Gold (***1/2) is a beautiful loser

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Gold – 2016

Director  Stephen Gaghan
Screenplay 
Patrick Massett, John Zinman
Starring 
Matthew McConaughey, Édgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson, Bruce Greenwood

The feeling in watching Matthew McConaughey working and sweating his way through every scene of Gold is that we are watching a story that feels like his own. The vision of Kenny Wells to the outside world is that of one who got away with something and struck it rich with an illusion. Inside his heart is true and he works as hard as anyone, even if he feels like he will never get credit for earning his fortune.  To anyone who has followed McConaughey since his first big role in A Time to Kill will find this story very familiar.

This is what draws me to his performance in what could be considered quite average fare. There is nothing wrong with this movie and it’s script. It definitely wasn’t considered at award time. McConaughey is at his very best, though from the moment he first takes the screen all the way through the end. He inhabits the screen like someone on his desperate last breaths, somehow sure that the legacy of his father (Nelson in a passing cameo) will be proved as legitimate through his own success.

As a down and out market prospector, Wells has a dream and quite literally hocks the last bit of gold his girlfriend has left to make it happen. The success does come, but it is not easy. Eventually bigger fish come in tor make their stamp and he sneaks past them like a dying man whistling past the graveyard.

The story is loosely based on the Bre-X mining scandal. For those who know what happened, there is still plenty to enjoy. Particularly good are Ramírez and Howard, as Wells partner and longtime girlfriend, respectively. I have never noticed as good a performance out of the latter. Indeed, this is the first time I have enjoyed seeing her on screen.

The story and performance of the day is McConaughey, though. If he’s been better, he’s never been as invested in a role so completely. He goes the full DeNiro here, making himself into a repulsive has been with a heart of gold.

The story plays like something that could have been made in another time, when more time and effort was poured into character and less into any sort of flash. This feels like the kind of film one produces when they’ve won the cache to spread their wings a little.

While it’s never dull, the story is steady and the scenery feels at once wearying and fresh. Gaghan has a deft touch with drama, but nothing here feels overbearing aside from the strain Wells gut puts on a pair of pants.

If you like McConaughey, then watch this film. If you are on the bubble and think he just may have gotten lucky, watch this film. Tell me if it doesn’t make you feel like he’s finally proved himself worthwhile.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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The Secret Life of Pets (***1/2) and Sing (*1/2) shows Illumination is just pumping them out there regardless of quality

secret_life_of_petsThe Secret Life of Pets – 2016

Directors  Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Screenplay by  Brian LynchCinco PaulKen Daurio
Starring (voice) Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Steve Coogan, Albert Brooks

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Sing – 2016

Written and Directed by Garth Jennings
Starring (voice)  Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly

Pixar has been in the sequel age for a few years. Disney’s picking up their slack though. Dreamworks had a good run that has begun to slow down in the last few years. On the other hand, Illumination finally started putting out product that wasn’t related to Despicable Me in the last 4 years. Don’t worry, though, the movies were a success and will each have a sequel by 2020. By then we’ll have had another Despicable Me and one more take on The Grinch.

The two films this year, Pets and Sing, are pretty similar in terms of animated artistry. The visuals are distinct and cute. But not too cute. Research must have told them how much ugly is the right amount. The stories couldn’t be any more different.

First of all, The Secret Life Of Pets, is a pleasant surprise that filled the gap left in the summer for those who wanted to watch something after Finding Dory. The story is about 2 dogs who we’ll call Woody and Buzz. Woody has the best life with his owner fellow neighbor pets until his seeming nemesis, Buzz, comes along. They fight until they both get lost and it takes a concerted effort to get everyone back together again before the misunderstood miscreants ruin everything.

Woody and Buzz in this case are Max (C.K.) and Duke (Stonestreet). Their friends, while unremarkable, provide enough grist to get to the most entertaining parts of the film in Snowball (Hart), who is best described as a psychotic bunny, and Pops (Carvey) who reigns as a sort of unwieldy godfather type. Despite the obvious references to the superior Toy Story, it’s still above average with more than a few memorable moments.

Sing is another matter. Trying so hard to represent everyone that feels forgotten, it’s worse than forgettable. It’s maudlin. The story involves a group of misfits who tryout for a Muppets style show, but then have to settle for…a more Muppety kind of show. These Muppets are not at all interesting. Who they are, why they are there and what happens matters less than zero. In fact, the animation far outstrips anything you hear in the movie.

The vocal talent for Pets is superior, mostly for the inclusion of Louis C.K., Stonestreet, Slate and Carvey. Brooks makes a nice appearance as a bird of prey who’s fighting that urge for the prospect of gaining a friend. I know that McConaughey and Witherspoon are in Sing, but I can’t tell you how the movie is any better for it. Seth MacFarlane’s slightly sinister mouse Mike is the most memorable character that doesn’t beg for sympathy or laughs.

The animation for both is really neat. I was in awe of some of the scenery, and it really looks like Illumination is learning how to show off their talent without making it obvious. Duke’s flowing hair would have been awful a few years ago. Now he’s a wonder.

It’s plain that Illumination is banking on a distinct visual flair while sacrificing originality of story (and, in Sing’s case, distinct vocal talent). There are worse films out there, but it all makes me happy that my youngest one is 10 and I will likely be skipping more of the automatic animation viewing destinations in the future.

(***1/2 out of *****) The Secret Life of Pets
(*1/2 out of *****) Sing

Free State of Jones (****) – The rebellion to the rebellion

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Free State of Jones – 2016

Written and Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali,
Keri Russell, Brian Lee Franklin, Jacob Lofland, Sean Bridgers, Brad Carter

Who knew that there was a rebellion to the rebellion? There are several passages in Free State of Jones where it feels like one is being educated without sacrificing too much in the entertainment department. We get the feeling of a movement from the ground up in watching Matthew McConaughey move further away from stardom and closer towards investment in the character of Newton Knight, a southern Civil War deserter turned man for all people in Jones County, Mississippi.

His quest begins early enough, when he sees a young man from his town (Lofland) who is conscripted into fodder for the South. Knight does what he can to protect the boy, but, come on, what are his chances? He takes the boy back home to his family and knowing his desertion puts him in peril, decides to stay with his wife and child anyway. While there, he discovers that local forces have been confiscating from the poor and leaving the rich to continue profiteering.

He begins to go Robin Hood on these forces and it leaves him wounded and wanted and into the good graces of a band of runaway slaves. He quickly becomes one with the group, leading them to resist from the protection of the swamp.

The Siege of Vicksburg leads a large swath of the Southern army to desert and Knight’s group is there to welcome them. As the group grows, they begin to become more successful in their efforts to procure their county as a land free of the tyranny of the slaveholders who own the land and give pittance to everyone else.

Gary Ross treats the material respectfully. It’s filled with plenty of moments that every story contains, but there are also nuggets here and there revealing things about the Southern U.S. before and since the war that are borne of the horrible legacy of the Democrats that took hold of the region. This includes the strange dynamic of the Knight clan that is a direct result of the circumstances.

The story is interspersed with a court case regarding Mississippi’s miscegenation laws in the 1950’s and one of Knight’s descendants. This, along with the last 30 minutes of the movie goes some way to detract from the hopefulness exhibited earlier. The overall effect is muting, but feels authentic. This includes an genuine representation of the way Democrats of the South eliminated the rights expressed in the 15th Amendment until Republicans in the U.S. Congress helped to finally secure justice to all people 100 years after its passage.

This is the kind of film that will be hard for the Hank Williams, Jr. set to comprehend. The South that perpetrated the Civil War were predominantly plantation owners who convinced the poor in their towns to side with their cause. In showing a group of real outsiders as being the most American in spirit, it goes a fair distance in educating.

THE FREE STATE OF JONES
The journey starts here

The key role in the film outside of its main protagonist is Ali’s Moses. Through Moses, we see the absolutely integral story of the Free State of Jones. When we first see him, he has an inhumane contraption stuck around his neck. Through the removal of this sign of oppression, we see Moses grow into one that fights for his own rights through combat. Eventually as the war ends, his fight becomes more figurative, but no less worthy and definitely still lethal. Ali’s performance is something that will resonate.

McConaughey is certainly uninterested in presenting himself as a movie star. His performance stands in direct contrast to, say, DiCaprio’s overly desperate attempts and dramatization in The Revenant. Whereas that film goes out of its way to change history in order to make its protagonist the only sympathetic figure in the story, we get more from …Jones by showing Knight as an overly well meaning, slightly charismatic but also a flawed individual who has a loose understanding of marital fidelity. There are no attempts at swaying the material to make it look like he has no choice. In fact, we see that he quite clearly has options.

This reviewer will take McConaughey’s complicated and somewhat creepy Knight over the good guy with no flaws any day.

(**** out of *****)

Interstellar (****) is cautiously ambitious, and laden with love

interstellar-movie

Interstellar – 2014

Director Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Josh Stewart, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi
Written Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan

There are lots of interesting ideas presented with Interstellar. Of all things, the film starts with a future that echoes our perilous past. Crops are set afire, the air filled with swirling dust, and the atmosphere and the dirt can no longer cultivate them into a practical food source. What we get are mostly images, but they are powerful still: turning over cups and plates on the table and nobody looks up anymore. It’s a most effective setting to start the story, because it’s specific in describing how it affects people but vague in describing how it came about.

Cooper (McConaughey) has dreams of the time when he was an astronaut.  Even though it happened before she was born, his daughter Murphy shares his dreams. Their eyes point up to the sky, while his dutiful son Tom and his Father In Law, Donald somberly look at what needs to be done to survive in this futuristic dust-bowl.

Early on we hear hints of a ghost that Murph insists is trying to contact her. She even says she thinks it is her daughter. We understand this not so subtle note will come back to us later, even if Cooper dismisses that notion. This ghost sends messages that both Cooper and Murph discover is in Morse code. Initial readings turn out to be coördinates that they follow to a place that turns out to be a big key towards the rest of the film. It’s a NASA holdover from the old world, and they’ve been working on manned missions through wormhole near a rotating black hole (the rotating part matters) that offers multiple chances for humanity’s survival through two options. Against his daughter’s wishes, Cooper takes the opportunity to pilot the last venture to follow up on the 3 previous missions most likely to have survived.

Along with Cooper we have a biologist, physicist and geographer, played by Hathaway, Gyasi and Bentley, respectively. Hathaway’s character, Amelia, is the daughter of Cooper’s old professor Brand (Caine). She believes in the mission, but it may not be for reasons completely dedicated to science.  More on that later.

Two other incredibly interesting characters are robots.  TARS (Irwin) and CASE (Stewart). Their role is a pivotal one in science fiction lore, for once we have a set of helpful, near sentient beings with no real ulterior motive. Many of the best portions of the story involve their “percentages” and ability to succeed when needed. The gradual unveiling of these robot’s abilities is taken for granted by the characters, even if they are doing something incredible to us.

The journey takes its time getting underway, but once it does, we are moved rapidly, even if it takes the characters years. Cooper’s journey is a decade or so. Back on Earth, time moves faster, so that Murph and her brother age significantly. Cooper’s team examines 2 planets and have varying degrees of success or failure depending on perspective then they run into a crossroad. Amelia declares her reasoning behind taking this journey and it has an effect on Cooper.

The film takes a turn here, moving something away from science and towards the intangible effect of love. It’s a tricky conversion. Murph has lived for many years with a chip on her brilliant shoulders. She ends up working with Professor Brand, discovering a secret he’s harbored for many years. What she does with this secret ties to the ghost she saw many years later. There is some question about the possibility of this cycle, but there is no question that the director’s motivations tie to his heart.

Whether it works is up for each viewer to decide. This could either be a great movie or a near miss. For me it’s aspirations are a bit too much like Daedalus to achieve the heights it aspires to. Contact took many of the same challenges but succeeds by not reaching too far into subjectivity.

When one makes a film approaching 3 hours, the key is to not have the viewer start thinking of what they could have lived without seeing. The cameo on the 2nd planet is nice until it drags into obvious territory. The connections between Murph and Cooper are so worn out by the end of the film, it feels like work to go through scenes pieced together in the first 10 minutes. On the scale of Hemingway to Faulkner, Nolan provides the bulk of the latter, but the fear of the former that the viewer cannot connect the dots without a road map. The effect is long and kind of insulting.

This is a good film, though, and worth the journey. The cinematography and story far outdistance the dazzlingly dumb Gravity. Not sure I will ever want to watch it again, even if I feel like I should.

(**** out of *****)

Dallas Buyers Club (***) fights a bad guy too easy to criticize

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Dallas Buyers Club – 2013

Director Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Griffin Dunne, Dennis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts, Kevin Rankin
Screenplay by Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

One of the unwritten rules of movie awards is weight loss or transformations of a dramatic nature leads to Golden Statues. This formula worked twice for Dallas Buyers Club in the most recent Academy Award ceremony, where McConaughey and Leto both picked up acting awards. Even so, it’s taken us a while to want to commit ourselves to this rendition of AIDS: How I got it, and how I beat the system for a while at least. The energy of both actors works in a large part to push the story through. The weight of the material is offset and the film rises above its grotesque beginnings to show that hope in any form is nearly as contagious as the disease that has wiped out so many.

Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is an emaciated man who is living life so dangerously hard, one can scarcely imagine how he has the energy to get out of bed. He is a racist, homophobic, drug and sex abuser. His world comes down around him as he discovers his condition after an accident at work. After a week of binging, he decides to start researching his situation. Early results give him the hope that AZT can help. After he resumes drugging and boozing, he has another incident which lands him in the hospital next to Rayon (Leto) who gives him a few ideas which eventually lead him to visiting a doctor in Mexico (Dunne) who changes his mind and his approach to battling the disease.

On the other side of the equation is a very simple version of the Feds and the Medical establishment. Wandering somewhere between is Garner’s Dr. Eve Saks, who has plenty of questions and not many answers. She spends much of the time here looking like a lost puppy. I am sure the story could have benefit from giving her more to do, as well a realistic presentation of the problems faced trying to cure an incurable disease. Here Woodroof’s nemesis seem to be a tad more complex than the bad guys in Norma Rae. Then again, Sally Field won for that film too, right?

I do appreciate choices made by McConaughey and Leto for what really are important roles. Perhaps it is too big a story to be contemplated with a few gross encounters of sex and drugs followed by an instant genius for how to recover against the wishes of The Man. There is some soul-searching, but I get it that 30 days they give you to live. Maybe it’s best if we take it as a series of portraits, assuming the right thing is happening in the background. Ultimately, one can see the humanity they express that has until now been easy for people unaffected by this disease  to ignore.

Leto as what Woodruff would call him “a Tinkerbell” who has an obsession with Mark Bolan from T-Rex is amazing. His performance was criticized by some in the LBGT community for not being played by an actual transgender. Baby steps, folks. It’s safe to say he found the humanity of the character when most who watch the film would want him to survive.

McConaughey is in the stratosphere now. His performance, hamstrung as it is by the plot, is simply amazing. Between True Detective and Joe Nichols’ Mud, this could be his third best performance in the year 2013. It gives those of us who saw his talent in early work like Lone Star assurances that his potential is not limited by his good looks.

Dallas Buyers Club is a good film that might have been great if the script had matched the two prominent performances. Like Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind made a decade ago, the film makers leave out the more complex aspects of Woodroof’s character. He was had been married thrice and had a child. They say the reason they give is that they wanted to make the film more a “Character Study.” What they do, though, is to remove motivation and difficulty in presenting him as an irresponsible father. That kind of stuff might have given viewers pause, in their minds. The reality is they wanted as many butts in seats as possible. Seeing a wild, homophobe corralled into the Mother Theresa of AID’s research comes across as more relatable than a possibly bisexual man who was outrageous while not confrontational who possibly left his child abandoned during her teenage years.

Still, McConaughey and Leto’s performances resonate and will keep this movie in our memories for a while. It may even open a few hearts and minds. That is a lot to carry out at any time.

(***1/2 out of *****)

The Wolf of Wall Street is a worn out path

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The Wolf of Wall Street – 2013

Director Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin
Screenplay Terence Winter based on the book by Jordan Belfort

All throughout The Wolf of Wall Street, I wondered who it was exactly Scorsese was appealing to.  It made a boatload of money and people were quoting it all the time.  But then, people use the F-word all the time anyway these days.  Maybe they weren’t talking straight from the screenplay.  To my count, this is the second time around Martin Scorsese has attempted to recreate the magic of Goodfellas.  The first time, with Casino, he made perhaps the most stupidly brutal films of his career.  This time, we have more drugs and senseless sex than has been seen in a film in who cares how long.

Leonardo DiCaprio, being as unhinged as he wants Scorsese to demand that he be, goes above and beyond Ray Liotta.  Jonah Hill is an overstimulated, overfed and overbited putz.  Margot Robbie goes from sex object to Lorraine Bracco within two scenes.  Rob Reiner stands there, incredulous to the stupidity that surrounds him. The overall effect is nil.  This movie is what Scorsese does in between movies like Hugo and The Aviator.  He should not be rewarded for sliding back into a comfortable spot.

For those unfamiliar with this type of Scorsese film, it’s based on a book covering true crime.  Goodfellas was East Coast Mobsters, Casino was Casino Mobsters, and this was Wall Street scumbags who cold call you and somehow talk you out of your hard-earned cash into buying worthless stocks.  In the first two films, you’d get a casual voice over explaining the illegal doings.  At this point, though, Scorsese estimates his crowd is not as interested in knowing how the crooks do what they do, but how brazen they were in the process of doing it.  For a movie that tops out at 3 hours, I don’t feel like I know any of the characters.  Only thing that resonates is that these aren’t the kind of people that anyone would like to know.

Goodfellas is one of my favorite films of all time.  At the time, I had seen nothing like it.  Since then, I have seen several attempts to replicate it.  It would be flattering if it weren’t for the fact that one of the guys doing it did the original.

(**1/2 out of *****)

Mud: The dream of love lives on

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Mud – 2012

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shephard, Jacob Lofland, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Stuart Greer, Michael Abbott, Jr., Bonnie Sturdivant

I was never more fiercely dedicated to the pursuit of love than when I was in the Grade School.  My nerves were such that I only comfortable when I pursued it from a distance.  The closer I got, the more inaccessible it seemed to me.  This kind of love is the place in which Mud (McConaughey) exists.  He is clear minded in his ideas of how he is going to pursue that which he loves.  Right down to the shopping list of things that it would take to get a boat down from where it rests on top of a tree in a swamp, get it running and then pursue the object of his desire.mudboat2

There to help him on his journey are two boys, Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland).  Ellis is the product of a family that is breaking apart.  The latter is his friend, who never did know his parents.  The two boys found the boat, and had a mind to claim it for their own, when they discover Mud, a fugitive who is waiting to meet up with his girl, Juniper (Witherspoon).  Ellis is taken by the earnestly whimsical nature of Mud.  He has stories to tell and ideas expresses.  Neckbone does not take to him so easily.  Nonetheless, he is a dedicated supporter to his friend and dutifully follows as Ellis is reeled in.

Mud is rife with characters that may be ignorant, but certainly are not stupid.  In this way, his work is reminiscent of one of his literary heroes, Mark Twain.  He also writes with a sense of the characters of William Faulkner.  His characters are passionate and often startlingly intelligent while appearing to be disarmed and slack-jawed.  As well-developed as the character of Mud is, it is all the more amazing to realize that he is more of a symbol of unrequited love as anything.  The moment he comes closest to his love shows this.  If he ever crosses the Rubicon of his ideal represented by Juniper, reality is dashed.

The gist of the story is really coming of age.  Ellis is seeing love challenged everywhere around him.  He feels it fiercely as anything he ever will in his life.  His parents are splitting apart.  His mother (Paulson) seeks anything new beyond the river.  His father (McKinnon), like anyone anchored in the old south, wants to stay on the river, eeking out a meager living and enjoying his misery.  Ellis himself is falling for a girl (Sturdivant).  He needs to see the love he imagines between Mud and Juniper to succeed so that he can know that he has a chance.  The whole sad cafe blend of relationships is the most genuine feeling in a deeply realistic film.

The acting, always a strength in Nichols films, is once more a highlight here.  McConaughey has been this good before, but he is not this good often.  He took a role written for him by Nichols and performed it perfectly.  His presence suggests another director who Nicholas reminds me of: John Sayles.  Nichols got the idea of casting him after seeing McConaughey in Lone Star.  Like that classic (one of the best movies I have ever seen) the characters express so much more than just exposition for a story.  They are metaphors, one and all, representing places in life, stages in life, trappings and freedom.

Tye Sheridan is going to be a great adult actor one day.  He is already a great child actor.  His face expresses so much with every frame, the film could work with half of his dialogue.  Michael Shannon’s time on the set was limited due to his filming Man of Steel.  He is so at home in the worlds that Nichols creates that he can create a highlight from the smallest amount of screen time.  Nichols claims that Shannon is the best actor in the world.  I believe this to be so.  I also think that Nichols may be the best director in the world at this point.  He is definitely the best since Sayles released films like MatewanCity of Hope, Limbo and Lone Star.

McKinnon and Paulson are exceptional, especially in the powerful scene about the stolen boat motor.  The momentum is thrown so strikingly off kilter, only an actor like McKinnon could hang with the curve.  Witherspoon is nearly unrecognizable as the cute starlet that we saw in Legally Blonde, or even Walk The Line.  Her role as the temptress with a heart that is not necessarily pure gold.  In a role that could very easily been a distraction, she serves her purpose well.

Sam Shephard is right at home with good writing, and his character is an ironically essential outlier.  On the other end of the acting experience spectrum, Lofland has an easy nature that fits within the environment as well as the story structure.  His relationship with his Uncle Galen (Shannon), is very organic.  There is a scene where one of Galen’s suitors walks out the front door after a romantic session.  She implores the boy not to treat women like his Uncle.  In the midst of her admonishment, she sees him staring at her breasts.  She is aghast, and he just smiles.  Like Uncle like nephew.

The film is essentially a tribute to young love.  That does not mean it is not a complexly dense.  It’s a bunch of simple parts expertly constructed to be a thriller, a drama and a romance.    Mud is as rich as any film I have seen in the past year.  It is a beautiful thing to have a director who is so in tune with life.  I anxiously await his future work.

Since I have grown older, the love is not as fierce, but it’s a lot wiser and deeper.  Ellis will know this one day, even if Mud will stay frozen in time in his mind.

(***** out of *****)

Magic Mike: Typical story made special by Soderbergh and Horn

Magic Mike – 2012

Director Steven Soderbergh
Starring Channing Tatum, Cody Horn, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Olivia Munn, Kevin Nash
Screenplay Reid Carolin

Almost 1/3 of the way through Magic Mike, there is a point where Brooke (Horn) has just discovered where her brother Alex (Pettyfer) has been working.  She does her best to shield her eyes as he prances somewhat awkwardly on the stage.  The peeking comes to an end at the moment she sees his friend Mike (Tatum) explode in a pulsating and dynamic rhythm in front of the crowd.  Mesmerized, we can see her thoughts are between disgust and wonder.  She is not won over by his physical prowess, although that does not hurt things.  Her face very clearly shows the path to understanding that her mind is taking.  This is not the face of a person on the verge of getting lost.  She has the countenance of a person who measures every step, taking some steps, and forsaking others.  Incredibly moving, it is the skill of the director (Soderbergh) to linger on her while Tatum is working it in the foreground.  It is the skill of Horn to give Soderbergh a solid reason to keep the lens pointed at her.

No thanks, you don’t need to see my tattoo.

Magic Mike is at its best when we see Cody Horn, in any capacity.  While she is pretty, she is far from exotic.  Her most important feature is her ability to draw a breath.  In this way, she seems more alive than most people onscreen.  She is a good actress.  The first time I noticed her was in Season 8 of The Office.  They had her there primarily as a will he or won’t he for Jim.  They did a good job of showing her ability to fit in with the thinking crowd there.  Soderbergh does a masterful job of creating a whole person here.

For Tatum, Magic Mike is a tale of the struggle to be taken seriously.  That he comes from an exotic dancing background and has a part in this movie is no accident.  The tale, in part is a recounting of experiences that Tatum himself had earlier in his life.  Then, with the variety of movie choices he’s made – a mixture of low-budget decent work and bigger budget Nic Cage level crap – one can definitely see a similarity to the lead character.

While it does not completely elevate Tatum to Oscar level acting, this is some of his best work.  He shows a range of behaviors which are harder to express for his perpetual blank expression.  More importantly, we see that he is an even sort of fellow, for the most part.  And this is what Brooke sees too.  Soderbergh is the right kind of director for both actors.

We all have a favorite dude, even if the phobics won’t admit it. Mine is Nash (right), or Big Sexy, The Giant Killer.

The rest of the crew of Magic Mike are almost right out of films like Boogie Nights in that there are high times that get a little out of control and there is always someone in control who (McConaughey’s Dallas) whose relationship with the talent shifts within the context of the story.  To go over the different types of characters would fill about a paragraph and get you almost nowhere.  Suffice to say, it was nice to see Kevin Nash on the screen in any capacity.  He’s always been one of my favorites from another guilty pleasure: big time wrestling.

Soderbergh, Carolin and the cast have a real cohesion going throughout Magic Mike.  There is a confidence in the story that allows the viewer to not rely too heavily on the gimmickry of the dancing, while at the same time, allotting the profession the seriousness it deserves.  The work is not on par with the best of Soderbergh’s work, including last year’s riveting Contagion, but it is in part his work that makes the film special.  We see people, not just bodies.

There is rumored to be a sequel to this film in the works, making it somewhat of a road movie.  If all the same players are involved, it may well be worth the trip.

(***1/2 out of *****)

The Lincoln Lawyer: Straight formula, no chaser

The Lincoln Lawyer – 2011

Directed by Brad Furman

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macey, Josh Lucas, Ryan Phillipe, John Leguizamo, Michael Pena, Bryan Cranston, Michael Pare, Trace Adkins, Frances Fisher

Written by Jeff Romano, based on the novel by Michael Connelly

There is a feeling one gets while watching The Lincoln Lawyer is that of deja-vu.  We’ve seen this movie many times before.  The 90’s gave us a resurgence of courtroom drama mysteries, primarily by John Grisham.  One of these, A Time To Kill, even starrred McConaughey himself.  Grisham never used this formula in any of his plots, ironically enough only The Firm approaches this one’s plot.  The most prevalent film that The Lincoln Lawyer copies is Primal Fear, which helped kick-start the career of Edward Norton.  The best film from which this movie borrows its theme is Criminal Law.  Gary Oldman is the hot-shot lawyer who gets his high-profile and rich (and guilty) client, creepily evoked by Kevin Bacon.

McConaughey and Phillipe carry these roles in The Lincoln Lawyer.  Beyond these two, there is just about more acting talent than in any film in the last decade.  Almost to a person, they bring their “A” games.  Why?  Courtroom dramas give plenty of gristle on which to chew.  The one with the best gams here is McConaughey.   He is pitch perfect as the pompous, smarmy lawyer with many connections and low morals.  He has played this role almost his entire career, and he has it down.  While not as powerful as Oldman’s crazed performance in Criminal Law, he is very good as the Tom Cruise of lawyers.  From the R&B classic “Ain’t No Love In The Heart of The City,”  we’re driven to the beat of Mickey Haller’s drum as the smooth talking lawyer of small time criminals.  He’s got a lot of things going on, and you very quickly realize he uses these sources on each other.  You also get a sense of community, too.    He’s not entirely a bad guy, he just gets the “kind of” bad guys out with a slap on the wrists.

Given a tip on a hard case that could be a rainmaker, of sorts, he is drawn into a case with a spoiled 32-year-old (Phillipe) who is accused of assaulting a prostitute.  This looks great at first, but invariably leads to the “He might have done it.  I think he did it.  Yep, he did it.” routine.  This is a serviceable plot, to be sure, but it ain’t going to win anyone any awards.  Phillipe, in particular, is unremarkable.  His petulant rich boy does not ever come across as anything resembling innocence.  Contrasted with Norton from Primal Fear, in particular, his performance wanes considerably.

The rest of the performances, from Tomei as Mickey’s still smitten (and who wouldn’t be?) ex-wife, William H. Macy as his resourceful investigator, to Frances Fisher’s rich mother, are rather ornate window dressing.  It feels a touch like having a whole baseball team of number 3 hitters.

Director Furman has a rather distinctive style.  His pacing is taut and he doesn’t linger over obvious territory.  He puts as many style points as possible into this retread of material, kind of like Aerosmith taking a Rolling Stones riff, giving it their own stamp, and calling it “Sweet Emotion.”  Sure it’s been done before, but the familiar groove feels right no matter the decade.

(***1/2 out of *****)