Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. “Magic Mike XXL” Gets Off On Getting You Off. “Magic Mike XXL,” the sequel to “Magic Mike,” has garnered praise for privileging women’s desires over narrative coherency. It’s a sequel that knows exactly why it exists and wants to live up to that reason. Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Peterson argues that the sequel listens to women and gets off on fulfilling their fantasies.
The men of “Magic Mike” get off on getting women off. That was a narrative strain of the first film, “Magic Mike,” but in the sequel, “Magic Mike XXL,” the sublimated becomes the sublime. If “Magic Mike” is a film about the business of stripping, with masculine, capitalistic struggles at its center, then “XXL” is a story about the strippers themselves, and how they’ve come to understand their place in the world. It’s a place in which consent is hot, erotics are fluid, and nothing is as powerful as fulfilling a woman’s desires: physical and emotional. “Magic Mike XXL” thus conceives of pleasure, and eroticism, as a force with many vectors. Most media represents desire almost exclusively as something that occurs between traditionally attractive, straight, appropriately sculpted white people under the age of 37, yet “XXL” shows it passing between races, between body sizes, between ages. Black women, middle-aged women, plus-size women, young women: We see all of them aroused. Sometimes they’re frenzied; other times they’re bashful. But in the spaces of the film, just like the space of the cinema in which the film is screened, that appetite isn’t just normalized, but encouraged.
2. Magic Mike, Christian Grey, and What Women Really Want. On the other hand, maybe “Magic Mike XXL” just realizes women have desires and then define it for them. Maybe all women need to do for Mike and co. to work their magic is to be open and available to being fulfilled. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg explores how men are still the only one’s answering the question, “What women really want?”
“Magic Mike XXL” makes much of the idea that well-defined female desire is out there, waiting to be recognized and gratified. The wild reaction at a screening reaffirmed for Roxane Gay that “far too many women are desperately undersexed and/or inadequately sexed.” Mike traces the genesis of his solo routine to a guy in a bar who gave a distinct air of disregard for his girlfriend’s pleasure. Mike’s ex-girlfriend and ex-business partner, Rome (Jada Pinkett-Smith), who now runs a luxurious private strip club for women in Savannah, stalks through her domain, telling her employees things like “I want you to keep taking care of this beauty.” One of Rome’s strippers, Andre (Donald Glover), tells Ken (Matt Bomer), a member of Mike’s crew, that he loves working with Rome’s clients because other men “don’t even ask them what they want. All we have to do is ask them about what they want. And when they tell us, it’s a beautiful thing.” (As NPR’s Linda Holmes writes about that scene, “Stripping and singing to women for money isn’t sad, but the context can only be that women being in a position where they’ll pay good money just to feel like it matters whether they’re into what’s happening or not is kinda sad.”) And onstage at a Myrtle Beach stripper convention, Rome checks in with the 3,000 women who have thronged there, wanting to know “Did you like that, ladies? Was it good for you?” The answer is a roar of approval. But the funny thing about “Magic Mike XXL” is that the specific question of what women want is posed more in theory than in practice. In most of the scenes, the Kings of Tampa aren’t asking or listening. Women express the broad outline of lust, and the men dive in and fill the specific details.
3. “Terminator: Genisys” Is Proof the Franchise Has Lost Sight of What Once Made It So Good. Somewhere along the way, the “Terminator” franchise has lost its way. You can trace it all the way back to 2003’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” but the newest film, “Terminator: Genisys” takes the cake. Not only does the film retcon the entire foundational mythology, but it also betrays the power of the franchise at its best. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff contends that the “Terminator” franchise operates best on horror film principles.
Where every “Terminator” sequel since “T2” has screwed up is in their overemphasis of the series’ action or sci-fi elements. Yes, there’s an element of mounting horror to “T3″… but the three most recent films really garble things by hinging so much on humanity’s future war with the machines. Doing so transforms them into war films, which are basically the polar opposite of horror films, as they fulfill our emotional needs for honor and glory and camaraderie. This is particularly true of “Salvation” and “Genisys.” The war with the machines also disrupts the series’ careful horror balance. When there’s just one or maybe two Terminators wandering around our modern-day world, they become a disruptive element. But when you fight robots every day, their presence becomes the status quo. The former allows for better scares, since the appearance of the Terminator is so unexpected; the latter simply results in numbing action. It’s easy to understand why Hollywood skewed toward the war with the machines: all of the related time travel and amazing chase scenes made the “Terminator” franchise seem like the perfect sci-fi/action hybrid. But while those elements certainly appear, they run secondary to the original two films’ sheer, pulse-pounding terror.
4. The “Terminator” Franchise Timeline Explained. Time travel movies notoriously get tangled up in their own complexities, and often double-back on itself or completely alter established events. The “Terminator” franchise is no exception. EW’s Darren Franich attempts to explain the franchise’s timeline to a world of time travel laymen, using copious Post-It notes. (Slate took their own crack at it using straws.)
“The Terminator” establishes three key points in the history of the universe: John Connor’s birth, which occurs sometime around 1984-85; the machine apocalypse known as Judgment Day, which occurs at some undisclosed point in the future; and the victory over the machines in 2029. It also throws a fourth variable into the equation: time travel. But in “The Terminator,” this time travel is a closed loop. And we are given every indication that Skynet’s time-travel plot was an absolute hail-mary, last-ditch, doomsday-device, break-only-in-case-of-absolute-defeat plan. Now, you may ask yourself: Was there ever an original “Terminator” timeline, without time travel? Is it possible that the John Connor who sent Kyle Reese back in time was the son of a different man — Random ’80s Baby Daddy — and Kyle’s somewhat-rash decision to copulate with his best friend’s mom created a new timeline, where John Connor looks a lot more like Kyle Reese? Possible, but unlikely. We’re told in the first “Terminator” movie that John gave Kyle that Polaroid photo, which strongly implies that he was trying to build up a connection between the two of them. (You could say that “The Terminator” is just John Connor pulling a “Parent Trap.”) And at the end of the first “Terminator,” Sarah Connor is recording a series of audiotapes for John, explaining his time-tossed ancestry — which implies that John Connor will have prophetic knowledge of future events. Of course, for John Connor, some of the future is in the past. “God, you can go crazy thinking about all this,” Sarah says.
5. When Jean-Clause Van Damme Became Hong Kong’s Gateway to Hollywood. John Woo’s “The Killer” is The Dissolve’s Movie of the Week this week, so a bunch of Dissolve writers and contributors are exploring ’90’s Hong Kong cinema and how it invaded American theaters by storm. Charles Bramesco examines Jean-Claude Van Damme’s post-peak ’90’s career when he drove four key films and served as a conduit between America and Hong Kong.
Like any fighter worth his salt, Van Damme makes it all looks easy. But his self-styled method of combat actually fuses a complex array of disciplines into a personalized form uniquely suited for Woo’s signature mode of filmmaking. Onscreen, it can sometimes seem as if Van Damme is having trouble connecting one word to the next, but his physicality contains multitudes. A young Van Damme began learning Shotokan karate at age 10, earning his black belt by 18 and mastering Muay Thai and Taekwondo along the way. His training let him get a leg up on the art of kickboxing (which appropriately propelled him to one of his first leading roles, in 1989’s “Kickboxer”), but his years spent as a ballet student exerted a comparable influence over his movements. Van Damme pivots from strike to strike as if he’s submerged in water, spinning between kicks with a dancer’s fluidity. The rhythm of Van Damme’s attacks provided Woo with an ideal outlet for his stylized marriage of serenity and violence. In the copious fight scenes strewn throughout the 1993 film “Hard Target,” Woo’s camera matches Van Damme blow for blow, anticipating his next move like an old sparring partner. Woo’s penchant for temporal dilation was in full form, shifting from hyperkinetic speed to slow-mo to bring out the full cinematic effect of Van Damme’s brute force. The climax of “Hard Target” collects Van Damme’s grizzled ex-Marine Chance Boudreaux (the JCVD approximation of a Cajun accent is a thing of beauty, like a painting someone’s set on fire) and his enemies at a warehouse storing Mardi Gras floats for a bullet-riddled showdown. As Chance sidesteps and evades his opponents, Woo hectically leaps between cuts, juxtaposing extreme close-ups, whip pans, and quick zooms. But when Chance goes in for the kill, snapping a man’s arm over his shoulder, Woo knows to maximize the moment and slow everything to a crawl. The audience can practically hear the individual shards of bone splintering.
6. Nick Pinkerton on John Ford’s Legacy. Starting today, the New York’s Museum of Moving Image will run an “Essential John Ford” series for the rest of the month. John Ford’s work speaks for itself — “Stagecoach,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Rio Grande,” “The Searchers” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” etc. — it’s often nice to have a capable writer speak on your behalf. Veteran critic Nick Pinkerton writes about John Ford’s legacy in honor of the new exhibition.
Ford is one of the mightiest figures in international cinema, and one of the greatest American artists in any medium, full stop. I don’t say this to settle the musty dead air that comes with the word “masterpiece” over his work — I cannot overstate how alive with feeling Ford’s best films are, or their sheer pictorial beauty — but by way of noting the curious fact that, while his reputation has suffered no comparable reversal abroad, he hasn’t had a major retro on New York City’s rep calendars through most of the young millennium. This absence may or may not be connected to the fact that Ford has been filed under “problematic.” His brand of Americana, and his at once sentimental and uncommonly clear-eyed engagement with history, probes uncomfortably into a complicated heritage — better not to celebrate it too vocally. This is, I fear, because of rather than in spite of the fact that so many of his films actually acknowledge, to a degree unusual for their time or ours, the motley character of the American peoples: Black and white and red, ex-Union and ex-Rebel, a pied quiltwork of wastrels and bandits and bluestockings, of Swedes and Cheyenne and always, always the stock-comic Irishman. For anyone who has seen only “Stagecoach” (1939) and “The Searchers” (1956) and thinks they understand the full measure of what Ford is about, MoMI’s screenings of “Judge Priest” (1934), “The Sun Shines Bright” (1953), and “Sergeant Rutledge” (1960) — all films which deal more-or-less explicitly with provincialism and prejudice — will do a great deal to flesh out the portrait. A process on ongoing self-critique marks Ford’s filmography, as the man who did a great deal to invent the modern film Western with “Stagecoach” peeled back the layers of mythology surrounding the genre, arriving eventually at “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” (1962), whose much-quoted coda “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” is not so far from “How Green Was My Valley’s” “Memory…you can go back and have what you like of it…”, though here referring to the selective amnesia which we call by the name of history. Then, to apply a narrative of “progress” to Ford’s career is to ignore its continuities, the fact that he had long been playing with the writing and rewriting of history in such films as “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939) and “Prisoner of Shark Island” (1936), an exoneration of the doctor who aided a fugitive John Wilkes Booth. I am myself eager to exonerate Ford, because I hate to see an artist who, in the course of his career, exhibited creative, physical, and moral bravery — he used his clout to prevent Cecil B. DeMille’s attempt to impress a loyalty oath on the Director’s Guild of America during the height of McCarthyism — impugned by those whose only claim to righteousness is repeating the correct stances that they were drilled with at university. It’s only fitting, though, that the reputation of the American film artist who understood better than almost any other how we retrofit history to suit the demands of the present would feel the effects of the practice he so well described.
Tweet of the Day:
Headlines quoting actors’ nutty political views should be required to include “To Interviewer That Faked Caring About Their Work for Hours”
— Dan Harmon (@danharmon) July 2, 2015