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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 5, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 06
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Intimately immersive Saul an emotionally profound masterpiece
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SON OF SAUL
Now playing


Sonderkommando. Noun. In WWII Concentration Camps, a group of Jewish prisoners assigned to collect belongings and dispose of the bodies of other prisoners who had died or been killed.

It is 1944, and Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Sonderkommando trying to hold on to his humanity amidst the unimaginable daily horror going on inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. While preparing the lifeless bodies of fellow Jews for cremation, he comes upon a young boy who somehow survived the gas chamber and is now lying in front of him gasping for life. This miracle is quickly snuffed out by a Nazi doctor more interested in the child for study than he is in saving his life, Saul more devastated than normal by what it is he has been forced to witness.

Something snaps. While many of his fellow Sonderkommando prepare for an uprising that will hopefully lead to their escape, Saul begins to believe the now dead boy is, in fact, his own son, a child he was separated from and in his mind failed as a father. Now, in death, he will provide the sort of love, care and understanding the Germans never allowed him to give him in life. Saul will save this boy from cremation, he will bury him, he will find a rabbi to recite the mourner's Kaddish, and he will do all of this with Nazi soldiers watching his every step.

This is Son of Saul, a powerfully emotional masterpiece that ended up on my own top ten list as one of the best motion pictures of 2015 and was recently honored with an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It is the narrative feature debut for Hungarian director László Nemes, the filmmaker forcing the viewer to see the Holocaust and life inside of a Concentration Camp in a way they likely never have before.

It is an intimate, claustrophobic descent into madness and death that can't help but make one uncomfortable. At the same time, Nemes, who co-wrote the script with Clara Royer, manages to find hope residing inside all of this unimaginable horror, allowing for moments of familial reconciliation and redemption that are eloquent in their delicate, mournful fragility. While this story is smothered in tragedy, there is something poignant and cathartic about what Saul is attempting to achieve, all of it speaking to a form of spirituality and faith that crosses religious barriers to become something universal and timeless.

I'm not going to lie. Son of Saul is hardly an easy sit. Nemes has his cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (The Quiet Ones) shoot things in a never-ending series of boxy, handheld close-ups that only add to the sense of misery and despair that permeates every second of the motion picture. It is as if the director was forcing me to stand right next to Saul and his fellow Sonderkommando, was making me be subjected to every slight, every slap and every bullet right along next to them. It's an immersive, clinically upsetting foray into this world that goes beyond documentary-like realism to become something else entirely, the collective madness assaulting these men in various ways and in differentiating forms doing the same to me as events progressed.

Röhrig is superb. His performance is raw, stripped naked to its marrow, the actor revealing things about the character and who he is as he doggedly does all he can to succeed in the task he has set in front of himself, consequences be damned. It's an emotional tour-de-force that captivated me completely, all of it leading to a final moment between Saul and a mysterious second young boy that is as haunting as it is magical, tragedy and salvation weaving one inside the other in a way that caught me entirely by surprise.

In the end, the only thing I can compare Son of Saul to is Claude Lanzmann's epic, groundbreaking 1985 documentary Shoah, the level of introspective objectivity eerily, and intimately, similar, even with Nemes's debut being an entirely fictional enterprise. But it feels real, start to finish, and by the time it came to an end I found myself shaking and shivering in ways I seldom ever have. Important as it is essential, the movie is a remarkable achievement deserving of every honor and ounce of acclaim it has so far achieved, watching it a catastrophically profound experience I'm not soon to forget.


Skadoosh! Po's third Kung Fu adventure packs a pleasing punch
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

KUNG FU PANDA 3
Now playing


Panda Po (voiced by Jack Black), the fabled Dragon Warrior and fun-loving leader of the Furious Five made up of fearless warriors Tigress (Angelina Jolie-Pitt), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross), is perplexed when his teacher Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) states he will no longer be training the group. Instead, it will be up to Po to do this, proclaiming the task must fall to the chubby bear if he is ever going to live up to his full potential and unlock the mysterious power of Qi (pronounced 'chi').

As strange as this might initially appear, Shifu's intentions are never allowed the chance to blossom thanks to a pair of unexpected events. The first is the arrival of Po's long-lost father Li (Bryan Cranston), revealing to his missing son the existence of a hidden panda sanctuary while also offering to take him there so he can meet more of his species. The second is the appearance of warrior Kai (J.K. Simmons), a former friend turned enemy of the late Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), emerging from the mysterious Spirit Realm to destroy the Furious Five, defeat Master Shifu and steal the power of Qi from all the remaining pandas living within their mountain sanctuary.

This is Kung Fu Panda 3, the supposedly final step in the story of Po as the Dragon Warrior who is tasked with facing down his most imposing adversary yet while also discovering things about his abilities he heretofore didn't know existed. At the same time, he also learns, not only does his father still live, but so does an entire village of fellow pandas, he and his adopted father, the noodle-selling duck Mr. Ping (James Hong), journeying to this isolated mountain hideaway, absolutely astonished by what it is they find.

It's a lot for Po to deal with, and considering our furry hero has never been the best at being able to focus, it's understandable that all of this has him more than a little flustered. Thing is, even with so much going on that's ripe in dramatic, character-driven comedic potential, it takes some time before this third entry in the popular animated series finds its footing and begins to click on all cylinders. Thankfully, when it does, it is right when it needs to, the last 30 minutes building up to the rousing, energetically exuberant climax so wonderful they end up making the initial, unfocused missteps of the early portions barely even matter.

But there's a lot of shaky ground here, and it's difficult not to notice it. Kai's villainous plan is fairly ephemeral and nondescript, and other than wreaking a lot of havoc and stealing the Qi (pronounced 'chi') of all the kung fu masters he defeats - while also transforming them into his mindless jade-colored slaves - there's not a lot to what he wants to do. More, Li's introduction to all of this is relatively amateurish, feeling more like something out of a sitcom than a major motion picture. It also seems like it takes Cranston a little bit of time to get a handle on the character and what it is he's hoping to do with him, and as great as it is to hear him tap back into his comedic side it's not until the pair end up in the supposed safety of the secret panda village that the actor begins to find his groove.

Yet, the pre-credits opening featuring Kai and Master Oogway in the Spirit Realm is spectacular, setting a tone I had trouble thinking any other portion of the film was going to be able to equal let alone top. Happy to say, not only does this happen, it does so at the perfect time, right at the end, the last act of the film truly sublime. Not only is it marvelous from an action perspective, it's also sublime from a character-driven one as well. From Tigress accepting Po as a teacher, to his maturation as a mentor to an embarrassment of pandas, to his willingness to make what can only be described as an ultimate sacrifice to defeat Kai - all of it works, every second, even to the point I wanted to stand up and cheer by the time the fight between the hero and the villain had come to its end.

Somewhat surprisingly, it all begins with James Hong. Not only have returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger done right by Po's adoptive father Mr. Ping, giving him the majority of the best gags and biggest laughs, they've also given the veteran character actor the most complex and heartfelt emotive beats as well. It is Mr. Ping's realization as to what family means, what being a parent and father is all about, that gives his son the belief that he can not only train the villagers, but also stand up to Kai. Mr. Ping does this by working directly with Li, the two males putting their differences aside in order to do what is best for their son, and in so doing work a type of magic that touched my heart while also bringing on a handful of honestly earned happy tears.

There's no denying that this third chapter in Po's saga cannot hold a candle to the 2008 first film that got the good-natured panda's story rolling; and I can't help but wish the initial first couple of acts of this third tale could have been a little more focused, and felt a little less fractured, than they ultimately did. But there's no denying that Kung Fu Panda 3 concludes on a high note, filled with eye-popping animated set pieces as well as thrilling story beats that I was perfectly entertained by. If it is the end of the road for this particular hero, he certainly goes out a winner. In other words, this sequel is a total Skadoosh! and there's not a heck of a lot more to add.


Austen meets Romero with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES
Now playing


It's safe to say, of all the pieces of fiction that Jane Austen's novel has inspired, I'd hazard a guess that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would be the one that likely would have left the author the most dumbfounded. First a novel written by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter scribe Seth Grahame-Smith, now a major motion picture showcasing Cinderella starlet Lily James, this is as crazy, bordering on nonsensical, an idea as any I could have imagined myself. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy decapitate the undead while they engage in a droll verbal duel that will ultimately lead to their realizations of love for one another? Preposterous, or, at least, that's what I thought before I entered the theatre to watch this film adaptation for myself.

Funny thing, screenwriter/director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) treats his task with bizarre seriousness, intent on crafting a proper, thoughtful and romantically complex adaptation of Austen's half of the source material, one that just so happens to have flesh-eating zombies popping in and out at the most inopportune of times. He obsesses over the costumes, the period details, the social mores and customs of the time, allowing the Bennet sisters to discuss the pros and cons of romance and of being a wife, all while they're training to slay the undead using martial art techniques picked up while studying in China. It's absurd, yet it also strangely works, making the film something of an eccentrically giddy pleasure I fell more and more in love with as things went on.

The basics remain the same. Elizabeth Bennet (James) and her sisters Jane (Bella Heathcote), Lydia (Ellie Bamber), Mary (Millie Brady) and Kitty (Suki Waterhouse) attempt to live up to the high standards set by their loving father Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance). At the same time, their doting mother Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) is eager for all of her girls to marry, worried they'll end up penniless spinsters because English law will not allow her husband to leave any of his estate to them.

From there, Elizabeth ends up making the acquaintance of Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), a haughty, opinionated nobleman who is caught off-guard by a member of the opposite sex who is able to match both his intelligence as well as his verbal virtuosity. The headstrong Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey) is here, as is comical fop Pastor Collins (Matt Smith), while the secretive George Wickham (Jack Huston) plans both to increase his social standing as well as marry a woman well above his station. Seriously, it's Pride and Prejudice, even down to Jane getting sick during a rainstorm and Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) insisting she remains at his home with sister Elizabeth by her side, the various romantic entanglements that ensue same here as they are in Austen's timeless novel.

Thrust into all of this, however, is a zombie apocalypse, down to infectious bites, the consumption of brains and the belief the undead hordes can somehow be contained. It's as silly as it sounds, yet, because Steers plays things so straight, treats things with such dramatic sincerity, gosh darn it if all this mayhem and chaos doesn't actually work. There are thrills, there are chills and goodness knows there are a number of laughs, Steers doing a fine job of balancing things with a straight-laced glee that's kind of wonderful.

There is some overreach, but in many ways that is to be expected. Some of the bits involving Wickham and his plans to upend Darcy while also charting a new direction for the growing zombie menace just do not work, and as villains go Huston is somewhat unexpectedly a rather facile one who's nowhere near as menacing as he needs to be. There's also some pretty bad CGI that makes things look like a Resident Evil knock-off, while the film's last scene is unbelievably pointless and should have been left on the cutting room floor.

But James, as she was in Cinderella, is glorious, while Dance dominates his scenes as the authoritative yet loving Mr. Bennet in ways that transcend the material. Smith steals scenes left and right, his comedic timing impeccable throughout. As for the chemistry between Booth and Heathcote, it's through the roof, the point in the story where Mr. Bingley is convinced to break things off with Jane garnering a rather potent emotional response from me I didn't see coming. My only question mark is Riley, his take on the stoic Mr. Darcy one I was never altogether certain of, and as his relationship with Elizabeth is the crux around which all else revolves this is a significant issue that admittedly kept me from embracing the finished film as completely as I maybe otherwise would have.

It should be noted that, although receiving a PG-13 rating, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is amazingly violent, and I can only think it avoided an R rating because amidst all the decapitations, eviscerations and impaling there is astonishingly little in the way of blood. That caveat aside, for those willing to give this Jane Austen meets George A. Romero mash-up a chance, Steers' adaptation of Grahame-Smith's source material is a heck of a lot of fun, and without a doubt it ranks as 2016's first official out-of-nowhere pleasant surprise.






Seattle Women's Chorus goes back to CAMP at Cornish Playhouse
Dos Fallopia joins the women for four Seattle performances: February 26-28

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Seattle's Robbie Turner to compete on 'RuPaul's Drag Race - Season 8'
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Silent Sky a fascinating story about astronomer Henrietta Leavitt
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Billy Joel to perform at Safeco Field this spring
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February theater - something sweet for everyone
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A marvelous cast in Schmeater's In Arabia
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Bullets Over Broadway - the Musical at the Paramount
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Iconic queens go head-to-head in Donizetti's Mary Stuart
Exquisite period drama premieres at Seattle Opera

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Lady GaGa tapped for David Bowie tribute, singing National Anthem for Super Bowl
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Intimately immersive Saul an emotionally profound masterpiece
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Skadoosh! Po's third Kung Fu adventure packs a pleasing punch
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Austen meets Romero with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
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