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Knight at the Movies: The Skeleton Twins; The Homestretch; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2014-09-10

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Sibling rivalry and revelry has long been a great basis for movies of nearly every genre ( The Savages, Conviction, and In Her Shoes immediately spring to mind ). And with The Skeleton Twins, from out director Craig Johnson, we have another strong example. What makes Johnson's movie—a sometimes uneven but ultimately winning black comedy that he co-wrote with his college buddy Mark Heyman—of particular resonance for Our People, of course, is its focus on a gay man and his rather fraught relationship with his sister.

Estranged for a decade by circumstances that slowly reveal themselves as layers are unpeeled, Milo ( Bill Hader ) and Maggie ( Kristen Wiig ) are brought together at the outset of the film after Milo tries to kill himself and Maggie shows up at his hospital bedside. Milo's attempt has come after yet another relationship has gone sour and, without much prompting, he leaves LA and heads east with Maggie to upstate New York to meet her sweet but clueless husband ( Luke Wilson ) and try to get his life back together.

What we know—and which Milo quickly discerns—is that Maggie is also in the midst of an emotional meltdown. Trying to wedge herself into "normalcy" via that nice but dimwitted hubby, a job as a dental assistant, the standard accoutrements of "the good life," etc., have had the reverse effect on Maggie and she's contemplating an affair ( with her scuba-diving instructor ) to soothe her pain while trying to help Milo pick up the pieces. Slowly, these two lost souls who early on survived the death of their father and the selfish behavior of their narcissistic, New Age-spouting mother ( Joanna Gleason ), grapple with their deep seated issues. For Milo, that means confronting a seminal figure from his past ( which Ty Burrell of TV's Modern Family beautifully underplays ).

If this doesn't sound like much fun, well, at times, it's not ( and there are other dark elements that aren't exactly side-splitting ). What drives the picture and lifts the veil of darkness descending over these two is their nonstop brother-sister bantering—the spot-on, acidic wit of Hader as Milo ( "Yeah, look at me—another tragic gay cliché" he tosses off to sis upon waking up in the hospital ) and Wiig's convincing, under-the-breath retorts. The chemistry of this dynamic comic duo draws on the reportedly tight bond they share in real life, dating back to their SNL days; this adds another dimension to their multifaceted performances. Hader's work is a revelation and is light years from Stefon, the cuckoo party boy he played on SNL; Wiig, given a partner in crime to match her understated, crack timing, rises to the occasion as well.

At one point, letting her perky faÞade drop, Maggie admits to Milo, "The rest of us are just trying to walk around, not being disappointed with the way our lives turned out." When Milo attempts to cheer her up by lip-syncing to the Jefferson Starship '80s anthem, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" with Maggie finally not able to resist joining in—the movie reaches comic nirvana. Even though the film later stretches the credibility of the characters, this blissful sequence overrides its momentary missteps ( and the Halloween segment with Hader in drag is a visual highlight, to boot ). The Skeleton Twins announces the arrival of a remarkable talent and I eagerly await Johnson's next film.

The statistic that starts off Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly's documentary The Homestretch is, indeed, sobering. On any given night there are thousands of homeless teens sleeping on the streets of Chicago—and it would seem that we are in for a real downer. And while the filmmakers certainly don't skimp on the often heartbreaking realities of life on the streets, the heavy subject matter is leavened by the three individuals who are the foci of the movie.

The presence of Roque, Anthony and, especially, the funny, vibrant Kasey, whose lesbianism has contributed to troubles with her family, puts a human face to this shameful problem. Also, their compelling stories are presented in an unforced way that allows us insight into their lives and affords these teens the dignity and respect that they deserve.

Determined to overcome the difficult hand that life has dealt them—in addition to trying to stay in school and graduate they must battle Chicago's blistering winters—Roque, Anthony and Kasey also share the common bond of a love for the arts. Roque's passionate about Shakespeare and acting, Anthony is a poet and rapper, and Kasey is a poet, painter and ( based on the evidence here ) a budding stand-up comic. As their stories play out, we encounter several adults—Maria from the Night Ministry shelter program, for example—whose passion for helping these kids and their ilk, which visibly include many LGBTQ teens, usually goes unsung.

The directors ( who also acted as cinematographers ) don't pretend that this insidious problem—or the lives of Roque, Anthony and Kasey—can be tied up neatly with a ribbon at the end of the film's 90 minutes; however, they do leave us with hope that at least this trio of budding adults will overcome what can seem an insurmountable obstacle. The Homestretch opens exclusively at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., on Friday, Sept. 12. The directors, subjects in the film and representatives from the Chicago homeless services represented in the movie will be on hand at many of the screenings. http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/homestretch

Film notes:

—The lesbian-themed short film Hatboxes, from Chicago writer-director Susana Darwin, played at last year's Reeling and will screen as part of the Movies in the Park series Friday, Sept. 12, as part of a short- film showcase at Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph St., at 7:30 p.m. https://www.facebook.com/HatboxesTheMovie

—The 1928 jazz baby flapper, silent classic Our Dancing Daughters—which vaulted Joan Crawford to stardom—is playing, complete with live organ accompaniment, at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., on Saturday, Sept. 13, at 12 p.m. as part of its Silent Saturday series. www.musicboxtheatre.com

—Pride Films and Plays is hosting its second annual Women's Words Film Festival on Monday, Sept. 15, at the Public House Theatre, 3419 N. Clark St., beginning at 7:30 p.m. The evening will include the Chicago premiere of seven short films and two webisodes from Chicago-based lesbian company tello Films. Complete programming list at www.pridefilmsandplays.com

—Bisexual actress Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster are the latest duo of actors to take on the iconic roles of Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' classic A Streetcar Named Desire. Fathom Events, National Theatre Live and BY Experience present a one-night-only broadcast from London's Young Vic Theatre stage performance of the play on Tuesday, Sept. 16, at area Chicago cinemas ( including AMC River East 21 ) at 7 p.m. www.fathomevents.com/event/a-streetcar-named-desire .


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