The one in which I don’t hate Magic Mike XXL

Admittedly, I know I can be a little intense about things. It’s something I’ve actively worked to change, you know, rather than saying I listened to three Tindersticks albums in a row while making french onion soup for one and then watched “Les Hautes Solitudes” and found it both engaging and alienating and…. trails off  I just say my weekend was “really good, how was yours?” Thing is, I can’t help all of of the dumb shit I like, but, sometimes, when the moon is just so in the sky and I’ve had most of a mid-price Pinot Gris and it’s a Sunday and I’m tired… well, I decide – maybe I’ll watch a really dumb movie, write some jokes, and ultimately use it to frame my thesis which is: I Don’t Think I Relate To Film Right Now.

Tonight was just such a night. Wherein – I set out to answer the big questions, that is, can you watch Magic Mike XXL without seeing the first film? Are you going to miss major narrative developments coming in at the second chapter? Also, why is this movie nearly two full goddamn hours long? Suddenly, a buddy texts: he’s going to Macs in pajama pants – is this a new low? Can’t say, I’m 15 minutes into Magic Mike XXL and even deeper into a bottle of wine, I’m in no place to adjudicate anyone’s life choices.

Now is a good time to mention that there were times during the viewing of this film where I was definitely looking at pictures of people who have unconventional house pets and I did no further research on this film, so any forthcoming errors can be attributed to the following.

So anyway, the film opens on Channing Tatum who has some kind of moving business. I assume, a la Showgirls, that he left the glitz and glamour of male stripping behind in the first film because he’d rather have a moving business. He wears a suit and shows up to what he thinks is a wake, and I think – oh shit, is this a wake for an old stripper buddy? Is he going to get back into stripping because of a gaping hole in the male exotic dancer world and this movie is going to be really sad?

Nah. It’s not really a wake, it’s a pool party, there’s some dude junk and these are apparently his buddies from his old stripper days. I wonder if I’ll be able to make it through this movie. A cursory viewing of this scene tells you essentially all you need to know about his stripper buddies. We aren’t watching real people, we’re watching the suggestion of characters. There’s boy band eyebrow guy, older Ron Perlman guy, large junk guy, guy who isn’t attractive enough to strip (emcee guy), and a stringy haired, puka-shell wearing motherfucker who wants to open up a probiotic yogurt truck. (There’s a subplot here that doesn’t pay off – we find out Puka Shells works in an ice cream joint at the mall for market research – the idea that Puka Shells quits hocking Baskin Robbins in order to earn stripper cash for his probiotic yogurt truck is the strangest, saddest hipster Tom Waits tale I’ve ever heard.

The gang is heading to some kind of male stripper expo, because of course. Our hero, Channing Tatum heads home for some late night welding, when suddenly, Ginuwine’s “Pony” comes on his trial version of Spotify. He starts to do a sexy R&B dance.

It’s fascinating and bizarre. First of all, I start thinking about Gene Kelly, and all of the times I’ve watched Gene Kelly dance in musicals. Gene Kelly, less refined, less graceful than someone like Fred Astaire. Gene doesn’t glide, he stomps – he’s an athlete. But he’s operating in musical world. It isn’t like Channing grinding into a workbench. This scene is designed because it knows we’re watching. I think its supposed to be sexually titillating  but then, I can’t gauge this – I’m a poor metric. For me, it’s approximately as arousing as finding out there’s going to be at least a 45 minute wait at the walk-in clinic and sitting down with three outdated issues of Good Housekeeping. It’s like trying to listen to a podcast on the bus when an elderly lady with one of those grocery suitcases tries to talk to you about how rainy it’s been.

(I consider, briefly, the last time I found a film character really, truly attractive. Easy. Sam Shepard in Volker Schlondorff’s Voyager. Shepard plays a repressed, literate, 1950’s engineer who approaches life with clinical detachment, almost dies in a plane crash, and accidentally has a sexual relationship with a daughter he didn’t realize he had – SPOILER ALERT. Additionally, wears nice suits, seems like he’d be sensitive about literature.) -That considered, I am not the target for Magic Mike XXL’s sexuality, but then again, it may also be hard to separate this from its inherent homoeroticism. It’s a firm 7 on the Top Gun scale, folks.

Interestingly: Magic Mike XXL leans into this idea early, with a scene in a roadside drag bar. Mike and co. seem pretty into drag shows, and eagerly embrace the parallels between drag and male exotic dancing at a beach party after the fact. Also featured – a scene where Mike hits on a girl (Amber Heard, the non-love interest), and they talk about contemplative beach urination. Again, unexpected choices from Magic Mike XXL.

WAIT I skipped ahead. That late night welding dance reminds Mike that he should go along to the big dude stripper expo because – I suspect this has something to do with the first film – his lady love said no.

Consider: Mike is rejected romantically, probably has hurt feels, rejoins the wiener bus with his best pals, bound for male exotic dance glory.

Tl:dr – Magic Mike XXL then turns into a road movie with only the barest semblance of plot. Unexpectedly, I find myself appreciating – nay, almost enjoying, a movie without nuance. Not only that, Magic Mike XXL gets… weirdly surreal. I’d almost call it the El Topo of summertime male exotic dancer blockbuster stagette movies. But before I get to that, I should say that there’s an important scene, I’d call it the Thematic Exposition Scene, where the junk patrol discusses how they should do different routines, because, the old routines aren’t true to who they are artistically, maaaan. Ritchie, do you even want to be a fireman? Do you even like the Kiss song “Hotter Than Hell”? These are the timeless questions we ask ourselves daily, only with fewer Village People characterizations and not so much 70s stripper jams. More like, our lives and the choices we’ve made. Similar, though.

Anyway, road movie. At some point, Emcee ends up in the hospital – they need an new person to announce that some dudes are going to be gyrating. No problem though – like the rest of Magic Mike XXL, this isn’t an actual obstacle. Anyway, the pectoral possee ends up in some strange southern country club ruled by a former stripper (Jada Pinkett Smith, who’s, like, way good in this movie.) It’s this moody, blue and red oasis of slow takes of raucous women looking to be entertained by men like some kind of… non-explicitly-sexual brothel? My main read on this scene was power. A group of white dudes walk into a business run by a black woman where other black women are entertained by black men and realize their schlocky act won’t cut it. That they are privileged is a foregone conclusion, and it’s not something the scene dwells on. Rather, it’s a vehicle to explain to the ab consortium that they’re in the business of female pleasure, and, uhm, this business is killing it. 

Later, they end up at some Southern ladies night as unplanned parlour entertainment. Again, this scene is dominated by another woman – Andie MacDowell, centre-framed and all-powerful. This scene goes down, interestingly, without dancing specifically but primarily with conversation. Suddenly, I wonder what the hell kind of dumb movie I’m watching. I mean, it is a dumb movie, but it’s a curious one. It embraces its dumbness and also overcomes it with scenes like this that are subtlety a bit more interesting than they need to be.

Eventually, the sultans of staff end up at the big male stripper expo, quite without any rehearsal of their fancy new routines. The male stripper expo is run by yet another ex-stripper (Elizabeth Banks) who has some sexual chemistry with Pinkett-Smith, along as the new Emcee. She is another female in Magic Mike XXL land who worked in the exotic dance industry, has now harnessed that experience into a lucrative business. Heard re-surfaces as an occasional stripper in a bi-sexual phase that’s currently focused on women. That’s cool, the movie respects this. Here we have three attractive ex-stripper characters who we never actually see dance. 

We see the routines, the movie ends abruptly without any major character realizations, and I’m left feeling weirdly thoughtful about Magic Mike XXL. Magic Mike XXL presents an oddly reframed feminism, by assigning typical filmic “female” traits to male characters, without shying away from their relatively dumb bro-ness. Perhaps, there are some smart people behind this film, who understand the fantasy of adult entertainment in a way that I clearly don’t. I mean, gosh, a lot of the core scenes in Magic Mike XXL aren’t geared towards me – I enjoy art galleries and going for ice cream by myself. But Magic Mike XXL manages to be a summer stagette movie, a movie that apparently goes for the libido of both straight women and (unapologetically) gay men alike but also – this movie understands what the real hook here is. It is, dare I say, about an exchange of power between women and men, and men embracing vulnerability. Yes, there is something cloying about Magic Mike XXL’s surrender of power – this idea that women get off primarily on validation from males, on being called goddesses and queens (Magic Mike XXL manages to share this term gracefully with the gay community). But it’s not to say there isn’t some truth in these symbolic gestures that the film displays. Mike was rejected, big junk guy just wants to find someone to marry, like some big, gross, Cinderella story, and our central female characters are busy making money, getting off, and being interested in other women.

I mean, don’t go into this movie expecting a grand rumination on gender politics and libido. If that’s what you’re looking for, this ain’t it. But, for what it’s worth, I watched Magic Mike XXL for the opportunity to check out mentally and make fun of it and all I got was this lousy blog entry about how it wasn’t bad.

 

 

 

 

 

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SHITTY GOLDEN AGE MUSICAL: Carousel, 1956

Even though I wrote a few paragraphs on Drugstore Cowboy and a comparison of Groucho in Monkey Business and Groucho in Horse Feathers, neither seemed quite right for my triumphant return to movie blogging. Inspiration hit only this weekend, when I had the misfortune of catching Fox’s stupid 1956 musical CAROUSEL.  I have a lot of feelings on it, which I will now share in exhaustive detail.

My Facebook relationship status on musicals would be “It’s Complicated.”

There’s a few I unabashedly love – Cabaret (especially the stage version, that second act is a bruiser), Sound of Music (although watching this as an adult on blu-ray brings up two interesting observations – Christopher Plummer is starting to look a little long in the tooth and his contempt for this film is almost tangible), the Gene Kelly oeuvre, and, you know, White Christmas because it’s just not Christmas unless I pretend not to be crying during “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”. However, usually it’ll occur to me in passing that I’d like to luxuriate Technicolor and Cinemascope, in frothy and unsatisfying narratives, and maybe enjoy some immaculately choreographed dance sequences. And then the musical will start, and I’ll remember that I don’t really like musicals, and then I’ll sit through it uncomfortably because I rarely turn off a film once I’ve started it, and leave the theatre two hours older.

I forgot about this on Sunday, when Carousel was playing for the Cineplex classic film series. I figured I’d catch it, knowing I’d probably end up sitting through Salo: 120 Days of Sodom again later that evening. I wanted to watch something blandly life affirming, and look at this poster – I really thought this would do it for me:

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Friends, I was wrong. Salo may even been more life affirming (although I did skip over the feces breakfast scene – that’s been burned into my brain from the first time I saw it and there’s only so much shit eating you need to watch in your life). Carousel is abjectly terrible. It has approximately three things going for it: Shirley Jones (previously known to me only as Mom Partridge) is stunning, it  contains some of Rogers and Hammerstein’s most evocative songs about seafood, and “What’s The Use Of Wond’rin” is the prettiest song you’ll ever hear about staying in your shitty dead end abusive relationship because you agreed to a long time ago when you were charmed by a charmless carousel operator who argued about starting a relationship with you and then tried to get you to buy him beer. I’m hesitant to call it a 1950’s musical theatre Springsteen song only because it’s way too goddamned depressing and at least guys in Springsteen songs make an effort to be gainfully employed.

I could write a review but really, merely telling you what happens in Carousel will say infinitely more about the film than any conclusions I could draw independent of it.

I will recount the plot to spare you the anguish of watching it yourself.

The movie opens with Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae,either a poor man’s Robert Mitchum with more energy or a bargain basement Kirk Douglas) in heaven or something. By the way, heaven looks kind of like a 90’s ad for Thierry Mugler’s Angel perfume. You can hear the tinkling sound of crystal stars and almost smell the dewy smell of chemical chocolate and the stink of patchouli, the scent of strippers from the midwest and that girl who went to everyone’s high school with clumpy Maybelline Great Lash eyelashes and demarcation on her jawline from wearing foundation two shades darker than her skin tone… (Sorry, overly personalized Thierry Mugler tangent.)

…Anyway, Billy’s in heaven or something, or at least at the administrative desk, where he is told that the bastard daughter of his surviving wife is having trouble. Although he has waived his right to go down to earth for a single day (this is something we allegedly get after dying, which seems anti-climactic and sadly mundane, like THE ACADEMY AWARDS followed directly by… The Barbara Walters Aftershow), he now wants the opportunity but first must tell his life story.

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Don’t worry, this isn’t a Frank Capra-esque story of self sacrifice and the quiet strength of the human spirit. It’s a story about how Billy Bigelow was a total piece of shit to everyone around him for years and then died because he slipped on a pile of crates while trying to commit a robbery. This would never have happened to Mitchum or Douglas. At least they could’ve pulled off the robbery.

We then see Billy at the height of his power, as a carousel barker who yells at girls to ride the carousel. He puts his arm around Julie Jordan (Shirley Jones, who can do a lot better) who’s riding the carousel with her friend Carrie. Carrie is blonde and therefore stupid. The carousel, by the way, is owned by the middle-aged Mrs. Mullin, the only female in Carousel to command any kind of respect, even if she is tarted up like a Madam and portrayed not as a successful small business owner but as an insecure old crone, incurably infatuated with her employee.

Mrs. Mullin gets angry that Billy puts his arm around Julie and calls both girls sluts and bans them from the Carousel. I’m not shorthanding that at all – she actually calls them sluts and there’s just no room for slutty slut sluts on her carousel. Billy then quits his job to show the girls that he does what he wants and that no one puts Billy in a corner, and then hits them up to buy him beer. Carrie sings a song about how her beau is a nice guy even if he does smell like fish due to working on a herring boat.

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Later that evening, Billy and Julie are talking and Julie runs into her boss at the mill who threatens to fire her if she’s not back soon, because as we now know from five minutes ago, Julie’s propriety and chastity is seriously questionable because she rode a carousel and is now talking to a man when it’s dark. Not twenty minutes into the film, and we’ve marginalized women for being jealous and condemned them for being harlots, because they’re merely existing while being desirable.

It should be noted that I am no great champion for political correctness in art and media. As a rule, I don’t believe art is responsible for promoting a social agenda. If we’re watching critically, I think we can all tell the difference between content and intent, and hey, you’re a big lady – I think we can trust the viewer with the power of deciding whether or not art has merit, and whether or not it aligns with your personal morals and values is of varying importance for everyone. All of that being said, Carousel is some misogynistic shit, folks. This is well above its status as a mid-50’s relic, where we might encounter some routine misogynistic characters. No, Carousel is deeply misogynistic in the fabric of its very construction. For me, this makes it merit-less for first being poorly-written tripe and second for being offensive and demeaning to women, men, and people who work on herring boats.

And, back to the film. Billy and Julie sing a song arguing about their desire for each other and whether they’re in love. This is pretty standard musical stuff – people meet, are instantly in love, but in Carousel, we have no honeymoon period with these characters. Like Miley Cyrus circa 2010, Billy can’t be tamed, he’s just not the marryin’ kind, he’s more into being surly and unemployed. Still, Billy and Julie end up married and living off of Julie’s cousin.

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Billy is bitter that he can’t get a job (and by the way, he does have offers, he’s just to good to work on a herring boat because as we know from earlier, he’s highly qualified due to carny work). Oh, and the town is all a twitter about Billy because he beat Julie during an argument because he is full of testosterone and ignorance and is insecure about having small equipment. (The last part I inferred but I think it goes without saying.) The town is also all a twitter about June, which I can totally get behind, and the whole company sings “June Is Busting Out All Over” and for a moment I feel like I’m watching a blandly life affirming musical, and I, too, feel excited for spring which momentarily alleviates the depression I’m feeling from watching this film.

Mrs. Mullin offers Billy his job back if he leaves Julie, and Billy is momentarily swayed by recapturing his former glory as a guy who yells at girls at a carnival, before his full time job became beating Julie and waiting for her to bring him dinner. But then, Julie comes back with (his dinner), and the news we’ve all privately been dreading… SHE’S PREGNANT!

Billy’s totally stoked on this, drunk on the knowledge that his super awesome genes will be continuing in the world, and sings a song on the beach about how his son (who he will name after himself, obvs), will be THE BEST and he’ll be strong and tough and he won’t let his Mom make the boy a sissy and he might be president or a heavyweight champ and then it occurs to him that it might be a girl… No matter, she’ll be pretty and all the boys will want to get with her (this is the jist of the real song by the way. I can’t make this stuff up.) However, Billy realizes that if it is a girl, he’ll have to provide for her, because no one wants to get with girls who are poor and she can’t provide for herself. Everyone knows that. OH, the song also has super creepy lyrics about how dozens of men will pursue her but no one woos her away from her Dad and when she gets hungry every night she’ll come home to her Dad because whatthefuckseriouslywhyamiwatchingthis.

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So Billy, who suddenly cares about being male provider guy and his jailbird friend, the awesomely named Jigger Craigin decide to rob Julie’s old boss at the mill (remember from a few paragraphs ago? The boss who fired her for seeing her talking to a man after dark?) during a big ol’ town clambake. I don’t know Billy, wouldn’t it just be easier to just get a goddamned job? Like, say, the one you were offered by Carrie’s fiancee not ten minutes ago in the film’s running time?

There’s a song about how great it is to eat seafood – which I can totally get behind, and then a scene where we can all laugh at Carrie for being stupid and gullible, and then a song about how nice guys make terrible partners and everyone should date abusive macho men – THIS IS REAL YOU GUYS I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP – and then the aforementioned song “What’s The Use of Wond’rin”, where Julie contemplates the futility of her life and relationship while all the townswomen look on, presumably in similar relationships. Except for Carrie, of course, who’s fiancee is homely and probably bad in bed and a source of ridicule for having a great job and being nice, but he still shames her for being stupid and gullible when men antagonize her. Such is the world of Carousel.

Predictably, because Billy hasn’t displayed any aptitude for anything other than being a total piece of shit, the robbery goes bad and Billy accidentally stabs himself with his own knife after slipping on crates. Where’s his virile manly aggression and focus now? Julie cries because she was always too afraid to say she loved Billy and now she’d never have the chance. I contemplate leaving the theatre but I’ve spent $6.99 and want to see how much worse this will get.

Answer: a lot worse.

Fifteen years later, Billy has birthed the attractive blonde daughter who all the boys wanna mouth kiss just like he had always dreamed. However, everyone makes fun of her for being fatherless and poor. Oh no! Just like he feared! Billy goes back to earth to “make amends” and discovers that the land of the living will only see them if he wants them too. For a moment, I wish we were in a reverse “It’s A Wonderful Life” parallel universe where Billy gets to see that everyone would be better off without ever knowing him.

It should be noted that Billy’s daughter Louise is “just like him”, which means she is defiant and rebellious, she’s going to run off and live a wild life as an actress! However, Louise is still a woman and this is Carousel, so the moment a fifteen year old neighbor mentions marriage, she’s totally into that idea too.

The way Billy “makes amends” is by talking to Louise, about himself. Louise says her mother has lied to her about her father being an awesome carousel barker with good intentions who died honorably, and that the townspeople have set her straight. However, they agree he was handsome, and Billy feels good about himself. Then he offers Louise a crystal star from heaven because everyone knows that’s how you make things right with women. Bitches love dinky plastic stars.

If you’re still with me, it is very important you read the following, because this is it! This is the big moment! Billy is going to make amends with his abandoned daughter, finally proving to his family that he’s changed, that he cares, that the 90-some minutes I personally have spent watching this awful movie is all worth it and… he gets angry and slaps her hand.

That’s it?

That’s all you’ve got for me, Carousel? That he has fifteen years up in Thierry Mugler heaven for self reflection and personal growth and he did FUCK NOTHING with it? He’s the same abusive jackass from earlier?

But wait, there’s more. Louise tells her Mom that a strange man hit her but… it didn’t feel like a slap… it felt… like a KISS. (Was Phil Spector super into this movie or something?) And, isn’t that strange? Julie looks off into the reflective distance and says knows exactly how that feels, apparently reliving the memory, both misty and water-coloured, of when her beloved husband Billy beat her while she carried his child.

WHAT.

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There are no words. We can just sit and share the moment of a mother and daughter getting all moony eyed about being hit by a husband and father.

Billy shows up at Louise’s graduation and while the kindly town doctor drones on about how you are not the mistakes of your parents and you can hold your head up high and not be afraid of the dark and a bunch of other platitudes, and Billy then tells Louise that she should believe the doctor. However, Louise can’t hear him because he’s invisible and mute, so as a character and in the story arc, Billy is affecting NOTHING. Literally all he did to make amends was agree that he was handsome, try to give his daughter a star and then hit her. Him agreeing with advice being given by a townsperson in front of his daughter means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. It has no effect whatsoever.

Except Carousel doesn’t know this. Carousel plays this moment seriously. This is Billy’s big redemption, but the story doesn’t realize that in its very design, we are seeing that fifteen years of afterlife growth has changed nothing about this character. He stands to the side and his ‘loved ones’ figure things out themselves, alone, making Carousel somewhat more depressing and nihilistic than Salo, which I inevitably did end up watching later that day. At least Salo comes by its nihilism honestly, instead of Carousel which is blissfully oblivious of how rotten it is, Trojan-horsing an insidious ode to male machismo and domestic violence on an unsuspecting audience who expected a bunch of singing and dancing at a carnival.

Oh, and in this scene we see widow Julie, wearing her hair in a bun to show that time has passed, all glassy eyed and sentimental, in the afterglow of the knowledge that the ghost of her husband hit her daughter earlier that day, because angels really do walk among us, and when we go to the great Thierry Mugler ad in the sky, we may have the opportunity for one special day back on earth to take care of our unfinished business. So that our fatherless daughter may experience that very special rite of passage in every girl’s life, when your father hits you for not being grateful for all he’s done for you. Namely, fertilize your mother’s egg, then die, leaving your Mother penniless and alone.

Then the end title comes up.

The fuck did I just watch, 20th Century Fox?

How weird was it then, to end up watching Salo later that evening, forever tying the two films together in my mind? Salo was just as nauseating and horrifying as I remembered, but at least Salo is intelligent in its obscenity, sincere in its intention to provoke. Carousel demeans its audience with inanity and champions sexism and domestic violence under a thin veil of choregraphy and DeLuxe Cinemascope 55, hurting the audience more with its unctuous pandering than Salo does with its high-minded filth. Either way, you’re consuming shit.

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The Blog Formerly Known as HardBoiledGirl

Friends! Bloggers! Countrymen!

I’ve missed you. No, I have. I’ve missed talking about movies on the information superhighway, so I’m back in what I think will be a more sustainable format. I love noir, and I’ll keep writing about it, but I’ve found myself wanting to write about everything, thus, ANOTHER NIGHT IN. Same bat time, slightly different bat channel. And, I’ll be focusing on something I do a lot of anyway – The At-Home Film Festival, wherein I curate different film festivals for myself and occasionally unsuspecting friends and loved ones.

By the way, I’m Leah. Ex-film and acting student, I make lists, write fiction, have pet rats, love 60’s pop and wear dresses pretty much exclusively. I love Golden Age Hollywood, historic tours, and live in constant anticipation that someone will bring up Hitchcock or 70’s slashers.

Which brings me to my inaugural feature and a personal favorite of mine – HOLIDAY HORROR! A girl can’t dine on good cheer, family hijinx and personal sacrifices alone. Nope, there comes a time when you need some bad taste and… actual sacrifices. PUNISH.

By all means, follow along at home if you’d like and get at me to discuss our mutual love of xmas scares. By the way, I’m happy you’re here.