Having spent all of last weekend doing as little as possible, I decided to use the odd mid-week holiday yesterday to get out of the house...and sit in a movie theater. The two films I most wanted to see were Brave and Magic Mike, which made for a very odd double feature, with two very different audience reactions to bare male asses. But it seemed like spending the day with Pixar and Matthew McConaughey was a pretty decent way to celebrate America.
There are a lot of reasons why I don't go to the movies very often. They're expensive, I'd rather go to live theater (which is more expensive, of course, but there's also much less of it), I have lots of entertainment to keep me busy in the comfort of my own home, I'm lazy, one of my regular theaters had bedbugs last summer, I'm a control freak. But the main reason I rarely see movies in the theater is that I hate people. This is the kind of hyperbolic, curmodgeonly statement I make all the time and don't really mean, but with no exaggeration I am really so frequently astonished by the kinds of assholes movie theaters seem to attract. Like the people who "Ooooohhhh"ed like the Saved by the Bell laugh track when Jack and Ennis kissed in Brokeback Mountain. Did you not know what the movie was about???
Now, I realize it was foolish to go to a kids' movie at 1:30 pm on the 4th of July. I take responsibility for that. But you guys, there was so much bad parenting on display at Brave yesterday...we are not teaching the children well and letting them lead the way. (Or, I guess we are letting them lead the way when really an adult should.) I get that parenting is hard and sometimes you just need to get out of the house, but when I was a kid, my mother (who I never thought of as particularly strict or mean or anti-fun) would use such outings as teaching opportunities for how to behave in public. We simply never would have shown up to a movie 20 minutes late and make a commotion about it. And did that same family of six need to all go to the bathroom at the same time, as noisily as possible?
Also, for some reason, the movie was being shown with subtitles. English subtitles. Maybe there were some hearing impaired people in the audience who'd requested them, or maybe it was just a wrong setting on the computer, but it was even more distracting to me than the squirming two-year-olds. My eye is just drawn to words on the screen, which made it hard to truly enjoy the beautiful animation. Also dialogue in the captions shows up sometimes before anyone actually speaks, blowing the timing, and the really lovely sound design was entirely described to me, again often before the sounds actually happened. Strangest of all was the presense of unspoken "dialogue" in the captions. It must have been taken directly from the script, because, for example, there'd be text like, "(MONKEY SQUEALS) Don't go in there!" (There is no monkey; I'm trying to avoid spoilers.) So apparently the hearing impaired don't appreciate subtlety and can't read facial expressions?
All of this is to say that I didn't see Brave under the best conditions, and I'm sad about that because I really liked it. It's certainly more conventional than a lot of Pixar movies, but I liked it much more than Up (apart from the opening sequence, I'm in that tiny minority that sort of hated Up, so take that as you will) or Tangled (which I know isn't Pixar). I have only two complaints about the film's structure. One is that it's extremely predictable. There are a couple of "twists" that are so heavily telegraphed...I mean, I know it's a kids' movie, but one of the great things about Pixar is that you can usually watch their films as an adult and still be surprised now and then. My other issue is that I never felt like there were any real stakes. You know that really intense scene in Toy Story 3 where you know intellectually that it's a kids' movie and they're not going to kill anyone but you think "Holy shit, are they going to kill someone???" anyway? There was none of that here. You just know everything's going to work out. (Uh...spoiler?) This kept me from being fully engaged, which surely led to some of my irritated distraction at the theater. Also, not a structural problem, but there's a lot more slapstick than I expected, and a handful of anachronistic or lowest-common-denomonator jokes that seemed like they'd be more at home in a Shrek movie than here.
But, as I mentioned in the midst of my complaining, the animation is lovely, the voice performances are terrific, and the sound design goes a long way to creating a world (that's one reason I'm glad I saw it in the theater). There's been so much talk about Merida's hair, which is truly impressive, but I was even more taken with the animation on some animals that feature prominently. They're just slightly anthropomorphised, but not in that old-school Disney way, so they convey human emotion while still feeling like real animals. Their movement was beautiful.
I really, really don't understand all the feminist hand-wringing over Brave. Yes, she's a princess (maybe there should be some 99% hand-wringing about why these stories are never about the working class!), but she's unlike any Disney princess I've ever seen before. And I don't think enough credit is being given to the Queen, both in how the character is written and in Emma Thompson's delightful performance. This is a strong, powerful woman! Her role is more traditional, yes (and again, why always with the royalty?), but she's very much in charge. Each woman learns about the other, but it's not like "why corsets are important" is one of the lessons. As much as Brave is about a girl who can fight and shoot, it's also about a woman who can rule, and soothe, and be a cunning diplomat. Meanwhile the men and boys in the film are largely ineffectual or sidelined. I just don't get how that's "not feminist enough."
Which is as good a segue as any to Magic Mike, which I managed to enjoy while also sort of hating. (And which I'm going to make less of an effort not to spoil, because it really doesn't matter.) Maybe it's just because strippers don't really do it for me, but I was shocked at how completely unsexy this movie was. Yes, there are some hot bodies on display, but I can see that (in fact, these very same) on the internet. But also, not just unsexy, but outright sex-negative. It's a movie about strippers!! I don't really know anything about Channing Tatum's personal story, except that this movie is based on it, and he seems totally unashamed of, even proud of his stripper history, so this was not the outlook I expected.
Olivia Munn has some lively scenes as the one character in the movie who isn't somehow runined by having a healthy, non-conservative sex life or being around strippers. She has fun, she's adventurous, she's safe (as far as we see) and she seems to be completely guilt-free about it. This is what I expected from "the stripper movie." And one of these scenes opens the film so it seemed like where we were going. But no. Everyone else who enters this world -- including, eventually, Mike himself to some degree -- is ruined by it. Look, I don't know any strippers myself, but isn't it possible for someone to just enjoy stripping? It seems like pretty easy money if you have the skills and the...assets. Certainly as portrayed in this movie, the world of men stripping for women is kind of a non-stop party, with very little if any of the risk and skeeviness involved in being a woman stripping for men. But the film can't be just that. This movie wants us to know that it's afterschool special bad. Matt Bomer's character is married! Look how cute he and his wife are! They have a healthy-seeming open relationship! Yay sex! Yay naked Matt Bomer! Oh...he's a drug dealer? They both are? With drug problems themselves? Okay, then. And that's pretty much the least of it.
It doesn't help that the supporting characters are so thinly drawn as to be nonexistent, but that's where they put the decent actors for some reason! I've enjoyed Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer elsewhere (SNL and Beastly, respectively, so the bar is admittedly low), but neither of them is able to carry this movie. In Pettyfer's case I'm not sure it's his fault. I just never once bought him as a wide-eyed 19-year-old in a way that feels more like a failure of casting than of acting. And also of a script that makes him kind of a dick right from the start, so that it's unclear why Mike would be so into him (in a bro way, of course, because there are no gay people anywhere near this story). A better actor might have been able to work around these obstacles, but Pettyfer isn't that actor.
And then there's the girl. I hope it says more about the role of women in this movie than it does about me that I don't know her name and think of her as "the girl" not even "the woman." Sorry, women. Truthfully, I spent the whole movie thinking of her as "Bitchface." I think she laughs twice, but mostly she just makes this face:
I get that she doesn't have the best life, but she's so sour and unfun (not in a "be more responsible" way, just in a "I hate fun" way) and has such disdain for what Mike does (when Mike is, for most of the movie, someone who just has a good time at his job, so it's not like she's down on him because of drugs or anything) and plus has nothing in common with him that I never saw how she could be a viable love interest, except for the fact that Mike clearly likes a challenge. The two actors have zero chemistry and the script didn't give me any reason to want them to be together for even a second.
I know this movie is all about the bromance, but for a film about men who please women for a living, it just seemed really woman-free. Sure, there's the entire audience of extras in the club, and some sex partners who literally have no lines, but it fails the Bechdel Test spectacularly. Not that I expected Magic Mike to be, well, Brave, just that it felt like a very incomplete world. These guys would have friends. The girl would have friends probably, even though she's a miserable human being.
I've seen very little Soderbergh, but I know that he likes naturalistic dialogue and occasional improvisation, which I imagine is great when you're watching some of the actors he's worked with in the past. The actors in Magic Mike, though (at least the ones in these scenes), can't pull it off. At all. A couple of scenes were just painful to watch.
But Adam, what about the damn stripping?? Well, having already stipulated that strippers don't do much for me, the dance sequences were pretty delightful, actually. They're pure fantasy, with much higher production values than I suspect are realistic, and thank goodness for that because they're great fun. The over-the-top choreography was actually nicely tempered by the cast's uneven dancing ability. Some of them are there for their other assets, and watching them work the choreography to varying degrees was both fun and a good balance. But also...I've never been to this type of club, obviously, but is it really so, well, rapey? They make it very clear that the women are willing participants and enjoying everything that's happening, but some of the positions they got themselves into made me uncomfortable. Am I being sex-negative? Or were some lines crossed?
I did really like some of what the movie had to say about the economy, without being heavy handed about it (considering how heavy handed they are elsewhere, this is surprising). The fantasy of the club and its easy money are contrasted nicely with the challenge of finding other work, mediocre living conditions, credit issues, and how trapped Bitchface seems to feel. The production design is also fantastic, both at conveying how Tampa can be pretty great, with the beach and all, but also pretty depressing, with the shitty houses and third-rate clubs. There were some great little details, like how the dancers' dressing room is the kitchen from what must be the space's former life as a restaurant.
But that attempt to be serious is exactly what ruined Magic Mike for me. If it had been Burlesque it would have been a light-hearted summer romp with hot naked-ish guys and fun dancing. (I mean, really, every movie should be more like Burlesque.) But they tried to have it both ways and failed spectacularly on both fronts, committing a sin that nothing widely known as "that stripper movie" ever should: It was boring.
ETA: I really liked this review of Magic Mike by my friend Mildly Bitter, who actually went to film school and stuff, so I wanted to share. Also, I've realized in listening to other people praise the movie (not MB, for sure) that my big problem with it was one of marketing. I went in expecting summer fun and got preachy downer. Bummer.