(Video on Demand, October 2016) I have always been cautiously positive about the X-Men film series, largely because (especially at first, when there weren’t that many good comic-book movies around) it has always put themes and characters front-and-centre, thus earning extra respectability as comic-book movies with something deeper to say. Lately, the shift to historical periods with First Class was good for style, but with Apocalypse, it looks as if the X-Men series has reached a point of diminishing returns. The themes of alienation and discrimination are more than well-worn by now, and it seems as if the series struggles to find anything more to say about it. It certainly doesn’t help that the film goes back to a hackneyed villain-wants-to-destroy-everything premise: This is exactly the kind of city-destroying stuff that has been done ad nauseam in other superhero movies, and the generic antagonist (a complete waste of Oscar Isaac’s talents) doesn’t help. Other issues annoy: the teenage angst of the X-Men is getting old, and so is the fan service to trying to cram as many characters as possible, especially Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Jennifer Lawrence’s increasingly useless Mystique. There are, to be fair, a few lovely sequences here—the Quicksilver sequence is, just as the preceding film, a joy to watch. Olivia Munn looks good despite being in a handful of scenes. It’s hard to dislike James MacEvoy as Charles Xavier or Nicholas Hoult as Beast. But Apocalypse seems far more generic than its predecessor, and suffers even more from a close comparison to Deadpool’s self-aware sarcastic exuberance. The period setting isn’t used effectively, and the film has some lengthy scenes that play out like all similar scenes in other similar movies. Even under director Bryan Singer’s helm, the result is flat, dull, mediocre and a dead end as far as the series is concerned. The next instalment (because we know there will be another instalment) better shake things up, otherwise it’s going to tailspin into the kind of movies that viewers won’t bother to see.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) I’m not sure there’s anything objectively wrong about Deliver us From Evil, but neither can I say that there’s anything exceptional about it. While there is some interest in tackling demonic possession as seen from the perspective of a hardened NYPD veteran, the film soon heads for familiar pastures, and doesn’t really get to show anything worthwhile. Eric Bana does fine work as the cop protagonist, with Olivia Munn and Joel McHale turning in short yet credible dramatic presences, but all of them are overshadowed by Edgar Ramirez’s compelling turn as an unusual priest facing ultimate evil. Director Scott Derrickson follows-up his much superior Sinister with a decent atmosphere (grimy and dark and realistic and, alas, rather dull), but the script is too derivative to be particularly interesting. Too long at nearly two hours for the rather slight amount of substance it contains, Deliver Us From Evil ends up being a middle-of-the-road hybrid between police procedural and demonic possession horror, something that works well enough to escape mediocrity, but not enough to leave an impression.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) Complaining about a Jay Chandrasekhar comedy being crass is a bit redundant, but here goes anyway: The Babymakers goes quickly from an amiable comedy to a vulgar one, then hops back and forth between the two stances in ways that seem more accidental than deliberate. It’s supposed to be about a couple trying to conceive (itself a subject that shouldn’t be treated lightly), but it quickly aims for the lowest common denominator in setting up a sperm bank heist. With a subject like that, you can imagine the gross-outs that inevitably follow. It’s not that the film is lacking in laughs, or that it’s entirely without charm: Paul Schneider is a fairly good leading man, while Olivia Munn isn’t too bad in a still-rare feature film leading role. (Alas, their married-couple banter feels more like a frat-boy’s idea of a perfect marriage, but that’s roughly equal to the rest of the film.) The rest of the supporting cast is there for laughs, and Chandrasekhar himself gets a few chuckles as a seedy fixer. Still, there are often lulls, ill-advised subplots (such as the unnecessarily-mean gay couple segment), a weak conclusion and scenes that don’t reach either for credibility or zany humor. As a result, The Babymakers may not be terrible, but it’s not any good either, and it doesn’t have the spark of charm that’s required for transforming a mediocre comedy into a likable one.
(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.
St. Martin, 2010, 269 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-312-59105-2
Amazon’s recommendation engine usually has a good understanding of what I’m looking for. It has served me well in exploring the world of books about food, leading me from Pollan and Bourdain to Rayner, Sheehan and others I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. But it’s not perfect and when it starting suggesting Olivia Munn’s Suck it, Wonder Woman!, I should have been a bit more sceptical.
My first warning sign was asking Who is Olivia Munn? It turns out that Munn is a popular entertainer who has become something of a geek celebrity over the past few years: She has a growing number of small roles in TV show and feature films but also, crucially, co-hosts a geeky cable show named Attack of the Show! and shows up regularly at Comic-Con. Her attractiveness explains the endless stream of pictures that shows up above her Wikipedia profile in a casual Google Search.
Welcome to the age of the micro-celebrity, then: Munn has found herself a rewarding niche in the universe of young actresses by claiming the geek flag for herself. Suck it, Wonder Woman! is a slight attempt at an autobiography crossed with a humour book. Subtitled “The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek”, the book quickly shows its true colors as soon as it’s out of the Amazon packing box: Not content with a front cover design that highlights Munn’s cleavage, the back of the dust jacket urges us to discover the “Surprise on the other side”, which is to say a full-color pinup in a bikini and naval cap. Look inside the book and you will see that, aside from the photo-insert chapter introduction and occasional galleries, Munn can also be seen on every single bottom-right page corner doing a flip-book dance.
So, yeah: Cheesecake for so-called geeks.
I’m not going to comment upon Munn’s shtick as a sex-symbol for geeks: That’s a line of thought that quickly veers into misogyny. If Munn claims herself as a geek, then welcome aboard. I’m not even going to insist on how geek standard for sex-symbols don’t include many more requirements than “female with a pulse and no visible scowl at unwanted male attention”: It’s a good insulting line to get a rise out of geeks, but it also fails to acknowledge that Munn does stand out as an attractive woman no matter the surrounding crowd.
But what this book drives home are the reasons why I occasionally want to get as far away as humanly possible from the modern hyper-packaged definition of “geek”. It used to be that geeks were incredibly driven people with strong technical skills and weaker social graces: In any case, it’s their attitude toward the world that counted. Geeks were the high-school larval stage of more fully-rounded individuals who would learn how to fit in society, but would always keep their attitude of gentle manners and frequently intense curiosity about the world.
Fast-forward to 2010, however, and “geek” has become another marketing category for the entertainment-industrial complex. Comic-Con has become Ground Zero for the co-optation of the geek: Now, the word has become synonymous with the mindless consumption of dull comic-books, lousy genre movies, loud video games and lightweight books written by pretty girls who know which buttons to press in order to rouse their audiences. It used to be that geeks could be counted upon to know some valuable technical knowledge of interest to the world at large: Now, just buying Lord of the Rings figurines is enough to qualify as a Hollywood-approved geek. Newsflash: video-game trivia and glass shelves for Star Wars memorabilia don’t translate by themselves into useful contributions to society.
I am, obviously, overreacting: It’s in the nature of geeks to be picky, and nothing forbids me from charting my own brand of nerdiness. But as I was reading Suck it Wonder Woman! and taking in its assumed pandering, I ran mind-first into the contradictions between my own conception of geekiness and the now-approved cultural stereotype. Geeks may be socially inept, but that shouldn’t translate into a universe in which every video-game, comic book or genre movie representation of a female seems to feature enhanced pneumatics, plastic skin and personalities tailored to appeal to male interests. There’s something wrong if I either want to wash myself with bleach or send a neutron bomb to San Diego every time I dig into Comic-Con coverage, gaming advertisements or so-called geeky forums. My conception of geekiness, obviously, has a lot more old-world gentlemanliness than I first suspected.
But to return to the book I’m supposed to discuss, I’m not necessarily immune to Munn’s considerable charm: Her tales of growing up as an ethnically-mixed outcast in Midwest America touch a chord, as do her adventures as a nice girl abruptly thrown into the Hollywood cesspool. There’s a heartbreaking chapter midway through the book that tells us about the worst day of her life, and some of her relationship advice is amusing in a way that doesn’t necessarily relate to anything geeky. But her co-written book (take a bow, Mac Montandon, even though you barely rate a mention in the acknowledgements) doesn’t have much more content than half a dozen good blog entries. It’s thin, breezy and empty: rather the opposite of what I would be looking for as, ahem, a geek.
Obviously, the best possible reader for the book is someone who can answer the question Who is Olivia Munn? without having to resort to Wikipedia. Otherwise, accidental Munn readers are going to confront a lot of unpleasant questions about contemporary geek culture, and how it relates to women. I forget whether current feminism says it’s OK to get down with the boys as a trash-talking Princess Leia lookalike and, in doubt, would have to agree with anyone willing to fit into a brass bra. But much like there’s a reason why I prefer referring to myself as a nerd rather than a geek (never forget the etymology of both words), I also choose to opt out of the geek marketing segment if it leads to a half-empty shell of a book whose selling points include a dust jacket that reverts to reveal a photoshopped come-on. My ideal cheesecakes can seduce me with their minds.