Thomas Mann: From ‘Project X’ to ‘The Dying Girl’

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Weaned on ludicrous white-male teen fantasies like Risky Business and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (the whole John Hughes oeuvre, really), even as an adult I have to admit to a partiality toward movies in which the teen heroes live in a world gloriously beyond the attention of parents who bear more than a passing resemblance to police and other authority figures. Maybe it’s just a curiosity with how white folks tend to be so hands-off with their kids.

We’ve reached an escalation, it seems, when it comes to such freedom and the costs incurred by teens. Kids today have advanced so far beyond throwing a little house party that gets a bit wild; now teens fall in love with pale day-walking vampires and shirtless werewolves, wander around dystopian virtual dreamscapes killing each other or seek to provide psychological support to terminally ill love interests. It sure is tough being a reel/real young adult character in the modern world.

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Fortunately there are role models everywhere. Take Thomas Mann, for instance. Mann first captured attention with Project X, one of those teen-throwing-a-party-while-his-parents-are-out-of-town flicks that made a splash by extending the premise to truly epic extremes. Far beyond the notion of a few extra people, an illegal keg or two and the destruction of a family heirloom or three, Project X resulted in the kind of raucous disaster that trends on social media, winds up as a talking point on late-night television shows and contributes to the national debt when all is said and done.

And Mann sold each stage of the escalation, which recalled the impossible-to-ignore thrill that comes from borrowing money from a drug-dealing mobster to double down on an ephemeral sure-thing that everyone knows is the stuff of a fever dream about to go horribly wrong.

Somehow Mann made us believe that it was worth taking the chance. He came across like a contemporary version of Cameron (Alan Ruck) from Ferris Bueller, with the focus on him rather than the hip-beyond-his-years fourth-wall-breaker, although stylistically the constant camera documentation allows for an approximation of that vibe. And it works because Mann’s character transforms from Cameron into a refracted version of Ferris right before our eyes.

“On Project X, I was a kid,” Mann says of his breakout role. “I was 18 years old when I was cast and had just moved out to L.A. And so, in a way, I was coming of age on that movie. I wasn’t totally an actor yet. I was discovering my abilities and trying things.”

Now, he’s venturing down the terminal-disease road that is far more traveled than it used to be. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl pumps the breaks on the tragic end by not hitting Mann’s character Greg with a life-threatening affliction. Instead, he’s just an emotionally stunted guy — it’s a routine ailment, but one that can and will be treated thanks to his interactions with the other characters referenced in the title. Earl (RJ Cyler) is his best friend, a black kid from the wrong side of the tracks who shares Greg’s penchant for watching and making obscure cinema, while the Dying Girl in question, named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), shakes him up, forcing him to crack his insecure shell and venture outside of himself.

There seems to be an earnest importance on taking himself seriously as an actor, placing performance over fame. At first glance, it would be easy to compare Mann to other young men who have skyrocketed into the Hollywood firmament (Matthew Broderick and Tom Cruise back in the day), but those quite different types don’t have an exact match in today’s realm. I’m not even sure he’s following in the footsteps of more recent indie darlings (Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan), making it big by dipping their toes in the blockbuster genre pool. Mann sounds disinterested in trying on a latex bodysuit and a mask or saving dystopian worlds without mussing a hair on his well-groomed head.

Referring back to Project X, Mann explains, “I never thought of it as this really profound creative experience. Nonetheless, it was something I was really passionate about,” he says. “And when Me and Earl came along, I knew it was an opportunity to prove to people that I’m really serious about this and I’m not just coasting along [in order] to be famous or anything. I really care about acting and I want to make important films, and films that resonate with people on some deeper level. Not a lot of roles come along like this one, and I fought as hard as I could to get it.”

Now that’s a real heroic battle — one that Mann will hopefully keep waging. Grade: A (tt stern-enzi)

Lotta Magic Left in ‘Mike’

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CHANNING TATUM AND HIS CREW GET TOGETHER FOR ANOTHER DANCE

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

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Rating: R, Grade: A

Curiosity dominated the critical conversation when Academy Award-winning renaissance man Steven Soderbergh (the filmmaking chameleon who so deftly walked the fine line between the independent world and the studio system) teamed up with Channing Tatum, the lantern-jawed heartthrob who danced his way into our pop cultural consciousness in “Step Up,” but then figured out how to get audiences moving to his beat (most recently in “Foxcatcher” and the ongoing “21 Jump Street” franchise). What would Soderbergh’s version of Tatum’s early days in the adult entertainment trade look like?

Well, we should have remembered that Soderbergh, thanks to his breakout “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” knew a thing or two about clocking libidinous rhythms, and in Tatum, he had a focal point like no other. “Magic Mike,” the second pairing of this curiously dynamic duo, following Tatum’s brief appearance in “Haywire” (they extended their partnership through one more outing with “Side Effects,” Soderbergh’s feature swan song) displayed the director’s unadorned eye, fitting for a film about male strippers to hone in on the dazzling moves and the teasingly tantalizing tones of the MC (Matthew McConaughey, in the midst of his near legendary run of greatness) selling the greatest show-and-show-some-more event on Earth. The movie was the kind of sleeper everyone saw coming and was more than willing to throw box office dollars at with glee.

But, a second helping? And without McConaughey and Soderbergh (the actor was on the fast track to his first Academy Award and the chance to sell cars, while the director retired from making features to attend to passion projects like the Showtime series The Knick)? That left Tatum and Gregory Jacobs, the first assistant director on “Magic Mike” as well as a host of other Soderbergh projects to carry the load, along with the remaining (and returning) Kings of Tampa–Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Ken (Matt Bomer) and Tito (Adam Rodriguez). There is much discussion about the absent Dallas (McConaughey), but the newcomers on hand, including the rap-singing lover boy Andre (Donald Glover) and Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), the new sultry mistress of ceremonies with complicated romantic ties to Magic Mike, go a long way towards making us forget that we ever bought into Dallas’s club.

The Kings reach out to Mike, now running that specialty wood working business he dreamed about in the first movie. Rarely do we get to see characters step away from their dark passions, for a chance to go completely straight, without regret, and “Magic Mike XXL” is no different. Mike’s girlfriend Brooke (Cody Horn) has left him and the daily grind is wearing him down. It is obvious that he misses the thrill of the stage and the interplay of his crew, so when they call him three years later, seeking to lure him back for one last hurrah, Mike jumps in with both feet.

The gathering is all about one last performance, at THE stripper’s convention, which involves a road trip with random encounters along the way. That is where we meet Rome, find out about her link to Mike and get to hear and see her do that thing she does, which is as magical as anything Mike does. Women know how to talk other women into a horny frenzy much better than men.

And speaking of horny frenzies, the hidden attraction in “Magic Mike XXL” is none other than Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” star Andie MacDowell, playing the mother of a Kings of Tampa groupie who offers up her home to the fellas during their journey. MacDowell’s Nancy Davidson is a divorced Southern belle who knows that life requires a healthy degree of over-indulgence to keep the heart beating. When the boys leave her, on the way to their final destination, MacDowell’s spirit continues to hover over the proceedings, much moreso than the missing McConaughey, reminding us that once there are no more lies and the videotapes have disappeared into obsolescence, only the sex remains. And it never loses its magic.

Perspective – Not Paradise – Is Lost in ‘Escobar’

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Earlier this year, in McFarland, USA (from director Niki Caro) —featuring Kevin Costner as Jim White, the reluctant yet devoted coach of a cross-country team in a small migrant community in California — we experienced life through the eyes and situation of White and his resilient all-American family. White is the stereotypical highly principled coach, a gruff disciplinarian with a fair-minded moral compass. He is the man we all strive to be, which is why this story, like all mythic American narratives, must be framed from this perspective.

But why, I remember thinking while enjoying the expertly executed Disney sports-drama formula during the packed pre-release screening, couldn’t we see this inspiring tale from the point of view of one of the Hispanic kids drafted onto that initial ragtag squad? What was it like for them to watch this White guy, this outsider, come into their community and attempt to coerce them into forming a team in a sport that, to most, is a seemingly random activity with no “scoring” goal? And what about the challenges of taking this on in the face of tough family and financial responsibilities — training time would cut into the earning potential of each team member who could be working in the fields.

McFarland, USA covers this ground, yes, but it does so from the white-male gaze. It is his version of McFarland that makes this an American tale, or so we are led to believe.

A similar debate arose for me while watching debut feature writer-director Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar: Paradise Lost.

Having appeared as an actor in a host of projects (Before Night Falls, Nine and Life of Pi, to name a few), Di Stefano, born in Rome, kicks off the next phase of his career behind the camera, exploring another mythos — criminal empires, and one with ties to America.

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Hollywood has had a fascination with Pablo Escobar, the infamous Colombian drug trafficker, and it is definitely not hard to fathom the reasons why. Escobar was a complicated figure — a Robin Hood-styled common man of the people, building up a community while ruthlessly controlling a multi-million-dollar drug trade. Of course, the United States had conflicting concerns regarding Escobar because he was earning his fortune and distributing his illicit wares in our backyard.

Di Stefano’s film posits that Escobar’s tale is about the loss of an innocent paradise, and apparently the only way to fulfill that template is to feature a white outsider who appreciates the natural purity of the situation, gets seduced by the dark evils lurking in the jungles and must fight to redeem himself and reestablish some sense of the natural order. Here, that falls to a young Canadian named Nick (Josh Hutcherson), a little surfer boy who follows his older brother Dylan (Brady Corbet), a former surfer seeking to rediscover some joy in life. They look to set up a peaceful beach enclave where they can run a bar/restaurant and Nick can give surfing lessons for the rest of their days.

That all changes when Nick meets Maria (Claudia Traisac), an idealist building clinics for the poor who questions Nick’s intentions but quickly falls for his wide-eyed exuberance. The fix is in, though, because Maria is the niece of Pablo Escobar (Benicio Del Toro), using his money to fund her community projects. Through Maria, we see Pablo as a family man, playing in his lavish pool with his children, while his rather large extended family and his crew enjoy the spoils of their ill-gotten gain.

The truly curious aspect of the story, though — and what compelled me to compare Escobar: Paradise Lost to McFarland, USA — is Maria’s admission to Nick, once he has met the family and experienced the good life within the compound, that she knows Escobar has earned his money through cocaine. She explains it in such a matter-of-fact fashion that I couldn’t help wondering why we weren’t privy to her story, rather than Nick’s.

The real loss of innocence and paradise comes when Maria starts to realize what it takes for her uncle to provide such a lifestyle. The costs are high and deadly. But such knowledge upfront challenges and changes our conception of what paradise is. Maybe it is not merely a pure and untouched utopian space. What if, instead, it is born of hard practical realities and a series of compromises?

The only way to ever confront this possibility would be to look at the situation from another angle, allowing for the fact that everyone defines paradise differently. I wish Di Stefano had considered that notion; instead he has given audiences yet another installment in the imperiled white-male genre, which gets lost even while following the generic playbook. (R) Grade: D+ (tt stern-enzi)

Commending Coffy

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PAM GRIER: THE SEXIEST WOMAN IN THE MOVIE UNIVERSE

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Pam Grier from 'Coffy'

Pam Grier from ‘Coffy’

Olive Films is releasing three classics of the Blaxploitation era—“Coffy” (1973), “Foxy Brown” (1974) and “Friday Foster” (1975)—featuring the undeniably tough and beautiful Pam Grier. As a child in the early 1970s, my memories of the period include a desire to go to the movies as much as possible, generally to see movies I didn’t realize at the time weren’t appropriate for me. I was just a kid enamored with the pictures on movie posters and the soundtrack album covers of movies like “Cleopatra Jones” and “Foxy Brown” with women rocking big Afros taking care of business. And, without a doubt, Grier was the most fatal of all the femmes at that time, exuding sexual heat that could incinerate the reels.

Yet, somehow, Grier’s brand of naked allure didn’t cross over beyond the Blaxploitation flicks, possibly due to the fact that she incorporated too much sex, during a period when the ratings board decided to crack down on sexual content over violence. And speaking of violence, Grier’s tough heroines were certainly too much for audiences willing to indulge in revenge fantasies from an exclusively male perspective. No one wanted to travel the mean streets with wild and crazy taxi drivers who happened to be bold and busty black women like Grier.

So she wandered the wastelands of television and B-movies, settling for supporting roles that relegated her to the sidelines and attempted to conceal her inextinguishable fire. That is until Quentin Tarantino tapped Grier for “Jackie Brown” back in 1997, as part of his ongoing homage reclamation of performers lost in their B-movie glory days. Grier and Robert Forster, her “Jackie Brown” co-star, were perfect subjects for re-introduction, and each of them made the most of the opportunity.

Grier, in particular, was fascinating to watch because it felt as if Elmore Leonard (whose “Rum Punch” served as the source material for the adaptation) and Tarantino had binge-watched the Olive titles, in their respective creative spaces and penned loving odes to Grier. Jackie Brown is the world-weary evolution of these earlier characters; the survivor who has made peace with her impetuous and violent past, but who also knows that she’s one bad move away, like Michael Corleone from the “Godfather” films, to being pulled back in. Unlike a typical male protagonist though, she’s willing and able to use her wits and ample wiles more to resolve situations. Time and experience have been good teachers, and Brown (Grier) an apt pupil.

Having spent time with Grier’s earlier incarnation thanks to these re-releases, what comes to mind is the final album from the late great Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man in the Universe produced by Richard Russell and Damon Albarn. The title track marries what we had come to expect the soul singer—that gravely gospel-inflected croon and his bluesy guitar playing—with hauntingly atmospheric studio effects and a simple but incessant beat. There was wisdom in this choice, an understanding that you shouldn’t just drop Womack in the modern framework, stranding him. Instead, let him tame the contemporary setting, exert his own brand of control over the proceedings, and he slays it.

Grier, that old Amazonian warrior from back in the day was fearless, every bit as dangerous as any male action star that followed her, but it is the Grier we see later on who is truly as brave as Womack. She is the bravest woman in her universe (let’s be real, THE universe), but not because, as Womack sings, (she) has forgiven first, at least not the enemies standing before her. No, Grier is brave because she has forgiven all of those versions of herself that Olive gives us. There was something outrageous and unreal about that Foxy Lady, the killer with the killer body.

But what she did was forgive her own past excesses and in doing so becomes far more human than any of us foolish fans who will ever sit down to watch these movies. They were part of an era without shame that celebrated the blurring of moral lines, all in the name of titillation. In Grier’s performances though, we see women (and an actress) struggling to survive, to keep her head above water, to maintain her dignity through it all. Watching her later on, Grier shows us that she made it (sadly, without the material success of the big boys that followed) after all. If only the old boys could learn a thing or two from her.

DVD/Blu-Ray editions of Coffy, Foxy Brown and Friday Foster arrived on June 9, 2015 via Olive Films.

Life is Like A Box of Explosives

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I have to admit that sometimes, as a working critic, I love to read the buzz on films to get a sense of the general consensus. It doesn’t matter whether the project is a major studio release — a summer tentpole or a notable awards-season entry — or an indie with box-office sleeper potential. I think part of the allure involves finding a film that allows me to stand apart from the herd, usually because I’ve seen something in the material that escaped the notice of the critical trendsetters.

In the case of the new Swedish release The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, from director Felix Herngren (co-adapting Jonas Jonasson’s novel with Hans Ingemansson), which is the third-highest grossing film in the country behind a couple of the Millennium Trilogy movies, it appears to be willing to bank amiable comparisons to Forrest Gump. There is an obviousness to parallels that insults intelligence on certain levels.

Barely educated from a young age, Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) proves to be a savant with explosives. Blowing things up, he might say, gives his life purpose, and he’s great at it. Unfortunately, his talent results in his placement in a reform school (when he inadvertently injures a passerby). He lives by a rather simple philosophy, one of the few things passed down to him from his mother: Don’t think. His father, a radical revolutionary, thought way too much and it got him killed by a firing squad. Instead, Karlsson comes to the notion that with life, “it is what it is, and it will be what it will be.”

And so, Karlsson wanders obliviously through a long series of escapades that bring him into the orbit of a host of historic luminaries.

After bombing bridges during the Spanish Civil War, he ends up dining and dancing with General Franco. He drifts to America and joins the Manhattan Project, where he provides a key nugget of inspiration to Robert Oppenheimer that allows for the creation of the atomic bomb. He drinks tequila with Vice President Harry Truman, dances (again with the dancing, although he’s quick to point out that men shouldn’t dance so much) with Stalin, spends time in a gulag with the idiot brother of Einstein before eventually serving as the trigger man in the long, cold series of exchanges between Reagan and Gorbachev prior to the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

Of course, this picaresque journey through the pages of history unfolds opposite a more contemporary tale that, while far less concerned with Karlsson’s brushes with infamous types and significant moments, captures the shrugging devil-may-care spirit that guides his every move. Yet another explosive encounter leads to Karlsson’s placement in a retirement home, on the eve of his 100th birthday. As the staff prepares a fitting celebration, the old fella climbs out of his window and embarks on a twisted series of misadventures involving a piece of luggage stuffed with 50 million Euros and a gaggle of would-be murderous nitwits eager to reclaim the money at any and all cost.

Rather than blowing things up, as he has proven quite capable of doing, Karlsson winds up enlisting the aid of a ragtag collection of fellow free spirits like Julius (Iwar Wiklander), another whip-smart senior hungry for a little action, and Benny (David Wiberg), the perpetual student who becomes the reluctant driver for the dynamic duo on the lam.

In Hollywood’s broad embrace, The 100-Year-Old Man would turn into Last Vegas, the 2013 aging-buddy comedy starring Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline. In fact, Morgan Freeman’s character actually climbs out of his bedroom window (it’s on the ground floor) as part of his initial getaway, much like Karlsson. But, truth be told, the best aspect of Herngren’s movie is not the Gumpian romp through the annals of history; rather, it is the slightly twisted caper details involving the criminals and the cops chasing Karlsson and his merry old band.

I couldn’t help drawing favorable comparisons to Magnus Martens’ Jackpot, another Swedish adaptation (this time from a Jo Nesbø story) about a group of guys, a lot of cash and an escalating body count. Martens enjoys the post-Tarantino/Guy Ritchie vibe more than he should, but somehow these kinds of crime capers have a delicious and decadent flavor that we can’t seem to match here in the U.S. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared doesn’t want to ape that sordid and bloody dreamscape too much, but it thoroughly acknowledges more of a passing similarity that should not be ignored — mainly because old Karlsson knows that’s where the fun of life sometimes resides. (Opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre) (R) Grade: B (tt stern-enzi)

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