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

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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At The Movies: Spy (2015)

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Spy

★★★½☆

2015 • 120 minutes • 20th Century Fox

Watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the wake of the racist debacle that was Monty Python Live (Mostly) has been a particularly educational experience. I’ve been learning about Britain in the seventies, the infuriating amount of blackface and yellowface the Pythons thought they could get away with (BANSHEE SCREAM INTO THE NIGHT), and the difference between parody and satire. Parody is liberal; satire is radical. Parody pokes fun; satire skewers.

The Pythons are occasionally celebrated as satirists, and that’s quite true—of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Terry Gilliam’s later work. But watching the actual show, it’s very clear that, while the Pythons find bureaucracy, tradition, and authority exceedingly silly, they have no interest in upsetting it, just thumbing their noses at it. Robbed of the actual cultural context by the universe’s refusal to make me into an immortal pop culture consuming vampire, I can nonetheless see why it might seem radical—it’s certainly countercultural. But it’s just not enough.

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The Week in Review: May 31st, 2015

Dylan's Candy Bar: Stairs

There’s something somehow nineties about this floor decor.

I was over at Queerly Seen this week, talking about Oscar Wilde’s legacy to the immediate next generation of queer writers—namely, his niece Dolly, my favorite person Natalie Barney, and an entire salon of queer literary women in Paris in the early twentieth century. I also talked about The Picture of Dorian Gray and the origin of the “Love that dare not speak its name” speech. Thanks, Cass!

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At The Movies: Mad Max — Fury Road (2015)

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Mad Max: Fury Road

★★★★★

2015 • 120 minutes • Warner Bros.

If you know me at all, you know that I love the eighties. Specifically, I love a specific aesthetics associated with American pop culture in the 1980s—that peculiar blend of heavy metal, speculative fiction, absurd hair, and high camp that I have designated old school sf. I actually define old school sf as existing from Star Wars (its introduction into the mainstream) to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (its legitimization in the mainstream), but it’s that extra eighties boost that so often drives me over the edge into snarling joy. Maybe it’s growing up on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, or perhaps it’s the best marriage of my camp sensibilities and my love of speculative fiction. Nonetheless, it hits and satisfies a very pure and primal part of myself.

But I gave up, a while ago, any hope of seeing that aesthetic—that old school sf aesthetic that’s equally interested in being totally kick-ass as being speculative fiction—applied in a big way that didn’t exclude me. While I adore old school sf so, so much, it’s usually par for the course that I will find female characters or queer characters (if they’re even present) being treated not so great. And that doesn’t even include how it sometimes poorly handles or straight up ignores great swathes of people, like people of color or disabled folk.

There are, mercifully, wonderful exceptions. Gael Baudino’s Gossamer Axe is a queer pagan feminist rock and roll fantasy. Every episode of Xena: Warrior Princess features two very different women kicking butt, taking names, and being devoted utterly to each other. But they weren’t the norm and they certainly weren’t the stuff that turns into the big budget stuff that often define a year or even a decade in media. Since speculative fiction is an inherently progressive genre, it makes sense to for us to have left a lot of that behind in its continuing mission to reflect the diverse people who use it to explore their own experiences of the world and thereby expand everyone else’s. As much as I adore old-school sf, I have no shortage of selections from the past. I have always been ready to sacrifice it for the future of speculative fiction.

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At the Movies: The Beautician and the Beast (1997)

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The Beautician and the Beast

★★★★☆

1997 • 105 minutes • Paramount Pictures

The Beautician and the Beast, I owe you an apology.

You see, as a fan of truly bad films, I often spend time digging through Netflix and Hulu to find hidden gems. (And I mean truly bad films—films made in all earnestness with the hopes of being good. The intentionally bad movie—your Birdemics, your Sharknados, and, if some rumors are to be developed, your Rooms—holds no appeal for me. I want to see where it all went wrong with the best of intentions.) The Beautician and the Beast simply looked like a perfect candidate. A 1997 romantic comedy about a Queens beautician who, through a series of hilarious mishaps, ends up playing teacher to a ruthless Eastern European dictator’s children? Oh, and said leads are Fran Drescher, in a role that sank her film career, and Timothy Dalton, a man whose diet is entirely composed of scenery? (And I imagine still is; I haven’t seen Penny Dreadful, because I am a total wimp.) In short: come to Mama.

But, The Beautician and the Beast, you surprised me. This film is surprisingly sweet and charming.

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At The Movies: Live From New York! (2015)

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Live From New York!

★★★★½

2015 • 90 minutes • BehindTheLine Productions

If you want to know how Saturday Night Live is made, you have an an embarrassment of riches at your hands. There’s Live From New York!, biographies about former cast members and writers, memoirs by former cast members and writers, the Kenneth Bowser television specials covering every decade of the show, audition tapes, the show’s own anniversary specials (including last year’s three hour extravaganza), James Franco’s student film project slash actual festival film Saturday Night, Tina Fey’s fictionalized take in 30 Rock, and the fact that former head writer Seth Meyers’ writing team on Late Night with Seth Meyers endlessly makes fun of him for talking about Saturday Night Live so much.

But if you want to see what it has made, both intentionally and unintentionally, then you’ll want Live From New York!. (No relation to the recently revised and authoritative oral history.) Bao Nyugen’s documentary may co-produced by Saturday Night Live‘s costume designer Tom Broecker, but it embraces its outsider status to put the show in its historical and cultural context. How does a scrappy variety show that barely expected to last six episodes become an American institution? How has it interacted with, influenced, and been influenced by American culture? Nyugen elegantly makes his thesis statement—that the show and New York (especially a New York) are intertwined in a fascinating symbiotic relationship—in the documentary’s opening credits. He simply runs what looks to be the current Saturday Night Live opening credits sans text, sans performers, and sans music, leaving us panning over the city that’s always been at the root of it, no matter where its performers hail from.

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At The Movies: The One I Love (2014)

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The One I Love

★★★★☆

2014 • 91 minutes • RADiUS-TWC

I’ve gotten bolder about spoilers in recent years. (Years! I literally described my first book review as being “years ago” to someone the other day, which kind of blew my mind.) That’s gone hand in hand with a shift away from more traditional pros and cons promotion towards cracking open a text’s bones to get at that delicious, delicious bone marrow. And you can’t get at that stuff with hurling spoilers right and left. I’ve stopped reading reviews for books or films I absolutely know I am going to consume until after said consumption and started blatantly marking spoilers were appropriate. I like to think that I have come to term with spoilers.

And then a movie like The One I Love comes along (a year late, because, as we’ve established, I operate about a year behind when it comes to movies and a decade behind when it comes to television), and I just can’t spoil it for you. It’s not that The One I Love is entirely predicated on its twist and isn’t worth watching even if you know about it. It’s that the twist is all part of the film’s meditation on human interaction—the ways we can connect, the ways we can’t connect, the way we perceive ourselves, and the way we perceive others. The film eventually tries to explain the twist, somewhat ham-fistedly but in a way that leads to its utterly smashing final shot, but its best moments come when its sf elements are used to dissect the human condition.

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At The Movies: The House of Yes (1997)

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The House of Yes

★★½☆☆

1997 • 85 minutes • Miramax Films

If you ask me, the point of taking a text from stage to screen is to expand it.

(Of course, not many people would ask me, with my dim grasp on theater. Yeah, I was a student actress through high school and college, but I’ve only recently realized that I’m not quite sure why.)

Theater is inherently intimate; film is inherently epic. Both are capable of the other, of course, but those inherent qualities are functions of form. Theater demands that the audience be present in the moment (or at least present to it), while film relies on both its ability to astonish and the well-established rituals of film-going to reach the audience. There is a certain safety in film that theater lacks; no matter how much a film breaks the fourth wall, it can’t capture the immediate terror of not knowing if the actor on stage is actually engaging with you or not that pins you to the present moment.

And that’s why The House of Yes falls a little flat in its cinematic incarnation. For those unfamiliar with the play, Wendy MacLeod’s The House of Yes follows the Pascals on Thanksgiving. Their status as long-time neighbors of the Kennedys has influenced their lives, despite their declining fortunes. Mrs. Pascal remains committed to decorum, despite her inability to run a house; unstable daughter Jackie-O is obsessed with Jacqueline Onassis and JFK; younger brother Anthony is deeply unsocialized; and Jackie-O’s twin brother, Marty, is attempting to pretend at a normal life when he brings home his sudden, homespun fiancée, Lesly. A hurricane strands them at the Pascals’ home, even after it becomes apparent that the family disapproves of Lesly, and different members of the family try to reveal and conceal their various secrets.

The play’s power (I imagine, having never seen it staged) lies in those moments of immediate terror—the will they or won’t they of the incestuous twins at the heart of the play. I spent my viewing occasionally rolling my eyes at how the film teases the twincest, when it’s so obvious what’s going on. (Of course, I am a modern woman living in a world where TV Guide makes winking wordplay about Cersei and Jaime Lannister, so maybe it was different in the nineties.) The play itself, which, if not well-produced, could probably end up seeming like a parody of modern theater: the intense focus on conversation, the big emotional beats, the handing off of focus so that everybody in the ensemble gets something meaty.

It seems so inherently theatrical that a film version seems largely to function as a record of it. Which is no mean thing, given how many times I’ve wailed that I’d never be able to see X musical or Y play because it would never be produced around me. (Another way in which theater is maddeningly present: you have to be present for it.) But when you’re adapting a play to film, you’re exchanging immediacy for scope. This is why Les Misérables is so nail-bitingly maddening—for a musical that seems almost entirely about challenging the scope of theater, the film is content to trot at its characters’ heels and never really show the world they live in. The House of Yes does largely the same thing, highlighting the claustrophobia of the house in a very plain way. To put that positively, it’s simply being very faithful, but I’ve never been a big proponent of faithful adaptations.

Because when it does do something specifically cinematic with its story, that’s where the movie succeeds. The home movie that opens the film, featuring a fourteen year old Jackie-O in the tasteless costume, is a stroke of genius, introducing us to Jackie-O as both a young, sympathetic girl and as someone clearly unhinged. Jackie-O and Marty, doing shots at the elegantly set Thanksgiving table, shot entirely in profile as they chug. Jackie-O triumphantly revealing to Lesly that she and Marty definitely had sex the night before by putting her arm around her brother and letting her costume’s blazer fall open just enough to reveal her bra. And Lesly talking Marty down from his family’s influence by describing their life in New York together, over beautifully lush shots of cloying coupledom that draw them in so completely that they respond to Jackie-O’s flushing of Marty’s keys down the toilet from within that remembered fantasy.

But they are few and far between, and the film largely starts to feel like an exercise—although I have to wonder if that’s not just my personal history with theater butting in. (Ha! Of course it is! Subjectivity is the only reality!) Still, it’s fascinating to see Parker Posey, an actress I’m more familiar with in softer fare like Covert Affairs and Imagine Me And You (speaking of Cersei Lannister…), deliver such a brittle, spiteful, and human performance as Jackie-O. There’s something twisted in Jackie-O’s eyes that’s frighteningly engaging.

So perhaps it does manage to bring theater to film after all.

I streamed this film on Netflix.