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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 9, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 50
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Skillfully coifed Love Witch a magical cyanide cocktail
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE LOVE WITCH
Now playing


Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is determined to find a man she can love. She adores love, so much so she's devoted her study of witchcraft and the occult into achieving it no matter the cost. Problem is, she's spent so much time transforming herself into what she believes is the masculine version of the porcelain doll ideal that she's lost sight of the line that exists between right and wrong. While her spells bring men her way, once she has them, Elaine quickly realizes they aren't all they're cracked up to be, and the only way to make sure they don't keep mindlessly pursuing her is to make certain they're placed a good six-feet underneath the ground where they can't do any harm.

Shot on 35mm, made with retro 1960s Technicolor purity, writer/director Anna Biller's The Love Witch is a feat of technical wizardry, its production design, costumes, art direction and especially cinematography beyond reproach. But it is the cunning intelligence of the script, its dark, complexly feminist mechanics, that make the movie sing. Biller has composed an eviscerating black comedy that pulls zero punches and is completely unafraid of pushing as many buttons as it can, holding a spotlight up to society's assessment of the feminine mystique only to menacingly twist it all right on top of its majestically coifed head.

Is Elaine a villain? Is she a hero? Or is she a victim of society's obsession with beauty and gender stereotypes? There aren't any easy answers, at least, not any that Biller cares to answer. Instead, she offers up scenarios and situations that continually blur the line. Elaine is a serial killer, there's no denying that, but the twisted pains and complicated circumstances that made her that way are hinted at throughout. While the movie never forgives her actions, it does ask the viewer to understand them, creating an uncomfortable sense of mystery where right and wrong no longer apply.

This aura of moral imbalance is centered around Trish (Laura Waddell), a somewhat stereotypical girl-next-door who ends up becoming Elaine's first new friend when she arrives in San Francisco. Like everyone else, she's initially hypnotized by the vibrant, go-getting young woman, slightly embarrassed with how openly she is willing to talk about sex, love and all sorts of matters of the heart. It's easy for her to get swept along for the ride, but when the point comes where Elaine realizes how far the artifice extends and just how terrifically damaged her new girlfriend actually might be, the shock she feels is ruinous. Affection turns to horror, the idea that a fellow woman could damage herself so completely just to a please a man a shock to her system yet, in some ways even more terrifying, it is also an idea she can understand and relate to at the exact same time.

Biller, an old Hollywood aficionado whose love for all things Hitchcock, Sirk, Wilder and all the rest seemingly knows no bounds, has imagined a world that is retro and modern, both seemingly at once, and as such creates a lushly unsettling visual landscape that had me questioning what was going on right from the very beginning of the film. Echoes of Bell, Book and Candle, Arsenic and Old Lace, Marnie, Vertigo, Written on the Wind and even The Vampire Lovers abound, while a brazenly sexual streak reminiscent of The Wicker Man can be felt throbbing throughout. She's littered the movie with bright pinks and comforting blues, every color under the sun popping with a jovial electricity that's positively shocking.

But, much like Elaine herself, her makeup always on point, her hair perfect, her clothes dripping in womanly élan, it's all an act, a bittersweet façade that's been manufactured to excite the gaze and misdirect from the actual central goings on taking place right there in plain sight. Much like Robinson's sublime performance (think Kim Novak by way of Tippi Hedren and Lauren Bacall), the trickery is by design, the brutal nature of why things are the way they frustratingly are the reasons the character turns to homicide in order to find what she believes might be the perfect soul mate.

I really don't want to say more. Biller's movie is a royal, devilishly nasty treat that is as magical as it is potent, the potion the filmmaker has whipped up for all of us to drink going down as smoothly as an expertly mixed cocktail with a tiny pink umbrella, only here the secret ingredient is cyanide, not grenadine. There's nothing like The Love Witch, and that's a good thing, for if there were, I seriously doubt I'd be as captivated with this marvelous bit of murderous whimsy as I most assuredly am.


Miss Sloane a gripping political thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MISS SLOANE
Now playing


Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) does not lose. She's one of Washington, DC's most powerful lobbyists, working for a prestigious firm under the guidance of the legendary George Dupont (Sam Waterston). He's taught his protégé well, revealing pretty much all his tricks, Miss Sloane inventing a number of new ones herself as she does whatever it takes to make sure the will of her clients is heard in every corner and backroom of Capitol Hill.

But when the gun lobby comes calling to make sure new legislation never sees the light of day, Miss Sloane surprisingly refuses to assist them in their cause. Instead, for reasons entirely her own, she leaves Dupont to run off and join an upstart firm headed by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). They're working the opposite side of the case and Miss Sloane wants to lead that charge. Taking his team in hand, she starts instructing these well-meaning neophytes in how to do battle in the down and dirty world of American politics, putting all she holds dear in jeopardy and risking past indiscretions are thrust into the light of day by going against the gun lobby.

If nothing else, Miss Sloane couldn't be getting a more timely release. The political thriller is hitting theatres after a string of mass shootings have left people shocked and stunned leading to countless arguments about gun restrictions yet have also produced exactly zero new laws on the issue to make their way through Congress. It also comes in the wake of one of the more controversial and contentious presidential election in U.S. history, one of the central issues heard over and over during the campaign being the power of lobbyists and how best to curb their influence.

As such, Oscar-winning director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera have set themselves an incredibly high bar to leap over, assembling a cast of Hollywood character actor heavyweights, both veteran and newbie, to help them do it. In addition to Chastain, Waterston and Strong, the film features Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Lithgow, Alison Pill, Dylan Baker, Jake Lacy, Douglas Smith and Ennis Esmer in key supporting roles, all of them more than up to the task that's been put in front of them.

Compelling, hard-hitting and refusing to compromise, the film is a jolt of electricity right from the start, Madden diving into the lobbying world with a rabid relish that's downright startling. The first half hour or so rushes by in the blink of the eye, the script doing a marvelous job of fleshing out the key elements of its titular character's core traits with bracing efficiency. Elizabeth Sloane is a smart, tenacious woman who bows to no one, willing to stomp over all who get in her path as victory is ultimately the only thing that matters to her. She's like a political Conan the Barbarian, but instead of a sword, she wields a cell phone and struts around in a collection of impossibly high heels, all immediately intimated the moment she walks into a room.

But Madden finds the sense of urgency he and Perera so breathlessly establish in the first act difficult to maintain, and during the middle section of the picture things do stall out from time to time, the filmmakers digging so deeply into the lobbying minutia I found it hard to stay emotionally involved in what was going on. When Miss Sloane makes the jump to the new firm a lot of time is spent having her interact with her new, highly inexperienced team, and as good as the cast might be a lot of this stuff is too overly familiar and obvious to intimately resonate.

Thankfully, the core of the story is just too strong for things to ever go off the rails. Additionally, the introduction of Mbatha-Raw is aces, her character a key figure in Miss Sloane's plans to take down the gun lobby, their emotionally complicated interactions becoming the core component around which much of the main storyline revolves. I'm being purposefully vague because, while it's not much of a spoiler to talk about what happens between the two women, personally I was so overjoyed by their scenes together I just don't want to risk revealing anything about what happens no matter how minor. Seeing Mbatha-Raw and Chastain share the screen is virtual perfection, the two hugely talented actresses displaying a transfixing chemistry that's undeniably awesome and painfully authentic.

Speaking of awesome, I can't think of a better adjective to describe what Chastain accomplishes as Elizabeth Sloane. The fiery actress is every bit as amazing as she has ever been, and this includes her Oscar-nominated turns in The Help and Zero Dark Thirty. The key component to Miss Sloane has to do with why she turns down working for the gun lobby and instead chooses to battle against them, Chastain doing a superb job of making it obvious to the observant viewer why she makes this decision. The multifaceted mechanics of the performance are just astonishing, and even when the movie stumbles or loses its way the actress keeps the engine running relatively smoothly thanks in large part to her mesmerizing genius.

As sharp as the script's teeth might be, I can't say I was all that surprised about where things ended up. To Madden and Perera's mutual credit, both are more than willing to rip at the jugular, taking things to places that are as uncomfortable as they are absorbing. But the pair are also captives of the genre dynamics which they have chosen to utilize; and while both are doing their best Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky impersonations that doesn't mean their motion picture has the power, grace or authority of something like Network or The Hospital. But Miss Sloane tells a story that feels like it was ripped right out of yesterday's headlines, that coupled with Chastain's magnificence helping make the film a gripping spellbinder worth seeking out.


Office Christmas Party a seasonally dysfunctional comedy
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY
Now playing


Their office in danger of being closed, Chicago Zentek President Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller) stumbles upon a crazy idea to save his employees from the unemployment line. His sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is in the running to be new corporate CEO, and she's given her brother a promise that if he can secure a multimillion dollar deal with tech company executive Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) by the end of the week she won't close his branch. Turns out, he's an old school businessman who misses the days when companies took care of their employees, throwing lavish holiday parties to celebrate their appreciation for all they do during the calendar year.

With the help of his trusted V.P. Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) and programming genius Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn), Clay plans to throw the party to end all parties, promising his employees that, not only will he save their jobs, they'll also get their year-end bonuses. With Walter as their guest of honor, this trio goes above and beyond to show him a good time, the carnage and chaos they inadvertently unleash upon the downtown business core likely to go down in Chicago history right alongside Mrs. O'Leary's cow.

There is nothing subtle about Josh Gordon and Will Speck's (Blades of Glory, The Switch) raucous, unhinged comedy Office Christmas Party. With a cast featuring Bateman, Miller, Munn, Aniston, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell and Rob Corddry, just to name a scant few, I'm not sure anyone would believe it if things had turned out otherwise as this isn't exactly the group of actors that get assembled if you're interested in producing a tragic melodrama.

Granted, part of me thinks it would be kind of cool if that were the case, but that's a discussion for another day. As far as this particular film goes, it's absolutely crackers, things spiraling out of control in much the same way as early-to-mid 1980s comedies like Bachelor Party, Risky Business or Revenge of the Nerds did. It's uncouth and obnoxious, pushing things as far as it can, going bigger and bigger but always with some sort of somewhat saccharine, sweetly moralistic message lurking obviously at its core. Funny? Yes. Consistently so? Not really, at least not to me, but considering how subjective comedies are, how general audiences will feel I haven't the first clue.

McKinnon, as the office's head of human resources, steals the show, her series of pithy asides, head bobs, smirks, dance moves and oddly crooked gestures so continuously hysterical it's almost like she's on a different level than every other single member of the film's remarkably talented cast. Much like she did with Ghostbusters, this dynamo of comic electricity enlivens every moment, and whether it's talking about her collection of pet parrots, joining Corddry on the dance floor or talking about which donuts are allowed in the morning (and which are unacceptable) her genius is unparalleled.

As for the rest of the actors, most of them are in decent form even if they aren't necessarily doing a single thing we haven't seen from them before. Miller is a kinder, gentler version of his 'Silicon Valley' persona, Bateman and Aniston are channeling Horrible Bosses, Munn a combination of her acerbic nerd fantasy woman familiar to fans of 'Attack of the Show' and 'The Newsroom,' while Bell and Corddry are, well, Bell and Corddry. Mostly this is a plus, especially as it pertains to Miller and Munn. Sometimes it's status quo, Bateman, Aniston and Bell appealing, but not really stretching themselves in any discernible way. As for Corddry, his shtick is growing tiresome, and while he isn't exactly around that much, he is just enough that he grated on my nerves something fierce.

It should be noted that, even with six credited writers working on the project (including directors Gordon and Speck), there is only the thinnest of scenarios at play, and for much of the film's running time whether they were actually allowed to or not it feels as if the cast is improvising like mad. The freewheeling nature can be amazing, but it can also be messy and unfocused, things happening for no real reason other than to reach an end point where everything is resolved and the audience is left happy. If the film could have been tighter, if the fat could have been cut, it's likely I'd have left the theatre happy. As it is, there's so much stuff that flies this way and that the ungainly nature gets tiresome, making enjoying things start to finish difficult.

Still, when it is funny, Office Christmas Party can be a hoot, and it's always nice to see firebrands like McKinnon getting an opportunity to strut their stuff so magnificently. But Gordon and Speck can't hold it all together, things spiraling in so many different directions their bits of emotional pabulum that they toss in willy-nilly throughout fall achingly flat. It's seasonally dysfunctional in ways that cannot be overcome, and while I laughed, I did not laugh enough to make sitting through the film as a whole worthwhile.






Make The Little Mermaid part of your world
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SMC's Silver & Soul holiday concert soars
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2017 GRAMMY NOMINATIONS:

Beyonce leads all nominees with 9; Bowie shut out in major categories

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Just like the white winged dove:

Stevie Nicks descends upon Seattle this weekend

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Make the Yuletide Gay director Rob Williams talks about his latest film Shared Rooms
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Sympathy for the Devil:

Chatting with writer/director Anna Biller about her surrealistic feminist throwback The Love Witch

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GOLDEN GLOBES:

LGBT-themed film Moonlight and TV's 'Westworld' are strong contenders for nominations

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Pink Pistols article excellent
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Deadmau5, PJ Harvey announce upcoming Seattle concerts
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Skillfully coifed Love Witch a magical cyanide cocktail
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Miss Sloane a gripping political thriller
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Office Christmas Party a seasonally dysfunctional comedy
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