Kicking the Tweets

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Cyber-done Systems

I'm convinced that Marvel doesn't want me to review their movies anymore. Why else would they give me so little to discuss with each new outing? What began in 2008 as a thrilling little shot-in-the-dark called Iron Man has morphed into a nesting-doll of diminishing returns known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose last good film was Iron Man 3. Though a much-maligned disappointment to fanboys, that film at least had balls and integrity behind it--unlike last summer's crowd-pleasing Star Wars rip-off Guardians of the Galaxy, and this summer's Avengers rip-off, Avengers: Age of Ultron.

In a nutshell, billionaire genius/Iron Man Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) recruits scientist/Incredibly Gullible Hulk Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to create artificial intelligence, using the recently recovered staff of Loki (a sorely missed Tom Hiddleston) before Thor (Chris Hemsworth) can return it to Asgard. That sentence is as hard to read as the premise is hard to stomach. Have none of these people seen The Terminator?

Anyhoo, before you can say "Skynet", the dynamic duo create a bright blue data-ball named Ultron (voiced by James Spader, doing his not-so-best to avoid sounding like Heath Ledger's Joker; almost every sentence is hushed and menacing, and trails off into a movie-trailer-narrator growl). This new life form quickly determines that mankind is a pest that needs to be exterminated, and his first act is to destroy Stark Industries' central computer, Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany). Ultron then proves himself history's most illogical omnipotent villain by slipping into a decrepit robot shell and threatening Earth's Mightiest Heroes. After a skirmish, he disappears into the Internet and, for some reason, does not send the world into a tailspin of chaos and irredeemable destruction within 3.5 seconds.

That turn of events would require resourcefulness on the part of our protagonists in the face of actual conflict. Remember, Age of Ultron opens in a Marvel Universe where Iron Man allegedly retired, and where the super-secret good guy institution S.H.I.E.L.D. was recently outed as having been run by terrorists. Marvel presses the continuity re-set button here, with the Very Big Consequences from previous installments serving merely as punch lines and reference points, rather than hurdles that must be cleared by the titular super-humans. 

I'll admit that, last fall, when Marvel announced their slate of films through 2019, I quickly became skeptical about Age of Ultron. From the titles alone, it became clear that not only would these characters be around for another half-decade, but that the franchise-building would become even more relentless and unsatisfying. What chance does a dust-up with a killer robot on Earth have, after all, when there's a two-part intergalactic opus around the corner?*  Yes, Avengers writer Joss Whedon has a reputation for killing off characters, but they're increasingly predictable and unimportant characters. All of the foreshadowing and fatalistic dialogue in Age of Ultron comes off as insincere; we know Captain America will be fine because Chris Evans has already signed up for Captain America: Civil War.

Pile on as many "new" characters as you like, the played-out structural archetypes are still in place. The Avengers has already become the Fast & Furious of comic-book franchises. With only a couple of exceptions, all the major (and minor) players from the interim stand-alone films (Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: Winter Soldier) pop up and blend in with fresh blood like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Vision (Bettany again, playing the humanoid and inexplicably less interesting form of Jarvis). Again, they're reference points, distractions for easily excitable geeks to call out--instead of questioning why they've spent two hours waiting for yet another city-destroying mash-up between their favorite action figures and an armada of faceless metal men.

Like all Phase Two Marvel movies, Avengers: Age of Ultron can only be considered "good" in a vacuum. A quarter of a billion dollars (pre-advertising budget) will get you state-of-the-art special effects, quality actors, and unbeatable production design. What it won't get you, apparently, is a script that's worth a damn to anyone who has paid attention to the series' previous nine films. From dialogue that's almost exclusively comprised of quips; to a villain whose motivations are murky at best and inconsistent at worst; to a cynical recycling of set pieces,** and a NyQuil-tired 9/11 allegory, this movie is guaranteed to work its shiny-object charms on first-time moviegoers and those who believe that simply adding chipotle sauce to a Whopper creates a brand-new burger experience. Personally, I feel like I've written this exact review at least four times, and am waiting with baited breath to once again marvel at a Marvel movie.

*The bisected Infity War, ostensibly featuring the Guardians and The Avengers taking on purple-planet-eater Thanos. Speaking of Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin, for some reason), the MCU's greatest threat has appeared in three films now, and his greatest accomplishment to date is picking up a glove.

**I guess Whedon thought literally no one had seen Superman Returns (yes, I realize that's DC and not Marvel).


Tangerines (2013)

Far from the Tree

Every once in awhile, a movie knocks me for a loop in a big way. Tangerines is once such film. Set in 1992, Zaza Urushadze's deeply personal and affecting drama centers on a small, war-torn Abkhazian village whose largely Estonian population has fled to the homeland. The only two men left are a tangerine farmer named Margus (Elmo Nüganen) and a woodworker named Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak). They refused to leave for very different reasons, and find themselves caught in a skirmish between Chechen mercenaries and a small contingent of Georgian soldiers. When one member of each side is wounded, Ivo and Margus nurse them back to health while attempting to mend a murderous cultural divide.

For "C" students of world history like me, Tangerines is an exercise in immersion. Writer/director Urushadze provides a very brief title-card setup and then dives right in to the daily lives of two spiritually shell-shocked men who are just as confused by all the factions and fighting as we are. The Chechens and Abkhazians look heartier than the scrawny Georgians, but that's the only real visual difference between the two.* We're left with two shot-up and angry soldiers verbally dragging each other into oblivion, and two caretakers acting as if they're observing insects. Ivo and Margus see the Georgian, Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), and the Chechen, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), as removed from whatever historical, political, or religious problems propelled them into battle. For them, and for us, the context takes a back seat to the truth of the moment; Urushadze clears the table and forces these opposing forces to consider each other as one species--rather than as fractious races.

Though I felt Georgia-born Urushadze weighted his story's sympathies a bit too heavily towards Niko (a character painted as more studied and measured than his "Kill! Kill! Kill!" counterpart), he makes both combatants as colorful and endlessly watchable as Margus' bountiful tangerine trees. Tangerines begins with terrible events that drive the men inside, and Ivo declares his home a sanctuary against violence. Ahmed agrees not to kill the more seriously injured Niko within its walls. As the men's relationship progresses, we follow them back outside, and the savagery of the wider world threatens to erode their efforts to transcend a primal pack mentality.

The movie's final fifteen minutes are thrilling, sad, and ultimately beautiful. I jumped, I cried, I wondered how many similar stories happen every day across dozens of countries still engaged in ancient wars. America has made "Can't we all just get along?" into a punch-line, but it meant something once--in 1992, as a matter of fact. Nearly a quarter-century on, I have the privilege of never having been displaced, shot at, or made to distrust my neighbor. Perhaps it is this detachment that allowed me to sympathize most with Ivo, a man so scarred by conflict that he refused to allow it in his own home. Some might call that burying one's head in the sand. But Urushadze makes a compelling case for getting everyone in a room for a face-to-face celebration of life's simplest pleasures: laughter, reminiscences about family and good times, and just enjoying all the sweet gifts waiting to be picked just beyond the confines of our petty bickering.

*That sounds like an odd thing to point out, but appearances become very important towards the middle of the movie.


Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

Living In Color

It is cosmic coincidence that Hollywood Shuffle should be re-issued on home video at the time Baltimore eats itself alive. At first glance, Robert Townsend's game-changing 1987 comedy* is an amusing precursor to fantasy-infused TV comedies like HBO's Dream On and the break-through African-American skit show In Living Color (co-created by Shuffle's co-writer, Keenan Ivory Wayans). But Townsend used parodies of the era's biggest pop-landscape mile markers (bland family sitcoms, movie-review shows, and macho blockbusters) to share a damning portrayal of blacks in popular media--and the disparate opinions within that community regarding their portrayal. Nearly three decades on, the comedy still works and the message still resonates. Hollywood Shuffle is UHF with a social conscience.

I was ten when my parents rented the movie; a few months later, they let me read Mad Magazine for the first time. These two events were key to my understanding of the second-punch power of jokes. Robert Townsend and Bill Gaines ground sacred cows into Big Macs and taught me the hilarious duality of the word "institutions". In truth, I didn't even see Hollywood Shuffle all the way through on that first viewing: my folks made me leave the room when my laughter surpassed all reason. I finished the tape the next morning, alone, just before dawn.

In the film, Townsend plays Bobby Taylor, a struggling young actor obsessed with landing the lead in a modern-day blaxploitation film called Jive Time Jimmy's Revenge. In the audition room, he finds a sea of cutthroat competition, where minorities degrade themselves for a trio of clueless, caustic white producers (Lisa Mende, Eugene Robert Glazer, and Dom Irrera). For every delusional gangbanger hoping to make it big playing themselves, there's a fame-craving Solomon Northup-type hiding his smarts, vocabulary, and dignity behind faux-street dialogue like, "I ain'ts be gots no weapon!" Taylor is troubled by the prospect of selling out for a big break, but he's more terrified of trying to build a life with his girlfriend (Anne-Marie Johnson) on a Winky Dinky Dog waiter's paycheck.

Taylor is a good actor, but a better dreamer. Hollywood Shuffle comes to life when we're allowed into his goofy fantasy world. One moment, he and a fellow theatre-hopper-turned-film-critic (Jimmy Woodard) star in Sneaking in the Movies--where they give "real" perspectives on mainstream entertainment, like Amadeus and Dirty Harry. In another sequence, Taylor hosts an infommercial for "Black Acting School", where white instructors teach eager young blacks the finer points of pimp-walking and jive-speak.

For the most part, Townsend and Wayans' satirical targets don't include staples of black popular culture, except as they intersect with white culture: in the sitcom parody There's a Bat in My House! a Caucasian family chases a bat who transforms into their wacky black roommate (Brad Sanders). This is key, as it illustrates a disconnect (some might say a blatant insensitivity) between the producers of mass media and consumers of that media who fall outside the target demographic. Absent relatability, Bobby Taylor not only inserts himself into the popular fiction of the day, he forces the narrative through the prism of his own experience and makes himself the hero.

Twenty-seven years later, we're still setting the table for a national conversation about race--a wobbly table whose place settings no one can agree on. It's a tough talk to have. In some circles, so-called "thuggish" behavior is accepted (even celebrated) as a natural reaction to four hundred years of systemic oppression. In others, that same behavior is something to be overcome in the interest of furthering wider acceptance of minority culture. Those who cross societal picket lines, as Bill Cosby did (long before recent allegations changed the conversation about him), are seen as establishment apologists or worse.

So what's the answer?

Townsend may have nailed it in his resolution to Hollywood Shuffle. Following a heartfelt discussion with an uncle (David McKnight) who had similar conflicts regarding showbiz, Bobby Taylor takes a stand against both the insidious draw of commercial success and the voices of oppression within his own community. The result gives him a sense of closure, a sense of pride, and a sense of control over his own destiny. It's also a bold reminder that we as individuals--regardless of race, gender, or circumstance--are the key to our own empowerment, and that external struggles are only as insurmountable as our determination is weak.

Hollywood Shuffle is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Olive Films.

*His first of two that year: Eddie Murphy: Raw came out nine months later.


Thunderballs: A James Bond Boylesque (2015)

The Spies of Life

When I interviewed Jeremy Eden and Kaitlin Fleharty about their new Gorilla Tango Burlesque show, Thunderballs: A James Bond Boylesque, Eden assured me that his script was not only unprecedented in its meta hilarity, but also sidestepped the inevitable Austin Powers comparisons. He spoke sincerely, but I didn't quite believe him (I'm a critic, after all). Silly, skeptical me: forgetting never to doubt the brain-tickling might of GTB.

I've written exhaustively about Gorilla Tango's brand of bawdy entertainment for almost two years. Thunderballs is more of the same, meaning it's a raucous, professional comedy show first, and a stripping spectacle second. Things are a bit different this time out, as the cast is predominantly male. Writer/director Eden and choreographer Fleharty build on this fresh, new direction, and take things a step beyond the company's satirical high-water mark. They deliver an insightful dissection of the 50-year Bond franchise's big tropes and bigger personalities, beginning with the cold open. Instead of the standard admonishment against cell phones, chatting, and grabbing the performers, Thunderballs kicks off with a lineup of seven bickering Bonds that will change the way you think of George Lazenby and Roger Moore.

The Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale provides Thunderballs' skeleton: to stop gold-obsessed international terrorist Le Blofinger (Andy Strips), super-spy James Bond (Tallulah Twist) must infiltrate a high-stakes card game* and befriend twitchy CIA agent Felix Leiter (J.J. Pop, doing a caffeinated, spot-on impression of Geoffrey Wright). There are henchmen, too, of course, and a vaguely European femme fatale--not to mention a groin-splitting death laser that has to be seen to be believed. But I don't want to talk about any of that.

Bottom line: Go see Thunderballs.

What I do want to talk about is that I'm not sure if the show is sexy or not. As a straight male, I can't judge how it works as eroticism (or if that's even the point). I'll admit to being turned on by female-driven GTB productions like Boobs on Endor and Game of Thongs. But my enjoyment was never about pure titillation; I had fun watching the actors have fun. Because Thunderballs' performers didn't register at all with my baser instincts, I gained a new appreciation for the brilliant comedy, acting, and choreography on stage. I can imagine some ultra-macho dudes turning up their noses at a mostly-male, semi-nude revue--but it really is their loss.

I can't imagine anyone turning down the chance to see Bryan Schmiderer do his thing on stage. Yes, I'm using the actor's real name, and I hope that's okay. I first saw him as a supporting player in Gorilla Tango's (non-burlesque) Once Upon a Rom-Com: The Bill Pullman Story, and loved his spirit. In Thunderballs, he blasts the black-box stage with energy, playing both an aggressively lovelorn Ms. Moneypenny and Bond's ditzy, last-minute love interest, Pussy Ryder. He's flamboyant, fearless, and funny.

He's also a crucial part of the show's highlight--a tense rooftop climax in which Ryder and Bond square off against Le Blofinger. Eden, Fleharty and their cast cap off their zany farce by bringing the action into the audience. In an instant, the GTB's intimate black box space becomes a dizzying high-rise and I got so swept up in the real 3D experience that I hoped Andy Strips wouldn't actually fall to his death (ridiculous, I know, but that's the power of great theatre).

It's perhaps unfair to single out one performer or one set piece in praising Thunderballs (especially without even mentioning the music, culled exclusively from every Bond theme). Everyone did a stellar job in realizing this farce, and I could talk for an hour about what worked and why. But where's the fun in that? Like James Bond him/herself, the joy is in the adventure--in discovering things you, as an audience member might never have known were possible. As we enter Blockbuster Season, you'll have plenty of big movies choose from, most of which feature outrageously outfitted men knocking the hell out of each other while saving/destroying the world. But the real excitement's is live and alive in Bucktown. You know its name.

Thunderballs: A James Bond Boylesque plays Saturday nights at 10:30pm CST at GTT's Bucktown venue in Chicago, IL. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.

*I won't spoil which card game, 'cause it's the catalyst for some ridiculously sustained laughs.


The Age of Adaline (2015)

The Curious Case of Adaline Bowman

Like its main character, Lee Toland Krieger’s The Age of Adaline is an oddity stuck between eras and conventions. What’s being sold as a love-through-the-ages weepy starring grown-up Gossip Girl Blake Lively is actually a dreamy meditation on nostalgia, best appreciated by grown-ups who are likely to write it off as childish.

In fairness, the premise sounds like "Twilight Meets The X-Men": in the early 1900s, twenty-something Adaline Bowman (Lively) gets into a car wreck during a freak snowstorm; she lands in a river, which is then struck by lightning, and gains a cellular immunity to the effects of aging. For the next century, she changes cities and identities every ten years—outrunning government spooks and avoiding relationships with everyone except her daughter (played in modern-day scenes by Ellen Burstyn). Of course, she meets the Guy Who Could Change Everything (hunky and kind-hearted Ellis, played by Michiel Huisman) mere days before she's set to skip town. If you've seen the trailers, you know that Ellis' father (Harrison Ford) is a former lover of Adaline's who finally gets to confront the girl that ran out on him in the 60s.

Here we have a wonderful example of why execution matters more than premise. Instead of amping up the melodrama like some Benjamin Button ripoff, Krieger and screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz give their film room to breathe. Adaline made a fortune as an early Xerox investor, but must live an uncomplicated and anonymous life to avoid detection. We meet her in San Francisco, where she's found structure and purpose in a day-job digitizing archival newsreels; for fun, she learns languages and consumes as much world history as her never-aging brain will allow. In many respects, this is the workaday counterpart to Only Lovers Left Alive--a languid look at immortality's duelling liberties and constraints, which are far more dramatic than any contrived attacks by outside forces.

That said, The Age of Adaline is still a mainstream movie; an off-kilter "chick flick" that necessarily involves a shirtless, glistening hunk of marble with whom Adaline must become involved. Of course, Ellis is a millionaire, a philanthropist, and so hopelessly romantic that he professes undying love by week two. For good measure, we're also treated to an oh-so-brainy climactic mirroring of the earlier car crash and allegedly pulse-pounding "Live, Dammit" CPR. Sorry if that's spoilery, but the plot-related stuff is truly the least interesting part of the movie and feels very much like an executive-committee memo. On the plus-side, Krieger and company's brand of the Fantasy-fulfillment Dude is more Bruce Wayne than Christian Gray.

The bad stuff is ten percent of the movie, liberally peppered throughout so as not to tarnish any of the truly touching and thought-provoking scenes. Oddly enough, Lively is not among the film's stand-outs. She's fine here, but there's an off-putting bit of opera to her portrayal of Adaline, as if the actress thinks people in the 1930s spoke like Kristen Wiig's Mindy Elise Grayson character from SNL. By contrast, Burstyn and Ford make the film not only worth seeing but downright memorable.

Burstyn brings the weight of actual experience to the part of Adaline's daughter, acting as the physical manifestation of her mother's inner self. It may be an impossible feat for a young actress such as Lively to embody the emotional intelligence of a seasoned one like Burstyn, but that's what the main character needed here. This weird dynamic works better later in the film, as mentor/mentee roles switch, but I still felt a lot of potential left on the cosmic table.

Ford dots the "i" on the filmmakers' message about the devastation of unrequited young love. The movie deftly picks up momentum when his character enters it, in a unique illustration of the differences between his life and Adaline's: while time has stopped meaning anything to her, his memories remain trapped in a sad amber loop that have (consciously and unconsciously) informed his every decision for fifty years. The stories converge as both adults--who are, in many ways, still kids*--learn to incorporate the past into the present. Frankly, I was surprised by Ford, and had forgotten what a charged, nuanced actor he is. Lifelong fans waiting to see him switch back on in Star Wars really need to check out his work here.

Like Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, The Age of Adaline is a lovely film that's mostly content to just be lovely. Despite some contrivances here and there, Krieger and company invite the audience to spend time with a good-hearted woman who just happens to have supernatural abilities. The lack of internal complexity doesn't make Adaline Bowman (or her story) semi-dimensional; it underscores the fact that we've rarely seen an immortal's existential struggle in film quite like this: gods conquer worlds because they can; vampires brood because they're too narcissistic to kill themselves; zombies are shambling shells that don't know any better. By living simply and loving deliberately (sometimes to a fault), Adaline becomes an aspirational figure--one who encourages us to appreciate the endless possibilities of our own not-so-endless time.

*Kudos to the film's casting team for bringing on Anthony Ingruber as the young version of Ford's character. Watching this handsome, charismatic performer is like witnessing the most convincing CGI human performance ever. He's a flesh-and-blood doppelganger, several decades removed, whose presence ripped open a new crevice in my brain's Uncanny Valley.

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