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Friday
Mar132015

Cinderella (2015)

Warm, Fuzzy Slippers

It’s strange to say, but I wasn’t conscious of spring’s importance, weather-wise and film-wise, until this week. A month ago, fifty-degree temperatures were a half-remembered fiction, and my mental movie projector looped good films from the fall to warm against January’s avalanche of frigid studio stepchildren. Movie lovers anxious for those few remaining exhaust-stained snow piles to melt need look no further than Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. It's a full-bloom beacon of warmth and whimsy that promises brighter days ahead.

Disney has an official Re-Imagined Fairy Tales trilogy on its hands with Snow White and the Huntsman, Maleficent, and now Cinderella. I’m a big fan of all three, but the studio really found its footing here. No CGI battles; no grown-ups-only tinges of oddball darkness; just an exquisitely executed family film that fleshes out a narrative we all know, through great acting and playful visual storytelling.

Instead of re-hashing the trials of Cinderella (Lilly James), her wicked stepmother and stepsisters (Cate Blanchett, Holliday Grainger, and Sophie McShera, respectively), and a dashing Prince (Richard Madden), I’d like to explain why this film is worth seeing in a theatre.

People give Disney a lot of crap for being an IP-devouring cartoon conveyor belt, and I won’t argue that—in some cases. Every company has gray-cubed departments devoted to global release strategies and branding synergies. But blanket critiques against the Mouse House fail to recognize that the movies themselves aren’t literally produced by committee. With Cinderella, Branagh oversees an army of artisans who use real-world locations from around England (and some Pinewood Studios sets) to create a tangible fantasy realm. Seeing this film on the big screen is transportive. From the lush palace gardens; to the always striking, sometimes outrageous costumes, hair, and makeup; to the practically realized props and sets with a drool-over factor of twelve, there’s nothing cartoonish or airy about the way this film looks.*

Branagh brings a serious filmmaker’s eye to the table, treating this multi-gazillion-dollar franchise opportunity with the intensity and intimacy of a period drama. One could remove the fifteen minutes of magic from Cinderella and be left with a luscious costume drama about family, class, and perseverance. 

That said, the magic is pretty terrific. When Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) pops up and starts transforming garden critters into horses and handmen, the animators go all out. The spells are a little “off”, just like the kooky witch who casts them, resulting in what I can best describe as a more polished version of the lizard-lounge scene in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, crossed with Return to Oz’s smudgy fantasy world.

Even more fantastical is the depth and chemistry Branagh’s performers wring out of Chris Weitz’s screenplay.** The writing is good, but the film becomes the stuff of modern children’s classics thanks to James, Madden, and Blanchett’s between-the-lines wizardry. In several non-propulsive story moments, the actors hope and mourn and breathe; they become human beings that desire things, rather than story puppets. Cinderella’s relationship with the prince sparks and grows into a tender friendship on the way to full-blown romance, even though we can see the giddy anticipation of new love in James and Madden’s eyes. 

Also worth noting is Ben Chaplin’s heartfelt turn as Cinderella’s doomed father. In a few brief scenes, and primarily through a nuanced facial acting, he paints a full picture of a man who wants the world for his daughter, and maybe a bit of happiness for himself; his methods for achieving both prove disastrous, but he imbues Cinderella with the tools to persevere and learn from his mistakes. These moments recall some of the strongest moments in Saving Mr. Banks, wherein a child must grapple with her parents as fallible people. In both instances, Chapman and Collin Farrell leave their mark on Disney’s historically generic Dead Dad’s Club.

In art, the divisions between theft, homage, and creative re-interpretation of existing work is indescribably fine. I’ve long suspected that Disney made Frozen as a way to cash in on Wicked’s success, while avoiding the hassle of raising another stink with Warner Brothers. Yet audiences the world over don't seem to notice or care. From the outside, Branagh’s Cinderella is just an update of someone else’s material, which plugs into a winning market formula. The film is its own animal, however, and deserves the dignity of standing on its own two feet. I can’t wait to see it again, and am grateful to Branagh for giving my brain something else to loop as it prepares for the scorching, bone-headed blockbusters of Silly Season.

Note: Yes, the new animated Frozen short, “Fever” precedes Cinderella. No, I didn’t care for it. The music, voice acting, and animation are, once again, top-notch. But the slight story refuses to acknowledge its own death three minutes in (leaving another four during which to smell the corpse).

I enjoyed one moment of originality, only to have the gag repeated incessantly until the very end—in much the same way Jay Leno used to make an unfunny joke of explaining his unfunny jokes. Don’t be confused: this is the kind of uninspired, brand-recognition cash-grab people are thinking of when they wonder “Why another Cinderella?”

*It helps that Branagh’s team includes Oscar-winning Scorsese collaborators Sandy Powell and Dante Ferretti. On a related note: I can’t be sure this is intentional or not, but pay attention to the outfit Blanchett’s scheming stepmother wears to the ball. It’s a bright green dress with long yellow gloves and sharp yellow feathers jutting from the top of her head, which immediately recalls the image of Marvel’s horned God of Mischief, Loki. Cross-pollination or coincidence, it’s a striking image and thematic kismet.

**Weitz has had a fascinating career: co-creating the American Pie franchise, and directing pictues as diverse as About a Boy, The Golden Compass, and The Twilight Saga: New Moon.

Sunday
Mar082015

Chappie (2015)

Shyamalan Resurrection

I'm not into conspiracy theories,* but I wouldn't be surprised if the reason writer/director Neill Blomkamp tweeted concept art from his proposed Aliens sequel was not to drum up interest in his dream job--but to secure a next job, suspecting that Chappie would short circuit on opening weekend. It's mysterious, but not unprecedented. Remember M. Night Shyamalan's penchant for inking deals on the eve of such legendary bombs as Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender? It worked here, too: a couple weeks ago, Blomkamp announced that he and Sigourney Weaver will return for another deep-space safari, fueled by metric tons of cash and soon-to-be liquefied Fox executives.

Speaking of Short Circuit, if you've seen the 1986 Steve Guttenberg/Ally Sheedy sci-fi pseudo-classic, Blomkamp's latest is strictly a rental--bordering on a skip. If you haven't seen it, I still can't recommend Chappie, 'cause the film's R-rated and you're probably six years old.

In fairness, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell lift liberally from Robocop (both incarnations), Avatar, Dredd, and Prometheus--not to mention their own work on District 9 and Elysium. So I guess it's not fair to write them off as one-trick cribbers.

The movie stars Dev Patel as Deon, a rock-star robotics engineer working for a South African weapons contractor. Having developed an army of humanoid police drones (one might call them "robo-cops") that significantly reduced street crime, Deon takes a crack at artificial intelligence. A rival developer at the company (Hugh Jackman's awesomely mulleted Vincent) sees Deon's work as a threat to his own program, a less elegantly designed fleet of tanks on feet.

Elsewhere in the city, three spectacularly stupid gangbangers (Jose Pablo Cantillo, Yo-landi Visser, and Ninja--who plays Ninja) hit upon the idea of stealing and reprogramming a drone to help them pull off big-ticket heists. Lucky them, Deon's cutting-edge technology firm isn't so keen on surveillance cameras, secure parking lots, alerts on sensitive R&D materials, or de-activating the key cards of suspicious employees--meaning Ninja and his friends breezily kidnap Deon within minutes of his having stolen a decommissioned drone.

The gangbanbers coerce Deon into testing his AI program in their hideout. The droid boots up as a blank slate with an unprecedented capacity to absorb, process, and integrate information. They call this super-genius-metal-baby "Chappie", and set about teaching him the finer points of painting, reading, aiming pistols, and perfecting a common street thug's ape-like posture and casual coke-head-nose-swipe.

Thanks to the Internet, the Chappie character has already been dubbed this generation's Jar Jar Binks. It's true that, as voiced by Sharlto Copley, he's a shrill, simple goofball who adopts the worst mannerisms of his "parents"--but that's precisely the point Blomkamp and Tatchell want to make with their movie.

Jar Jar Binks annoyed me because he was ostensibly an adult character designed to pander to kids. Chappie is a kid. He literally transitions from birth-consciousness to late-teen-dom within the course of a week. Some degree of irritation and bad behavior are inherent in the concept, but so are tenderness, discovery, and maturity--which comprise the only effective fifteen minutes in the whole movie.

Chappie would have made a fascinating short about a scientist cracking AI in his apartment, and a nosy, colorful, yet understanding neighbor discovering his secret. As it stands, every scene not involving Patel and Visser (whose character becomes Chappie's de facto mum) works wonderfully. The actors evoke the wonder and horror of becoming God to a life-form that is at once dependent on them and capable of replacing mankind.

But the silliness keeps intruding. Because Chappie's original (or at least interesting) nuggets are buried so deeply in the homage salt mines, we are taxed with plowing through disparate elements that A) we've seen too many times to count and B) really don't belong together in a coherent narrative. For example, Weaver appears as the money-grubbing head of Deon's company. As drawn, Michelle Bradley is an executive so un-like anything that would rightfully exist in the real world--let alone the movies--that we quickly understand her as not only unintimidating but also inherently ridiculous. Let me get this straight: her top designer offers up free artificial intelligence on a silver platter, and she rewards him with an aggressive lack of interest in the project. Okay...

Then there's Jackman's character. Aside from Chappie and the fleeting dynamic with his parents, Vincent is the highlight of the film. A brilliant engineer in his own right and a former soldier, his jealousy and suspicion of Deon is palpable and understandable. Yet he plays the good-natured office politician so perfectly that I couldn't wait to see how he'd factor into Chappie's fate. I got my hopes up for nothing, it turns out, since Blomkamp and Tatchell turn him into a standard-issue, screaming-military-maniac in the third act.**

I've long been a Blomkamp admirer, but not a fan. District 9 opened up many doors for the gifted director, who has proven that one can create believable worlds on a relative shoestring budget, while bringing social commentary back to mainstream sci-fi. But I take issue with his annoying characters, heavy-handed messages, and uninspired plotting. Having the keys to the kingdom means nothing if your intention is to turn that kingdom into a Wal-Mart.

As Blomkamp's filmography progresses, the stars get bigger, the scripts get thinner, and I suspect the bloom will soon be off the rose. Moviegoers love underdog stories almost as much as they love shiny new things, but they'll only put up with so much nonsense from a promising auteur. Just ask M. Night Shyamalan, who learned the hard way that, when it comes to souring fan opinion on gimmick filmmaking, all it takes is a Village.

*Or am I?

**Notable only because he wears a bulky neural-uplink helmet that comic-book fans will recognize as being very similar to that of Weapon X--the graphic novel starring Jackman's claim-to-fame, Wolverine.

Wednesday
Mar042015

Step Up: All In (2014)

The Krumper Games

I understand why people give Hollywood flak for the Instantaneous Reboot craze. Marvel's recent announcement of a Drew Goddard-helmed Spider-Man movie constitutes that character's third big-screen re-imagining (spanning six films to date) in fifteen years.* By the time it comes out, we'll also have seen more of the "new" Transformers, a "new" Batman, a "new" Deadpool, and Lord knows what else. But why, wait? There's another franchise, happening right now, that features attractive, athletic kids leaping about in spandex while saving the world from tyranny and corruption.

Yes, I'm talking about the fifth Step Up movie. Maybe the filmmakers called it "All In" because the climactic dance-off takes place in Las Vegas. Or maybe because they simply dumped the series' entire ingredients list into a blender that had already been switched on. Either way, this isn't really a sequel, and it's not technically a reboot. Like the three films before it,** All In could exist at any point along its own timeline, with zero confusion on the part of the audience.

The movies always open with a down-on-his/her-luck dancer getting picked on by a snooty gang who doesn't believe in his/her dream. That dancer learns of a competition that will yield not just a cash prize but also respect in the underground dance community (or whatever the Fast and the Furious equivalent of dancing is). Our hero crews up, finds reluctant love from someone on the wrong/right side of the tracks, and struggles to stay focused as old rivalries flare and flame out in the Big 3-D Showdown.

My wife and I are big fans of these films. They're a hoot to watch at home in bed with wine, Lucky Charms, and Ambien. Our hair-pulling frustration of barely remembering characters from movie to movie; frequent refill and bathroom breaks during innumerable, interminable dance numbers; and uproarious laughter at mega-talented dancers face-planting in the acting arena are more than polite society can handle. Staying home for Step Up the Simmons household's version of civic duty.

At the very least, All In features a different design on its McNugget packaging. The Vegas competition is actually a VH1 reality show presided over by a Lady Gaga-type (Izabella Miko), who thinks she's running The Hunger Games. The omnipresent fire, weird costumes, and media conspiracies are a welcome distraction from The Big Questions--like, why our heroes worry about having to go back to their day-jobs if they lose the competition, when each of them walked off those jobs in order to join the competition?

Sidebar 1:

When our heroes (whose awesome, All Caps group name, LMNTRIX, does not stand for "Lemon Trix", sadly) find out that VH1 has rigged the contest voting to garner higher ratings (SPOILER!), they decide to "beat them at their own game." You or I might assume this involves forming a multi-billion-dollar global TV brand and starting a reality show that pits other reality shows against each other--and rigging said mega-show in their favor. But, no. As always, the solution is "dance, dance, dance."

Sidebar 2:

Becaue the contest prize is a three year performance contract at Caesars Palace, and because LMNTRIX wins in the end (DOUBLE SPOILER!)--does that mean we're off the hook with these films until 2017?

Step Up: All In has all the trappings of a comic book movie: elaborate, sci-fi sets (seriously); high-stakes melodrama; psychic twins (Facundo and Martin Lombard); a scrappy short fella (Misha Gabriel); and a pair of leaders with questionable sexual chemistry (Ryan Guzman and Briana Evigan). Most importantly, it has Chadd Smith as the silent robot impersonator, Vladd.

Vladd has appeared in a number of Step Up films, and his character's a little different each time out. Though mostly used as set dressing when not called upon the tear up the dance floor, his character--or at least his presence--is the most evolved here. I couldn't take my eyes off him, and I searched every scene to see if he was in it. This Where's Waldo-like obsession may have to do with my having seen Under the Skin last year. I kept imagining Vladd as Scarlett Johansson's alien-observer counterpart; perhaps he landed in America instead of Scotland, and was adopted by magazine-glossy street artists. Can the series' rotating cast be explained away by Vladd's having absorbed some of his fellow performers into a lethal sex pool of shimmering black goo?

I like to think so.

Director Trish Sie deserves a lot of credit for keeping things fresh in the fifth go-round. Even ironic, laugh-riot freshness is better than the stale, rinse/repeat scenario of some franchises. If nothing else, I hope these movies inspire their core audience to leave the house and seek out real life dance competitions--to be inspired by flesh-and-blood performers whose stories (hopefully) can't fit into a reboot-able template. As for me, I'm an old married dad now, so until Step Up: Equal Pay for Equal Twerk comes out, I'll keep the wine chilled and the cereal crunchy.

*Fourth, if you count the web-slinger's rumored appearance in Avengers 3.

**I don't count 2006's Channing Tatum vehicle, since it's the "original".

Friday
Feb272015

The Lazarus Effect (2015)

Plot Sematary

I'm not gonna do it. The Lazarus Effect is a bland, scare-free excuse for horror, but I won't spend several hundred words comparing it to a dozen similar movies--or even mention them by name. Hopefully, this review will take less time to read than it will to write.

Today, I choose to be positive, and would like to share highlights from the two minutes of original material that made David Gelb's film tolerable.

1. I've never seen a movie that co-stars the act of cutting to black. In the last ten minutes of this eighty-three minute exercise,* the screen goes dark nearly as many times. Sure, we're meant to quiver in our seats as the wrongfully resurrected scientist (Olivia Wilde) taunts and torments our tanktop-clad Final Girl (Sarah Bolger). But unless this is your first go-round with jump-scare thrillers, the effect will be less, "OMG! Where could she be hiding?!" than, "Should I find a manager?"

2. Gelb and screenwriters Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater have created one of the most interesting and chilling depictions of Hell that I've seen. Essentially, the damned are forced to relive the worst moment of their lives on an eternal loop. Wilde's character describes the experience as being a nightmare from which one never awakens. Hers involves a burning apartment building with people trapped behind locked doors, and the filmmakers repeatedly employ a slow tracking shot down a red, smoke-filled hallway. It's an eerie, effective motif that's completely undone once we learn why the cosmos employed this particular punishment.** 

3. I learned during the end credits (yes, I stayed) that "Dog Fabricator" is a job title.

The scariest part of The Lazarus Effect is that Gelb also shot 2011's engrossing and recognizably human documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I can't know for sure, of course, but I would bet the likes of Wilde, Donald Glover, and Mark Frickin' Duplass signed on thanks to that lovely calling card.

The joke's either on them or on us. Either way, I'm not laughing.

*That includes the opening and closing credits, by the way, and endless inserts of computer monitors and surveillance-camera footage.

**Spoiler: The rules of this movie's universe are out of whack, to the point of being arbitrary. It's not clear that little Zoe (Wilde) set the blaze intentionally, and she's spent the rest of her life trying to atone through helping mankind. Why couldn't she have, say, been given the ability to relive her best memory instead? I mean, outside of the fact that this is a horror movie.

Friday
Feb272015

Game of Thongs: A Game of Thrones Burlesque (2015)

Incest Dance Squad

It's no secret that the winter months are a box office graveyard. Why leave the house to watch mediocre studio embarrassments when, as Jack Black sang at the Oscars, we've all got "screens in our jeans"? Chicago's Gorilla Tango Burlesque has been fighting--and winning--that battle for years with hilarious, sexy stage shows based on pop culture staples. Lovingly satirizing everything from Star Wars to Batman to The Walking Dead, the brains behind the boobs have earned their theatre's moniker, "Provocative Parody for the Discerning Nerd". 

I've been a huge fan of every show I've seen. But something needled me after each performance. When writing my review, a teeeeny, high-pitched voice would invariably whine, "Yeah, but what if you weren't a fan of [INSERT NAME HERE]? Would you still find it funny, or is it really all about the pasties?" I ignored these questions and carried on with the praise. After all, I was birthed in media culture and couldn't imagine my radar not reaching even the furthest corners of the pop landscape.

Hand to God, I've never seen Game of Thrones. The "Don't Have HBO" excuse died when Season One hit Hulu. In my defense, I'm an old dad now, with two jobs, a podcast, and a wife who (understandably) doesn't care to watch beheadings and child murder at the end of a long day. I'm attuned enough to know that Sean Bean didn't stay the hero of the series for very long; I've seen "The Red Wedding's" climax on YouTube;* and I totally get why Jason Momoa deserves a lot of slack, even though his Aquaman looks ridiculous.

Which begs the (seriously long-winded) question, "How does Game of Thongs stack up for audience members unfamiliar with the source material?"

Simply put: wonderfully.

Like other Gorilla Tango productions, the show being parodied serves merely as a point of reference for a goofy original story. I'm sure it helps if you know how all the Lannisters are related, and can understand why sprinkling someone with gold glitter to represent a spell is especially uproarious. However, writer Polly Pom Poms tells a complete story in sixty minutes, involving incest, dragon eggs, and a nosy, wall-climbing kid. It all made perfect sense to me--except when the character dynamics became impossibly tangled, which became a running joke.

I've probably said this before but, personally, the thrill of Gorilla Tango Burlesque shows has never been the nudity. I certainly don't mind seeing fearless, mostly naked women leaping and gyrating across an intimate black-box stage. But, in keeping with my mainstream-movie comment above, I've got free access to way raunchier stuff on my iPhone. No, GTB is a live-action version of Airplane!, packed with sight gags, asides, and skewed-angle thinking that elicit the best kind of laughs. The comedy works on multiple levels, from MAD Magazine character names (the "Stark Naked" clan and the world of "Breasteros") to the radio-hits dance numbers (a brother and sister get busy to Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now"; dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen--played by Minnie Minx--comes into her own, accompanied by Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire") to a brilliant, think-and-you'll-miss-it Love Actually reference.

Of course, a good script is only one part of any great production. Director Adelaide Lee, choreographer Jean Wildest, and their cast of comedically gifted screwballs put on a tight show. I've become a fan of Bailey Irish, who I last saw playing The Emperor in GTB's Return of the Jedi parody, Boobs on Endor. Here, she pulls double duty as wild-eyed sneak Bran Stark Naked and calculating mastermind Tyrion Lannister. Margueritte MeOw injects Cersei Lannister with just the right amount of crazy, and Minx excels at both seduction and silliness.

Game of Thongs passed the Newcomer Test, as well as the Crushing Fatigue Test. By the time I left the theatre, I'd been zipping from place to place, project to project for twenty hours. Typically, this is the recipe for a good crash (sleepwise and otherwise). The GTB folks cast their spell on me again, though, and my mind buzzed with desire--not to watch Game of Thrones, but to see Game of Thongs again.

Game of Thongs is now playing Friday nights at 10:30pm at GTT's Bucktown venue in Chicago, IL. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.

*#partoftheproblem