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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 30, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 05
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Callous Black Sea a maelstrom of emotional tumult
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

BLACK SEA
Now playing


Veteran submarine man Robinson (Jude Law) has just been let go by his longtime employer, a deep sea salvage company that doesn't see the need to keep a man like him around with modern technological advances in underwater search, rescue and reclamation being what they now are. But when a fellow former employee reveals a secret involving Russian gold, a WWII submarine and international political skullduggery, the grizzled Captain is suddenly faced with an opportunity for riches the likes of which he heretofore never could have imagined.

With the shady Daniels (Scoot McNairy) keeping an eye on things for an unnamed moneyman who's fronting the bill for the operation, Robinson assembles a crew of 12 hardened seaman, half Russian, the other half fellow Britons, to head to the middle of the Black Sea in order to recover this lost treasurer. But tensions run high when everyone learns exactly what it is that is at stake, as well as the potential payday waiting for them at the end of the voyage, making trust between shipmates difficult to come by.

The submarine thriller Black Sea is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by way of The Hunt for Red October and Run Silent, Run Deep, an angst-riddled foray into the heart of darkness few are likely to be able to endure and even less are going to survive. Savagely directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, How I Live Now), he and screenwriter Dennis Kelly revel in the carnal carnivorous brutality of the scenario rarely allowing sentimentality or melodrama to enter into the proceedings. It's down and dirty, the moralistic underpinnings corrupt and sour yet also relatable and intimate, the downtrodden crewmen working class survivors desperately in search of reasons to keep fighting in the hope that a better life for their respective loved ones isn't an impossible dream forever out of reach.

There aren't a lot of surprises. Where all of this is headed is apparent right from the moment Robinson learns of the gold, those on his crew who swim to safety and those that end up curling up inside Davey Jones' locker not exactly a shock, either. The template Macdonald and Kelly are following is a familiar one and as such there are points where the mechanics required to connect one moment to the next are far too apparent, and so the emotional undercurrents cascading through events like a torpedo slicing through the water are sadly diluted a fair amount.

Thankfully, what the film lacks in originality it more than makes up in complex characterizations and mesmerizingly terrific performances. The supporting cast is delectable, each doing their best to make every moment count and every scene crackle with tension and electricity. Ben Mendelsohn is particularly memorable, playing an oily deep sea diver who's far more comfortable walking the ocean bed than he is shuffling around inside the metal confines of a floating sarcophagus. His catastrophic stupidity as it relates to his Russian crewmates is bracingly juxtaposed alongside his unwavering commitment to see fellow divers survive, multiple sides of his calamitous personality clashing and hammering one off the other in ways that are repugnant and meritorious each in almost equal measure.

This makes him ripe for abuse, McNairy's timid, selfishly callow company man doing a number on the diver's psyche that gets more and more potent, bordering on tragic, as things accelerate to the inevitable finish. Mendelsohn takes what could have been a rote, one-note rube of a human being and transforms him into a figure of pitiable dehumanization, his rises and falls chronicled in breathlessly intimate detail allowing the true horror of the moral failings at the center of things to be even more psychologically ruinous.

It also helps considerably that the thriller is extraordinarily well shot by cinematographer Christopher Ross (Eden Lake). Coupled with crackerjack sound design and some stupendous production work supervised by designer Nick Palmer (Red Tails), Ross' camera glides through the claustrophobic confines of the sub with magnificent dexterity, the movie calling to mind Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot and Tony Scott's Crimson Tide while also staking claim to a visual allure and acoustic esthetic uniquely its own.

None of which would matter if Law wasn't up to the task of captaining things through to the end. He commands the screen, dominating with a fatherly, unwavering confidence that breaks through the veneer of common sense becoming something painfully truthful and ruefully catastrophic. There is pain and suffering underlying every comment, every gesture, making his few overtures of comfort and understanding all the more affecting. Law is as great as he has ever been, raising the overall tenor of the material to a level it otherwise never would have achieved without his efforts.

Macdonald isn't reaching as high as he has in the past, and it is apparent he's content to craft a B-grade old school thriller about the destructive influence greed has upon its prey and little more. But that doesn't make Black Sea any less enthralling, the effect it had upon me as unsympathetic and as callous, yet also as entertaining, as any I could have hoped to have experienced before walking into the theater.


Moore's star turn allows Alice to resonate
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

STILL ALICE
Now playing


Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is turning 50. The esteemed linguistics professor is renowned in her field and adored by her husband John (Alec Baldwin) and children Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Oddly, however, she's starting to forget words during her lectures, having trouble recalling their meaning and importance. Not so much that anyone would notice, mind you, but often enough it's got her a little on edge, and so she's headed to the doctor to get things checked out just to be safe.

What Alice learns is that she's in the beginning stages of Early-Onset Alzheimer's, a fact that understandably knocks both her and John for a loop. Letting the kids in on what is going on, the Howland clan does what they can to help her put up a fearsome battle, coming up with ideas and plans of action that should hopefully assist in the fight for her to maintain the core sense of self that's always the wife and mother colorfully and endearingly unique.

Still Alice is based on the acclaimed book by Lisa Genova and adapted by openly-Gay directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (The Last of Robin Hood). [See related interview with Wash Westmoreland in this week's SGN.] It is a fairly straightforward melodrama concerning a family forced to deal with the unthinkable and a smart, successful and driven woman grappling with the realization she's on a slow, virtually unendurable journey to the loss of everything she's always held most dear. Additionally, the movie will almost certainly win Moore her first Academy Award, an honor a long time in coming and one that's by all accounts way past due.

Great! Terrific! I guess that's fine. Fine because the distinguished actress is superb. Fine because Moore gives a complex, superbly layered performance that without question deserves to be considered amongst 2014's best. Fine because she's the reason to see the film, plain and simple, and it's highly doubtful it would work near as well as it does if she had made the decision not to be a part of the ensemble.

The problem for me is that the movie itself - solidly made, competently directed, constructed with confidence and skill - is still shockingly slight, dripping into unnecessary sequences of melodramatic embellishment Genova's complex, movingly multifaceted source material thankfully avoids. There are times that Still Alice feels more like a Lifetime programmer circa 1992 more than it does something stripped down, emotionally raw and dramatically essential, things moving in a rather foregone manner that can be a little more annoying, and thus not near enough moving than they by all accounts should be.

Not that Glatzer and Westmoreland drop the ball completely. There are a number of sequences and scenes that cut right to the chase, taking my breath clean away in the process. Alice learning from her doctor that she's got the disease being one of them, another later one when she gives a speech to a room full of fellow Alzheimer suffers, their doctors and, most importantly, their families. They've also constructed a handful of remarkable, incredibly affective moments between the mother and her youngest daughter, Lydia, Moore and Stewart sharing startlingly intimate chemistry that says volumes in precious few words.

I just wish the directors did more with the material that's been handed them. While normally I'd be cheerleading their attempts to keep things brief, at barely 100 minutes there is an unfinished quality to this I had trouble getting past. I felt like I needed more between Alice and Lydia, needed to see her interact more with her husband, John. Most of all, as hard as both Bosworth and Parrish try (the former performing at a much higher level than the latter, in my opinion), neither is given near enough to do in order for their respective characters to be anything more than rote, one-dimensional caricatures, spending time with either just not particularly worthwhile.

Yet Moore really is wonderful, delivering a beautifully calibrated and nuanced portrait of a woman grappling with the unfathomable loss of self that's as devastating as it is inevitable. The actress manages to make what Alice is going through tragically universal, allowing the viewer inside her soul in ways that rip the heart clean out of the chest. She's stunning, make no mistake, and couple that with the scenes Glatzer and Westmoreland do get right, there's plenty about this film to get behind and cheer.

Not that I did not want more from Still Alice. I did, there's no denying it, and as such I do feel as if the directors haven't risen to the heights of previous efforts like the melodiously enchanting Quinceañera. But the film gets just enough right and is anchored by a performance so stunning, it conceals many of the drama's more egregious missteps. It's just not what it potentially could have been, making my recommendation an uneasy one at best.


Stewart's brilliance makes Match worth celebrating
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MATCH
Now playing


Patrick Stewart has never been nominated for an Academy Award. Heck, he's never been part of the conversation. Granted, considering the motion picture veteran's most notable on-screen roles can be found in the likes of X-Men, Star Trek: First Contact, Conspiracy Theory, Lifeforce, Dune and Excalibur this should hardly be surprising, the majority of his most notable performances coming either on the stage or via television. Yet, make no mistake, the former Captain of the Starship Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard, and the modern incarnation of mutant leader Prof. Charles Xavier is one of our greatest living actors, and it was only a matter of time before someone finally gave him a cinematic role worthy of his talent.

Granted, seeing that his latest film, the gloriously entertaining three-person character study Match, was originally a theatrical production and is directed and adapted by the show's playwright Stephen Belber (Management, The Laramie Project) it isn't like Stewart is going all that far out of his typical comfort zone. Even though he wasn't part of the acclaimed Broadway production (Frank Langella played the character originally), the theatricality of the piece and the intimate structure of the narrative are both things the actor has responded to time and time again throughout his career, and much like his celebrated Shakespearean productions on the London stage his inhabiting of the central figure here is as magnetic as it is multifaceted.

Stewart is Manhattanite Tobi Powell, a towering figure in the world of ballet, applauded as a teacher and a mentor to rising young students the world over. He is approached by a couple from Seattle, Lisa (Carla Gugino) and Mike Davis (Matthew Lillard), ostensibly there to interview him about his early days as a dancer during the 1960s. At first the maestro is more than happy to indulge the pair, spinning yarns of days long gone that are as eccentric as they are colorful. But as the hours drag on and the venue morphs from a New York diner to Tobi's own home it's soon clear there's more going on beneath the surface than initially surmised, the secrets the dance impresario has been concealing ones that connect them all in ways none are ready to face let alone talk about.

The story's theatrical roots are apparent from the start, and even though Belber attempts to open things up, he's never truly able to escape them. More often than not there's little about this presentation that feels cinematic, and thus unlike similar, equally recent endeavors by the likes of Roman Polanski (Carnage, Venus in Fur) or John Wells (August: Osage County) this film adaptation never entirely comes to life. It doesn't help that, as good as both are, neither Gugino or Lillard are fully able to connect with their respective characters and as such the climactic revelations don't strike with quite the impact I admittedly expected them to as I started to put the pieces of the puzzle together for myself.

But Stewart? Stewart is astonishing, burning through the screen with passion and power, elevating the film to glorious heights keeping things fascinating and enthralling throughout no matter how big any one misstep might initially appear. Tobi is a flamboyantly charismatic man of mystery, hiding truth with lies and using subterfuge to augment fact, each coexisting with the others allowing secrets to hide right out in the open where they'll hopefully continue to avoid being discovered. It's a magnetic, intoxicating turn filled with insight and emotion, the revered teacher still not above becoming the perplexed pupil as history and circumstance force him to reconsider choices long ago dealt with, if still lingering in the psyche, as if they were a perpetual nightmare impossible to forget.

Considering the film's January release, it's beyond doubtful anyone will be talking about Stewart's turn come December. It will not put him in the Oscar discussion even though it undeniably should. Few will remember he gave one of the year's finest performances. But that doesn't make him any less magnificent, and as such he manages to make Match one of 2015's first must-see releases, fans of the actor owing it to themselves to see this master at something quite near the absolute top of his justifiably illustrious game.


Lesser Dardenne still a riveting Two Days
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
Now playing


After a devastating battle with depression, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returned to work at her job only to learn she'd been made redundant, her absence proving to the factory owner that his business' monthly quota could be made with one less person on the line. With her dismissal her coworkers will receive a fairly substantial bonus, their supervisor clouding the issue by attempting to convince everyone it's an either-or proposition, and if she were to stay not only would there be no extra money, one of them would have to leave in her place.

This wasn't true, Sandra's best friend Juliette (Catherine Salée) convincing their boss to allow an open vote amongst the factory employees whether or not they would like to keep their bonuses or allow their coworker to keep her job. With a weekend to convince seven of the 12 to vote her way, the mother of two, with the help of her sous chef husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), hits the streets to engage in face-to-face talks with her colleagues in hopes of convincing them to do just that.

The Belgian drama Two Days, One Night fits perfectly inside directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's working class world, the movie making a superb companion to equally austere, straightforward works like L'enfant, Rosetta, The Kid with a Bike and La Promesse. What it doesn't have in common with any of the brothers' previous motion pictures is the presence of a major international star, and while the pair have worked with more than their fair share of familiar faces they've never given center stage to someone like Academy Award-winner Cotillard.

Until now; and do they ever give her a role suited to her immense talents. Sandra is awash in acres of pain and self-doubt yet at the same time she's putting on a brave face giving all she can to rebuild emotionally from the bottom up. Cotillard's performance is a master class in internal duality, the actress subtly transforming from timid dormouse to predatory lioness. Rarely has depression and its after effects been documented so impressively on film outside of a documentary, but considering the Dardenne's fictional oeuvre and background in non-fiction, features like this shouldn't come as a surprise. Still, make no mistake, Cotillard is tremendous, and as she's in virtually every frame, proclaiming this one of 2014's most titanic tour de force performances goes without saying.

She is the movie, however, and while there are some wonderful little moments between her and Rongione, I'm hard-pressed to believe Two Days, One Night would be anything special without her. In more ways than one this does feel like lesser Dardenne, the brothers not saying anything too out of the ordinary or profound as they follow Sandra on her journey. The statements made in regards to modern situations for the working and middle classes, across the globe, not just in Belgium, are hardly prophetic or revelatory, and while they're still bracing and emotionally chilly, I couldn't help but feel as if I'd heard these proclamations from the Dardennes before.

Yet second tier Dardenne is still better than most other filmmakers' best efforts, the level of intimate introspection stunning when everything is taken in total. Sandra's journey is visceral, immediate, proceeding straight from the heart in a way that is timeless. There are no faked emotions, nothing that isn't of the now, everything building to a realization of one's potential for greatness that isn't so much extraordinary as it is quietly cathartic. It's impossible not to feel every blow to the gut, slap to the face, pat on the back and redemptive embrace. It all leads to a final moment with the protagonist that is as euphoric as it is shattering, eventually making Two Days, One Night a startlingly effective drama that's difficult to forget.


Still Alice: An interview with filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
by Gary M. Kramer - SGN Contributing Writer

STILL ALICE
Opening January 30


In Still Alice, writer/directors (and real-life couple) Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's beautiful, intelligent adaptation of Lisa Genova's novel, Alice (Julianne Moore), is a Columbia University linguistics professor who experiences the symptoms of early onset Alzheimer's. This compelling, moving drama shows the effect the disease has on her and her family.

Still Alice is all about loss and control as the title character slips in and out of stages where she has difficulty remembering things - be it a word, a name, or a dinner engagement - and the film shows how she tries to keep it together under such pressure. Glatzer and Westmoreland never milk her situation for pathos, and they coax an extraordinary performance from Moore. Her expressions as she grapples with her condition, are absolutely heartbreaking.

In an email exchange, Westmoreland responded to questions about Still Alice.

Gary Kramer: I understand this film resonates with both you and Richard. Can you discuss your experiences and how they are reflected in Still Alice?

Wash Westmoreland: Richard developed a slight lisp about four years ago and was told he probably had bulbar ALS. The life expectancy for this is between 18 months and 4 years. Richard is not only beating the odds, but he has directed two feature films in this time. He's determined to keep going. We don't talk much about next year or the year after - we just live day by day. Adapting Still Alice helped us work through some of our own issues - both in terms of living with the disease and caregiving. The speech Alice gives at the Alzheimer's Association later on in the movie largely comes from Richard's experiences.

Gary Kramer: Your early films have had a significant queer characters, plot or subplots. With Still Alice and your previous film, The Last Days of Robin Hood, you have made 'women's pictures.' Can you talk about this shift in your work?

Wash Westmoreland: We are always primarily driven by story and have projects on our docket with gay, straight, male and female protagonists. There is a great tradition - from Cukor to Fassbinder to Todd Haynes - of gay filmmakers having a strong connection to female protagonists. I guess there's a certain sense of empathy and exclusion from heterosexual patriarchy. We certainly had no problem identifying with Alice and working the entire story though her point of view.

Gary Kramer: How did you adapt the novel?

Wash Westmoreland: We knew the story was an intense emotional ride but wanted to avoid overplaying it. We took a restrained approach - largely inspired by Ozu's Tokyo Story - so as not to hit the audience over the head with where and how to 'feel.' We were pleased with the way this worked but some still [***still some] critics likened Alice to a movie-of-the-week, which we found bizarre. The movie's tone is so emotionally raw and the techniques adhere much more closely to those of art film than Hallmark. I believe there is a generalized cultural misogyny around women's pictures. Conventions from traditionally male genres seem to get more of a free pass. 'Noir' is seen as enduringly cool whereas the slightest whiff of melodrama and you're out!

Gary Kramer: Visually, you convey the theme of loss, the triggers of memory, and the fog of what is happening to Alice through out of focus shots and 'home movies.' Can you discuss your visual approach?

Wash Westmoreland: As Alice's short-term memory deteriorates, she starts to live more in her distant memories. This is very common with people living with Alzheimer's - the further back the recollection, the easier it is to hold on to. To show this, we used little shards of super-8 of Alice's childhood weaving in with her daily routine. Super-8 films were a big part of my childhood. When I remember something, I sometimes wonder if I'm remembering the event itself, or seeing it on Super-8. They have the same hazy texture in my mind.

Gary Kramer: Every scene - Alice speaking, cooking, or running - is freighted with the danger that she may forget what she is doing, or even harm herself or others. Can you talk about how you created this narrative tension?

Wash Westmoreland: We realized that the potential for memory loss leading to socially embarrassing situations or physical danger was a powerful source of suspense. Whenever Alice is doing something - whether it is giving a lecture, visiting the doctor or cooking Christmas dinner - the audience is consciously willing her to pull it off. In the end, it seems like she escapes social embarrassment but then something unexpected happens. In this way, it functions like a horror movie; the hand comes up out of the grave and grabs you.

Gary Kramer: There are powerful themes of shame, security, struggle and suffering reverberated throughout the film. Can you discuss that?

Wash Westmoreland: Alice says, 'I'm so ashamed,' indicating the social perceptions of the disease. There is still something about Alzheimer's that people feel embarrassed about. HIV/AIDS is also relevant here, demonstrating how the perception of a disease can be changed through social activism. What Alzheimer's really needs is a similar sea change in the way the disease is perceived. We hope that Still Alice is a story that can get people to understand the disease more intimately.

Gary Kramer: How did you work with Julianne Moore on the role?

Wash Westmoreland: We divided Alice's deterioration into four main stages, but Julianne did such a nuanced portrayal it seem more like four hundred phases. Julianne was so committed. She did so much research - in terms of visiting support groups and making friends in the Alzheimer's community - to make sure everything she did was 100% real. This took away our main fear - a phony note - and created something that was authentic and relevant.

© 2015 Gary M. Kramer


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Northwest News
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LETTERS
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Taylor Dayne, Mat Kearney interviews happening in February
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Callous Black Sea a maelstrom of emotional tumult
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Moore's star turn allows Alice to resonate
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Stewart's brilliance makes Match worth celebrating
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Lesser Dardenne still a riveting Two Days
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