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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 3, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 27
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Mike still has plenty of magic
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MAGIC MIKE XXL
Now playing


It's been three years since Mike (Channing Tatum) hung up his thong, left the Kings of Tampa, and gave up life as a well-paid male stripper to go into business for himself as a furniture designer. While the business is doing okay - not thriving, not bringing in big bucks, but well enough he can at least contemplate opening a retail storefront - that doesn't mean he isn't at a crossroads, something notable missing even if he can't pinpoint exactly what that is.

All of which makes it perfect that the remaining Kings of Tampa have dropped into town on their way to the annual male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, SC. Ken (Matt Bomer), Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Tito (Adam Rodriguez) and Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) find themselves cast adrift and on their own, so heading to the convention for one final ride only seems practical. Mike, eager for a few days off, takes their arrival as a sign, making up his mind to hit the road with them in order to re-solidify old friendships while also reigniting the creative spark within that's been absent for longer than he'd care to admit.

There's not a lot of actual plot in Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to 2012's surprise summertime smash Magic Mike. The movie is a random excuse to get the band back together, jettisoning what some (not me) considered the weak links (actors Alex Pettyfer and Cody Horn) instead choosing to focus instead on the bro-centric camaraderie of the returning sextet to the exclusion of almost everything else. Returning screenwriter Reid Carolin and new director Gregory Jacobs (Wind Chill) don't try to go above and beyond, but that doesn't mean they still haven't constructed something interesting, vital and most of all fun. Make no mistake, this is a good movie, and in all the ways that matter an even better sequel.

If anything, and go with me here, the movie is akin to an odd, hedonistic melding of Hal Ashby's 1973 classic The Last Detail and Jack Kerouac's landmark 1957 classic On the Road, a virtually plotless examination of self where the vignettes and what transpires during them is more important than the actual destination itself. There's maybe 20 minutes of plot, and that's stretching things, Carolin and Jacobs more interested in the people Mike and his group encounter on their way to Myrtle Beach than they are with anything analogous to narrative complexity.

And it works. It works because no one, especially Tatum, takes themselves too seriously, no matter how silly or over the top things become. It works, because the homoerotic underpinnings never devolve into camp but are played with lucid, existential authenticity. It works, because the six guys at the center of all of this have magnificent chemistry, each playing off the other as if they've been doing it since they were children cavorting on the playground. It works, because, let's face it, the dance-slash-stripping sequences are extraordinary, bristling with an electricity and an excitement that permeates through every fiber of this film's very being.

But, most of all, and somewhat strangely, it works because of how it treats women. It's kind of odd that, in a film with few primary female characters (there are two notable ones: one that is extraordinary, the other who is sadly anything but), and a film where the screaming throngs who are here by the dozens are stripped to as lewdly and as suggestively as possible, the film would end up making so many proudly feminist statements. The script doesn't so much put women on a pedestal as it treats them as fiery queens worthy of respect, a trait that struck me with surprise. More than that, though, it refuses to belittle them, their stories - both told as well as left to the viewer's imagination to figure out on their own - are almost always poignant, thought-provoking and emotionally complex.

Which leads me to where I was going in regards to the film's best character, which just so happens to be one of its few female ones. An important figure from Mike's past, the fiery, ferociously confident Rome runs a club where fantasy is reality and every woman who enters is treated like royalty. As portrayed by Jada Pinkett Smith, this woman is a rolling thunderbolt of femininity. She has no illusions about what it is she is selling yet at the same time isn't about to apologize for it, doing what she wants to when she wants to, never allowing a man even a passing chance to order her to do otherwise.

Smith steals the show. Her delivery is stupendous, the way she examines and analyzes what's going on mesmerizing. Rome's introductions to both the acts in her club and, later on, to the Kings of Tampa during the convention are hypnotic, the veteran actress slinking through the film with a carnal savagery that's unique. Smith rules every moment, and even when a dancer is bumping and grinding right next to her there's something about the performance that makes her an irresistible force of nature.

It's not all smooth sailing. A subplot involving Amber Heard (made up and dressed to look almost exactly like the departed Horn, which honestly is just plain bizarre) as beautiful loner Zoe goes nowhere. She's mainly around to allow Mike to get over his lost love, mending his broken heart as they meet periodically over the weekend's jaunt to South Carolina. She's the only absolutely useless character in the entire film, and considering how well the remainder of the women in this story are treated that's about as lamentable and frustrating a fact as any.

That the sequel doesn't suffer more due to this misstep is rather incredible. That it manages to soar to heights similar, if not quite equal, to its predecessor even more so. Jacobs, taking over for departed director Steven Soderbergh (whose presence is still nonetheless felt as he remains as executive producer, editor and director of photography), does a fine job maintaining momentum. More, he manages to manufacture a sense of merriment mixed with a sense of purpose that's sensational, building things to their stripper-ific conclusion with vigorous dynamism. He also melds newcomers Donald Glover and Stephen 'tWitch' Boss into the proceedings with ease, the latter joining Tatum in a spectacular dual production number that brings the Myrtle Beach convention to its climax.

For those who were put off by the 1970s character-driven, angst-riddled spirit of the first film, sorry to say you're unlikely going to be pleased by this one, either. Same time, Magic Mike XXL isn't above playing around in the cravenly sexual sensationalism inherent to a story like this, having a jovial spirit that's infectious right from the start. The film is a blast, an animated shot of bare-chested adrenaline that's easy to drink and even more satisfying to savor, the sequel stripping inhibitions to the point they vanish leaving only pleasure behind.


Bawdy Overnight a promiscuously adventurous affair
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE OVERNIGHT
Now playing


Emily (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Adam Scott) have just relocated from Seattle to Los Angeles with their young son RJ (R.J. Hermes). Meeting the friendly Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) at a local park where he's watching his own son Max (Max Moritt), the California newbies are quick to accept an invitation to his home for a small-scale welcome to the neighborhood dinner. Once there, and after the kids have gone to bed, Emily and Alex are persuaded by this smooth-talking hipster and his beautiful French wife Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) to spend the rest of the evening engaging in a different kind of fun, something decidedly more adult in nature.

The Overnight, the latest off-center, not as straightforward as you might initially think, low budget independent effort from Creep maestro Patrick Brice, is a remarkably silly adult sex comedy that goes to some pretty dark places once all is ultimately said and done. What's interesting is that, as crazy as that destination might be, as thought-provoking as elements might become, it's the stuff that happens long before the denouement that gives this Sundance and Seattle International Film Festival favorite its memorable staying power.

What I mean by that is, for all its thirty-something bourgeois middle class sensibilities, for as ribald and as sensationalistic as things might eventually become, none of it would matter if the interior road map both Emily and Alex follow to get there wasn't worth walking on right alongside next to them. It also goes without saying that if Schilling and Scott weren't up to the challenge none of what transpires would matter, it being incumbent upon them both to make the transitions, recriminations and various attractions that take place throughout feel as organic and as believable as possible.

Thankfully, they're superb, both delivering beautifully layered, nicely organic performances that run the emotional, physical and sexual gamut with dexterous glee. They are the heart and the soul of the picture, the engine Brice confidently allows things to be powered by, each of them going places that are continually of interest yet also, and somewhat oddly feel entirely natural once they get there. They do glorious work, both of them, working together in harmonious, give-and-take fashion that's one part Tracy/Hepburn, another Taylor/Burton and a final piece Abbott/Costello. They're so good I'd love to see them work together again, change gears into something more tightly scripted and less whimsically pieced together, the duo showing a chemistry that could blossom into something magical if allowed to develop in future cinematic endeavors.

That's probably overstating things, especially considering just how slight and how obvious The Overnight finally becomes, but that doesn't mean I think either Schilling or Scott are any less impressive. Mix the sarcastically self-effacing Schwartzman into the mix and by and large you have comedy gold, and there are moments, especially right after RJ and Max are gone and the real festivities begin, where I hadn't the first clue what was going to come out of the actor's mouth next.

Apparently the majority of the film was ad libbed during filming, the cast given the outline of what was going to happen and when, Brice both guiding them where it was he wanted the quartet to go, while also making sure cinematographer John Guleserian's (Breathe In) camera was there to catch all the shenanigans. The only weak link amongst the group is Godrèche who just doesn't look entirely comfortable trying to make sense of all that's happening (which says something considering she's one of the two primary instigators). Still, overall, the group is pretty terrific together, and it's hard not to imagine they had a blast on the set trying to make things feel more realistic and natural than it by all accounts would be if any of this were taking place for real.

That is the rub, of course. As confined and character-driven as all of this might end up being, the central conceit is just too broadly lewd and hedonistically fanciful to be entirely believed. Yet Brice, much like he did with the found-footage shocker Creep (currently playing OnDemand as we speak), manages to make the unimaginable feel authentic, finding easygoing, interpersonal rhythms that connect one person to the next with comforting ease. The Overnight isn't a groundbreaking comedy, but it is a funny one, and thanks to Schilling and Scott I'm probably going to be pondering its various nuances far longer than I otherwise would have had they not been willing to engage in this promiscuously adventures affair with such passionate dynamism.


Energetic Dope overflowing in youthful vitality
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

DOPE
Now playing


Life isn't easy for Malcolm (Shameik Moore). A self-professed geek, musician and 1990s Hip-Hop/R&B enthusiast on the cusp of graduation, the high school senior was born and raised in The Bottoms, a brutal Inglewood, CA neighborhood where if the jocks aren't beating you up then the gangbangers probably are. He and his best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) are biding their time until they can get out and move on to college, carefully plotting each step so as not to accidentally make a wrong one.

Well, make that watching most of their steps, because after inadvertently making friends with local drug kingpin Dom (A$AP Rocky) the trio get invited to his late night birthday party at a local club, deciding to go even though each of them fully realizes it's likely not the best idea they've collectively had. But go they do, Malcolm even getting infatuated with another local girl, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), the young woman currently studying for her GED in hopes of getting into college and potentially getting out of The Bottoms just like he wants to do.

From that point onward, writer/director Rick Famuyiwa's (The Wood) freewheeling, unhinged, slice of life Hip-Hop comedy Dope brazenly forges its own path, and while the story is hardly unique, it's delivered with such electrifying authenticity the fact it isn't original ends up not being as much of a big thing as you might initially expect. The film has a freewheeling, adrenalized grace that's intoxicating, playfully rolling around in cultural youth touchstones of today while also deftly paying homage to everything from Pulp Fiction to The 400 Blows to Boyz N the Hood.

The central quagmire revolves around Malcolm attempting to free himself from a backpack that's been mysteriously filled with Dom's drugs. With rival dealers trying to steal it, and with the people he's been instructed to turn it over to only wanting the money earned from its sale and not the actual product itself, the super-smart teen with dreams of going to Harvard suddenly finds himself in the middle of a mess that could derail all his future plans. Now he and his friends are forced to attend class, avoid the police and take the SATs while at the same time figuring out the best plan to get rid of Dom's product, one that hopefully doesn't get them shot in the process.

The movie is all over the map, its plot far more sprawling and gigantic than the initial, and actually fairly simple, synopsis would lead one to believe. Characters of all backgrounds, groups, races and economic strata come and go yet do so in ways that both drive the narrative forward while also adding complexity to Malcolm's overall maturation, everything coming together in ways that feel vital, of the moment and breathlessly self-aware. More than that, as dark and as dangerous as events might ultimately present themselves to be, Dope never loses its comedic edge, maintaining a sense of joyful discovery throughout that's giddily impressive.

By keeping the froth bubbling Famuyiwa smartly understands he's also increasing the dramatic stakes, so when Malcolm is forced to do things against established character traits the effect it has on him, his friends, his adversaries who know him well and finally people sitting in the audience taking it all in is devastating. Everyone understands what it means for this kid to potentially be led towards the doorstep of darkness, grasps what should be in store for him in the future if he's allowed to continue down the road his determination and intelligence have set him on. There is a stark, ominously disturbing aura to these moments that came close to generating tears, making the kid's perseverance in the face of all that's against him all the more courageous.

Relative newcomer Moore is outstanding. He's the one that keeps the movie on track, never allowing it to drift too far into absurdity or sentimentality, anchoring the proceedings with a complex, potently effective portrait of youth in revolt. As terrific as his costars might be (and Clemonds and Revolori are both wonderful), as strong as the supporting cast is (Kravitz is pitch-perfect, rapper Rocky makes a sensational debut, while veterans Kimberly Elise and Roger Guenveur Smith more than make their presence felt), this is Moore's showcase and he runs with it, delivering a performance that by all accounts should instantaneously make him a star.

The film is a little overstuffed, and not all of the elements, particularly a segue into the world of the dark interwebs, bitcoins and a doped-up college hacker played by Blake Anderson, work nearly as well as I think Famuyiwa intends them to. Additionally, the balance between the comedy and the violence can sometimes feel a little off, the transitions happening with such brutal suddenness the impact can be jarring, and not in a good way.

Not that it matters. Spectacularly edited by Lee Haugen, overflowing in the musical energies of today, the 1990s and those composed just for the film (assembled and written by executive producer Pharrell Williams and composer Germaine Franco), Dope has a manic youthful effervescence that delights at every turn. Famuyiwa has done his best work yet both as a writer and as a director, delivering a piece of frothy social commentary masquerading as comedic farce we're going to be talking about, analyzing, obsessing over and, most importantly, enjoying for many years to come.


Beautiful, movingly intimate Marnie an animated masterpiece
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE
Now playing


Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki) has moved for the summer to the seaside home of her aunt Setsu (Toshie Negishi) and uncle Kiyomasa (Susumu Terajima) for health reasons. Shy, introspective and not one to make friends easily, the youngster is still a talented artist with an uncommon skill to bring portraits of those that captivate her to life. She is fascinated by a secluded mansion surrounded by marshes and made virtually inaccessible during the night thanks to the incoming tides. It's almost as if she's seen the house before, and for reasons she can't quite fathom she's drawn to it in a personal, decidedly intimate way.

After a series of highly unusual events, Anna comes into contact with the doll-like Marnie (Kasumi Arimura), the beautiful blonde, blue-eyed daughter of affluent mixed-race parents. There is an instant connection between the two girls, the pair developing an unbreakable bond in what feels like seconds. But who Marnie is and the secrets she is concealing are mysteries Anna feels compelled to learn the answers to, the pursuit of doing so potentially fixing her relationship with her stressed-out mother Yokiko (Nanako Matsushima) while also allowing her to find an inner confidence she didn't know was there.

Based on the popular novel by Joan G. Robinson, if When Marnie Was There truly is the last production for revered animation pioneers Studio Ghibli then the house that Hayao Miyazaki built is going out on top. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty), the movie is a hypnotically transfixing puzzle box overflowing in emotion, everything building to a powerhouse of a climax that had me drowning in joyful tears. It is a movie that revels in the minutia of the human experience, mixing reality and fantasy with deft, unhurried grace.

The sense of time, the knowledge of place, all of it permeates every frame. Yonebayashi, his fellow screenwriters and his crackerjack team of animators allow character and circumstance to feed one into the other, the story coming together in ways that are honest, true and consistently pure. Anna's journey is as internal as it is external, her growing connection to Marnie transcending death, life and the otherworldly realities lying between them.

Stunningly animated, filled with eye-popping mixtures of color and texture that amaze, I love how light the film feels, how it almost seems to float upon the clouds or wash up to shore with the tide as things methodically progress to their conclusion. I am captivated by the way Anna interacts with those she knows are flesh and blood, while at the same time understanding without reservation something surreal and inhuman is happening between her and Marnie. The internal complexities that help manufacture a sense of self, assist in making us who we are and set us on the path to adulthood, all of that is here, the connection to our family histories sometimes key in figuring out which steps are the best ones to take.

Having never read the book I still had my own ideas how all of this was going to come to an end. What's impressive about Yonebayashi's adaptation is that, while not entirely unexpected, the bond between Anna and Marnie isn't quite what I thought it was going to be, their relationship far more complex, yet no less personal, than I'd let myself imagine. The purity of it caught me almost entirely off guard, as did the reactions it garnered from the young heroine as she finally comprehends and embraces the truth. The way this affects her relationship with her mother Yoriko is astonishing, the two getting a chance to embrace and commit themselves one to the other as they never had before.

If Studio Ghibli is indeed closed, if they are done making movies under their own banner, their loss is going to be felt for years, if not decades, to come. From Castle in the Sky to Spirited Away, from Princess Mononoke to My Neighbor Totoro, from The Wind Rises to Kiki's Delivery Service, the studio has left an imprint on both popular and cinematic culture that is undeniable. When Marnie Was There doesn't just live up to the high standards of the countless classics that proceeded it, in many ways it brings all of the themes and the ideas Ghibli has been interested in dissecting throughout their storied history to brilliant summation. It's a masterpiece, and as final efforts go I cannot think of anything better than that.

(PLEASE NOTE: I watched When Marnie Was There during the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival. It was presented with its original Japanese soundtrack. GKids is releasing an English language version of the film to domestic theaters featuring the voice talents of Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, Geena Davis, John C. Reilly and Vanessa Williams with a screenplay adapted by David Freedman. By all accounts, it is every bit as marvelous as this version is.)




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Can excellent soloists save the show?
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Georgia Ragsdale's mostly-comic memoir, Follow You Everywhere, was the hit of the weekend
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The Return of Chaos at Teatro ZinZanni
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LETTER TO THE EDITOR
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Mike still has plenty of magic
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Bawdy Overnight a promiscuously adventurous affair
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Energetic Dope overflowing in youthful vitality
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Beautiful, movingly intimate Marnie an animated masterpiece
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