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Kicking the Tweets
Saturday
Dec062014

The Babadook (2014)

Paint-by-Nightmares

It seems really hard to do anything original with horror right now. The genre isn't dying, but it's slipping into a coma, for sure. Fright flicks are cyclical, though, and will rebound soon enough--just as they did after the 90s, PG-13 J-horror remakes, torture porn, and 80s brand-mining. Thankfully, writer/director Jennifer Kent's The Babadook provides a slight but reassuring spike in the life meter to see us through these dark times.

On the surface, this movie is everything we've seen before: a single mom notices changes in her angelic son. In this case, unexplained phenomena and odd behavior are brought on by reading a strange book called "Mister Babadook", which Amelia (Essie Davis) discovers on Samuel's (Noah Wiseman) shelf. After several days of dark visions, darker urges, and a clawed, top-hat-wearing gremlin going bump in the night, mom can't decide if she's losing her mind, or if the storybook monster is using her family's fear to manifest in the real world.

When Hellraiser, The Shining, and Trilogy of Terror are at our fingertips, it's really hard to sneak an "homage" past hard-core horror viewers. Luckily, what makes The Babadook worthwhile (unique, even) is Kent's achingly observed depiction of single motherhood. I don't know if she's lost a husband and had to raise a child, but the everyday gauntlets Amelia maneuvers are more chilling than anything lurking under Samuel's bed. In fact, this film is most effective when it centers on they dynamic between its sleep-deprived heroine and her son, who's desperate for affection from his emotionally unavailable mother.

Forget the jump scares (aided, I'm embarrassed to admit, by a top-notch sound team), The Babadook will freak you out with its hard, fast plunge into the gooey, secret feelings we're not even supposed to admit to ourselves. It's reasonable for Amelia to have never fully recovered from the car accident that took away her beloved husband (Benjamin Winspear)--which happened on the couple's way to the hospital to deliver Samuel. But we come to find out that she may have had more love for him than she does for her own child. Or are those dark thoughts the work of Mister Babadook?

Two terrific performances reinforce the screenplay's heart. Davis sells the anguish of sleep deprivation and paints Amelia as a strong woman who's just in sight of her will's limits. As Samuel, Wiseman's easiest comparison is to that of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. It's also an apt connection, as both child actors elevated their spook-show material through natural, memorable performances. Wiseman keeps his character from becoming another generic, bug-eyed Creepy Kid by portraying Samuel as a normal boy whose difficult life takes on far more layers than even his beyond-his-years defenses can handle.

I would love to see Kent tackle some non-genre material next. The Babadook is a fine showcase of her insightful writing and effectiveness as a filmmaker, but (intentional or not) she gets just bogged down enough in horror tropes to make this movie memorable--but not necessarily worthy of adding to the shelf.

Note: It wasn't a deal breaker, but one scene involving a character death perfectly illustrates my underlying issue with The Babadook. The moment is telegraphed several scenes before, and I hoped to God that Kent was setting up one of horror's easiest, queasiest gimmicks for a zero-hour switcheroo. Unfortunately, she plays straight into the hands of convention. Instead of registering the intended shock, I sighed and thought, "C'mon, movie, you're better than that."

Friday
Nov282014

Foxcatcher (2014)

The Fortune Awakens

Due to illness, this review is officially a week late--and that's a good thing. After several days of fever dreams and frustration at not being with it enough to string four coherent words together, I revisited the Foxcatcher write-up I'd begun and found it to be garbage; the kind of awards-season prose you can find on at least half of the Internet's billion-plus Websites. Despondent, I wondered if I had any business talking about movies in this digital cacophany of New Millennium opinion.*

This morning, the new Star Wars trailer hit, and reminded me of a thought I had towards the end of Bennett Miller's black-hearted wrestling dramedy: in an odd way, Foxcatcher is the "Fall of Anakin Skywalker Story" that fans of George Lucas's original trilogy waited nearly three decades for--and never got.

Hear me out.

Set in the late 80s, Foxcatcher centers on Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), whose career stalled after he and his brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), took home gold medals for wrestling in the 1984 Olympics. For Mark, sharing wrestling coach duties with his older brother at the University of Oklahoma isn't enough: he covets David's charisma, his beautiful wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller), and their kids--mostly, he's jealous of David's apparent contentment. Mark lacks imagination and the capacity to dream beyond his body, which he spends every waking moment crafting into something that millions of adoring fans might one day cheer for again.

Enter John du Pont (Steve Carell), the impossibly wealthy heir to the DuPont chemical empire. He's a wrestling fanatic whose elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave) neither understands nor approves of his passion (she values only her prize-winning horses, bred and trained at Foxcatcher Farm, the family's luxurious Pennsylvania estate). Du Pont seizes on Mark's drive, patriotism, and lack of self-worth, and offers him the world in exchange for prepping a team for the '88 Olympic trials. Mark agrees, and du Pont stokes the flames of fear and anger with drugs and promises of power and respect.

The demons of insecurity within Mark and du Pont fall in love with each other, even though both men's natural capacity for romantic lust were extinguished long ago (if, in fact, they ever existed). Foxcatcher Farm becomes a rural Death Star, a cold and isolated planet on which a titan and his wormy, misguided apprentice rule absolutely. Du Pont can and does buy everything--from the affection of his team to the complicity of his security staff, who think nothing of his walking into a training session with a loaded handgun. Mark's only chance at redemption is David, who is encouraged to visit at du Pont's behest, and for the most insidious of reasons.

In true Jedi fashion, David does his best to extricate Mark from his master's clutches. Unfortunately, this involves signing on with du Pont and moving his family onto the estate. By this point, you see, du Pont has realized that one Schultz brother is not enough. He has the brawn in his stable, but needs the brains and the heart in order to A) rally his team and B) sell Team Foxcatcher as a legitimate athletic brand to the public. Brotherly love comes to a boiling head with unchecked greed in a terrific scene where a DuPont lackey coerces David into filming a promo video. It's a turning point for all the relationships in the film, as well as the moment when an oddly funny movie about dangerous idiots becomes a tragic riff on the scorpion and the frog parable.

Some complain that Foxcatcher is slow. I get that, but I don't accept it. One of the story's themes is boredom, and the degree to which some people will try to fool themselves and others into escaping their own deficit of mental resources. Miller and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman make the most out of what could have been a cookie-cutter "Based on a True Story" story by chucking convention in favor of contemplation.

The actors breathe in these characters who, in the presence of too much "business" would have seemed patently ridiculous in the first five minutes. Instead, we're given space to appreciate not only the performers' delivery but also their astute physicality: Carell is all hunched, cared-for sniveling creep wrapped in an air of fine breeding, while Tatum and Ruffalo carry their bodies as warriors--their hands in a perpetually wrung state, as if grappling is a more natural instinct than a handshake.

Because Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo have the flexibility to wow us with weirdness, jaw-dropping stupidity, and hard-fought tenderness, respectively, Foxcatcher becomes a film populated by rich but very, very sad people. My Star Wars analogy breaks apart later in the climax, as we don't get a dramatic, lava-surfing confrontation between brothers. Instead, Mark, the Anakin figure, is sidelined in the ultimate fight between love and hatred--as personified by David Schultz and John du Pont. It's a beautifully staged, absolutely heartbreaking stand-off that both underscores and undoes the sweat put in by both sides during this epic struggle for one sap's sole.

I could have done with a more clear-cut ending. We get the obligatory "Where Are They Now" title cards, but the imagery that closes out the drama references an obscure moment earlier in the picture, which is a bit too far a reach for those of us still reeling from that doozy of a climax. Minor gripe aside, Foxcatcher is packed with moments beautiful, creepy, funny, and touching. Miller, his cast, and his crew, have made a movie based on real life that feels at once plausible and so weird that it might as well have taken place in another galaxy.

*This existential crisis manifests about twice a month, but gets positively grim when sickness strikes.

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.

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