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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 11, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 46
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Stunning Arrival an intelligent sci-fi spectacular
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ARRIVAL
Now playing


Esteemed linguist professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has been tasked by the U.S. government, specifically by the determined, singularly-minded Colonel Whitaker (Forest Whitaker), to lead a team of fellow experts to do the impossible. Joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they will journey to central Montana to hopefully communicate with visitors heretofore never seen by anyone on the Earth before now, alien spaceships landing at 12 seemingly random spots around the globe, their intentions for being here a complete and utter mystery.

Arrival is a tough film to talk about, because to dive into any number of its myriad of nuances could potentially be a death blow to the surprises and wonders director Denis Villeneuve's latest stunner has in store for its potential audience. More akin to the filmmaker's cerebral, mind-bending Enemy than it is to either of his more accessible mainstream successes Sicario or Prisoners, this science fiction sensation features a superb screenplay by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out) born from the pages of Ted Chiang's sensational short fiction Story of Your Life. A saga of acceptance, forgiveness and compromise, this is a marvelously entertaining thriller that refuses to sacrifice an ounce of its intelligence at any point during Dr. Banks' quest for answers, and in so doing so paints a timeless picture of longing, sacrifice and resilience that's dynamic and universal.

Not that it isn't easy to get lost. Heisserer has studied his Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Bradbury and Malick, time bending this way and that in ways that are not instantly noticeable. But Villeneuve taps into this nonlinear construct with ease, allowing Dr. Banks' meanderings, visions and musings to have real heft, and authentic weight, the way they all blossom into an insightful bit of strong-willed fortitude and resilience absolutely awe-inspiring. She is the reason that truth does not give way to ignorance, that fear does not lead to violence, her ability to adapt and problem solve leading to a form of courageous catharsis that's decidedly beyond compare.

Five-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams is superb. Her performance as Dr. Banks is mostly of an interior nature, driven by an aching pain that is quickly understood thanks to an opening Up-like montage that had me choking back sudden tears within the film's first ten minutes. But what's incredible about Adams' overall performance is that the nature of this suffering, the events that lead to this personal trauma, they are nothing like what we assume them to be. Instead, what Dr. Banks is dealing with is far more ephemeral, vigorously nondescript, and it isn't until the climax that it becomes clear what has been going on and why all of it has been so gosh darn important.

Adams navigates these murkily emotional waters with astonishing elasticity. Her passion for the project, her longing to do what is right, not just as a scientist seeking knowledge, but as a human being grappling with the potentially catastrophic, all of it happens with registered grace, adrenalized subtly. While Adams never plays her fluctuating emotions close to the vest, she also doesn't let them explode in melodramatic exuberance, instead walking an internalized thin line that is continuingly compelling and inherently realistic.

There are points where Villeneuve and Heisserer can't connect all their dots in an entirely satisfying manner, however. A subplot involving a few of the more worried soldiers working with the scientists and charged with guarding the alien landing site is slipped in in a rather ham-fisted manner. Also, a shadowy CIA agent portrayed by veteran character actor Michael Stuhlbarg feels too much like an afterthought; and while his introduction is intriguing, what is ultimately done with the character never rises above stereotypical genre cliché. Finally, as impressive as the outcome might be, Villeneuve still rushes his climax a bit, giant swaths of information delivered with a primitive fury that seems designed more to gin up additional tension than it does to facilitate audience understanding of what is taking place and why things are happening as they are.

Thankfully, all of these quibbles are relatively minor, Villeneuve delivering a motion picture that reaches into the heavens in an attempt to grab hold of the stars, the fact it comes close to doing just that cause for celebration. An old-fashioned marvel of science fiction storytelling, Arrival asks big questions and provides even bigger answers. A technical marvel (the work composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and cinematographer Bradford Young do here is extraordinary), Villeneuve's driven commitment to keeping his main character's personal transformation front and center cannot be undervalued. Time is never what it appears to be, yet always remains of the essence, no matter what transpires, this movie inhabiting that place between the seconds where the future is an imaginative possibility and hope is the improbable foundation greatness is built upon.


Quietly heroic Loving a timely romantic drama
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LOVING
Now playing


In 1958, longtime couple Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) made the decision to get married. Driving into Washington, DC, they stood before a justice of the peace, declared their love, signed the proper papers and left with a license declaring them husband and wife. Returning to their small hometown of Central Point, Virginia, they continue to live their lives as they always have, together and openly, and while they technically do not live together in the same house, it's no secret to anyone where the two of them are spending their nights.

And that's the problem. People know who they are. People know they are together. Most importantly, authorities know that they are married, and as Richard is White and Mildred is Black, as far as the state of Virginia is concerned, that's not just a no-no, it's also illegal. They want the pair out of the state, immediately and without delay, and if they ever return together, both will be sent to prison for as long as the laws on the books will allow.

What follows is a nine-year legal fight that will take the pair all the way to the Supreme Court, their historic case Loving v. Virginia leading to a unanimous decision where laws banning interracial marriage were deemed unconstitutional and where Chief Justice Earl Warren famously wrote, 'Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.' This is the story that acclaimed writer/director Jeff Nichols' (Mud, Take Shelter) latest masterwork Loving purports to tell, the care, restraint and authority on display as he brings it to life positively beyond compare.

What's most remarkable is how refined the film is. Nichols follows the example set by his quietly heroic protagonists. He does not preach. He doesn't pound a desk. He doesn't allow intrusive musical cues to overwhelm the inherent emotions at the heart of Richard and Mildred's ordeal, refusing to play up the inherently melodramatic nature of their journey at any point during his feature's breathlessly paced 123 minutes. Instead, Nichols presents things as plainly and as clearly as he can, almost in a documentary-like way, yet one that still runs on the passions and affections that clearly pass between the couple struggling to hang on to everything they hold dear.

What's fascinating is how personal the movie feels. One imagines, had this film been made in the 1980s, it likely would have resembled the overblown histrionics of something like Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning or the simplistic didacticism of Bruce Beresford's Driving Miss Daisy. In the 1990s, it would have resembled long-winded sermons like Steven Spielberg's Amistad or Jonathan Kaplan's simplistically obvious Love Field. While I actually like all of those films on one level or another, none get the job done as they should. More, they are decidedly whitewashed affairs, looking at the Black experience in America through exceedingly White eyes, and as such not nearly enough of the story ends up resonating as deeply or as passionately as it theoretically could have.

Here, Nichols ends up walking a remarkably fine line, and even though one of his principals is decidedly Caucasian, the way he allows the Black experience of the 1960s to come to life in ways that feel honest, pure and unfiltered is refreshingly genuine. Delicately, and with precision, he allows Mildred to take center stage, her apparent fragility masking a gritty determination that allows the Lovings to both return to Virginia in secret as well as become involved in the legal fight that will see their marriage validated.

As such, Negga, a wondrous young actress who has made an indelible mark in projects as diverse as Warcraft, 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' and Jimi: All Is by My Side, is sublime, delivering a performance of resonance and depth that grows in scope and magnitude as the film progresses towards its triumphant conclusion. The dignity that she brings to this role, the way I could see her become more and more emboldened to do what was right for both her marriage as well as her children, watching them live in constant fear, it's just extraordinary. Negga never raises her voice, never explodes, yet this woman's fierce tenacity is not for a single second ever in doubt, and as such it was impossible for me to take my eyes off of her anytime she was up on the screen.

Edgerton is excellent as well, shuffling into Richard's shoes with stunning ease, the differences between his last collaboration with Nichols, the science fiction sensation Midnight Special, released earlier this year, and this motion picture beyond night and day. There's also able support provided by the likes of Marton Csokas as the racist county sheriff intent on seeing the Lovings' marriage destroyed, Michael Shannon as Life magazine photographer Grey Villet, Terri Abney as Mildred's sister Garnet and especially Sharon Blackwood as Richard's quietly concerned midwife mother Lola. But they're all just the tip of the iceberg, Nichols casting the film with his typically perceptive eye, making sure little feels out of place or unrealistic.

While I quite liked how the focus on lawyers Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Philip Hirschkop (Jon Bass) is downplayed, my reaction to the pair standing in front of the Supreme Court pleading the case for the Lovings was admittedly muted. The two men are never as fully developed as they maybe should have been, coming across as more of a pair of muddled, well-meaning comedic buffoons at times than they do whip-smart, up-and-coming young lawyers driven to make their mark and, hopefully, do some historic good for their clients. But Nichols knows this isn't their story, not even partially, and while they play a massive hand in the outcome, keeping the focus on Richard and Mildred gives the movie a refreshingly intimate candor that's oftentimes all encompassing.

With all that's happening in the world right now, Loving could not be coming out at a better time. Its story needs to be shouted from the rooftops and spread to every corner of the globe, the fight Richard and Mildred Loving calmly waged against injustice an important and vital reminder of what can be accomplished when fairness and equality are threatened and good people stand up to do what is right. See it at once!


Mesmerizing Christine a riveting must-see docudrama
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

CHRISTINE
Now playing


I admit, I didn't know much about television news reporter Christine Chubbuck before watching director Antonio Campos and writer Craig Shilowich's intimate, elegantly composed and emotionally visceral Christine. Her story, what transpired that led the 29-year-old to commit suicide on-air in 1974, I didn't know any of this going into the movie, and my fear that this would feel more like a dreary death march than it would an informative, thought-provoking drama was sadly palpable before I sat down to give this one a look.

Not that I should have worried. Considering I thoroughly enjoyed Campos' previous two features Simon Killer and Afterschool, the fact the direction here is so confidently self-assured and bracingly subtle shouldn't have struck me as anything close to a surprise. Mix in newcomer Shilowich's strong, straight-forward and emotionally minimalistic screenplay, this is a strong docudrama, a movie filled with strong observations and unnervingly perceptive insights, one that couldn't be coming out at a better moment in time, Chubbuck's tragic story an immersive reminder of how far gender relations in the workplace have come as well as just how far they sadly still need to go.

At a television station in Sarasota, Florida, reporter Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is floundering. Insecure, passed over for promotion, her boss (Tracy Letts) dismissive of the potential features she keeps bringing to his attention, the journalist isn't handling things as well as those around her might believe she is. Single, living at home with her inadvertently smothering mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), secretly infatuated with co-worker George Ryan (Michael C. Hall) but unable to allow herself to respond to any of his advances, Christine is losing sight of why she became a television reporter in the first place, and in the process is hurtling towards a tragic destiny no one, not even she, ever could have anticipated.

This movie could have been unbearable. There's a reason Paddy Chayefsky was inspired by Chubbuck's story to come up with Network, and even bigger one why he composed it as a satire and not a straightforward drama. What's amazing is how Campos and Shilowich manage to transform Christine into a powerful chronicle of sexism, misogyny and workplace norms that isn't just a didactic lecture. They cut to the heart, revealing the person within Christine Chubbuck, manufacturing a universal aria of emotional deconstruction that left me with so much to think about and ponder I was practically shaking in tearful awe as the film came to an end.

The real genius here is the way the filmmakers refuse to give short shrift to the supporting players in this tragedy. Letts, Smith-Cameron and Michael C. Hall give remarkable performances, none of them smoothing their rougher edges yet also more than willing to explore the complex corners of their respective personalities with cunning insight and mesmeric fortitude. They are the unwitting players who, more often than not, believe they are doing right by Christine yet never see the pain swirling behind her eyes, each actor finding a way to connect with their own character's emotional dissonances and oblivious insecurities in ways that are collectively naturalistic.

The film's sound design is also extraordinary. Campos does a magnificent job of creating an assaultive sonic landscape that makes Christine's emotional disintegration feel viscerally pure and uncomfortably immersive. He has a way of constructing an atmosphere of self-destructive invention that's effectively palpable. Yet, the film never feels oppressive, even with the foregone nature of the outcome, the director keeping things focused in a way that is magnetically compelling no matter how gruesome and uncomfortable things might unavoidably turn out to be.

All of which would be well and good, and also disappointingly moot, if the actress at the center of the things wasn't up to the task of making Christine Chubbuck a woman worthy of getting to know and spend time with, even knowing beforehand what is going to happen to her. Rebecca Hall doesn't just rise to the challenge, she ends up giving to my mind, not just the greatest performance I've seen in 2016, but one of the best ones I've had the pleasure to witness these past few years. Extraordinarily detailed, uneasily funny, free of artifice and willing to mine emotional territories that are as raw as they are genuine, she's magnificent, crafting a compelling portrait of ambition and insecurity waging war one against the other, all of it played out against a workroom backdrop that unwittingly amplifies both facets of Christine's personality.

Christine isn't an easy movie to sit through, a statement on my part I'm sure will shock or surprise just about no one. But Campos proves himself to be a directorial titan whose stock is without question on the rise, navigating the complex terrain of Shilowich's multilayered, incisively acidic script with confident restraint. As for Rebecca Hall, she's flat-out astonishing, her performance alone making this riveting drama an absolute essential moviegoers of all backgrounds owe it to themselves to seek out and see.






PNB's Brief Fling another exceptional program of dance
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Seattle Opera presents a Transgender story at Washington Hall
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Jonathan Porretta celebrates his life in dance at special PNB book-signing event
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The Big Meal doesn't fill one up much
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The Lost Girls at Annex Theatre
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Taiwan shows its true rainbow colors on Pride weekend with LGBT awards gala and large parade
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INITIATIVE 735

We need to stop big money to protect LGBTQ rights

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Stunning Arrival an intelligent sci-fi spectacular
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Quietly heroic Loving a timely romantic drama
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Mesmerizing Christine a riveting must-see docudrama
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