For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Monday, July 23, 2012

Magic Mike


Steven Soderberg’s Magic Mike is at once fleshy and skeletal.  I say fleshy because its subject is a male strip club in Tampa, Florida, where sculpted beefcakes dance and thrust and expose themselves to crowds of hollering cougars and bridal parties.  I say skeletal because, despite Soderberg’s rapt stylistic groove and his actors’ unerring commitment, the director never gives his story or characters enough meat, never raises the dramatic tension, and never shows us what these dancers are sacrificing for a g-string full of one-dollar-bills: i.e. their souls. 
In fact, for a vast majority of the film’s runtime, Magic Mike’s central studs couldn’t have it any sweeter.  Off the bat, Mike (Channing Tatum) recruits 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) to work at Xquisite, a male burlesque house in sunny Florida.  The place is owned and operated by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), an aging performer with aspirations to start a new, bigger, better club in Miami.  Mike, Adam and the rest of the humping, gyrating crew—who could use a bit more personality if you ask me—are rolling in cash.  They spend their nights partying it up with randy females and their days lounging on the warm, sandy Floridian beaches.  
Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?  For too much of Magic Mike, that’s all we witness, and by the time some much-needed drama is finally introduced, it’s nearly too late.  Adam gets mixed up in drugs and Mike starts to let two relationships slip away.  One with Joanna (Olivia Munn), a gorgeous late night booty call with a more respectable façade, and one with Adam’s cute sister Brooke (Cody Horn), who disapproves of Mike’s decadent lifestyle and vocational preference.  Inspired loosely by Channing Tatum’s actual pre-fame career as a male stripper, Magic Mike does have style.  Soderberg’s films always glisten with an aesthete’s fastidious cinematographic polish.  And on stage, Tatum’s got moves, like a hip-hop sex machine on overdrive. 
In the end, though, Magic Mike has too much of a good time.  By the eighth full-fledged strip routine, it’s no longer entertaining, just kind of numbing and banal.  Boogie Nights is an obvious inspiration, but for a film about pornography, that movie spent less time on money shots and more time exploring how its pornographers were actually human beings, with dreams and regrets and personal hardships.  Magic Mike is more concerned with putting on a show than it is with uncovering the real people behind the cop uniforms and codpieces. 
In its brightest, most focused and indelible scenes, the film flirts with the idea that perhaps Mike’s identity was lost behind the tacky getups—that by playing Magic Mike all the time, he can never just be Mike.  An aspiring custom furniture designer, he walks into the bank for a loan in a costume of respectability, a nicely pressed suit, a leather briefcase and gold-rimmed glasses.  He’s so obviously a caricature of a prosperous business-type high roller that the scene serves as one of the film’s best, a moment of absolute identity disillusionment.  Sadly, such revelations are few.  Magic Mike is just too busy thrusting and hip shaking to give its protagonist the movie he deserves.

The Amazing Spider-Man


Toby McGuire was certainly nerdy enough to play Peter Parker, but was he angsty enough?  In The Amazing Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) re-imagines the famous daytime high school student and nighttime web slinger with so much perfect snarky Gen-Y attitude that he just about makes the case for this entire superfluous remake’s existence.  Only ten years ago, director Sam Raimi delivered a perfectly adequate Spider-Man origin story.  Peter Parker, an orphaned New York teenager living with his aunt and uncle, is bitten by a radioactive spider in a science lab, develops superpowers as a result, and is then driven to crime fighting by his uncle’s tragic death at the hands of a mugger.  In the new film, the beats are exactly the same, and only after about 45 minutes of going through the motions does the new Spider-Man movie really begin. 
Director Marc Webb (500 Days Of Summer) and his team of screenwriters attempt to hold our attention during that perfunctory period with new tidbits about the Parker parents.  But what really keeps us enthralled is Andrew Garfield.  With his case of perpetual bed-head, his skinny jeans and skateboard, and his constant air of guarded insecurity, Garfield’s embodiment is a new kind of geek, an offbeat urban hipster with a lost puppy allure and a too-cool swagger.  The English actor’s profound performance educes everything we’d expect from a modern Peter Parker: He’s reckless and lonesome, bedraggled and bruised, but still good looking in an Indie Rock kind of way.  When he stumbles home at midnight after receiving his radioactive infection, the psychoactive effects make him giggle and binge eat like a first-time weed smoker.  He may not have done anything illicit, but his warped case of the munchies may evoke a few memories for the seasoned parents in the audience. 
Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) look on helplessly.  What are they going to do with this kid?  Compared to Garfield’s isolated adolescent good-for-nothing, Toby McGuire was a Boy Scout.  Nothing in The Amazing Spider-Man is as welcome as this Peter Parker makeover.  Except maybe for the addition of Emma Stone as Parker’s first teenage crush, Gwen Stacy, an A-student in a series of mini-skirts, knee socks, and ponytails.  With notebooks constantly pressed against her chest, Gwen is the daddy’s girl to Parker’s rotten apple, the Natalie Wood to his James Dean.  And their chemistry scintillates.  Her father, police Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary), doesn’t particularly approve.  But what father would?
If superhero puppy love isn’t your thing, rest assured.  The Amazing Spider-Man’s got action, too.  Just like in its predecessors, this movie has our wall-crawling vigilante taking down another mad-scientist whose experiment went awry.  This time it’s Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a genius geneticist and amputee testing reptilian limb regeneration on humans.  To make a long story short, he crossbreeds with a lizard, becomes a walking abomination, and takes refuge in the Manhattan sewer system (alligators in the sewers, anybody?).  When he decides to infect the whole population with his gnarly deformity, Spidey swings in to save the day.  The Lizard, as he’s called in the comic books, comes to life with CGI as a pint-sized Godzilla, and he’s a passable nemesis at best, not especially imaginative or complex. 

Is it too soon to bring back Doctor Octopus?  It was probably too soon for an entire new Spider-Man origin story in the first place.  This movie certainly doesn’t convince otherwise, and it offers a number of narrative threads that lead nowhere.  One might call it a remorseless commercial reboot, and it leaves so many things unresolved that it has the feel of a TV pilot.  While not exemplary as a structured and satisfying drama, The Amazing Spider-Man does have its rewards: namely, its two star lovebirds.  Even if the superhero’s latest adventure feels a bit premature, the unveiling of Garfield and Stone, whose stars burn brighter with every fresh frame, couldn’t possibly have come sooner.

Monday, July 16, 2012



Seth McFarlane’s live-action feature film debut, Ted, has at least one good thing going for it: It’s better than Family Guy.  I’ve never understood the wild popularity of that stale and exhausted Simpsons knock-off.  Although, its ubiquitous animator and creator, who at one point had three programs running back-to-back on Fox’s Sunday Night Animation Domination (Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show), is pretty well-suited for a single, solitary time slot.  He’s really a one-idea kind of artist.  Family Guy was never consistently clever enough to maintain its required airtime.  That’s not to say that Stewey, the brilliant Bond Villain baby, and Brian, the dog who’s ten times smarter than his owner, weren’t good ideas in the first place.  They were great ideas. 
Ted, the raunchy and hilarious, R-rated fairy tale about a boy whose Teddy Bear comes to life one magical day and proceeds to grow up alongside him, is another inspired concept.  As the boy, John, becomes an adult (at least physically), Teddy becomes Ted, a vulgar and immature slacker who spends his days smoking weed and his nights partying with hookers.  Ted is, in essence, a reflection of John’s arrested development, his refusal to put away childhood and become a grown up.  The central premise is so obviously good it’s hard to believe someone hadn’t already thought of it.  What would have made for an absolutely tremendous animated or live-action short film is here stretched out to over 90 minutes and, miraculously, the movie doesn’t rip its stitching—although it comes awfully close. 
Now 35-years-old, John (Mark Wahlberg) is a well-meaning goof and rental car employee with a gorgeous girlfriend (Mila Kunis) who’s sick of sharing her man with his boorish stuffed (party) animal.  Ted is voiced by McFarlane himself—a gifted vocalist who, admittedly, finesses a comedic line so superbly that nearly everything Ted has to say comes out barbed and penetrates right to the funny bone.  The plot involves John trying to mediate the two poles tugging on him: the girl dragging him kicking and screaming into a responsible relationship and Ted, who’s still the security blanket for this frightened man-child.  At some point, Giovanni Ribisi enters the picture as a creepy Teddy Bear stalker straight from Silence of The Lambs.  That superfluous plot point provides the action necessary to propel the movie to its feature length goal, but adds little else. 
Made in the same pop-culture savvy style that Matt Groening invented and McFarlane later adopted for his animated sitcoms, Ted gushes over Star Wars and Flash Gordon while jabbing at such easy pickings as Jack And Jill and Taylor Lautner.  One of McFarlane’s trademarks is his unearned flippancy: he loves to rip on zeitgeist fads without having the intelligence to send them up in any insightful way.  Like South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, McFarlane sits on an ivory tower chanting “Everyone’s Stupid But Me”.  Unlike the South Park duo, McFarlane puts nothing up, never pushing boundaries or provoking people to rethink their own ideologies or obsessions.  That same hypocrisy exists ever so slightly in Ted, but, for the most part, McFarlane is working more from Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith’s handbook for jejune but teary-eyed modern comedies. 
As the classic story of a boy, his best friend, and the girl that comes between them, Ted mostly works, because the script (written by McFarlane) mixes puerility and scatological humor—its so dense in dick, feces and sex jokes that all you can do is give in to the immaturity and laugh—with shards of wisdom and heart.  Ted’s annoyingly cutesy “I Love You” audio function has remained inside his stuffing over the years.  If it gets touched, an adorably childlike voice giggles that most unmanly phrase, and when inconveniently toggled during a poignant moment of male bonding between Ted and John, it perfectly sums up everything the two boys feel but can no longer say to one another.  It’s those sorts of heavenly messages that exist organically throughout Ted.  If only McFarlane had done more with them.  Too often it seems he’s just trying to please his Family Guy faithful, but in all honestly, it’s probably time he outgrow them. 



With Prometheus, legendary director Ridley Scott makes his long-awaited return to the science fiction genre, his bread and butter.  I know many of his dearest fans have been anticipating this release like the Second Coming, but I held my enthusiasm.  To these eyes, the director hasn’t made a great film since Blade Runner 30 years ago.  For a one-time genius of the form, he’s quite rusty.  Prometheus, about an interstellar space expedition aboard the titular vessel, where the crew of deep space explorers stumbles on the scary inhabitants of some distant planet, is not Scott’s expected return to the annals of sci-fi mastery, but little more than an effectively executed and exhilarating piece of 70’s style science-fiction-horror filmmaking.  Any stabs Scott makes at intellectualism or deeper meaning hardly resonate.  Prometheus is a well-made, big-budget creature-feature—no more, no less.      
The year is 2089 and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are archeologists and lovers digging through caves in Scotland when they discover a pictogram with a map directing them toward a constellation of stars thousands of light years away.  The two opine that these galactic coordinates will hold the secrets to humanity’s origins.  Two years later, cut to the Prometheus spacecraft, where android David (a brilliant Michael Fassbender) maintains the ship, peeps in on the dreams of the slumbering crew, and plays Lawrence of Arabia on repeat.  Fitting David with the flamboyant elegance of a starchy English butler, the underhandedness of surreptitious villain, and the muted emotion of his namesake robot from A.I., Fassbender makes David the most interesting character in the film.  When someone harshly points out his inherent soullessness, the magnificent Irish actor reacts with the perfect amount of concealed heartbreak.  Even if it’s true, intellectually, David understands exactly what it means. 
A terminally ill billionaire named Weyland (Guy Pearce in old man makeup) has funded the mission and assembled a crew including the scientists Shaw and Holloway, the no-nonsense ship overseer Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the captain (Idris Elba), and a number of skeptics and clashing personalities.  As the team enters a mysterious planet’s toxic atmosphere and then sets down on its rocky and desolate surface, we already know where this ship’s headed.  The pre-humans—or “Engineers”—that Shaw and Holloway hope to find aren’t necessarily friendly, and Prometheus, at times, becomes the kind of don’t-leave-the-group slasher flick we’ve seen a thousand times already.  When some slithery alien life form, that looks like an eel mixed with a giant parasitic inchworm, makes contact with one of our unwitting crewmembers, he decides to approach the thing as one might approach a stray puppy.  The audience bellows in unison, “What the hell are you doing?” right before it leaps through his mask and down his throat.  We’d never be so stupid.  We’ve seen this movie before. 

Although Ridley Scott did not invent the science fiction horror film—just watch anything from the 1950’s that involved Vincent Price or Roger Corman—he certainly modernized it, gave it grit, and raised the fright-factor to levels no one had ever experienced in a movie theater.  When that gnarling little monstrosity burst out of John Hurt’s chest halfway through 1979’s Alien, audiences knew they were watching a different kind of horror film; it was an amalgam of classic haunted house clichés and atmospherics and new school sci-fi blood and gore effects.  The combination was incendiary.  It launched dozens of copycats and helped inspire the remakes of The Thing and The Fly by Scott’s contemporaneous sick-puppies John Carpenter and David Cronenberg.  As expertly designed and imagined as Prometheus might be, one never gets the feeling that they’re watching something special or unique.  The film’s centerpiece scene—involving Shaw, an alien fetus, and a surgery machine that looks like a futuristic tanning bed—is truly terrifying, disgustingly squirm-inducing, and all too palpable.  But the scene is also, in so many ways, just a more explicit reimagining of the alien-violating-human chest-buster scene from the original Alien.

Many have deemed Prometheus a prequel to that aforementioned game-changer, and, having now seen the film, I can say it lends itself to that analysis, but Scott isn’t entirely up-front about it.  It exists in the same universe as Alien, but the two films aren’t necessarily connected.  Whatever the case—prequel or not—Prometheus certainly doesn’t improve upon Alien.  Anyone hoping that this picture would take the genre to the next level will be disappointed.  

Written by John Spaihts and David Lindelof, the movie has a number of plot twists and curious character developments—Vickers’ pervasive iciness isn’t just her personality and David’s insidious trickery has more dimensionality than some simple robotic directive.  Shaw’s clashing belief system (How can one be a Catholic and a scientist?) gives the film its existential gravitas.  But mostly, the story doesn’t add up to anything particularly inventive or revelatory.  Prometheus does offer beautifully rendered imagery, with graceful and subtle use of CGI; an assured performance from Rapace, who’s tough enough to recall Ellen Ripley and sweet enough to recall Audrey Tautou; and the right amount of pulse-pounding excitement to reward the price of admission.  This half-successful sci-fi horror flick is best viewed as a masterfully conceived throwback that, in its finest moments, makes you nostalgic for the kinds of movies Scott used to make.