Magic Mike, a tale of male strippers directed by Steven Soderbergh, is ridiculously enjoyable. Comedy, voyeurism, love, conflict, dance and an ironic, tie-it-up-with-a-ribbing moral denouement. Someone – Soderbergh or screenwriter Reid Carolin – must have seen a double bill of The Full Monty and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. No other explanation is possible for a film serious and unserious simultaneously and blissfully aware that it is doing the artistic splits: its feet stretched to opposite extremes of fraught drama and blithe hokum.
Anyone still thinking that star Channing Tatum (The Eagle, The Vow) is a mere actor-hunk, all form and no content, should watch his deftly nuanced acting and sensational bodywork-in-motion. He dances the pants off his peers – no insuperable task, perhaps, as leader of a Tampa Bay troupe dedicated to thrice-nightly disrobing – and follows or leads by removing his own. (The story is partly based on Tatum's own memories of an 18-month stint as a male stripper.) Soderbergh/Carolin gift this team with a mercantile, domineering owner and ex-stripper played by Matthew McConaughey, another actor taking off into the stratosphere part-powered by wry self-takeoff. Since giving up the romcoms, McConaughey has developed his unique screen style: a cheesy southern insouciance lightly muscled with mockery.
There are – as always in these stories – an innocent newcomer (Alex Pettyfer, Americanised as the troupe’s greenhorn garment-shedder) and a pretty girl. Cody Horn plays Pettyfer’s disapproving sister, slowly swung into the swingers’ ambit by love for Tatum, though never forsaking her notional moral compass. All ends properly: that is the rule in these fairy tales. An audience has its taboo fun but must eat it before the police arrive. Like all Soderbergh’s best films, from sex, lies, and videotape onwards, Magic Mike is a kind of interactive text. You can experience it as it superficially plays: a ripping yarn about boys and girls playing swap-shop with what boys and girls conventionally do. Or you can seek out its deeper cheekiness, which interrogates the innocent hypocrisies by which Hollywood, since DW Griffith, has proffered the putatively forbidden and then withdrawn or proscribed it just in time for us to go home feeling virtuous.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is as insufferable as its title. Would you answer an ad like that? Even if an asteroid were speeding towards Earth, as here? Steve Carell, dorky, fortyish and separated from his wife, falls for Keira Knightley, kooky, English and single, as the three-week countdown begins. This is one of those rare movies where you believe in absolutely nothing. Not in the Manhattan where life-support plugs (television, the internet) are being mysteriously pulled day by day. Not in the central duo, cloned from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (The comic actor doing “serious”; the English star doing dowdy-madcap.) Not in the dippy dialogue, the by-numbers cameo casting (Martin Sheen as Carell’s honest-hearted dad) and the romance/catharsis plot which works the Hollywood schmaltz stills till deep into the night. Eternal moonshine of the mindless mind …
The Giants, a lovely, sportive, bucolic film, turns Belgium into an annexe of Huck Finn country. Young teenage brothers Zak and Seth (Zacharie Chasseriaud, Martin Nissen) live with their tumbledown granddad and play with 15-year-old, sibling-bullied friend Dany (Paul Bartel). They go into the woods, then on to a river and that’s about it: romance and seriocomical rural adventure ensue. You wouldn’t think it could happen in Belgium, land of burghers and petite bourgeoisie. But writer-director Bouli Lanners and cinematographer Jean-Paul de Zaetijd are in love with rivers as terrestrial wormholes: “impossible” threads through urbanisation and earthly time-space, where we can end up in a picturesque shack leaning into the water as lovingly, lingeringly as Narcissus. We go back to civilisation for the last act. But by then we are purged and purified. So are the characters, armed with the force of fable to fight the factual and actual.
Mummified pre-Columbian corpses, stargazing telescopes, ancient rock carvings, bone splinters of the desaparecidos, a mine that became a Pinochet concentration camp. Who lives in a place like this? Many lived; many died. Chile’s Atacama desert is the driest spot on Earth, a mecca for astronomers and archaeologists and in Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light a locus – rich and fantastic – for a veteran documentarist (Battle of Chile, Salvador Allende) to explore time, memory and history.
If Chile were a laboratory, the Atacama would be its Petri dish. Those exploring the remote past, from Big Bang to earliest nomads, gather here. Yet the desert also demonstrates – Guzmán’s signature concern – a country’s crisis of short-term memory loss. “We’ve kept our recent past hidden, as if it might accuse us,” someone says. Pinochet used the Atacama to detain, torture, kill and mass-bury those dissenting from despotism. In the film’s most powerful scenes bereaved women are seen still scraping and digging for remnants of their dead. One pleads fancifully for a telescope that can look downward, scanning the earth for atrocity as the astronomers peer skywards for their telltale signs of bygone life and death. It is hard to escape the past, especially since (says one astronomer riffing on the time quirks caused by the speed of light), “the present does not exist.” You wait all year for a thought-provoking movie-essay on life, art, science or history. Then in Nostalgia for the Light all four arrive together.
Can you teach those who are unteachable? Detachment says, with passionate despair: “Probably not.” Those who can, do. Those who can’t, tear their hair out, attempt suicide or become one of the messianic walking wounded like supply teacher Adrien Brody. The hero of this blackboard jungle drama directed by Tony Kaye (American History X) and scripted by ex-teacher Carl Lund has a Camus-like stricken calm. Detached, empathic, Brody’s character feels the rage and hate of the students, tries to solace it, extends his reluctant Christliness even to a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle) he shelters from the stormy streets. British ex-commercials director Kaye has a maddening try-anything style: animation, flashbacks, real teachers speaking in documentary-style snippets. Yet Detachment has a seriousness and passion. Like the recent Margaret it rages against the dying of the light in a country where too many people think the lights are still on.
Ice Age 4: Continental Drift is Hollywood’s latest slab of freezer franchise. We are in a world where time stands still. I know because when I first looked at my watch in the morning screening it was 11.15; half an hour later (or so it seemed) it was 11.19. Minutes move like millennia as Sid the sloth, Manny the mammoth and Diego the sabre-toothed tiger traverse the snows doing their shtick, singing their songs, schmaltzing their wisdoms. It’s all in 3D, so there is no ducking or escaping.