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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 19, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 20
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Teen melodrama Everything, Everything not immune to a cancerous climax
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

For as long as she can remember, 18-year-old Maddy Whittier (Amandla Stenberg) has dreamt of going outside. She longs to frolic on the beach and to swim in the ocean, to feel the wind rush through her hair and know what it is to stand in the great outdoors during a rainstorm. The bright, intelligent teenager with aspirations of becoming an architect, has never left her house, and because she suffers from an extreme case of Severe Combined Immune Deficiency, otherwise known as SCID, the reasons for this are rather obvious. Maddy's immune system doesn't work, meaning that the outdoors and all they have to offer could literally kill her.

But that doesn't mean she can dream, especially when the attractive Olly Bright (Nick Robinson) moves into the neighborhood. He's immediately captivated by the beautiful young girl standing in the window of the block's nicest home, and through a variety of creative means he finally figures out a way to communicate with her. Via text messaging and Internet chat programs, the two slowly learn all they can about one another, Maddy and Olly connecting on a much deeper level that goes beyond their respective good looks.

Based on the best-selling novel by Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything is that rare teen romantic melodrama that rises above its disease-of-the-week melodramatic shortcomings to become something pleasantly diverting for the majority of its brief 96-minute running time. Confidently directed by newcomer Stella Meghie, assuredly scripted by J. Mills Goodloe (The Age of Adaline), the movie's ace in the hole are the performances of its two stars, Stenberg and Robinson shimmering like golden rays of sunshine throughout. There is also a strong supporting turn by veteran character actress Anika Noni Rose as Maddie's protective physician mother Pauline, while the always luminous Ana de la Reguera is close to perfect as the teen's longtime friend and nurse Carla.

All the same, this still ends up being a motion picture I cannot recommend in good conscience. Having not read the book, I can only assume a third act twist worked a lot better in the pages of Yoon's source material than it does inside the confines of Goodlow's screenplay. It's a ghastly reveal, one so heinous it soured me on the film as a whole the instant it happened. What's even more interesting, it's beyond obvious, the kind of little trick a show like 'One Tree Hill' used to make its bread and butter during the entirety of its nine-season run. It's so bad that, even if one guesses the twist before it happens, you still don't believe the filmmakers would deign to go there, the idea that their drama would stoop to such a risible low in order to pull a few extra tears from the viewer beyond the pale.

This sucks, because, up until that point, I liked Everything, Everything. A lot. The relationship between Maddy and Pauline is depicted with refreshing candor and honesty, the give and take between mother and daughter having a sparkling melancholic yet still loving vitality that's heartbreaking. As for the slowly developing relationship between the young woman and her new neighbor, that's flat-out divine, both Stenberg and Robinson having moments of magic that held me spellbound. Their first in-person meeting is glorious, the feelings of angst, of attraction, of intrigue, anticipation, fear and of hope, all of it cascades off the screen like a springtime waterfall bursting free of the ice and snow that have held it in check for untold winter months.

Meghie's direction is suitably sparse, the filmmaker allowing scenes to develop naturalistically and at their own unhurried pace. While her reliance upon a bevy of catchy pop songs, not to mention Ludwig Göransson's (Central Intelligence) strong if over-utilized score, can sometimes inadvertently stifle the story's inherent dramatic rhythms, overall the director does a nice job, a mid-movie act of rebellion on Maddie's part introduced with a pleasantly relaxed gentility that's wonderful.

All of which makes the film's climactic collapse even more dispiriting. It's a disastrous turn of events that comes close to erasing a star-making performance from Stenberg and makes Meghie's directorial debut not matter nearly as much as it otherwise would have had things held together more concretely. Everything, Everything isn't the maudlin melodramatic dirge I feared it could have been, and for that I'm thankful. Even so, the fact it's so very good before it becomes so very bad might just make the film more dissatisfying, so much wasted potential turning my own cinematic immune system into a lethally cancerous nightmare of bitter frustration and dejected disappointment.


Scott's fascinatingly unsettling Covenant doubles down on Prometheus
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ALIEN: COVENANT
Now playing


The spaceship Covenant carries 2,000 colonists who have left Earth for a new life on a distant planet on the other side of the solar system. There are 16 crew members who have joined them in hypersleep, the vessel a gigantic ark that will allow humanity to take root in a new corner of the universe. The only one walking the passageways is the synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender), his task to ensure the trip goes smoothly and all remains peaceful until it is time to awaken the crew to pilot the ship to its final destination.

But things do not go as planned, a massive energy burst playing havoc with the Covenant's systems. Walter makes the decision to engage emergency protocols, pulling the crew out of hibernation to take command, assess the damage, make necessary repairs and determine the best course of action to ensure the survival of the colonists. Before all can be awakened, a fire takes the life of the ship's Captain, his devastated wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston) immediately elevated to second-in-command while the inexperienced Oram (Billy Crudup) is forced to take command. With the crew's eyes looking to him for guidance, this devout man of faith must make the most important of decisions, his actions likely to determine whether or not the ship and its passengers make it to their destination alive.

Picking up just a few short years after the events depicted in 2012's Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is director Ridley Scott's latest foray into a horrifying interstellar galaxy filled with monsters. To connect the two films Oram and his crew make the decision to investigate a strange signal emanating from a mysterious Earth-like planet instead of continuing to proceed to their original destination. Big mistake. While all initially seems peaceful it doesn't take long for some of the landing party to become infected by an offshoot of the bioengineered black goo introduced in the prior motion picture. This in turn allows for the return of David (also Michael Fassbender), the damaged robot repaired by fellow Prometheus survivor Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). The two had made the decision to head to the home world of the beings they nicknamed 'Engineers' in the last film, both eager to get answers to a wide range of questions, many of which led to the deaths of all who joined them on that ill-fated expedition.

Did they make it? What is the secret behind this bio-weapon? Did the Engineers facilitate the creation of human life on Earth? Why did they now seemingly want to see it destroyed? These are just a small handful of the pair's questions, whether or not they were given answers, and why David is now seemingly all alone on the planet just a few of the discoveries Scott and his screenwriters John Logan (Spectre) and Dante Harper, working from a story conceived by Jack Paglen (Transcendence) and Michael Green (Logan), subtly explore in this sequel-slash-prequel's breathlessly paced 122 minutes. It all continues to feed slowly but surely into 1979's Alien, dropping a number of hints as to how Ripley and her doomed Nostromo crew could have been led to planet LV-426 in the year 2122.

Anyone thinking Scott and his team would adjust course after the bewildered responses to Prometheus and deliver a more horror-centric scenario here, that is simply not the case. While the blood and guts quotient is significantly higher (although, for all the nastiness nothing here approaches the insanely nauseating emergency Caesarean section scene in the previous film), the director doubles down on the ideas and themes he presented in that science fiction opus, he and his team once again going out of their way to continue to tackle concepts of identity, humanity and religion in the service of a science fiction suspense tale where the unknown is the most fearsome adversary of them all. There is an epic scale to the madness that's as intimate as it is emotional, the Covenant's crew seeing their numbers dwindle one by one the closer they come to learning the truth about the planet they're gamely trying to explore.

As solid as the cast is (Waterston, Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz and Jussie Smollett all making an impression at one point or another) this is Fassbender's show. The movie opens with David discussing the meaning of life with his maker Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), then bursts into its second act with intense dialogue exchanges between David and his slightly more advanced doppelganger Walter and accelerates even faster into the climax as his reasons for being stranded on this planet are shockingly revealed. He is front and center throughout, crafting two distinct characters who are born from the same concept of artificial robotic life but who in reality couldn't be more different. They are Cain and Abel for the digitized cybernetic world, Fassbender brilliantly modulating his dueling performance as the two beings engage in a dexterous interpersonal tête-à-tête as they attempt to figure one another out.

Do not misunderstand. This isn't 2001: A Space Odyssey and Scott, for all his skill, talent and imagination, is not Stanley Kubrick. As heady as some of this might be the director is still more than happy to figure out new ways for his creatures to burst forth into the world, the appearance of the well-known Xenomorph during the climactic stretch well worth the wait. In regards to the new creatures, the way they infect the body is seriously unsettling, as is their way of escaping out from underneath the skin of their human incubators, the difference between this new Neomorph and its bigger, more ferocious sibling a genetic nightmare of flesh, blood and carnage that's positively startling.

Still, these sequences are arguably the least interesting aspects of Alien: Covenant. Between Alien, Aliens, Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, we've seen almost all of this before. The creatures hunt down their surviving human prey as if they were reenacting Agatha Christie's 10 Little Indians, cutting them down one-by-one until only a scant handful remain to fight them off. While Scott stages these attacks with dreadful precision and cutthroat dynamism, their over-familiarity does grow tiresome, and even one of the more disgusting shower scenes in cinematic history (which is saying something) isn't enough to make any of these portions of the film feel original, unique or outside of the series' norm. I also felt that Jed Kurzel's (The Babadook) music pays too much direct homage to Jerry Goldsmith's original Alien score, many of the themes telegraphing future events to the point I knew what was about to happen next based solely on the musical cues.

Which is why Scott's obsession with the themes and ideas, hatched in Prometheus, fleshed out even more here, is so important. This is a horror-thriller for the intelligent viewer, a science fiction game of cat and mouse where the chase isn't nearly as interesting or as exciting as the reasons behind it turn out to be. This latest extravaganza set inside this particular universe might just be the most nihilistic and disturbing entry in the series yet (even more so than the sacrificial funereal hopelessness of Alien 3), Scott refusing to pull his punches, ending things on a series of final images that are far from heartwarming.

I'm still not sure a series of prequels leading into Alien was ever a good idea. I know for certain it also wasn't a necessary one. Yet I still love that Scott has refused to play things safe, that he's tasked his writers to come up with ideas that challenge his audience, that give the story a breadth and a scope that's majestic in its mythological and theological resonance. Even if some of the horror beats are all too familiar, that doesn't make the overarching narrative any less fascinating, Alien: Covenant continuing to prove that big things can indeed be born of small beginnings, and I for one am decidedly curious to discover where this story is going to go next.


Schreiber's charming Chuck star-turn a pugilistic knockout
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

CHUCK
Now playing


Even though he was the heavyweight boxing champion of New Jersey, even with eight straight wins sitting on his resume, no one could have predicted it would be Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber) who would be selected to fight Muhammad Ali (Pooch Hall). Recently crowned the new Heavyweight Champion of the World thanks to his rope-a-dope pummeling of George Foreman, Ali could have selected any number of challengers to be the first man he'd defend his title against. For whatever reason, Wepner was the guy, this barely known liquor salesman from Bayonne getting a million-to-one title shot against a man many considered impossible to knock down let alone defeat.

The rest of the story is fairly well known. While Wepner did not win the fight, he did become the first man to knock Ali to the canvas, the enraged champion rising to send his challenger packing just 19 seconds into the 15th round. But, not only did lasting almost until the end of the fight make the boxer, known in and around New Jersey as the 'Bayonne Bleeder,' something of a folk hero and celebrity, his underdog stance also inspired Sylvester Stallone to write the script for his Academy Award-winning classic Rocky. Wepner became famous all over the world, and if this was where his story ended it would difficult not to feel as if he'd up and lived something akin to a fairy tale.

Watching Chuck, it's clear the boxer's story did not end there, and like most fairy tales, the real life variation isn't always uplifting nor can it be viewed through rose-colored glasses. For every success he created Wepner managed to construct just as many failures, his insistent philandering resulting in the alienation of his only daughter and the ending of his marriage to first wife Phyliss (Elisabeth Moss), while an impromptu introduction to cocaine blossomed into a full-blown addiction that caught the eye of New Jersey authorities.

This is the story director Philippe Falardeau's (Monsieur Lazhar, The Good Lie) good-natured sports melodrama chooses to tell, doing so with an oddly optimistic determination. Anchored with panache and acres of masculine magnetism by Schreiber (who also produced the film and helped co-write the script, making this a rather obvious labor of love), the movie's general ebullience is something of a genuine surprise. As many dark turns as the Bayonne Bleeder's story takes, there's just something about the way he's depicted here that led me to believe he would find a way to come out on top, Falardeau's film not exactly going out of its way to sow any seeds of doubt as far as those expectations were concerned.

From a structural standpoint, because of these continuous jolts of levity and hope, it is admittedly difficult for the narrative to generate feelings of tension or suspense. Even as his marriage disintegrates and cocaine and alcohol abuse begin to grab hold of the boxer in ruinous fashion, things remain so light and sprightly the full weight of what is going on is never felt. There's no suspense, no air of danger, and even when prison becomes a real possibility, and not knowing anything about what Wepner went through during the 1980s, never did I doubt he'd find a way to pull himself back off the mat and get his life back in some semblance of working order.

While far from Schreiber's best work, the actor still delivers such a magnetic, enchantingly amiable star-turn as Wepner the overall spell he cast upon me was one I utterly adored. He's the film's heart and soul, delivering a rich, full-bodied portrait of this pugilistic everyman that's wonderful. Moss is also excellent (if underutilized), while Ron Perlman appears to be having a blast popping in and out as Wepner's trainer, manager and friend Al Braverman. Naomi Watts also makes the most of her limited screen time as a bartender who captures the boxer's affections, her delivery of some stark, unvarnished truth to her floundering wannabe paramour packing a cold, refreshingly brutal punch the movie could honestly have used a little bit more of.

Be that as it may, much like the man himself Chuck is almost impossible to dislike. Falardeau directs with the same sort of undemanding, bare-naked resilience as the boxer he is depicting showcases in the ring, allowing Schreiber the requisite freedom to build his character with a loosey-goosey effervescence that's irresistible. While not a knockout, the film still manages to finish the fight victorious, and even if it's something of a split decision that still makes the picture a bona fide winner I'm happy to stand up and cheer for.


Brutally sparse The Wall a haunting psychological battlefield
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE WALL
Now playing


For the past 20 hours, two Army Rangers, staff sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena) and his spotter, Allan 'Ize' Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), have been hidden on a dusty Iraqi ridge overlooking a scene of carnage and bloodshed, silently looking for a killer who shot a team of construction workers and their protection unit with deathly precision. Moving from their position to get a better look, the two suddenly find themselves under fire from another sniper who may be the lethal killer known only as Juba, aka 'the angel of death,' a vicious foe with a reported 75 official kills sitting on his resume.

Hidden behind a tiny stone wall with a gruesome injury to his knee, with Matthews clinging to life from a gunshot wound to his chest, doing his best to appear as a lifeless corpse, his body dangerously stuck out in the open, Isaac desperately tries to figure out where their opponent is hiding. With water growing scarce and no way to contact his base for assistance, this elusive killer suddenly starts to chat up the increasingly frazzled Ranger, speaking to him directly via his communications headset. Seeing an opportunity, Isaac responds to his charming, lethally intelligent opponent, all the while doing what he can to give the still alive Matthews an opportunity to get to his rifle as well as puzzle out a handful of clues as to the location of where this assassin might be lurking.

Minimalistic, stripped-down and running entirely on paranoia-fueled adrenaline, The Wall is a relatively small-scale change of pace for action maestro Doug Liman, The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow filmmaker eschewing the big budget theatrics of his most recent efforts for something intimately personal. More horror movie than war film, Dwain Worrell's lean, electrically alive script is a tense balancing act where the American military is the underdog and the Iraqi sniper hunting his prey is clearly the superior animal. It's a gruesome bit of a cat and mouse entertainment that will likely appease genre hounds while it frustrates and annoys anyone looking for something more substantive, everything building to a bleakly nihilistic conclusion that's as heart-stopping as it is terrifying.

While not particularly deep, Liman and Worrell toyed with my emotions wondrously, leaving me sitting in a pool of sweaty nervousness by the time things accelerated towards their ferociously uncompromising conclusion. This is an angry thriller, one that is happy to revel in silence and let tension be generated solely by the situation the protagonists are stuck in, the simplicity of it all having a horrifying elegance I responded to immediately.

Not that there is a lot more to it. This is nothing more than a three-character chamber piece of which only two of them do the majority of the speaking. More, out of this duo only one is ever seen, the voice on the other end of the headset (magnificently portrayed by veteran character actor Laith Nakli) an ethereal, enigmatic demon who desires to keep his face hidden no matter what might be happening at any given moment. This is a movie overflowing with talk, Isaac and his opponent verbally jousting as they try to gain the upper hand, each revealing tiny insights as to why they're fighting on opposite sides of this war and the various incidents that have brought them to this point.

Taylor-Johnson shows that his Golden Globe and BAFTA-winning performance in Nocturnal Animals was hardly a fluke, anchoring things as the traumatized Isaac nicely. As terrific as he is, and he is very, very good, if I'm being honest I kind of would have loved to have seen he and Cena switch roles, as having the gigantic WWE superstar stripped down to his barest intellectual essentials and forced to utilize something other than his muscles to survive could have potentially been fascinating. Still, Taylor-Johnson is superb, his emotional journey one I easily connected with, his back and forth conversations with Nakli having an exhilarating zing that kept me intrigued.

I don't have a lot more to add. Liman directs with authority, keeping things fast and furious even if the scale of the drama remains purposefully small. He and editor Julia Bloch (Green Room) keep things moving at a brisk pace, and at only 81 minutes the film is over almost before one realizes it. The Wall is a dark descent into a psychological battlefield where the line between victory and annihilation is precariously thin, the final images a haunting hunting ground of intimidation and butchery I'll not soon forget.




SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW:

The Fabulous Allan Carr director Jeffrey Schwarz on having his latest documentary premiere at SIFF

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Letters
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Katy Perry fans can 'witness' her live at the Tacoma Dome early next year
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Teen melodrama Everything, Everything not immune to a cancerous climax
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Scott's fascinatingly unsettling Covenant doubles down on Prometheus
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Schreiber's charming Chuck star-turn a pugilistic knockout
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Brutally sparse The Wall a haunting psychological battlefield
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