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REVIEWS

MAGIC MIKE, (MA)

IF Steven Soderbergh makes good on his frequent threats to retire, it’s hard to imagine who could fill his shoes. Nobody else in Hollywood has the bravado – or perhaps the desire – to keep making these flippant, weirdly distanced art movies, which stubbornly resist the convention of a sympathetic hero who wins the day.

Even in the rousing action-thriller Haywire, the kick-boxer Gina Carano is less a personality than an abstract force. In a sense, the subject of the film is simply her running battle to take control of her own narrative.

Though Magic Mike is Soderbergh’s most relaxed, accessible film in a while, the hero (Channing Tatum) is another of his lab rats – assigned certain strengths and attractions, then released into a controlled environment to see how he fares.

In the early scenes, Mike is simply the old hand who inducts the 19-year-old Kid (Alex Pettyfer) into the shadowy world of male striptease.

Later, the spotlight falls on Matthew McConaughey’s hilariously flashy performance as Dallas, the manager of the Florida club where the boys perform: half-preacher, half-pimp and all Texas smarm.

By contrast, Tatum’s star aura springs from the relaxed, crafty way he deploys his meathead-jock persona. Only gradually do we fully perceive Mike’s vulnerability.

Hoping to be recognised as more than just a pretty face and a six-pack, he describes himself as an ‘‘entrepreneur’’ and dreams of marketing his own line of custom-made furniture.

The film plays his ‘‘tragedy’’ for both pathos and laughs, skirting the misogynist implication that men are automatically degraded when they become professional objects of the female gaze.

Splitting the difference between the two meanings of ‘‘burlesque’’, the strip shows resemble drag acts, in which traditional macho symbols  are made lewdly comic rather than seriously seductive.

Soderbergh tries to get a bit of documentary reality into each of his projects, if only to generate the friction that lets his creativity spark. In Haywire, he ensured Carano had plenty of opportunity to display her martial arts skills; here, he goes out of his way to prove that Tatum – a former stripper in real life – is doing all his own dance routines.

While Mike and company strut their stuff to crowds of whooping women, the film avoids seeming either thrilled or repulsed by their desperate salesmanship.

Like Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (2009), Magic Mike is ultimately less about sexuality in particular than about capitalism in general. For all the perks of the hedonistic stripper lifestyle, here’s an unbridgeable class gap between Mike and his lover, Joanna (Olivia Munn), a psychology student completing her degree.

Mike views his carefully maintained body as a solid business asset; similarly, he longs to establish an authentic identity by building tables and chairs with his own hands.

Though Soderbergh has his own kind of pride in his craft, he treats such nostalgia for substance with relentless irony. 

Rating: ****

– Jake Wilson

BRAVE, (PG)

VISUALLY and technically, Brave is pure Pixar in every exhilarating pixel – dazzlingly lush and thrillingly vivid, and that’s just the heroine’s hairdo.

Shame the story lacks quite the same inventive bounce and emotional lustre.

Pixar’s 13th feature film introduces the hit-making animation studio’s first lead female character, a saucer-eyed warrior tween from medieval Scotland.

Plucky Merida is the latest addition to Disney’s top-selling stable of cartoon princesses. But she is all tomboy.

Feisty and fearless, the wee lass sports a towering, Rebekah Brooks-like explosion of flame-red curls and is voiced with a dove-like Celtic coo by Kelly Macdonald.

The headstrong daughter of warrior King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly), Merida would rather perfect her archery skills than learn to curtsy like a lady under the tutelage of her loving but stern mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson).

But she is destined to be married off to one of the sons of the other highland clan leaders.

‘‘I don’t want my life to be over,’’ she declares to her mother.   ‘‘I want my freedom.’’

Of course, it’s one thing to defy custom. It’s quite another to defy your mother.

The resulting battle of wills takes a dark and occasionally comic turn when Merida asks a whiskered witch (Julie Walters) to help change her mother and, therefore, alter her own fate.

The resulting drama, danger and humour prove pretty conventional as Pixar narratives go, and the mother-daughter relationship deserves better.

In terms of plot, purpose, storytelling verve and poignancy, Brave falls short of the simple yet profound joys of Pixar’s most enchanting all-ages entertainments, Toy Story 3, Up and Wall-E.

Connolly is fun as jolly giant Fergus, who has a peg leg and busted nose. 

Like How to Train Your Dragon and Disney’s over-caffeinated remake of Rapunzel in Tangled, Brave moves at an agreeable clip and most of the scary action and cheeky, kilt-hoisting antics hit a bullseye with under-10s.

But Brave ultimately feels more Mickey Mouse than Finding Nemo. 

Rating: ***

– James Joyce

THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (M)

THE final novel by Charles Dickens was published in six of an intended 12 chapters and interrupted, inconveniently, by his death in 1870.

With 2012 being the 200th anniversary of the great man’s death, the BBC has embarked on a bit of a Charlie-fest, with this production over two episodes as one of the highlights.

And a cracking good yarn it is too, with a Dickensian array of heroes and villains. 

The dashing and moneyed Edwin Drood is engaged to a young beauty, Rosa Budd, who is in turn a pupil of Drood’s uncle, the choirmaster, John Jasper.

But Jasper is in love with the young Budd – when he’s not indulging himself in a London opium den – and so the whole thing is bound to end in disaster, which of course it does.

Dickens died before the murderer was revealed but Jasper was the obvious culprit and the Beeb’s writer, Gwyneth Hughes, has duly assigned him the blame.

Rating: ***1/2

– Ian Kirkwood

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