Movie Review ~ Magic Mike XXL

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Three years after Mike bowed out of the stripper life at the top of his game, he and the remaining Kings of Tampa hit the road to Myrtle Beach to put on one last blow-out performance.

Stars: Channing Tatum, Amber Heard, Adam Rodriguez, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Gabriel Iglesias, Jada Pinkett Smith, Andie MacDowell, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Glover, Michael Strahan

Director: Gregory Jacobs

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: You only need to glance at my 2/10 review of 2012’s Magic Mike to know that Steven Soderbergh’s scuzzy stripper drama wasn’t my favorite movie of that year.  An ugly looking film that tried to supplant its grim slime by tossing toned abs around with aplomb, I wasn’t distracted enough to be convinced that the movie was anything more than a last gasp effort from Soderbergh to instill some meaning into a meandering career.  Thankfully, after pounding the nail into his coffin with 2013’s dismal Side Effects Soderbergh took leave of the director’s chair, allowing us to attempt to fondly remember the director that gave us a string of dynamic films (like Erin Brockovich before petering out.

Well, while Soderbergh isn’t directing Magic Mike XXL his presence is still felt in his cinematography an editing  (both contributed under pseudonyms) and it turns out the audience is all the better for it.  Magic Mike XXL is that rare unicorn of a sequel that’s better than its predecessor in every way imaginable, leaving the original to be looked at as a curious exposition film that laid the groundwork for this superior sequel.

Picking up three years after Mike (Channing Tatum, 22 Jump Street) hung up his thong and tried to start his own business, we soon see that times are tough, his girl is gone, and a chance meeting with his old dancing buds rekindles a need in Mike to put some Magic back into the daily grind.  Accompanying his crew to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, FL (because, of course it’s there) with stops along the way to vogue at a gay bar, hob nob with some mature Southern Belles (including a scene stealing Andie MacDowell), and reconnect with an old employer (the dynamite Jada Pinkett Smith) Mike and his gang of booty shakers take audiences along for a road trip adventure that’s pretty damn entertaining.

Though it features less nudity (sorry ladies and gents) than the first film, there’s no shortage of seriously raunchy dancing, the kind of bump and grind action that had my preview audience squealing with delight when they weren’t laughing.  I had low expectations going into this one based off of my disdain for Mike’s first movie but almost from the get-go it was obvious this was a whole new ballgame with a roster of MVPs in the waiting.

Over the past three years Tatum has become a true blue movie star and that self-assuredness is put to good use here.  I felt the first film (and Tatum’s performance) was more arrogant than confident but here the opposite is true.  Tatum knows he has the moves, looks, and body to make this character a living breathing entity and it shows…but without that self-congratulatory glint in his eye he had last time.  This is a character that’s evolved by leaps and bounds over the years and Tatum easily shimmies and shakes his way to another star performance.

Though he’s the headliner, Tatum is more than generous with screen time for his co-stars.  Joe Manganiello (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) may have Tatum beat in the overall handsome department but what he’s lacking in dance moves he makes up with an awareness for his ability to sweep in and steal a scene or two.  His convenience store seduction of an otherwise tuned out store clerk is a highlight of the film.  Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriguez are given the spotlight as well but Matt Bomer edges them out for the third supporting role and that’s where the film falters a bit.  Bomer is built like a studly Ken doll and has the plastic personality to go along with it.  His scenes have a false quality to them, not helped by Bomer’s inability to truly convince us of the character he’s playing.  I kept waiting for him to reveal himself as gay but instead we’re treated to him waxing philiosopical via New Age catch phrases and singing too much, especially in the finale.

The finale.  Now here’s where the film really accomplishes something spectacular.  Once they arrive at the stripper convention (what exactly IS a stripper convention?  I sorta wanted to see the guys walking around a trade show setting looking at next-gen thongs that double as a FitBit) Mike and co. work out a five ring circus of a routine that finishes the film off with a major bang, giving each member of the group a moment in the naked spotlight to show off his special talent.  It’s a boffo extravaganza of flesh and good-natured raunch, possibly the best example yet in 2015 of a movie giving the audience exactly what they came for.

Director Gregory Jacobs (Soderbergh’s long-time assistant director) keeps things lively and appealing, and I’ll admit that Soderbergh’s cinematography is visually pleasing and very much in line with his famous style.  The soundtrack to the original film was a heinous mix of awful cover songs but the soundscape here fits right in with the breezy atmosphere.

It’s just a whole lot of fun.  Where the previous film was more concerned with showing the seedy underbelly of the world of male strip clubs, the sequel couldn’t care less about it.  I thought I’d leave Magic Mike XXL with the same bad taste in my mouth that I had after taking in the gross original but instead I felt like making it rain for Tatum and his pals…something I’m sure audiences will have no trouble doing this weekend.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Erin Brockovich

The Facts:

Synopsis: An unemployed single mother becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply.

Stars: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger

Director: Steven Soderbergh  

Rated: R

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though Roberts had been nominated twice before for an Oscar (for Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman), it was her loose performance as the title character in this David vs. Goliath true life tale that finally brought her an Academy Award…and it remains some of her best work.  While Roberts gets much of the credit, you can’t forget the strong support she received from  Albert Finney (Skyfall, The Bourne Legacy) as her boss, Susannah Grant’s snappy script and Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects, Magic Mike) sitting in the director’s seat. 

Brockovich was an unemployed single mom when she fast talked her way into a job at a small law firm headed by Ed Masry.  Though she didn’t look the part and definitely didn’t talk the part, Brockovich became a valued asset to the firm as she became a champion for the case of a town affected by the deadly dumping of toxic chemicals. 

Roberts is on fire here…you can tell it’s a role she believed in and a director she had faith in…and it all comes together to be a very satisfying picture.  Some have argued that it was Roberts popularity in (and money-making for) Hollywood that helped her win but this is exactly the kind of role that the Academy is known to eat up.  And who doesn’t love a good old fashioned tale of the little guy/gal triumphing over evil?

Movie Review ~ Side Effects

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman turns to prescription medication as a way of handling her anxiety concerning her husband’s upcoming release from prison

Stars: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vinessa Shaw

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Lately, the side effects of a Steven Soderbergh film are usually indifference so it doesn’t come as a huge shock that Side Effects follows suit.  In 2012 Oscar winning director Soderbergh released two vastly different pictures.  The first was January’s Haywire, an action showcase for its star Gina Carano and I wound up liking it more than I probably should have.  The second film was the wildly popular and wholly awful Magic Mike (it made my worst of the year list) which may have set tongues a-waggin but left me a-gaggin.  Entering 2013, Soderbergh has delivered another peculiar puff of a movie featuring A-list stars in an agonizingly ordinary script.

Familiarity is the name of the game here with Soderbergh re-teaming with his Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for this iffy thriller with a plot ripped from any number of Law and Order episodes.  Contagion was an interesting film that played well in the moment but disintegrated if you really sat down and thought about it.  With Side Effects, no thinking is required.  There’s nothing original here so your enjoyment of the movie is entirely dependent on how much you like the stars that pass through the glossy world filmed (under his usual pseudonym Peter Andrews) by Soderbergh himself.

Though Tatum receives high billing, he’s more of a supporting player in the story of a psychiatrist (Law) put through the wringer by one of his patients (Mara) as she deals with a depression that remerges when her husband (Tatum) is released from prison after serving time for insider trading.  Yes friends, right off the bat we’re supposed to buy that Tatum is playing a character savvy enough to be a financial crook while living in a luxurious mansion in Greenwich.  Don’t get me wrong, Tatum is a better actor than we all first believed but a high level business executive?  I don’t think so. 

Mara employs the same wild eyed chilly detachment which made her Oscar nominated turn as the title character in 2012’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo so successful.  Here, though, that same approach comes off as sleepy…maybe it’s the fact that her eyebrows have grown back.  Though she has an interesting take on the character, she can’t really get to where she needs to be when the film requires it so she winds up as someone running after a train that’s taken off without her.

Ten years ago, Law may have played Tatum’s character but he’s an engaging centerpiece to the trivial plot twists the film employs.  Law plays his role pretty close to the chest for the first hour or so until he must give way to the script and hop in line with his heretofore ethical character suddenly changing his tune.  He’s married to a woman (Shaw, Hocus Pocus) that’s about as loyal as the day is long and soon he’s left to fend for himself against some increasingly unbelievable situations.

The best scenes are probably the scant few between Law and Zeta-Jones (Rock of Ages) as a previous therapist of Mara’s character.  The two actors crackle together and Zeta-Jones especially lets every dippy piece of dialogue coo out of her mouth with pleasure.  I especially liked a brief moment outside of a restaurant when Zeta-Jones goes after Law with unusual rage…it’s the most real moment in the whole picture that’s beneath the talents of all involved.

If I’m being deliberately cagey about what kind of film Side Effects breaks down into it’s because even though the plot is beyond also-ran it still is entertaining in a strange way.  It’s pretty much the perfect length and doesn’t overstay its welcome too much, although you may be tempted to glance at your watch occasionally.  Soderbergh and co. keep things zipping along at a nice jaunt so even though you can see the finish line halfway through the race, you still are involved enough to stick with it.

The Silver Bullet ~ Side Effects

Synopsis: A woman turns to prescription medication as a way of handling her anxiety concerning her husband’s upcoming release from prison.

Release Date:  February 8, 2013

Thoughts: Well, if there’s one thing that you can say about Steven Soderbergh it’s that he doesn’t like to pin himself down in any one genre.  That can be frustrating at times for fans of his work as he’s been on an interesting run of inconsistent films in the past few years.  I for one still think Magic Mike was a piece of crap but I did enjoy Haywire and Contagion.  Re-teaming with his Contagion writer, Soderbergh has assembled a familiar stable of actors including Channing Tatum (The Vow, Magic Mike), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Rock of Ages), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Jude Law (the upcoming Anna Karenina).  I get the feeling we’ll be in familiar territory with this film…so here’s hoping that the wobbly Soderbergh style doesn’t take over what looks to be a decent thriller.