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Kicking the Tweets
Friday
Nov212014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

A Fried Peeta with No Meat, Extra Onions, and Light on The Sauce

The Hunger Games Part 3: Part One (also known as Mockingjay) is a commercial masquerading as a movie about a girl filming a commercial. Luckily, this is part of a teen-targeted mega-franchise, meaning writers Peter Craig, Danny Strong, and Suzanne Collins (adapting half of the widely disliked third novel in her YA trilogy) provide plenty of call-backs to the second film--for those of us who had trouble staying awake during it.

We catch up with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a reluctant revolutionary torn from her home who joins the fight against an all-powerful, evil Empire.* She and her platonic friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) align with an army of rebels and plot the rescue of Katniss' true love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)--who's been kidnapped by the empire and kept like a trophy in its ruler's fortified palace. Among their crew is a hairy, non-verbal giant, a temperamental priss who's always complaining about being stuck in a grimy war zone, and a sarcastic sidekick who struggles to be taken seriously because he's stuck in a can (one that's filled with booze). In the end, a team of rebels infiltrates the empire's command center, which we see inter-cut with its leader lecturing a wide-eyed Katniss on the dangers of underestimating the depths of his insidiousness.

And, yes, Katniss yells, "It's a trap!"

I know, I know. I'm not supposed to compare everything to Star Wars, but director Francis Lawrence spent so much time not giving me anything new to hang my hat on that I had little choice but to document patterns and pray for the end credits. And the repetitiveness doesn't end with the Return of the Jedi plot structure. No, Mockingjay contains precisely three series of events, which are bookended with material from the previous two chapters and recycled four times over two hours:

Opening Bookend: Katniss walks through her home town of District 12 and is yanked away by a group she doesn't trust in order to engage in a life-or-death struggle. They outfit her with cool weapons and designer clothes, and set her loose with a group of strangers--people who might have been characters in Collins' novel, but here are relegated to being "those other guys" from the Jordan-era Bulls.

Setup 1: Katniss slowly approaches a ridge/rounds a corner. She discovers something horrifying as the music swells. In close-up, Jennifer Lawrence reigns supreme as the master of modern-day, single-tear cry-acting.

Setup 2: A group of rebels advertise their whereabouts while plotting ill-conceived attacks against the Empire. They must deal with the consequences in subsequent suspense-free action scenes (setting down a helicarrier next to a hospital full of wounded rebels; setting off explosives in the woods; blowing up a dam; and hunkering down in a highly populated, subterranean military base that's somehow miles deep, completely self-sufficient, and totally secret).

Setup 3: Katniss whines about being the reluctant hero to the point where even the movie starts to give up on her. The rebels need her to film a series of viral videos that will stir the Empire's subjects to action, but she's such a "regular girl who just wants to be left alone" that she can only register emotion after nearly getting blown up. Eventually, the head of the military base, President Coin (played by Julianne Moore and whom, I'm sure, we'll learn has two sides), calls for Katniss' friends to take center stage.

Closing Bookend: Katniss and the rebels make a desperate attempt to save their friends while bringing down the system. It doesn't work, of course (Lionsgate has a release schedule to consider, remember), and Katniss ends up in a cold, metal room with the rebels for Mockingjay's big third-act revelation. She gets hit on the head and wakes up for a second revelation, which becomes the cliffhanging hook into the next movie.

The Hunger Games films are ostensibly about defying convention and not accepting the daily garbage heaped upon us by an oppressive, uncaring system. I'm betting the target audience understands this on a narrative level, but has no real desire to step beyond it. How else to explain their lining up in droves to see the exact same formula played out every half-decade? From Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games (and the wannabe spin-offs, like The Mortal Instruments and Divergent**), this is Doritos filmmaking at its most flagrant ("Try new Lava Hot Doritos! They're waaay hotter than Fire Hot! And just wait 'til you get a load of Sriracha Meltdown!").

These films' legitimacy was built on pedigree more than quality. Anchored by a huge, devoted readership, a genuinely talented lead actress, and a second film that was objectively better-directed than the first, The Hunger Games is officially a juggernaut. Never mind the fact that Lawrence isn't allowed to use a tenth of her abilities as Katniss--playing instead a downbeat cypher onto whom tweens might project their own insecurities in the fight against lousy, rules-making adults (see also Kristen Stewart and pre-post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe). Never mind that the new material in Catching Fire and Mockingjay could have been combined into the opening half-hour of a single sequel that would also have encompassed the third book.

Granted, I haven't read the books in their entirety. As a veteran of bad movie franchises, I can see the possible outcomes and none of them are interesting. But the studios aren't interested in interesting; they want eyeballs, asses, and taste buds (and eventually downloads). Just as fans celebrated Harry Potter for taking seven movies to graduate and allowed sparkling vampires five movies to wind up almost exactly where they were at the beginning of the first, the legions of Mockingjays will, I'm sure, reward Lionsgate for dragging out the finale for another year. In the meantime, someone, somewhere is gearing up whatever series will make the next generation of kids turn up their noses at The Hunger Games.

*They call it The Capitol, but they're not fooling anyone.

**Which, in my estimation, is better than The Hunger Games by virtue of slightly tweaked character dynamics and a genuine mystery at the end of the first film.

Friday
Nov212014

Boobs on Endor: A Return of the Jedi Burlesque (2014)

Six, Jugs, and Rock 'n Roll

Forget the ultimate Star Wars blu-ray box set, I want Gorilla Tango Burlesque's original-trilogy spoof on home video.* Before you accuse me of being a perverted old man, let me clarify that I'm as big a fan of the writing, directing, and acting as I am the pasties-covered assets parading across GTB's intimate black-box theatre.

Boobs on Endor: A Return of the Jedi Burlesque closes out the company's three-chapter parody, which began with A Nude Hope and continued in The Empire Brings Sexy Back. It also maintains a stellar streak of sharp satire and liberating, hilarious entertainment that puts allegedly geek-centric fare like The Big Bang Theory to shame. Writer Andrew Daar and director Nicole Keating love the source material enough to skewer it mercilessly, and conjure up fresh gags that will surprise even die-hard fans of George Lucas' thirty-seven-year-old franchise.

In keeping with Gorilla Tango tradition, Boobs on Endor approaches its story from an off angle. We begin sometime in the future of a long time ago, with two members of the galaxy's dominant species, The Ewoks, debating the younger creature's staunch, revisionist-history politics. We flash back to a version of Jedi's events, where Luke (Jean Wildest), Han (Whiskey Collins), Leia (Biggie), and the gang are all (once again) horny idiots fumbling their way through a revolution against a just-as-clueless Galactic Empire--which is run by a deliciously over-the-top Emperor (Bailey Irish). In this universe, the Force is seductive in more ways than one, making Darth Vader's** climactic good-guy turn as much about salivation as salvation.

On a side note, I never understood people's beef with the Ewoks, and am happy to see the teddy tribe finally get its due--even if only in this unofficial context. As played by Royal T and Madamne Marie (who double as R2D2 and C3PO, respectively), the creatures are sassy, proud, and endlessly amused by bumbling humans and stormtroopers who write them off as cuddly accessories--right before getting speared to death or taken prisoner.

There was an electricity in the air at the performance I attended, a positivity and giddiness that can't be explained by a front-of-the-house bar, the promise of rampant semi-nudity, or even geek-catnip subject matter. Every Gorilla Tango show I've seen (including the non-burlesque comedy, Once Upon a Rom Com: The Bill Pullman Story) is a tribute to the love of entertainment: in theory, one could take out the jiggling flesh and still enjoy a funny, sexy brain-tickler of a show. These aren't "just dancers", they're gifted comediennes whose antics would be just as compelling if they were outfitted in billowing Sith robes.

Bursting with pop-song kitsch (you'll find new appreciation for The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" and Lady Gaga's "Born This Way"), a surprising nod to The Princess Bride, and an "In Memoriam" video salute to the fallen of the Star Wars universe's, Boobs on Endor: A Return of the Jedi Burlesque is a cornucopia of cool, top to...um, bottom. My new hope is that Gorilla Tango does something with the prequels next. Yeah, they're that good.

Boobs on Endor: A Return of the Jedi Burlesque plays Saturdays Saturdays at 10:30pm at Gorilla Tango Theatre Bucktown (1919 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago IL 60647). Tickets are $28. For more information, call (773) 598-4549 or visit www.gorillatango.com/endor.

*Which will never happen because, as we're told at the outset by a drunken, ranting Boba Fett (Misty Orkyd), taking pictures and video is strictly prohibited.

**Vader was played by Tallulah Twist in the performance I saw. The actress is the understudy for Sherri Blossom.

Monday
Nov172014

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Challenge Accepted

Two things kept me from properly experiencing The Theory of Everything at a screening last month. First, the buzz going in was that Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Dr. Stephen Hawking was the stuff of awards-season legend—but that the rest of James March’s film (including the screenplay by Anthony McCarten, adapted from Jane Hawking’s book, Travelling to Infinity) was weighed down by crowd-pleasing, "Based on a True Story" clichés. 

Second, and especially problematic, was the fact that I’d just spend forty minutes chatting with Redmayne in a lounge, and was unable to shake the disconnect between his fit, charming, real-life self and the withering, awkward genius he plays in the film. It really is the masterful, stirring performance you’ve heard about, and I blew at least an hour pouring over the physical and emotional nuances of Redmayne’s transformation.

One thing kept me from recusing myself from writing a review for The Theory of Everything. I realized early on that the negative buzz was bullshit. True, Hawking fans, or those expecting a remake of A Beautiful Mind, will walk away disappointed. The film's best-kept secret is that it's not really Hawking's story; it's Jane's (Felicity Jones), his ex-wife. As such, March and McCarten deliver one of the most surprising and moving films of the year, anchored by a pair of lead actors who defy expectations just as surely as the material they bring to life.

For anyone living under an asteroid, Stephen Hawking is the world's most famous living scientist, whose groundbreaking theories on life, the universe, and everything were overshadowed only by his battle with ALS. The degenerative disease struck him at Cambridge, shortly after meeting Jane, and Hawking's struggle has surpassed doctors' initial two-year death sentence by several decades (the Hawkings' marriage wasn't so lucky).

The Theory of Everything charts Hawking's path from nerdy dreamer to love-struck academic to brilliant scientist who wants nothing more than to rip apart the secrets of existence--yet finds himself trapped in a body that can barely move. When college-aged Jane signs on for the long haul, she has no idea that she's in for years upon years of helping to feed, clothe, transport, and counsel the lively guy who danced with her after the Cambridge ball--not to mention raising three children and falling in forbidden love with her church's choir leader, Jonathan (Charlie Cox).

As tawdry as that may sound, the film elegantly presents the audience with complex emotional issues and characters who navigate them without slipping into melodrama. Jones paints Jane as a big-hearted fighter who sacrifices everything for the man she loves, but stops just short of relational martyrdom. Neither Stephen nor Jane come across as saintly, and the wear of disease, clashes on faith versus science, and Jane's very human need to be held and loved by someone whose concerns are less ambitious serve as the basis for many wrenching, nuanced scenes. Just as Hawking fought against the rigidity of the scientific community early in his career, The Theory of Everything asks us to set aside black-and-white notions of fidelity and love.

My major problem with the film is the way March and company deal with the passage of time. But this may be something I'll get over with a second viewing. Because this is, at its core, a relationship drama, the filmmakers place much emphasis on what makes Jane and Stephen tick as a couple. As the movie progresses, however, the need (on someone's part) to make this into a formal biopic takes over, and we're subjected to montages and narrative corner-cutting that begs for either excision or another two hours to completely flesh out (I would have enjoyed the latter option, personally, as I couldn't get enough of these characters).

Here's a good example: early on, Stephen makes clear that ALS doesn't negate his ability to reproduce; that's helpful information, but there's an unintentionally funny visual incongruity to his physical deterioration and the brief clips of all these kids showing up in the Hawking household.

Despite a handful of such rushed episodes (including Stephen's shoehorned relationship with his physical therapist), The Theory of Everything succeeds at being an intimate look at adversity in human relationships. Those wringing their hands that there's not enough science in the Stephen Hawking movie miss the point. March and McCarten posit that love, dreams, and hope are the very fuel that propel mankind to learn about the universe (and our preconceptions of it), long after mere curiosity has subsided. In lieu of compassion, desire, and an inherent faith in our ability to conquer adversity is the dull intellectual void of ant-like species that do not, in fact, deserve to know more than how to forage, build, and reproduce.

Consider Star Wars, for a moment. A New Hope is synonymous with that series. The Phantom Menace is not. The difference? An inartful imbalance in the prequel trilogy between exposition and drama. Luke Skywalker and the rebels plunged head-first into fantastic adventures, guided as much by love as curiosity. Anakin Skywalker was trapped in a cold world built on A-to-B references designed to bring his character's destiny into alignment with a pre-established universe--hence trade federations, clone factories, and tons of superfluous hooey that drained the mystery and romance from three entire movies.

The Theory of Everything doesn't compare to George Lucas' groundbreaking 1977 achievement, but there's plenty of soul-searching and deep questions of heart and conscience to recommend it as a wholly unique kind of space-exploration film. Fueled by performances both relatable and extraordinary, March demands that we revisit his characters as a way of understanding our own.

Friday
Nov142014

Beside Still Waters (2014)

Millennial Falcons

Glancing at the poster or the premise, it's easy to write off Beside Still Waters as "The Big Chill for Millennials". There's a lot of truth in that elevator pitch. But first-time director Chris Lowell and co-writer Mohit Narang's voice is unique enough to warrant a closer look at this heartfelt drama about childhood friends reunited after a tragic death.

Daniel (Ryan Eggold) has just lost his parents in a car accident near the family's cabin. None of his closest friends showed up for the funeral, but they agreed to attend a weekend party after the fact. Trickling in like Real World cast members, we meet Tom (Beck Bennett), the recently fired, boozy, good-time lawyer; nerdy high school sweethearts Abby and Martin (Erin Darke and Will Brill), whose relationship is on the rocks; awkward-hunk-turned-reality-TV-star James (Brett Dalton); busted-compass sexpot Charley (Jessy Hodges); and Daniel's ex-girlfriend, Olivia (Britt Lower)--who shows up with her dashing, likable fiancé, Henry (Reid Scott).

Lowell and Narang know we've seen this story before, and they make two big decisions that keep their movie out of the recycling bin. First, Beside Sill Waters is short and comfortably low-key. The efficiency of this seventy-plus-minute dramedy should be studied by everyone from film students to Christopher Nolan. We meet the characters, enjoy some surprises, and even have time to kick back with a wistful montage or three. There's no fat here, and plenty of well-observed tenderness in the meat. Some of the comedy falls short, but in a way that suggests we simply weren't handed the codebook for this lifetime of best-buddy in-jokes (I still don't get the concept of, or attraction to, Whiskey Slaps). The heavier moments are particularly effective, thanks to a cast that doesn't too often push past relatability into "Big 'A' Acting".

Speaking of acting (if I might digress for a moment) TV junkies may get a kick out of the fact that half the cast made it big as small-screen stars--as did director Lowell (who played "Piz" on Veronica Mars). You may recognize Bennett from Saturday Night Live; Dalton from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; Scott from My Boys and Veep; and Eggold from 90210. Each comes from a world of hefty ensembles, with spotlights that focused on costumed, curvy, or outrageously comedic co-stars; Beside Still Waters draws on their strengths as supporting players, and the small-pond nature of the movie, by definition, gives their considerable gifts more attention. That's not to suggest the actors are showy; they integrate smoothly with their lesser-known colleagues who, to a person, turn in breakout-worthy performances (especially Lower, whose deft handling of Olivia's layers is key to our understanding of what success and failure really look like for these characters).

The filmmakers' second achievement is the way they handle Henry, they fiancé character. Though Daniel is ostensibly the hero of this film, Henry is the real key--the catalyst for kicking everyone out of their metaphorical parents' basement. Most movies involving two exes and a new boyfriend/girlfriend go to great pains in revealing the interloper as a giant creep--thus making it easier for the destined-to-be-together lovebirds to rekindle old passions.

But Henry doesn't let anyone off the hook. Trapped in a house for two days with bitter, sex-crazed alcoholics, he could have easily become the jealous (or even abusive) jerk. Instead, he trusts Olivia enough to encourage her to get closure before beginning a new chapter. Through his altruism (and assertiveness), we see just how stuck Daniel, Olivia, and all their friends are in the asshole purgatory of their teenage years.

Beside Still Waters is a charming and surprisingly honest film about growing up and letting go. Lowell and Narang offer a bristling critique of nostalgia that celebrates the importance of holding on to some memories, and burning others for fuel.

Thursday
Nov132014

Wolves (2014)

Spay It, Don't Spray It

I'd never seen Jason Momoa in anything before Wolves. I skipped his Conan remake and Bullet to the Head, and haven't yet delved into Game of Thrones.* Batman v Superman is over a year away, so I have no idea what kind of Aquaman he'll be. If this film is any indication, the actor will surprise a lot of people: wreck or revelation, the 2016 superhero mash-up already has at least one thing going for it.

If there's a reason to see Wolves (and there's not), it's for Momoa's ability to turn a half-note villain into a mesmerizing screen presence. He creates a vortex of cool that pulls attention away from all the lame, nonsensical tween-calibre drama around him, and rewards the audience for their saintly patience. At ninety mintes, Wolves feels seven hours too long. But like Interstellar's deep-space wormhole, time acts differently in the Momoa Vortex: it's a safe-haven for those of us who just want to get on with the story, aided by a good, ol' fashioned, interesting performance.

The rest of the movie? Woof. Writer/director David Hayter arrives at the pop party four years too late, delivering, essentially, "Twilight with Werewolves"* Throw in a pinch of Friday Night Lights, a dash of The Incredible Hulk TV show, and a whole (whooole) lot of The Lost Boys, and you have the story of teen werewolf Cayden Richards (Lucas Till). He discovers the beast within while losing his virginity, and awakens to find that he's murdered his parents (to be clear, these incidents are entirely unrelated).

While on the run, he discovers the sleepy town of Lupine Ridge, where a canine cold war has kept two factions of wolf-people (pure-breds versus half-breeds) from tearing each other apart. Cue the wise farmer with loads of secrets (Stephen McHattie); the spunky, distrusting bar tender/inevitable love interest (Merritt Patterson), and our hero's dramatic speech(es) about not cutting and running, the complexities of family, and...some other stuff that ultimately doesn't matter.

Wolves isn't necessarily a bad movie; it's just a movie that's unnecessary. Why should audiences settle for Sci-Fi Channel-level CG wolf transformations, lousy (though admittedly hilarious) green-screen motorcycle-riding shots, and middling violence and nudity--when there are literally dozens of better-crafted, more engaging, and viscerally stimulating versions of this exact same story at their fingertips?

Sidestepping a bit, those transformations beg the question, "Have clothed werewolves ever been scary?" The wolves in Wolves look flat-out ridiculous, mostly because they spend most of the time in un-shredded outfits, jumping around at each other like Propecia-addicted X-Men. While it's amusing to see Wolf-Cayden retain that same blonde flock-of-seagulls haircut, even after the rest of his body has sprouted dark brown hair, I couldn't help but wonder what the director and makeup effects artists' intention was with this look. This movie's creatures look goofy. True, I wouldn't want to meet any of them in a dark forest, but aside from Momoa's character, the pre- and post-transformation residents of Lupine Ridge registered a negative ten on my intimidation scale.

Like its main character, Wolves suffers from a soul-crushing identity crisis. On one hand, it seems Hayter wants to deliver an R-rated horror film that stands out from the young-adult adventures and PG-13 horror stinking up the multiplex. But he also desperately needs those young eyeballs, and has doused his movie in a flat, made-for-TV gloss and pubescent pouting that will repel hard-core horror fans. Not that there's much to spoil, but Wolves ends with two people riding out of town on a motorcycle, armed with an ancient scroll of werewolf lineage to help them on their cross-country travels; it's literally the setup for a TV show.*** 

In the end, I'm glad I finally discovered Jason Momoa. This is a great calling card for what he can do and, I'd wager, an indication of what he will do--which is not, hopefully, more movies like Wolves.

*No cable, no time.

**Yes, Twilight already has werewolves. Yes, MTV has already gone down this road with its Teen Wolf series. Yes, Teen Wolf is a grim 'n gritty take on a thirty-year-old movie. The cycle of the moon is complete.

***Till even bears a weird resemblance to Jared Padalecki, star of The CW's spooky-road-trip series Supernatural.