Thursday, June 28, 2012

Magic Mike Effectively Straddles the Line Between Camp and Art

This pictures captures the first of many, many stripping scenes.
With Magic Mike, director Steven Soderbergh and producers Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin (who star and write, respectively) pull a pretty neat trick.

This is a male stripper movie headed up by Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, and it delivers the goods promised in the trailers. Unsurprisingly, it’s bound to repel straight men, while also providing guilty pleasure to countless women (and gay men) hoping to ogle, hoot and holler with a group of friends.* 
* This really is the type of movie you want to see in a packed theater. In my theater, groups of women and gay men were out in droves and their good natured glee was infectious. Even better: the response of a straight man that came unaware of what he was in for. Somewhere in the middle of the first stripping sequence, when a character disrobed to a thong and jiggled their ass at the camera, he stood up, screamed "Hell no!” and marched out of the theater. Laughter followed.
At the same time, this is a Soderbergh film, and although he doesn’t shy away from offering the audience multiple helpings of manmeat, he also injects Magic Mike with his patented clinical approach and indie sensibilities. The end result is a fun raunchy romp that simultaneously plays as a dark and shrewdly observed slice of life that is as revealing in its details and character moments as it is in its lively and numerous stripping sequences.
The movie tells a pretty simple and formulaic story. Mike (Tatum) is a self-described entrepreneur who has his hands in a variety of businesses in the hopes of raising enough money to eventually start his own custom furniture business. His main source of income just so happens to come from his role as Magic Mike, one of the "cock-rocking kings of Tampa" at Xquisite, a male strip club owned by stripper mentor and emcee Dallas (McConaughey).
In his seven years as a stripper, Mike’s only saved $13,000 toward his dream, but he has created a portfolio, moved into a fairly luxurious pad, and led a high partying lifestyle that includes, as we see in his introductory scene, three-way flings with fuckbuddy  Joanna (Olivia Munn)** and random girls whose names neither can recall. 
** Guys wary of all the male skin, may be interested in the fact that the popular Munn does show off her assets in an early scene (they are displayed shortly after Tatum shows off his behind).
While working his roof tiling gig, Mike befriends Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old who threw away a football scholarship and is now adrift and crashing on the couch of his sister Brooke (Cody Horn). Mike eventually takes the kid under his wing, and it isn’t long before he’s impressed Dallas and joined the crew of Xquisite, alongside Mike and the likes of Ken (White Collar’s Matt Bomer), Big Dick Richie (True Blood’s Joe Manganiello),Tarzan (former wrestler Kevin Nash), and Tito (CSI: Miami’s Adam Rodriguez).
As the story progresses, we see Mike toying with the idea of life after stripping, pursuing his business interests and falling for the straight laced Brooke, all the while Adam begins to venture further and further down a sordid path that not only includes stripping, but also druggy sexual encounters and even some ecstasy dealing.

A girl fails to resist the charms of the guy who brought her kid
brother into the world of stripping and drug use.

The narrative setup isn’t exactly original, but the dialogue and characters are finely written and the execution so assured that there’s no mistaking this for a gender-reversed Showgirls. The film, which is reportedly inspired by Tatum’s previous life as a male stripper, really embraces the little details, showing Mike in a quiet moment flattening crumpled dollar bills or a bespectacled Bick Dick Richie working on a thong with a sewing machine.
It also offers Tatum, who impressed earlier this year in 21 Jump Street, his best role to date. Hollywood is starving for a young movie star, and given the 2012 he’s had and the projects on his upcoming slate, the quickly rising star may be it. Like Brad Pitt and George Clooney before him, he started his career as a sex symbol, but has consistently sought to grow as an actor, seeking out interesting projects, many of which have been headed by fantastic directors. None of them have been better than Soderbergh (who, incidentally helped legitimize Clooney as a big screen force), and it’s worth noting that he saw enough in Tatum when working on Haywire, to work with him on his last two theatrical releases before his much-discussed retirement/break from film.
Tatum rises to the challenge and really digs in with a winning performance that exploits and fine-tunes the laidback charm and restless vulnerability he’s showcased in his better roles. What really makes the performance is how effortless and naturalistic Tatum comes across, whether he’s donning a suit and glasses to talk equity with a loan officer, break dance stripping in the club (displaying moves kept under wraps since his breakthrough role in Step Up), or falling over his words as he tries to convince Brooke (and himself) that he “is not his lifestyle.”
The question of whether or not Mike is, in fact, his lifestyle provides the backbone of the story. He talks about starting his own business and works hard, and yet he’s still living vicariously and has only saved $13,000 in seven years. For a guy brining in several hundred a night tax free, that’s not exactly a lot of money. We’re told Mike has bad credit (and thus can’t get a bank loan), so the implication is that he, like Adam, may have made some dumb decisions when he was a young, wide-eyed party animal and has fallen into a slippery slope situation. 
McConaughey is awesome.
If Adam is the Mike of days gone by, Dallas is set up as what lies ahead for Mike if he doesn’t get off his current course. Dallas is a successful and astute business man, but he’s also a self-deifying blowhard who relishes his seedy existence. While everyone around him gets plenty of chances to strip on the catwalk, the movie wisely saves McConaughey’s big number for the film’s final moments, setting it as the backdrop during which Mike decides whether or not to withdraw himself from such an undesirable future.
The key supporting players are strong.  Pettyfer understates the melodrama nicely, while Horn, despite getting stuck playing the nag, grounds the film and displays excellent chemistry with Tatum. Meanwhile McConaughey, who has unjustly gotten a reputation as a bad actor due to years of mailing it in with generic romantic comedies, reminds how sly a performer he can be, offering up an interpretation that is equal parts magnetic, hilarious, creepy, and delusional. This is a bold performance that literally peaks with McConaughey bending over in from of the camera, and the fact that he was willing to put himself out there, while also delivering on the acting front, is laudable.
Tech aspects are excellent across the board. Serving as his own DP, Soderbergh employs a sepia-tinged filter and offers up some pretty atypical shot selections. Some of these are beautifully evocative and disarming, but the most memorable uses a widescreen frame to depict Adam stumbling upon Big Dick Ritchie fluffing himself prior to a performance (leave it to a craftsman like Soderbergh to shoot a demonstration of penis enlargement both humorously and artfully). 

Having said all of that, the movie isn’t perfect. It’s at least 10 minutes too long, and while almost every scene has a refreshing authenticity, Adam’s first few scenes in the club (particularly the one that necessitates he must go on stage) are silly and poorly constructed. 
And although the casting director deserves plaudits for brining in an eclectic group of beefcakes (particularly Manganiello who has become a major object of lust for the many True Blood fans and Boomer who’s probably one of the most popular gay icons out there right now), they are vastly underused. Initially, I suspected the movie would give them something to do (the first scene with the crew is funny and the roles feel lived in), but they devolve into nothing more than window dressing. Surprisingly, it’s Nash who leaves the greatest impression, injecting a Mickey Rourkeian vibe into his role as Tarzan.
Soderbergh and Tatum will team up for a third time in next
February's The Bitter Pill.

Overall, this is a really strong effort from all involved. There’s obviously a level of camp to the film, and most of the plot beats are formulaic, but the care put into the characters, dialogue, acting and craft aspects enable to film to transcend the core material. It’s a simple story with familiar themes, but Soderbergh and Tatum really hit it out of the park. Their next team up, The Bitter Pill, will see them working with a script from frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns (The Informant, Contagion), as well as a cast that includes Jude Law, Catherine Zeta Jones and Rooney Mara (in her first performance her Oscar-nominated turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The film his theaters in eight months, and seeing what the duo has accomplished here, I’m anxiously anticipating it. A

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Video Review: Get Him to the Greek is Solid, But Struggles to Break Away the Forgetting Sarah Marshall Mold

P. Diddy becomes an angry Terminator-type when
he's trippin' in this movie.
In his first venture behind the camera, Nicholas Stoller gave us Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which, for my money, is a romantic comedy classic.  Co-written by Stoller and star Jason Segel, the film offers a brutally honest and moving look at a man in post-breakup freefall, while also providing a constant barrage of laughs from a large cast of talented performers. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the genre where the likes of Annie Hall, Manhattan, When Harry Met Sally, and The Apartment reside, but it certainly gets in shouting distance.

With his follow-up Get Him to the Greek, Stoller has gone back to the well… sort of. Not only does the film spinoff one of the principle players from Marshall, but it also employs the same basic premise of a man in post-breakup freefall.  The result is a decent comedy that doesn’t quite live up to the first film.

Aldous Snow is a fantastic comic creation, and Russell Brand deservedly became an overnight sensation here in America for his performance in Marshall. A lesser movie would’ve established Aldous as a villain or used him strictly for jokes, but Stoller and Segel opted for something a bit more ambiguous, and Brand really ran with it. While they didn’t exactly make Aldous three dimensional, he was given an appropriate amount of shading, making the lament “Fuck you're cool! It's so hard to say, because, like, I hate you in so many ways” ring true not only for Segel’s Peter Bretter but for the audience as well.

That tiny hat is pretty tiny, but can't compare to the ones
Kristen Wigg has in her collection.
In Greek, Stoller (writing solo this time) outfits Aldous in three dimensions, equipping him with daddy issues, a child he adores, and a crushing breakup of his own that has led him to fall off the wagon. Brand does some nice work in illuminating the depths of Aldous’ pain (he really is great in this role, despite how annoying he can be on award shows), but conceptually the character worked better when he was more enigmatic and carefree.
 As Aldous’ ex Jackie Q, Rose Byrne takes the Sarah Marshall role of heartbreaker, albeit with plenty of madness thrown in (with Snow given more heft in this outing, much of the vapid, sexually-charged pop star humor falls to her). As her best-in-show performance from Bridesmaids proved, Byrne is a game comedienne, and she’s in fine form here. However, unlike the antagonists in the first movie (Sarah and Aldous), the role of Jackie Q is nothing but a joke, and so it’s hard to see why a free-loving guy like Aldous would ever want to settle with her in the first place.

Whereas Marshall had Mila Kunis’ Beth help Peter work through his issues, Greek focuses on the developing bromance between Snow and Aaron (Jonah Hill, portraying a different character than the one he did in Marshall), the record company suit tasked with escorting Snow from London to the Greek Theater for a 10th Anniversary concert. The two performers are very good together, and the relationship they build is complicated and interesting.

The film is less successful in developing Aaron’s personal journey, which finds him simultaneously dealing with pressure from his unhinged boss Sergio (a funny P. Diddy Sean Combs) and a rough patch in his relationship with his doctor girlfriend Daphne (Elisabeth Moss). As I’ve said before, Hill’s greatest strength is his ability to play off of other actors, and he works well with both Combs and Moss. He has a particularly palpable chemistry with Moss, but their issues as a couple seems forced and then impossibly resolved in a way that’s phony and undermines the emotional credibility of the characters.
The presence of Elisabeth Moss would add a whole half star
grade to this movie if I gave star grades. I <3 Peggy Olsen.
As with Marshall, Greek has a number of side characters played by a slew of talented people (Colm Meaney, Ellie Kemper, Nick Kroll, Aziz Ansari, and a slew of celebrities, most notably Lars Ulrich, as themselves), but the film doesn’t given them nearly as much to work with as its predecessor gave Paul Rudd, Hill, Jack McBrayer, and Bill Hader.   
And that’s really this movie in a nutshell. It’s trying so hard to do so many of the same things Marshall did and constantly coming up short in comparison. Hell, it even has some original songs from Segel (as well as a slew form various writers, including producer Judd Apatow), but nothing that quite measures up to “Inside Of You,” little lone “Dracula’s Lament.”

Generally, I don’t like to judge movies in comparison to other movies because it can be unfair, but when a movie so closely emulates its predecessor, it’s hard not to do that. As a result, Greek just seems to be lacking.
To be clear (and fair), the movie is pretty good and does distinguish itself in some ways (this isn’t a Hangover and Hangover Part II situation). I do admire some of the screwy and dark places Stoller was willing to go, but really, that’s part of the problem. This movie could’ve been its own entity – a far weirder, more detached look at the corrupting nature of showbiz, for instance – but instead it mostly has been forced into the mold of the first movie. The end result is a comedy that is consistently entertaining, but not much more than that.
Greek is at its best when it gets weird, as it does in the "Stroke the Furry
Wall" scene.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Avengers Proves Worthy of the Buildup

The Avengers possess some amazing talents, but none more so that their abilities
to strike heroic poses in the midst of a world-threatening battle.

The Avengers is not so much a film as it is a spectacle. It doesn’t offer much of a story for the superheroes it pulls together, as much as it provides a generic doomsday scenario that allows them to come in and play off one another.
I don’t mean that in a bad way. There’s a lot of value in what this movie offers. It’s a fun and witty crowd-pleaser, an entertainment of the highest order. And, because of the way Marvel studios has approached their whole business plan, the movie has the leeway to get by on the charm of its writing, performances and special effects.
Seeing all the box office records The Avengers is obliterating, it’s difficult to remember how much of a chance Marvel was taking when they first journeyed down this road of interweaving franchises. Outside of the Hulk, none of these characters had previously proven to have major crossover appeal, and his recent foray into theaters (Ang Lee’s Hulk) had been met with great indifference.
However, in hindsight, the approach was ingenious. In Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, the studio offered up three great films, each one of which was highlighted by a nuanced and character-driven story brought to life by a well-chosen director and a nicely distinguished lead performance. The Incredible Hulk was satisfactory at best, and Iron Man 2 buckled under the weight of shoehorning S.H.I.E.L.D. into the narrative as a set up for The Avengers, but having now seen the culmination of the plan, it’s hard not to be impressed with what was accomplished here.
Most of the heavy lifting was done last summer by Captain American and Thor. With those films offering up MacGuffin (the Tesseract from Captain America) and the main villain (Loki from Thor), Joss Whedon was able to hit the ground running with The Avengers.

Nick Fury doesn't really get in on the action in The Avengers,
but does get to blow up a plane with a rocket launcher.
And he certainly does just that. With most of the plot already nailed into place, Whedon devotes the bulk of the runtime to character interaction and action sequences, the two things fans really want from this thing anyway. I had a slight problem with how much of the film felt like kowtowing to Marvel mandates (the fights between our superheroes aren’t entirely organic to the script and feel included solely because it would be cool), but if not for that, most of the movie would’ve just been discussions on an airship, and, in the end, the fights are cool, so what the hell?
Whedon delivers exactly what he aims to with this film. The action sequences are uniformly fantastic, especially the finale, which uses some impressive camera trickery to create the illusion of a long take that interweaves throughout the mayhem occurring throughout Manhattan.
Even more importantly, no character feels marginalized. Yes, by and large, the star is Iron Man, but everyone gets a chance to shine. With so many characters, there are a lot of various story threads in play in the movie. I thought it best to take them one at a time.
·    Captain America vs. Iron Man: A lot of time is dedicated to the stylistic clash between the humble, patriotic Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and the flashy, egotistical Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), both of whom are at the forefront of the action for much of the movie. Rogers feels largely out of place in this modern and cynical world that Stark very much personifies, and I think this was a great dynamic to play up in the film especially given Cap’s familiarity with Stark’s father. The whole thing works really well, but the one bit of this thread that bugs me is the conclusion of Rogers’ whole thesis about Stark being a selfish man who can’t make the truly heroic sacrifice. The script literally takes the ending of Iron Man, substitutes a nuclear device in place of Warmonger, and calls it a day, which seems a bit uninspired.

Robin Scherbatsky has some pretty big shoes to fill.
·    Agent Coulson Gets a Spotlight: One of the pleasant surprises of The Avengers is the enhanced role of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). The character has featured in more of these Marvel movies than any other character, and because of that (and Gregg’s winning performance) he has endeared himself to fans while also helping to tie the films together. Here, Whedon shows Coulson to be a fanboy of a Captain America, which at first works on a cute level, but later becomes far more meaningful. When Coulson dies attempting to thwart Loki, his death becomes the catalyst for the group – particularly Stark and Rogers – to put aside their differences and come together. Although, I wasn’t a fan of the line “they needed something to Avenge,” particularly because dozens of other agents were being killed, it certainly works for the movie audience. Coulson is a beloved figure in the Marvel movie universe and a fanboy to boot, and so his death actually hurt. It’s sad that Gregg won’t be dropping in and out of these movies anymore (especially if the plan is for Agent Maria Hill to fill that slot, since as good as she is on How I Met Your Mother, Cobie Smulders was totally blah here), but it was an expertly crafted mini-arc.

·    S.H.I.E.L.D’s Motives: As I indicated above, I wasn’t the biggest fan of S.H.I.E.L.D’s involvement in Iron Man 2, but Marvel did successfully use what was established there to set up an interesting arc in The Avengers. The familiarity Tony Stark has with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his mistrust of the agency’s intentions gives the piece a sort of lived in feel, while also justifying all the mistrust and turmoil that keeps the team from stopping Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) meddling earlier in the film.

Hulk Equation: Mark Ruffalo > Edward Norton + Eric Bana.

·    A Rejuvenated Hulk: Whedon and star Mark Ruffalo’s handling of the Hulk has received a lot of press since the movie’s debut, focusing on the idea “finally, they got the Hulk right!” There’s a lot of truth to that – the decision to play down the tortured element and have Bruce Banner be more put-upon and world-weary was a wise call. The movie embraces the fact that he is the most badass, dangerous and indestructible member of the team, playing it for some quick pathos (we learn Banner tried to commit suicide but found it an impossible task) and big laughs (“Puny God” is the best one liner in a movie choke full of good ones). All that being said, I do have a problem with the consistency of the character. The big secret Banner carries throughout the film and reveals at the end is that he is always angry and thus has learned to control the Hulk within (to the point that he can cooperate with a team and even save Iron Man on his fall back to Earth). However, earlier in the film, he loses control and attempts to kill Black Widow, a defenseless woman who has done nothing to him. I’m sure there’s a way to explain this away (i.e. if he chooses to turn, he can control it, but if not, look out…), but it seems like a cheat of some kind that allows the film to have its cake and eat it too (not only do we get a throw down between an unstable Hulk and Thor, but we also get an awesome, in control Hulk who can fight alongside his pals).

·    Brotherly Interactions: Even though his brother is the main villain of the piece, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes a back seat for most of the movie. He doesn’t show up until the midway point, and when he does, he gets very little time devoted to him outside of fight sequences. What he does get is a few choice scenes with Loki that prove to be the most emotionally resonant things in the piece. Even though Loki’s tried to kill Thor and his father, is now attempting to destroy a world Thor holds dear, and isn’t even his real brother, Thor wants to move past all that because he truly cares for Loki. It’s a good angle for the film to take, because unlike the humans, Thor doesn’t have as much at stake personally – it’s not really his world, and he’s indestructible. As such, even though his is far from the flashiest part, Hemsworth is my pick for best in show because of how much complexity he brought to his limited screen time (and now with the success of Snow White in the Hunstman, I hope the guy blows up in a big way and gets offered some good parts– he has loads of movie star charm).

They just get each other.
·    Mere Humans: Both these heroes were sort of doomed to seem second rate. Not only have they not gotten their own showcases before, but both seem like mere mortals in this compared to the big boys on the team. Making matters worse, their introductions in other movies were a botched (Black Widow in Iron Man 2) and a pointless easter egg (Hawkeye in Thor). Here, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is brainwashed by Loki and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) feels an obligation to get him back due to a complicated history together. This thread is only okay, but I do think it was a wise decision to lay these seeds if Marvel wants to do a combo spinoff down the line. Also, while Renner is underused, it was nice to see Johansson deliver here, both as eye candy (a confrontation between her and Loki lingers on a shot of her ass for a knowingly and humorously long amount of time) and as a real presence. Her standing as one of the great actresses of her generation has taken a hit in recent years, but she’s definitely a major talent, so it was nice to see her putting forth an A-effort here.

That’s a lot of words on The Avengers, so I’m going to wrap up now. In the end, the film isn’t the best Marvel film, but it’s a ridiculously fun ride that successfully rehabilitates it’s previously problematic characters (Hulk and Black Widow), while bolstering the Q rating of its moderately successful ones (the sequels for Thor and Captain America will probably make twice as much as the first entries after getting spotlight roles here). At the end of the film, every character is left in a pretty interesting place, and I’m excited to see where Marvel goes from here in expanding their ambitious movie universe.