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Knight at the Movies: Magic Mike; The Invisible War; film note
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-06-27

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More than 30 years after For Ladies Only—the infamous TV movie that starred Gregory Harrison as a male stripper—we now have Magic Mike to go along with it. Based on the personal experiences of rising Hollywood heartthrob Channing Tatum, director Steven Soderbergh's film certainly delivers on its promise to titillate. With Tatum joined by fellow beefcakes such as Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, the openly gay Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez and Joe Manganiello, how could it not?

However, other than being a good reason for a cold shower and R-rated, raunchier situations (lots and lots of butt shots, a few full-frontal glimpses) and salty language, there's not much difference between the Showgirl on steroids of 2012's Magic Mike and the tamer but in many ways just as hot-to-trot For Ladies Only of 1981. And that doesn't say much for Soderbergh's picture, which was written by Reid Carolin, who is also one of its producers—except that while a lot of time has passed audiences still seem to crave the same old song and lap dance.

To wit: Harrison played an actor whose career was sidetracked by his decision to sidebar into stripping. Caught up in the hedonistic nightlife world of easy money, casual sex and copious amounts of drink and drugs, he finally got a reality check and left the "sordid" lifestyle behind, reverting to his original, morally "superior" goals. Tatum's character, the Magic Mike of the title, follows that basic trajectory with a familiar plot twist here (the young stud he mentors takes to the lifestyle with a little too much enthusiasm) and there (said young'un gets in trouble with drug dealers) before he, too, realizes that shaking his bon-bon and working the "cock-n-roll" side of life is just plain bad for the soul.

Like just about everything else in U.S. pop culture, the audience is cued to indulge every salacious fantasy throughout and, at the last moment, leave with their moral piety safely back in place, rejecting the salaciousness in the process. This, too, was the message of the Harrison telepicture—as it has been of practically every movie that focuses on the nightlife subculture and its supposedly hedonistic ways.

Soderbergh's "hot subject" is just an excuse to foist yet another version of this shopworn template on viewers. And for a movie that focuses on a bunch of straight men making money off their superb physiques, there's not one acknowledgement that these guys might have a few gay male fans, or that one of 'em might be "gay for pay," or indulge in a little down-low action on the side. There's a really small hint that Dallas—the club owner and former stripper played with camp relish by McConaughey, who is oily inside and out—might have worked that side of the street or had those working for him do so but it's left unexplored, as are a lot of other tantalizing possibilities.

This isn't to say that Magic Mike isn't fairly entertaining. It is—but in the very basic, very familiar ways I've been describing. And Tatum is a charming leading man, filled with bravado, a hard-to-resist confidence and, of course, that muscular torso. He's matched in the acting department by Cody Horn, the tough-cookie sister of Pettyfer. But let's face it: The real stars here, of course, are those heavenly male bodies. Not surprisingly, Magic Mike has the same message for gay men as it does for the ladies—and, yeah, it's the same one that we've been teased with forever: Go ahead and look and fantasize all you want, but don't even think about touching. And you'd better be prepared to pay for even that privilege.

When it comes to rape within the military, the many statistics reported in Kirby Dick's new documentary The Invisible War are horrifying to comprehend. Here are just three of them:

—More than 20 percent of female vets have been sexually assaulted while serving in the armed forces.

—Female military vets are raped at twice the percentage of the civilian population—before, during and after military service.

—Approximately 25 percent of those who are raped don't report it because they have been raped by the person they're supposed to report to.

As usual, Kirby Dick has uncovered a topic that has remained hush-hush to the outside world and an open secret within the hallowed U.S. institution he exposes. The filmmaker has taken on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Twist of Faith; the antiquated movie rating system in This Film Is Not Yet Rated; and closeted, anti-gay politicians in Outrage. Now, with The Invisible War he has done it again, exposing a system in which rape is so inculcated and tolerated as to be an expected part of that experience. As a filmmaker, he has shown great restraint in presenting such inflammatory material, betting a clear-eyed approach will have an inflammatory effect on his audience. He accomplishes it here—the mind literally reels with frustration and anger at the moral atrocities and indifference the victims bravely report.

There are victims like Trina McDonald, a lesbian who was drugged and raped while stationed at a remote base in Alaska and told to "suck it up" when she reported the sexual abuse. Now suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, McDonald is just one of the victims of the military's arcane policies the film portrays. As usual, Dick tries to elicit some kind of official response and, as usual, he gets nothing more than bland, officious rhetoric that jacks up the outrage in the audience tenfold.

There's little legal recourse for folks outside the military—or within it—but the movie does give the audience momentary hope for some kind of resolution as it tracks the progress of a suit brought by the women (and some men—they are often victimized as well). However, the suit is dismissed when a judge decrees that for women in the military, rape is an occupational hazard!

At that point—as in other documentaries that have focused on the criminal indifference and negligence of these seemingly implacable institutions—one becomes less of a film critic and more of a sympathizer for a fellow human being. During the end credits for The Invisible War, Dick urges viewers to take action by visiting the film's website ( kirbydick.com/invisiblewar.html ) and voicing their protests. That's certainly what I did and I'm betting that after viewing this powerful film, you'll rush to do the same.

Film note:

Oscar- and multiple Grammy-winning songwriter Paul Williams—the diminutive songwriter, performer and frequent Tonight Show guest during the 1970s, a decade in which it is fair to say he reigned—will appear at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., following the Saturday, June 30, screening (at 7:45 p.m.) of a new documentary about his life, Paul Williams Still Alive.

I strongly urge those who wish to find out what it was like to write for Barbra Streisand, Karen Carpenter, Helen Reddy and the Muppets, and work with many other favorites of the gay community to attend the screening and ask Williams in person at the post-screening Q&A. That's because none of these potentially fascinating questions—nor anything else about Williams' singular talents (there's barely a mention of his role in DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise or the fascinating flop musical Bugsy Malone with Jodie Foster)—is explored in the movie, which was made by a narcissistic fan who interjects himself into the film to the repeated detriment of his ever-patient subject.

Williams, who one intuits has learned tolerance after a long addiction-recovery process, certainly shows a lot more restraint than is warranted toward the egomaniac wielding the camera in his face. www.siskelfilmcenter.org

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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