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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 16, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 03
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Immersive Sniper an emotional shot to the heart
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

AMERICAN SNIPER
Now playing


God. Country. Family. For Navy SEAL and pinpoint sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) these aren't just words, they're a mantra, ideals he lives every second of his life keeping unambiguously sacrosanct. He heads to Iraq with one thing in mind: keep every U.S. soldier safe, go above and beyond no matter what the cost.

But after four stressful tours putting the battlefield behind him isn't so easy. It isn't the unfathomable volume of recorded kills. The most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, Kyle is given the nickname 'The Legend' by his fellow servicemen, a moniker intended as both a badge of honor as well as signifier to strike fear in the minds of the enemy. Instead, it is the memories of those he couldn't save, those that died while he felt they were under his watchful eye, that's what gives the SEAL nightmares, so much so they're putting an unfathomable strain on his marriage to protective wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and causing his children to worry about their father's health.

Based on Kyle's autobiography written with the assistance of Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, Clint Eastwood's American Sniper makes a fine companion piece to the director's previous WWII epics Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. It would also make an almost perfect double-bill with Kathryn Bigelow's Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker, the two films looking at the consequences and effects of battlefield violence with uncompromising, icily focused eloquence that's nerve-jangling.

But where that movie kept its attentions firmly rooted in what was happening on the ground in the Middle East, only hinting at the personal emotional traumas to come on the home front, Eastwood's effort splits its focus between the two; and whenever Kyle returns home to Texas the movie loses a great deal of its penetrating majesty. There is an odd uncertainty to those sojourns that's frustratingly incomplete and hurried, reducing Taya to the thinnest of dimensions, painting her in borderline patronizing brushstrokes that drown the majority of the scenes between her and her husband in melodramatic cliché. It's a tonal imbalance the film almost can't overcome, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall (Spread) coming perilously close to doing their subject a grave, close to insulting injustice.

Emphasis on 'almost.' Because, truth be told, American Sniper is a powerful, compulsively energetic war drama that's more often than not impossible to take one's eyes off of. Everything going on in Iraq, all of the stuff immediately connected to what is happening (or has happened) on the battlefield is aggressively stunning, achieving a level of bludgeoning authenticity that's awe inspiring. Eastwood's exacting, documentary-like eye for detail allows Kyle's exploits to have an exactitude and honesty that is incredible, moments sprinkled throughout that sent shivers down my spine and planted a lump in my throat I felt in some ways would be there forever.

More importantly, the film's ace in the hole is Cooper, the two-time Oscar-nominee delivering a career-best performance that goes well beyond impersonation or caricature. He digs deep, disappearing completely into the role, his unwavering commitment to his fellow soldier radiantly paralleled with his indecisiveness and emotional distancing as it pertains to his wife and kids. It's an astonishingly balanced portrait, one that doesn't sugarcoat any aspect of Kyle's personality, while at the same time doing full justice to his selfless service to the country he loved.

The film is stunningly shot by frequent Eastwood collaborator, Tom Stern (Changeling, Million Dollar Baby), the images having a bright, sharply defined look that's disquieting. The sound design is also incredible, while editors Joel Cox (Unforgiven) and Gary Roach (Jersey Boys) do some extraordinary work where it comes to all of the sequences depicting Kyle's SEAL training as well as all of his experiences during those four tours in Iraq. In many ways, it is one of the most immersive films of the director's long and storied career, achieving a level of intimate exactitude that's staggering.

All of which makes the failure to juxtapose the two sides of Kyle's life all the more disappointing. At the same time, even with this more than obvious shortcoming, American Sniper is a vital, organically poignant experience that got under my skin. Coupled with Cooper's magnificence, Eastwood has delivered another overall winning entry to his impressive oeuvre, this human story of survival and sacrifice a shot to the heart almost impossible to recover from.


Inspiring Selma brings King to life
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SELMA
Now playing


You know going into Selma that this is a film wearing its supposed importance on its sleeve. As what is essentially the first motion picture to offer a narrative approach to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and times, focusing on his landmark attempts to organize a peaceful march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, it goes without saying director Ava DuVernay's (Middle of Nowhere) latest will offer up plenty of food for thought.

That it doesn't crumble under that weight is close to extraordinary. That is goes above and beyond any and all expectations even more so. DuVernay does not flinch, does not give in, and working in glorious tandem with screenwriter Paul Webb and actor David Oyelowo she paints a shrewdly devastating picture of progress, resistance, and restraint that held me spellbound first moment to last. It is a movie that weaves fact and fiction in ways that are seamless and inspiring, dramatizing events in ways that broaden one's understanding of deeply complex issues that still resonate through the country - the world - today.

At the heart of things is Dr. King's (Oyelowo) disgust for what is happening in relation to voting rights in Alabama and it's coupled with the State's rigid refusal, under the director of Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), to adhere to recently passed Civil Rights legislation. President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is reticent to get involved for political reasons. It isn't that he doesn't agree with Dr. King's position, he claims he does, it's that he has other issues on his plate including a proposed war on poverty as well as current events in Vietnam, and pushing through additional legislation in regards to voting rights isn't a battle he's sure he has the wherewithal to currently fight.

And thus we are off, DuVernay and Webb thrusting the viewer into the middle of this social and political maelstrom showcasing how the Civil Rights pioneer was able to manufacture support for a massive protest, which would change the face of Alabama, as well as the South as a whole, for generations to come. We see him meet with supporters, engage in debate with detractors and weigh the pros and cons of continuing plans to stage the Selma to Montgomery march. The filmmakers make Dr. King three-dimensional, complex and, most importantly, human, a man of strengths and weakness doing his best to balance the two as he sets out to do what he feels is right.

Issues of historical fidelity aside, most of those having to do with how President Johnson is portrayed and how he is reluctantly cajoled into action by Dr. King, the movie cuts right to the heart of the matter in the briefest, most elegant of brushstrokes. DuVernay refuses to slather the film in unnecessary layers of melodrama, utilizing a documentary-like approach that fits things perfectly. More than that, she keeps the focus exactly where it needs to be, seeing events entirely through Dr. King's eyes, and even when the narrative drifts to secondary characters, it all comes back to him, his approach, his ideas, his hopes and his fears, every single time.

Oyelowo is stunning. Asked to do the impossible, he becomes the Nobel Peace Prize-winner in every detail, not getting caught up in trying to impersonate his mannerisms, vocal tenor or inflections, but instead doing what he can to paint a complex, full-bodied portrait that would do the man, as well as the film itself, justice. He isn't afraid to show emotion when necessary, just as he is apt to put on a face of stoic resolve, allowing it all to melt away when confronted with stark realities and bitter truths especially as they pertain to his relationship with his wife.

In many ways, those are the film's best moments, those one-on-one, quietly introspective scenes between Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, portraying wife Coretta Scott King. A sequence between the two of them responding to the unspoken realities behind a disgusting phone message is shattering in its eloquence, while a later scene outside an Alabama courtroom is as tender and authentic as it is poignant and sincere. Both actors shine, giving themselves over completely to DuVernay and her vision, the movie all the more magnificent because of this.

I want to say there are some issues, and there most definitely are a couple, not the least of which is the almost comical, borderline cartoonish depiction of racist villainy as it pertains to Wallace (made palatable thanks entirely to Roth's driven, utterly focused performance), but in the end they don't matter terribly much. The film is so invigorating, so expertly constructed and made - Bradford Young's (Ain't Them Bodies Saints) luminous cinematography is exquisite, Spencer Averick's (Middle of Nowhere) meticulous editing sublime - that its missteps feel so minor they might as well not exist.

In the end, though, this is DuVernay's showcase, and the reasons behind my feeling she's done such an extraordinary job is due to the fact her hand shepherding things to the finish line is close to nonexistent. At the same time, no moment is false, no beat feels out of step with the interior rhythms of the picture itself, her controlled, confident touch delicately driving things in ways that are intimate, subtle and beautifully heartfelt. Selma is an important movie, yes, but it is also a great one.


Giddily implausible Predestination a time-bending curiosity
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

PREDESTINATION
Now playing


Under the direction of his mysterious boss, Mr. Robertson (Noah Taylor), a Temporal Agent - a detective charged with protecting the very fabric of time itself - goes undercover as a friendly bartender (Ethan Hawke) in order to make the acquaintance of a down on his luck writer. This leads to a cryptic, Byzantine history lesson involving an unwed mother (Sarah Snook) who will deal with an unimaginable tragedy, which inadvertently sets the stage for a time-jumping terrorist responsible for a number of horrific crimes which have violently shaped the course of history.

It's hard to know how much to say about Predestination, a bizarre, Terry Gilliam meets Chris Marker meets Rod Serling science fiction thriller adapted from the Robert A. Heinlein story 'All You Zombies' directed by Daybreakers filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig (billed as The Spierig Brothers). One slip of the tongue ruins some of the more intriguing twists hiding inside the pretzel-twisting narrative, each secret building upon the next, all so it can manufacture a somewhat shocking conclusion that's admittedly more giddily amusing than it is surprising. This is a movie I'm positive I'll be revisiting at some point in the near future even though I'm not exactly certain it's deserving of one, aspects so mesmerizingly vexing their messy, frustratingly oblique nature nowhere near the problem they by all accounts should be.

Hawke is terrific; Snook, forced to play so many different parts and roles it boggles the mind, is even more so; both actors playing off one another to stunning effect, making the more ludicrous aspects of this time-dancing mumbo-jumbo seem oddly plausible in the process. The two of them are joined at the hip in more ways than one, and none of what takes place inside the confines of the film would likely be as palatable and as intriguing as it is if they were not up to the task at hand. Each actor invests themselves completely into the proceedings, their symbiotic give and take the vivacious fuel this engine unabashedly runs merrily upon.

The script, written by the Spierigs, is a hodgepodge of science fiction tropes running the gamut from 'Star Trek' to Back to the Future to 12 Monkeys to Timecop to everything in-between. It also evokes the lyrics from an endearing Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe's novelty song and does so with unconditional seriousness, gender roles and sexual identities weaving and winding back and forth in ways that are as perplexing as they are absurd.

Plot holes abound, but the Spierigs do all they can to gloss over the majority of these by keeping the pace furious while also allowing cinematographer Ben Nott (Chinese Zodiac) and production designer Matthew Putland (Undead) to engage in painterly visual shenanigans that are impressively fearless. But these laudable distractions are still just distractions, and even for a time travel movie this one has more improbable absurdities than most, the conundrums and impracticalities it revels in getting more and more annoying as things progress.

But less is more where it ultimately comes to Predestination, and while I was one of the relative few who enjoyed Daybreakers, make no mistake: this is a serious jump in both quality and ambition over that 2009 Spierig Brothers dystopian vampire cult favorite. Hawke and Snook slide into the proceedings with ease, while some of the ideas culled from Heinlein's source material are fascinating. More than that, though, the movie, as whacky, odd and haphazard as it oftentimes might be, is just a heck of a lot of brain-twisting fun and as such it's 2015's first motion picture I'm actually somewhat excited to get a second look at.


Ghostly Woman in Black rises back to life
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2:
ANGEL OF DEATH
Now playing


Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory) and Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) have taken a cadre of youngsters into the British countryside in order to escape the bombing of London by German forces. The government has chosen the secluded and rundown Eel Marsh House for them to reside in, thinking it is so out in the middle of desolate nowhere there's no chance the kids or their caretakers would be in any sort of danger whatsoever. They were wrong.

The ghost of Jennet Humfrye (Leanne Best), quiet for over four decades, still resides at Eel Marsh House, and in young Eve she sees a kindred spirit worthy of being manipulated, terrified and ultimately destroyed. She will use one of the children in her care - quiet, introspective Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), who just lost his own parents during the latest bombing - and through him the so-called Woman in Black will unleash the murderous carnage for which she at one point in time was very well known for.

I liked 2012's The Woman in Black. It was a nicely constructed gothic horror tale featuring a wonderful central performance from Daniel Radcliffe. But I can't say I felt it lent itself to a sequel, the story - based on the popular, frequently adapted story by author Susan Hill - more or less playing itself out by the time things reached their expectedly unsettling conclusion.

Yet here is The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death picking things up 40 years after the events of the first film, taking place during the brutal early days of WWII featuring an entirely new cast of characters facing the terrors residing inside the lonely confines of Eel Marsh House. The surprising thing is that the movie, which, let's be frank, is in all actuality nothing more than a rehash of the first one - just with a swap in gender as far as the protagonist is concerned - is rather entertaining, doing just enough to keep my attention for all of its pleasingly brief 98 minutes.

Tom Harper, a veteran of British television productions like 'Peaky Blinders' and 'Misfits,' directs with a confident hand, and while there are a few requisite jump scares scattered throughout, by and large he eschews those, choosing to develop thrills via subtle misdirection. A grizzled, claw-like hand slowly drifting into the frame, a shadowy figure materializing with agonizing deliberateness in the back corner of the frame, a child's eyes opening in gradual terror in regards to what they are being forced to witness - these are the things the filmmaker chooses to focus upon.

Jon Croker's script, working from a story idea conceived by Hill herself, isn't nearly as sharp. I like the move to WWII, and Eve is a solid character to revolve things around. But too much time is spent going over Jennet's origins, rehashing old material we more or less learned from the first film. Additionally, the majority of the core events follow an entirely too predictable pattern, nothing that transpires unanticipated from the first moment the ghostly avenger sets her sights on the pretty young schoolteacher and her favorite pupil. When a character admits a deathly fear of something, you just know they're going to be facing it head-on at some point; while another's inability to say a single word will, of course, be cured when the time is precisely right.

But George Steel's cinematography is exquisite, slinking and sliding around corners with sublime ease. The images coldly caress the senses, helping augment an air of sinister angst that permeates the entire motion picture. Harper allows him to move with a subtle carnivorousness that fits the ghoulish Jennet perfectly, making her even more of an abhorrent agent of tragic evil than she was the first time around.

There are also some great bits, most notably a set piece at a faux landing field that's as creepy as it is inspired. I also loved a bit where Jennet plays a rotten little game with one of her victims, leading them on a wild-goose chase with a blood-red string that will later be used as a self-administered strangulation device. A few too many echoes of J.A. Bayona's far superior The Orphanage aside, it's hard not to get chills over much that happens, the fact Harper and Croker show zero reticence in pitilessly dispatching some of the kids augmenting those feelings considerably.

It would have been nice had the movie elected to take a few more risks, go places that were not foreseen right from the start. As small-scale B-grade genre entries go, there's plenty to like, just not so much that I'll likely be thinking much about this sequel for very much longer. Yet as early year horror releases go, this one is still better than most; and while The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death isn't a film I'd rush out to see, it also isn't one I'd be against taking a second look at again when it hits Netflix or Blu-ray a few months down the line.


Takes more than luck to enjoy Taken 3
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

TAKEN 3 Now playing

In many ways the most interesting aspect of Taken 3 is how little effort returning writers Luc Besson (who also produces) and Robert Mark Kamen spend attempting to connect the events of this sequel to those that transpired during the first two adventures of former U.S. government agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson). In other words, they don't try, the rescuing of his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and, a few years later, his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) nothing more than background noise that's talked about and then dismissed entirely in what feels like nothing more than a few short sentences.

Otherwise there's nothing that happens we haven't seen before, Mills forced to use his 'particular set of skills' on the homefront after he's framed for a shocking, emotionally traumatizing murder whose aftermath once again puts Kim's life in danger. Running around the streets of Los Angeles he encounters a variety of sordid characters, not the least of which are grimy members of the Russian mob as well as Lenore's corporate financier and current husband Stuart (Dougray Scott). He also is forced to keep local Los Angeles authorities at arm's length, playing cat and mouse with the driven detective in charge of the investigation, chess aficionado Lt. Frank Dotzler (Forest Whitaker).

By and large, the film plays out like a moderately above-average episode of '24,' Mills going from here to there, doling out justice and using everything he's got to uncover why he's been framed and to save his daughter's life. Besson, Kamen and director Olivier Megaton ever-so-slightly redeem themselves for the unintentionally hysterical calamity that was Taken 2, running a tighter, far more self-assured and confident ship this time around. The movie has an old school, 1980s Canon Films vibe that recalls the likes of Code of Silence or Raw Deal, and as such it's far more watchable than it arguably has any right to be.

None of which makes it good. The sequel is so by-the-numbers, so resolutely rudimentary, it takes about five seconds to ascertain who set Mills up and why, making the entire search for the truth borderline pointless. On top of that, as terrible as the last film was, the humor in watching Kim triangulate her parents' location via hand grenade - which wasn't even the worst aspect of that disaster - was undeniable, and there's little that caught my interest with near as much giddily absurd audaciousness as stuff like that did.

Actually, the biggest problem is that nothing feels the least bit cinematic. This third entry in the series truly is nothing more than your average episode of Cable crime television, and I can't help but think that in some way everyone returning this go-around is doing so for the paycheck and for no other reason. It more or less looks great, and by goodness does it all sound terrific, and other than some creative editing to conceal Neeson's stunt double (who probably spent more time on set than the actor did), technically there aren't a whole lot of structural missteps. But why one would pay good money to see this in a theater when they'll get more bang for their buck watching it at home is beyond me, Taken 3 an instantly forgettable straightforward money grab and little, if anything, else.


2015 Academy Awards Nominations
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Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz
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Triumphant Tosca at Seattle Opera
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Seattle's Unexpected Productions presents The Black Lodge: An Improvised Twin Peaks Episode
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OUTBOUND: Belgian Pride reaches 20-year milestone
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And the winners are & Seattle Theater Writers announce the 2014 Winners of The Fourth Annual Gypsy Rose Lee Awards
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Samuel Pergande is having the time of his life: As Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing
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Northwest News
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LETTERS
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Madonna, Grande, AC/DC among first Grammy performers announced
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Immersive Sniper an emotional shot to the heart
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Inspiring Selma brings King to life
------------------------------
Giddily implausible Predestination a time-bending curiosity
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Ghostly Woman in Black rises back to life
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