Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Movie Review: Magic Mike XXL (2015)



Every so often, a film comes along that makes me go “Please, for the love of all that is good in this world, do not screw this up.” And it seems that it’s about that time again. I have been seriously looking forward to this film and, no, it isn’t for the obvious sweaty reasons: I love Steven Soderbergh. To me, he is just about the most versatile filmmaker out there, being able to weave in and out of genres with surprising ease. Not only that, he is able to take very awkward premises and scripts and turn them into films capable of besting whatever else is out at that time. Probably the best example of these traits would be 2012’s Magic Mike, a film about male strippers that had a lot of heart and intelligence behind it. Yeah, I may have been like everyone else at the time and left it alone because… well, beefcake wasn’t exactly my thing at the time, but after seeing Soderbergh turn the very unsettling story of Liberace and his relationships into the disarmingly warm Behind The Candelabra, I gave it a chance and found a lot to like about it. So, when I heard that there was going to be a sequel made of it, I was all for it. Then the news hit that Soderbergh was going to take a sabbatical from feature filmmaking, meaning that he wouldn’t be directing this one. Then the trailers and extremely cheesy poster came out for the film. I want a film about interesting characters and smart dialogue that just happens to center on male strippers, and all I’m seeing so far is nothing but more grinding than Tony Hawk's MMO. Time to see if I get proven wrong, in one of a growing list of situations where I would gladly accept being so: This is Magic Mike XXL.

The plot: It has been three years since Mike (Channing Tatum) left his life as a male entertainer to pursue his own dreams, while the other Kings of Tampa are gearing for one last performance at a stripping convention in Myrtle Beach. Mike decides to join in as the gang go on a road trip to the convention, coming across some interesting situations along the way.

Despite my misgivings of Soderbergh’s absence from the film, this is still very much one of his projects. For starters, the man still has his name on it… kind of, since he does the cinematography and editing for most of his films himself under different psuedonyms and he returns in that capacity for this one. Not only that, director Gregory Jacobs has worked as an assistant director on almost all of Soderbergh’s filmography, including the original Magic Mike, and the original writer Reid Carolin is back as well and my initial mistrust of this film starts looking even dumber. This very much has the look of a Soderbergh production, with a very tight and labored-over feel to every shot we see and how they’re spliced together. It’s like he’s still back in film school and trying to ace every practical assignment he’s given and provide legitimate entertainment at the same time, the latter being something that a lot of other ‘film student’ directors seem to neglect. Other than the gorgeous production values, the other main thing that I loved about the original was the soundtrack. Between the excellent choices of songs for the stripping sequences, the drug trip set to Victim by Win Win featuring Blaqstarr that I still haven’t gotten out of my head yet, and McConaughey’s song Ladies of Tampa/Miami, it’s all really damn effective. Here, while most of the soundtrack is still good, some of the song choices are a little… obvious. Something about having a striptease with a candy theme set to 50 Cent’s Candy Shop doesn’t sit well with me, regardless of how lame the song itself is.

Okay, things seem to check out behind the scenes, but what about in front of the camera? Well, the banter between our core characters is still fun and their actors are still good in their roles. Standouts include Channing Tatum, who fits back into his title role like he never left it, which makes sense considering it’s partially based on himself, Joe Manganiello making a nice dramatic foil for Tatum as Richie and selling a particularly goofy dancing set piece at a gas station with panache, and while Gabriel “Hey Juice” Iglesias may have a diminished role, what we get still makes for damn good comedy. The characters may still feel a bit flat but it seems that Reid wanted to put more effort into developing them as characters this time around and not just have it be all about Mike; hell, all of Tarzan (Kevin Nash)’s dialogue seems to focus on how little the others, and by extension the audience, know about him. As per Soderbergh productions, the other casting is both baffling and yet ideal. Jada Pinkett Smith as the group’s MC Rome works the crowd well and helps add a lot to the script’s ideas and themes. Speaking of MCs, Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino is here as well, a move that blind-sided me initially but ultimately makes the most sense in terms of this movie, given how he plays a serenading ladies’ man in Andre whose introductory scene might be the defining point of the entire film. Yes, the geeky stand-up comedian/rapper who made his mark as a master of punchlines is the high point of a film about female fanservice. We also get Elizabeth Banks and Andie McDowell, the latter continuing another tradition of Soderbergh’s involving digging up largely forgotten actors, whom both have very distracting Southern accents here but work within the confines of their roles.

But that’s not what you all want to read about; no, you want to hear about the sexy guys with no shirts. Well, here’s where things get… interesting. My initial worries going into this film were that it would ignore the first film’s writing, which took a rather intelligent look into the hows and whys of male stripping, and just make it about watching men dance on stage for two hours. These worries were avoided, and yet they were also met at the same time. This film may not have the original’s insight on the economy and the ideals concerning people doing what they want rather than what they have to, but instead it turns that same level insight inwards into the world of male stripping itself. There’s really no other way to put it: This film takes the concept of guys grinding on stage to Ginuwine’s Pony and making it out into some form of high performance art, giving it an almost mystical air in the process. If this sounds farfetched, bear in mind that this idea, at least how the film presents it, actually works. It’s a natural continuation of Dallas’ dialogue from the first film about the effect they have on their female audience, normalizing it and putting on the same level as any other kind of escapism. Through the introduction of Rome and her own approach to the art form, the film even tries to push it further into some bizarre form of worship; not of the male stripper, but of the women he is dancing for, giving them the attention that they may not be getting elsewhere. This is best illustrated in Andre’s first scene, where he asks some details about a woman he brings on stage, then he raps, sings and dances for her; that, combined with his line about how he and the others are “like healers”, and it manages to give some credibility to the idea of male strippers as entertainment: It may be shallow and just an excuse to see sweaty guys take their shirts off, but it fulfills a certain emotional need for some people. I would stomp all this philosophizing out by making a comparison to tween porn like Twilight, if it weren’t for the fact that the film made one for me. That, and an out-of-nowhere Matrix reference, but my point still stands: This film wants to make stripping out to be just a form of entertainment like any other and not something to be stigmatized, similar to what Soderbergh himself did with porn and prostitution when he made The Girlfriend Experience.

A shame, then, that the film doesn’t make good enough use of its beefcake to properly justify such notions. Don’t get me wrong, said beefcake will still work for its target audience, but it isn’t spaced out nearly enough to have the full effect it should have; the final show at the convention, featuring all of the Kings of Tampa performing both as a group and individually, is shown in its entirety one right after the other. It’s a bit much to take all at once, is what I’m saying, which coupled with the annoying song choices weakens them a bit. Still, even with the cheesy music options, this film still managed to do a better job of making bondage sexy in a 3 minute scene than Fifty Shades did in its entire running time.

All in all, while it may be a tad weaker in areas compared to the original, this still has a lot of what made that film as good as it is: Funny and natural dialogue spoken by charming characters, an overall script that has a surprising amount of layering to it, nice music, excellent camerawork and, of course, lots of guys ripping off their clothes. Even then, this makes for a really good companion to the first film as, whereas that film was about what the work meant for the strippers, this film looks more at what it means for their audiences. As much as I want to promote this film out of respect for the art of filmmaking, I understand that not everyone has the same tolerance of bare man chest that I do; basically, if you can tolerate the idea of seeing guys strip on screen every once in a while, as there is a decent chunk of this film that doesn’t contain it, then I recommend checking it out along with the original. It’s better than Rosewater, as this doesn’t require background knowledge on the film to get its full effect; in fact, as I illustrated above, knowing about the film’s background kind of diminished things for me a bit. However, it ranks below Going Clear as, while both films opened my eyes a bit on their respective subjects, there’s no denying that anything that can make me feel sympathy for Scientologists wins out in the end.

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