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Review: ‘Magic Mike XXL’

'Magic Mike XXL'
‘Magic Mike XXL’
As a delirious musical fantasy, Magic Mike XXL is spectacular. As a movie? Not so much.

Writer/producer Reid Carolin, who also penned 2012’s Magic Mike, constructs the sequel as pure fan service, dispensing with any possible distractions, such as characterizations or storytelling. In that sense, it resembles a Hong Kong action movie in the late 80s or early 90s, in which intermittent blasts of action would lead to an extended sequence of derring-do, often tied together with only the loosest of threads.

Instead of Jackie Chan, Magic Mike XXL has Channing Tatum (also one of the film’s producers), whose early, first-hand experiences as a stripper informed the first movie. The original installment featured a series of dramatic episodes in which the hedonistic, selfish impulses of some of the strippers created conflicts for everyone, especially Mike Lane (Tatum), and the film concluded with his retirement to the custom furniture business and a possible lasting relationhip with a young woman named Brooke.

The sequel picks up with a struggling Mike, who get a call that leads him to reunite with a handful of his former colleagues on a road trip to an annual strippers’ convention. Mike, again, is escaping from his personal problems by stripping, but it’s only for a long weekend, which leaves scant moments for deep reflection, at least in comparison to the time spent dispensing with clothing in a properly lascivious manner that will satisfy the sensual hunger of the LA-DEES!!!

Indeed, Magic Mike XXL goes to extraordinary lengths to display its love, obedience, and submission to women as the superior sex. There is little talk of equality between the sexes; that’s secondary to all the lip-smacking and butt-spanking by the LA-DEES!!!

The odd thing about the movie is that, for all its lip service to the idea of being respectful toward all women, no matter their size, shape, or (presumably) sexual orientation, the women in the cast have precious little to do beside smile and scream and sizzle their sexy selves. The mysterious Zoe (Amber Heard) shows up a couple of times in Mike’s vicinity, not to tempt him into a new relationship, but to give him the opportunity to invite her to their upcoming show, so as to ease whatever burdens she may be carrying.

Andie MacDowell appears as the leader of a group of middle-aged women who grow increasingly tipsy as the stripping troupe tries to make an incognito visit to the home of a younger women. Naturally, the women are treated with great respect as the men slowly, slowly tease their libidos into gently growing excitement. Jada Pinkett Smith appears as the owner of a very private strip club for LA-DEES, only she prefers to call them QUEENS; she is the queen of queens and her male workers operate at her beck and call. Elizabeth Banks shows up at the competition as the queen of entrants.

Mike’s fellow strippers (Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez) are exquisitely-defined works of art, their muscles and often bare limbs proving worthy of the spotlight. In this modern-day version of the Hope & Crosby road movies, Mike is Bing Crosby, cool, calm, and collected, while his cohorts form a composite Bob Hope, goofy and gullible. That’s as detailed a character breakdown as needed.

Gregory Jacobs has directed two films before (2004’s Criminal and 2007’s Wind Chill, neither of which I’ve seen) but he’s better known as Steven Soderbergh’s longtime first assistant director. With Soderbergh again along for the ride as director of photography (under his pseudonym Peter Andrews) and editor (under his other pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard), Magic Mike XXL has a similar look and feel to the first film, although it feels less connected and kinetic, and the absence of a strong story thread marks it as inferior to its predecessor.

Magic Mike XXL certainly dances up a storm of steamy yet silly action sequences and effectively showcases the deft physical talents of Channing Tatum, who is more than happy to charm people into forgetting that the movie itself is pure fluff.

Review originally published at TwitchFilm.com. The film is now playing wide in theaters across Dallas.

Review: ’22 Jump Street,’ Good, Silly Fun

'22 Jump Street'
’22 Jump Street’
Cheerfully embracing its existence as a cash-grab sequel, 22 Jump Street delivers another big slab of good, silly fun.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum return as Schmidt and Jenko, respectively, police officers who were sent undercover to crack a high-school drug ring in 2012’s 21 Jump Street. The first film tracked the development of their friendship as their own high school experience was flipped upside down: Schmidt, the lonely geek, found himself in favor, while Jenko, the popular jock, found himself on the outside looking in.

The new film recycles the drug-related plot, sending the partners to live in a college dorm. It also reverses their social acceptance: Jenko’s athletic abilities are instantly recognized on the football field, while Schmidt has trouble fitting in.

Once again, 22 Jump Street mixes jokes, quips, and humorous line readings with a generous assortment of physical gags. It’s a scattershot approach that leans heavily toward nonsensical antics and a healthy disinterest in reality. Yet the film also relentlessly jokes about the nature of the relationship between Schmidt and Jenko; it seems that nearly everyone believes them to be gay and romantically involved, while the two men remain oblivious to the signals they’re giving off.

Using the f-word to refer to gay people is specifically condemned in a scene that comes late in the movie, though it feels like it was inserted to ward off any possible criticism of the earlier sequences that are reliant on two men “acting” gay. Frankly, it’s discomfiting, and not in a way that has anything to do with being politically correct.

In any event, the hit-or-miss nature of the comedy here is not as sure-handed as it was in the original, and occasionally the film slows down to the point where it’s a bit too aware that it’s a sequel and that expectations have, rightfully, been lowered. When the comedy kicks in, though, it’s very funny indeed, and the hits outnumber the misses by a good percentage.

Hill and Tatum make for a good comedy team; their physical differences and varied styles of delivery are used to fine advantage. Ice Cube returns to give good glare as their always-angry supervisor. The supporting cast features delightful turns by Amber Stevens (in the thankless role of Schmidt’s love interest, Maya); real-life twins The Lucas Brothers (as new dorm mates), and Jillian Bell, who practically steals the show as Maya’s roommate Mercedes, a dour young woman who rattles off insults like an out-of-control vending machine.

Returning directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, working from a script credited to Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman, keep things lively, though it feels as though there are fewer flights of fancy. Perhaps they spent all their creativity on the end-credits sequence, which, without spoiling things, is the funniest thing in the movie.

Still, 22 Jump Street is a bright and funny picture, and generates more than enough laughs to justify its existence.

The film opens wide in theaters across North Texas on Friday, June 13.

Review: ‘Side Effects’ Sends Chills Down the Spine

Rooney Mara in Steven Soderbergh's 'Side Effects' (Open Road Films)
Rooney Mara in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Side Effects’ (Open Road Films)

Absolutely absorbing and diabolically clever, Side Effects serves as a fitting theatrical swan song for Steven Soderbergh, who has announced his retirement from directing feature films.

Soderbergh has developed a wonderful mastery of visual storytelling, consistently experimenting with the boundaries of commercial cinema so as to deliver distinctive films that tease any limited definitions of “mainstream” vs. “arthouse” works. Within his films, there is often a battle between the warmth of the colors and the coolness of the characters; sometimes that’s flipped, so that the colors cool off and the characters heat up.

His distinctive approach is entirely appropriate for Side Effects. Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) empathetically emobodies the troubled Emily, a 28-year-old woman who is suffering from depression. After a brief, ominous prologue, the story begins with the release from prison of Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum), who served four years behind bars for insider trading.

Martin is properly remorseful, yet determined to quickly regain the comfortable, prosperous lifestyle that he and Emily previously enjoyed. During his prison term, Emily moved to Manhattan and got a low-level job in an advertising agency, where her boss is sympathetic to her troubles. Still, Martin’s return does not cure Emily of her sadness, and an apparent suicide attempt brings her in contact with Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a kind, sympathetic doctor.

Dr. Banks consults with Emily’s previous doctor, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who treated Emily when she lived in Connecticut. Then Dr. Banks prescribes a series of drugs for Emily, none of which are effective. Finally, he presents her with the opportunity to try Ablixa, a drug available only on a trial basis to qualified patients.

Now, the complicating factor there is that Dr. Banks has accepted a healthy consultant’s fee from the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug. There’s nothing illegal about what he does; he discloses his financial interest to Emily aforehand, and the choice is hers. But, but, but … the drug is available without cost to Emily and is recommended by her trusted physician. What choice does she really have?

Up to this point, Side Effects has developed an uncomfortable degree of tension. It’s as though everyone is holding their breath, waiting for something bad to happen. That’s accomplished by the complex structure of the original screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), Soderbergh’s direction and photography (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), the pinpoint-strong editing, and Thomas Newman’s discordant music score.

Add to that the layered performances by Mara, Law, and Tatum, and the story feels like the tragic tale of good characters who are caught up in a very bad situation. There are no villains; instead, the movie feels like a good-faith effort to depict a mental affliction that affects a great many people across all social classes and ages.

And then, something happens, and then something else happens, and we have a very different movie altogether.

Mind, it’s still a vastly entertaining movie, one that seeks to tear up the carpet and expose the underpinnings of similar dramatic thrillers, as if to boldly proclaim, ‘No, this is how to tell this kind of story.’ And, of course, it highlights Soderbergh’s delight in tearing apart something built with solid genre construction and remaking it in his own, cool, intelligent, post-modern image.

In the end, it’s all a bit ridiculous, but by the point that “something else happens,” I was so caught up in the film’s narrative rhythms that I was happy to follow wherever Soderbergh and his collaborators wanted to take me. Side Effects deserves to be treasured, analyzed, and appreciated as a rare, fresh take on “mainstream” cinema.

Side Effects opens wide across the Metroplex today.

Review: ‘Magic Mike’ Strips Away All Pretenses

Steven Soderbergh's 'Magic Mike'
Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Magic Mike’

Take away the breakaway pants, substitute robots for strippers, and Magic Mike is a perfectly ordinary summer movie, story-wise. Ah, but add Steven Soderbergh to the mix, and what pours out is a seemingly complex work of art.

Magic Mike is not above pandering to straight women and gay men, but neither does it avoid trafficking in male-fantasy fulfillment; it provides a little something something for nearly everyone, as long as you’re cool with partial nudity and physical objectification. Soderbergh is the not-so-secret ingredient that makes the movie eminently palatable, a tasty treat elevated far beyond its ordinary narrative structure and stereotypical character arcs.

Soderbergh once again coaxs career-best performances out of actors (Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey) who previously appeared to have hit the ceiling of their limited range. As he did with Gina Carano in Haywire, he manages a similar trick with Cody Horn, a new actress with little to no acting experience.

Tatum plays the titular character, a self-described “stripper/entrepreneur.” By night, he’s the star attraction of a male dance revue that does big business with the ladies of Tampa Bay, Florida. By day, he’s a budding custom furniture maker and construction worker, and it’s on the latter gig that he meets 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer).

The two bump into each other later that night; sharp-dressed Mike takes pity on the bedraggled-looking Adam (who he takes to calling The Kid), and invites him along to his night job so he can earn a few extra bucks. Adam is an unexpected hit with the ladies, which impresses Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the owner and manager (and occasional featured dancer) of the strip club.

Soon enough, Mike is indoctrinating Adam into the ways of the male stripper — with an assist by Dallas, who provides dance lessons — and Adam proves himself to be a natural. He quickly becomes intoxicated with the fleshly opportunities of his new job, which does not please his older sister Brooke (Cody Horn), a medical assistant who shares an apartment with her baby brother.

Mike slowly starts to develop a relationship with Brooke, even while continuing to sleep with Joanna (Olivia Munn), who, lucky for Mike, enjoys casual sex and threesomes with anonymous females. Mike also is trying to start a custom-furniture business, while Dallas holds open the promise of an equity share in a new club in Miami, evidently the mecca for all male strippers in Florida.

Magic Mike, written by Reid Carolin and inspired by Tatum’s own experiences as a young stripper, is a male fantasy of a female fantasy, one in which all the men are physically-fit and dancing for the amusement of the ladies. It’s told from the perspective of a decidedly heterosexual modern male, however, and reflects old-fashioned values.

Of the two female characters, one denies her own sexuality and the other goes overboard in expressing it. (In other words, the classic madonna / whore complex, separated for easy parsing.) Our hero has a heart of gold and a body built for sin, but he’s not terribly bright — note the way he deals with his financial savings and also how he handles himself with a loan officer at a bank.

The movie represents a battle between the emotional and the phsyical, which suits the exemplary style of Steven Soderbergh just fine. He deconstructs what would otherwise be a modern updating of Flashdance with his camera and his choice of locales and his editing style.

Magic Mike looks and feels like it’s been sitting in the heat and humidity of Florida too long; it’s rumpled and sweaty and lived in, which is also its charm and its ultimate power, as Soderbergh keeps everything off-kilter enough to make the movie pop in a rather delicious manner all through its running time.

It’s enough to make a fella blush.

Portions of this review originally appeared in slightly different form at Twitch. Magic Mike opens wide today across the Metroplex.