(Video on-Demand, November 2018) There’s a deliberately mercenary intent to Step Up that makes the film more interesting to watch as a Hollywood product demonstration than for any of its intrinsic qualities. A spirited blend of very mid-2000s youth culture components, it mixes urban violence with dance numbers in an attempt to spit out a complete date movie for the boys and the girls. It would be almost completely forgotten today if it wasn’t for a few lucky breaks that led to its many sequels ensuring de facto influence. (To be fair, the sequels are often one step up from the original in terms of sheer enjoyment—I particularly liked Step Up 3D.) The film’s biggest luck was to choose a then-unknown Channing Tatum as the male lead, playing a hip-hop dancer from the wrong side of the tracks who (through handy contrivances) comes in contact with an upper-class girl studying ballet. They’re fated to be together, obviously, which lead to a ballet/hip-hop fusion that leaves the inevitable judges inevitably dazzled right in time for him to transfer to her better school, get the girl and dance their way to the end credits. It’s pure formula stuff, with a direction so ordinary (except for the rooftop dance cinematography, maybe) that you’ll be forgiven for mistaking this for Save the Last Dance or Honey or Stomp the Yard or other similar movies from the era. But that’s kind of the point—the clichés write the plot and hopefully the teenage audiences won’t have seen any of the other movies because teenagers are an evergreen resource of movie history ignorance. (Well, not really—Hollywood usually severely underestimates teenage media savviness.) Step Up remains a bit of an oddball entry even in its own series because it’s a bit darker and not quite as pure a dance musical comedy as later instalments would become. But that’s Hollywood for you: figure out the kinks in the first film, remove those, add more of what the kids want to see and voilà a series.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) Only maverick filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh could tackle Logan Lucky, going over such extremely familiar material (a heist movie à la Ocean’s Eleven) that another director might have been accused of copycatting. But, of course, Soderbergh never does things like others, and so Logan Lucky takes the large-scale heist down the social classes to NASCAR-obsessed West Virginia/North Carolina, with blue-collar protagonists motivated by larger economic forces. The exceptional casting (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, etc.) is fantastic, but the real draw here is the way the script is handled with blockbuster entertainment savvy by Soderbergh. The intricate heist plot multiplies one gambit after another, creating a dense tapestry of tricks, plans and improvised manoeuvers in which even dupes unaware of any heist have a role to play—and, hilariously enough, are rewarded for it. Taking ideas for an Ocean’s Fourteen film and recasting in redneck country makes for a refreshing change of pace and unusual heroes, as characters that would be treated as hillbillies in other films here get a chance to prove that they’re criminal masterminds. Then, of course, there’s the idea that the film is handled in pure escapism mode, reaching for comedy as often as it can. (The ridiculous prison riot, complete with Game of Thrones references, is particularly funny.) Logan Lucky is very successful, and counts as one of the year’s most delightful surprises.
(On TV, February 2017) Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Lasse Hallström and Nicholas Sparks in Dear John. With those four names together, you almost don’t have to do anything else to describe the result. Of course, it’s going to be an overlong (Hallström) weepy romantic drama (Nicholas Sparks) featuring a sympathetic hunk (Tatum) and a likable petite blonde (Seyfried). Any other questions? Oh, sure, the point of those films is in the details and side characters such as Richard Jenkins’ autistic father, likable in a difficult role. It’s about the homespun wisdom that kind of works even as it’s melodramatic (“Now I have two small holes in me. I’m no longer in perfect condition.”) It’s about familiar dialogue and situations that allow viewers to immerse themselves in characters that could be just like them. It’s about knowing where the journey takes us and being comforted by it. It’s not about wit or originality or being challenged or reflecting on the anxious years following 9/11. It’s not about anything else but what you see on the tin. Dear John works at what it tries to be, but it doesn’t try to be very ambitious.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) I won’t actually claim to be a mature film critic, but there’s certainly been an evolution in my capacity to appreciate Coen Brothers movies even when they flat-out refuse any conventional appreciation. I didn’t set anything on fire at the end of A Serious Man, and while I think that No Country for Old Men is overrated (oops, there goes my credibility), I don’t deny that it has some fantastic moments. So it is with Hail Caesar!, which I expected to like a lot more based on its premise: After all, doesn’t the idea of a 1950s Hollywood studio fixer running around solving problems sound fantastic? Especially if that gives us the opportunity to re-create the kinds of movies (biblical epics, overwrought dramas, western comedies, musicals of both the sing-and-dance and aquatic variety) of the time? Seems like a target-rich foundation for a comedy, and Hail Caesar! does manage to hit a few targets along the way: Taken in five-minute scenes, there’s more than a few good moments in the film. Channing Tatum has a great dance number, George Clooney effortlessly plays a dim megastar, newcomer Alden Ehrenreich makes a great first impression (especially in doing lasso tricks). Unfortunately, those bits and pieces aren’t necessarily part of something bigger: The plot is haphazardly assembled, listlessly developed and more or less cast aside toward the end. Character moments don’t add up to dramatic arcs, and in-between too-short cameos and sudden/meaningless plot revelations, there’s a feeling that a lot of connective material has been left aside: This may have worked better as a miniseries than a film. In the meantime, we’re left with a few set pieces and a lot of wasted potential. As with most Coen movies, it’s worth looking at critical commentary piecing together the symbolic meaning of the film—there’s certainly a lot of material here revolving around systems of faith, including economic and spiritual ones. But at the most basic level, Hail Caesar! isn’t much of a success as a plot-driven film, and considering the amount of talent assembled for the occasion, we’re not wrong in expecting more.
(Video on Demand, October 2015) I’m repeating myself, but the key to enjoy the Magic Mike films if you have no interest in male stripping is to see the series as a particular kind of dance film, complete with good music and exceptional choreography. Through this optics, Magic Mike XXL actually becomes fun to watch, whether it’s Channing Tatum’s character giving himself an impromptu dance treat alone in his workshop, Joe Manganiello’s character charming the smile off a convenience store clerk, or a very clever final mirrored-dance number. It helps that this sequel isn’t as self-consciously showy as the first film: Steven Soderbergh here remains rather discreet as the film’s director of photography and editor, but the film itself seems far more accessibly directed by long-time Soderberg associate Gregory Jacobs. The road-trip format also seems like a natural fit for a series of stripping numbers loosely held together; the interlude at a very particular strip club owned by Jada Pinkett Smith’s character is a bit of a highlight in how it presents an intriguing take on the female gaze (albeit one filtered through a male screenwriter and director) in a film consciously made to appeal to women. It is, in other words, both a fun and fascinating film, minimizing conflict and presenting a unique take on males bonding over art. No, it’s not quite as good (objectively speaking) as the first film. But Magic Mike XXL is entertaining, warm, occasionally joyful and a bit of a welcome change of pace.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2015) It’s almost mind-boggling to me that there is such a thing as a firmly established sub-genre of teen comedies based on Shakespeare plays. In that context, She’s the Man isn’t much more than a wholly average entry, but it does have its moments. Based on Twelfth Night, it revolves around cross-dressing, as a frustrated soccer player finds no better plan than to pass herself off as a brother and take over his academic life. It’s an unlikely premise with a ludicrous execution, but it’s sporadically amusing: Amanda Bynes throws herself in her dual roles with gusto, ready to do just about anything to get a laugh. It doesn’t really matter that she’s never quite credible as a man; at some point, you just have to roll with the premise and accept that everyone else is convinced. Channing Tatum turns in an early comic performance as the romantic object of her affections. Must of the plot is based on comic misconceptions, misunderstandings, secret identities and such shenanigans –it all builds to a big spectacular public conclusion in which everything is explained to everyone’s relief. She’s the Man isn’t particularly witty, achieved or subtle, but it’s roughly the film it aimed to be, all slapstick and broad gags and updating Shakespeare to a modern context. Even a solid average in this Shakespeare-for-teens category makes for relatively enjoyable viewing.
(On TV, March 2015) Do you want to weep? Because The Vow really wants you to weep. Adapted from real events, the film tells the story of a happily-married young couple challenged by the amnesia of the wife, who suddenly can’t remember anything in the past few years… including her entire relationship with her husband. Cue the awkwardness, frustration, family drama, ex-boyfriend coming back and heartbreaking sequences. The Vow may gleefully play with emotions, but it has the good fortune of being competently made, with very likable leads playing good-natured characters trying to work out an impossible situation. Rachel McAdams has the most difficult role as a woman trying to rediscover herself from a nearly-blank slate, while Channing Tatum is a bit miscast as the husband fighting to regain his marriage. (He is still, a bit unfortunately, too much associated with a lunk-head persona to be entirely credible as a sound engineer, but it’s interesting to compare his husband-focused role here with the one he had in Side Effects.) There are a few fine observations about the nature of self along the way, along with a heartwarming portrait of a happy marriage shattered too soon. (And a few not-so-subtle jokes, such as “Cafe Mnemonic”.) The Vow is a successful film in that it manages to hit the objectives it strives for without veering too deeply into melodrama. Does it mean that you want to see what this film wants you to see? Well, that may be a crucial difference between romantic comedies and romantic dramas.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) Director Roland Emmerich is a consummate entertainer, and showing White House Down alongside Olympus Has Fallen, the other great White-House-siege film of 2013, only serves to list why he’s so good at what he does: Good balance between action and humor, clean editing, just-enough character development and a willingness to go insane at appropriate moments… along with self-acknowledgement of outlandish material. The numerous points of comparison between both films only serve to highlight what White House Down does best: Channing Tatum is credible enough as the accidental hero (he’s got confidence without swagger, making him relatable), Jamie Foxx is just fine as a “47th president” clearly modeled after the 44th one, the “threat matrix” idea for the antagonist is ingeniously-executed, the action sequences are vivid without being gory, and the film manages to navigate a tricky line between national symbolism and overblown jingoism. White House Down‘s crowd-pleasing dynamism means that the film as a whole feels like one big competently-executed formula and that’s just fine: the film is easy to watch and enjoy, the only sour note coming late in the conclusion as another wholly-unnecessary antagonist is revealed with a Scooby-Doo-level lack of subtlety. The film is possibly never better than when it acknowledges its own presidential-lawn car chase absurdity with a well-placed “Well, that’s not something you see every day.” –although the “just like in Independence Day” quote comes close. Good turns by numerous supporting players (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, James Woods and a remarkable Jason Clarke whose character is best imagined as being exactly “that guy” from Zero Dark Thirty) add just enough to make the film even more enjoyable. While White House Down comes with the usual action-blockbuster caveats (formula all the way, and don’t think too much about it), it’s a remarkably successful example of what it tries to do, and it’s hard to give a better recommendation for this kind of film.
(On-demand Video, November 2012) This could have been a disposable film in so many ways. There isn’t much, on paper, to distinguish Magic Mike from countless other similar cookie-cutter films: This may be about a young man’s initiation to the quasi-criminal world of dance (er: male stripping), but we’ve seen variations on that tale so many times that the film could have chosen the tried-and-true dance-or-crime-movie formula. But it doesn’t and it’s not entirely because of director Steven Soderbergh’s steadfast refusal to play by the usual rules. Never mind the long takes, over-filtered cinematography, pseudo-realist camera work or extended dance/strip numbers: Magic Mike is perhaps more interesting in the choices it makes as a script. While this is partly about an initiation into male stripping, the lead character is the one trying to get out. While this may be a romance, it’s one that barely begins by the time the credits roll and all the other subplots remain unfulfilled. While the characters are recognizably archetypes, they defy cliché and transcend their narrative functions by becoming fully-featured creations. Then there’s the drawn-out stripping numbers, which are far more about dance and musical choreography than about bare male flesh. (Ironically for a film about male stripping, the most noteworthy nudity is a topless Olivia Munn. Well, that and a prominent pump thankfully off-focus.) Fortunately, Magic Mike can count upon a few exceptional performances to, ahem, flesh out the characters. Matthew McConaughey extends his range a bit farther by playing a slimy stripper/manager, his usual bare chest covering a darker character than usual. But it’s Channing Tatum, in the wake of the surprisingly-good 21 Jump Street, who impresses the most as a “stripper/entrepreneur” conflicted between easy money and self-respect. Alex Pettyfer also turns in his least annoying performance yet in what is assuredly his best movie so far. Magic Mike certainly isn’t perfect (Soderbergh’s directorial choices easily cross over from “clever” to “showy”, leading one to wonder if he’s even capable of being mainstream) and the inconclusive finale seems a bit too focused to satisfy, but it all amounts to a surprisingly better film than any plot summary may suggest.
(On-demand video, July 2012) I really did not expect this movie take on 21 Jump Street to be any good: Eighties nostalgia leaves me cold, I’m still dubious about Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum never struck me as a comedy lead. But the film’s reviews were generally positive and I was in the mood for some silly stuff… So it is that, surprises of surprises, 21 Jump Street proves to be a clever and hilarious action-comedy, perhaps the most satisfying take on the 21 Jump Street concept possible given today’s movie-comedy zeitgeist. Crucially, this movie version acknowledges the shortcomings of the original’s concept and then proceeds to maneuver away from it by taking on a quasi-parody of high-school movies and inverting traditional archetypes. So it is that the jock discovers that the nerds have taken over, that the nerd is forced in a jock role, and the old rules don’t apply. The screenwriters clearly have fun with the source material, going as far as casting Ice Cube as a police sergeant, put together a hilariously un-heroic car chase, and killing off characters from the TV show. Mind you, the comedy isn’t all hilarious: in keeping with today’s current R-rating comedy shtick, profanity is pervasive and a significant fraction of the film’s gags revolve around male genitalia. Still, there’s enough humor delivered at such a fast pace that a good joke will almost always follow a lame one, and the snappy direction accounts for much of the film’s fun and forward momentum. Channing Tatum proves himself to be a charming straight man, while Jonah Hill gets one of his least-annoying roles to date here. The rapid-fire end credit sequence suggests a number of cut subplots, but the result on-screen is more than fun enough… even for people with no affection or knowledge of the original series. A surprise comedy hit, 21 Jump Street is a bit more than just a nostalgic re-hash of a familiar concept: It succeeds best once it becomes its own comedy vehicle.