Robots, Strippers and the Best of 2015 (So Far)

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The idea that Hollywood is reliant on sequels and franchises is nothing new. If anything has changed, it’s that the films no longer have any real interest in working on their own terms. Call it the Marvel Effect if you wish, but the first priority of so many blockbusters these days seems to be the life of the franchise rather than the story they are attempting to tell in the moment. This is certainly the case with Terminator Genisys, which refurbishes the universe of James Cameron’s creation for the modern cinematic age. Of all the ways to make a new Terminator film, the method chosen by the filmmakers is truly one of the weirdest—it is at once a slave to the franchise’s past and a clear attempt at creating something new. It does neither job well, and ultimately betrays the best aspects of the franchise it is trying so hard to revitalize.

Genisys sets itself up as a new take on the story from Cameron’s 1984 original, told from the point of view of Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), the post apocalyptic soldier sent back to the ’80s to save the life of Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), the mother of mankind’s eventual savior, John Connor (Jason Clarke). However, it doesn’t take long for the film to reveal that the entire franchise’s timeline has been turned completely upside down. Now Sarah is fully aware of her place in the coming man vs. machine war, is protected by an older Terminator she names “Pops” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and enlists Reese to help stop Judgment Day from happening in the first place. It’s all a roundabout way to throw out the continuity of the previous films and embark on its own adventure, but Genisys greatly overestimates how much the audience cares about its labyrinthine plot.

Despite its willingness to go out of the way to acknowledge (and erase) previous Terminator movies, it really has no idea what made Cameron’s first two films tick. Gone are the horror elements, as well as the intimate nature of the threat. Sure, the events of past Terminator films have had global consequences, but Cameron got most of his tension out of the idea of one unstoppable machine against one or two humans. In his film, the future isn’t just coming… it’s coming for you. Genisys, meanwhile, could not be a less tense movie if it tried. Gone is the R-rated edge, and instead we get bloodless chase after bloodless chase, all leading up to yet another “stop the apocalypse machine” climax.

Directed by Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones, Thor: The Dark World), this is a film that fails to distinguish itself from the pack in any way. If anything, it feels like it’s playing catch-up with the current blockbuster environment, and goes out of its way to include a dumb credit stinger to assure you that more of the same will be coming later. (Though given its lukewarm take at the American box office, maybe not.) The cast carries itself well—I’ll admit this is the most I’ve liked Courtney onscreen—even if they aren’t required to do much acting. All in all, it’s a film isn’t execrable as much as it is utterly lame, and a reminder that no film is safe from being put through Hollywood’s modern franchise-making machine.

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Meanwhile, another film came out this past weekend that is entirely unfamiliar, and it isn’t because it has a unique story to tell. If anything, Magic Mike XXL is notable for its utter lack of plot. Here is a film that not only gives the people what they want, but spends many scenes openly engaging with that very idea. There’s no denying that this film is, first and foremost, a male stripping delivery service—one that had a woman in my audience let out a visceral “NO!” when the end credits started to roll—but it’s also one of the best musical/dance films Hollywood has produced in years. Much of the credit for this can go to the filmmaking (more on that later), but it’s difficult to separate the triumph of Magic Mike XXL and the current dominance of its star/producer Channing Tatum. Once he was an unassuming beefcake with a secret stripper past, something he tackled head on with the first Magic Mike in 2012. However, whatever sheepishness he once had about the topic is now entirely gone. Where the first film tended to look down at its protagonist’s profession, XXL offers a complete reversal. You’re damn right he’s a stripper—now look upon his abs, ye mighty, and despair.

Gone are the scenes of drug overdoses and financial hardship, and Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and Adam (Alex Pettyfer) have gone with them. Instead, we get the general outline of a plot that combines the road trip movie with a “one last job” heist film, but in this case it’s one last stripping free-for-all. When the film begins, the eponymous Mike (Tatum) is neck deep in his furniture business, and it’s not going quite as well as he’d like. He meets up with a few of his old stripper pals, played by Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash and Adam Rodríguez, who tell him they’re en route to a big stripper convention in Charleston, where they plan to perform. Mike initially declines, but after a brief solo dance session in his woodshed set to Ginuwine’s “Pony,” he joins the gang on their quest up I-95.

It is in this “Pony” scene when XXL makes its intentions clear: this ain’t your slightly older sister’s Magic Mike. As Tatum launches himself around the set like a bumpier and grindier Gene Kelly, the film happily announces that the party is about to start, and everyone’s invited. Above all, this film is a glorious showcase of all Tatum is made of, both literally and figuratively. This is his show, no question, but it’s equally heartening to see how the film goes out of its way to give its supporting cast things to do. Bomer, Manganiello, Nash and Rodríguez didn’t do much in the first film besides dance, but the sequel gives them all a moment or two in the spotlight. None is more delightful than a brief pit stop at a convenience store, where Manganiello attempts to entertain an apathetic cashier.

This all culminates in an electrifying series of setpieces at the aforementioned convention, which is shot like a Bob Fosse hallucination and presented at full volume for the theatrical audience. This is one of the many moments when director Gregory Jacobs and crew member Steven Soderbergh (who shot and edited, but didn’t direct because he’s retired, thank you very much) flex their technical muscle. This same film could have been indifferently made and still satisfied its target audience. Instead, it’s brilliantly done in all the right moments. Jacobs, Soderbergh, Tatum and company have created some of the best cinematic dance sequences I’ve seen in a while. None of it makes sense, and the whole undertaking is incredibly silly, but who cares when there’s a show to put on? I am a straight male, and thus the opposite of this film’s target audience, but I was thoroughly entertained from beginning to end.

I’m finding it incredibly difficult to skim the surface of this film, considering all the stops it makes along the way. Vox critic Todd Vanderwerff jokingly, but not incorrectly, described Magic Mike XXL as “Apocalypse Now with strippers” over the weekend, as he’s not wrong. That never feels more appropriate than during a pit stop at the house of Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), where various strip shows are performed every night. The guests and performers are predominantly black—Michael Strahan and Donald Glover are among them—and thanks to the dancing and cinematography, it is a glorious, beautiful sequence. It is barely connected to the rest of the movie, but it is absolutely vital. In Mike’s quest to put together a show for the ages, it provides inspiration. Even for professionals, there are always corners of the pleasure business that have yet to be explored.

There are other stops as well, including a drag show, a beach, and a house owned by Andie MacDowell. There’s even a romantic arc with Amber Heard that is best left unremarked upon. Despite the blowout that concludes the film, most of the major setpieces are rather intimate affairs, which no doubt contributes to the constant vibe throughout that Mike is dancing for you, girl. For its intended audience, Magic Mike XXL is an unqualified success. For other movie fans, there is so much here to appreciate and deconstruct—I can say with confidence that I could write a separate essay on every stop the boys make on their odyssey through the American southeast. Rarely has fan service been done this well, and it’s the result of a remarkably savvy superstar getting together with some skilled filmmakers and trying their best to bring the house down. If the woman who screamed “NO!” at the end of my screening is any indication, they succeeded wildly.

And now, the best movies of the year so far…

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We are officially halfway through the year, so I decided to provide you all with a list of my 10 favorite movies so far. I’ve listed them alphabetically, because I’m crazy like that, along with some info on how you can introduce them to your eyeballs right now. And with that, we’re off.

  • Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart star in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, a drama about acting and aging. It will be available on demand and DVD on July 14.
  • The British film The Duke of Burgundy is one of the more unique takes on relationships and romance you’ll ever see. It won’t be available for American audiences again until fall, because the world is garbage.
  • Alex Garland’s terrific artificial intelligence thriller Ex Machina is a terrific piece of both writing and filmmaking, and explores its premise to the fullest, most fascinating extent. It is currently available for digital purchase, with rental (plus DVD/Blu-ray) coming July 14.
  • Inside Out is the best Pixar film since Toy Story 3, and should provide thrills and poignance for children, their parents, and miscellaneous twenty-somethings like myself. Currently in theaters.
  • Horror premises don’t get much better than It Follows, and director David Robert Mitchell shows a skill for burrowing his way inside your brain and not letting go. It is currently available for digital purchase, with rental (plus DVD/Blu-ray) coming July 14. My heavens, July 14 is quite the day, huh?
  • Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is an enthralling look inside the mind of one of music’s most fascinating figures. It’s less a pure documentary than part rock movie/part disorganized collage, and it’s currently available on HBO Go.
  • George Miller returns to dystopian Australia in the magnificent Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the best action movies I’ve seen in years. It’s weird, it’s electrifying, it’s surprisingly progressive, and just generally everything you could ever want. It’s still hanging around in some theaters, but not for long.
  • Magic Mike XXL. Yep. See above.
  • Two couples take their newfound friendship to strange, risqué places in The Overnight, a terrifically performed (and suitably uncomfortable) sex comedy. Currently in theaters, and expanding every week.
  • Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig team up once again in Spy, and it winds up being the best thing they’ve ever done. Hilarious, dirty and surprisingly violent, it takes McCarthy’s cinematic persona in new, surprising directions. Currently in theaters.

Other cultural observations:

  • Holy crap, this Wet Hot American Summer trailer. The finished product may not hold together at all, but the fact that this exists at all is a hilarious miracle.
  • Paul Thomas Anderson has spent the last few years making masterpieces such as The Master and Inherent Vice, but unfortunately these films haven’t been that successful from a financial standpoint. Perhaps it was inevitable that a more commercial project was around the corner, and the time may be nigh: he has been hired to write a version of Pinocchio for Robert Downey, Jr., and there’s a decent chance he winds up directing. I’m not sure how to feel about this, but best of luck to him.
  • There are people on this Earth for whom London Has Fallen is an exciting prospect. I do not understand them.
  • On the other hand, this Creed trailer took me from indifferent to excited awful quick. You have to appreciate the folks involved, even if the Rocky connection feels kind of unnecessary.

That’s all, folks. See you next time!

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