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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 21 - Volume 42 Issue 47
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Stewart's Rosewater an intriguing look inside modern Iran
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ROSEWATER
Now playing


In June of 2009 London-based freelance journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) returned home to Iran to cover the election of the country's new president while on assignment for Newsweek magazine. In the aftermath of what proves to be the controversial re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and during the riots and displays of public disobedience that followed, a group of policemen come to his mother's (Shohreh Aghdashloo) home to question him. Not long after, the journalist is arrested and sent to the notorious Evin Prison with no reason given.

Bahari will spend the next 118 days being questioned under the most extreme conditions by a man (Kim Bodnia) he only can recognize by the smell of the rosewater he scents himself with. Completely isolated, cut off from the world, he believes he is entirely alone and at the mercy of his captors, only the thought he'll be reunited with his pregnant wife Paola (Claire Foy) back in London keeping him from fully succumbing to depression and despair.

Based on Bahari's own accounting of the events that took place inside Evin (co-written with Aimee Molloy), 'The Daily Show' creator and host Jon Stewart makes his directorial debut with the docudrama Rosewater. In many ways this makes a lot of sense - as one of the items held against the imprisoned reporter was the fact he'd appeared on this show and participated in one of its skits. I feel fairly safe in surmising this is a tale near and dear to Stewart's heart, and that passionate attention to detail is visible in virtually every frame of the finished film.

As strong as many of the individual pieces might be, as impressive as certain sequences are, there is an oddly distant aura permeating the picture that's difficult to get past. So much of what transpires kept me surprisingly at arm's length from an emotional standpoint, the trauma of Bahari's ordeal not coming through as clearly or as intimately as I kept hoping it would. It is almost as if Stewart's approach is too clinical, too journalistically detached, making the final moments unable to hammer themselves home as deeply or in as thought-provoking a manner as they needed to in order for the film to ascend to the next level.

Still, Stewart's debut is impressive on multiple fronts. His script is clean, orderly, focused with razor-sharp precision on Bahari and all that it is he is going through. All of significance that transpires is seen through his eyes, from his vantage point, allowing the breadth and scope of what is happening in Iran during this election to carry far more weight and meaning in the process. There is ample insight to be found in many of the film's quieter, more intimate moments, and while the full picture is never entirely ascertained, enough of it is to give the story a subtle grace that's continually fascinating.

The film loses its way whenever it strays from Bahari, especially the times it focuses more on Rosewater and who he is. It's an attempt to humanize him, show how all of this is affecting the interrogator. Problem is, he's not enough of a three-dimensional figure for these sequences to feel like anything more than thinly crafted guesses as to who this guy might be and what his life might potentially be like. They don't carry any oomph, no zest, this mysterious figure remaining too ephemeral a creature for us to feel any sort of emotion, positive or negative, about whatsoever.

Bernal, on the other hand, is excellent, delivering a full-bodied, completely immersive performance that's a continual joy to behold. In many ways his Bahari makes a terrific companion to his René Saavedra, the protagonist in the equally explosive political docudrama No (that film chronicling a 1988 Chilean referendum that changed the face of the country). At the same time, this is an entirely different sort of character, his transformation from relative political neophyte, to crusading journalist, to unjustly imprisoned husband and soon-to-be father desperately trying to hold onto his fracturing sanity, utterly believable every step of the way.

Stewart doesn't do a lot with Aghdashloo, and it's a testament to the Oscar-nominated actress' talents that she ends up being as memorable a presence as she ultimately ends up becoming. As for Foy, I'm honestly not sure why she's around as much as she is, and while Paola's part in her husband's eventual release is important as far as this film and this story is concerned, all she does is slow things down to a crawl whenever she appears. If anything, the director does a better job integrating real news footage into the proceedings, adding a level of verisimilitude into the drama that likely wouldn't exist otherwise.

There's a lot to love about Rosewater. Bernal is superb, the story is one deserving of the spotlight, while the film itself grants a look inside modern Iran most could barely fathom let ever hope to see. Stewart shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker, especially as far as his screenwriting is concerned, and even with all of my nitpicks I can't say I ever felt any of the narrative mechanics were ever outside of his control. Yet I was never as emotionally invested in Bahari's travails as much as I felt I needed to be, and as impressive as many of the elements driving this picture might be, the overall impact is still far more muted and subdued than it by all accounts should have been.


Skillfully made Mockingjay only half the story
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE HUNGER GAMES:
MOCKINGJAY - Part I
Now playing


She destroyed their Games.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) never imagined that by shooting an arrow into the arena sky she would bring about full-scale revolution, but intentional or not that's exactly what she has done. Transported to District 13, long thought to be destroyed, reunited with her mother (Paula Malcomson), sister Prim (Willow Shields) and best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), this gladiator is now safe, even if Panem itself is in a state of unimaginable chaos.

The rebel leaders, under the command of former head gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), want Katniss' help. See, she's become a symbol to all the Districts, a figurehead of defiance to the Capital's totalitarian authority. They want her to embrace being the Mockingjay, to be their figurehead of revolution, showing Panem President Snow (Donald Sutherland) that the battle is just beginning and it will not end until freedom rings and Democracy can be had for all.

But she destroyed their Games, and Snow is not one to show mercy, and he'll use the might of the Capital to annihilate every last soul who idolizes Katniss even if that means seeing the entire country awash in a sea of blood.

Thus begins the final chapter of author Suzanne Collins massively successful literary trilogy, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I, the first half of this climactic adventure showcasing how The Girl on Fire becomes both the spiritual and the literal figurehead of a revolution that will see her homeland forever changed. It shows how Katniss goes from reluctant player in an abhorrent game to a freedom fighter battling against tyrannical injustice, everything once again seen primarily through her eyes as she struggles to comprehend what is going on and what her part in the grand design ultimately might be.

That 'first half' comment is the problem, because unlike both the first The Hunger Games as well as the middle chapter in this series The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the powers that be (i.e. Lionsgate, the studio financing things) have decided to split Mockingjay into two parts. They've noticed how well this worked for both the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises and thus are eager to make as much money as they can, not caring that Collins' source material - admittedly my personal favorite book in the trilogy - doesn't have enough plot to warrant doing so. What would have made a nice 150-minute, potentially three-hour movie has instead been split into two gargantuan halves, this initial fifty percent barely having enough narrative heft to manage all of its 123 minutes.

Not to say returning director Francis Lawrence and new-to-the-series screenwriters Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (Game Change) don't deliver. There is, in fact, plenty to love, a handful of moments that get the blood racing and set the spirit soaring into the stratosphere. Early sequences involving Katniss' return to a bombed-out District 12 are chilling in their depiction of senseless terror and devastation, while a quiet moment in a peaceful rock quarry next to an eerily serene lake is chilling in its sub-textual poignancy. There's a wonderful scene inside a battlefield hospital that, while not altogether original or devoid of melodramatic cliché, still puts a lump in the throat all the same, making the indescribable devastation to quickly come all the more affecting in the process.

Additionally, it's good to see Hemsworth in on the action, the actor finally getting a chance to dig into Gale in ways the stories being told in the first two movies didn't allow to happen. Hoffman gets in a few choice bits as the wickedly acid-tongued Heavensbee, reminding us all once again just how tragic a loss his passing truly was. Sutherland twirls and whirls his way around his despicable President Snow as devilishly as ever, while much like she did in the last film, once again Elizabeth Banks steals scenes left and right as brought down from her Barbie Doll pedestal former government mouthpiece and District 12 spokeswoman Effie Trinket.

As for the newcomers, only Moore is given the opportunity to explore her character's interior machinations, planting the seeds for the decisions she will make as the rebellion's commander-in-chief during the final push towards victory. The rest, including Mahershala Ali as the security chief, Boggs, in charge of the Mockingjay's personal safety and Natalie Dormer as the public relations dynamo, Cressida, responsible for transforming Katniss into a revolutionary propaganda figurehead, aren't given near as much to do, and as such they're not memorable one way or the other by the time things come to an end.

Said end is actually the biggest problem as Mockingjay - Part I doesn't actually have one. No real surprise there, of course, but the blatant cliffhanger keeping a major character in the throes of government engineered insanity and Katniss at a loss as to how to react is still awfully annoying. Unlike Catching Fire, which also ended in a state of uncertainty, there's no sense of closure, no feeling the central plot strands utilized for this portion of the climactic chapter have come to any sort of satisfying resolution. It all just sort of stops, period, end of sentence, director Lawrence doing what he can to add some sort of emotional crescendo to the film, even if this section of the story doesn't actually have one.

Don't misunderstand. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I is still skillfully made and Jennifer Lawrence is as good as ever as the young woman who must transform herself into a hero whether she wants to or not. Unlike the first two, though, this one feels far more engineered by a corporate committee than either of its predecessors did, diluting the emotional impact of all that's transpiring for Katniss and her followers in the process. While the girl most definitely remains on fire, the temperature keeping her ablaze is notably starting to fall. Here's hoping next November's final chapter remedies this and gets those flames soaring to their proper height once again.


Elegiac, elegantly austere Homesman a heartbreaking ride
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE HOMESMAN
Now playing


In the middle of the expansive nothingness of the Nebraska Territories, three frontierswomen - Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) - have gone insane. Not knowing what to do with them it is decided the trio will be sent back east to a waiting Methodist minister and his pious wife (Meryl Streep) in hopes their health can be restored.

With none of the men stepping up to take on the task, assertive, strong-willed Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has volunteered to do it herself. Realizing the monumental nature of the undertaking, she hires mysterious, bottom-feeding drifter George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to assist her, relying upon him to help make the perilous journey in hopes they will make it to their destination alive.

Based on the award-winning 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, Jones' fourth directorial effort The Homesman makes a wrenching, emotionally shattering companion piece to previous efforts like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Sunset Limited. A dour, hardscrabble elegiac Western filled with grit, grime and grotesquerie, it embraces the contradictions inherent to both the tale and to the characters inhabiting it, achieving a level of shattering intimacy that refuses to provide easy answers and leaves the viewer in a state of uncomforting uncertainty that fits the narrative perfectly.

Swathout's source material showcases the hardships pioneer women faced and the brutish, unforgiving attitudes of the men who fail them, never taking prisoners and refusing to blunt the edges as it presents things in as starkly barren a manner as possible. Jones does not do anything to change this, an almost misogynistic élan smothering things that feels painfully authentic and sadly essential. This is a world were women and their sacrifices are either misunderstood, unappreciated or undervalued, making the journey all of them are being required to make all the more heartbreaking in the process.

The genius, then, is to have made Mary Bee Cuddy the central character around which everything revolves. A headstrong, fiercely intelligent creature she nonetheless masks deep insecurities and wounded bits of pride brought on by the condescending nature of the men she is forced to surround herself with. Determined to make something of her life even though she is entirely on her own, with seemingly no one willing to share their time, let alone their bed, with her, Cuddy has managed to eke out a place in this dusty wilderness most would be proud to call their own.

Swank is incredible, delivering her best performance since her Oscar-winning turn in Million Dollar Baby, crafting a complex, deeply flawed human figure whose emotional and social inadequacies are masked by her intelligent demeanor and can-do attitude. But the journey slowly takes its toll, opening up wounds she'd thought were forever suppressed as she realizes the full extent of the damage done to the three women she's taken it upon herself to transport and protect. Conversations with Briggs muddy the waters even more, leading to a series of emotionally crippling choices and actions that almost can't help but end in tragedy.

There's some odd loss of focus from time to time, Jones allowing a seemingly never-ending series of veteran character actors to chew the scenery for a variety of reasons only some of which help propel the film forward. He also plays with chronology a bit too theatrically, flashing back every so often to examine the reasons for each mad woman's descent into insanity that, while important, oftentimes feel as if they've been inelegantly inserted into the motion picture for reasons that are never as clear as they need to be.

At the same time, Jones doesn't bow to convention, allowing right and wrong, good and evil, to crash one into the other. At one moment Briggs exacts bloody retribution against those he feels have slighted both him and the women he is protecting based on superficial assertions about their class and social standing, at others he allows himself to be belittled and made fun of for the exact same reasons. He's not a hero, not a villain, nothing more than a flawed man forever making decisions he will have to find a way to live with no matter what the outcome might ultimately prove to be. The Homesman is a great, assertively austere Western that breaks the heart into multiple pieces, leaving the viewer to decide how best to put them back together again all on their lonesome.


Getting Dumb not a lot of fun
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

DUMB AND DUMBER TO
Now playing


It's been 20 years since best friends Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) last hit the road together. Now, after two decades spent with the latter worrying desperately about the former, doing all he can to nurse him back to health (don't ask), they must hit the pavement once again, forced to make the trek to El Paso, Texas to find a relative neither of them knew even existed. See, Harry's in need of a kidney and, low and behold, he's got a daughter he didn't know about, the product of a lustful exploratory one-night stand with local mortician Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner) in the back of a van two long decades ago.

I guess I never understood just how big the hold 1994's Dumb and Dumber had over people. I hated it 20 years ago. Watching it again this week, I still don't particularly care for it now. This Bobby and Peter Farrelly (There's Something About Mary, The Three Stooges) opus was never my cup of tea to begin with, the film never striking the right balance between stupidity and humor as far as I was concerned. I just don't find it funny, the comedy an almost unendurable 107-minute slog I almost can't believe I was able to sit through more than once.

Yet two decades after the fact here we are again, Lloyd and Harry reunited for more mentally challenged adventures filled with clueless lunacy, mistaken identities, flying cars, poopy diapers, exploding birds, politically incorrect put-downs and so much more harebrained bits of stupidity I almost don't know where to begin. With Carrey and Daniels back giving it a go, with the Farrelly's again at the helm, Dumb and Dumber To deigns to tread where few comedy sequels have dared go before, hoping audiences who flocked to the first one will return for a second helping.

In all fairness, any movie that goes out of its way to remind audiences just how terrific the great Kathleen Turner is can't be all bad. For me, at least, this one still comes remarkably close to being so all the same. I fully admit these types of comedies are seldom for me. The slap-dash go-for-broke gags, the unrelenting stupidity. It's beyond rare that I'm taken even slightly by them, so with that in mind it's hardly a surprise this sequel left me frozen solid. At almost two full hours in length I just didn't care to be watching it, and even with a few unanticipated chuckles, giggles and laughs sprinkled around like bits of confetti falling out of an envelope, there just weren't enough highs to make sitting through the picture and its numerous lows start to finish even slightly tolerable.

There's an out of nowhere gag with a train that captured my attention. There are also a few sight gags with an ingeniously camouflaged Rob Riggle (in a dual role) I found worthy of a couple guffaws. The film also marks the arrival of probable star Rachel Melvin (who'd already made an impression on me earlier this year with her work in the still-to-be-released comedic creature feature Zombeavers) as Harry's winningly oblivious daughter, Penny, the young actress an effervescent ray of sunshine whenever she appears on screen.

As for Carrey and Daniels, they're all-in, throwing themselves into this loopy lunacy with the same degree of gusto and enthusiasm they did 20 years ago. With that being so, yes, the pair do generate a handful of laughs, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that were so. Problem is, I just don't care for their characters, don't particularly like spending time with the either of them, especially Lloyd, and why anyone else out there feels the opposite I've honestly never been able to figure out. These guys do nothing for me, nothing at all; and while the breadth and the strength of their friendship is impressive, who they are as human beings and how they choose to relate to the world and the people around them is continually anything but.

I'm probably the wrong person to be reviewing Dumb and Dumber To. As much as I always try to let every film I see work its magic on me devoid of expectation or what I might presuppose going in, sometimes that's incredibly difficult to do. Considering my disdain for the first film coupled with my usual dislike of scattershot comedies of this sort, this one was going to have a tough time impressing me long before the Universal Studios' logo even appeared on the screen. Be that as it may, I hold to my assertion that this is a bad sequel and an even worse comedy, and I'm hard-pressed to believe even diehard Lloyd and Harry fans are going to find much to cheer about.




Pacific MusicWorks' Monteverdi: 'Songs of Love and War' concert an exquisite realization of his work
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Seattle's Cinerama Theatre grand reopening celebrates a major remodel of comfort and technology
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Dick Whittington and His Cat is a magical adventure for the whole family
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First Aid brings warmth and beautiful sounds to Moore Theatre
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Raskatov's 'Night Butterflies' - Seattle Symphony's latest recording features a great new work in terrific sound
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SecondStory Rep presents a solid production of Jonathan Larson's Tick, Tick& Boom!
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Northwest News
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LETTERS
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Stewart's Rosewater an intriguing look inside modern Iran
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Skillfully made Mockingjay only half the story
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Elegiac, elegantly austere Homesman a heartbreaking ride
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Getting Dumb not a lot of fun
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