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Magic Mike XXL

July 1, 2015
Magic Mike XXL

The story of Magic Mike is roughly something like this: Steven Soderbergh and a dozen of his aliases decide to make a character study off of Reid Carolin’s script loosely based on the fact that star Channing Tatum worked for eight months as a male stripper — excuse me, “male entertainer” — in Florida. It went on to make All The Money, which was kind of a surprise since nobody involved realized that women would line up around the block to see hot, half-naked men dancing.

Obviously they were going to make a sequel, but they hadn’t gone into the first movie planning for it, so they needed to start from scratch, meaning it’s three years later now that we get Magic Mike XXL. The upside is that they were able to listen to their newly-discovered target audience and give them exactly what they said they liked from the first one. Gone are Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, and Cody Horn, disposed of neatly within the first few scenes. Gone with them are the few interesting bits of character and story that made Magic Mike more than very softcore lady-porn. “Thank God,” said one woman to her friends as they left the screening I attended. “I don’t need any of that.”

So while I look at Magic Mike XXL and see nothing but empty cinematic calories, that’s exactly the candy that the women in its target audience want. And, to be honest, it’s not like Hollywood is exactly their Willy Wonka, especially compared with the vapid, pandering schlock it cranks out for young men (cf. Terminator: Genisys, opening opposite, which I will not be bothering to review).

What’s left is a stripped-down (sorry) version of the movie that knows exactly what it wants to deliver to its audience, and is very good at doing so. After Dallas and Adam take off, the remaining four Kings of Tampa — Ken (Matt Bomer), “Big Dick” Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) — decide to take “one last ride” to an annual industry convention in Myrtle Beach, along with Tobias (Gabrial Iglesias) stepping up as ersatz impresario. They stop in Tampa to pick up Mike (Tatum), whose girlfriend turned down his proposal and whose contracting business is struggling. And then, as they are wont to, hijinks ensue.

It’s basically a road movie, getting from Tampa to Myrtle Beach, with an episodic structure that starts to feel like this is a backdoor pilot for a weekly sitcom on Showtime or Starz. Some setup advances the plot to a point where the guys take their clothes off and dance, and then there’s a little more story. One time they end up at a ladies’ club in Savannah Mike used to know, where they meet Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), Andre (Donald Glover), and Malik (Steven “tWitch” Boss). Another time they spend an evening with a bunch of rich, middle-aged southern ladies (led by Andie MacDowell). And of course there’s the big finale, which seems to be structured like a competition even though there is literally nothing at stake.

The problems, such as they are, are feather-light compared with those that faced the Kings last time around, and mostly seem to revolve around the guys wondering whether they even want to keep dancing at all. Those concerns are mostly allayed by Andre, who points out the incredible number of ladies he meets in this line of work, all eager to jump into bed just because he dances, sings, and listens to them for once, or at least pretends to. And they actually pay him! Funny how it’s still the men who come out on top, but that’s much too serious a thought for this movie to entertain.

But the most serious problem we ever see is that of an aimless young woman Mike keeps meeting on the road (Amber Heard). She needs more than just Mike listening to her, but thankfully not much more; once he takes his clothes off and dances on top of her she can relax and have fun, and all of those messy real-world concerns she once talked about are forgotten forever. Magic, indeed.

Worth It: in its way, yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Ted 2

June 26, 2015
Ted 2

Seth MacFarlane’s sense of humor is provocative, at the very least. Most of the time, he doesn’t even claim the mantle of “satire”, though occasionally there are layers to his bits that get swallowed up by the outraged responses. But he’s not merely a provocateur, like Adam Sandler or the Farrelly brothers; MacFarlane carries an encyclopedic love of popular culture — both past and present — and a razor-sharp wit into his work. And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he kicks off the often-lowbrow Ted 2 with a grand, ornate Busby Berkeley dance sequence during the opening credits.

Even more than last time, the movie is structured like a really long episode of Family Guy, or The Simpsons, for that matter. There’s a core story, but it’s largely a skeleton to hang various bits on, and they take their time even getting to the story in the first place. We first set up that John (Mark Wahlberg) has gotten divorced, while Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) and Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) have married, but a year later the honeymoon is over. So they decide to have a baby to save the marriage.

Yes, it’s a stupid decision, but these are people whose idea of fun is going up on the roof and throwing apples at joggers. Which is to say, they’re awful. But the idea gives a good half-hour of material until they settle on adoption, which is where the real problems begin. See, filing the application paperwork reveals that Ted is not considered a person of any sort. And while he was largely ignored by the system before, now everything from his marriage to his job to his bank account to his Papa Gino’s rewards card is summarily annulled. So they enlist the aid of untested lawyer Samantha L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried) to get Ted’s civil rights back.

Oh yeah, and Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) from the first movie is back with a new scheme to get a Ted of his very own.

As I said, MacFarlane loves his pop culture, so many of the bits hang in some way or another on a reference. The more of them you get, the funnier they are, but he manages to spread them out pretty well. Most of the audience will be left scratching their heads over a team of dancers in top and tails, but a swing through New York Comic Con opens up a lot more geek-friendly material. It may go over younger heads when “Mess Around” comes on a car’s radio, but that segment is quickly followed by a swelling John Williams theme that pretty much everyone should recognize.

But the best of the material is the stuff that works on more than one level, which also goes for the story as a whole. Halfway through the movie we are told — in the warmest, gentlest, most reassuring voice possible — that being a person comes from making a contribution to society; that civil rights are earned by good behavior. Ted is mean and awful and selfish and generally makes as little contribution to the world outside himself as possible. But the movie also makes it clear that John, Tami-Lynn, and even Samantha are mean and awful, and that they’re far from alone in this.

Under all the lowbrow, scatological, and foul-mouthed gags, Ted 2 stands as a rebuke against respectability politics. Civil rights are not earned by being a wonderful person; the meanest and most awful people deserve them just as much as the greatest pillars of the community. The humor is often gross, and maybe even offensive, but the sickest joke here has nothing to do with bodily functions; it’s that lots of people are going to find it easier to sympathize with an drunk and stoned teddy bear than with the next black kid who gets shot by a cop, only for Fox News to dig up evidence that “he was no angel”, as if that means he doesn’t deserve the same dignity as anyone else.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

The Overnight

June 26, 2015
The Overnight

The trailer for The Overnight promises that it “pushes past limits other comedies have observed for years”. Minor spoiler, but a lot of that is about shots of male prosthetics that last longer than the half-second at the end of Boogie Nights. So if that sort of thing weirds you out, this is probably not the movie for you, fair warning.

The boundary isn’t just about depicting male nudity; it’s also in the way writer/director Patrick Brice doesn’t focus as much on the women in the movie. Sex comedies have pretty much always been about excuses to get the actresses naked, but we see a lot more of the guys here, albeit not in quite the way that drives audiences to Magic Mike or its upcoming sequel.

The story is basically an updated spin on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice: two couples consider a night of swinging fun, and the prospect digs up a lot of their issues and inhibitions. Mostly on the side of Alex and Emily (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling), who have just moved to Los Angeles from Seattle. They run into Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) at the park, who invites them over for dinner since their son seems to have hit it off with his.

The evening starts off great, with Kurt and Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) playing the perfect hosts. So when they suggest putting the boys to bed upstairs and continuing the party with just the adults, and things quickly turn adults-only. It starts with an owner’s manual DVD for a breast pump that Charlotte starred in, and quickly moves on to Kurt’s paintings that show a certain Georgia O’Keefe influence, and then skinny-dipping in the pool.

Appropriately for a sex comedy, there’s a pretty straightforward Freudian reading here: Alex is the ego — the identity we focus on — while Kurt is the id, driving him towards pleasure and indulgence. Emily is the superego, trying to maintain the voice of right and wrong while Charlotte acts on Kurt’s behalf to run interference. It’s unfortunate, though, the focus on Alex and Kurt’s dynamic relegates Emily to the traditional role of wife as moral scold. The one time where the script engages with the idea of her own desire is more than a little clichéd.

That said, the movie is plenty funny. Schwartzman and Scott work great together as a comic duo. Scott, in particular, is remarkable for being one of the few comic actors who can put a certain shamelessness to use as a straight man. And if we’re going to have our female lead be the one to hold the line for a bourgeois sense of morality, Schilling’s work in Orange Is the New Black shows that she’s just the woman for the job.

Still, like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice before it, there’s nothing really that scandalous about The Overnight. Or maybe that just means I’ve been hanging out with a hipper crowd than I thought.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

The Little Death

June 26, 2015
The Little Death

Sex has always been part of the movies, and lately we’ve seen more and more exploration of the wide landscape of human sexual behavior on the screen. Unfortunately, most movies that directly address sexual subject matter are pretty awful, as we saw earlier this year in Fifty Shades of Grey. But in The Little Death, Australian writer/director Josh Lawson trades in cheap romance-novel prose for something more like children giggling over those “purity tests” that were forwarded around high schools and colleges back in the early days of the internet. It’s no less awful, but at least the cast resemble actual human beings more than anatomically-correct cardboard cutouts.

In order to tackle a wider variety of kink, the movie follows five couples in Sydney, each dealing with some fantasy or another. Paul and Maeve (Lawson and Bojana Novakovic) start off the opening scene with Maeve’s toes in Paul’s mouth. Foot fetish? well yes, but it’s only once we cut to their afterglow that Maeve wants Paul to “rape” her. And instead of having an actual discussion about what exactly that means to her, possibly leading up to a farcical treatment like the one in Choke — a movie involving kinky sex that was actually funny — Paul shuts the discussion down only to try to fulfill it later in about the dumbest way possible.

Maybe Lawson just regards anything that requires more than a few seconds of discussion as categorically unsexy. When Evie and Dan (Kate Mulvany and Damon Herriman) take a marriage counselor’s suggestion to try roleplay to spice up their sex lives, Dan gets really into the acting. He takes acting classes and sets up ever more elaborate scenes and costumes and staging until Evie just can’t take any more of it.

Simpler fetishes — though still unusual — also make their disastrous appearances. Rowena (Kate Box) finds that she gets turned on seeing her husband, Richard (Patrick Brammall), cry. It happens first after his father’s funeral, but soon she’s faking cancer and even a dognapping to get her fix.

Meanwhile Phil (Alan Dukes) gets off on seeing his wife, Maureen (Lisa McCune), asleep, and he gets hold of some powerful sleeping pills to knock her out every night. Of course, unlike the situation with Paul and Maeve this is an actual rape, and yet it’s played off totally for laughs about poor schlubby Phil and his frigid wife who’s really (not really) to blame in the first place.

It’s not like Lawson doesn’t realize that sex crimes are a thing. The totally extraneous running thread between these stories is Steve (Kim Gyngell), who goes door to door with homemade cookies to break the ice before announcing himself as a registered sex offender. On the other hand, we never do find out just what Steve’s crime was, because what does it matter? sex crimes are all just a big joke anyway, right? Oh, and those cookies are painted up as gollywogs, which may not be quite so outrageously offensive in Australia as they are here in America, but for the purposes of an international release still comes off as remarkably tone deaf. There’s not even a purpose for it besides a bad joke when Dan answers Steve’s knock while wearing a Confederate army uniform.

Which leaves as almost an afterthought — much as they are in the movie — Monica and Sam (Erin James and T.J. Power). There’s not even a fetish here; Monica works at a video relay service where deaf people like Sam skype in and sign for her to translate to a regular telephone line. The twist here is that Sam wants to call a phone sex line, which I’d be surprised if an actual VRS allowed. Still, it’s the closest thing the movie offers to a funny, if short, story.

None of the other four stories really get the time they need to breathe. No couple really talks to each other about what they want — Lawson doesn’t think talking is sexy or funny, I guess — and everyone who tries to get what they want ends in ridicule and failure. Because, ha ha, people whose desires aren’t perfectly “normal” are ridiculous and don’t deserve happy endings. Never mind that open and honest conversation could solve each and every one of these “problems” and make literally everyone in the movie happier in the long run.

But The Little Death is relentlessly mean-spirited. It’s not invested in any happiness but the cheap laughter of the comfortable majority, and not interested in coming to any real understanding of the people it mocks. There will be plenty of movies that will deal honestly and respectfully with the disparate expressions of human sexuality, but this movie is not one of them.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

Inside Out

June 19, 2015
Inside Out

Pixar movies have always had a nice, broad spectrum of content for both kids and the adults who accompany them to the theater. The balance alters a bit here and there; Cars 2 has little for the adults beyond a few gags, while Queen Elinor’s arc in Brave adds a subtle counterpoint younger viewers are likely to miss. But with Inside Out we’re all the way into Rango territory: this is an animated film for adults, structured around a fun and brightly-colored adventure any child can enjoy.

Built around the psychological theories of Dr. Paul Ekman — most famous for popularizing the idea of micro-expressions in The Human Face and Lie to Me — and his post-doctoral student Dr. Dacher Keltner, Inside Out tells the story of a difficult point in an eleven-year-old girl’s life through the lens of her five core emotions: Joy (Amy Pohler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader), which also subsumes Ekman’s sixth emotion of Surprise. Most of the memories Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) has built to this point are happy ones, thanks to Joy. Anger is very insistent on fairness; Disgust helps Riley avoid poisons, both physical (broccoli!) and mental (social opprobrium!); Fear keeps her safe from other dangers. And Joy isn’t quite sure what good Sadness does, much as a kid might not, though it shouldn’t be hard for the grown-ups in the audience to figure out.

When Riley moves with her mom (Diane Lane) and dad (Kyle MacLachlan) from Minneapolis to San Francisco, everything goes wrong. Riley far from all of her friends and the only home she’s known (fear!); the new house is messy (disgust!); the movers are late (anger!). Inside Headquarters, Sadness has started poking at some of the memories — including the core memories that form the basis of Riley’s personality — turning their glow from a warm, happy yellow to a cool, somber blue. And when Joy tries to protect the core memories, she and Sadness get sucked out of Headquarters and plunked somewhere out in Riley’s memory, leaving Anger, Disgust, and Fear to run the show in their absence.

I’ve said that Inside Out is aimed at adults, but the spine of the narrative is perfectly accessible to kids, and the underlying lesson is one that should be stressed more in the world: growing up is hard, sometimes it will make you sad, and that’s okay. But the way the film gets this idea across is marvelously elegant, in ways I doubt most younger viewers will appreciate. Riley, like a lot of kids but especially girls, is told over and over how important it is to be happy and cheerful. The happy, even goofy Riley is the one who gets rewarded with her parents’ love, and so she stuffs her sadness down inside until it leaks out in unhealthy ways.

While they may lack the perspective to recognize every last point of the script, young audiences can still learn much from such a whimsical and friendly representation of real psychological theories on the interactions emotions and behavior. It’s like an introductory session in cognitive behavioral therapy for everyone who sees it: after understanding where Riley’s actions come from, how can a child not gain some introspection into their own?

The production quality is gorgeous, and it’s a big step up from the water-treading of Cars 2 and Monsters University. The emotions have a soft, slightly fuzzy texture, like Muppets, and Joy carries a beautifully subtle glow. The stereography on the 3-D version isn’t terribly essential, so catch the 2-D version where you can better appreciate a color palette as delicate as the one director Pete Docter used in Up.

And the voice work is every bit as good as the animation. Poehler’s Joy is wonderfully exuberant, almost working as an extension of her Leslie Knope character from Parks & Recreation. Smith is perfectly cast as the shy, hesitant voice of Sadness, as anyone who saw her work on The Office can understand. Hader and Kaling feel at home in their emotions, and Anger is the role Lewis Black was born to play. And Richard Kind turns in a terrific performance as Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood, Bing Bong, imbuing him with the perfect mix of goofy energy and pathos.

Inside Out is some of Pixar’s best work in years, and has plenty to offer the entire family, though I expect many parents will walk away more emotional than their kids. But even if you don’t have kids of your own, don’t let that keep you from seeing this film anyway; it’s meant just as much for you as anyone.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

Dope

June 19, 2015
Dope

Yes, it’s yet another movie out of Sundance with a socially awkward teenage protagonist coming of age and documenting his experience in a college application essay. Just one thing: this time the kid in question is black, lives in Ingleside, and his troubles are a bit bigger than whether the quirky girl likes him or not.

The movie is Dope, which does double-duty as both title and description. The boy is Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a ’90s obsessed geek living on a modern-day neighborhood called “The Bottoms”, which is as promising as it sounds. He and his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) have a ska-punk band called Awreeoh (with songs by co-producer Pharrell Williams), and Malcolm wants to take his straight-As off to Harvard, which his principal (Bruce Beatty) helpfully tells him is never going to happen.

Then one day some gang member bullies try to steal his kicks and get one, so that afternoon he can’t pedal his bike fast enough to avoid the crew selling meth for Dom (A$AP Rocky), so Dom uses Malcolm as a messenger to Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), who just happens to be the girl around the hood Malcolm is crushing on. Dom wants Nakia to come to his birthday at a club, and Nakia tells Malcolm she’ll show up if he does, which puts Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib at the club when shit goes down.

Luckily they make it out unscathed, but in the chaos Dom slipped a gun and a whole lot of uncut meth into Malcolm’s backpack, which he discovers when getting through security at school the next morning. Of course, the guard knows Malcolm’s a straight-A geek, so clearly the metal detector and drug dog are both on the fritz and Malcolm gets waved through anyway. But someone knows what’s up, and now Malcom and his friends are on the hook to push the product themselves or face the consequences.

The core of Dope may be a tale as old as Sundance itself, but writer/director Rick Famuyiwa works wonders breathing new life into it. The characters are fresh and vital, and far from the usual cast for this kind of story. The script is hilarious and hip to everything from Bitcoin to Black Twitter, and even finds time for its own little riff on teaching Malcolm’s white drug dealing friend (a very game Blake Anderson) why some people can and can’t use certain words.

In transplanting the teen coming-of-age comedy to Crenshaw, Famuyiwa reveals that it’s not inherently a boring, played-out trope; it’s just boring and played-out in its usual lazy execution. And on the flip side, there are tons of characters and situations that the usual products of mainstream Black cinema just don’t touch. This is why cross-pollinating genres and filmmakers is so important, and especially why it’s important to create spaces for all different kinds of writers and directors who can tell even old stories in new and interesting ways. The powers that be may fear the slippery slope, but take it from me: this movie is Dope.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Balls Out

June 19, 2015
Intramural

In case you haven’t noticed, some of my reviews over the last couple months have been cross-posted to Travis Hopson’s Punch Drunk Critics site. I get some wider exposure, and Travis gets some help covering the ever-expanding number of weekly releases. Anyway, when the screener for Balls Out came up, nobody jumped at it. Honestly, the title alone is kind of off-putting, and then there’s the awful poster, and the trailer doesn’t do it any favors either.

But then this post from one of the actors made the rounds on film Twitter. Evidently the movie was shot — and screened at Tribeca in 2014 — as Intramural. The new title and new marketing was the work of MGM, who bought the movie for distribution. They decided to target it at high-school and college boys as if it were a sex comedy, despite the lack of pretty much any sex in the movie itself. So, hey, maybe it’s worth a try after all?

Sadly, not quite. While Balls Out is a better movie than its poster, trailer, and title would suggest, MGM wasn’t exactly wrong to aim it at an audience driven by puerile sensibilities. Writer Bradley Jackson’s script is aiming at a self-aware send-up of the Epic Sports Movie genre, in much the same spirit as They Came Together, the romantic comedy spoof with Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd you didn’t see last year. But even that movie — driven by The State alums David Wain and Michael Showalter — couldn’t sustain real interest in its premise beyond the first act.

Maybe this sort of thing just doesn’t work well at feature length, especially when the writing is so explicitly self-aware. The idea runs thin quickly; you could probably get a solid short out of it, but getting longer means you need to add a lot of filler. In a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker film they use nonstop gags and a genuinely surreal sensibility, but in this movie’s case it means a lot of dick jokes, bro-ishness, and awkwardly-handled homosociality.

And it starts off fast: Caleb (Jake Lacy) quit intramural flag football in his first year at college after accidentally paralyzing his friend Grant (Nick Kocher) “from the balls down”. I get it: we need an injury, but a funny one since this is a comedy, and funny equals balls here. That pretty much sets the tone from here on out.

In his fifth year, about to head off to law school, Caleb gets dragged back into the world of flag football, despite the obstacle it poses to his terrible relationship with Vicky (Kate McKinnon) and a job under her father, both of whom struggle towards one-dimensionality. He reassembles a ragtag group of misfits — even recruiting Grant as the grizzled coach figure — to take on the team led by his old rival, Dick (Beck Bennett). Trust me, they miss no opportunity to let that name go unused. Oh, and of course there’s a Better Girl for Caleb to win, who naturally happens to be Dick’s sister Meredith (Nikki Reed).

Honestly, there really is probably a solid, witty short film in here. Grant’s metatextual pep talks are good, and Jake’s speech leading into the Big Game is second only to Terrence Howard’s from Movie 43. And Jay Pharoah and D.C. Pierson do a great job as a pair of perpetual students with nothing better to do than hang out in the bleachers and offer unofficial commentary on the games.

But all the sophomoric humor that gets thrown in threatens to smother what actual comedy there is here. The result is a slog without enough good parts to reward the effort of sitting through the lazy and mediocre.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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