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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 11, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 11
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Malick's Cups an esoteric jolt of pure cinematic imagination
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

KNIGHT OF CUPS
Now playing


Knight of Cups is writer/director Terrence Malick at his most lyrically esoteric. If his last film, the atmospheric, if claustrophobically nondescript saga of love and woe, To the Wonder, was the acclaimed filmmaker's attempt to pick away at cinematic convention, it is with Knight of Cups that he abandons traditional narrative constructs entirely. He has officially entered into Jean-Luc Godard terrain here, and much like that legendary filmmaker's last effort Goodbye to Language, Malick comes as close to crafting a purely visual, impenetrably obtuse tone poem about the human condition as anything I could have imagined beforehand.

If this were a traditional narrative construct, Knight of Cups would be about hedonistic Hollywood screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) attempting to make sense of his life in the wake of his youngest brother's untimely death. He'd be dealing with an aging authoritarian father (Brian Dennehy), another brother (Wes Bentley) struggling with addiction and an estranged mother (Cherry Jones) who wants nothing to do with her psychologically damaged ex-husband. Rick is also working his way through a variety of women, including the one who by all rights should have been the love of his life (Cate Blanchett), while another he bares his heart and soul to (Natalie Portman) happens to already be married. In between them are a series of actresses, models and strippers (Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots), all of whom feed his need to be loved and cared for as he gives them in turn a sense of freedom from responsibility they likely haven't known since childhood.

This, however, is not the version of that story. Malick has attempted to manufacture something far more ephemeral, but at the same time much more intimate, than that relatively simple, overly familiar melodramatic scenario would initially lead one to believe. What the movie becomes, then, is a treatise on self, a memorandum on faith, things moving in a dreamlike fashion where memory and experience collide in order to manufacture a present reality that is continually in a state of flux. It is the entire human condition in the continually wandering form of a single man, making choices and decisions that range across the entire good-bad spectrum and as such it paints a picture of self that's as painful as it is joyous, as indescribably unique as it is universal.

Working again with three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (they've collaborated on The New World, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder), the movie has a visual aesthetic that stamps it as a Malick production yet also feels inexpressibly inventive. The pair transforms their camera into a de facto voyeur, spending most of the time hovering right over Rick's shoulder as he traipses through his various situations. It makes the audience the proverbial fly on the wall, a ghostly specter analyzing this man's every move almost as if they were living inside his skin.

With To the Wonder, Malick could never get the balance right, his intentions slipping too often into pretension, diluting the emotional undercurrents I can only assume he was attempting to hint at in ways that left me frustrated and slightly annoyed. This was a first for me where it came to the director, all his previous motion pictures ones I treasure to my very core, especially Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, a pair of masterpieces I feel are two of the greatest films ever made. But Malick's insistence on traveling into the realm of pure cinema, a stream-of-consciousness style of filmmaking that's as nondescript as it is ostentatious, didn't work here, and as such it was hard not to believe the director's aspirations got the better of him.

Undaunted, Malick goes back to this well with Knight of Cups, and while I am not what anyone would call a spiritual person, not since Darren Aronofsky's Noah has a movie made me look inside at my own beliefs as they pertain to God, faith and religion with such palpably intimate ferocity. No real story. No obvious character arcs. None of it matters. Rick's quest is one filled with hardship and pain, something that is eloquently pointed out to him on numerous occasions by religious figures of varying faiths (the most potent of which is portrayed by the great Armin Mueller-Stahl), his struggles ones I found myself relating to more and more as his search went on.

There's no way for me to know who this film will appeal to and who it will not. Truth be told, considering the nature of the storytelling, the way Malick eschews convention at every turn, it will likely be a scant few who respond as I have, the director on his way to becoming the most abstruse major American filmmaker working today. But his experimentation here excites me, has me looking at my own life in ways I haven't dared to in quite some time. It makes his latest a superlative triumph that transcends any rational critical analysis I could ever have hoped to throw its way; and while I can't explain why, Knight of Cups has me flabbergasted, and I'm eager to dive into its metaphorical waves again sometime soon.


Afghan war satire Whiskey Tango Foxtrot a Tina Fey showcase
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT
Now playing


Cable television news producer Kim Baker (Tina Fey) felt like she was going backward, things not exactly going in the direction she'd like them to in either her career or her love life. On something of a whim, she takes an open post as a war reporter, heading to Afghanistan to chronicle the on-the-ground happenings in and around Kabul. She's not prepared, let alone qualified, but neither, really, is anyone else, so embracing a sink-or-swim mentality and plunging herself feet-first into the messy military engagement seems to be the best course of action.

Based on reporter Kim Barker's best-selling memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is a ton to like about directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's latest comedy-drama hybrid Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Much like the pair's previous efforts, most notably Focus, Crazy, Stupid, Love. and I Love You Phillip Morris, the movie attempts to make the real humorous, the funny real and the outrageous genuine. It attempts to look at America's longest war through an absurdist lens, playing in some ways like a female-driven mash-up of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, Mike Nichols' Catch-22 and David O. Russell's Three Kings. That it doesn't reach the same heights as those classics isn't a surprise. That it at times almost does moderately is.

There is a lot to like here. The movie, written by Robert Carlock of '30 Rock' and 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' fame, takes a streamlined, episodic view of Barker's time in Afghanistan, presenting roughly three years of her time abroad as she makes the metamorphosis from ill-prepared newbie to seasoned veteran. Its satirical bent is apparent from the start, looking at things in Kabul (nicknamed the 'Ka-bubble' by the reporters) from a sideways perspective that kept me intrigued throughout. Most of all, it shows that Barker is actually really good at her job, throwing herself into this quagmire immediately even with her massive lack of experience making it initially difficult.

Splitting things into a series of vignettes works the majority of the time. Barker goes on her first embed, figuring out how to attach herself to an important Marine, General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), cultivating that relationship like any good reporter would. She has her interpreter and fixer Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) set her up with important Afghan political leader Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), sidestepping his advances but doing so in a way that allows the politician to remain secure in his haughty masculinity. She makes friends with fellow (and rival) reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and gets close to photojournalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), all of them reveling in the over-the-top Kabul nightlife all of the journalists and their security teams lose themselves within as they try to not let the horror of what they are covering get the better of them.

There are times where Ficarra and Requa get a little too observational, almost as if they're slightly afraid of the material, that if they dig too deeply the audience will run screaming in the opposite direction. As such, they allow some of the coincidence running through Carlock's script to get the better of them, especially during the rushed, not nearly as focused as it arguably should be, final act. Budget cuts, betrayals, abductions and rescues all crash one into the other, all of it becoming something of an emotional jumble that's never as intimate or as affecting as so much of the rest of the film is.

But they right the ship with a terrific climactic sequence that brings things full circle, Barker returning to speak with a soldier she made the acquaintance of during her early days in Afghanistan, and while what he says smacks a little of 'movie speak,' oddly that's okay, the tears I shed during this moment feeling remarkably genuine. I loved the restraint here, the way the two directors allow Fey and character actor Evan Jonigkeit do all the heavy lifting for them. It's a superb little moment that builds eloquently and with precision, and in its way says more about the still ongoing war than anything else in the entire motion picture.

Fey is very good, and it's obvious this movie is a labor of love for her (she's also one of the producers), but she never disappears inside the character, and there are moments here or there where her incarnation of Barker feels a little like a mixture of her Mean Girls educator and her Sisters hellion. But she has terrific chemistry with Freeman, while her scenes with Abbott - who is excellent, if oddly cast, the Caucasian actor not exactly of Middle Eastern descent - are some of the best in the entire film. I also loved an early moment when a convoy she's in gets attacked and, instead of crouching in a corner, she jumps out of her armored vehicle in order to get video footage of the incident. Fey's reactions when she realizes what it is she's just done are priceless, making Barker instantly relatable in a way nothing else she does in the rest of the movie can equal.

If Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn't as incisive or as penetrating as it potentially could have been, for a major studio satirical look at the war in Afghanistan there's still plenty of food for thought here. Ficarra and Requa get more right than they do wrong, and while Carlock's script isn't a warts-and-all expose it digs just deep enough to keep the average viewer with even a modicum of intelligence satisfied. More importantly, the movie starts conversations that feel more than apropos considering it's an election year, and on that front alone I'm very happy Fey and company went out on this particular limb in order to make sure Barker's story saw the light of day.


Clever Cloverfield Lane a monstrously entertaining thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

10 Cloverfield Lane
Now playing


Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up on a small mattress in a concrete room, handcuffed to a water pipe and her knee in a brace. Lumbering his way through the door is scruffy-looking giant Howard (John Goodman). She was in a car accident, he explains to the scared young woman. He brought her here. He took care of her injuries. He locked her up for her own good, not wanting her to reinjure herself in any way when she awoke. In short, he saved her life, and not just from the crash, but from something, as he describes it, much, much worse.

Turns out, Michelle is in Howard's survivalist bunker, joined there by a young man, the happy-go-lucky Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). According to them, something horrible has happened in the outside world, an airborne toxin released by unknown agents that is painfully fatal to any unlucky enough to breathe it in. It's Armageddon, or so says Howard, and if the three of them want to survive, then they should stay right where they all are, in his bunker, for at least the next year, maybe even two.

Here is all you need to know about 10 Cloverfield Lane: It's awesome. That's it. Nothing more. Not a broader plot description. Not an idea of what happens. Not even how, if at all, the movie, produced by J.J. Abrams and executive produced by Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard, connects to the trio's 2008 surprise hit found-footage giant monster creature feature Cloverfield. Born from a witty, breathlessly intricate puzzle box of a script by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken (both of whom also conceived the original story) and Whiplash Oscar-nominee Damien Chazelle, creatively and confidently directed by newcomer Dan Trachtenberg, this agonizingly tense three-person thriller is terrific, a can't-miss piece of high-concept entertainment that by all rights should be a massive hit.

The acting is superb. There is a playful tenderness to Gallagher's Emmett that belies the pain he is now feeling, realizing he'll likely never have the chance to fulfill his dreams or make amends for past regrets. His hurt coupled with his relative joy at being a survivor is glorious, the way he relates to Howard's apparent paranoia and eccentricity a great counterpoint to how the clearly mystified Michelle is dealing with things. Gallagher brings a childlike innocence to his performance that grows in depth and power, allowing for the character to build to a heroic form of sacrificial authenticity that's sublime.

Winstead, who once upon a time deserved an Academy Award nomination for 2012's alcohol addiction drama Smashed, is just as wonderful. The fear Michelle feels awakening in Howard's bunker is palpable, the way she attempts to use her intellect to determine what is truth, what is fiction, and what exactly she should be doing to differentiate between the two equally so. There is something magnetically vulnerable about what Winstead is doing, the actress finding a way to make her character heartbreakingly relatable as she deals with monsters both exterior and interior, her journey of self-discovery the one around which the film indefatigably revolves.

It is Goodman, however, who makes 10 Cloverfield Lane essential. In a career littered with a number of great performances, here, in this small, low budget B-grade down-and-dirty genre thriller, he delivers one ranking right up there with his absolute best. Howard is a complicated creature, filled with numerous layers, teetering between psychosis and selfless tenderness, and it is continually unclear what his intentions in regards to Michelle and Emmett truly are. Even when it becomes apparent what has happened in the outside world and who this man is down in the cold, concrete confines of the bunker, Goodman finds a way to root him in a form of humanity that is pitifully tender, his intricate, cryptically disconcerting portrait of a man at war with himself as poignant as it is terrifying.

The dialogue is top-notch, having a naturalistic quality that belies the inherent dangers lurking within every syllable that passes between the trio at any given time. The script parcels out clues to the central mysteries with pleasing restraint yet is never nondescript or purposefully vague, everything one needs to understand about what is going on, as well as what will likely happen during the third act, plainly visible every step of the way. The film calls to mind Hammer productions of the 1960s or, even better, the eerie, groundbreaking low budget genre marvels of Jacques Tourneur of the early 1940s, the character-driven terrors present throughout reminiscent of classics like Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie.

Trachtenberg's direction is simple, free of artifice and always on point. There is no fat on this film's bones, everything moving at the proper pace and speed, building to its explosive resolution with unwavering commitment and supreme authority. He utilizes composer Bear McCreary's sensational score - his third winner this year after The Forest and The Boy, and first for a movie actually worthy of his efforts - like a thunderous sledgehammer, while the picture's cacophonous sound design is unsettlingly immersive in ways that sent shudders up and down my spine with delicious ease.

Just because the word 'Cloverfield' is in the title, do not assume it is a foregone conclusion where things will end up. Same time, even if one does assume the monsters alluded to in the title will go beyond the metaphorical and enter into the world of the literal, the genius of this movie is those expectations aren't just met, they are encouraged. More than that, Trachtenberg exceeds them, building to an astonishing, powerfully gripping climax that had me sitting so far out on the edge of my seat I was in danger of falling to the floor. 10 Cloverfield Lane might not be a true sequel to Cloverfield, but that doesn't make it any less magnificent, watching it a spellbinding treat I simply did not want to see come to an end.






Violet ascends with a joyful noise
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Robbie Turner survives 100th episode of 'RuPaul's Drag Race'
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Assassins - Dead On!
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THE MOISTURE FESTIVAL OF COMEDY/VARIETÈ

The Lucky 13th Annual Moisture Festival OPENS MARCH 17th!

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Four every Season: Jersey Boys get their turn
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Earth Tomes: celebrating the earth
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Charming Brooklyn Bridge offers community to a lonely girl
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THE GLITTER OF THE LITERATI:

The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and the Saints & Sinners Festival

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Paul McCartney returning to Seattle next month
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Malick's Cups an esoteric jolt of pure cinematic imagination
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Afghan war satire Whiskey Tango Foxtrot a Tina Fey showcase
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Clever Cloverfield Lane a monstrously entertaining thriller
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