At The Movies: Magic Mike XXL (2015)

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Magic Mike XXL

★★★★★

2015 • 115 minutes • Warner Bros.

It’s true! It’s true! Everything Our Lady of Celebrity Gossip Anne Helen Petersen says about Magic Mike XXL is breathtakingly true. Not that I would ever doubt Our Lady of Celebrity Gossip, but I remain firmly suspicious of mainstream Hollywood at all times, especially when it comes to feminist credentials.

That truth? That Magic Mike XXL is a sun-soaked, beautifully shot hangout movie that replaces any silly ideas about a plot with vocally and visually centering and emphasizing (straight and male-attracted) female desire at every single opportunity. And elaborately choreographed stripping numbers. If Magic Mike was a understated film about a man coming into his own, Magic Mike XXL is practically a musical.

Like any musical, the plot is really only there to get the characters moving from set piece to set piece. Channing Tatum has described the film as “a stripper odyssey,” which isn’t a half-bad description (although, blissfully, there’s no Penelope fighting off suitors back home). After the events of Magic Mike XXL, the tattered remnants of the Kings of Tampa invite Mike to join them on a road trip to the delightfully untitled Stripper Convention in Myrtle Beach. After a little consideration, Mike happily hops onto the frozen yogurt party food truck and off they go, leaving torn tank tops and happy women everywhere they go.

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At The Movies: Election (1999)

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Election

★★★★☆

1999 • 102 minutes • Paramount Pictures

If you haven’t read the Dissolve’s amazing “The 50 most daring film roles for women since Ripley” and added roughly a thousand new films to your movies to watch list, please do so now. (I don’t mind. It’s a holiday here in the States, so I am probably asleep or at a screening of Magic Mike XXL. AMERICA!) It’s a wonderfully thoughtful list, even if it is more West-of-center than I’d like. Genevieve Koski, the editor who pitched the list, talks more about it with her fellow editors on the most recent episode of the Dissolve Podcast, which I also highly recommend.

The Dissolve is one of the few places online where I will read the comments. Their commentariat is particularly thoughtful and even-handed, so I was surprised to see exclamation points being thrown around in the comments in regards to Election. Not in regards to Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Tracy Flick in the film, which I’ve only ever heard praise for, but in regards to how much sympathy you should feel for Jim McAllister, Matthew Broderick’s character, and how much antipathy you should feel for Tracy, especially in the context of a student-teacher “relationship” (read: statutory rape, always always always) between Tracy and Jim’s best friend Dave that precedes the film, gets Dave fired, and motivates, on a subconscious level, Jim to ruin her campaign for student council president.

Election, Alexander Payne’s adaptation of the 1998 Tom Perrotta novel, seems to revel in that question: all of its main characters are lying to themselves to some degree. Do we pity them or despite them for how they lie to themselves? Continue reading

Review: Mermaids in Paradise

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Mermaids in Paradise
by Lydia Millet

★★☆☆☆

2014 • 304 pages • W.W. Norton & Company

Let me begin this review by popping up on my soapbox, whipping out my megaphone, and bellowing at the top of my lungs, “PUNCH UP, NOT DOWN.”

If there’s one thing I cannot stand in comedy, it’s cruelty. As much as I am enjoying my journey through early Saturday Night Live, sometimes I want to scream into a pillow. Like, for instance, when there’s a sketch that centers solely around screwing a blind black man out of a law scholarship to make a muddied point about how affirmative action is crap. I can see no comedic value in privileged groups mocking marginalized groups. (I do want to stress there’s a difference between this and internal, loving parody, a la Portlandia.)

But that’s the kind of comedy that runs rampant through Mermaids in Paradise, which is, I gather, meant to be a light comedic trifle about a honeymooning couple who discover mermaids at their Caribbean resort. It’s told from the perspective of Deb, who applies a patronizing and slightly cruel gloss to everything she sees.

For instance: during the lead-up to the wedding, Deb despairs of everything related to weddings, calling them infantile and pedophilic. (Of course, her analysis stops at side-eying women who like that kind of thing, instead of interrogating the system.) Her beloved Chip loves World of Warcraft, which she constantly points out as a huge problem and a major sacrifice that she’s made in the relationship. (It’s also really apparent Millet did no research for the handful of times Deb is describing what Chip is doing in the game, which begs the question—why not just invent a game if you’re just going to crap on it? It just ends up implying that Millet assumes her readers will similarly have never played such a game but have immediately dismissed it.) When an indigenous employee shows Deb and Chip to their rooms, Deb immediately starts rhapsodizing about the woman is “embodying a primordial womanly grace, with her darkish, gleaming complexion and earthen-toned sarong” (62). And there’s a “comedic” set piece centered around Janeane, a fellow vacationer, who clearly suffers from panic attacks, a non-specific anxiety disorder, and may have survived some sexual trauma. At a resort-wide dinner, she begins suffering a panic attack and her partner tries to soothe her, but the way he touches her arm re-triggers her. Hilarious!

(Vomit.)

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The Week in Review: June 28th, 2015

Seinfeld Apartment: Computer

I went to the Seinfeld Apartment pop-up yesterday. The wait was very long, as you can imagine, but I got to swan about the apartment, take photos, and otherwise soak in the dissonance of experiencing in three dimensions an apartment previously known to me in only two. And today is all about Pride, even if it literally rains on my parade. (Okay, it’s actually a march in New York, but whatever.)

I also was at ladybusiness this week, talking about Judi Dench’s M.

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At The Movies: 13 Going on 30 (2004)

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13 Going on 30

★★★½☆

2004 • 97 minutes • Columbia Pictures

Alright, let’s just go ahead and call it a theme week: it’s (Clare Confronts the Inevitable Fact She Coalesced Into an Almost Person in the) Aughts Week! Between this and Wednesday’s review of Ex Machina, I feel like I’m floating in the goo what made me. It’s not so much that I desperately miss the early aughts—Bush was president, the fashion was terrible, and I was still too dumb to realize I was queer—but rather that the nostalgia I derive from it feels a lot sharper than the secondhand nostalgia I huff off of eighties ephemera. Sure, it comes with a lot more sighing and a lot fewer gleeful air guitar riffs, but that’s kind of special, too.

Not that I ever actually watched 13 Going on 30 when it came out in theaters. I was busy floundering in the wake of the end of The Lord of the Rings, holding onto Pirates of the Caribbean for dear life. In fact, my only impression of this movie was a vague conviction that Andy Serkis was the romantic lead instead of Mark Ruffalo. (I MEAN WHY NOT? IT’S WHAT AMERICA WANTS!) Of course, all it took was hearing that it took place partly in the eighties to get me to actually watch it.

So, a summary, for those of you who weren’t teenage girls in the aughts (you lucky ducks, you missed out on the Legolas/Aragorn wars): in the eighties, Jenna is excited to celebrate her thirteenth birthday with a party attended by the coolest guys and girls in school, but embarrassed by her best friend, the deeply uncool Matty. Despite Matty’s thoughtful gift of a Jenna-inspired Dream House covered in mail-order wishing dust, she nonetheless insults him to impress the cool kids. But they end up playing a hideous prank on her, locking her in the closet. Crying, she wishes to be “thirty, flirty, and thriving” (a la an issue of her favorite magazine, Poise). The wishing dust grants her wish, and she wakes up as an adult—seventeen years later. With no memory of the intervening years, Jenna tries to navigate her adult life as best she can. She’s delighted to discover that she has an amazing apartment, a well-stocked walk-in closet, and a great job at Poise, but she’s devastated to find out she’s alienated from her family and her childhood best friend. Jenna sets out to thrive in her new life, as only a thirteen year old from the eighties can.

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Review: Ex Machina — The First Hundred Days

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Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days
by by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris

★★★★☆

2005 (originally published 2004 to 2005) • 136 pages • WildStorm

It is amazing how time passes. Every once in a while, I’m astonished to realize that it’s no longer the late aughts but 2015, but I usually have a pretty good grip on where I am. (Where am I? Feverishly waiting for Trainwreck to come out next month, that’s where I am.) It’s far more disorienting to read something from George W. Bush’s presidency and have that whole political and pop cultural climate come rushing back. It helps (or hinders) that the early aughts were my political and pop cultural awakening (thanks, The Daily Show and The Lord of the Rings), so it’s sort of realizing that you still know all the words to Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I” even though you haven’t heard it in years.

That’s what it feels like reading Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ Ex Machina, because this series is so pointedly a response to the post-9/11 world that it brings you right back there, all the way back to 2004. Especially with the way the first issue ends—that, my friends, is what you call a hook.

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days collects the first five issues of Ex Machina, which follows New York Mayor Mitchell Hundred during his four years in office. Of course, Mitchell earned the post largely through his brief stint as the superhero the Great Machine, gifted with the ability to talk to and understand machines, a career that climaxed on 9/11. Despite his notoriety, however, Mitchell is much more dedicated to the law than to his superpowers as an agent of good. Now, if he could only get everyone to believe that on top of running the city that never sleeps during a hideous snow storm, resolve a controversial art piece at a local museum, and solve a string of seemingly connected murders…

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At The Movies: Three Amigos (1986)

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¡Three Amigos!

★★★☆☆

1986 • 104 minutes • Orion Pictures

Friends, I have a confession—I don’t like Chevy Chase.

Due to the peculiar nature of my upbringing, I was never exposed to Chevy Chase beyond a short clip of National Lampoon’s Family Vacation on VH1’s I Love the 70s, while both I and VH1 were trying to chase the glory days of I Love the 80s. While Père McBride’s heyday was around the time Chase was white hot (an objective fact I hold in deep, deep suspicion), he vastly prefers John Candy to Chevy Chase. Even my Gen X brother never particularly seemed to respond to him. I only really starting knowing who he was when I started watching and loving Community. I think Chase does quite well as Pierce Hawthorne, as the role works around and finds a use for a lot of his comedic stylings that I don’t usually care for. (It’s a bit like how I have trouble with eighties movies telling me that Bill Murray’s asshole characters are endearing, but age up that snark and entitlement thirty years and it becomes achingly poignant.)

But watching and loving Community also brought me into contact with Chase’s towering sense of entitlement, which eventually left to a rift between showrunner Dan Harmon and Chase. I don’t particularly want to get into Chase’s personal life… although when he came back to host Saturday Night Live for the first time, he mocked Bill Murray for his supposedly small talent and his acne scars (so, too real for yours truly) to the degree that they got into a physical altercation that had to be broken up by John Belushi, that paragon of responsibility. Oh, and one time he slapped Rob Huebel across the face when Huebel was trying to tell him how much Chase had influenced him. It’s a credit to Huebel’s devotion to Chase that he considers it a funny story and not horrifyingly disillusioning. And he’s so sexist (he appears to honestly believe that women aren’t as funny as men, which WHAT) that mere exposure to him makes Jane Curtin’s eyes flicker so hard I’m afraid she might hurt herself. (Which would be a tragedy, because she is a national treasure. TREASURE!) The author is dead, yadda yadda, but when the author is such a colossal jerk, it’s hard not to notice.

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Review: Reading the Romance

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Reading the Romance
by Janice Radway

★★★★½

1984 • 274 pages • University of North Carolina Press

In Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro’s conversation on genre, Gaiman recalls reading an essay by C.S. Lewis in which Lewis points out that the only people who seem to be unduly concerned with people reading escapist literature sound a lot like jailers. Gaiman is misremembering; it’s a Lewis essay (collected in On Stories), but the anecdote is actually Tolkien’s. Accusations of escapism have plagued the speculative fiction genre since… I’m gonna go with mid-century because we’ve had speculative fiction since the dawn of time. (Of course, nowadays it’s compounded by people complaining about speculative fiction isn’t escapist enough by being remotely inclusive. To quote MD Laclan, “if you think Star Trek is apolitical, I cannot help you.”) In fact, I’m struggling through Lydia Millet’s novel Mermaids in Paradise because the main character, whom I gather I am supposed to sympathize with, finds her husband’s fantasy gaming his only major flaw and expresses disgusted bafflement at his hobby. (She gets better, right? Right?) But speculative fiction is so hot right now, with the cultural ascendency of Marvel, Comic-Con, and the like. DC Studios’ woefully grim output is desperately trying to prove a point that we all already know: sf ain’t just for nerds anymore. (Actually, the secret is that we are all nerds for something in this beautiful life. But don’t tell Sadman.)

While speculative fiction is slowly and unevenly lurching to mainstream acceptance, however, its generic sister romance remains an eternal punching bag, even in the wake of the massively popular Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. (I always feel like I end up here, in this particular ditch, trying to defend certain parts of the Fifty Shades phenomenon while trying not to toss my cookies at its treatment of consent and implication that all kinksters are psychologically broken. Woof.) It’s a reputation the genre has suffered from ever since it coalesced into a neat marketing category, as we see in Janice Radway’s 1984 exploration of why women read romance, Reading the Romance.

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