Sunday, March 17, 2013

Magic Mike

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Reid Carolin. Starring Channing Tatum (Magic Mike), Alex Pettyfer (Adam), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas), Cody Horn (Brooke).
Bottom line:  While I wanted to find Magic Mike refreshing because of the male sexuality, the lame dialogue and predictable plot ultimately lead to a disappointing movie.

Honestly, I didn't really want to see Magic Mike. I thought it was going to be loud, garish and disappointing. I thought it was going to be riding largely on the spectacle of male strippers, which wasn’t entirely the case.

The film can really be broken down into two main plots. One follows Adam, aka The Kid, played by Alex Pettyfer. He is something of a dropout who lives in his sister's apartment. He and Mike meet one day at a construction yard. The two talk and cross paths again outside of a night club. Mike offers the young man a job at the strip club (originally working the props then dancing). As his success builds, his ego grows. He gets mixed up in the lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock and roll. We then watch his downward spiral.

Meanwhile, we have Magic Mike who works construction, auto detailing and, most importantly, as a stripper. His dream job, however, is to make custom furniture "at an affordable price". He is working all these jobs to save up for a cash deposit on a loan to finance his furniture business.

We have Mike and the other strippers are "the fantasy of every are the husband they never are the dreamboat guy that never came along...then they can happily go back to their husbands and kids." So, as strippers, they move away from being people and more the concept of a person. We also see his conceptual position (or lack thereof) with his relationships. In one scene, Mike is making out with his friend and tries to talk to her to connect to her on a level other than physical. She pushes him away by saying "Wow, someone has a lot of questions tonight- a real Chatty Cathy." Then she leaves. Once he moves out of the mold she cast him in, he is no longer desirable.

I have heard that Magic Mike is a depressing movie. I could see that with Adam. He goes from a loser to a bigger loser. But I found Mike's to be depressing in a more interesting way. He is struggling in a world which values concepts: the bank values the concept of money (i.e. a good credit rating) and women value to concept of a man. Mike, dreams of "working with his hands" to make something. He wants to attain a physical presence with a girlfriend/wife and through the creation of furniture. According to the movie, there is a particular honor in this but will he ever meet with success?

I was largely turned off by the dialogue. It is crude and rude with too many "bro"s. Now, don't get me wrong, I am not deterred by profanity but at least give me some substance to drive the movie.

The fact that Magic Mike was about stripping was an interesting move. Was I turned off by the concept? Heck no! I find it refreshing. It is a way to bring to discuss the idea of materiality without being too distracting. If a film was going to do the same thing with female strippers, I don't think it would've been quite as successful of a discussion.

The stripping itself was alright. I reminded me a little too much of Step It Up 2: The Streets.

I found the acting to consistent with the rest of the movie. It was good enough for me to get the idea but it wasn't anything to write home about.

Overall, I wouldn't really recommend Magic Mike. It raises some interesting points but it isn't enough to make this a very enjoyable movie. It is depressing and it feels like a long movie (even though it is only one hundred and ten minutes). I would’ve liked to see less of Adam and his story, because let’s be honest, we’ve seen this stuff a million times over, and more of Mike.

The Devil Wears Prada

Directed by David Frankel. Written by Aline Brosh McKenna (screenplay), Lauren Weisberger (novel). Starring Anne Hathaway (Andy Sachs), Meryl Streep (Miranda Priestly).

Bottom line: Predictable but fun movie. Streep and Hathaway provide lovely performances.

Anne Hathaway plays Andy Sachs, a newly graduated Journalism major applying for positions all over New York. The only thing she could find was as an assistant Editor at the major fashion magazine. Her boss, Miranda Priestly (Streep), is the Devil in the title, The Devil Wears Prada. She is particular, bossy and unforgiving in her orders. Andy has to find a way to navigate the world of high fashion and avoid losing herself in it.

The plot of this movie is pretty predictable: Andy is frumpy but hardworking, then she discovers how to function in this new world, she becomes absorbed in fashion, work and herself thus losing her friends and eventually getting them back....or does she? (That's my attempt at protecting you from spoilers).

If not the plot, the performances are what make this movie so good. Hathaway is perfect for this role. She can be awkward but with a calculated grace and timing which make scenes fun and funny. At the same time, she can play the beautiful and determined fashionista.

Meryl Streep is as wonderful as always. She manages to be ice cold without losing the humanity of her character. After all, is she the bad guy? No. She is a woman who is determined to do what she loves and she won't let anyone or anything take that away from her. At one point, someone says, "If Miranda were a man, no one would say anything other than she is good at her job." I couldn’t agree more. It is this type of attitude which shapes the movie. It is frank and aware and I love it.

It is so often the case where we follow characters like Miranda Priestly or Andy Sachs. Each of these characters can be found in two different types of movies. The Miranda-type would be stuck in a lowly position but after working and working she gets what she wants. What is the cost of this determination? We are shown the long nights and endless work through montages but we aren't always shown the missed birthdays or recitals. The missed dates are what an Andy-character film emphasizes. It asks, “are you willing to sacrifice everything for success?”

In The Devil Wears Prada, it doesn't pass judgment about which you choose. We learn to sympathize with Miranda because she has to constantly battle with her gender, family and even her age. She is able to work with the top names of fashion and dictate the industry of something she loves. Who wouldn’t want to be in that position? For this reason, we also sympathize with Andy. She comes from and lives in a world which won't sacrifice her friends and family for success (because she loves her family and friends like Miranda loves fashion).

The Tim Gunn character, Nigel (played by Stanley Tucci) gives Andy a pep-talk. The reason she isn't succeeding in her position is that she doesn't want to succeed. It turns out that, ultimately, she doesn't want to succeed in that way. The films judgment comes about in trying to be something you are not.

Aside from the question of ambition, the movie also looks at fashion albeit critically. There is a scene where Andy laughs at Miranda for "fussing" over a belt because "they look exactly the same". Miranda retorts with a monologue about how the sweater which Andy threw on "because she doesn't care about fashion" was designed, over years, specifically for women like her. There is no way to avoid fashion because it is a permanent part of everyone's lives so disregarding it is foolish. I am tempted to type out the dialogue here but I don't want to spoil the fun.

I agree with this statement but it seems the movie doesn't. When she gives this monologue, we haven't begun to learn about her so she is still the villain. By the end of the movie, the ‘ideal Andy’ is the one that "didn't care how she dressed". Ambition is the bad guy but the fashion world takes the blame.

I am not usually the biggest fan of chick-flicks but really enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada. Alright, that's not quite true, I like chick-flicks. The performances were wonderful and it was a fun movie overall. I wonder if some of the fun came from the fact that, because I been recently watching Project Runway, I've learned more about fashion. In any case, I'd recommend it. It is the perfect material for a lazy Sunday.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Dream Home

Written and Directed by Ho-Cheung Pang. Also written by Ho-Cheung Pang, Kwok Cheun Tsang and Chi-Man Wan. Starring Josie Ho (Chen Lai - Sheung).

Bottom Line: Dream Home is a violent, political and refreshing slasher which I recommend if you are in the mood for, well, a dark, violent, political movie. Think The Host (2006) but a slasher.

I must say, I am not much of a scary movie person. My problem is my imagination. You know what you are supposed to do (or at least what I've heard you can do) when you see a scary movie? You say, "that isn't scary," then you think about all the ways the movie is silly. My problem is that, instead, I think "that isn't this would be scary" and I proceed to think of how the movie could've been scary.

I also try to think about how I would act if I should find myself in a horror movie situation. Let's say I'm in the shower. I close my eyes to wash my face. You know what is going to happen: I am going to open my eyes; the Chinese demon-child is going to be right behind me. What can a guy do in that situation? My first inclination is a swift kick in the face. At least if I try to fight, the whole ensuing death will be over quicker than if I tried, ineffectually,  to run away, right?

At this point, I feel like a reasonable person would just stop imagining. He or she would laugh at the decision of "kick to the face" and move on with cleaning. But "No", my imagination says. It is one thing to imagine myself responding to a spectral threat like Chuck Norris but it is another to put it into practice. For the life of me I don't know how I manage it but I mentally prepare myself to see a demon-child in front of me (not before imaging the most terrifying appearance, of course). The anticipation of simply opening my eyes is as bad (or worse) than which was created by the movie in the first place! It is exhausting.

This is why I am not too keen on watching scary movies, at least, ones about ghosts and demons. Slashers are a little more manageable. At the moment, I live in an apartment and I stay in a lot of hotels: i.e. there are a lot more potential victims between me and the killer. On top of that, horror movies, in general, and Slasher movies, specifically, try to make the villain somewhat sympathetic. If it is done really well, the horror is taken out of the movie, in a way. To find oneself siding with the murderer could be a different type of horror.

Dream Home follows Chen Lai - Sheung (Josie Ho); a woman living in Hong Kong, working two jobs (a bank worker and an imported leather purse saleswoman) while caring for her aging father. She is saving up to buy a flat in the expensive high-rise across the street from her current residence.

After the tag line 'to survive in this crazy have to be more crazy', the movie opens with a graphic murder of a security guard. It is a grim beginning of things to come. It isn't in the Saw type torture-porn but it still doesn't mess around: I am used to a short time frame for seeing a character strangled and Dream House adds a solid five to ten seconds to a strangulation shot. The shot holds a little longer than it takes to make one uncomfortable. This is one of the reasons I like Dream House. The temptation to indulge in the violence is stripped away by the brutality. At the same time, it is really easy to sympathize with Chen Lai. I wanted to learn more about Lai to see her motivations. I didn’t think “why is she doing such horrible things” rather, “what made her act this way”. The blame isn’t put on her. It is put on the system that caused all of this.

Dream House is a very pretty movie. The opening credits, for example, look like they are reflected on the clean windows of an apartment building. Standard shots look fresh. One shot comes to mind; Chen is emotionally broken from stress and the camera is focused on her. She moves but because the camera is locked to her so only the background moves. It is disorienting to the viewer which matches her mental state. This shot has been used a million different times but the color and saturation make it different and somehow new. The movie is broken up into different segments of different time periods revealing more and more about the protagonist. This is also nothing new but it is done in a pleasant fashion.

I mentioned how the movie is highly political. It reminds me of The Host (2006). If you have never seen it, it is based on the real life events of a laboratory was found dumping chemicals into a huge river. In the movie, the chemicals result in a giant monster. It goes on to comment about foreign influence in the national politics. So, in the case of Dream Home, we open with text explaining the obscene cost of owning real estate in Hong Kong. We watch mobster run housing corporations manipulate the system to build expensive high rise. There is more to be said about it but I don't really want to haphazardly get into a discussion about economics (because I don't know very much about the subject). One thing that I will say is that the attention to commentary gives the movie a distinct purpose and direction.

The acting, story and cinematography make Dream Home a film I highly recommend. Check it out, if you are in the mood for a beautiful, super violent Slasher movie.