Revisiting Magic Mike and Moonrise Kingdom

Like 2011 with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, 2012 has two great summer movies to call its own: Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Very different pictures thematically and aesthetically, both films underscore how distinctive Soderbergh and Anderson’s directorial voices are. While no one would accuse either director from departing from their comfort zone, both Magic Mike and Moonrise Kingdom display such an intrinsic understanding of craft. The skill on display is of the highest caliber, as both directors compose images of rich detail, moving from scene to scene with such an impressive understanding of the mechanics of film. With the recent Blu-ray releases of both films, I thought it appropriate to revisit both pictures and hopefully rekindle some conversation on films that might get lost in the shuffle as the awards season reaches its loudest.

Throw away any homoerotic fears associated with enjoying Magic Mike – it’s the most entertaining wide-release Hollywood picture to come out this year. What’s most interesting about the film is the traditional perspective it takes into probing its niche subject matter. Much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Soderbergh adapts Reid Carolin’s script with lighthearted reverence and great formal proficiency. The film adapts a familiar rise-and-fall arc with a slight hand. Tonally, however, Magic Mike balances its risqué material with sincerity, opting to bare its emotional complexities while maintaining a traditional plot-driven narrative.

Rewatching the film, I was caught by the tightness of its plotting – adopting a summertime narrative timeframe, the picture is paced and cut strategically. Soderbergh, who has been critiqued for making two types of films, that of the art house variety and clear-cut Hollywood efforts, arrives at a middle ground with Magic Mike. The deft skill and precision of his work calls to mind some of his more art house-minded pictures like The Girlfriend Experience whereas the narrative itself is one of a traditional Hollywood structure like Ocean’s Eleven. The two concepts merge into a picture of rigid formality while remaining boisterous and fun.

Brown-hued symmetry composes so much of the rich imagery in Moonrise Kingdom. Few directors possess such a distinctive visual style that prompts audiences to recall exactly who composed the image. But much like the iconic imagery that comes from directors with peculiar stylistic tendencies (such as Stanley Kubrick or even Tim Burton), Wes Anderson’s directorial presence is palpable through every frame. While Moonrise Kingdom is not quite my favorite of his works (Rushmore takes that honor) and as the picture did not hold up quite as well as I remembered, it’s a remarkable achievement of growth from a director who maintains such a distinctive visual sensibility.

The central relationship between on-the-run Khaki Scout Sam and a wayward girl named Suzy has this sort of urgent poignancy that’s rarely seen in contemporary films. Anderson captures a sense of anxiety in youth with melancholic reverence. This sense of anxiety is what his pictures tend to address, but to utilize such young proxies for his cinematic thesis gives the material surprising emotional heft.

Upon rewatching Moonrise Kingdom, I was taken aback by the pristine compositions, stellar production design, and immaculate dedication to craft. Perhaps that’s why some of the picture’s running themes of anxiety, loneliness, and abandonment don’t always register completely. Within the cutesy universe that Anderson constructs, its visual representation perhaps does not lend itself to such heavy emotional work. But this detraction is not meant to discredit just how incredibly touching and powerful Moonrise Kingdom can be. Moving through the picture, I found added reverence for Edward Norton’s work. His character exudes the melancholic contradictions that compose much of the picture. Dressed in his Khaki uniform, he does his due diligence to mold the future. Somewhere along the way, a sense of his identity gets lost. The subtle touches to his character, particularly toward the end, have an aura of optimistic profundity that caught me off guard on my rewatch.

Awards considerations for both films are somewhat limited. Unlike the aforementioned Tree of Life or Midnight in Paris, neither picture truly gripped the necessary critical acclaim to such an infectious degree. And one could argue that 2012 is a more competitive year to 2011. Magic Mike strongest play rests in Matthew McConaughey’s Best Supporting Actor bid. It’s an uphill climb that will require critics to pull it back in contention once year-end awards are announced, but it’s certainly not out of the questions, especially given his career revival following critical acclaim in both William Friedkin’s Killer Joe and Jeff Nichols’s Mud.  Nominations for Steven Soderbergh’s direction and editing, Channing Tatum’s revelatory lead turn, or Reid Carolin’s script are unlikely nominations – even if I consider them to be the finest examples of their craft this year.

Moonrise Kingdom is in a somewhat loftier position. It’s not particularly hard to believe that the film could be nominated for Best Picture or for Wes Anderson to get a Best Director nod. And had it been released last year, I suspect it would have been in a stronger position. But it’s hardly a leading contender either. And with so many contenders yet to be unveiled, its insecure position could be further jeopardized. Most are content with recognizing Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s writing for the picture, as a Best Original Screenplay nomination is about the only thing that pundits are willing to suggest for the film’s awards prospects. But there’s a lot of detail to this film, from Robert Yeoman’s gorgeous cinematography to Adam Stockhausen and Kris Moran’s impressive production design – none of which should be ignored. As the fall festivals reach their end and the winter awards push begins, I can only hope that the conversation for both Magic Mike and Moonrise Kingdom continues.

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

Something needs to be said of Steven Soderbergh’s versatility as a director. Distinguishing his efforts by labeling them as merely commercial or independent projects limits the scope of his work. The variety in ensembles, time, place, and material is united by Soderbergh’s directorial precision and social/political/economical awareness. What he does in Magic Mike culminates many of the ideas that he explored in some of his most recent films as he’s uprooting the occupational self-identity crisis of The Girlfriend Experience and rich gender politics of Haywire into a Hollywood exhibition of the male physique.

Truth be told, it’s not all too shocking to see someone like Channing Tatum take the lead role in Magic Mike. His casting doesn’t resemble that of Gina Carano in Haywire or Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience as it seems too self-identifiable to the real person. This works for the picture’s benefit though, as Tatum avoids the problems found in the aforementioned performances – he’s a capable actor working a script that is tailored to his history. The film’s not without some surprise performances, as Alex Pettyfer, whose previous work includes the abominable Beastly, impresses as a naïve kid awed by the dazzle of proposed stardom. Gabriel Iglesias has a bit role that will go unsung, but offered a stunning new perspective on the actor/comedian’s abilities. But it’s Matthew McConaughey who leaves the greatest impression, who serves as the business force behind Xquisite night club. Soderbergh utilizes the character not just for his brashness, but to underscore Magic Mike’s socioeconomic subtext.

Magic Mike’s concerns rests on the proposed notion of relying on the male anatomy as a commodity. Tatum’s character is someone who daydreams of leaving the stripping industry for his own novelty furniture enterprise. Tatum dons the Magic Mike moniker as a means to an end. But he’s ignorantly unaware of his own status as a commodity. Its part of the picture’s most interesting dissections, as everything that happens outside of Xquisite plays on the limitations that Tatum has on selling himself to other people. Whether it’s the difficulties of connecting with women or even obtaining a loan, Magic Mike wisely acknowledges the alienating aspects of working in an industry that values the physical.

Many will favor The Girlfriend Experience’s cerebral efforts over Magic Mike’s glossier and more narratively driven aspects. And obviously, the demographic that Warner Bros Pictures wants to hit will appreciate the gyrating gestures on display. But I think this is a satisfying compromise in Soderbergh’s tendencies. On one hand, he embraces a more vivid and livelier cinematic terrain that’s more at home with his Hollywood efforts. And on the other, there are intervals where the film analyzes broader social concerns that allow Soderbergh to employ a more artful hand. All in all, it’s about eight pelvic thrusts out of ten.

Rating: 8/10

Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

There’s an interesting subversive quality to Haywire that commanded my interest from its first act. Perhaps it’s appealing in the way Steven Soderbergh takes the agreed upon formula of action films ala James Bond and inverts the gender dynamic – it’s the globetrotting female surrounded by handsome men. Or perhaps its Soderbergh’s nonchalant approach to the narrative intricacies of typical action film that drew me in – even the film’s characters seem lost in the web they’ve weaved. Or maybe it’s just the simple ways Soderbergh deploys his actions set-pieces that I found most alluring. Even the somewhat popularized reverse driving chase sequence is topped off with a hilariously out-of-nowhere sight gag that etched a smile on my face. It’s undoubtedly a combination of all these aspects that makes Haywire a compelling piece of pulp filmmaking, presenting itself as an interesting companion piece to Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale and drawing inspiration from recent films like The American and Drive.

As Mallory Kane, retired MMA fighter Gina Carano becomes the focus of Soderbergh’s obsessive gaze. Much like with Sasha Gray’s stunt casting in The Girlfriend Experience, Carano’s role is given an added dimension given her history, even if her performance rarely exceeds passable. But what becomes remarkably clear from the onset of the picture is Soderbergh’s rejection of gender. The canvas in which Soderbergh is operating under is that physically, there are no boundaries. Ewan McGregor’s character notes not to “think of her as a woman” as a way of removing gender from the equation. This little note is humorously placed near Haywire’s conclusion, almost immediately after all the violence upon Kane’s character has wrapped up.

Soderbergh’s ability to avoid a misogynistic tone throughout is something of a minor miracle, given that the violence against Carano seems to ramp in brutality.  Carano takes punches to the face, much to the shock of the audience I saw the film with, and returns punches with just as much ferocity. Each and every single character are unsexed – a compelling move of gender neutralization that, at the very least, makes every single fight scene an air of anxiety and relentless tension.

Soderbergh’s direction is as sharp as usual. Working in this sort of genre allows him to exercise his formal technique while winking at the audience from time to time. It’s particularly evident in the film’s “Barcelona” job, wherein Soderbergh integrates black-and-white still photography, David Holmes’ jazzy score, and funny visual cues (a post-it labeled “Bad Guy No. 1” is seen in passing) into a seamless montage. It’s all topped off with an extended chase sequence through the streets, displaying Soderbergh’s masterful control of tension through simple framing and extended scenes.

Lem Dobbs scripting is mostly solid, particularly if analyzed as a sort of critique on globetrotting action cinema. I wasn’t too keen on the film’s initial framing device, which seems to be used as a form of comic relief more than anything. But it’s rarely an intrusive aspect of the film. Haywire is largely dependent on the Soderbergh’s raw formal design and Carano’s raw… brutality. It’s a splendid marriage.

Rating: 9/10

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

I sat in a busy coffee shop several years ago when the H1N1 flu-epidemic was making headlines in 2009. Undoubtedly working on my thesis paper (or even a film review), I couldn’t help but notice the coughing around me. What had been the sort of thing that I would never have paid attention to in my day was grabbing my attention in an uneasy way. And as Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) notes early in Contagion, it’s that uneasiness, that fear, which proves to be just as fatal as the epidemic.

What Steven Soderbergh perfectly captures in Contagion is that sense of fear. He opens his film with the sounds of a busy airport, accented by a cough. “Day 2” is stamped in red font on the screen as we see an ailing Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) awaiting her flight. Walking into the film, we gather a sense of what to expect with Soderbergh proceeding in a completely straightforward manner – he focuses on Beth’s hands, what she touches and her exchanges. Soderbergh immerses us into the carnage that will follow by highlighting the how and why of the event. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we see the results of the virus, and therein gather what everyone is up against.

Contagion is not simply focused on the nature of a virus, but rather the elements associated with disease and the privilege bestowed on those of authority. The processing of information becomes just as much a plague to contend with as the disease itself. Jude Law’s role as blogger Alan Krumwiede may seem to be the sort of secondary character that serves to offer a clear line between good and evil, but Soderbergh and writer Scott Burns make him out to be more than he seems – his self-perceived status of martyrdom and his ability to connect with an audience is based on misinformation. By Contagion’s end, the world of privilege sees Krumwiede as a problem, yet his followers continue to worship his words.

I sit in a busy coffee shop yet again as I’m writing this review, and like last time, I can’t help but notice the little things. How long has it been since I cleaned this keyboard? Who touched this cup before I did? Contagion may resonate as a horror film, but it does transcend beyond that. Soderbergh communicates with fear just as he does with humanity – in the film’s closing scene; Matt Damon’s character mourns over a photograph. It’s the sort of scene that takes a micro look into the huge scale of the event. And it’s done with such sincerity and palpability that it’s hard not to be moved from uneasiness to heart-stirring sentiment. That is until someone coughs.

Rating: 9/10