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Column Fri Jun 29 2012

Magic Mike, Ted, People Like Us, To Rome with Love, Last Ride, Invisible War & Paul Williams Still Alive

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With The Amazing Spider-Man opening Tuesday, July 3, I didn't want you to have to wait until next Friday to read my review of it, so I've already posted it on Ain't It Cool News for your perusal. Lots to talk about this week, and most of it's well worth your time and money to check out. Shall we continue?

Magic Mike

I've actually had people say right to my face that they have no interest in seeing Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike because they'd be uncomfortable watching a movie "about a bunch of dudes taking their clothes off." For those of you who think that way, you're actually part of the problem. I don't mean the problem of the current movie-going public; I mean the problem in the world. Without calling any of you insecure in you own masculinity, the bigger issue is that a lot of people don't hold good movie making in high regard any longer.

As a wise person once said there are no such things as boring stories, only boring storytellers, and Soderbergh is about as far from being a boring storyteller as one can get. He finds small, unseen corners in every story he tells that other filmmakers wouldn't dream of noticing. He shies away from no subject, because he knows that somewhere in every plot is a human story just waiting to rise to the surface. But none of this means anything if he doesn't also find value in making his movies fun. And above all other things — the eye-opening look at the sleazy, behind-the-curtain, drug-, alcohol-, and sex-fueled life of a male stripper — Magic Mike is a whole lot of fun.

The world that Mike (Channing Tatum) exists in is actually seen through two sets of eyes. He sees this job (and one or two others he has at any one time) as a means to an end — he wants to design, build and sell custom furniture through his own company. But at one point late in the film, someone actually accuses him of liking the attention that stripping gets him, and he seems stunned, either by the accusation or the fact that it has taken him this long to realize it. The other set of eyes viewing this existence belong to Adam (Alex Pettyfer, most often referred to as "The Kid" in the movie), who Mike meets on a construction site and decides to take under his wing and bring him into the stripping life. Adam resents all manner of authority, but he takes to Mike because he doesn't feel like a boss, even when he pushes The Kid on stage when another dancer is forced to drop out.

Mike meets The Kid's sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), and he sees a spark of independence in her that he recognizes. She's not the kind of woman he typically meets at the club (and usually beds shortly there after). She's trying to look out for her brother, who's a natural-born fuck up. At it's core, Magic Mike is actually about the constantly shifting relationship between these three characters; everything else is there to make us laugh and dance, and there's no shame in that.

Working from a script by Reid Carolin, Soderbergh doesn't focus much on the other dancers that Mike works with. While most of them (played by the likes of Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello and Adam Rodriguez) doesn't get nearly as fleshed out off stage as they do on, there's enough backstage banter and behavior to give each secondary player something interesting to build on. The real bolt of lightning in Magic Mike comes in the form of Matthew McConaughey, who is absolutely shot out of a cannon as Dallas, the club owner and emcee. McConaughey goes from lovable mentor and business partner to Mike to threatening thug about as fast as velcro pants come flying off these guys. Between this film, Bernie, and the upcoming Killer Joe, McConaughey is having the best year of his acting career.

Although it came as no surprise to me, it was great to see Tatum really play to his strengths as both a dancer (his final routine on stage is jaw dropping before he takes a stitch of clothing off) and an actor who seems to get better with each role. He finds time to tap into his background as the star of romance films in his scenes with Horn, and he reminds us of his surprising gift for comedy as well.

It is actually possible to make a smart movie populated by not-smart characters. And while Mike and Brooke are certainly the smartest of the bunch, Soderbergh has chosen to show us a lifestyle where people tend to life recklessly and without regard for consequences. Mike manages to live mostly on the right side of the sleaze that surround him, but that doesn't mean he isn't occasionally caught up in other people's messes. It's fascinating watching him drift between worlds, never committing to one but never staying completely out of trouble either.

On the surface, Magic Mike is a film about picking up women, making money, partying, and man ass. But dig a little deeper in that man ass, and you'll find a story about the benefits and perils of possessing ambition in an environment that appreciates it to a point. This is a step in an extremely entertaining and thought-provoking directions for everyone involved, and I'm particularly interested to see where Tatum goes next (after he puts that G.I. Joe sequel in his rearview).

To read my exclusive interviews with Magic Mike stars Channing Tatum and Joe Manganiello, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Ted

I always find comedies the most difficult films to review, especially the ones I like. A comedy can go so many different directions of bad, so that makes the crap ones easier to write about. But when one goes right, the end result is laughter, or at least a big smile, and without going through the film joke by joke, that makes things tough, but we'll give it try: Ted is fucking awesome because it takes the magic of childhood and perverts it in the form of a stuffed, horny vulgarian with a Boston accent (redundant, I know). And I had a hard time not laughing at just about every second of this film.

I know there are plenty of people on this planet who can't stand Seth McFarlane, creator of "Family Guy" among many other things, but I happen to like his sense of humor. But I don't think being a fan is a prerequisite for enjoying Ted, a film that, unlike McFarlane animated efforts, has a cohesive story about friendship clashing with love and a future that may force the human center of the story (Mark Wahlberg's John) to part ways with his oldest friend, a worn-out stuffed bear voiced by McFarlane. But Ted isn't one of those imaginary friends that some kids have; no, he's a walking, talking creature that the whole world can see and hear. When John was still a kid, Ted became a superstar (his "Tonight Show" appearance is quite genius), but like all novelty acts, his celebrity faded, and Ted came back to John to live out the rest of his days.

When we meet the grown-up Ted and John, they are getting stoned, eating cheese puffs, and watching the 1980 Flash Gordon, starring Sam Jones, for the 800th time. John has been dating Lori (Mila Kunis) for four years and working at a rental car dealership. He wants to have a better job and finally get married to Lori, but his inner child (personified by Ted) is holding him back. One of the things I loved most about Ted is that there are no villains among the leads; Lori isn't trying trying to keep Ted and John apart. She just wants John to grow up, and she doesn't think that can happen with Ted living with them (clearly, she has tried living this way for years).

So the real fun in Ted comes when the bear moves out, gets a job, and is constantly tempting John to get together and fall back into their old patterns at a new address. I don't mean to imply there are no villains at all in the movie. Giovanni Ribisi is especially twisted as Donny, who is looking to buy or otherwise acquire Ted for his special son. I think the film would have been just as good without that subplot, but it certainly doesn't spoil the fun. In fact, there's a moment with Ribisi that might stand as the creepiest moment of the year on film; it involves him dancing; you'll know it when you see it.

Ted works first and foremost because the relationship strike an honest chord. Ted is obviously a metaphor for those friends we keep from our youth who maybe don't grow with us and are still clinging to the past. And the conversations Ted and John have actually sound like two good friends shooting the shit on any number of topics. But the biggest surprise was how even-handed Lori is written by McFarlane (and fellow "Family Guy" co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild). She's not a nagging harpy and shrieking bitch. Instead, she's the most rational thinking of them all and certainly the character with all the patience.

But Ted is a great comedy not just because it has heart, which it does; it's great because it's funny in ways I haven't seen before, certainly not from McFarlane. There is some strong supporting work from the likes of Joel McHale, Patrick Warburton, and Matt Walsh, as well as some downright inspired cameos (I won't ruin those), but this film's core strength belongs to Wahlberg (who is so much more than just a straight man to the bear), Kunis, and McFarlane's Ted. I've seen a few truly inspired R-rated comedies this year, but Ted tops them all for sheer volume of laughter. Will you find it too gross or going too far at times? Let's hope so.

People Like Us

The feature directing debut from mega-successful science-fiction/adventure writer (Star Trek, Transformers, Mission: Impossible III) Alex Kurtzman (who wrote this along with his writing partner Roberto Orci and Jody Lambert) is a classic example of chemistry and reliable acting saving an over-baked story. Were it not for the magical acting powers of Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks, People Like Us might have been a very painful film to endure. Instead, what we get is a curious story about a slick salesman (Pine) who returns to the home in which he grew up and finds out that he has a half-sister he never knew about, courtesy of his philandering father.

I assume situations like this occur a bit more frequently than we may realize, but that doens't stop this scenario from feeling a little forced, bordering on false. But Banks (playing a bartender and struggling single mom) and Pine co-exist so well together that they bring believability into the picture. Banks' Frankie also is a recovering substance abuser who hadn't seen the father since she was a kid, and is having a tough time dealing with abandonment issues that clearly have fueled her history of bad choices in men and left her son a mess of a kid who likes to blow up pools. The introduction of Pine into their lives (he doesn't reveal their connection right away) is almost more than she can handle, even though he presents himself as a guy who has no interest in sleeping with her and only wants to help her and the kid out. Naturally, she thinks he's too good to be true.

Frankie is a woman who has no time for a man in her life. She has sex when she needs it with the sweet, slightly weird dude who lives in the apartment below her (played by the underused Mark Duplass of all people); Pine is a guy who is so focused on making money that he barely has time for the beautiful girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) who desperately wants to guide him through this time in his life where he's both bitter and in mourning over his father. His mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) isn't much help, and he seems to get the greatest comfort from a woman who doesn't even know they're related and going through the same struggles. This is all subtext of the script; the problem is the text of the script isn't nearly as interesting as what lies beneath. Kurtzman and Orci aren't happy unless there are big moments or drastic dramatic shifts in the story, and none of that is necessary or as interesting as just watching Pine and Banks interact, moan about their lives, and work things out. Those are the best moments in People Like Us, and there are simply not enough of them.

All of that being said, I hope Kurtzman is inspired to make more films like this one. He proves he has an ear for heartfelt, angst-ridden conversation, and I enjoyed hearing these two solid actors deliver his dialogue. Maybe next time he'll cut away the fat and get to the meat of his story a little more convincingly. People Like Us is a decent first effort, but there's not quite enough there to fully recommend it.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with star Chris Pine and writer-director Alex Kurtzman (http://www.aintitcool.com/node/56619), and star Elizabeth Banks.

To Rome with Love

Woody Allen is still a machine, and instead of making just one film set in this stunning, borderline idealized version of Rome, he's made four short films that I'm pretty sure don't connect in any way. And like any film with multiple storylines, each features their own set of characters, you'll likely love certain ones and tolerate the others (none of them are worthy of hating at least).

My two favorite threads are one involving Alec Baldwin as a celebrated architect revisiting his youthful haunts with young architect (Jesse Eisenberg). What's fascinating is that as the segment goes on, we realize something about Eisenberg's character and the love triangle (with Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig) he's involved in. Baldwin takes on the role as unseen (to everyone but Eisenberg) advisor in a very Play It Again, Sam manner that I liked. The other enjoyable story stars Allen himself as a former music industry player who specialized in staging operas, who comes to visit his recently engaged daughter (Alison Pill). Her soon-to-be father-in-law, a mortician (real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato), turns out to have an exceptional voice — but only under very specific circumstances, which Allen tries to recreate on stage. It's old-school absurdist Allen, and having him back in the front of the camera provides for some old-school one-liners that had me rolling.

The two other stories didn't quite connect for me in the same way. I appreciated Robert Benigni's low-key performance as an ordinary man who suddenly becomes the most famous man in Rome, but the surreal way the plot plays out seemed obvious, forced and dated. And the scenario involving a stunning Penelope Cruz as a prostitute who gets thrown in with a recently married man's life just falls flat, and I'm not even sure what the moral of that particular story was meant to be. Either way, the thread was kind of unpleasant. But overall, To Rome with Love has more to like than dislike, and as a fan of Allen's work in general, I'm just thrilled he didn't take a nose dive after the transcendent Midnight In Paris. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Last Ride

The details of this 2009 Australian feature that is just now making its way stateside courtesy of Music Box Films are sketchy, and that's exactly how director Glendyn Ivin wants them. There's a man (Hugo Weaving of The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies) and his young son Chook (Tom Russell) on the run from the authorities; there's been a violent act that has resulted in someone getting either seriously hurt or killed, and we're pretty sure Weaving committed the act. He's a sketchy looking guy with a temper and no patience. The two do a fugitive's drive of the outback's least desirable tourist spots, and as they travel, we get small bits and pieces of information about their history, where the boy's mother is, and what exactly transpired that led to the violence that put them on this path.

Last Ride is a measured work whose sole propulsive element is a savage performance by Weaving, who character wants so desperately to be a good father that he allows his son to essentially take over and make the decisions for them even if it means him getting captured (obviously, that's not his first choice). Weaving is so invested in this man's struggle that you simply can't take his eyes off him, and you're in a constant state of anxiety about what's going to happen to and between them. Last Ride is a film loaded with tension, even at moments I don't think it's meant to be there. Weaving just drags it along with him wherever he goes, and it elevates the film beyond simply telling a story to a place where every scene is fraught with emotional weight.

And I haven't even mentioned how unconventionally gorgeous the movie looks (the director of photography is Greig Fraser, whose exceptional work can be seen in Snow White and the Huntsman). In its own small way, Last Ride is perfect and flawed in the most interesting and unnerving ways, and that's why it rattled me into loving it. The film opens today at the Music Box Theate.

Invisible War

The statistics alone should be enough to keep any woman considering a career in the military to think about another line of work. The one that was most disturbing to me was that a woman in the US military is more likely to be raped by a male soldier than shot by an enemy combatant. What's perhaps even more shocking is example after example of how these women are treated by the investigators and chain of command after the incident(s) in question. This and so much more is the subject of director Kirby (Sick, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Outrage) Dick's latest documentary Invisible War, a film that is guaranteed to make you angrier than you've ever been in your life.

And as horrifying as the statistics may be (16,150 service members sexually assaulted in 2009), the thing that drives this unacceptable epidemic home is the testimony that Dick has compiled, most of which spares no detail or emotionally wrenching moment in the telling. The subjects break our hearts one after another, but the rage emerges when they describe the kind of organized coverup that results in nearly all attackers going free and unpunished. At the time of these incidents, there was no system of justice in place that took the decisions about what cases were investigated and brought to trial out of the hands of people who had a stake in the outcome. Many of the women were accused of adultery (because the rapist was married, not the victim), fraternizing with a superior officer, or conduct unbecoming.

An Audience Award Winner at Sundance this year, Invisible War is exactly the kind of public embarrassment required for changes to happen (and they already have since Sundance), but when we see one young former soldier with permanent jaw injury (courtesy of her attacker) get refused medical treatment coverage from the military because she wasn't in service long enough to qualify, that shows us how far things still need to change. As much as I'm sure many of you will avoid this film with every fiber of your being, you owe it to yourself to take a good hard look at this movie. If you're going to support the troops, make certain you support these troops as well. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Paul Williams Still Alive

One of the true joys of this year's SXSW Film Festival was the strange and wonderful documentary Paul Williams Still Alive, about the unavoidable presence of the singer-songwriter-actor-personality-game show contestant-"Love Boat" passenger-talk show guest host Paul Williams, a bizarre little man who could write a hit song with the bets of them ("Evergreen," "Rainbow Connection," "We've Only Just Begun"), and then show up on "The Tonight Show" either as a guest or guest host, and then pop up in a movie like Battle for the Planet of the Apes or Phantom of the Paradise or Smokey and the Bandit or The Muppet Movie. The man's accomplishments are well documented in history and this movie.

But what makes Paul Williams Still Alive fascinating as a lover of great music documentaries is that we actually see a process that I've never seen depicted on film before. Clearly a longtime fan, director Stephen Kessler began his desire to make the definitive biopic on Williams only after thinking the man was dead. So when he finally approached Williams, who saw his career take a downturn after the 1970s thanks to a healthy combination of drugs, alcohol and an inflated ego. Although Williams agrees to have Kessler follow him, he is clearly a reluctant subject for the beginning of the movie. And as the film goes on, we see the gradual process of Williams warming up to the director, and the two slowly but surely become friends. Some might complain that there's too much of the director's voice in the movie, but I don't think it takes away from Williams' story at all. And as a fan, Kessler actually heightens the experience in many way.

It's often moving, sad, thrilling to watch Williams at work and play today. He might only sell a couple hundred seats at a US nightclub, but when he travels to The Philippines, thousands of people come to greet him, and he's clearly in his element. Kessler also does a fine job contextualizing the time in which Williams became popular, perhaps in an effort to explain how this odd-looking, extremely charming guy became a superstar. This is a great look at a real talent.

The film plays for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Paul Williams will be present for audience discussion at the Saturday, 7:45pm screening, with me moderating the discussion. Director Stephen Kessler will be present at the Friday, 8pm and Saturday screenings.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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