Ah, summer. The time we all look forward to all year long … until it’s actually here. We get to be outside. We get to do back-breaking yard-work. We get to enjoy the sun. We get to sweat through our dress clothes every day at work. We get to escape our troubles watching one blockbuster movie after another in the soothingly air-conditioned multiplex. We get to pay through the nose to be bombarded by an unyielding series of overblown, unwatchable chase scenes as latex-clad superheroes and blaster-wielding space-farers (most of them now owned in whole or in part by Disney) battle for the hearts and minds of John Q. Public.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Here we are, 2018. We’ve already witnessed Marvel’s Avengers storm cinemas, and I’m still a bit shell-shocked by what I did (and didn’t) see. Now, we steel ourselves for the one-two punch of Deadpool 2 (produced by 20th Century Fox in affiliation with Marvel Entertainment … though as Wall Street tells us Fox is soon to be owned outright by Marvel/Disney) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (released by Disney’s LucasFilm studio, less than six months after The Last Jedi underwhelmed some and thrilled a few more). I was prepared for the worst, and I was pleasantly surprised by both.
I thought the original Deadpoolwas a breath of fresh (raunchy) air, a genius bit of commerce that simultaneously lampooned the superhero genre (in the broadest Tex Avery-style possible) while laughing its red-and-black-ski-masked head all the way to the bank. I feared Deadpool 2 would be a stultifying, self-indulgent, self-satisfied, bloated, and unnecessary money-grab. The brainchild of producer and star Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool 2 welcomes a new director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, John Wick) and a new raison d’etre. After burning the cape-and-cowl zeitgeist to the ground with the first flick, this latest chapter imbues our titular anti-hero with a compelling backstory and a heartbreaking new frenemy (Josh Brolin’s superb-I-won’t-break-character-for-any-bit-of-tomfoolery “Cable”) … while still frying our retinas and shaming us for any adoration we may still hold for these kind of films. And, yeah, admittedly it’s still kind of an unnecessary and bloated money-grab.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Nonetheless, I had a ball. I would have loved to have had 30 minutes of my life back from its lengthy run-time, but I had a ball.
(What happened to the fine art of the perfectly paced 90 minute or 1 hour 45 minute movie? Have filmmakers forgotten the time-tested strategy of “leaving the audience wanting more”? Asking for a friend …)
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Similarly, I was wary that Solo: A Star Wars Story, with its troubled production history, would be a bust. LEGO Movie and 22 Jump Streethelmers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had filmed nearly 90% of the movie when they were unceremoniously booted in the 11th hour and replaced with Ron Howard. Further, there is much hand-wringing this weekend in the House of Mouse that the latest Star Wars installment only broke $100 million domestic. Boo hoo.
Well, Solo is pretty damn fun and utterly heartfelt and overall a delight … and also would greatly benefit from having a tighter running time.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
I’ll be blasphemous for a moment (I can’t wait for the comments). I actually like Alden Ehrenreich’s take on the title role. Solo details the “origin story” of this legendary character first portrayed by Harrison Ford, detailing Solo’s misspent youth meeting cute with Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, running rings around Billy Dee Williams), and, um, the Millennium Falcon. I thought Ford was gangbusters as Indiana Jones, but his Han Solo was occasionally too aloof, too smug for the “scruffy nerf-herder” he actually was purported to be. Ehrenreich brings a refreshing “little boy lost” quality to the role, not dissimilar to Chris Pine’s blessed de-Shatnerizing of the iconic role of Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek reboot. My two cents. Let the hateration commence.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Both Deadpool 2 and Solo are glorified heist movies, employing the “building the perfect team to complete the perfect job” conceit as an excuse to explore what it means to be a family. The best heist flicks (Channing Tatum’s Logan Lucky a great recent example) present us a collection of colorful, misdirected ne’er-do-wells who discover a higher reason for being – the fellowship of man – on their way to doing something truly despicable. Deadpool even offers us the poetic bon mot “family is not an ‘f’-word” as our favorite mutant mercenary loses his true love (a luminous Morena Bacarin) and fills his broken heart with a collection of wackadoodle buddies (the aforementioned Brolin as “Cable,” Stefan Kapičić as a comically CGI’d “Colossus,” Zazie Beetz as a dynamite take-no-prisoners “Domino,” and Leslie Uggams as Deadpool’s cantankerous roommate “Blind Al”).
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Likewise, Solo is populated with a rogues’ gallery of character players. Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (her feisty, feminist, rabble-rousing ‘droid L3-37 deserves her own outing ASAP), Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Joonas Suotamo, and aforementioned Donald Glover all turn in standout moments in an otherwise overstuffed enterprise. Emilia Clarke is particularly impactful as Han Solo’s hometown love Qi’ra, resisting “femme fatale” cliches and presenting a conflict-ridden soul who will persevere by golly, despite a galaxy-full of misogynistic roadblocks. (I also must note that the train-robbing scene in Solo is one of the crispest staged action sequences in the Star Wars series in quite a while.)
Neither film is perfect, nor does either need to be. We have become a film-going culture that consumes its heroes in episodic narrative gulps – as if Charles Dickens had written in less prosaic terms about people who wore tight pants and could bend steel with their bare hands. Wait, he didn’t?
Deadpool 2 and Solo are way-stations in their respective decades-long cinematic franchises: X-Men and Star Wars. The fact that both offer a bit of humanistic allegory – some nutrition along with their empty popcorn calories – is quite remarkable and welcome.The fact that they will both sell truckloads of overpriced action figures and smirkingly ironic t-shirts is a given. Welcome to 21st century America.
Steven Soderbergh’s directorial return Logan Lucky is no Hell or High Water (not sure much could be), but it is a capable new entry in a genre I can only think to dub “21st Century tragicomedies of the American marginalized.” Both films (and others like them – Nightcrawler comes to mind; heck, one could argue Soderbergh’s first Magic Mike too) take an almost Dickensian view of modern America, where satire and melodrama meet, showing the ramshackle desperation of the economically sidelined, and where criminal misdeeds are a logical course correction for those lost in a soulless system that prizes cash over humanity.
Channing Tatum continues to turn a blind eye himself toward commerce by taking one oddball role after another. He stars as Jimmy Logan, a divorced but devoted papa whose life began and ended on the football field, a failed quarterback who placed his faith in the white hot hyperbole of American high school only to make the sad realization in his real-world 30s that indeed his sh*t does stink after all. He’s saddled both with a knee injury that keeps him from gainful employment and with a lovably deadpan one-armed crackpot brother Clyde (Adam Driver, light years from the slithering petulance of Star Wars‘ villain Kylo Ren) who keeps him from sanity. Clyde is convinced the family is cursed (hence the ironic “lucky” in the title), and all evidence does tend to support his conclusion.
The two brothers plot an “Ocean’s 7-11” (the film’s description, not mine) take-down of the Charlotte Motor Speedway – a Rube Goldberg-esque scheme to tap into the pneumatic tubes funneling cash from one tacky elephant ear and t-shirt vendor after another underground into the NASCAR’s institution’s vault. Jimmy’s idea of researching this plan? “I looked it up on ‘the google.'” Logan sister Mellie (an impishly sullen Riley Keough, Lisa Marie Presley’s daughter finally evidencing genuine talent in that family’s DNA) is a tacky hairstylist by day, getaway driver by night, and she helps the boys stay on track in their shaggy scheme.
As the overly episodic flick unspools, the Logans’ rogues’ gallery expands to include safe-cracking and explosives expert (on-the-nose-named) Joe Bang, a wonderfully daffy Daniel Craig, happily jettisoning his sleek Bond-James-Bond glower. “When I saw Gummi Bears was our secret ingredient [for Joe’s homemade munitions], I wasn’t thinking about science,” Jimmy observes ruefully as their plot kicks into high gear.
Joe insists on the involvement of his two lights-are-on-but-no-one-is-home brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson, son of Brendan Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid, son of Randy Quaid and Meg Ryan). Gleeson and Quaid do fine, broadly comic work, but their Hee-Haw-grade depictions of two educationally challenged Southerners are a bit of a disservice to the more finely calibrated lampooning from the balance of the cast.
A veritable Cannonball Run‘s worth of guest stars sashay through the film, to varying degrees of success. Dwight Yoakam, as a lazy but controlling prison warden, and Katie Holmes, as Jimmy Logan’s gum snapping ex, fare best in underwritten parts. Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Winter Soldier) and Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) have spark in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles as a fussy NASCAR driver and a warmhearted charity clinic doc respectively. Hilary Swank is nails-on-a-chalkboard grating as a robotic FBI agent assigned to the case, and an unrecognizable Seth MacFarlane (thank goodness for him, I guess) draws the short-straw in the Dom DeLuise scenery-chewing punching bag slot.
Dropped to a lean 90 minutes, this two hour enterprise would have been a breezy hoot (and a likely blockbuster). As with most of Soderbergh’s films, however, it rambles past a clear-cut denouement into overstaying-its-welcome territory. Swank’s entire subplot should have hit the cutting room floor and stayed there. There is something essential that films like this can (and should) say about the human condition in America, about whole swaths of people left behind as Wall Street soldiers on. Unfortunately, as good as this film is (and it is a sharp-eyed assessment of economic disparity), it never quite reaches the dizzying heights of a film that makes you laugh to keep from crying. As the last point on Jimmy Logan’s fool proof heist plan states, “Hang up and know when to walk away.”
“Everything is (almost) awesome” in The LEGO Batman Movie, a spinoff from the 2014 surprise critical and box office hit The LEGO Movie. While LEGO Batman never quite achieves the warmhearted, dizzyingly progressive whimsy of its predecessor, it compensates with a bonkers absurdity that wouldn’t have been misplaced in a Road Runner cartoon.
Will Arnett returns to gravelly-voice the titular anti-hero, a Trump-esque (by way of Alec Baldwin) billionaire egomaniac whose idea of a good time is fighting (alone) an endlessly looped (and loopy) war on crime where the criminals never actually get locked up and the Batman soaks up a debatably earned shower of community accolades.
Arnett is a one-note hoot, and the filmmakers (director Chris McKay working with a mixed grab-bag of screenwriters Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington) wisely supplement his singular focus with a sweet-natured supply of supporting characters.
Cast MVPs include a sparklingly feminist Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon (later dubbed “Batgirl,” who quips to Arnett, “Does that make you BatBOY, then?”), a gleefully earnest and utterly over-caffeinated Michael Cera as Dick Grayson (relishing every glimmering, discofied sequin of his admittedly peculiar but comic book accurate “Robin” costume), and a dry-as-a-martini Ralph Fiennes as Bruce Wayne/Batman’s dutiful, shaken-but-not-stirred majordomo Alfred Pennyworth.
Like The LEGO Movie (and just about any children’s movie made. ever.), The LEGO Batman Movie posits a primary thesis that family is everything, even if that family is made up of a collection of well-intentioned, mentally-suspect oddballs (so it’s a fact-based film). Arnett’s Batman comically resists any and all overtures by his friends (and enemies) to connect, collaborate, and love, driven in part by a lightly-touched-upon reference to Batman’s origins losing both of his parents to a gun-toting mugger in Gotham City’s aptly named “Crime Alley.” Alfred cautions Master Bruce, “You can’t be a hero if you only care about yourself.”
This sets up a tortured bromance between Batman and his (sometimes) chief nemesis The Joker, voiced with consummate crazed sweetness by an unrecognizable Zach Galifianakis. The Joker just wants Batman to acknowledge that they have a special bond, but the Dark Knight’s cuddly sociopathy prevents him from admitting that they truly need each other. “I don’t currently have a bad guy. I’m fighting a few different people. I like to fight around,” Batman dismisses a lip-quivering, weepy-eyed Joker.
The Joker then sets on a path to flip this script, bringing a spilled toybox rogues’ gallery of delightfully random villains (King Kong, Harry Potter‘s Voldemort, The Wicked Witch of the West and her Flying Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Dr. Who‘s Daleks, Clash of the Titans‘ Medusa and Kraken, Jurassic Park‘s velociraptors, Dracula, Joe Dante’s cinematic Gremlins, and a bunch of glowing skeletons) to destroy Gotham City, reclaim Batman’s attention, and re-establish their dotingly dysfunctional affection for one another.
What made The LEGOMovie such fun was its childlike ability to (s)mash-up incongruous genres (and intellectual properties), much like little boys and girls do with their actual toy collections, wherein it might not be uncommon for Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, and Barbie to team up against Captain America, He-Man, and Papa Smurf. It was nice to see this bit of anarchic, cross-promotional foolishness continue from one film to another.
For middle-aged comic books buffs, there are Easter Eggs galore. We get obscure Batman villains rarely seen in print, let alone film (Calendar Man? Crazy Quilt? Zebra-Man?!). There is a SuperFriends house party, hosted by Superman (Channing Tatum’s adorably frat boy-ish take on the character continued from The LEGO Movie) at his “Fortress of (Not-So) Solitude” complete with a DJ-ing Wonder Dog, a groovy Martian “Dance”-hunter, and an “It’s a Small World”-esque conga line of Apache Chief, Black Vulcan, El Dorado, Samurai, and the Wonder Twins. Perhaps most impressively, The LEGO BatmanMovie manages to telescope nearly 80 years of Bat-history (comics, television, film) into a handful of nifty and very funny montages, simultaneously justifying LEGO’s iconically cracked take on the character while honoring all that has come before.
Upon Robin’s first joy ride in a hot rod-drawn-on-the-back-of-a-Trapper-Keeper version of The Batmobile, Batman turns to him, with his nails-on-a-chalkboard growl, and warns, “Life doesn’t give you seat belts.” And that is likely the most important message in these LEGO movies. Life is going to hand you a lot of lemons, so use your imagination and your inherent sense of joy to keep things fulfillingly messy … and, along the way, feel free to pour lemonade over the heads of anyone who tries to make you follow their arbitrary rules. Make your own rules, and break them freely and often.
From my personal collection. Yes, I’m nuts.
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A bleaker afternoon at the movies I don’t think I’ve ever spent. Get this for a double feature: The Hateful Eight AND The Revenant. Back-to-back. Six hours straight. Gruesome violence, rampant misogyny, flippant sociopathy, and snow … lots and lots of snow.
I’m not averse to revenge fantasy as a narrative arc. We all get to channel the murky, marginalized, pre-pubescent rage of our middle school years watching some big-screen hooligan seeking sweet justice. Yet, how many movies like this do we really need?
(Having just completed a brief, shining stint on jury duty this morning, I’m even more averse to cinematic celebrations of vigilantism at the present.)
The Hateful Eight is quintessential Quentin Tarantino – which means it is as artistic and provocative as it is juvenile and misanthropic. Tarantino, in his novelistic and verbose style, turns cowboy romanticism on its head, telling the sordid tale of eight (seems more like nine or ten, but whatever) fugitives (literal and/or emotional) who converge on a general store (the comically named “Minnie’s Haberdashery”) amidst a teeth-rattling blizzard. The MacGuffin animating the plot is actually a person not a thing – though the way murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh as the MacGuffin in question) is disturbingly manhandled through the film makes that distinction debatable. Domergue is a bloody Raggedy Ann doll, banjo-eyed and tragicomic, two-parts Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and one-part Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie.” She’s one of the best things in a film that otherwise can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a testosterone fever dream or an epic indictment of male ego. Leigh’s droll turn coupled with Ennio Morricone’s throbbingly beautiful horror show score save the film for me.
The rest of the cast includes Samuel L. Jackson becoming even more of a Cheshire Cat-caricature of himself as a Civil War veteran and bounty hunter who magically always seems to be 17 steps ahead of any other character; Kurt Russell as an Old West Remington Painting Cossack who speaks with John Wayne’s wiggly weird voice; Tim Roth in the Christoph Waltz role as an oily, glib, bespoke-dressed hangman; Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen basically playing Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen in Reconstruction Era clothing; Demian Bechir giving us yet another in a shamefully long line of stereotypically duplicitous Latinos; and Walton Goggins as a gummy, big-toothed take on the sweaty, nervous, hair-trigger, hammy loon that always pops up in a movie like this. Oh, Channing Tatum, burying any sparkle he has under a mound of Dippity Do, slides in at the three-quarters mark in one of those chronological misdirects that Tarantino employs … to the point of cliché. How many hateful people is that now? 62?
Did I hate The Hateful Eight? No. Yet, I’m struggling to discern why mid-career Tarantino flicks like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds – equally violent and similarly reckless in their disregard for our common humanity as Hateful Eight is – resonate with me so much more profoundly. Recent efforts like Eight and Django Unchained leave me a bit cold (and a lot worried). Some of it could be my age, and some of it could be that the real world is ever more perilously resembling the fictitious community of Red Apple cigarette smoking fiends that Tarantino gleefully depicts.
However, I also hypothesize that Bill and Basterds both reveal an empathy for the underdog and have a kind of constrained feminism/humanism at their core. Django and Eight – as beautifully as they are filmed (Eight especially with its sumptuous Panavision vistas and claustrophobic production design) – have a caustic ugliness in their DNA that belies the apparent intent behind Tarantino’s cartoonishly extreme brutality. He always seems to be suggesting to certain members of his audience, “Oh, you like guns? Oh, you hate [insert race/gender/faith/ethnicity here]? Oh, you like throwing around sexual grotesqueries for comic effect to create discomfort? … Well, here’s what that really looks like. Still interested in carrying that behavior into daily life?” Yet, with The Hateful Eight, I am not sure where pornography ends and social critique begins.
That said, The Hateful Eightentertained me. I could not take my eyes away for a second … which is saying something, especially in its grinding last 45 minutes. The Revenant, on the other hand, is a high-minded bore that had me checking my watch every twenty minutes. (In its defense, I did see it after spending three hours in Tarantino-ville.)
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a retro trip into frontier vengeance with a heaping helping of postmodern enlightenment. Whereas Eight wears its aspirational abhorrence on its bloody sleeve, The Revenant, directed by Birdman’s Alejandro Inarritu and starring Leonard DiCaprio as fur-trapper Hugh Glass, plays its politics a little closer to the buckskin vest. As viewers, we enter the film, keenly aware of DiCaprio’s ecological advocacy, so it is unsurprising that the film takes a hardline on “you mess with the planet … the planet messes back.”
Yet, unlike Tarantino’s drama, there are no obvious black hats. One can even argue that Tom Hardy’s antagonist John Fitzgerald – who (spoiler alert) actually buries DiCaprio’s character alive shortly before slaughtering DiCaprio’s son – is no more evil than any other European-American in the film, motivated as they all are by the seemingly limitless money they hope to reap at the expense of the land and its inhabitants. These fools simply do not know any better, so why is it such a leap of logic that Hardy’s character goes from killing animals and Native Americans at a whim to extending those same courtesies to his fellow fur-traders? And that may in fact be the film’s thesis … or I may be projecting, as the film is so frustratingly artistic (read: obtuse) that I wasn’t always sure what I was even watching. Ah, an Ansel Adams winter sky here. A glistening tree branch there. A floating shaman. A pyramid of bleached skulls. WTF?
For those of you out there who loved this film – be you survivalist or nature-lover – please don’t hate me for rooting for the bear, but I found myself slapping my knee in delight as Leo was tossed around like a chew toy by a mother bear protecting her cubs. Of course (another spoiler alert, essential for my animal-loving buddies out there) the CGI bear is killed, which squelched my buzz for the rest of the picture.
It is this mauling and Leo’s subsequent “Hey, I ain’t dead yet!” burial that sets up the vision quest/hero’s journey as DiCaprio crawls through the muck, grunting out all manner of guttural protestations, to stake his revenge on the man who done him wrong (Hardy). If chapped lips, broken appendages, greasy hair, and frost-bitten noses are your thing, then this is the film for you. I found it an interminable slog, with a concept that might have made a fabulous short-film but felt woefully padded at nearly two hours and forty minutes.
Early in The Hateful Eight, Tim Roth’s character observes, “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” Both film’s wrestle with this idea to varying degrees of success, ultimately losing the delicacy of this concept in self-indulgent largesse. The problem with Eight is that there may have been too much hot-blooded passion in Tarantino’s execution, drowning his critique of our white-washed conception of the Old West in a tsunami of Karo Syrup. And The Revenant remains too icily remote, enamored of its own gunmetal haze at the expense of visceral investment.
Someday Hollywood will figure out what to do with Zac Efron. He’s had success – obviously (High School Musical, Neighbors) – but he always seems to be nipping at the edges of super-stardom. A baby John Travolta or Tom Cruise, trapped in amber, all smoky pout, wounded charm, and barracuda ambition, but with nowhere terribly great to channel it. Heaven help us if he discovers Scientology.
Sadly, We Are Your Friends, his latest gambit to cement leading man status has been dead-on-arrival at the box office and is now pegged as a dismal and historic failure.
And that’s a shame because the movie ain’t half bad.
It’s a bit of a paint-by-numbers affair, cribbing from so many “lost in the valley” (literal and figurative) films depicting an aspiring hustler from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make good by lurking around the darker side-alleys of pop culture, nightlife, and fame – see: Saturday Night Fever, Boogie Nights, 8Mile, Swingers, Magic Mike, Step Up (hell, 75% of Channing Tatum‘s filmography-to-date, qualifies in fact).
In the case of We Are Your Friends, titled after the mid-aughts EDM hit by Justice vs. Simian, Efron and his collaborators, including director and co-screenwriter Max Joseph (Catfish), attempt to capitalize on the white-hot ascension of Southern California DJ-culture and said EDM (that would be “electronic dance music” to us fogies who used to call it, say, house or acid or techno or disco or … er … dance music).
With a healthy expectation for audience members to suspend our disbelief, former Disney star Efron plays a scruffy San Fernando Valley ne’er-do-well whose days (and nights) are spent in a drug-addled, thumping-bass haze as he and his pals bounce from club to couch to club again. The script is an under-baked affair, wisely relying on Efron’s charisma (which he has in spades) to fill in the (many) gaps where a bit of character-development might have saved the day.
Efron’s character Cole Carter (yeah, that name – trying a bit too hard for Cali cool guy chic, if you ask me) is an aspiring musician/producer/DJ with little direction and even fewer resources. In the kind of happenstance collision that only occurs in movies like this, Cole shares a cigarette with – and therefore befriends – world-class DJ (and jerk) James Reed (engagingly played by a glowering Wes Bentley, looking like Chris Evans’ sozzled, emaciated twin).
James gives Cole some superficial tutelage (the EDM Obi-Wan Kenobi version of “write what you know” … which is “grab some weird sounds on your iPhone that you hear around your house and put them in a song”). During a drunken night in Vegas, Cole steals James’ girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski of Gone Girland Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” video – oy.); James and Cole have an awkwardly staged fight in a bathroom stall; they stop speaking. Cole, consequently, loses a gig that would change his life; James and Cole make up; Cole finally takes his mentor’s advice and “hears the world”; they make up again. Cole performs said gig in front of an American Apparel warehouse (!), offering a hypnotically existential “let’s recap everything you just saw with some flashbacks, looped beats, and smoldering glances from Mr. Efron” denouement, and all is right with the world, when Cole and Sophie reunite over pie at a vegan cafe where she is now waitressing. Whew. Try that with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland!
Efron almost single-handedly keeps the proceedings from running off the rails into soap opera schmaltz. His beautiful loser gravitas gave Neighbors some much needed spice; and the same is true for We Are Your Friends. He is aided and abetted by an appealing group of misfits that trail around behind him. Shiloh Ferndandez, Alex Shaffer, and Jonny Weston play Cole’s bedraggled Valley Boys, as if Entourage were filmed in a Salvation Army somewhere.
After a third-act tragedy strikes this merry band of get-rich-quick schemers, the young thespians do some of their best work in the flick. It’s not their fault that we’ve seen this coming-of-age-in-postmodern-sprawl a million times now and that it was already tired the first time Steven Soderbergh visited this dusty cinematic strip mall. I just wish these actors had a more-focused script with which to work, one that spent time developing the interpersonal dynamic beyond the dreamer/hothead/nerd/gigolo cyphers the actors are given to play.
We Are Your Friends benefits from a game cast and a director (this is Max Joseph’s feature debut) who has a reasonably solid handle on pacing and visuals. (Joseph seems to be a Fight Club/David Fincher junkie as he has a lot of clever fun – nearly careening into self-indulgence – with rotoscoped animation, title cards, and subtitles.) Unfortunately, the script isn’t quite up-to-snuff, and a tighter job in editing would have likely helped as well.
At one point in the film, Cole’s buddy Squirrel (as played by Alex Shaffer) asks, “Are we ever going to be better than this?” – a query which becomes a clarion call for the misbegotten generation depicted in the film. And this same question might be asked of Efron’s sputtering movie career, full as it is of such unrealized promise. Time will tell.
Magic Mike XXL is a big, dumb himbo of a film, as unnecessary and aimless as the central road trip to a Myrtle Beach “stripper convention” (do those even exist?!) which it depicts.
Is the movie mindlessly entertaining with occasional shaggy charms? Of course. Does it suffer from lazy-cash-grab-sequelitis? You betcha.
I recall finding the original Magic Mike a warm-hearted surprise, with a shocking amount of depth and a keen eye toward skewering a hypocritical Southland (namely Florida), all surface Americana propriety with a scabrous, sleazy undercurrent bubbling to the surface.
That film’s intrepid band of “male entertainers,” led in a breakout actor/producer role by winsome Channing Tatum, may have been beautiful externally but, to a one, also held a tangled web of insecurities, addictions, dreams deferred, and stunted emotions inside.
It was a revelatory mix of voyeurism and schadenfreude. I wrote in my original review: “Like Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights before it, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike gives us a bleak portrait of how folks at a dead-end find escape (and cash) in grimy professions…accompanied by a disco soundtrack.”
Sadly, Magic Mike XXL jettisons both its original director (Soderbergh, who now steps in as cinematographer) and any attempt at depth. As directed by Gregory Jacobs, the dark grit of, say, a Saturday Night Fever is now replaced with the DNA of National Lampoon’sVacation‘s meandering, prurient travelogue.
That said, the film’s chief strength remains its cast. From Tatum to Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello through Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriguez, the boys all realize the way to their movie audience’s collective heart is not through an ab-tastic bump-and-grind but by telegraphing (what the paltry script will allow of) their respective characters’ inner-lives and bro-culture shortcomings. (Manganiello’s deftly comic routine in a convenience store with a bag of Cheetos, a bottle of water, and a surly clerk is worth the price of admission alone.)
There is also fun to be had as Jada Pinkett Smith takes over the swaggering cowboy emcee role from Matthew McConaughey. Who knew she could out cheese Mr. “All right, all right, all right” for dorky machismo? And, yes, she is doing that same posturing, tongue-clicking, finger-wagging thing she does in every movie (and episode of Gotham), but it’s a refreshing bit of zest in this slog of a film.
Elizabeth Banks pops up, channeling a variation of the fiercely intelligent, big-haired, predatory-entrepreneur-in-cupcake-clothing she does so well, and Andie MacDowell is luminous in yet another in her long line of Southern-fried doyenne kooks. The screen nearly breaks in half every time MacDowell gives one of those “cat-that-ate-the-canary” grins of hers.
A game and sparkling cast is sadly wasted here. The dance sequences are ineptly filmed (seriously, Soderbergh was the cinematographer here?!?). Narrative set pieces are interminable and dull (particularly the sequence where we first meet Pinkett Smith at her creepy bordello with its weirdo glowing couches and cave-like “Bride of Dracula” decor). The music selections are forgettable and crass. And the final conceit that each of Tatum’s cohorts will channel their true passion (painting, weddings, frozen yogurt?!?!) through their climactic routines is laughably bizarre.
Run, don’t walk, away from this one, kids. And, Hollywood, how about being brave enough to cast Tatum and Bomer (who has a glorious voice, by the way) in an honest-to-goodness musical with, you know, singing and dancing and choreography that keeps its participants all standing upright? That would be a charming escape and a much better use of the talents (and brains) of all involved. Just a thought.
Like some Oscar-bait cross between Million Dollar Armand Sunset Boulevard with a pinch of Psycho and Jane Eyre thrown in, Foxcatcher details the sordid tale of Olympic gold-medal wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz and their dubiously motivated benefactor John E. du Pont. The film is a slow moving, frosty enterprise that deftly skewers the out-of-touch misanthropy of one-percenters, the sweaty desperation of competitive athletics, and the strange sycophantic creatures known as athletic boosters.
Steve Carell, richly deserving his recently minted Oscar nomination, portrays the scion of the American chemical dynasty as a heartbreakingly creepy, incestuously inbred superpatriot whose preoccupation with Americana and misplaced mommy issues leads him to adopt a cadre of wrestlers to live and train on his sprawling estate. Vanessa Redgrave – in all of her three minutes of screen time – exonerates any lingering Freudian implications about du Pont’s mother, Jean, a world class horse trainer. With just a flicker of those legendary eyes and a pursing of the lips, Redgrave telegraphs, with a quietly, comically poignant thunderstorm intensity, her profound disappointment and confusion over the oddball son she raised.
You see, John du Pont runs around in a Revolutionary War three-quarter length jacket (when he’s not rocking a cheesy wrestling coach track suit), buys tanks to tool around his property, goes skeet shooting with the local police, insists that people call him “Eagle” or “Golden Eagle,” snorts cocaine, and decorates his home in a faux colonial style that would have been tacky during the ’76 Bicentennial. In other words, he would be a great addition to the Bush family. Sorry.
He aims to overshadow his mother’s equestrian accomplishments by helping Mark Schultz (and thereby ‘Murica) bring home the gold at the ’88 Seoul Olympics. Du Pont is a pathetically amateurish wrestler himself, with a very kinky preoccupation with singlets and wrestling mats. And an even kinkier preoccupation with the younger Schultz brother, as portrayed by Channing Tatum.
Tatum hasn’t gotten the accolades garnered by Carell as du Pont or by Mark Ruffalo as Mark’s older brother David. That’s a shame. Tatum turns in a brilliant variation of his standard lunkhead routine, swiping a bit from James Dean’s Cal Trask (East of Eden) playbook as the wounded, ever-ignored baby brother. It is this broken spirit that connects Mark with du Pont in a toxic brew of clammy co-dependence. As du Pont continues to derail the younger Schultz with his sociopathic manipulation, the thick-headed heartbreak of Tatum’s emotionally stunted Mark Schultz is palpable. His breakdown in a hotel room at the Olympic trials is epically harrowing (if not a touch overbaked).
Ruffalo, as always, is scruffy perfection as Tatum’s brother. He captures the pathetic swagger of an athlete whose accomplishments were forgotten before they even really began. Olympic gold for these brothers is more of a dead end than an open door. Ruffalo is warm and lovely and appropriately stilted in all of his interactions with family, not quite as stunted as his brother Mark … but awfully close. When he finally meets his tragic end, it is both shocking and expected but no less horrifying.
Director Bennett Miller, like Carell and Ruffalo, also has been nominated for an Oscar, though his recognition is arguably the least deserving. Bennett is brave enough to let the quiet moments speak for themselves, capitalizing on the expressiveness of his crackerjack cast to great effect. The movie’s strongest moments are in its silences; the most telling exchanges from a wordless look of disdain from one character to another.
However, the film’s pacing is ponderous, and, occasionally, Bennett allows the flick to devolve into TV movie clichés: Mark Schultz now has highlights in his hair … so he must be having an illicit relationship with du Pont; Mark Schultz is surrounded by beer bottles, so he must be letting training slide; Du Pont is snorting cocaine during a helicopter ride, so he must be a reckless ne’er do well; David Schultz can’t remember simple things like picking up his kids from school, so let’s have him write notes on his own hand like “pick up kids” which must show what a regular Joe he is. Ain’t that cute?
Regardless, the film is very much worth seeing, for the implications it offers regarding the super rich in this country … of their inability to understand the hopes and dreams of the rest of us, of their inability to see that we aren’t here as chattel for their amusement. To me, that was the most powerful message of all in the film, like Les Miserables in a wrestling ring.
Reel Roy Reviews 2
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)
When Pat and Marjorie Lesko approached me after my recent book-reading at fabulous local treasure Bookbound and asked if I would like to be a regular contributor in their pages, I was thrilled.
[Alas, this is likely the last contribution I shall make. Another story for another day.]
However, their movie review slot was already taken. (Phooey! but if you want to read my views on popcorn epics, please check out my blog at www.reelroyreviews.com…oh, right, you’re already here!) So they said to me, “How about culture? You’re a theatre guy. You must love to write about culture. I mean, this is Ann Arbor!”
“You got it!” I sheepishly replied, fearful to reveal my true colors as a pop maven who prefers “The Harlem Shake” over Shakespeare, The Mighty Thor over Jane Austen, and Kathy Griffin over the ballet.
[You can read my first contribution to The Ann ArborIndependent about Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre by clicking here.]
Pat, ever the good journalist, could see right through my ruse. “You haven’t gone to anything here, have you? No festivals, no art installations, no opera?” The jig was up. I suspected that my seven-year-successful-dodge of anything of artistic substance was about to come to a crashing halt.
Her next comment surprised me even more: “Good! Then you’re a blank slate. Write about that!” And like rat-a-tat Rosalind Russell from screwball classic His Girl Friday, she gave me a quick “Off you go!” and clicked off the receiver.
So … here I go. May as well start at the top … Top of the Park, that is.
Entering its 31st season, Ann Arbor’s famed Summer Festival was founded in 1984, and Top of the Park, the free outdoor cornucopia of movies and concerts and activities is arguably the fest’s most famous component. Of course, the festival is so much more, running from June 13 to July 6 with many ticketed offerings sprinkled about Ann Arbor, in addition to the outdoor events. (You’ve already read about Lily Tomlin’s opening weekend concert in The Ann Arbor Independent – I wonder if Pat would let me do those interviews in the future? Hmmm. I better be a good kid!)
If you want to find yourself overwhelmed, just check out the festival’s comprehensive website at www.a2sf.org – talk about sensory overload.
If I have any (feeble) defense to offer for our household’s neglect of this Ann Arbor mainstay, it may be that, for a Tree Town neophyte, all of this activity can shut down a person’s central cortex. If you don’t know where to start or even how to navigate the various locations and parking challenges therein, you might be tempted to just to head to the Rave or Quality and watch the latest Channing Tatum/Michael Bay/Pixar offerings with their predictable start times, easy access, and pre-digested storylines.
However, the evil geniuses at the festival must have anticipated this quibble, and they have introduced a mobile app (free!) that can be your pocket guide to all things Fest related. Having done a quick spin through the app, they nailed it. It’s easily searchable, responsive, social, interactive and with just the right amount of content to help you have a good time. Kudos!
So, now that I have no excuses, I turn to the people who may shake their heads in shame at my ignorance but love me anyway – my long-time Washtenaw County-based pals – for some much-needed guidance and advice. (I won’t divulge who, but I did have one comrade-in-arms who emailed, “I have never been there [Summer Fest] either. Don’t tell anyone!”)
Rebecca Hardin, associate professor at U of M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment (not to mention someone who has suffered playing my spouse in The Penny Seats’ production of What Corbin Knew and helps host the fabulous radio show It’s Hot in Here on WCBN, Friday from 12-1 pm), offers, “Highlights of past summer festivals, for me, include the acrobats from Australia towering over assembled crowds on enormous stilts, swaying among the roofs of Rackham, the Michigan League, and the Alumni Center, in brightly colored clothes. I also loved the eruption of local talent ‘from the ground up’ during a Bollywood flash mob dance moment…just look for ‘Bollywood flash mob connects communities’ on YouTube. Nothing compares to the chance to see local bands like Hullabaloo, eat local brands like Sylvio’s Organic Pizza, and just be, together with so many other Ann Arborites, grateful for the beautiful evenings.”
Clearly, Rebecca’s comments get to the heart of what makes Ann Arbor – and any of its various activities like Summer Fest – so special: spontaneity, creativity, involvement. And what a wealth of opportunities there are.
Beth Kennedy, Ann Arbor teacher and blogger (check out her witty ididnthavemyglasseson.com for a nostalgic yet fresh look at life in Michigan), concurs, “I love the music, people of all ages getting up to dance together, uninhibited, feeling the rhythm. I love that they moved it from ‘top of the park’ on top of the parking structure down to street level and never went back up to the cement wasteland. That change alone puts people in a very festive and friendly mood. The beer garden is nice … I have never seen anyone unruly while there … a good thing. Most events are free, except for a few headliners. As a teacher, I adore that they have had the children’s bands perform here, giving them a friendly open space to play, with a receptive audience. I do wish there were more food stand choices, but those seem to be growing each year. Free movies at dark are great with classics and cult films. I will add that family ones are challenging because most kids are asleep by that time but that is just a consequence of Daylight Savings Time, alas!”
The challenges of kids, movies, and late sunsets seem to be a common refrain.
Ian Reed Twiss, an Ann Arbor resident and the pastor at Saline’s Holy Faith Church, remarks, “When the weather’s good, Summer Fest is a lot of fun to hang out and just listen to music. They have had some great high-wire and circus-type acts out on the green as well. When we were childless, we used to go for the outdoor movies too, but haven’t done THAT in a while. We haven’t participated in any of the ticketed items at, say, The Power Center, but the offerings look great.” (As an aside, Ian mentioned another event to pass along. Summer is a month of fun but it can also be a great time to re-establish community. “et al,” a group aiming to create an inclusive and affirming environment for LGBT individuals and families in the Saline community through education and legislative advocacy and support, hosted a Gay Pride event on June 20, at Mill Pond Park in Saline. It was a meet-and-greet, and local political leaders attended. It was co-sponsored by the Saline High Gay Alliance “Spectrum” and Diversity Circle. Thanks, Ian!)
Top of the Park definitely is the gateway for most attendees to Summer Fest’s offerings overall. One downside is that there seems to be some disconnect between the ticketed fare and what people commonly think of when they hear the words “Ann Arbor Summer Festival.”
Rebecca Biber, local music instructor, pianist, and conductor, remarked, “Is that where they have Top of the Park? I have enjoyed an outdoor movie on occasion, because there is beer for the adults and the audience tends to have good camaraderie, yell out lines, and so on. And some of the local bands are good. Actually, this month on my birthday, the Fest is featuring two bands I have been meaning to see for years: The Crane Wives and the Ragbirds. If you are up for some on-site research, I would love to drag you along.”
[Note: I didattend and it was fabulous!]
Well, look at that? My Summer Fest dance card is starting to fill up.
Linda Nyrkkanen, founder (and baker) at Flour Lab, Inc. (if you see her at the farmer’s market in Kerrytown, you must buy her cookies, eat immediately, and then buy some more), echoes Rebecca’s perspective, “I must confess that I am not a regular attender either, although I have been to a few of the free movies at Top of the Park. The first one was the Wizard of Oz back when I was in college, and it was pretty magical seeing my favorite childhood movie under the stars with my friends. And fast forward to current times – we saw E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial a few years ago with our friends Sean and Rachel. So fun! I don’t know if this helps you or not, but just wanted to share my limited experience. I know the musical performances are great too, but it’s the outdoor movies that hold the most memories for me. I think you and John should definitely try to catch one this year.”
Now that I have my marching orders, keep an eye out – you may just see us wandering about, iPhones in hand, scrolling through the many offerings, looking bedraggled, possibly dehydrated, but with big smiles on our faces as we’ve finally immersed ourselves in one of Ann Arbor’s signature events: “The Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s mission is to present a world-class celebration of arts and entertainment that enriches the cultural, economic, and social vitality of the region.” Well, all right – sounds good to me! See you next fall, Channing Tatum!
[P.S. Wonder what the heck “Tongues in Trees” indicates? One of the first monologues I ever delivered on-tage 20 years ago in Wabash College’s production of “As You Like It” directed by Michael Abbott – click here … not me reading it, but you get the drift.]