Saturday, January 18, 2014

Magic Mike (2012) ***1/2

Would you believe Channing Tatum used to actually BE a stripper?  You probably would.  He‘s made quite a  career of being a himbo.  How ironic then that the movie that convinced me there is more to Tatum is the one where he takes his clothes off the most.  I wasn‘t just impressed by his acting, which is quite serviceable, if not Oscar-level;  Tatum was the major force behind this film.  He conceived the film, recruited Steven Soderbergh to direct it, and co-financed it.  The fact that the film was a massive hit with a budget of only $7 million suggests that Tatum is either an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with or at least very lucky.
Tatum stars as Mike, a guy hustling to make his fortune one way or another.  In addition to stripping, he works as a roofer, a car detailer, and furniture-maker.  He understands that he can’t make his living with his body forever, so he works tirelessly to become a successful businessman.  When Mike meets 19-year-old Adam, he takes him under his wing and introduces him to the world of stripping.  While Adam sorts himself out among all the money, girls, and drugs he can handle, Mike tries to parlay his longstanding position with strip-club owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) into a share of the growing business.  Meanwhile, Mike finds himself falling for Adam’s sister (Cody Horne).  He also faces the growing realization that most of the world, including the women he sleeps with, view him not as a hard working businessman, but as a “bullshit, 30-year-old, male stripper.”
“Magic Mike” manages the trick of making fun of stripper culture and the objectification of beautiful, young bodies while at the same time giving viewers a healthy dose of the same.  This was THE 2012 movie that women went to see with their friends, and what’s cool is that while they were getting an eyeful, they were actually watching a low-budget, Steven Soderbergh art film.  It’s a decent story, too.  The exploration of the Mike character, who is born with looks and charm but dreams of being something more, makes a good coming-of-age movie.
In a film with a $7 million budget, there aren’t going to be any car chases or explosions; the burden falls on the actors.  Channing Tatum delivers an admirable performance, even if the character seems a lot like every other character he has played.  He is basically a beefy, square-jawed action-figure, and it’s going to take some effort for him to break out of that mold and get into some roles that require actual acting.  (Adding “Movie Producer” to his resume will probably help.)  Maybe his career will mirror that of Matthew McConaughey, another guy who spent some time making money off his abs, but who is now a respected actor with a varied filmography and Oscar buzz.  In “Magic Mike,” McConaughey portrays Dallas with a flamboyance that is off the chart.
The only weak link in the cast is Cody Horn, who is such a bland, mouth-breather of an actress that she makes Kristen Stewart look like Meryl Streep.  Her acting is something of a distraction, but it turns out her dad is the chairman of Walt Disney Studios and the former president of Warner Bros.  When you are making a movie on a budget, I guess casting someone with family connections is what you have to do.  Come to think of it, this is a movie about people doing whatever they have to do to make a living, so maybe her casting is perfect.

3.5 stars out of 5

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Long Goodbye (1973) ****

When people talk about director Robert Altman, they tend to bring up the movie “Nashville.”  When the subject of movie adaptations of Raymond Chandler books comes up, most people immediately think of “The Big Sleep,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  For my money, though, the best Altman movie AND best Raymond Chandler adaptation is “The Long Goodbye.”  Starring Elliott Gould as timeless detective Philip Marlowe, the film beautifully translates the 1940’s detective into Altman’s early-‘70s L.A.
When the hapless Marlowe gives his friend Terry Lennox a late-night ride to the Mexican border, his world gets turned upside down.  Next thing he knows, Marlowe is being questioned by the police, and Lennox is being sought for the murder of Lennox’s wife.  When Lennox commits suicide in a Mexican hotel room, leaving behind a full confession, the cops turn Marlowe loose and call the case closed.  Marlowe, however, doesn’t buy his friend’s guilt, and he sets out to find the real killer.  The trail leads him through the usual noir rogue’s gallery of thugs, shady characters, and femmes fatales.
Philip Marlowe is the prototype for a legion of fictional private-eyes.  He walks through a world of scum and villainy bearing a code of honor that would probably have been called old-fashioned in the 1940’s, let alone the 1970’s.  He approaches a case nonchalantly, but keeps pushing and asking questions until, battered and bruised, he gets to what is always an ugly truth.  Some would say that Marlowe is such the prototype for this style of character that the genre is a cliché, and “The Long Goodbye” has some fun with the more familiar tropes of the genre.  In a scene with two police officers, Marlowe asks, “Is this the part where I ask, ’What’s this all about?’ and your partner says ’I ask the questions here.’?”  For the most part, however, Gould plays the character straight.
While there are aspects of the plot that may not hold up to scrutiny, the story is mostly engrossing.  It’s also very easy to look at.  Altman puts L.A.’s modernist architecture to work, setting every scene in some fascinating-looking building.
At the end of the day, though, what makes this film great is the Philip Marlowe character and Gould’s excellent, laconic, chain-smoking portrayal of him.  With his suits, his vintage car, and his code of honor, Marlowe is very much an anachronism.  Robert Altman has suggested that that was his vision, referring to the character as “Rip Van Marlowe.”  It really does feel like the man fell asleep in 1949 and awoke wearing a suit and tie in the amoral, casual world of 1973 with no idea what had happened in between.  His seeming indolence is just an act, though.  When it’s time for action, Marlowe is always where he needs to be.  When, in the end, Marlowe is told that when it comes to his moral code and his concern for the truth, “Nobody cares,” he is rock steady in his reply of “Yeah, nobody cares but me.”

4 stars out of 5