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Magic Mike

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

Here’s a shocker; Magic Mike is a really, really good film.

Can you think of a more uneven contemporary director than Steven Soderbergh? He bounces back and forth between the utterly commercial and the resolutely personal, and has complete control over all his work, which has only increased over the years.

After his dazzling debut with Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1987, he went on to the interesting misfire Kafka (1991), and then to the superb but utterly forgotten Depression era drama King of the Hill (1993), which remains one of his finest films, but didn’t even make it to DVD in the United States.The late monologist Spalding Gray appeared in a memorable support role in that film, and in 1996 Soderbergh tackled Gray’s Anatomy, Spalding Gray’s most famous theatrical piece, which is more or less a filmed record (thankfully) of Gray in performance.

Then came the crime comedy Out of Sight (1998), then the down and dirty crime drama The Limey (1999), using archival footage from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) to flesh out the narrative’s back-story, then the rather conventional biopic Erin Brockovich (2000), and the overheated and underbaked drug thriller Traffic (2000), for which he surprisingly won an Academy Award as Best Director, and a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (2002), the experimental 40s period piece The Good German (2006), as well as the absolutely commercial and utterly uninteresting Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13 (2001, 2004, 2007).

I’m leaving some films out, but starting with Traffic, he also functioned as his own Director of Photography, most notably on the two-part Che, under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews; oddly, he later wished that he hadn’t made the film at all, an interesting public admission to say the least. And since 2006, he’s been editing most of films under the additional pseudonym of May Ann Bernard. In short, he’s all over the place, from the most conventional films to the utterly experimental, as in his 1996 film Schizopolis. When you go to see a Soderbergh film, you literally have no idea what you’re going to get going in.

So it comes as something of a shock that Magic Mike (2012) is so very, very good. This is even truer when one factors in the deliberately misleading trailers, selling the film as nothing more than a male strip show, with beefcake as the primary draw. There’s that, of course, in this tale of Michael “Magic Mike” Lane (the stunningly athletic Channing Tatum), who falls in love with Brooke (Cody Horn), the sister of Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a young man whom he befriends on a construction site and pulls into “the life” as a male stripper in a sleazy club managed by the Machiavellian Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, who seems to be making a film every five minutes these days, all of them exceptional — Killer Joe, Bernie, Mud, many others).

The choreography is fantastic; when Tatum is dancing, it seems almost like a special effect rather than straight photography; he’s a dazzling performer, clearly using his own history as a male stripper to create an utterly authentic atmosphere, and as Adam, Pettyfer is equally convincing, moving from confused kid (his nickname in the film is “The Kid”) to drug-soaked lifer with skill and ease. Another interesting aspect of Magic Mike is that while most of the action centers on Dallas’ strip club, the audience members fade into the background, and the real interest is not only the backstage story, and the lives of the male dancers, but also Brooke’s reaction to the scene – and Cody Horn is simply fantastic in the role.

What’s also odd is that though Channing Tatum, who also co-produced Magic Mike from a script by his writing partner Reid Carolin, is undeniably the main focus of the film (the script being, at least in some part, autobiographical), Brooke is a major part of the film as well, and Soderbergh, editing as Mary Ann Bernard and lensing as Peter Andrews, hangs on her face for long sections of the film, as many of the key sequences play off-screen – we’re witness to her reaction, nothing more. The film’s soundtrack is also an exceptional mix of dance hits old and new, all of which really fit the images, rather than simply accompanying them, or worse, propping them up.

By the end of the film, Brooke’s brother Adam is lost to “the life” while Mike escapes, and starts a relationship with Cody, which is the one redemptive note in the film. While it’s a somewhat downbeat piece, in which nobody really seems to be having fun, and money rules everything, it also has a solidly moralistic center, and basically does everything it can to demonstrate to the viewer that the whole strip club business is shady, dangerous, and a dead end; the only thing one can do is escape from it, unless you’re like Dallas, a ringleader on the way to Hell. Superbly shot, deftly edited, and remarkably well acted — McConaughey seems to absolutely inhabit his role as Dallas, alternately threatening and mesmeric, dominating every scene he’s in with effortless skill — Magic Mike is so much more than you probably expect, so I urge you to go see it as soon as you can.

Another interesting fact to consider is that Nicolas Winding Refn was originally attached as director, and while he probably would have made a bold, colorful film with the material, I can’t help but think that Soderbergh gave the project greater depth. I try to see everything that opens on the grounds that you really can’t trust anyone’s judgment except your own in evaluating any work of art, no matter what the medium, and so I see a lot of junk. Magic Mike just might be the best film of 2012 so far, which is what I thought about Bernie until I saw this. And Matthew McConaughey’s in both of them.

Bernie (2011)

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Bernie.

“He put her in the freezer/pulled down the lid/didn’t even move it/just made sure it was plugged in/he held a lot of parties/with her packed on ice/no one suspected anything/’cause Bernie was so nice/oh, Bernie, Bernie, what have you done?/you killed old Miss Nugent/and never even run/oh, Bernie, Bernie, what have you done?/you killed old Miss Nugent/and never even run/” — James Clark, “Bernie, What Have You Done?”

We now have the first unalloyed masterpiece of 2012, actually shot and premiered in 2011, Richard Linklater‘s dark comedy Bernie, which is more or less being thrown away in theaters, shot on a budget of slightly more than $2 million, with a prints and advertising budget of a mere $1 million. Linklater has long been an eccentric and sharply observant filmmaker who marches to his own beat alone; his one attempt at big budget blandness, a terrible remake of The Bad News Bears (2005), failed because his heart wasn’t in it. But back on his home turf, working with the local residents of Carthage, Texas as some of the main performers in the film, he creates a compelling comedy/drama that’s unique in recent memory; it’s based on a real story, and many of the people in the film are the real participants. The result is something altogether remarkable; a folk tale of a town in thrall to someone who is, when you strip away all the trimmings, someone they don’t know at all.

In Bernie, Linklater tells the true life tale of Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black, in the performance of his career) a smalltown assistant funeral director who is the light of the community, putting on shows, active in church work, and generally well liked by everyone. In time, Bernie sets his sights on a rich, reclusive and generally mean-spirited widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, excellent as always), and gradually works his way into her life, eventually becoming her constant companion and gofer, until her demands upon his time prove too much for Bernie to handle. He summarily shoots her dead in the garage of their palatial home, and hides the body in a freezer, neatly packed underneath a layer of frozen foods.

Using a power of attorney Marjorie had given him, Bernie tells everyone that Marjorie has had a series of strokes, and is recovering in a nursing home out of town, while lavishing gifts on the local townspeople, much to their delight. When Bernie’s cover is finally blown, he freely admits to the murder, but the locals rush to his defense; so much so that the trial has to be moved to a different county so that some sort of justice can be done.

Even with the facts starting them dead in the face, Bernie is so well liked, and Marjorie so despised, that the townspeople are ready to absolve their beloved scoutmaster, theater director, and churchgoer of any and all responsibility, and acquit him. But things don’t work out that way in the end; Bernie winds up convicted of murder, and is currently spending the rest of his life in prison.

What makes the film so effective is not only Black’s guileless — and odd term to use, given the film’s narrative — performance as Bernie, as well as MacLaine’s portrayal of Marjorie, but most pronouncedly Linklater’s use of many of the actual people who were involved in the case, and who remain to this day absolutely convinced that no matter what the facts of the matter are, Bernie is still a “nice man.”

The script for the film was written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on a 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article by Hollandsworth, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” which first brought the bizarre story to the public’s attention. In addition to Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey appears in the film as local District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, but the real stars of the film are the townspeople, who play many of Bernie‘s key scenes with the principals with absolute conviction and enthusiasm, so much so that it’s hard to tell who’s acting, and who is simply playing themselves.

One has to go back to something like Rome, Open City (1945) to see such seemingly effortless naturalism; indeed, in one scene in a local diner, as two of the locals harangue Buck for “persecuting” Bernie, you can see that McConaughey is clearly cracking up; the scene is being stolen right out from under his nose by non-professionals, whose ease in front of the camera is absolutely astonishing. They’re not acting at all; they’re telling a story they lived, and they’re thrilled to get a chance to do it on film, for an audience; it’s smalltown theater in every sense of the word.

While everyone seems to be raving about Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Bernie seems destined to slip in and out of town almost without notice, and it’s clearly the more daring and ambitious film; it’s folk art, the story of a town with a past, and how that past has become folklore, complete with pithy commentary by the locals that serves as the voiceover narration for much of the film, summed up by a song composed and performed by one of the townspeople, James Baker, whose “Bernie, What Have You Done?” (partially quoted at the top of this piece) condenses the entire plot of the film into 1 minute and 57 seconds, as the end credits roll.

I was also happy to see that Linklater, whose Dazed and Confused (1993) remains perhaps the best film ever made about American adolescence, offers a tip of the hat to the late Eagle Pennell, an excellent and deeply underappreciated artist whose films The Whole Shooting Match (1978) and Last Night at the Alamo (1984) defined Texas filmmaking in the 1970s and early 80s. As Linklater puts it in the credits, “you were with us on this one.” When there’s so much work in theaters right now that doesn’t even begin to excite one’s imagination, it’s nothing less than miraculous when a film this good comes along, clearly made with vast quantities of imagination and insight, and very little money.

Everyone involved is to be congratulated, and hopefully honored, at least at the Independent Spirit Awards, and as for youyou should run out and see it right away. It’s a film that takes real risks, and the sort of movie that needs every bit of support it can get from viewers. They don’t come any better than this.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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