of the film's political point. When it comes to male strip melodramas, make mine Macho.


7/30/12

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