Wednesday, July 4, 2012

To Rome With Love and Magic Mike

          When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie 
          … It Might Be Just Butt Cheeks 
                      Reviews by Ken Burke
                                                      To Rome With Love
Woody Allen sets 4 separate stories in romantic Rome, each with its own focus of absurd and/or surreal comedy; not among his absolute tops but still very enjoyable.

            For most of my recent reviews I’ve been finding ways to link at least 2 films into a stream of combined comments through either some actual conceptual similarities or at least arbitrary linkage that still seemed plausibly justifiable (to me, maybe some of the rest of you as well).  However, trying to concoct any marginally defendable connections between the latest offerings from 2 of our most renowned directors, Woody Allen and Steven Soderbergh, isn’t worth your time or mine or so this posting will just treat each one in a separate manner, beginning with Allen’s multi-story, mega-cast exploration of the Eternal City.   As you can see from the poster to your right, just the principal cast of To Rome With Love provides a lot of characters to keep up with, hence I won’t be trying to illustrate all of them with photos nor attempt to cite all of the plot details from 4 stories that share only this Italian location (no grand finale where they interact with or pass each other on the street).  Allen has been given to large casts in his recent films (well, OK, there are always a lot of people in Allen’s work, even the early ones [very unlike his idol, Ingmar Bergman, who mostly focused on the internal and interpersonal traumas of just a few at a time], but most of them before this decade tend to concentrate on just a few primary cast members with the others in fleeting roles) with a lot of “name value” stars; however, this one keeps them all on screen in roughly equal doses and separates them into the 4 parallel, intercut episodes so that they’re all easy to identify and remember, even when the plot twists give you quite a bit to concentrate on.

            Just for quick reference what we get here are 2 comedies of the truly absurd and 2 comic structures with surreal and satirical overtones: (1) a young woman visiting from New York becomes attracted, then engaged, to a Rome (Can I say Roman without you thinking I’m talking about Julius Caesar?  Or Polanski?  I’d better not risk it.) lawyer, but when her parents come to meet him her father becomes obsessed with making an opera star of the boy’s father, even though his voice is only successful when he’s singing in the shower; (2) young Italian newlyweds arrive in Rome to start a more material life but through a series of complications he ends up passing off a prostitute as the new wife to his staid, business-connected relatives while she ends up in a hotel bed with a huge Italian movie star (well, he’s a bit chubby but the “huge” is in fame rather than girth); (3) a successful American architect visits the Rome neighborhood of his youth, meets a guy that vaguely seems to be a younger version of himself and then keeps trying to prevent the kid from screwing up the situation with his girlfriend by obsessing over literally screwing her good friend who’s come to visit; and (4) an ordinary middle-class office drone suddenly becomes a celebrity simply by being treated by the soul-sucking media as if he’s done something to command their constant attention.  Fame, ego, love/lust are recurring aspects in this narrative quartet, but I see no overriding theme, just a seemingly random selection of the many larger-than-life stories to be found in this centuries-old metropolis, just as these specific 4 are told to us by a local traffic cop who bookends the film with direct-address narration not tied together by him after our initial, brief introduction.  The only other common denominator (besides the marvelous scenery of the location, ranging from major monuments to charming neighborhoods) is how out of control things spin before stability is restored for each of them at the end of their tales, with impending disasters avoided for all concerned and a content sense of collective satisfaction at their outcomes.
            In an attempt to illustrate a bit of what you get in the full film, here’s a photo that brings together most of the important characters of the showering-opera-singer segment:  from the left, sarcastic psychiatrist Phyllis (Judy Davis, terrific as always but the most underused of the name players) and neurotic (what else would you expect?), retired (but not resolved in that state) classical music producer Jerry (Allen) as the parents of dewy-eyed daughter Hayley (Alison Pill) and almost in-laws of parent-protector Michelangelo—be sure you pronounce that as Mick, not Mike(Flavio Parenti). Regrettably, the film’s PR people aren’t giving away images of Michelangelo’s undertaker father singing on stage in a portable shower, first at a recital then in a full-blown staging of the opera Pagliacci (no one in the film is giving away their engineering secrets either, so it’s never clear how the water constantly flowing over Giancarlo [actual—and melodious—tenor Fabio Armiliato] is drained from a clear shower stall [with opaque trim properly positioned at just-below midriff level to keep him as legally acceptable as the strippers in Magic Mike—so, I guess I could have made a connection between the two after all] that can be rolled on and off stage, but this isn’t the type of film where you ask such pragmatic questions) which would visually complete the main characters in this chapter of a very different Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953) from the one shared by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in another film in this fabled city long ago.  This whole shower-opera scenario, with a triumphant performance by Giancarlo, is certainly one of the absurdist stories, even though that absurdity isn’t vigorously challenged by anyone until its conclusion when a newspaper review finally states the obvious about the crazy staging, allowing one last laugh as neither Jerry nor Phyllis, despite their other affectations toward sophistication, know enough Italian to properly translate the snide remarks in the review so it’s a victory for all concerned.
            Another type of victory is presented in the corresponding absurdist complication comedy where the provincial newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (by chance, Alessandra Mastronardi) find themselves unintentionally separated in the overwhelming big city just as he is hoping to finalize a prosperous career path with his conservative uncles and aunts.  A situation just as acceptably irrational as allowing an opera singer to be wheeled out on stage in a working shower occurs soon after Milly leaves their hotel for a quick hairstyling session as prostitute Anna (Penélope Cruz, back with Allen again after her Best Supporting Actress victory in Vicky Cristina Barcelona [2008], shown here overcoming the sensibilities of Antonio and one of his presumed-future-fatekeeper uncles) barges in on Antonio, informs him that she’s been paid for the afternoon, and starts to prove she’s worth the money even though no satisfactory explanation can be given as to why he’s not the guy that was supposed to be in that particular room.  When the relatives barge in as well he has to pass her off as Milly, which gets more complicated later on at a gala social gathering where every wealthy man in the place is on her client list even as Antonio keeps trying to justify her casual demeanor to his perplexed relations (now there’s a word that could be just as easily mistaken as “Roman,” given the sexual context of this extended vignette).  Meanwhile, the real Milly stumbles onto a movie being shot in the streets of the neighborhood she’s wandered into while trying to find her way back to her hotel; before she knows it she’s been whisked off to lunch by megastar Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), then further whisked into his hotel for a little afternoon desert, with him attempting to supply the cannoli (so to speak).  Further complications arise before husband and wife are united again (with each other that is, but with further experience learned during their day in the capital to spice up their marriage, given that Anna finally does what she was originally paid for and Milly, the non-virgin of the new couple, gets yet another chance to flow with a “when in Rome …” attitude via a hotel thief), then decide to return to the countryside before further urban sophistication totally overwhelms them.
            In yet another story a nobody named Leopoldo Pisanello (famed Italian comic Roberto Benigni, winner of the Best Actor Oscar for Life Is Beautiful [also directed by him, 1997, and winner of Best Foreign Language Film) becomes overwhelmed himself when one day his humdrum life is completely disrupted by a nonsensical barrage of reporters and paparazzi for no reason that anyone ever provides.  While his situation is clearly satirical of the easy fame that is lavished on anyone with money (no matter how they earned it) or who is put into a “celebrity” framework on a TV “reality” show, it’s also a bit surreal in that he’s presented as so instantly important without even the frequently-used trope of mistaken identity (as Peter Sellers so brilliantly portrayed cognitively-challenged Chance [Chauncey] the [G]ardener in Being There [Hal Ashby, 1979], a simple man whose simple statements were spun out of context by politicians and pundits until he became the most hallowed voice in America, despite having little understanding of what was occurring around him).  Leopoldo simply becomes the Italian version of the “most interesting man in the world” (well, in Rome at least, but it’s quite a world unto itself—and he didn’t even need to be in a Dos Equis commercial [you can see the ads for this concept at if you like]) by just walking out his front door to go work one day.  The next thing he knows he’s been taken to a TV studio to be asked the critical question of what he had for breakfast that day, but soon the cameras are in his house even before breakfast so that his shaving can be broadcast live.  Eventually his new-found fame both angers (in that he’s overcome by the constant attention and mundane questions) and intrigues him (in that he’s soon used to the fawning and the perks—as Mel Brooks said in his 1981 History of the World, Part I, “It’s good to be the king!”).  Yet, when he’s quickly forgotten as the media hounds suddenly turn their focus to another nobody-now-somebody, he broods a bit in losing his celebrity status before accepting that the love of his family in spite of his “nothingness” is all the reward that he truly needs.

            In the final 1 of the 4 (although they are as actively intercut on screen as was D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance [1916], a remarkable film given its early place in cinema history, so like in Griffith’s masterpiece we are constantly aware of the ongoing developments in each tale rather than experiencing them as isolated statements, even though their contents are separate from each other in To Rome With Love’s huge metropolis that easily contains their actions and countless others that we could just as easily have seen, as our introductory traffic-cop “guide” points out to us), we find successful architect, John (Alec Baldwin), vacationing with wife and friends in Rome from his duties of designing high-status shopping malls but wandering off alone to reconnect with the neighborhood where he spent some earlier days.  There he encounters a young man, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg, to me the most uncomfortable of all of them in his role until about mid-film when he finally warms up to it better and seems more like a character than an actor reciting someone else’s script—and given that Allen allows his actors to improvise as they see fit to find the center of a scene I’m not sure if it’s just Eisenberg not yet at ease with his character or if there are times that his improv is just flat), who not only reminds John of his own youth but seems to possibly be John’s own youth coexisting with his older version in the present.  Oddly enough, that aspect of the story isn’t as emphasized as is the magical ability of John to pop in on Jack and his new would-be love, Monica (Ellen Page, in the above photo with Baldwin and Eisenberg, although in typical male-centric media imagery you can’t even see her face; sorry, Ellen, but this was the best shot available for this paragraph), without really being there, except that they both can talk to him if they care to as John tries to convince Jack to back off Monica so as preserve the more functional relationship he has with live-in lover Sally (Greta Gerwig).  John’s sarcastic summary of Monica’s combination of allure, undependability, and neurosis (maybe it’s actually Woody Allen finding a younger version of himself in Monica rather than the John-Jack connection) is that she’s “like filling an inside straight” of toxic qualities (some reviewers have complained that Page isn’t an appropriate choice for a femme fatale, but even though she’s not the voluptuous Kathleen Turner-type she still comes across as alluring in this role in her wounded come-hither mode [although I’ll admit that maybe I see her that way because I’ve been a sucker for that sort in the past before my current long-term marriage to the just-like-me-completely-non-neurotic Nina, with just one of our cats as the only little-bit-out-of-sync one in the family, but it’s hard to tell which one because, after all, they’re cats], much as Charlotte Rampling did as the sexy-crazy Dorrie in his 1980 Stardust Memories).  Ultimately, Jack doesn’t listen but Monica solves his dilemma by getting cast in a movie back in the States so she’s off in a rush despite their romantic plans of 5 minutes ago.  John ambles off back to his self-contained present, and we find ourselves with another pleasant-enough resolution of characters that have faced their challenges, made their mistakes, and yet are no worse off for it.  Hey, it’s Roma, what could be so bad, eh, paisan? Relax, have a little vino, whatta you say?

            To Rome With Love is clearly what Allen is saying to a city that he’s a comfortable stranger in before heading back home to NYC for a return to his familiar surroundings.  Note, the title is “To Rome” from him, not “From Rome” to him (and us); in weaving these exaggerated tales of various people finding different ways to come to terms with what they think life has planned for them and then being confronted by the unexpected (and, in some cases, the delightfully unexplained), Woody Allen shows us a city that seems so magical that nothing should be dismissed as impossible—undertakers can sing opera on stage while standing in a shower, a nobody from the sticks can charm Italy’s greatest actor with the gleam of her (not totally) innocent smile while her husband “sells” a prostitute as his wife to his rigid Roman family, an urban nobody can suddenly become “the king of the world,” (just like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack in Titanic [James Cameron, 1997]) at least until the next prince is ready to be crowned, and just because the past is gone doesn’t mean it can’t be relived and maybe be renovated by a couple of once-and-future architects.  This isn’t 5-star Allen material (for that you’d need Annie Hall [1977], Manhattan [1979], The Purple Rose of Cairo [1985], Crimes and Misdemeanors [1989], and, at least for me, the very Bergmanesque Interiors [1978]) or even quite 4-star (such as Love and Death [1975], Zelig [1983], Hannah and Her Sisters [1986], Match Point [2005], or Midnight in Paris [2011]), because sometimes it just seems too familiar (hard not to be with a filmmaker now offering us his 42nd feature opus since 1966), the laughs aren’t always as consistent as they attempt to be, and the people collectively are a bit too shallow compared to others this cinema artist has shown us over the years (see the ones in the films noted above for starters), but it’s still a Woody Allen film with a lot of creativity, great comic situations, and a love of life that ends on an infectious note (and a passionate desire to get to [or get back to where you once belonged] romantic Rome).

                                                       Magic Mike
Steven Soderbergh gives about as much male almost-nudity and simulated sex as you could stand, but the supposedly “significant” stories about love and career fall flat.
            Unlike with To Rome With Love, Soderbergh’s Magic Mike never left me feeling that the basic situation yielded any magic, except for how happily those muscular, gyrating male bodies were being gobbled up by the women at the screening I attended (figuratively speaking of course; none of that Purple Rose of Cairo characters-coming-off-the-screen-to-interact-with-the-audience stuff in quietly-suburban Hayward, CA, much to the disappointment of my female fellow patrons).  I saw this movie on opening day in a full theatre (it had a very successful opening weekend with about 39 million domestic dollars [but still lost to Mark Wahlberg and a sentient Teddy Bear in Seth MacFarlane’s $54 million-grossing Ted, so male fantasy still tops female fantasy at the box office I guess; I’ll leave Ted analysis to someone else, I’m OK with WWE Monday Night Raw and the latest John Cena-Big Show antics for free rather than paying to see a child’s toy humping and peeing, beside the fact that I could probably find some version of that in any urban center on a weekend night anyway]), of which at most 7 of us were men (most of whom had seemingly come with their mates) so it’s pretty clear what the attraction was, whether any of the male cast could carry a line of dialogue or not.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that—or with any guys who come to Magic Mike with an other-than-heterosexual interest; given the muscles on display here I can see why anyone with an attraction for such should indulge themselves with this testosterone display just as straight guys constantly ogle actresses such as Penélope Cruz on the verge of breaking out of her costume in To Rome with Love [Which is why I stuck in the relatively unnecessary photo of her in the above review, to give some balance to the pecs on display here for these illustrations—What, you wanted to see more of Ellen Page instead? Come on, much as I appreciate Page’s wackiness I know why Spaniard Cruz is here spouting Italian, for the “Woody” in many of us, if you get my drift … oops, my wife’s started to read the review, maybe I better start drifting back to more focused comments.]  But, this bodily-attentive stuff does provide another linkage so maybe these shouldn’t have been separate reviews after all.  If I only had an editor … seems like I’ve heard that comment before … oh, yeah, it’s from people who slog through the parenthetical comments in this blog.  My heroes!)  Anyway, head-man Mike (Channing Tatum) and the other male strippers in Magic Mike provide a very lively diversion for those who want to watch the beauty of such bodies in motion, but beyond the sensual thrill that these fantasy guys provide Soderbergh does little else with this very predictable story of excess vs. stability and the “challenge” of which one to choose.
            Tatum’s co-protagonist in this pulsating anatomy-fest is the appropriately-named novice Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a directionless 19-year old who easily loses out on useful situations because of anger-management issues (or lack thereof), which frustrates his medical-assistant sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), because of his inability to just go with the flow without pushing himself destructively on his superiors.  When given a chance by second-in-command-at-the-Xquisite-club-stud Mike (we’ll get to head-stud Dallas [Matthew McConaughey] shortly), Adam blossoms into a natural steam-inducer, which eventually goes to his head in the same way that Leopoldo is finally seduced by fame in To Rome With Love.  (Damn!  I should have woven these two together after all; they have more connections than I realized.  Oh well, I’m sure no one else will see any of these similarities, so my sterling analytical reputation will remain unfazed.)  Mostly, Adam sees Mike as his mentor, his 30 year-old “brother,” his ticket to fame and fortune when Dallas finalizes the deal to take this barely-clad leather-and-muscle troupe to bigger paydays in fabled Miami from their humble command of the horny ladies of more sedate Tampa.  Along the way he essentially loses his way (not unlike what happens to Drew [Diego Boneta] in Adam Shankman’s much [intentionally] sillier version of an apprentice seduced by the Dark Side of the Entertainment Force, Rock of Ages [semi-reviewed in my June 29, 2012 posting], but there essentially decent Drew gets back on the right path and all is well in another version of leather-land) so that Magic Mike’s potentially pure soul just continues down the sordid road with implications that someday soon he’ll be stripping to “Highway to Hell,” even though he does express thanks to Mike for forking over most of the money he’d saved to start his custom furniture business (such as end tables with glass tops and bombs for legs [My now-deceased father-in-law could have been a supplier for him, having saved a trunkful of disarmed Japanese bombs from his WWII counter-demolition days in the garage for decades—and somebody actually bought them at the close-down-the-house garage sale! We never heard of any unexplained explosions in San Leandro, CA so I guess they were properly diffused after all.]) to bail out Adam’s stupid loss of $10,000 worth of ecstasy after a major snafu at a sorority party where he and Mike were the entertainers.  Alas, the tragedy of Adam’s lost innocence will have to be a tale for Mike and Brooke to tell their children about their lost-in-the-fog uncle because Soderbergh just ends it all abruptly with Mike leaving the stripper business, virtually broke and unable to obtain loans for his entrepreneurial ideas but now firmly connected to rock-solid Brooke and her decent but limited options.  Come celebrate their victory over corruptive capitalism, you weary workers of the world!  We don’t even end with one more bare-butt shot.
            I know, I know, the only thing this movie ever intended to celebrate was the tantalizing eroticism of the male body in constant motion (which it successfully does), but even though we finally have a storyline where it makes since that McConaughey has his shirt off most of the time (and a lot of hilarious scenes and effective moves himself, as the reigning king of the sweat farm), I just went in with expectations that Soderbergh wanted to do more with this set-up than wallow us around in simulated (and, occasionally, actual) sex for a couple of hours, then leave us with the bitter taste of lives wasted on hook-ups and drugs awaiting restitution.  (If that’s all you wanted you could scour the almost-forgotten files of Cecil B. DeMille movies, including both the silent, black-and-white [1923] and bombastic, Baroque-colored [1956] versions of The Ten Commandments where you also get excessive amounts of skin, debauchery, and redemption—unless you’re an Egyptian [those guys never seem to catch a break, whether they’re being pummeled by God, the Romans, or post-Arab Spring politics]).  I guess I just thought that a guy who’s directed proportionately about as many films as Woody Allen (Do the math; it’s 1.13 per year for Stevie vs. .91 per year for Woody … and there’s another link-up!  Oh well, at least I get paid more for each separate review … wait, I don’t get paid at all for writing these comments … so why am I planning on retiring from my day job?  Where's a financial manager when you need one?)26 features since 1989 including Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Out of Sight (1998), Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), Ocean’s Eleven, etc. (2001, 2004, 2007), Full Frontal (2002), Solaris (2002), and Contagion (2011), most of which could easily contend for 4 or more stars from me, would be probing more successfully into something beyond the obvious with this showcase for his dancers (especially Tatum whose pre-movie-star years already included this profession).  In my opinion, if you want a better rendition of a young-athletic-guy-with-slightly-older-guy-mentor story complicated by family and work-environment situations then I'd recommend the college baseball/complex romance The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (2011; noted author Jonathan Franzan says "First novels this complete and consuming come along very, very seldom").  Admittedly, this is a different medium entirely with not a single male stripper in sight in the book (although there's some completely innocent undressing in the locker room after games), but for me it's a much better rendition of very similar issues presented in Magic Mike.

            I don’t think Horn adds much to the mix either, with her often-dour attitude, pouty face (not in this photo but for much of the film) that gives Kristen Stewart a run for her vampire-girl money, and accusations against Mike (until he wins her over at the end) that he didn’t adequately protect her little brother from the evils of the dance hall, as if Adam’s not capable of being held accountable for his poorly-thought-out, ill-advised choices.  I did add her photo here, though, for the benefit for any guys in any audience of this movie who need Brooke’s presence (and the other women who flow effortlessly in and out of the male dancers’ lives) as something to reassure themselves that being exposed to all of that well-rippled male skin isn’t a threat to their well-defined manhood (just as all that butt-slapping in sports has nothing to do with any of the athletes or those who watch them devotedly being gay—except for the ones that are and haven’t revealed it yet, and, as always, not that there’s anything wrong with that for those who are, out or not).  Horn won’t be getting any future call-backs based on her acting skills here (But she may not need that attribute for her career anyway, being the daughter of Warner Bros. President and COO Alan F. Horn—could I be more snarky toward this young woman?  Let’s just say I didn’t find her performance in this movie very compelling most of the time no matter what her skills may be.), nor are any of the other women in the cast (primarily Olivia Munn as Joanna, the previous but just occasional squeeze for eternally-busy Mike) called on to do much more than paw the furniture that decorates the stage of the Xquisite.  For that matter, one of the dancers seems to be cast for body proportions and not much else also:  semi-retired (except for the occasional pay-per-view or short-term story line) professional wrestler Kevin Nash (a massive guy also formerly known as Diesel, Big Daddy Cool, and Big Sexy) plays Tarzan, one of the strippers, whose o.d.-ing on an energy boost drug before showtime one night allows Adam to begin his stage career, but with some of the most useless, stiff (and not in a way that the audience ladies would want) stage presence I can imagine for someone in this job.  He has one decent backstage dialogue exchange with Adam on his first night at the strip (excuse me, Male Review Dance) club, but after that it’s like he’s never spoken in front of a camera before nor had to perform choreographed moves, both of which he’s done effectively for years in WCW/WWE verbal and physical smackdowns.  Maybe that sledgehammer blow and “pedigree” smash to the canvas from Triple H last fall had more impact than it was supposed to. But then, not a lot about Magic Mike had a lot of impact for me either, although I’m giving it 3 stars rather than a lower rating because of the consistency and audience-pleasing impact of the energetic, well-planned dance routines (for the women, definitely; I’ll let the other guys speak for themselves).  

            And maybe Soderbergh’s accomplishing more than I’m giving him credit for; most other critics think so if you explore the high numbers this film receives from the sources I cite below (paralleled by me ranking To Rome With Love notably higher than what you’ll find in their summaries).  Maybe if I learn to shake my booty better I’d appreciate Magic Mike more—no, Nina says, I should leave the booty-shaking to Tatum (she also found the early full-“backal” nude shot of his Herculean body to be an effective means of stimulating audience interest [so to speak]) and get myself into a room where I can really impress her with my talents:  the kitchen.  OK, DVD Godfather trilogy and my special spaghetti coming up next week!  (And with G3 we’re back where we started, in Rome, so I guess I should go back and make this a combo review after all.  Nah, too much work to retype the opening statement; besides, I’ve got pasta to procure.)

            If you’d like to go To Rome With Love on your own here are some suggested links (but you’ll need other links than these if you need the love/sex connections emphasized in the film):

            If you in need of more of Magic Mike here are some suggested links (but if you need more of what this movie likely inspires in you, whatever your gender orientation, you’ll have to check out some steamier sites than these): (Daily Grace “reviews” the above trailer at about the same level of insight as the film itself, but if you want to see what a wacky young woman thinks about Channing Tatum’s body then here you are … like, yeah, OK?)

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