So, it's July already. Iron Man has swooshed in and out of theaters, as well as new incarnations of Superman and the Starship Enterprise. All this was chased, of course, by the inevitable rush of frantic zombies. Meanwhile, the neighboring theaters of some multiplexes screened quiet Indies like Before Midnight and Frances Ha, the swooshing, clanging, and warp-driving of the films next door bleeding through the thin walls. I've sat on both sides of those walls in equal measure so far this year, considering the slowly shifting state of the movie business while Soderbergh's speech and Lucas and Speilberg's talk of movie industry implosion still echoed, wondering not only what to make of the films themselves, but this emerging divide.
To be clear: I was thrilled by the third installment of Iron Man, a franchise that seems to get a bit more right each time, aided considerably this go-around by writer/director Shane Black (The Last Boyscout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and the presence of Ben Kingsley. Of course, Iron Man 3 is just another loud and obnoxious summer cash-in, but it also has an appropriately comic-book sized sense of storytelling and a surprisingly sharp wit. In contrast, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel displays some rather sophisticated storytelling, but fails, in part, due to its utter lack of humor. Also, where Kingsley's abilities are played to perfectly in IM3, comparable character actor Michael Shannon turns in a performance in MoS as the evil Zod that shows just how lost even the most interesting actor can be if you put a lackluster script in front of them.
This high profile misfire in Shannon's career is particularly disappointing in contrast to his excellent supporting work in one of the first great films from this year, Jeff Nichol's Mud. Though not as risky or successful as Nichols' 2011 film Take Shelter (which featured Shannon in the lead), Mud is an excellent character-centered drama that features a host of great performances, and ultimately employs enough Action/Thriller tropes in the climax to have played to a bit wider audience than his previous work. Though the poster for Mud would suggest that Matthew McConaughey is the central force here, the film is actually sustained by the young actors at the center of the story, Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, no doubt anchored by McConaughey (continuing his recent streak of memorable supporting roles) and the seasoned support of Sam Shepard and Joe Don Baker.
So which side of the multiplex wall am I on? Well, both, of course...and hopefully ALL. But, even though my patience for New York hipster-ism was pushed to its limit by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig with Frances Ha, it felt incredible, and sadly rare, to be watching that level of acting at the movies this year. Likewise, Richard Linklater's Before Midnight seemed like an almost antiquated feat of performance, daring in its long takes, as well as its use (and refusal) of the Greek landscape to communicate the evolving relationship of Celine and Jesse. In contrast, the recent surfeit of designed-by-committe Hollywood product seems to have reached new and tiresome heights, most recently epitomized by the Brad Pitt vehicle, World War Z. Pitt's whoreish Pepsi moment in this aggressively mediocre entertainment says all you need to know about how much has changed since the days of Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Though I've seen worse movies this year, WWZ is perhaps the most disheartening, and not just because of the product placement (which, by the way, is found in equal measure in Snyder's Man of Steel). What is most offensive about WWZ (not unlike the first installment of The Hunger Games) is its inability to create any meaningful engagment with the violence at hand, compromised at every turn by its mandated role as a PG-13 piece of world-wide studio product. WWZ feels like a film that should have enough room in it to reach, at least, some small moment of revelation about the world we're living in, given the enormity of the cultural signifiers and the varied locations it's workng with, yet manages nothing more than a mildly engaging level of video-game storytelling.
Like any summer, more than a few super-hero/apocalypse-themed/green-screen spectacles have come and gone, with a few proving more entertaining than others, but almost none reaching the ecstatic peaks I would prefer to encounter during every trip to the movies. In fact, if there was one moment at the movies this year that felt truly risky, a moment I was postive was showing me something rare and exquisite, it would have to be the hotel room scene in Before Midnight. With that scene in mind, I'm leaning more toward the smaller, character-centered films this year, so far. Here are three I liked even more:
1) Upstream Color - dir. Shane Carruth
This follow-up to Carruth's debut, the 2004 time-travel puzzler Primer, is well worth the wait. Upstream Color could only be described as Science-Fiction in a cursory manner, combining those genre elements with tragic romance, undercurrents of ecological commentary, and Cronenberg-esque body-horror. In fact, there may even be a bit of comic-book style "origin story" thrown into this tale of two abduction victims discovering each other and the strange nature of their connection (though UC is surely more interested in generating speculation on themes than it is sequels). Recent trends of wide demographic movie marketibility having eradicated any trace of ambiguity in storytelling, Carruth's new film reminds us how little the stories being told in many movies are inextricably linked to their cinematic components, and how utterly concerned they are with spelling out any potentially unresolved piece of plotting. Upstream Color refuses to simply tell, but rather engages us in a mode of reading more akin to great poetry, where each new element has us moving simultaneously forward and back through the work. The sequences of action are fairly complex, and so thoughtfully observed that I can see the film inspiring near-fanatical examinations. It's one thing for a movie to create a sense of mystery, but Upstream Color goes beyond the ability to generate questions, leaving us in a place that inspires a unique interpretive engagment, as well as a strong anticipation of what's to come from this visionary writer/director.
2) No - dir. Pablo Larrain
An expertly rendered piece of historification, No is a period film set in 1988 and centered around the creation of the anti-Pinochet advertising campaign in Chile. Director Pablo Larrain (Tony Manero, Post Mortem) shot the movie on period video stock that simultaneously captures the television quality of the time while commenting on the distance between us and the dated world of the late 80's political campaign ad pitch. No gets a lot of comedic mileage from re-creating the advertising pitch room of the era, the dire nature of the character's situation played against the slight fumbling of a VHS tape, for instance. But, ultimately, the film is much less interested in making cheap jokes of nostalgia than are many episodes of Mad Men. If you're like me and enjoy Mad Men the most when it's operating as an examination of advertising, then you will most likely find No an essential part of that study. Aside from that, what makes No one of the best films so far this year is the performance of Gael Garcia Bernal (Amores Perros, The Motorcycle Diaries). Bernal has only been acting in major films since around 2000, but his body of work has recently reached some new heights with No, and another somewhat overlooked recent film, Julia Loktev's brilliant and naturalistic The Loneliest Planet (2011). The final images of No, which show Bernal's character Rene carrying his son through the celebratory streets, say everything you need to know about the historical situation at hand, the state of modern advertising and politics, and the consice, restrained abilities of one of our best modern actors.
3) Spring Breakers dir. Harmony Korine
It may be that Harmony Korine has made his best film yet. I've been taken with Korine's work since his memorable debut as the writer of Larry Clark's Kids (1995), and his first features as a director, Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999). Since then Korine has been creating a body of work that has threatened to veer into oblivion, most notably with the more conventional (for Korine, at least) story of misfit celebrity impersonators, Mr. Lonely and the shot-entirely-on-VHS feature Trash Humpers (a film I admire if only for the remarkable follow-through on the promise of its title). If Trash Humpers is an M-80 let off in a back alley, then Spring Breakers is a very carefully placed IED. Part performance art experiment, part Dogme-esque abandon, Korine's films have always been fascinated with the hidden, damaged, and perverse reaches of the faceless America from whence he came. Spring Breakers is different in that Korine has managed to involve some fairly high-profile celebs from the Disney/WB/High School Musical teen TV + DVD world of the last few years (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson), as well as James Franco as the garishly grilled gangsta/rapper Alien. In this respect, the performers at the center of Spring Beakers are the inverse of the masked, nihilistic leads of Trash Humpers. At first glance, the idea of Spring Breakers seemed like little more than a publicity stunt, with early reactions chalking it up to more mysoginistic fuel to the cultural fire. Granted, as a publicity stunt, marrying the world of Disney-produced starlets with Korine's twisted world-view is a good one, but it also happens that it's his most carefully crafted film yet, as well as an effective piece of good ol' culture jamming. Where Mr. Lonely and Trash Humpers had me questioning the validity of what I loved about Korine's early work, Spring Breakers seems to tie all of his previous artistic indulgences together, echoing the striking digital experimentation of an early film like Julien, and effectively integrating his leftover preoccupation with VHS from Humpers.
As pastiche, Spring Breakers makes Tarantino's Django Unchained seem ham-handed in comparison, though I wouldn't claim subtlety as Tarantino's intent, and, ultimately, both films feel similarly successful to me (the upside-down take on female empowerent that Korine leaves us with also called up for me the "Toy-ota" finale of Tarantino's Death Proof). With Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful screening on the opposite side of the multi-plex wall, supposedly gutting any sense of a strong, central female character from the Frank L. Baum books, Spring Breakers emerges as something far more revealing as social commentary and far more satisfying as art than just about any film this year. It may be easily overlooked that the template is the plotline of nearly every "spring break" movie, reaching back to the beach movies of the 1950's, through the juvenile sex comedies of the 80's, and back into the Jerzey Shore generation. The insistence to "pretend it's a fucking video-game" adds another layer of removal that not only reflects a level of reality for the characters, but a slightly chilling context for our own viewing. Also, the writing, editing, and scoring work seemlessly here in a way that Korine has rarely displayed. Spring Breakers is a first-person shooter reality-TV nursery rhyme that sweeps you up with its opening Skrillex-scored excesses, at once assaultive and completely familiar, and keeps you effortlessly afloat with its relentless refrains, never quite allowing you to land completely. The numbing repetition of trash TV is transformed into a hypnotic, subverted parable that manages to keep in balance the dangerously surreal with an unexpected sweetness, an element that hasn't always been present in Korine's work, but which is essential to why the satire of Spring Breakers might just persist.