Criterion Sunday 254: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Back in the day I used to say this was my favourite of Cassavetes’ films, and though I probably like Shadows or A Woman Under the Influence better in retrospect, it’s still pretty powerful. Cassavetes approaches an almost genre theme — as the title suggests, there’s a gangland hit involved — but he approaches it obliquely. Watching the original 1976 135 minute cut, it takes almost an hour or so to even get to that point, and what we see is a portrait of a man who runs a nightclub (a strip club), arranging and putting together the shows. For all his evident sleaziness and self-absorption, he also clearly cares about his club and his dancers, but he also has a gambling problem that leads to the title’s killing, and ends up being his downfall. The film, however, remains focused at all times on Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo (who could be read as a directorial stand-in, in the way of many great films about art made by artists), on his flaws but also his strange, sweet integrity.

The shorter 1978 cut of the film certainly gets to the plot a lot quicker, and does a better job overall of setting up the machinations that lead to the action of the title, though we still get a strong sense of Cosmo’s world, particularly his drab nightclub with its ridiculous amateurish routines that nevertheless he is still utterly invested in. But once the hit happens, it seems to slip back into the rhythms of the longer cut, upping the existential angst of its protagonist as he faces (possible) mortality, with things unravelling on the business side as his ties with the mobsters who keep him afloat seem to fall away, even as he desperately tries to keep everything under control. The way Cosmo pretends everything is normal, that he is in (creative) control, even when he seems to be slowly losing everything is at the heart of both films ultimately.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban speak in the mid-2000s to the Criterion Collection about the film, with Gazzara in particular unpacking it as the portrait of a misunderstood artist (Cassavetes himself).
  • There’s also a short audio interview with two French critics from the time, where Cassavetes gets a little tetchy about his film being described as a genre piece — although the point the critics were making is that it uses such conceits as a starting place, but certainly doesn’t define the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey, Azizi Johari; Length 135 minutes [original version] and 108 minutes [1978 re-edit].

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 6 July 2019 [original version] and Wednesday 24 July 2019 [1978 re-edit]).

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

In many ways, 2012’s Magic Mike was one of Steven Soderbergh’s most purely enjoyable movies, and its box office success meant that this sequel came along a few years later, with the (retired from directing) Soderbergh on camera and editing, and ditching McConaughey, but otherwise retaining the core male characters under a new director. Reading back over my old review, it seems I was not enamoured of Channing Tatum’s work, but oh how things change in a mere few years. Tatum is a linchpin of modern Hollywood cinema and his every appearance immediately lifts a film’s enjoyability (even if it can’t always save some of them). He has shown himself to be game for a lot of things not traditionally considered the domain of the macho leading man within the Hollywood system, not least of all the demographic-pleasing direction this sequel takes.

For clearly the makers know exactly who’s going to see the film — that much was clear at the double-bill I attended — and so, far more than the first film, there’s a direct attempt to engage with women in the audience. It’s not that the film is therefore sleazy or objectifies the men, but it makes a real effort (sometimes too much) to refocus the story on the lead characters satisfying their audiences. This means that the romantic subplot of the first film is largely ditched in favour of dance setpieces, including one at an all-Black club run by Jada Pinkett Smith, another in which Mike & co. cater to a drunken party of Southern belles presided over by Andie MacDowell (her overacting finally put to good use), all building to the finale of a regional stripping competition in South Carolina where Elizabeth Banks calls the shots. Even more importantly for the audience, Soderbergh has ditched the tepid yellow filter that made the first film so distinctively ugly — this is a world of visual pleasure provided by Mike’s crew, and the camerawork does not get in its way.

A lot of people hailed the female-centric Mad Max: Fury Road in end-of-year polls last year, but for my money (and what little my opinion matters on this topic, which is not very much at all), Magic Mike XXL is the real mainstream movie champion of 2015. (It’s certainly the best performance-based sequel starring Elizabeth Banks.) It knows exactly how generic it is, and exactly how trashy it needs to pitch itself, but it somehow skirts away from the pitfalls of that gamble through sheer good-natured charm and a lot of very tight choreography.

Magic Mike XXL (2015)CREDITS
Director Gregory Jacobs; Writer Reid Carolin; Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodríguez; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 23 January 2016.

Magic Mike (2012)

Steven Soderbergh has been a very prolific director over the couple of decades he’s been working, and this film from last year is one of his most satisfying recent efforts. It deals with an understandably favoured milieu among filmmakers — the entertainment industry — but puts enough of a twist on it to make it interesting, eliciting excellent performances from its male leads.

The story is set in Tampa, Florida, amongst a group of male strippers, led by impresario Dallas (played by an impressively toned Matthew McConaughey). The main stage talent is Mike (Channing Tatum), who, to make ends meet and pursue his career goals, works a number of other jobs during the day. On one of them he meets a young man Adam (Alex Pettyfer), whose potential talent he spots, and whom he drags along to the club. These are the bones of the plot, onto which is grafted a number of familiar themes, such as the corrosive effects of drugs and partying, the desire to hit the big time, and the compromises required to achieve one’s dreams.

My main point of comparison is with similar stories in a female setting, specifically Showgirls (1995). The differences in location between Vegas and Tampa seem mostly a matter of scale — there’s a similar dissipated vibe in hypersaturated colours under the burning sun (one in the desert, the other by the beach), though in the Floridian context, Tampa is second city to Miami, which may place it closer as a setting to Reno than Las Vegas. But where Showgirls essays a bleak, bitter tone, Magic Mike is lighter by far. This doesn’t mean the film avoids darkness — Adam in particular succumbs to the usual crutches of success — it’s just that the focus on Mike means that the stripping remains a colourful background to self-betterment, and not the kind of consuming abyss of artistic expression that it plays in Verhoeven’s film.

However, Mike’s story is a fascinating one, that leans heavily on issues of class mobility and the dark side of capitalism in America. He is introduced via his work in a construction company, but the film quickly relocates to his rather more glamorous night-time sideline of stripping at the Xquisite club on the Tampa beachfront. However, it is made clear that Mike’s real dream is to design bespoke furniture, for which he is saving diligently yet cannot make headway with due to his bad credit rating with the bank (all of his income is largely in cash). Mike is clearly attractive and just as obviously successful at what he does, yet he can’t pursue his dreams for petty bureaucratic reasons that draw a clear link between his blue-collar work and his status.

Stylistically, Soderbergh (also acting as cinematographer under an assumed name) heavily uses filters to give a grungy bleached-out look to the beach and outdoor scenes; it’s only when inside at the strip club that the colours become saturated, more akin to one’s expectations of a movie, which only emphasises its constructed unrealness. Alongside this there’s a heavy emphasis on naturalistic dialogue scenes, suffused with pauses, temporising, mumbling, digressions and frustrated attempts at verbal expression — in other words, these aren’t polished movie characters when they’re not onstage.

Strangely for strippers, then, it’s the stage performances where the characters gain the power they lack outside. Though they objectify themselves through displaying their bodies, they still retain control over the means of that expression, largely acting upon the female audience rather than being submissive to them. In either case, it’s clearly an illusory power, and for Adam in particular a dangerously tempting one — when the characters attempt to extend this power beyond the club, they notaby fail (for example, when a sorority party gets out of control, or when Adam’s involvement in drugs threatens to derail his life).

As another in the canon of films about the underside of the American Dream, Magic Mike is a strong entry. Channing Tatum puts in a persuasive performance, which is high praise for me, as I’ve never been a huge fan of him as an actor. It’s also a finely-crafted film by Soderbergh, and I can certainly recommend it wholeheartedly.

Magic Mike film posterFILM REVIEW
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Reid Carolin; Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 22 July 2013.