It’s All Fun and Games Until You Stare Into the Void

The Spine of Night

by Christie Robb

The Spine of the Night is a rotoscope-animated feature that presents a pseudo-H. P. Lovecraft story of humanity’s cosmic insignificance in the visual style of a higher-budget He-Man cartoon.

The film is mostly the backstory of a formidable, almost-naked, swamp queen who has trekked up the face of a mountain. She’s come to swap tales with a Guardian sworn to protect humanity from confronting its own vulnerability in the face of a vast and indifferent universe.

He’s guarding a blue flower that makes folks trip balls and contemplate the cosmic void. But a seed got away from him and floated to the fertile earth of the swamp. With the knowledge of the void comes magic power.

And humanity’s quest for this power has caused no end of trouble.

Like Lovecraft’s stories, the Spine of the Night has a slow, dreamy pace. The art style pays homage to the otherworldly and provocative covers of vintage pulp fantasy/horror novels, but with a welcome understanding that not all women are proportioned like Barbie dolls, and with more diversity in the race/ethnicity of its characters.

The theme of humanity’s fragility is underscored in the movie’s violence. Skin parts and limbs break off with the ease of a tortilla chip placed under the pressure of a slightly viscous dip. Viscera are just waiting to pop out of the body’s private cavities like trick snakes in a can of faux potato chips. People are cleaved in half.

Writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King have assembled a roster of voice talent that helps bring the characters to life. Is there a better choice to play a badass swamp queen who is impervious to frostbite than Lucy Lawless? I don’t think so. Joining Lawless are Richard Grant as the Guardian, Joe Manganiello as the beefy soldier Mongrel, Betty Gabriel as a warrior-librarian, and Patton Oswalt as the whiny and entitled Lord Pyrantin.

As a child of the eighties, I was left feeling swaddled in nostalgia by Spine of the Night, wanting to pair it with some cozy PJs and a bowl of sugary cereal.

There’s Music and There’s People and They’re Young and Alive

Shoplifters of the World

by Matt Weiner

Never meet your heroes. That goes double for present-day Morrissey, frontman for the Smiths. But Shoplifters of the World looks back at a more innocent era in 1987, the day the band broke up, and conjures up a time when the Manchester rock band was the Beatles for disaffected teens who traded in mop tops for asymmetrical haircuts.

And Denver, Colorado—if you believe the urban legend that inspired the film—was ground zero for overenthusiastic Smiths fans. Director Stephen Kijak reimagines the night that distraught fan Dean (Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood) held a radio station hostage, forcing the DJ to play nonstop Smiths songs.

While Dean remains holed up at the radio station with the DJ, Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello, perfection as a heavy metal himbo), Dean’s friends grieve and celebrate one last big night together before figuring out their lives post-high school.

That includes college, the Army, and for Cleo (Helena Howard), a general sort of Linklater malaise that seems to befall suburban teens on the eve of life’s next big adventure.

The film sets Cleo and the gang’s exploits to Smiths songs, along with contemporary interviews with band members that serve as a reminder of how much the Smiths meant for music, especially pop and indie rock, in an age of big hair and even bigger power chords.

Even though the film is a love letter to the Smiths, it’s as much about the insular obsession of finding meaning through art. Even diehard metalhead Mickey comes to appreciate the way all these young fans have experienced an era-defining shock in their young lives.

Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that the entire night’s events come down to a group of surly teens gatecrashing a bunch of parties to force everyone to listen to their music instead of having a good time… and yet everyone is still exceedingly polite to all the assholes in eyeliner.

This is also a painfully recognizable part of both obsessive fandoms and a good coming of age story. The mix of low stakes self-discovery and winsome leads helps keep their night out more charming than cringeworthy. Shoplifters is content to go big on soundtrack and mood, and it’s a choice that works.

There isn’t a ton of depth to the ensemble friends—the film is often too busy setting up just the right music cue. But when you have the music rights to take those cues from the likes of Morrissey and Johnny Marr, a little bit of charm goes a long way.

Don’t Say Super

Archenemy

by Hope Madden

In a seedy underworld ripe for the comic book taking, a teen crime journalist named Hamster just wants a shot to tell the real stories of these streets. He stumbles across a homeless man who claims to be a hero from another dimension. The thing is, Hamster believes him.

Hokey, right? It is, but co-writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer hits an interesting tone with Archenemy. He creates the space needed to develop some ideas before logic and cynicism close them down.

Mortimer combines animation with live action, sometimes bleeding whispery voiceover into the mix to heighten the sense that nothing is as it seems. Is Max Fist (that is a name!) really from a parallel dimension, or is he an alcoholic schizophrenic homeless guy living under the bridge?

Mortimer mainly works from young Hamster’s point of view, occasionally veering into Max’s. By limiting the logic of the tale to the perspective of either a naïve optimist or the likely victim of mental illness and addiction, the filmmaker ensures that you’re never truly able to differentiate reality from unreality.

It’s a tough tone to maintain, but Mortimer manages, thanks in large part to the commitment of his lead. As Max Fist (seriously, that name!), Joe Manganiello carries Archenemy on his shoulders. The performance is simultaneously lucid and muddled, with a physical edge that makes the character feel like a threat even at his most vulnerable.

Around him, characters are sometimes cartoonish (Glenn Howerton as The Manager or Paul Scheer as Kreig), but Manganiello keeps the film from dipping into camp with a turn that’s gritty and believable.

Skylan Brooks does a fine job of elevating the least realistic role—a character that benefits from endless contrivances. The writing around Hamster is easily the weakest part of the film, but Brooks does what he can to keep you engaged.

As Hamster’s sister Indigo, Zolee Griggs walks an interesting line as well, the good guy and bad guy in the same breath. It’s an understated performance that impresses. And Amy Seimetz—always a welcome sight—delivers a resigned villainy that perfectly suits the picture.

Archenemy has plenty of faults, but more than enough inspiration and grit to make you want to overlook them.  

Still a Magic Man

Magic Mike XXL

by Hope Madden

Rarely is a sequel superior to the original film – Bride of Frankenstein, The Empire Strikes Back, maybe The Godfather, Part 2. That’s heady company for Magic Mike XXL – in fact, the movie should never really be mentioned in the same sentence as those particular films – but let’s give it its due. It is a better movie than the original.

It’s been three years since Mike (Channing Tatum) left male entertainment behind him for the settled life. But he’s bored, basically, and he misses it, so he joins the old Tampa Kings for one last trip to the national stripper convention in Myrtle Beach.

There is a huge, gaping hole in this film shaped like Matthew McConaughey, who was the only reason to watch the original. McConaughey was Dallas, the leader and emcee for the Tampa Kings, and the performance was positively unhinged. This was just at the beginning of what anthropologists will call the McConaissance – that period of unbelievable performances that led to his first Oscar. He does not return for the sequel, and his inspired lunacy is dearly missed.

On the other hand, both Alex Pettyfer and Cody Horn are blessedly missing. I’m sure they’re nice people, but Lord they cannot act.

Another positive change, weirdly enough, is a switch in director. Steven Soderbergh directed the original to be a gritty expose on the dangerous world of Florida stripper life, while the film owes its irrational success to one thing: beefcake.

Director Gregory Jacobs embraces this. Welcome aboard a road trip of muscle and thong, spray tans and gyration as Tatum and his buds hope to pull off one last, big dance. They want to go out in a tsunami of dollar bills and they hope you brought your singles.

Tatum is effortlessly charming, as always, but his posse gets more of an opportunity to show off personality as well as pecs this time around. Joe Manganiello, in particular, gets more screen time in a film that’s far more bromance than romantic comedy.

There are also cameos aplenty, some glitter, some baby oil, and at least as much screaming inside the theater as on the screen. Ladies, calm down.

Magic Mike XXL is not a great movie by any stretch, but it knows what it is and it runs with it. Well, dances with it. And that’s fine.

Verdict-3-0-Stars