Post Date Jul 1

Magic Mike XXL

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for strong sexual content, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

The abs are tight in the sequel “Magic Mike XXL” — and the pecs, and the thighs, and the asses — but the movie itself has a loose, shaggy vibe that has an appeal all its own.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: The male stripping sequences are hot. (If you’re into that kind of thing, that is. I’d probably react the way Amber Heard’s character does on stage during the movie’s splashy finale: just giggly and incredulous.) Much of the film’s joy comes from seeing it in a packed theater — all the better to laugh and squeal alongside hundreds of other straight women and gay men reveling in the spectacle of it all. It’s raining men, again, hallelujah.

But in between the bumping and grinding and shedding of clothing, the story meanders a bit. It takes its time. It’s a road trip movie with plenty of stops along the way for talking and learning and — shockingly — actual growth from its characters, and not just physically. When Steven Soderbergh directed the original “Magic Mike” from 2012 —  a surprise smash hit that made over $167 million worldwide — he was fascinated by the minutiae of these strippers’ (er, male entertainers’) lives. He lingered over the mundane details of their daily routine like weightlifting and thong shopping.

Soderbergh’s longtime first assistant director, Gregory Jacobs, gets the chance to direct the sequel, but the interest in process remains: where these guys get their inspiration, how they put together their routines, and most importantly, how they find their voices. Corny as it may sound, “Magic Mike XXL” is about a search for identity. Not to get all Oprah on you, but it’s about finding your purpose in life.

If you’re not a fireman or a police officer or a cowboy beneath those breakaway pants, then who are you, really? This is the central question of “Magic Mike XXL.”

Reid Carolin once again has written the script, and Soderbergh has shot and cut it using his usual pseudonyms, but this is a very different movie in a lot of ways from the original — starting with the absence of Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the dancers’ spark and spiritual guide. (Alex Pettyfer, as The Kid who became Channing Tatum’s protege, also is gone). But maybe going in a different direction isn’t such a bad thing. In following up a couple of massive hits this year, “Pitch Perfect 2″ and, to a certain extent, “Ted 2″ played it safe by offering us nearly the exact same movie all over again. This at least dares to set its own tone, and risks being not as obviously crowd-pleasing and adored.

“Magic Mike XXL” picks up three years later, with Tatum’s titular character living in Florida and fulfilling his dream of running his own custom furniture company. When he gets the call from his fellow Kings of Tampa, asking him to join them as they journey to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the annual Male Strippers Convention (and there is such a thing), he’s initially apprehensive. But one night, working in his shop, the beat of a hip-hop tune takes hold of him — and this is the first of the movie’s many giggle-and-gawk moments. If you’ve seen the original “Step Up” or the first “Magic Mike,” you know what a gifted dancer Tatum is — muscular, yet effortless. The moves he busts out are modern, yet the spontaneity behind them makes this scene feel like something out of an old-fashioned musical.

And so he says yes to Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), pretty boy Ken (Matt Bomer), the hulking Tarzan (Kevin Nash) and the smooth Tito (Adam Rodriguez) for that tried-and-true one last show. They all hop into Tito’s traveling frozen yogurt truck with buddy Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) behind the wheel and head north. Along the way, they vogue at an amateur drag show, amuse a sad convenience store cashier (with a truly inspired use of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”) and party with strangers on the beach, including an unusually understated Heard as a photographer in flux. (Soderbergh lights the exchange between Tatum and Heard really daringly, though, with bold use of nighttime darkness to accentuate their eyes and cheekbones.)

But the most crucial stop of all happens in Savannah, Georgia, when they visit an old flame of Mike’s: the beautiful and fierce Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), who now runs a members-only strip club for women inside an opulent, historic home. She addresses her clientele as queens, and preaches that they should have whatever they want from men, from life. You can practically see the light bulb go on over all these guys’ heads as they watch hugely charismatic performers — including Donald Glover, who seduces through song, and Stephen “tWitch” Boss from “So You Think You Can Dance” — work real magic on the swooning crowd. These guys are actually paying attention to women’s needs, not just preening. Pinkett Smith is just as magnetic as the men on stage, and she commands a room just as powerfully despite her petite frame.

And before they reach their final destination, they also enjoy an oddly lovely interlude with Andie MacDowell as a flirtatious divorcee entertaining her fellow middle-aged pals in her elegant Southern home. It’s a nice nod to Soderbergh’s groundbreaking debut, “sex, lies and videotape,” and it gives MacDowell a chance to play the total opposite of her demure character in that film without devlving into cliched cougardom.

Finally, they hit Myrtle Beach, where Elizabeth Banks makes a slyly charming appearance as the convention’s drawling coordinator. All these women shape Mike as his buddies for the better. And while their eventual, climactic performance is insanely over-the-top (with rather ridiculous production values, given the short notice), it comes from a heartfelt place.

Maybe “Magic Mike XXL” is secretly a romance after all.

Post Date Jul 1

RogerEbert.com — Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys Movie ReviewArnold Schwarzenegger returns to the role that made him a superstar over 30 years ago in this fifth installment in the “Terminator” franchise. It’s amusing at first, but “Terminator Genisys” turns unfortunately jokey and self-referential, to the point that it borders on parody. Ah-nuld finally has become McBain. My two-star RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jun 29

Max

Max Movie ReviewWarner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements.
Running time: 111 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

“Max” is a strange beast.

It is, in theory, a family-friendly movie about courage and friendship, with a brave and handsome military search dog at its center. Who doesn’t like dogs? What could possibly go wrong?

In reality, though, “Max” is an absurdly violent PG-rated movie in which kids and dogs are repeatedly in peril — and often the potential targets for gunfire. There’s also death in the line of duty, a family’s mourning, a weapons-smuggling ring involving bad guys from both sides of the Mexican border, a kidnapping, a near drowning and some massive explosions. At one point, my 5 1/2-year-old son, Nicolas — who loves dogs and goes out of his way to say hi to every single one he sees in our neighborhood — turned to me during the screening and said: “This movie is too violent.”

He was right — and in retrospect, Nic was too young for “Max.” But beyond the potentially frightening material, director and co-writer Boaz Yakin’s film is just a weird hodgepodge of themes and plot threads.

It’s an earnestly patriotic movie about sacrifice for one’s country, clearly aimed at conservative, Christian audiences. But it also features a character who’s way too willing to share classified information with a teenager. It has its heartwarming moments and even some thrilling ones, as that teenager and the dog learn to work together, trust each other and share spirited adventures. But it’s also about overcoming racial prejudices and owning up to oft-repeated untruths.

It’s also just not very good — and no amount of swelling, inspiring music can convince you otherwise.

Yakin (“Remember the Titans”), working from a script he co-wrote with Sheldon Lettich, veers between all these heavy ideas in ungainly fashion for the film’s nearly-two-hour running time. But he begins with the wholesome image of Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell from “The DUFF”), a good-looking Marine and dog handler who’s been deployed to Afghanistan, enjoying a Skype chat with his parents back home in small-town East Texas. His father, Ray (a glum and gruff Thomas Haden Church), is a Marine veteran himself who suffered a debilitating leg injury during Desert Storm. (Strangely, despite the frequent mention of the leg, we don’t see it a single time.) His mother, Pamela (a sadly understated and underused Lauren Graham), is the family’s dutiful and God-fearing matriarch.

But Kyle’s younger brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins), has no interest in chatting. He’d rather play video games about war, then bootleg them for his friends for profit. He’s so sick of being compared to his superstar older brother that he’s gone out of his way to be as different — and underachieving — as possible. Surely, some life lessons are in store for this wayward young man.

They come early, in one of the movie’s many multi-hanky moments, when Kyle is killed under mysterious circumstances in battle. At his funeral, Max — the brave and highly trained Belgian Malinois who’d been his constant, trusty companion — bursts through the back door of the church, stands on his hind legs to whimper over Kyle’s American flag-draped coffin, then lies down loyally on the ground in front of it.

But as Max’s trainer at the base (Jay Hernandez) informs the family, this brilliant dog refuses to respond to anyone anymore and might have to be euthanized. Cosmically, though, he has a connection with Justin. At first, the disaffected teen has zero interest in helping, until the all-night barking and whimpering become too much to bear. Justin learns to retrain Max with the aid of his good friend, the sassy Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), and Chuy’s brash and beautiful cousin, Carmen (Mia Xilali), who’s been around dogs all her life. This is the section in which “Max” really hits its stride, with the three kids working together and forming a heartwarming bond with a beautiful creature.

But soon, the movie veers off course into some strange and dangerous territory, as Justin and his pals suspect Kyle’s longtime friend and fellow Marine, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), is up to no good. Tyler’s secret meetings in the woods with leather-clad baddies are a sure sign, as are the drooling, growling Rottweilers accompanying these men. (Max finds himself brawling with these muscular canines a couple times to protect Justin and his friends, which is extremely hard to watch.) Suddenly this warmly old-fashioned, kid-adventure movie has turned into something much colder and darker.

If there’s any useful lesson to come out of “Max,” it’s that dogs can suffer fron post-traumatic stress disorder, too. In one of the film’s more artful and emotionally effective sequences, Max paces about nervously in his backyard crate as multicolored July 4th fireworks explode overhead. In one of many sensitive moments from Wiggins, Justin finds the heart to climb inside and soothe him.

It’s a rare and cutting bit of truth in a movie that’s too-often smothered in nostalgic Americana.

Post Date Jun 28

Ted 2

Universal Pictures
Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, and some drug use.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

If you liked the original “Ted,” Seth MacFarlane’s 2012 surprise smash about a pot-smoking, potty-mouthed teddy bear, then you will probably like “Ted 2.” It is essentially the exact same movie, and more — and less.

As director, co-writer and star, MacFarlane offers a lot of the same kind of brash and ballsy humor that is his trademark. Nothing is off limits. No one is spared. So if you have a problem with a slapsticky pratfall involving scads of semen, followed by a wildly inappropriate joke about sickle cell anemia, followed by a crass Kardashian reference (and it’s a loooong way to go for that punchline), then you should probably look elsewhere.

I’ll admit, I laughed at that joke — and at a lot of the jokes in “Ted 2″ — but I’m also a longtime fan of MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” for its energy, daring, rapid-fire pop-culture references and a willingness to go anywhere for a gag. (Our child can recite, verbatim, the entire Brian and Stewie “Cool Whip” exchange. We’re good parents.)

Along with fellow screenwriters and frequent collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, MacFarlane throws a lot of stuff at the wall. Not all of it sticks. But when it does stick, it works like crazy. As in his television work and the original “Ted,” some of the best bits here are the random non sequiturs, flashbacks and fantasy sequences. My favorite joke in the whole movie involves Ted and his human best friend, John (Mark Wahlberg), going to an improv comedy club to yell depressing suggestions to the performers on stage. It’s a clever and bizarre idea, well-executed.

Having said that, “Ted 2″ is also overlong, repetitive and self-indulgent. In trying to offer a substantial dramatic plot line about civil rights alongside the raunchy comedy, its reach exceeds its grasp. And as in last summer’s ambitious failure “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “Ted 2″ makes you wish there were someone around to rein MacFarlane in and hone his instincts. There’s a brisk and irresistible 95-minute movie somewhere in here, but as is so often the case, MacFarlane cannot contain his excesses, and it seems there’s no one around him who can stop them, either.

The delightful wrongness of the central premise remains strong, however. Ted (whom MacFarlane voices in a thick, New England accent identical to Peter Griffin’s) has married his girlfriend, gum-chomping grocery cashier Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). But John is now divorced from his wife (Mila Kunis, unseen here), and in no time, Ted is having marital troubles of his own.

He and Tami-Lynn make the always-wise decision to have a baby to save the union, but since Ted is a teddy bear, he lacks the equipment to impregnate her. When trying to find a sperm donor fails to work — including a truly uncomfortable visit to Tom Brady’s house in the middle of the night in one of the film’s many celebrity cameos — they try to adopt. But then that doesn’t work either when Massachusetts state officials decide that Ted isn’t an actual person, but rather a piece of property.

This leads John and Ted to seek the help of young, up-and-coming lawyer (and fellow stoner) Sam L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried), who agrees to work pro bono to prove that Ted is indeed a person. Sam doesn’t know who Samuel L. Jackson is — and doesn’t get any pop-culture reference these guys throw at her — because she actually studied and immersed herself in the classics and didn’t waste her youth sitting on her ass on the couch watching bad television. MacFarlane’s detractors often accuse him of misogyny, but as was the case with Charlize Theron’s character in “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” Seyfried’s character is the smartest and most capable person in the room at all times. Forcing her into a romantic subplot with Wahlberg’s John seems needless, but Seyfried is game for whatever comes her way.

Despite her comic abilities, though, Seyfried is also stuck with some of the heavier material, especially in long, droning courtroom scenes that seriously bog down the film’s momentum. MacFarlane may try to enliven some of these moments with a spontaneous song or a profane outburst, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this kind of meaty writing — this desire to Say Something Important — is beyond him and his team. Connections to civil rights fights throughout history, harkening all the way to the atrocities of slavery, seem poorly planned and tenuous. Maybe he’s aiming for satire, but he never truly hits his mark.

But wait, there’s more. “Ted 2″ features another subplot in which Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), the creepy dad from the original “Ted,” tries to kidnap the bear at New York Comic-Con to present him to the head of Hasbro (John Carroll Lynch) as the basis for mass production. Nothing in this story line is ever funny or suspenseful; it could have been jettisoned entirely.

“Ted 2″ begins in much more lively and promising fashion than its eventual ending, however, with a wedding-themed, Busby Berkeley-style production number during the opening titles that’s beautifully choreographed and hugely entertaining. As in the first film, the integration of this computer-generated creature in a live-action setting is seamless. This is yet another sign that MacFarlane needs to make an old-school musical next — and hopefully if he does, he’ll invite some seasoned folks to help him make his ideas truly sing.

Post Date Jun 26

RogerEbert.com — The Little Death

The Little Death Movie Review“The Little Death,” an Australian sex comedy that takes its title from the French idiom for orgasm, bops around between various couples exploring their fetishes and fantasies. There are a few laughs but a lot more jarring tonal shifts, as well as an unpleasant streak of sexual assault. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here