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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 6, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 45
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
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Superbly acted Truth never finds thematic balance
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

TRUTH
Now playing


On September 9, 2004 CBS News aired a story on '60 Minutes II' that President George W. Bush, then running against Senator John Kerry for a second term as president, did not do his duty in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. The story was produced by Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), who broke the Abu Ghraib prison scandal story and was held in high regard by her compatriots and peers, and was reported by veteran Dan Rather (Robert Redford), an industry icon who had been on-air at CBS for over 40 years. The broadcast was a huge success for the network and for those who researched it, nailing down a story many journalists had been circling around and trying to confirm since G. W. Bush's initial run for the Presidency back in 2000.

Then the unthinkable happened. The key component of the story, a series of official military papers nicknamed 'The Killian Documents' after Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, the deceased former commanding officer of the 111th Fighter Intercept Squadron in which the President served, were not obtained as originally stated. Turns out, former Texas Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett (Stacey Keach) received these copies from an unnamed whistleblower, his convoluted tale as to how they came to him different than what he stated to Mapes months prior. Next thing the reporters know they're the ones under the microscope, CBS News president Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood) forcing Rather to apologize for the story on-air while also convening an independent investigative panel to figure out what went wrong with the story and why.

It's hard to know exactly where to stand as far as Truth is concerned. Adapted by writer/director James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) from Mapes' best-selling memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, the basic thesis that the movie puts forth, that a story was deconstructed not because it was wrong but because it wasn't vetted as thoroughly as it should have been, that corporate interests trumped journalist ones, that the Fourth Estate was left out in the cold to fend for itself, is hard to disagree with. But it's just as reasonable to state that Mapes and her team did make a huge mistake, that in their push to get the story out there (that urgency, it should also be noted, was also fueled by corporate interests) they did not confirm their sources like they should have. They screwed up, and even if the core of what they're saying was correct, there was so much doubt as to the validity of the supposed 'proof' that truth seemed like a lie and fact suddenly had the appearance of fiction, a thing supporters of G.W. Bush jumped on moments after the broadcast first aired.

I get it. Mapes, Rather and the rest were unjustly pilloried and smeared. Same time, they did make mistakes and they didn't get everything right. As such, they do deserve to take some responsibility for what happened. Had they dotted their I's and crossed their T's the story would have stayed on Bush's National Guard service and not faded into obscurity thanks to arguments about typefaces, superscripts and text margins. Vanderbilt is more concerned with exonerating Mapes and her team than he is in engaging in a discussion as to the rights, wrongs and the multifarious in-betweens this story brought into the light, as such 'truth' seems to be the last thing on his film's mind.

Yet Blanchett is glorious, giving another sensational performance ranking up there with some of the best of her Oscar-winning career. There is a complexity to her depiction of Mapes, the actress mining territories and going places Vanderbilt's script barely only hints at let alone chooses to examine in exacting detail. Her reactions to Burkett's duplicity, the way her story is twisted into insignificance, how she is attacked for doing her job, as if she was some hack with an axe to grind and not a journalist who's proven herself on stories running the liberal/conservative spectrum, Blanchett balances all of this with magnificent refinement.

Most of all, though, the film solidifies the friendship between Mapes and Rather with delicate perspicacity. The way they communicate one to the other so often with a glance and without the need for words, it's all rather wonderful. There's a great scene, one that's sadly been utilized far too much in promos for the motion picture, of the two of them talking together one late night after the story has blown up in their faces and CBS has decided to wash their hands of it. Not only are Blanchett and Redford superb, the scene goes for a complex dexterity in regards to the overarching themes, adding a maturity to the proceedings I felt was sadly lacking the majority of the time.

I don't disagree with what Vanderbilt wants to say. His points about the corporatization of network news, the reticence on the part of national media outlets to push things too far so as not to displease stockholders and put in jeopardy the bottom line, that all comes through loud and clear. As valid and as potent as this observation might be, it is also far from new. As valid and as potent as this observation might be, it is also far from new. Vanderbilt turns the volume up to 11 yet doesn't say much that's revelatory, a facet made even more annoying now that we're in the middle of a new presidential contest and deserve to hear arguments far more nuanced than this.

Vanderbilt seems so willing to give the reporters a pass for not digging as deeply as they should have that any discussion that mistakes were made is so quickly glossed over it's almost a wonder it's even dealt with at all. Journalism isn't above its own sort of reproach when stories are not vetted as they should be, and even if the core is correct and the conclusions are factual, few are going to care if they can pick apart the puzzle pieces that supposedly lead there. Truth, as much as I agree with many of its contentions, fails to hold itself to the same level of scrutiny as it does those going after Mapes and Rather, and as such never feels as authentic as it should have.


All-star Burnt doesn't quite cook
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

BURNT
Now playing


Chef Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) was once the toast of Paris, receiving two Michelin stars for his inventive culinary creations. But he blew it, indulging in sex, drugs and booze to such an extent he terrorized his coworkers, destroyed friendships and ruined the restaurant his closest ally Tony (Daniel Brühl) sunk his own money into trying to make it a success. Adam destroyed everything, running back to the United States in a quest to kick his addictions, forcing himself into seclusion, shucking a million oysters at a faceless New Orleans eatery as a form of penance for all his past sins.

Now he's back, heading to London to reunite with Tony in order to convince him to turn over his new restaurant to him. Assembling a crackerjack team, including his former sous chef Michel (Omar Sy) whom he royally did a number on in Paris but desperately wants to make amends with, Adam is ready to go after his third Michelin star, this time sober. Yet the world of high-end cuisine has changed in the years he was gone, and this world-renowned chef is going to have to adapt with the times or face ruination. He finds inspiration in up-and-coming sensation Helene (Sienna Miller), the pair finding a symbiotic way to work with one another that could lead both to the doorstep of culinary preeminence.

On a number of levels Burnt is just fine. I like the fact that veteran Steven Knight's (Locke, Eastern Promises) script drops the viewer right in the middle of Adam's story, refusing to spend a great deal of time on the recovering addict's backstory, choosing only to focus on what he is attempting to do in the here and now. He also seems to have a solid grasp of this international world of culinary excellence, treating the respective chefs shooting for Michelin magnificence almost as if they were heavyweight boxers duking it out in the ring. It gives the film an energetic feel that's all-encompassing, making it exceedingly easy to watch start to finish.

While that's all well and good, there's still no hiding that not a lot happens here that doesn't follow a somewhat tired playbook. It is never in doubt where any of this is going to end up. There is no question as to how Adam and Helene's relationship is going to evolve. There are no shocks as to what kind of obstacles will need to be overcome in order for the chef to find the sort of redemption he is aiming for. Sure, some of the individual moments in and of themselves might be a little out in left field or come from a direction that's not entirely anticipated, but they are sadly few and far between, the actual outcome never in doubt at any time.

What's really crazy is just how nonchalant much of this is, how prim and proper. Heck, if you were to cut out all the four-letter words that Adam is prone to screaming and shouting, it's very easy to imagine the film premiering on PBS right after 'Downton Abbey,' the stiff-upper-lip Britishness of it all feeling vaguely made-for-TV. John Wells directs with the same basic, steadily even-keeled hand he brought to films like August: Osage County and The Company Men, not to mention television favorites like 'E.R.' and 'The West Wing,' and that's perfectly fine. But, just as importantly, it's nothing a heck of a lot better than that either, and as solid as much of this is, it's just as equally difficult to get excited about any part of the story being told as well.

It does not help that, as well-constructed as much of the central stuff revolving around Adam, Helena and, to a lesser extent, Tony might be, a lot of the peripheral happenings aren't nearly as strong or as interesting as needed in order for the film to make a deeper, more long-lasting impression. A subplot involving a rival chef played by Matthew Rhys begins promisingly enough before lapsing into unnecessary cliché, while central dynamics involving Michel don't work near as well as one hopes they would have. Wasted entirely are Emma Thompson and Uma Thurman, both showing up in thankless roles allowing them little room to maneuver, making their appearances more frustrating as to their misuse instead of anything even slightly positive.

But Cooper is spectacular, delivering another superlative performance that's every bit as nuanced and as complex as his Oscar-nominated turns in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and American Sniper. Better, both Miller and Brühl are up to the challenge of matching him step-for-step, the two actors taking what could have been relatively stock, rudimentary characters and giving them a depth, nuance and complexity I found fascinating. Even Sy, as thinly constructed as his sous chef Michel might be, makes the most of every opportunity granted him by Knight and Wells, delivering on the promise showcased in The Intouchables with impressive aplomb.

All of which makes Burnt an intriguing misfire that's impossible to dislike yet difficult to fully embrace. I appreciate what Knight and Wells are attempting, like how they desire to tell a story from the middle in, not wasting a lot of time recounting events we don't need to know a lot about. But the basics, the core of what is transpiring? It's all too familiar, too rudimentary, and while the kitchen they're working in is top-of-the-line, the meal they ultimately prepare isn't that much better than a Denny's breakfast left under the heat lamps a few minutes too many.


Brilliantly brittle Room an intimately emotional wonder
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ROOM
Now playing


Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has just turned 5-years-old. As he does every morning, he says hello to Room, the 10-by-10-foot space he and Ma (Brie Larson) call home. He says hello to the sink. He says hello to the television. He says hello to the skylight. He says hello to the snake made out of eggshells he and Ma have spent countless hours crafting. Jack loves Room. It is the only world he has ever known. It is, as far as his limited base of knowledge is concerned, all that exists in the known universe.

But Ma thinks her son is ready to learn otherwise. The world is more than the sink. It is more than the television set. It is more than the small little skylight allowing sunshine to enter Room during the day. It is even more than that snake made out of eggshells, the land outside of the locked door the mysterious Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) uses to come and go every night a heck of a little brighter, bolder and bigger than anything Jack can imagine.

For those familiar with screenwriter Emma Donoghue's best-selling novel Room, the secrets Ma has gone out of her way to shield Jack from will not come as a gigantic surprise. For anyone who has watched the film's trailer or has looked at the cast list and seen the likes of Joan Allen and William H. Macy registered as supporting players, it's doubtful they'll be particularly shocked by the central revelation awaiting the preschool-aged protagonist. Even so, Donoghue's adaptation is a startling, gut-wrenching affair, she and director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) bringing this remarkable story to life with warmth, humanity, humor and intelligence.

Feeling in many ways as if it had been ripped from headlines just yesterday, Jack and Ma's odyssey to freedom and individuality is riveting from the start. Seen almost entirely through the eyes of the bright-eyed 5-year-old, the childlike way in which Donoghue and Abrahamson manage to navigate through so many hard-edged, complicatedly adult situations and emotions is astonishing. Yet, the pair do this without talking down to the audience, no belittling, no assuming they can't think for themselves and that they'll be unable to figure out all the components of this tale without too much in the way of unnecessary embellishments on their part. The consistency in tone is something special, allowing the film to connect in a way that caught me entirely by surprise.

Larson, denied an Academy Award nomination for her spellbinding performance in Short Term 12, finding ways to enliven pictures as diverse as 21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now, Don Juan and this summer's Amy Schumer hit Trainwreck, is mesmerizing, inhabiting Ma so fully it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Much like the filmmakers, she's forced to walk a pretty thin tightrope, having to explain things in a way Jack can understand, but also so that there is a sense of urgency he cannot ignore as it pertains to what's she's asking him to do.

More than that, though, Larson has to also explore Ma's own internal injuries, make her decisions as they concern Jack, as well as the menacing Old Nick, feel pure, entirely authentic. She has to ride an unimaginable emotional rollercoaster, making us believe that this devoted mother could still be as stranded in her own form of childhood thanks to the traumas she has been forced for over half-a-decade to endure. It's a seemingly impossible task and yet Larson makes it look effortless, a late moment between her and Wendy Crewson (her character best left for viewers to learn about on their own) slamming my heart up against the wall as Ma is forced to examine her choices with callous disregard to the damage being done to her.

I'm being purposefully vague about a great deal of what happens, mainly because I can't help but hope that intrigued viewers get the opportunity to discover what Donoghue and Abrahamson have in store for them without too many of the twists and turns spoiled before they enter into the theatre. Just know that Allen is extraordinary, and it feels like it's been ages since this three-time Oscar-nominee has been given a role quite this wonderful. There is also some sublime work from young Tremblay, a sequence with him, a rolled up rug and a bumpy ride into the unknown so undeniably thrilling I almost couldn't believe what it was I was witnessing.

There's some stuff involving Macy's character that doesn't work particularly well, and there are a few beats where the filmmakers hit the viewer a little too hard over the head, amplifying little moments or pointing out some of their thematic observations that were already clear enough and didn't require additional augmenting. But Abrahamson's direction is just so strong and Donoghue's script so refreshingly honest it's hard to get too angry about little things that don't rise to the same level of near-perfection the majority ascends to. Ultimately, Room is a lithe, deeply moving wonder that builds to a miraculous coda, the hope pulsating through my soul a feeling of true bliss unlike any I've felt watching a movie this entire year.


Spectre takes 007 on a forgettable journey
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SPECTRE
Now playing


Sent on a mission of death by a message from the grave from his former boss (Judi Dench), James Bond (Daniel Craig) is currently in Mexico City giving his license to kill a workout. The current M (Ralph Fiennes) is not pleased by his best agent's destructive, unauthorized antics, ordering Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to keep tabs on him whether 007 wants them to or not. Thing is, they trust Bond, so when he again flies the coop to attend a funeral, saving the life of the grieving wife (Monica Bellucci) of the man he killed in the process, they both stand idly by letting him go on his merry way.

Good thing, too, because the secret agent has uncovered a conspiracy more far-reaching and unpleasant than anything anyone back at the home office could have imagined possible. Thanks to help from old nemesis Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), promising to keep the man's only daughter Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) safe from harm in exchange for information, Bond is led into the beating, bloody heart of a massive conspiracy. Yet, even he is unprepared for what he discovers there, the man in charge someone he is intimately familiar with, a man he, along with everyone in the British government, all thought was dead.

Spectre brings the Daniel Craig era James Bond stories full circle, tying up loose ends left behind after the events of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, while also introducing the quintessential villainous organization author Ian Fleming's superspy has been battling right from the very beginning. It's both a culmination of a story begun nine years ago as well as an origin tale potentially setting the course for the future, returning director Sam Mendes trying to thread a tiny needle as he pays homage to the past while keeping things anchored in the present.

There have been a number of great James Bond movies, each of the actors (Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan) who have played the iconic character all having at least one strong outing to their credit. There have also been a number of memorably bad outings for 007, Moonraker, A View to a Kill and Die Another Day all coming to mind as far as that goes. But there has never been a forgettable Bond flick, one that evaporates from memory the moment it comes to an end, a major plus for a series of films that's been running strong since Dr. No premiered in 1962.

Until now. Even with two-time Academy Award-winner Christoph Waltz as the central baddie, even with an opening sequence set during the Day of the Dead featuring an absolutely flabbergasting tracking shot helmed by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Nebraska), it's astonishing how little of interest actually takes place. Veteran Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (The World is Not Enough onward), working with newcomer Jez Butterworth (Black Mass) and fellow Skyfall returnee John Logan, have constructed the most freeze-dried and by-the-numbers 007 outing yet, the stuff transpiring so uninspiring it's almost impressive.

Not that the components for a solid escapade are not present. Not only is Waltz just fine in his rather mysterious role as the nefarious instigator of all Bond's misery, Dave Bautista is a magnetic force of thuggish nature out to stop 007 from putting the pieces of this enigmatic puzzle together as brutally and as violently as he can. Craig and Bellucci have magnificent chemistry, their brief time together a smoldering inferno of intimacy and understanding that's positively inspirational. Additionally, while silly as all get-out, Mendes stages a spectacular set piece involving a fleet of Land Rovers and a twin engine airplane dueling across a snow-covered mountainside that's close to out of this world.

But who cares? The script plays like a series of 'Bond Greatest Hits' more than it does anything original, inorganically fitting in various plot machinations more because they need to exist in order for the film's ultimate reveal to be a reality than they do to propel the main character along on his journey of self-discovery. While I appreciate the way the writers manage to work in references to the other three Craig films, they don't do so in ways that are authentic or honest. More, they also cram in S.P.E.C.T.R.E. references going back to Dr. No going all the way through to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and while there is minor fun in spotting them all there's no real narrative reason for the majority to exist.

Even one of the film's best fight sequences, an all-out brawl between Craig and Bautista on a speeding train, is lifted almost wholesale from From Russia with Love, and as nicely orchestrated and staged as it might be, the whole moment feels shoehorned into the proceedings all so the two stars can ape Sean Connery and Robert Shaw. It's endemic of the movie as a whole, little of it having an identity it could call unique or its own, and after a while I just felt a little worn down by it all to the point I almost stopped caring about anything that was happening.

Saying all of this does break my heart. I was raised on James Bond. I know him inside and out. I'm one of the few people I know who can watch the great Bond films as many times as I do the terrible ones. I will proudly proclaim From Russia with Love one of the greatest motion pictures of all-time while at the same time singing the praises of supposedly 'lesser' 007s Lazenby and Dalton until the cows come home. I adore this character, his world and his adventures no matter which iteration we are discussing, and it's safe to say my parents introducing him to me (including Fleming's books, which I devoured voraciously) is something I thank my lucky stars for regularly.

But Spectre? As terrific as it all looks, as expertly crafted as it might be, Spectre just isn't all that good a movie, and while it brings signature events and characters back into the Bond fold much better than most other reboots of classic serials can say the same about accomplishing (i.e. Star Trek Into Darkness), as positives go this is a minor one. The movie is a tired retread that offers little new or original, taking 007 to the one place he's arguably never been before: irrelevance.




If/Then - A look down the other road
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My Mañana Comes: American wishes at the back of house
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Tituss Burgess interviews next week with SGN, ahead of Seattle Men's Chorus concerts
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Warm up with musicals for November 2015 theater
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My Dear Miss Chancellor is an evening certain to please
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Men in Dance 2015 Choreographer's Showcase was standing room only
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Parley announces a workshop production of Careful Girls by Caitlin Coey
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Peter Tatchell's article
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Superbly acted Truth never finds thematic balance
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All-star Burnt doesn't quite cook
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Brilliantly brittle Room an intimately emotional wonder
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Spectre takes 007 on a forgettable journey
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