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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 24 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 43
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Bill Murray is a complex powerhouse in obdurate St. Vincent
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

I'm not sure writer/director Theodore Melfi's debut narrative feature St. Vincent could be any more entertaining if it tried. Alive, strikingly unsentimental, yet affectingly emotional, the film is a colorfully eccentric character study of an unapologetic man refusing to bow to conventionality who doesn't care a lick what others think of him. At the same time, this seemingly lonely man, a hermit by all appearances, is just as guilty of judging others with just as biased a point-of-view as those sizing him up have done for many years now. He's an odd focal point to wrap an entire feature film around, and as such Melfi risks alienating his audience before they even have a chance to realize what's going on and where everything is headed towards.

This isn't a good thing, it's a great one, the film an energizing dramatic saga that doesn't so much break new ground as it does exactly what it sets out to do very, very well. More, it offers up a stupendous, award-worthy central performance from Bill Murray, the comedic superstar reminding us all once again just how dynamic and multifaceted an actor he truly is.

Murray is Vincent, a curmudgeonly Vietnam vet who ends up striking up a relationship with his new next door neighbor Maggie's (Melissa McCarthy) 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) even though he'd really rather not deal with any of this. Yet as time passes the two develop an odd duck relationship of sorts, and while some of their give and take travels down a familiar path, numerous aspects of it surprisingly end up being anything but. While these two do change the other in some ways, overall Vincent stubbornly stays true to who he is while Oliver doesn't suddenly blossom into anything more than what he already appears. Each stays true to their core essences, which is more complex and multidimensional than initially appears, so even when melodramatic excess seeps into the proceedings it doesn't hurt the overall tenner or arc of the film in any overly discernible way.

But there are issues. Subplots involving Vincent's bookie Zucko (Terrence Howard) and his pregnant Russian stripper girlfriend Daka (NaomiWatts) come perilously close to overplaying their collective hands, the latter additionally hampered by a mannered and hammy performance from Watts that's undeniably distracting. Both of these tangents don't have the electrifying emotional grace or subtle simplicity as the core elements of the narrative do, and as such they can't help but standout in ways both frustrating and unsatisfying.

Yet this movie ends up being something close to amazing all the same. It all hinges on a final act where Oliver must talk about Vincent in exacting detail, give a school speech where he explains just how great this man is without sugarcoating his more reprehensible and risible traits. It's a fine line, Lieberher knocking out of the park while Melfi's delicately balanced script brings it all together with remarkable eloquence. It's handled with exquisite, tenderly complex grace, these final moments speaking to exactly the themes the filmmaker has been presenting from the start yet doing so in a way that feels unforced and natural.

Then there is Murray. The actor, an Oscar nod for Lost in Translation aside, has always been an underrated talent, doing more with less on more occasions than I can count. He's as stupendous here as he has ever been, giving depth and shading to Vincent that the script happily allows him to cultivate and grow on his own without any extraneous input on its part. He sells every aspect of this journey, even the ones drowning in melodramatic cliché, reveling in every aspect of his character's being, refusing to mellow out his mean steak or soften his rougher edges, when a lesser actor would have done just that in order to try to engender audience sympathies to an even higher degree.

For me, there is a single moment in the motion picture where I knew I was in love. Vincent has been visiting someone for quite some time, putting on an act for her, pretending to be a doctor who pops in now and again to her care facility for impromptu checkups. During one of these visits something happens, a brief spark of electricity that takes place over the course of seconds, but in many ways means the world to at least one of the characters involved. A lesser movie would have drowned this scene in treacle. An unconfident director would have lapsed on the sentiment and told their composer to intensify every facial tick and teardrop just in case the audience wasn't keeping track.

Melfi does not do this. He allows the strength, breadth and majesty of Murray's performance to do the work for him, thus letting this brief snapshot of a life we know little about to crystalize in front of our eyes without any additional, and unnecessary, augmentation. St. Vincent might not be without problems, it might not have all its ducks in a row, but even the ugly ones end up growing into swans, the movie proving that looks aren't everything, and messy, judgmental and rude can sometimes be just as beautiful as good manners and genteel civility.


Explosive John Wick a bloody action throwback
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

JOHN WICK
Now playing


They killed his dog. A gift from his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan), arriving on his doorstep the day of her funeral as a final surprise to him so he wouldn't lapse into depression and despair, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is instantly connected to the animal in ways bordering on primal. So when Russian mobster Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) makes the spontaneous decision to enter his house and steal his car, none of that matters near as much as the man's murdering of this beloved pooch, an event that reawakens demon's inside of John he'd long ago suppressed.

I knew I was going to like John Wick the moment John Leguizamo shows up as the sleazy head of a high-end chop show and stares straight at Allen and asks - fear, loathing and incredulity effused inside every syllable - where in the world he got the car he's now bringing him. There is something so perfect about this moment, something primal, something dripping with a feral animal magnetism speaking directly to the carnage to come, that led me to understand in that very second this movie was going to work.

To say it does so is an understatement. Directed by Chad Stahelski, a veteran stunt performer who's worked with Reeves on everything from The Matrix to Constantine to even The Replacements, and written by Derek Kolstad, the movie is an aggressive, take-no-prisoners throwback in the Steve McQueen/Lee Marvin vein with a healthy dose of Steven Soderbergh's The Limey thrown in as well. It is also infused with inspiration hailing from Asian cinematic maelstroms as diverse as the works of John Woo, Chan-wook Park, Joon-ho Bong, Takeshi Kitano and Seijun Suzuki, the resulting picture a cacophony of sound and fury that's a total hoot - brutal start to bullet-riddled finish.

Reeves' Wick is a walking hearse, unleashing death and destruction as easily as the average person breathes. He waltzes through the film with steely-eyed aggressiveness, his single-minded pursuit one he'll see carried out come what may. It's the type of role the actor was born to play, but, more than that, one he, much like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, has allowed himself to grow in to, the furrows in his brow and creases under the eye speaking unending volumes of suffering and outrage no amount of carefully manufactured bits of dialogue and conversation ever could.

Not to put this movie on that hallowed level; heaven forbid. John Wick is nothing more than a gritty B-grade action throwback, content to play out sequences of ultra-violence and havoc, leaving any and all pretense at something deeper, more profound, rightly on the cutting room floor. If anything, the few moments when the movie does try to explain itself, when it does take a few seconds for a character to explain what is going on and why, that's when it becomes a little too much to bear, and if anything Stahelski and Kolstad would have been better off sticking to the Point Blank or High Plains Drifter template and kept things as nondescript and as ephemeral as possible.

Great supporting turns abound, not the least of which are Michael Nyqvist as Iosef's father and Wick's former boss Viggo and Willem Dafoe as a fellow high-level assassin whose allegiances - but not his aim - are continually in question. Also having a grand old time are Adrianne Palicki as hired gun willing to break long-held covenants in order to make an outrageous sum and Ian McShane as a somewhat shady yet undeniably honest information agent who says it like it is while also holding people accountable when they don't live up to their word. Worthy of mention is veteran character actor Lance Reddick, recently seen in The Guest; and while he doesn't do a lot, he still makes his presence known in ways that are both humorous and chilling, oftentimes both at the exact same time.

John Wick is never going to be remembered as some hard-boiled action masterwork in the same vein as John Boorman's Point Blank or John Woo's The Killer. It doesn't dig deeply enough to resonate in the consciousness for all that long after it comes to its shrewdly eccentric, bloodcurdling climax. But the movie is just so much fun, so craftily shot, edited, scored and staged, watching it as blissful and adrenaline-filled an experience as anything I've experienced this whole year.


Rhythmically alive Birdman a masterful dark comedy
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Love it, hate it, revel in its minutia or find one's self unable to understand every idea, facet, theme and concept director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams) is exploring, there's no denying the two-time Oscar nominee's Birdman is impossible to take your eyes off of. From the opening image of a meteor careening across the sky, to its final moments when an actor combines insanity and inspiration into some form of creative euphoria, the movie is a vital, rhythmically alive character study looking at creation in all its complexity. Make no mistake; this is a movie to treasure.

A quarter century ago Hollywood superstar Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was on top of the world. He'd played superhero icon Birdman in three massive box office hits, the international public eager for him to keep wearing the cape and to continue taking to the skies in order to save the world from threats of all kinds. But he'd had enough, and with more money than he knew what to do with, a failing marriage to the lovely Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and a daughter he hardly took the time to know, let alone be a father to, it was time for him to return to his roots and be the kind of serious actor he always wanted to be.

Fast-forward to the present and Riggan, along with his trusted lawyer and friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis), is self-financing a Broadway theatrical production of Raymond Carver's short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, one that he wrote, directed and is staging in the historic St. James Theatre, no less. His daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, is working as his personal assistant, while his latest romantic conquest, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who may be pregnant, has a co-starring role. After an on-set accident takes out the secondary male lead, the other female star Lesley (Naomi Watts) surprises everyone by stating that her volatile boyfriend, a darling of the Broadway critical set, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is available and interested in the part.

Even though the film takes place over a series of days - Riggan's play is in the middle of previews preparing for its big opening night reveal - Iñárritu presents events as if they were all one seamless take with no cuts, no edits and no place to ascertain where the action shifts from one moment to another hours later. It's as if the whole thing is one Virginia Woolf-like stream of narrative consciousness, like these interactions between one character to another are happening as if sprung forth like zygotes blossoming into full-fledged multi-cell organisms. Mixing the rat-a-tat-tat rhythms of a Robert Altman-like black comedy with the hard-boiled raw vulnerability of Carver's stories, the filmmaker doesn't let up, doesn't give in and doesn't pull any punches, the resulting mélange a cavalcade of Hollywood tropes and clichés that feel captivating and animated in ways they potentially never have before.

That's the crazy thing. In all honesty, as far as the core story elements are concerned, there's nothing new here, nothing at all, much of what Riggan is dealing with ideas playwrights have been waxing poetic about for centuries. More than that, movies have always loved stories about their own, about actors, about how difficult it is to create art and how critics critique because they themselves are incapable of birthing artistic achievements. We've watched everyone from Bette Davis to Kirk Douglas to Ginger Rogers to Dustin Hoffman to Tim Robbins to Julia Roberts to Jean-Claude Van Damme to countless others go through these paces time and time again, some obviously meeting with more success than others, but I think you're getting the idea.

Yet what Iñárritu and his fellow screenwriters do is explosive. Much like what Richard Linklater did with Boyhood, he Iñárritu expands on an overly familiar, maybe even tired conversation in ways that are unconventional and thought-provoking. He flips the script, building three-dimensional characters out of stereotypes giving them unexpected breadth and scope that is continually fascinating. Every word, every syllable, every verbal nuance, all of it is important, the spell being crafted as imaginative and as daring as it is mesmeric.

The actors are universally excellent, Stone, Norton, Watts and, somewhat shockingly, Galifianakis particularly so, each delivering award-worthy turns deserving of recognition. Be that as it may, this movie doesn't likely exist without Keaton, and it's hard to imagine any actor in all of 2014 being as perfectly cast in a particularly role as he is in regards to Riggan. The baggage he comes in with is obvious, for a large chunk of the movie going populace he's still the Caped Crusader no matter what Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale might have to say, and as such it makes perfect sense that Iñárritu turned to Keaton when looking for someone to give his principal figurehead life.

But Keaton doesn't rest on that history, not by a long shot. This is a daring, no-holds-barred performance, one free of vanity and as such is as naked and as raw as they come. He walks a fine line throughout, never going so far over the top to make Riggan unbelievable, yet in the same moment still remaining so larger than life the themes Iñárritu and company are speaking towards remain front and center with nary a distraction. It's a multifaceted portrait of creation and hubris run amok, ego and self-doubt colliding one into another as if each were cannon balls intent on ferociously colliding with their duplicitous doppelgängers. In many ways this is the performance of the year, at the very least of Keaton's career, and if Oscar doesn't come calling I'll be shocked in more ways than I can honestly say.

The technical aspects speak for themselves, Emmanuel Lubezki's (Gravity) bravura cinematography intimately mixing with Douglas Crise (Spring Breakers) and Stephen Mirrione's (Traffic) crackerjack editing so flawlessly it's impossible to know where one facet of this visual feast begins and the other ends. Throw in Antonio Sanchez's jazzy, percussion-heavy score (echoes of vintage Quincy Jones soundtracks dexterously lurking inside every syncopated beat) and there is a ferocious ebullient aura surrounding every moment, and for the life of me I simply could not wait to see and hear where Iñárritu and his team were dining to take me next.

Birdman comes with the incredibly laborious, Kubrick-esque subtitle The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, and as unwieldy as that might be, it's also fitting. Iñárritu doesn't proclaim to know everything. He understands just how short-sighted and clueless his characters themselves are the majority of the time. But he is also able to find the majesty in these perceived shortcomings, knowing that magic oftentimes is created when those giving birth to it don't even know that is exactly what it is they are doing.






Big show under the big tent: Teatro ZinZanni
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Sistah Sinema presents 'Zombie Love' - just in time for Halloween!
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Seattle South Asian Film Festival 2014 Preview, Capsule Reviews SSAFF includes six films concerning LGBT issues
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Jason Mraz gives uplifting performance at Benaroya
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Don Giovanni scores at Sunday matinee
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Excellent music; boring production
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Thalia's Umbrella presented a beautifully realized production of Athol Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes
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Beauty and the Beast still enchants
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Moms Mabley was 'out' as Lesbian to friends, entertainers - Nationally acclaimed star considered pioneer for female comedians
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UW's Chamber Dance Company presents a terrific and moving program of modern dance
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OUTBOUND: Go on a musical journey this fall or winter
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Northwest News
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LETTERS
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One Direction includes Seattle on 2015 stadium tour
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Bill Murray is a complex powerhouse in obdurate St. Vincent
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Explosive John Wick a bloody action throwback
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Rhythmically alive Birdman a masterful dark comedy
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