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Monday
Nov262012

Red Dawn (1984)

Jingoes Unchained

Red Dawn isn't so much pro-American as it is anti-human. Though John Milius's bloody fantasy tells the story of American teens waging war against invading Cuban/Russian military forces, it's hard to know which side to root for. One group is whiny, incompetent, and culturally illiterate; the other has a young Charlie Sheen as its second-in-command.

I'll give Milius and co-writer Kevin Reynolds this: they waste very little time in getting to the action. Following a series of fast-moving current-events title cards, the movie opens on a Colorado history class. The teacher stops mid-lesson to investigate a paratrooper battalion raining from the sky. Within seconds, he's gunned down and his students run for cover. In the ensuing chaos, former high-school football star Jed (Patrick Swayze) collects his brother Matt (Sheen) and a handful of other kids in his pickup truck; they speed out of town, avoiding road blocks and RPGs on the way to some nearby mountains.

Soon, Jed and his small group of refugee kids form a resistance movement called "The Wolverines"* to take back their town from the evil communists. They attack supply convoys, blow up stores in the town square that have been turned into propaganda headquarters, and free as many people from the hastily established re-education camps as possible. A put-upon Cuban colonel named Bella (Ron O'Neal) finds that he doesn't quite have the stomach for mass graves and mayhem, so he relies on the Russian military to supply him with Strelnikov (William Smith)--a cold-blooded hunter who substitutes great white sharks for Brat Packers during his take on Quint's "doll's eyes" speech from Jaws.

Red Dawn has two things going for it: a strong story and Powers Boothe. I'll address the latter first, in order to give your giggle-fit about the former a minute to die down.

Boothe plays Andy Tanner, a U.S. fighter pilot whom the Wolverines discover amidst the wreckage of his plane. He joins the group, sharing news from the rest of the country and providing tactical insight when needed. The actor tarnishes his macho charisma here, with a shell-shocked performance that he would indirectly reprise years later in By Dawn's Early Light. And though his young co-stars were destined for legitimacy, Red Dawn plays like a grade-school Shakespeare audition for many of them.  After an hour of watching Swayze, Sheen, and C. Thomas Howell cry endlessly in laughable attempts at conveying gravity, it was refreshing to see a more experienced actor show everyone how it's done.

Now, let's talk about that story. In order to appreciate Red Dawn, you have to put aside any notion of the United States as an indomitable force. Sure, it's unlikely that America would put up with aerial assaults and enemy tanks rolling over the Great Plains, but for the sake of argument, we must assume that something went horribly wrong in every aspect of modern defense, circa 1984.**

The problem with Red Dawn is in the execution, not the premise. The idea of relatively privileged teens fighting an enemy who grew up in decidedly harsher conditions is a fascinating one. In strokes, Milius and Reynolds touch on the cruel barbarism of warfare, planting a traitor in the Wolverines' midst and killing off ninety percent of the principal cast. But the filmmakers build a flimsy candy house on that solid foundation, spewing laughable nonsense in every direction at almost every opportunity.

For starters, the teens' scared, teary demeanors may be realistic, but the portrayals are grating and unintentionally hilarious. The melodramatic way in which Swayze and Sheen grip the re-education camp's metal fence while talking to their imprisoned dad calls to mind a painful rectal probe rather than a gut-wrenching moment of honesty. Conversely, when Jed toughens up and tells the Wolverines to turn their sadness into "something else", I couldn't help but think of the pedophile motivational speaker he played in Donnie Darko.

Then there are the myriad weird details that play like gags out of Airplane!. When the teens raid a roadside gas station for supplies at the beginning of the siege, we see boxes of ceiling fans on the shelves next to arrows and ammunition. I get the weaponry; it's a hunting community, after all--but ceiling fans? In that same scene, one of the boys makes a big point of stocking up on Kleenex. I doubt the filmmakers were going for a masturbation joke, but having endured the American Pie era, I'm sad to say that was the first thing that sprung to mind (it's an unfair point, but a funny one).

Speaking of cartoons, the invading army appears to have been trained by Boris and Natasha. One commander brags about his knowledge of the "elite paramilitary force" known as the Eagle Scouts, and the Cuban/Russian army's idea of securing a town appears to involve only letting non-gun-owners walk the streets. The Reds could have prevailed within the first two days of guerilla assaults by simply locking down the open society they'd commandeered.

Which brings me to the film's biggest Warner Brothers-cartoon moment. Col. Bella discusses the Wolverine problem with his Soviet liaison. They bookend the propaganda ministry in-frame perfectly--a building that one of the rebels has just entered and exited with great haste (again, not a problem when even cursory security forces are in place). They talk and talk and talk, until a bomb goes off right as one of the officers says something about the Wolverines not posing a real threat.

It's apparent that, in all their "Ra-ra! USA! USA!" fervor, the filmmakers forgot to think out plot points or watch dailies of the performances. Okay, it's apparent to me, nearly thirty years on, but I can't imagine a decade or a state of mind that accepts this movie as being good. From the Wolverines doing stupid things like charging a pair of tanks to standing directly in the way of a firing gunship, Red Dawn forsakes strategy and intrigue for the visceral thrill of seeing kids and commies get blowed up real good. That would be forgivable (maybe) if the scenes were well put together. As it stands, the angles and close-ups in several of the film's montages make it seem as though the Wolverines are perpetually firing on each other.

The only reason to watch Red Dawn today is as a fascination. In the same way that Reefer Madness is a kitschy slice of nostalgia, this film is more entertaining in the context of how Reagan-era foreign policy was sold to the American public than in terms of irony-free escapism. It's also fun to play "Spot the Rising Star" with the likes of Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson (and, in a weird way, O'Neal, who is practically unrecognizable from his Super Fly days). Other than that, it's a remarkable premise betrayed by unremarkable storytelling.

*The name derives from the high school football team.

**Of course, the idea seems a tad less ridiculous now, considering our sacred airspace was violated numerous times on 9/11, but I still see how someone would skip this movie based solely on the synopsis.

Wednesday
Nov212012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 (2012)

The Biter End

It's strange to think that we won't have Twilight to kick around anymore. After four years and five movies, the wildly popular, non-vampire vampire series concludes with Breaking Dawn, Part 2--a movie so wonderfully weird that I wish director Bill Condon had been at the helm from the beginning.

Before diving in, let's do a quick recap.* Sullen teen Bella (Kristen Stewart) nearly dies while giving birth to the half-vampire/half-human baby she conceived with her undead husband, Edward (Robert Pattinson). At the last moment, Edward "turns" his bride, allowing the two of them to live happily ever after. Following the delivery, jealous werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner) "imprints" on the baby, binding their souls together for life (think Spock and Bones at the end of Star Trek 2, only way more ridiculous).

Part Two picks up moments after Bella's transformation, and sees her and Edward coming to grips with their child--who, because this is technically a sci-fi/fantasy film, grows at an abnormal rate and exhibits powers beyond mere super-strength and immortality. Yes, young Renesmee (no crime in giggling, folks) matures from newborn to toddler to eight-year-old girl in about a week.

One afternoon, while catching snowflakes in the woods by levitating, Renesmee is spotted by Irina (Maggie Grace), another vampire, who immediately suspects that Bella, Edward, and the Cullen family have turned a mortal child--a big "no-no" in bloodsucker circles. Irina visits Rome, seeking an audience with Aro (Michael Sheen), the head of a vicious vampire mafia known as the Volturi. Aro has had brushes with the Cullens before, and jumps at the excuse to wipe them off the face of the Earth.

The rest of Breaking Dawn, Part Two is essentially an X-Men sequel with skinny jeans instead of spandex. The Cullens recruit sympathetic vampires from all over the world, each with unique abilities (mind control, lightning blasts, typhoon conjuring, etc.), while the Volturi take their sweet time getting their army together for some reason. All of this leads to an epic battle in a forest clearing, with werewolves and misfit daywalkers squaring off against fifty European snobs in black capes.

The build-up is as silly as it sounds, and the ridiculousness is compounded by the most breathtakingly awful CGI I've seen in a mainstream blockbuster--perhaps ever. Let's begin with the baby. In an attempt to, I guess, not confuse a core audience who isn't old enough to understand the aging process, Condon and his effects wizards superimpose a computer-generated baby face over an actual child; it's meant to either resemble Stewart and Pattinson's features, or to evoke the likeness of Mackenzie Foy, who plays Renesmee at her oldest age in the film.

The effect is distracting, grotesque, and a genuine puzzlement. Renesmee makes the E-Trade baby look like one of Avatar's Na'vi. It's an odd choice, considering the number of tender moments between Bella and her daughter--moments when the audience should be emotionally invested rather than compelled to look away.

How hard would it have been to hire actual kids for these rolls? The various stages only get a minute or two of screen time each. Any casting director worth their salt could easily find a handful of look-alikes for a fraction of what it must have cost to bring those little abominations to the big screen. Regardless, once the filmmakers signed off on the CGI direction, was there no quality control at Summit Entertainment? I haven't seen such ghastly 3D character work since Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express, and even that gets a pass because the whole production was a cartoon.

A similar issue plagues the rest of the film. Eighty percent of the Twilight series takes place in the woods of Washington, yet at least the same percentage of this movie appears to have been shot on a green-screen-covered sound stage. Stories that take place in exotic, otherworldly locations may have a need for this, as the computer-generated environments are filled in around the actors. But given the fact that Breaking Dawn, Part Two has, I think, four locations--one of which is the wooded clearing--what in the world prevented Condon and company from just grabbing some decent cameras and shooting amongst real trees and honest-to-God rocks?

Once again, if you're going to head in this direction, please at least use some of the franchise's shocking profits to invest in competent effects artists. Between the fuzzy haloing around the flesh-and-blood actors, the way-too-sharp CGI wolves, and, of course, that creepy Renesmee kid, I could barely contain my laughter. I expect this nonsense out of Tommy Wiseau, not the Academy Award-nominated director of Dreamgirls.

Having said all that, I recommend checking out Breaking Dawn, Part Two--or at least part of it. The twenty-minute battle that closes out the film is seriously thrilling. In the numerous decapitations, maulings, and immolations, we're treated to a ballsy fight to the death in which series regulars are epically disposed of and the boundaries of the PG-13 rating get pushed to their very limits. I watched this section with a racing heart and a hand over my mouth.

The only thing better than the climax is the way it ends--with a cool bit of cinematic trickery that I've seen dozens of times in the last decade, but which has always failed to elicit the directors' intended response. Pardon my dancing around the subject here, but I really don't want to ruin the surprise for those of you who don't already know about it. Some have called the move a cheat, but they're missing the point entirely. All praise to Condon, screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, and, I suppose, author Stephenie Meyer, for giving me one of the most cathartic, duped-beyond-belief laughs I've had at the movies this year.

I should end my big Twilight send-off with remarks about the cast, but I'm not going to. I've thought about and written about these kids enough in the last four years. I will say that Stewart finally dislodged whatever stick had been jammed in her, um, craw this time around. It's ironic that the Bella character never came to life until the film after she died. And the new crop of actors playing vampires is fine, but they're given little to do besides entertain audience chaperones with a running game of, "Where've I Seen That Guy/Gal Before?"

No, I'll leave Twilight exactly as I found it: a curiosity that has not had--and will not have--any impact on my moviegoing life. It's telling that I sat through all five films and yet couldn't recall the context for most of the scenes that played in the closing montage. I'm still not convinced that these are actual "vampire" stories: the undead in Meyer's universe can frolic in the sun, see their own reflections, touch crosses, and subsist without drinking human blood. They're strong, fast people who don't age, but so is Superman. Maybe the Cullens are aliens? Maybe I should give up and move on.

*None of you lives under a rock, so I'll assume you're aware of the Twilight films as a pop-culture phenomenon and have simply had the good sense to avoid them. These aren't movies, after all, so much as emo theme-park rides crossed with wedding porn. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But it's your civic duty to quickly shut down any attempts to unironically defend the series' quality. Twilight is the pre-teen-girl and sad-cat-lady equivalent of the Transformers franchise.

Sunday
Nov182012

Skyfall (2012)

Repetition is Not Enough

I have a strict "No Walking Out" policy with movies, which the universe has put to the test many times over the years. I think it grew tired of my stubbornness last weekend.

I saw Skyfall on Sunday. At the halfway mark, the entire auditorium went black, save for the footlights and green "Exit" signs down front. After sitting in darkness for nearly ten minutes, it looked as though everyone would have to have to settle for passes to a different screening. In those moments, I seriously doubted I'd make the effort--opting instead to either wait for Netflix or skip the rest of the film altogether. It saddened me that A) this technically violated my long-standing code, and B) I had zero interest in finishing the new James Bond adventure.

Unfortunately, my record still stands; Skyfall resumed right where it left off, compelling me to stay put and finish it. The fact that I've spent a full week putting a review together is a testament to my profound disappointment in this limp, creatively bankrupt insult to the franchise.

In 2006, Casino Royale came out of nowhere, giving fans of the 007 series a grown-up, brutish take on a character who, especially in recent installments, had become a cartoon character. With Daniel Craig stepping into the role of Britain's most famous spy, and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis plotting a grim, globe-trotting game whose psychological stakes were as thrilling as its action set pieces, it was clear that Martin Campbell couldn't rely on the camp and gadgetry with which he'd made Goldeneye. It was a thrilling reboot that made the iconic character cool again in the vast realms beyond nostalgia and geekdom.

Then came Quantum of Solace, a movie that screamed "Writers' Strike Placeholder" from minute one. Some refer to this entry as the "'Bourne' Bond", but The Bourne Identity and its sequels never (okay, mostly never) sacrificed good storytelling for hyperkinetic action. I can't even remember what happened in QoS; something about oil, revenge, and squandering every ounce of good will built up by the previous movie.

This brings us to Skyfall, which is better than Quantum of Solace only in that it rips off stronger material and does so very well. In this case, we're talking about Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. I was able to overlook the "homages" for the first third of the movie. But ten minutes after Javier Bardem's introduction as the bleach-blonde, bi-sexual bad-guy, I realized that director Sam Mendes and his writing team (including John Logan, subbing for Haggis) had simply stolen the best elements of The Dark Knight--and, to a lesser extent, the other new Bat flicks--and melded them with the plot structures of Casino Royale and Home Alone.

To prove my point, please indulge me in this spoilerific pop-quiz. We'll get back to the "review" part of the review in just a minute. Promise.

001. In which movie does James Bond drive a construction vehicle while fighting a low-level thug during the opening chase?

a. Skyfall

b. Casino Royale

c. All of the Above

002. In which movie does the psychotic super-villain dress up as a beat cop to pull off a daylight assassination, which ultimately fails?

a. Skyfall

b. The Dark Knight

c. All of the Above

003. In which movie does the psychotic super-villain allow himself to be captured by the authorities in order to infiltrate their headquarters and creep everyone out with his eerie, disfigured smile?

a. Skyfall

b. The Dark Knight

c. All of the Above

004. At the end of which film is a supporting character given greater franchise significance when their full name is revealed during casual conversation?

a. Skyfall

b. The Dark Knight Rises

c. All of the Above

005. Which film levels its hero's swanky, high-tech base of operations, forcing them to set up shop in a Steve Jobs-inspired underground lair?

a. Skyfall

b. The Dark Knight

c. Batman Begins

d. b. and c.

e. a. and d.

006. In which film does the hero's tech-savvy sidekick reluctantly aid in tracking down the villain using big-screen virtual maps of the entire city?

a. Skyfall

b. The Dark Knight

c. All of the Above

007. Which film shows off its cutting-edge special effects by staging a "unique" subway train crash?

a. Skyfall

b. Batman Begins

c. Die Hard with a Vengeance

d. Knowing

e. Final Destination 3

f. All of the Above

The answers to all of these cute questions are obvious, but they aren't nitpicks. Unless your memory is so faulty as to have forgotten major plot points and action sequences from some of the highest-grossing, most popular movies of the last two decades, there's no excuse for gobbling up this retread. It's as if Mendes wanted to prove to MGM that he could direct big action scenes after building a career on gripping, personal dramas like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road--so he threw fresh digital paint on a bunch of familiar moments to create the world's most expensive demo reel. Unfortunately, after giving him the job, the studio executives forgot to ask for an actual movie and released this instead.

Wow, I just realized that there's barely a word in this review about Skyfall's plot. Here goes:

An ex-MI6 agent named Alec Trevelyan (Bardem) is abandoned by the agency at the end of a perilous mission. He resurfaces years later with a harsh vendetta against his former employer, and steals the CIA's "Non-Official Cover" (NOC) list. James Bond must stop him from publishing the identities of the world's undercover agents, while also protecting his boss, M (Judi Dench).

They draw Trevelyan's elite hit squad to Bond's childhood home--an estate in the middle of rural Scotland called...wait for it..."Skyfall". There, they reunite with Alfred (Albert Finney), the wise, old butler of Bond's deceased parents--who were killed while walking home from the theatre decades earlier. Using household objects, Bond, Alfred, M, a troubled teen named Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), and a sarcastic eight-year-old named Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) rig explosives and elaborate traps to foil Trevelyan and his army of thugs--the nastiest of which are played by Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, and Robert Englund.

I'm messing with you, of course. But take that synopsis into the theatre, and I guarantee Skyfall will play on a mental split screen with the dozen or so other films it rips off.

In fairness, I enjoyed the movie's first third, and was able to forgive some of the obvious references. But at a certain point, the lack of originality--and the promise that new ideas weren't coming--became too great to ignore. Craig is, once again, great as Bond, and he's given three really sharp counterparts this time out: Naomie Harris as Eve, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, a bureaucrat with more guts than meets the eye. It's a shame that none of these great actors get to play with rich material; they're stuck in a run-of-the-mill revenge story that was absolutely not worth the four-year wait.

And I have zero interest in what follows this movie. The last five minutes of Skyfall are a return to franchise form, with Mendes and company aligning the stars for a more "classic" Bond adventure next time out; which, I suppose, means more quips, more gadgets, and more "fun". I admire the setup, but going back to the days of Brosnan or (hate to say it) Connery is not in any way appealing to me.

Casino Royale proved that a Bond film can be exciting, smart, and even funny without resorting to winks or outright silliness. Quantum of Solace and Skyfall suffer from an alarming lack of scale and stakes. Having Bond face a rogue 00 agent is a scary idea, and a terrific setup for an action film. But we're asked to settle for a third-rate stalker-type villain who exhibits absolutely none of the brains or brutality that we've seen bred in the good-guy version of the archetypical British spy. For all the Dark Knight shenanigans in this movie, the filmmakers failed to appropriate the one thing that movie did so well: give the audience an antagonist who steals the spotlight from the hero, while making them tremble in fear and rock-star admiration.

Skyfall is a letdown, but at least it will help me maintain my "No Walking Out" policy when dealing with future Bond films: I can't abandon something if I don't start it in the first place.

Thursday
Nov152012

Thankskilling 3 (2012)

Give Thanks for Necessary Evils

If Andy Warhol were alive today, he would make Thankskilling 3 and then blow his brains out. The sequel to Jordan Downey's ultra-low-budget, ultra-unwatchable slasher movie pushes the boundaries of art and entertainment so boldly that I'm conflicted as to whether this is the worst movie of the last half-decade, or one of 2012's very best.

I attended an advance screening nearly a week ago, so plot specifics are a bit fuzzy. In fairness, I was hard-pressed even in the moment to understand what was happening on screen or why--so time may have little to do with my confusion. I do know that the first movie's villain--an anthropomorphic, wisecracking killer turkey named Turkie (voiced by Downey)--is on a mission to preserve the last copies of Thankskilling 2, a movie so terrible that aliens have landed on Earth to incinerate mountains of its DVDs.

(In case you're wondering, Thankskilling 2 exists exclusively as a plot device in Thankskilling 3, the only film to skip its own sequel.*)

Turkie will stop at nothing, including murdering his own wife and child and then willing his son's spirit into a Thankskilling 2 DVD case. At odds with the gruesome gobbler is Yomi, a yellow puppet from another dimension who believes that defeating Turkie will compel her talking, pixie-like brain to return. She enlists the help of Uncle Donny (Daniel Usaj), a TV spokesman and amateur amusement park entrepreneur. Donny and his brother (?) Jefferson (Joe Hartzler) dream of opening Thanksgivingland, but are too busy fending off insults from their ancient, hip-hop-loving grandmother to get anything off the ground. Also key to the plot somehow are a space worm and his killer-cyborg boyfriend, who shoots interdimensional portals out of his anus.

That covers about half the film, and I'm pretty sure I've made it more coherent for you. Thankskilling 3 qualifies as a movie only by virtue of its ability to be shown on a screen. Downey and co-writers Mike Will Downey and Kevin Stewart shift gears with their narrative and production quality so frequently that it's impossible to get a foothold. You can literally see the glue holding the space worm's googly eyes in place, but his hulking, metal companion's costume looks like it cost twice the entire budget. In this universe, we must reconcile quarter-effort voice acting and multiple five-minute pockets of nothingness that seem to meander for hours with camerawork, special effects, and production design that occasionally look like the fruits of serious filmmakers.

Perhaps the best way to describe this thing is as a cross between the short-lived TV series Wondershowzen and Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void. Downey and company use the aesthetics of innocence to tell a dark story that gets more vulgar and nonsensical by the moment, relying on captivating psychedelics to lull the audience into just the right state to accept the less-than-successful stretches. I found composer Zain Effendi's two instrumental interludes to be so hypnotic that I'm convinced there were actual sedatives in the beats--maybe some hallucinogens, too, because I still can't believe the 8-bit-Nintendo-style animated turkey fight at the center of the climax.

In retrospect, I'm glad the original Thankskilling was enough of a hit to warrant a sequel. Sure, everyone I know who's seen Part One says it's one of the worst movie watching experiences of their lives. But I'd like to believe that was the point: Downey spent as little money and effort as possible to put out a movie that the Internet wouldn't be able to resist. Using the ensuing mountains of cash, he unleashed his creativity and commitment in making a confounding trash masterpiece that's sure to piss off ninety-nine percent of its audience--but for the right reasons this time.

Just as it kills some people to concede that Warhol's soup-can paintings qualify as art, I'm at once embarrassed and delighted to proclaim Thankskilling 3 a good and possibly important movie. It's at times funny and deadly un-funny, intellectually challenging and horribly base; even when the plot gets dull, the film remains alive. I can't recommend this movie to anyone--which is why you need to see it as soon as possible.

*This was almost not the case. Legend has it that Chevy Chase proposed a follow-up to his wildly successful 1985 comedy Fletch, called "Fletch 3". The studio balked and went with "Fletch Lives" instead.

Tuesday
Nov132012

The Empire Brings Sexy Back (2012)

Cloud Nine in Cloud City

Let's begin today with some A's for Q's likely running through your head:

Hey, didn't this used to be a movie-review site?

It still is, but I understand your concern. For the fourth time in as many months, I've set aside space to discuss a live stage show taking place in Chicago--which, for my UK and Boise readers, must be doubly frustrating. In fairness, seventy-five percent of these productions are movie parodies (and the remaining quarter was, at least, written by Clive Barker).

Are you in the pocket of Gorilla Tango Theatre?

No. As fate would have it, I've attended three of their shows--all of which were uniformly awesome. I'm ready and willing to attack bad theatre, but the crazy-talented folks at GTT refuse to give me an opening. Bastards.

Are you seriously telling me that there's still humor to be mined from Star Wars?

Oh, yes. Though the Seths (Green and MacFarlane) have built empires of cash by ripping George Lucas to loving, comedic shreds, they've yet to go where no man has gone before: burlesque satire. As a lifelong Jedi-at-heart, I was skeptical going into The Empire Brings Sexy Back: A Star Wars Burlesque Sequel. But writer K Leo and director/choreographer MsPixy have not only upheld Gorilla Tango's recipe of adding pureed pop culture to roiling, unabashed sexuality, they've broken new ground in dissecting the thirty-five-year-old franchise's significance.

Narrated by an Imperial Officer (Zatanna Zor-Elle), the show looks at the events of The Empire Strikes Back through the prism of a government fending off terrorist attacks. Luke Skywalker (Trixi Kidd*), Princess Leia (Inara Rose), Han Solo (Ann Hauserbush), and their rebel friends are the enemy here, causing destruction and grief for noble, put-upon bureaucrat, Darth Vader (Dottie Comm). Star Wars fans will recognize all the big story beats from Lucas's classic film, including the Hoth invasion, Luke's training sessions with Yoda (Mia Atari), and the lightsaber showdown atop Cloud City. The big difference is characterization, with rebels and dark-siders alternately trying to kill and hook up with one another. In a galaxy far, far away, war isn't hell--it's horny.

This could have been a "greatest-hits-with-jokes-and-tits" production, but The Empire Brings Sexy Back has a solid through-line, as well as a handful of brilliant detours into the unexpected. The big reveal regarding Luke's paternity is handled as a Jerry Springer segment, and Han's climactic carbonite-imprisonment scene takes on a mind-blowing new dimension when accompanied by Queen's eerily perfect "Bohemian Rhapsody". That sequence has been stuck in my head for days now, and I'm still taken with the humor, vulnerability, and heart that Hauserbush brought to what should have been a campy flashlight show played for easy laughs. In a cast of stand-out performers, she shines the brightest.

Indeed, the best reason to see this show--and any Gorilla Tango production, in my experience--is the passion and imagination that's evident in every detail. From Kristen Ahern's inventive costumes, which tweak the film's iconic designs with modern, risqué touches, to MsPixy's effective use of the stage in creating innovative blocking, movement, and prop work, I didn't feel like I was watching a low-rent, "cute" version of The Empire Strikes Back. I dare say there's probably little difference between the work that went into figuring out how to bring the Star Wars experience to a black box stage and the feats Lucas and company pulled off when creating the Death Star. If you doubt this after seeing the levitating lightsaber trick and applause-worthy opening crawl, drop me a line and we'll chat--briefly.

I don't mean to sell the performers short with my high-minded analysis of the show's craftsmanship. If all you care about are curvy women shaking pasties and prancing around an intimate stage, you'll find plenty to marvel at here, executed with steamy professionalism. I'll admit, the Han/Leia courtship takes on a tempting new dimension when both characters are played by attractive, young women--but that gimmick would get old quickly without a solid foundation. 

It's fitting that The Empire Brings Sexy Back opened the same week that Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion (the move is addressed in an early sight gag). Beyond merchandising and film franchise rights, the Mouse House has also purchased a legacy. It's up to the suits to decide Star Wars' fate now, and I hope that whoever they put in charge has the same love, appreciation, and commitment to the series as this scrappy band of semi-nude nerf herders.

The Empire Brings Sexy Back plays Saturday nights through February 23, 2013 at Gorilla Tango Theatre (1919 N. Milwaukee Ave. Chicago, IL 60647). Click here for tickets and additional information.

*Ms. Kidd is listed as an understudy for Diva LaVida, who did not appear in the performance I attended. For the record, She was terrific in her dual roles as Luke and Boba Fett, whose character began the show in a state of undress and slipped on a sultry version of the famous Mandalorian armor piece by piece--an unexpectedly awesome reverse strip show.