Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)

[The following is my July entry for Blind Spots.]

Some Came Running opens with antithetical moods. Lush but subtle color paints the bus ride of a soldier returning from World War II in warmth, a gentle portrait of the prodigal son on his journey back home. But the CinemaScope framing and portentous music from Elmer Bernstein undercuts this sense of idyll, inserting a sense of tension and conflict before anything has happened. The incongruity of these moods instantly undermines any audience expectation and generating a level of uncertainty in what will follow. For another filmmaker, such unsure footing might be the sign of weak technique and structure, but Vincente Minnelli ingeniously sets to undermining his own frame before he's put anything of note into it.

Soon, the tension becomes clear. The bus driver wakes the soldier, Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra), whose grogginess turns to sober apprehension when he learns he has been brought back to his hometown. When he gets off the bus, a ditzy Chicago girl, Ginny (Shirley MacLaine), gets off with him, mentioning how he was so good as to rough up her abusive boyfriend back in Chicago and bring her along. Dave's bewilderment over her, and his clearly unwelcome return home, reveal that this ostensibly happy moment is the result of a night of blackout drinking. As Dave puts up in a nearby hotel until he can figure out what to do, he finds himself drawn into a world dictated by insipid proprietary norms and both undercut and fundamentally supported by a vulgar underground.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012)

Christopher Nolan's Batman films have seriously, sometimes ponderously, probed the ramifications of superheroes in the "real" world. Batman Begins used its rusted, humid underworld as a petri dish for urban bacteria into which its hero was injected like a test cure. The Dark Knight followed up on the consequences of that hero's success, replacing the low-level scum with a bigger, badder force that wreaked such havoc as a direct result of Batman's presence that one was left to wonder whether his presence made life for the people better or worse. The Dark Knight Rises inverts that thematic dynamic to explore what happens in the hero's absence.

TDKR picks up eight years to the day after the conclusion of The Dark Knight. On the anniversary of Harvey Dent's death, the mayor (Nestor Carbonell) holds a commemoration that flaunts the aggressive clean-up campaign waged in the late district attorney's name, one that has, apparently, rid the city of organized crime. As the mayor, then Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) give their speeches, a shadow watches from above. Not the shadow of a bat, but a man, and a broken one at that, the silhouette of a cane and the bent shadow of the person holding it suggesting not Batman's imposing, fearful, symbolic strength but just a hobbled man. Such has become Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), deteriorated physically from the strain of his days as Batman and mentally from the trauma of losing the friend in whom he believed and the woman he loved. But as another character tells Wayne not too long after, "There's a storm coming," one that will require the man to become a legend once more and handle a greater evil than ever before.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)

I continue to love Spike Lee's 25th Hour, one of his most shamelessly white elephant features (topped only by Miracle at St. Anna and, more positively, Malcolm X) but also one of his most affecting. Buoyed by a stellar cast, 25th Hour manages to walk its tightrope between an intimate portrayal of the crippling fear of consequence and a vaster portrait of its application to the September 11 attacks. The final, desperate fantasy alone rates among the best and most bravura work Lee has ever done.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Ocean's Twelve (Steven Soderbergh, 2004)

Ocean's Twelve is one of my favorite Steven Soderbergh films and the best reflexive takedown of the sequel ever made. It jovially begins as a shameless retread of Ocean's Eleven before spiraling out of control by exaggerating every aspect that made that film a success until the result is a bewildering mess and a giddy commentary on the lazy self-satisfaction of most sequels. Somehow, the in-joke-heavy, pally nature of the acting among Hollywood's A-list does not lapse into pure smugness, perhaps because as much fun as the film has in deconstructing overdone studio mechanics, it also invites the audience to have fun with the cast, provided the viewer can let go of the desire for any kind of fulfillment from the plot. Ocean's Eleven sublimated all of Soderbergh's aesthetic tics into an unexpected crowd pleaser; its first sequel let all the new fans know what they were in for.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

First Name: Carmen (Jean-Luc Godard, 1983)

If Passion juxtaposed a largely aimless narrative with another artform, painting, as a means of offering clues to its solution, First Name: Carmen uses music as its driving artistic counterpoint. Yet Godard does not simply swap out media but inverts the contrast: here the film has a much more pointed, understandable story, but the cutaways to the other artform prove murky and not easily explained. This, of course, can be explained by the different natures of classical music (wordless, united only by evocative compositional themes) and painting (more literal and, obviously, illustrative). Indeed, Godard uses music as an emphasis of emotion and mood, not so much clarifying an abstract story as deepening a coherent one.

Sound is a key element in the film, with the audio track taking on the jump-cut properties normally associated with Godard’s images. This is nothing new; sudden fluctuations of noise and asynchronous play of sight and sound have been part of parcel of Godard’s cinema from the start. But there is something different about the director’s aural play here: where cut-up audio typically plays an intellectual, confrontational role in, say, the Dziga Vertov period, First Name: Carmen features an unorthodox use of fragmented sound to evoke the state of the characters and the overall tone of the action. One of the first lines spoken on the audio track, “It makes terrible waves in me and you,” is immediately followed with the sound of waves rolling onto a beach as seagulls screech. That gull cry is the most distracting noise of the movie, and like the sudden superimposition of the shrieking cockatoo in Citizen Kane, it may partly serve just to take the audience whenever it is used. But its restless, agitated squawk offers as crystalline and instant an insight into the spiky energy of this speaker as the beautiful yet thunderous sound of the ocean roiling underneath.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Sullivan's Travels, Christmas in July, Hellzapoppin'

Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges)

After my intensely negative experience with The Lady Eve, a comedy that struck me as caring more for its subtext than its delivery, I was glad to return to Sturges' movie-about-movies, which mocks so many of the traits I found insufferable in his other 1941 picture. A film about Hollywood's inability to make true social commentary, Sullivan's Travels mocks the broader impulse of the rich to understand the poor in a condescending, simplistic manner. As with The Lady Eve, Sturges belabors his point—Joel McCrea's Sullivan constantly trying to trek it like a bum, only to wind up back in Hollywood—and for a film about two-dimensional Hollywood social message films, the conclusion Sturges reaches is almost simpering in its ostensible respect for the working class who would rather be entertained than informed. Nevertheless, Sturges' zingers crackle for me like they never did in Eve, and if I remain unconvinced that the writer-director is not secretly the biggest schmuck to con his way into a legacy, at least I chuckled. Bonus points for the subversive singing of "Let My People Go" in a black church that hosts some prisoners for a picture show, easily the deftest, subtlest piece of social critique in the film. Grade: B

Christmas in July (Preston Sturges, 1940)

A film about a dime-a-dozen hack being mistaken for a whiz? Could this be Sturges' filmic autobiography? No, but seriously, I was so glad that I tuned into this supposedly "minor" Sturges movie after TCM ran Sullivan's Travels. After struggling to connect with his films, Christmas in July finally did the trick. If in the aforementioned film I chiefly chuckled and smiled knowingly, Christmas made me honest-to-God laugh, loud and long. And contrary to the message of Sullivan's, this satire beautifully incorporates its critique of a corporate America (both timely and ahead of its time) into a well-paced and wildly funny piece of entertainment. Sturges uses Dick Powell's stiff unfamiliarity with comedy to great effect, emphasizing what an awkward, overeager git he is but also making him impossible not to love. The best part, though? Raymond Walburn as the business head who hates his own contest so much he just arbitrarily gives away the prize, then explodes when he learns a man won unfairly. His blank-faced response to Powell's earnest explanation of one of his proposed ad slogans—"It's a pun." "It certainly is."—makes this an instant favorite supporting performance. Hallelujah, it would seem I'm not immune to Sturges' charms after all. Grade: A

Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter, 1941)

Much as I enjoy Sullivan's Travels, it's this 1941 self-reflexive movie that I will return to most often. I cannot say with any certainty what differs from the original Broadway musical, but Olsen and Johnson's adaptation of their own work adds sight gags and metacinematic touches that could only work on the screen. Hellzapoppin' moves with such blistering speed that that the already loose narrative structure collapses entirely, an anarchic spirit prevailing even the wayward spot of straightforward moments; see the lilting song number interrupted by intertitles urging a member of the audience to go home (eventually, a shadow rises at the bottom of the frame and awkwardly slides out) and the couple painting on the "lens" as the sing. The funniest jokes of all may be when the film belatedly attempts to follow some kind of story, an exercise in futility soon corrected by a total deconstruction. The best, and most thrilling, sequence, though belongs not to Olsen and Johnson but a cast of black performers who appear to tacitly realize that they're in a film so ridiculous and unorthodox they can take center stage, at which point they launch into a dynamic dance number so incredible it belongs with the great movie dance scenes. Grade: A

Friday, July 20, 2012

Charles Chaplin's 11 Features

[The following is an entry in the monthly Favorite Directors Blogathon. A master list of my choices for all 12 filmmakers (with links updated as they are posted) can be found here.]

It is all to easy to undervalue Charles Chaplin, something that can be seen even in some early reviews for this site. His camera style, primitive even by the standards of the silent era, offers few thrills for the aesthetically minded. His infamous sentimentality becomes the focal point of critical distrust and a convenient excuse to attack a sacred cow. And as a comic, he lacks the technical dazzle of Keaton, the epic audacity of Lloyd, often suffering when placed in (meaningless) competition with his peers.

And yet, the Tramp endures. Chaplin may not be, as Shaw once said, the only genius to come out of the movies, but he was certainly the first, and still the greatest. Repeated viewing reveals his basic camerawork as a means of prioritizing his perfectionist set design, which often lends itself both to gags and insights into those who move within it. More importantly, Chaplin cedes attention to the acting which, in contrast to Chaplin's reputation as a shameless manipulator, is among the earliest examples of carefully composed naturalism in cinema. And unlike the other silent clowns (save Laurel and Hardy, whose use of slapstick as a form of silent dialogue somewhat future-proofed them), Chaplin weathered the transition to talkies superbly, however reluctantly and belatedly he made the switch. His sound features also double as clarifications and critiques of his silent Tramp figure, the more forthright political and autobiographical content not an intrusion but merely a more visible display of what was always there. Because of this sustained level of quality, all 11 of Chaplin's features rate a mention, and most of them a place in any canon. As for which are all-time masterpieces and which must settle for the faint praise of "merely" masterful, read on:

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2012)

I greatly enjoyed Yorgos Lanthimos' breakthrough feature Dogtooth, even if its nastiness was just a bit too much at times. Alps is no less sardonic, but it refines the director's comic edge, reducing the collateral damage and skewering the subject of identity with greater precision. Lanthimos himself has copped to the film being an inversion of Dogtooth, of people escaping into fantasy rather than from it, but they share insights into social integration and the way in which the self is defined, sometimes horribly, by the Other. Featuring beautiful cinematography and bleak humor, Alps is as troubling as it is intoxicating and hilarious. Highly recommended.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Favorite Directors Blogathon

My blogging buddy Carson Lund recently told me about a meme started by Loren Rosson that highlights a favorite director each month and ranks his or her best work. Given that I already had a good 10 or so documents on my computer keeping track of rankings for some of my favorite filmmakers, I did not require much incentive to throw my own hat in the ring. Loren (and, I think, Carson) are covering their 12 favorite directors, but I might take a slightly different tack. Many of my top 12 would overlap with both Loren's and Carson's choices, and while it would be fun to compare what floats our particular boats with certain filmmakers, I'd rather spotlight a few other choices I love just as much as, say, Malick or Kubrick. There will still be some shared choices (I think all three of us will cover David Lynch), but this way it won't all just be the same picks.

Anyway, here's my list:

July: Charles Chaplin (The Full 11 Features)

August: Steven Soderbergh (Top 10)

September: Tony Scott (Top 10) [NOTE: I've bumped Roman Polanski to pay tribute to Tony Scott. Polanski list to come later]

October: David Lynch (Top 10), Roman Polanski (Top 10)

November: Martin Scorsese (Top 10)

December: Michael Powell (Top 10)

January: Howard Hawks (Top 10)

February: Abbas Kiarostami (Top 10)

March: Jean-Luc Godard (Top 20, maybe 25)

April: Claire Denis (Top 10)

May: Eric Rohmer (Top 15)

June: Ozu Yasujiro (Top 15)

Passion (Jean-Luc Godard, 1982)

If Sauve qui peut (la vie) represented Godard’s return to cinema, Passion illustrates how frustrated he still was with the artform and its limitations, at least its limitations in fulfilling the director’s lofty goals. “It’s hard to have to record everything,” says his stand-in, a director played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz. The line could work in the context of any filmmaking, but it especially speaks to Godard’s aims as a filmmaker. Aesthetically and politically, Godard has long sought to capture everything, and Sauve Qui Peut’s union of cinema and video techniques hinted at the possibility of a deeper, more inclusive form of filmmaking than Godard, or anyone else, had ever achieved. Yet it is Passion, alternately lifeless and one of the director’s funniest, most self-effacing works, that truly shows how the director might look forward to the next stage of his career. Indeed, as I watched it, I thought often not of Godard’s prior work (though it shares a few traits with previous movies, especially Contempt), but his latest, 2010’s Film socialisme.

In many ways, Passion feels like the groundwork for that film, still tied to the idea of a narrative but chafing under the limiting expectation of traditional filmmaking. In fact, what plot Godard assembles for Passion concerns the absence of one for the film-within-the-film, also titled Passion. On-set, we see tableau vivant recreations of various classical paintings, from Rembrandt to Goya to Delacroix. Actors stand still as the camera glides around them, probing the compositions of the paintings and finding new perspectives with which to analyze these pre-existing works of art. But as the camera moves along the first of these recreations, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, Godard places over the shots the exasperated discussion of the producers as they ask Jerzy what the story is. Judging from their tone, this is not the first time they have asked the director this, and it certainly will not be the last.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

I adored Chaplin's The Gold Rush the first time I saw it, taking to its deft comic staging and its occasional, well-judged sentimentality. Rewatching it, however, I was struck by its depth of vision, with every gag, no matter how seemingly disconnected, perfectly entwined with the narrative and, more importantly, the psychological development. This is the richest depiction of the Tramp ever filmed, one that encapsulates his buried cynicism, innocent material and romantic desire, and often-thwarted but ultimately fulfilled hope. It's also absolutely hysterical. One of the best films of the silent era, or any era, comic or otherwise.

My full piece is up now at Spectrum Culture.

¡Que Viva Mexico! (Sergei Eisenstein, 1932/1979)

¡Que Viva Mexico! marks the first time Sergei Eisenstein truly hit a wall during production, though unlike his later hassles with Stalin's censors, the director here fell prey to financial limitations and impatience of leftist Westerners whose excitement to work with the great Soviet propagandist soon dissolved with their discretionary funds. Those Westerners in question were the writer Upton Sinclair (he of The Jungle and Oil! fame) and his wife, American socialists condemned as communists in their own land but, not incorrectly, pegged as capitalists by those who wore the communist badge with pride. Eisenstein, who would soon learn the horrid truths of the system he so fervently championed, first had to put up with the feckless waffling of those who simplistically sympathized with that system from afar.*

In fairness to the Sinclairs, though, it must have been infuriating to receive an endless series of requests for more money from the director, who arrived in Mexico with no idea what he wanted to shoot and continued to greatly revise his vision of a movie well into filming. A travelogue turned into a multi-film epic of Mexico's history before shrinking back down into a one-film condensation of all those intended parts, but by then Eisenstein had 200,000 feet of film and not a drop of goodwill from any of his backers. Unable to secure more money and summoned back to the U.S.S.R. by Stalin, Eisenstein left his half-formed work behind before he even managed to film the final segment, and cut-up chunks of his stacks of reels eventually surfaced as short films. Not until 1979 did Grigori Alexandrov, one of Eisenstein's collaborators and a tag-along in the director's tour of North America, take the original footage and assemble something approaching Eisenstein's wishes. Then again, considering how Eisenstein himself seemed to have no idea what he wanted out of his Mexican travelogue, it's hard to say what his wishes were at all, much less whether they were honored.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Stella Days (Thaddeus O'Sullivan, 2012)

Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Stella Days is pianissimo drama about an old Irish priest and his muted sorrow that gets so bogged down on its vague sense of misery that even the promise of cinema's wonder cannot inject some life into the movie. Martin Sheen is, as ever, charismatic, but all he does is morosely shuffle about a Tipperary village, getting into a watered-down, inoffensive spin on the highly contentious conflict of religious and secular values. Potentially intriguing subplots, such as the politician so devout he all but openly runs for Sheen's priesthood as much as any office, occasionally surface, but they neither develop nor fade into an atmospheric miasma that the best works of Irish discontent conjure.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Burning Hot Summer (Philippe Garrel, 2012)

Oh, that I had watched a Philippe Garrel film before this. Routinely praised by critics, Garrel has been a major blind spot of mine for some time, so I was happy to get a screener of his latest, A Burning Hot Summer. At least until I watched it; based off Godard's seminal Contempt, Garrel's film tries to use the breakdown of a relationship as a commentary on love, politics and the cinema itself. But Summer lacks any and all of Godard's grace, depth and wit, instead plodding along like the sort of dull, lifeless art film that Contempt so deftly mocks. I hope this is just an aberration for the director and his other work proves more fruitful, but A Burning Hot Summer doesn't make me any more eager to explore the rest of filmography.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb, 2012)

Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man would be a decent movie if it had nothing to do with comic books. When left to his own devices, Andrew Garfield gives Peter Parker an agreeably sardonic side, at once cocky and anxious as he spits out the quips sorely missing from Sam Raimi's post-9/11-tinged idealism. Garfield even enjoys ample chemistry with his leading lady, Emma Stone, which is a nice change of pace, not merely from Raimi's films but the superhero genre as a whole. Were the film nothing more than a slightly surreal abstraction of pimply and emotional hormone changes, it would make a fine romantic comedy powered by believable actors doing above-average work.

But this is a Spider-Man film, and the hormonal abstract in question concerns Parker's superpowers, which themselves entail a narrative arc of responsibility that generates the greatest tension of Parker's life. A good Spider-Man story is less about the fight between Spidey and the chosen villain than how his constant quest for a normal, happy life must be sacrificed for the greater civic good. That tension is wholly lacking in Webb's version, which recalls Green Lantern in its cynical rewrite of a noble character into a self-absorbed narcissist who always makes sure to hedge his bets on even the most tentative of mature actions so he ultimately emerges the same erratic jackass at the end of the film he was at the top.

Friday, July 6, 2012

50 Book Pledge #14: Simon Reynolds — Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984

The post-punk era of music charted in Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again constitutes my favorite period of popular (sic) music of the last century. Reynolds' broad overview gives a fair encapsulation of why that is: he persuasively argues that the punk movement quickly reduced itself to regressive rock riffs and a simplistic, unadventurous rebellion that actually reinforced the rock it was meant to destroy. Post-punk, on the other hand, delivered on the promise of their '76 and '77 forbears. Reynolds displays an admirably open appraisal of the various forms of music produced during this six-year period of explosive creativity, lending equal artistic credence to the extreme noise pollution of industrial and just plain out-there bands as well as androgynous, image-conscious synthpop bands. Reynolds finds certain links between all these offshoot genres, noting the intellectual, even Brechtian approach to pop that defined some hit-makers looking to corrupt the machine from within and without, or the debt owed to producers like Giorgio Moroder and Lee "Scratch" Perry. Compared to the purist tone of so much punk writing, Reynolds almost verges on the anti-rockist, and he puts forward the case that Donna Summer had as much impact on this fertile period as the Velvet Underground or Can.

The book falters in its lack of focus, suffering the typical overview's flaw of giving just enough information to intrigue the reader before moving the next group of scene. And if Reynolds critiques so much of punk's values and value judgments, he is not so unlike them in his routine estimation of a group's first work as their best. Not only does he cease exploring this kind of music at the 1984 mark, he rarely even makes vague reference to what some groups did after this cutoff. For example, he speaks of Depeche Mode's early promise without ever touching upon its true creative peak at the end of the decade. Nevertheless, Reynolds at least differs in his appraisal of the early peaks of punks vs. those of the next wave: where punk bands generally fell apart because they could only muster enough energy and spark for one statement, so many post-punk bands assembled out of such varied tastes and intellectual goals that they collapsed from too much artistry, not too little. I added more than a dozen groups to a list of bands to check out reading this book, and I've already discovered some great gems from it. Recommended

Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)

Andrzej Zulawski's Possession does not begin as a horror film, but it certainly feels scary from the start. Mark (Sam Neill) returns after a long absence from some sort of top-secret work to find his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), asking for a divorce. Mark is bewildered and, thanks to Zulawski's style and writing, so is the audience. Characters have cryptic conversations that leave tense space around the few, vague words. And these are the face-to-face chats; phone calls prove even more brief and confusing. For the remainder of the first hour, Possession unfolds less as a monster movie than a harrowing, exaggerated yet perversely insightful view of a marriage in total collapse. Zulawski wrote the film in the midst of his own messy divorce, and the swirling escalation of mutual loathing and violence serves as an exorcism of his pain.

Or, at least, that might have been the case had the film not gradually morphed into something even more terrifying and all-consuming, turning the film from a purge of self into a scorching of the Earth. What begins a repulsive display of two people locked in a private war ends up a unbearably nihilistic work worthy of H.P. Lovecraft. Like the great author's writing, Possession moves beyond human evil to touch upon a more unfathomable, vast energy that makes even the vicious fighting between the couple irrelevant. Yet Zulawski, whether out of the budgetary limitations that prevent a full-on dive into Lovecraft or merely his own writing skill, bridges the mortal with the cosmic. For the nightmarish horrors that eventually burst out of this demented film all stem from the various kinds of evil on display in the, for lack of a better term, "more realistic" scenes. Set in the shadow of the Berlin Wall and powered by sexual aggression and fear, Possession expands its contemporary and intimate anxieties ever outward until, at last, the universe goes nova.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

5 Neglected Superhero Films

It’s bound to be a big summer for superhero movies. The Avengers has already proved a runaway hit and a mainstream coup for Joss Whedon, while Christopher Nolan will almost certainly rake in cash by the truckful for The Dark Knight Rises. But it seems that even when comic book movies are good, they regurgitate such a set formula that I get little from them other than a passing thrill. Small wonder, then, that with a few exceptions, my favorite entries in the subgenre are not the gargantuan, CGI-filled blockbusters but the more idiosyncratic, occasionally auteurist pieces. So to commemorate the impending reboot of one franchise and the culmination of another, here are five less-loved superhero pictures that I love long after the hype (or backlash) fades.

5. Punisher: War Zone (Lexi Alexander, 2008)

Absurdly mishandled by its studio and positioned as the annual anti-Christmas holiday release, Punisher: War Zone was doomed to failure because it takes its subject to such an extreme that it feels like an open war on the crop of self-serious blockbusters. This is a response to The Dark Knight, not Four Christmases. Vividly color-filtered, unrealistically ultraviolent and deliberately ridiculous, Alexander’s movie at once breaks ground for handing off an R-rated superhero movie to a woman and goes one further by having that woman sabotage the macho elements of her subject matter. Then again, she’s also remarkably faithful to the tone of some Punisher comics, in many cases merely translating the OTT action of the page to the screen without alteration. It also boasts a fantastically game cast, with Rome’s Ray Stevenson speaking even less than Schwarzenegger in The Terminator as the anti-hero and Dominic West sporting an unexpectedly poignant brotherly love with Doug Hutchison. That the former is disfigured into a Frankenstein-like monster and the latter is a psychopathic cannibal is beside the point. A wonderfully sardonic check to the post-Nolan world of needlessly “gritty” and “real” comic book movies.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

In retrospect, the links between Steven Soderbergh's male stripper movie Magic Mike and The Girlfriend Experience, his 2009 experiment starring a porn star as a high-end prostitute, should have been obvious. Both, in true Soderbergh fashion, explore their unorthodox sex-centric milieux, the director's older film about how the commodification of woman's sexuality, this new one about that of man's. If one plays out as a probing drama and the other a wry comedy, that only speaks to how society perceives the sexuality of the sexes and what is considered a lamentable, if common, situation for one gender and an escapist dream for the other.

Yet Magic Mike, for its many laughs, has as much to say about current economic realities as Soderbergh's Sasha Grey vehicle, which was made in the thick of Wall Street collapse and reflects that panic. Where that film captured a moment, this one exists in the aftermath of a radically shaken-up world. As the titular stud, Channing Tatum represents the post-collapse reality, that of a Millennial with ambitious but ridiculous dreams who must constantly defer his goal with various odd jobs to pay the bills. Working construction or stripping may not be a series of unpaid internships, but their purpose is the same: to offer an increasingly slim hope for a shot at the American Dream.