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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 9, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 10
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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2018 Academy Awards recap - The Shape of Water takes home Best Picture while Frances McDormand takes a stand for equality
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Guillermo del Toro's fantastical romantic 1950's-set Cold War fairy tale The Shape of Water about a mute cleaning woman falling in love with an amphibian creature while plotting to free him from the very human monster who is keeping him captive was the big winner during the 90th annual Academy Awards broadcast. Taking Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Production Design, and while there were no major snafus on the level of last year's La La Land / Moonlight shocker, del Toro's ambitious and unusual drama winning the top prize was still something of a slight surprise considering the Academy's well-known reticence to honor fantasy and horror efforts with similar marks of distinction in the past.

'I am an immigrant like Alfonso [Cuarón] and Alejandro [G. Iñárritu], my compadres,' said del Toro as he accepted his Best Director prize. 'Like Gael [García Bernal], like Salma [Hayek Pinault] and like many, many of you. And in the last 25 years, I've been living in a country all of our own. Part of it is here, part of it is in Europe, part of it is everywhere. Because I think that the greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.'

This was one of many statements made throughout the evening. In regards to immigrants. In regards to the #TimesUp movement. In regards to the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the shooting in Parkland, Florida and, to no surprise of likely anyone, the political hurricane swirling around President Donald Trump. But, in the end, the focus remained on the movies themselves, many of the winners choosing to try and take a broader, more expansive view of both the industry, their place in it and where they think, or hope, things might be going in the future as they delivered their acceptance speech.

No one epitomized that more than Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri Best Actress winner Frances McDormand. Overflowing with genuine joy, McDormand initially kept things light. 'So I think this is what Chloe Kim must have felt like after doing back-to-back 1080s in the Olympic halfpipe,' she said with a joyful chuckle. 'Did you see that? Okay, that's what it feels like.' From there, she proceeded to thank many of the usual suspects, including delivering a particularly heartfelt and touching salute to her husband filmmaker Joel Coen and their son Pedro McDormand Coen, 'I know you are proud of me,' she proclaimed, 'and that fills me with everlasting joy.'

It's here where McDormand decided to drop the mic. 'And now I want to get some perspective,' she said. 'If I may be so honored to have all the female nominees in every category stand with me in this room tonight, the actors - Meryl, if you do it, everybody else will, c'mon - the filmmakers, the producers, the directors, the writers, the cinematographer, the composers, the songwriters, the designers. C'mon! Okay, look around everybody. Look around, ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don't talk to us about it at the parties tonight. Invite us into your office in a couple days, or you can come to ours, whatever suits you best, and we'll tell you all about them. I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.'

Suddenly Twitter and Facebook issues all over the world were Googling the term, 'inclusion rider,' wondering what the heck it was McDormand was talking about. It's a clause in a contract that stipulates that the cast and/or the crew in a film reflect real demographics, including a proportionate number of women, minorities, LGBTQ individuals and people with disabilities. It was a call to action that reverberated throughout the room, and as she walked off stage to stunned, rapturous applause the now two-time Oscar winner (she won previously for Fargo) had made her point.

It was only one of many major events that occurred throughout the evening. Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek Pinault and Annabella Sciorra, three of the women at the center of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, took the stage to introduce a short video spotlighting female representation both behind and in front of the camera moving forward. Cherokee actor Wes Studi became the first Native American presenter in Academy history, introducing a montage of Academy Award-winning war films composed to celebrate the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces. Director Sebastián Lelio's drama A Fantastic Woman took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Moments later, that picture's star, and the person Lelio credited for being its inspiration, Daniela Vega, took the stage to introduce recording artist Sufjan Stevens to perform his nominated song from Call Me by Your Name, in the process becoming the first Transgender actor to do so at the Academy Awards. That movie's screenwriter, the openly gay James Ivory, became the oldest winner in Oscar history when he picked up the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, while 14-time nominee Roger Deakins finally went home with his hands full after winning Best Cinematography for his work on Blade Runner 2049.

Another big moment came when Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for his box office hit Get Out, marking the first time a horror film had taken home a writing Oscar since The Silence of the Lambs was awarded the prize for Best Adapted Screenplay back in 1992. 'I stopped writing this movie about 20 times because I thought it was impossible,' said Peele. 'I thought it wasn't going to work. I thought no one would ever make this movie. But I kept coming back to it because I knew if someone let me make this movie, that people would hear it and people would see it. So I want to dedicate this to all the people who raised my voice and let me make this movie& Everybody who bought a ticket, who told somebody to buy a ticket, thank you. I love you for shouting out at the theater, for shouting out at the screen.'

The other acting prizes went as expected with Gary Oldman winning Best Actor for his performance in Darkest Hour, Sam Rockwell taking home the Best Supporting Actor prize for his turn alongside McDormand in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri and Allison Janney snagging the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for I, Tanya. 'I would like to thank my mother who is older than the Oscar,' said a dumbstruck Oldman. 'She is 99 years young next birthday. And, she is watching this ceremony from the comfort of her sofa. I say to my mother, thank you for your love and support. Put the kettle on, I'm bringing Oscar home.'

Other big winners included Disney/Pixar's Coco picking up awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, the Russian athletic doping investigation Icarus winning for Best Documentary Feature and Christopher Nolan's WWII epic Dunkirk snagging Best Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Blade Runner 2049 also won Best Visual Effects to go along with Deakins' cinematography victory while Phantom Thread walked away with Best Costume Design and Darkest Hour unsurprisingly grabbed the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Host Jimmy Kimmel returned for the second year in a row, his opening monologue one of the strongest in recent memory. All-in-all the 90th Oscar telecast, while as overlong as ever, still proved to be a night to remember, if only for McDormand putting the entire industry on notice that the status quo will, hopefully, no longer be tolerated.


2018 Jewish Film Festival kicks off March 10
Gay Gezunt! March 11 screens The Cakemaker

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

The 23rd annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival returns this Saturday, March 10, things kicking off with a gala screening of director Oded Raz's buddy comedy Maktub at Seattle's downtown AMC Pacific Place Theatre.

Accompanying the film will be a Dessert Party featuring a smorgasbord of delectable treats created by Seattle's own celebrity chef Tom Douglas, literally ensuring that the evening's festivities will be a delectable, sugary treat to attend.

For the first time ever, the festival is split into two parts in 2018, the main section running from March 10 thru March 18 with screenings and events at AMC Pacific Place, the SIFF Uptown Cinema and at the Seattle Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island. Following the main week's events there will also be a first-ever Mini-Festival on the Eastside running April 14 and 15, gala screenings and events scheduled for the Regal Cinebarre Issaquah 8. More information on the Seattle Jewish Film Festival can be found at http://www.seattlejewishfilmfestival.org/

For LGBTQ viewers, the festival's popular Gay Gezunt! returns once again with a gala screening of writer/director Ofir Raul Graizer's award-winning drama The Cakemaker on Sunday, March 11, at 8:40pm at AMC Pacific Place (600 Pike St.) In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll actually be introducing the film this year, so if you want to see me mumble a few words and make a valiant attempt to sound like I know what I'm talking about make sure you attend. If that's not a good enough reason to be at the theatre, the movie is flat-out terrific, which in all honesty should be reason enough to give it a look all by itself. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Hearing Sara Michelle talk about film is always a special occasion and a tremendous opportunity to learn more about and absorb her knowledge and passion for film.]

I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Stroum Jewish Community Center of Greater Seattle Director of Cultural Arts and longtime festival programmer Pamela Lavitt to talk a little bit about this year's event. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:

Sara Michelle Fetters: We're back for another year! What's the excitement level like this go-around? Or has this just became old hat for you at this point?

Pamela Lavitt: The Seattle Jewish Film Festival is never old hat! Pishaw! Or, 'poo, poo,' as they say in superstitious Yiddish.

Each year we have over 400 films to consider, a prolific plenty of Jewish and Israeli cinema and nuanced stories to choose from and filmmakers to invite. This year, we are expanding the festival, adding another two days and four films to the lineup at a full-menu venue. Yes, dinner and drinks can be ordered! Or hang out at the bar before or after the show! With Israel turning 70, this milestone gave us the opportunity to focus on Israeli cinema. Almost half our films are from Israel in part or in whole.

Furthermore, every other year we offer a REEL Difference Award to a filmmaker who makes a real difference through their work, and Tiffany Shlain is this year's recipient. She's an Internet pioneer, founder of the Webby Awards and an Emmy nominated filmmaker with numerous Sundance premieres and has a social justice / social initiative component to her work making her a global talent worth celebrating. [Tiffany] lived in Seattle briefly but has not attended our festival before. Her 'Spoken Cinema' closing program is going to be very exciting.

In sum, it's fun to reinvent, rebrand and celebrate REEL Jewish and this is REEL life every year, and we have fun finding new ways to [program] and find new guests to bring to our region. Oh, and did I mention that Hedy Lamarr's daughter, Denise Loder-DeLuca, lives in Seattle and will introduce the documentary about her mother? And that she used to be a JCC member? Who knew? I just love how film brings so many people 'out' in our community.

Sara Michelle Fetters: What were the challenges in regards to this year's festival?

Pamela Lavitt: Our first challenge was to respond to survey requests for either a North End or Eastside venue. People have been asking for this for years so we needed to find the right location with the right assets, and Regal Cinebarre Issaquah 8, with a full food, drink and bar menu, was just the ticket.

But in the Jewish world, it wasn't as easy as just adding another venue for a few days or a weekend. We are beholden to the Jewish calendar, and Passover is right after the festival and we have a number of hot-ticket cultural events after as well (including James Beard Award-winning Israeli-New Orleans chef Alon Shaya, whose cookbook release party is accompanied by Creole cocktails, Bayou-ites and a Louisiana DJ in the house on March 24), so we are skipping over a month and having a mini-Fest on April 14 and 15. We will have to see how it goes. It's a new demographic, a new venue, new dates and we are hoping the community responds.

Also, we want to welcome in diverse communities from the Issaquah, Redmond, Kirkland and the Snohomish corridor, all of whom don't get a lot of Jewish/Israeli films coming their way with wider appeal, films such as the opener Shalom Bollywood about Indian-Jewish cinema legends. There is a 500-year history of Indian-Jews or Bene-Israel, and it's always a challenge to ensure that folks from India and South East Asia attend the festival. We want to keep building those bridges.

Sara Michelle Fetters: This past year, there's been so much activity in regards to the SJCC. Alan Alda. Stephen Tobolowsky. Those are only two of the names and events you sponsored and organized this past year. What's it mean to you to have year-round events like these? Do you have even more planned for the future?

Pamela Lavitt: To quote from Hamilton, 'Just you wait&Just you wait.' We are hitting our groove!

SJFF is part of the SJCC (Stroum Jewish Community Center) Arts + Ideas programs. Nationally and internationally known artists and speakers are coming to our venue which opened three years ago. I modeled these events on a 92nd Street Y model in New York City. We run a full season of programs including spoken word, global music, comedy and chef and author talks. There are film forums year-round. Finally, names and faces people know and love are coming to our theater. We just announced Nigella Lawson is coming next on April 24. The celebrity chef, TV broadcaster and personality has a new book At My Table and we are holding a high noon tea VIP event which has already sold out! We'll also have a chef talk with a tea tasting by our sponsor Sholom Teas which will feature both kosher and organic options.

And we continue to aim higher. For the stars, so to speak. And not just in regard to Jewish/Israeli performers (i.e. celebrities like Alan Alda). Coming up on April 19 Israel's hit podcast based on 'This American Life' called 'Israel Story' will be here. It focuses on a bunch of young Israelis showing the complex diversity of Israel in long-form storytelling mentored by Ira Glass. This is just one way we can educate the region about the nuances of Israeli life, and they are absolutely amazing on stage with live music, multimedia stories and live sound.

Also coming soon is YidLife Crisis. These comedians do shtick all in Yiddish, but everyone will laugh young and old; Jewish and non-Jewish. These guys became famous with a web sitcom series on YouTube with star cameos from Mayim Bialik and Howie Mandel and they've swept up awards at Jewish film festivals around the country.

Finally, on June 3 African rhythms meet Jewish ones as the big band Zion80 comes to town. Members of this band play with other known bands such as the Klezmatics and Matisyahu. Years ago, we tried to fit all of this into the festival. Now we have another nine months to present amazing Jewish and Israeli artists and bring people together year-round.

But wait, there's more! We are launching a new festival in Winter 2018 with a footprint like SJFF around town, featuring some even more famous faces. Tentative name: 'Shmuzik. Just you wait!' We are having so much fun. To the film infinity, and beyond!

Sara Michelle Fetters: Always nice to see that the Gay Gezunt! program has returned. Heck, I'll even be there to introduce the film The Cakemaker this year. Why is this program important? Why make sure films like this one are represented at the festival?

Pamela Lavitt: One of the first Yiddish words I learned as a kid growing up in New York was, 'fegele,' literally Yiddish for 'bird' but slang for 'queer' or 'gay.' It was hard for me to bear that a minority culture could use a term to minimize members of our community. Being active in Jewish social justice my whole life with organizations like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in NY founded and led by awesome lesbians back in my New York days, and following new Yiddish poets like Irena Klepfisz, LGBTQ thoughts and ideas were interwoven into the filmmaking and performance culture I was a part of, and it included people like Tony Kushner along with so many others.

When I came to Seattle and started directing the festival, adding an LGBTQ component wasn't rocket science. Out of 400 submissions, many fall into the LGBTQ category and we have a very strong relationship with Three Dollar Bill Cinema, sharing films and showing some excellent ones twice. They are 'judged' by the committee and programmers just like other entries but we prioritize having at least one featured slot because we have amazing options, amazing gay-identified programmers and amazing gay partners such as Congregation Tikvah Chadashah and many Queer and Trans members of Temple Beth Am, Kol Haneshemah and Congregation Beth Shalom.

It's just part of the weave of our mosaic and Jewish diversity. It's a priority to show all the prismatic colors of the rainbow. SJFF strives for diversity of representation; demographically, by age, by affiliation, by country, by political ideas and points of view. When I studies Yiddish many years ago we made T-shirts that said, 'gay maidel,' which means, 'go girl,' in hot pink. Everyone wore it! That's the goal. Get everyone to see the mosaic of Jewish life and spectrums of identity as their own. Israel also has some amazing gay filmmakers like Tomer Heymann whose output often features gay subjects with universal messages and done brilliantly. It's really as simple as that.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Quick! Two films (or programs) you feel audiences simply MUST make it a priority to see or be a part of?

Pamela Lavitt: Praise the Lard on March 13. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story on March 16. Her daughter is coming. How can you not attend! The Testament on March 15. 'Tiffany Shlain's Spoken Cinema' on March 18. She's a Ted Talk and a Sundance Filmmaker all wrapped into one. Glorious! Shalom Bollywood and Your Honor showing during the Eastside Mini-Festival.

Wait. That's more than two. Whoops! It's all great. See everything!

Sara Michelle Fetters: At the end of the day, what do you hope audiences take away from the festival? What do you hope they are talking about?

Pamela Lavitt: That SJFF presents a colorful mosaic and diverse spectrum of amazing international films and that we go above and beyond to feed your senses, as well as to literally feed you as often as possible. Come on honey, eat something! The Jewish mother in me says that constantly. We've got tons of food. We've got forums for dialogue, conflict, passion, debate and good old-fashioned schmoozing. It's a kaleidoscopic world we hope you will enter and radiate in all year long. Or at least until our next Arts+Ideas program or film screening!


Oscars wrap: Coco's LGBT creators thank spouses on telecast, Chilean transgender movie wins Best Foreign Language Film
by Albert Rodriguez - SGN A&E Writer

Diversity was well apparent on Sunday evening's Academy Awards telecast, where a pair of LGBT filmmakers were honored for their work, the first transgender-themed motion picture won the coveted Best Foreign Language Film prize and the star of that movie became the first ever trans presenter on the globally broadcast ceremony.

Two of the creators of Coco, which walked away with the Best Animated Feature statue, thanked their spouses during the live telecast. Producer Darla K. Anderson extended her gratitude to wife Kori Rae, also a film producer, while screenwriter Adrian Molina credited husband Ryan Dooley in his portion of the speech, which also included the Mexican-themed film's director Lee Unkrich.

Speaking of Mexico, it was a big night for our neighbors down South, as well as Latin America in general. In addition to Best Animated Feature, Coco also nabbed the Oscar for Best Original Song for the track 'Remember Me' written by Robert Lopez and Kristen-Anderson Lopez, the married duo behind another Academy Award-winning tune, 'Let It Go' from Frozen.

'Not only are we diverse, but we are close to 50/50 for gender representation,' said Kristen-Anderson Lopez, in recognizing her fellow nominees.

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro earned the Best Director prize and his movie The Shape of Water captured the all-important Best Picture award.

The South American country of Chile won its first Best Foreign Film award for A Fantastic Woman, which centers around a transgender woman dealing with the death of her lover and the rejection of his family afterwards. Director Sebastián Lelio acknowledged that lead star Daniela Vega, standing behind him, was the inspiration behind the movie, earning loud cheers and applause from Hollywood's elite seated inside the Dolby Theatre.

Vega made history herself, becoming the first transgender ceremony presenter in the Academy Awards' 90-year run. Dressed in an elegant fuchsia-colored gown designed by Maria Lucia Hohan, the actress introduced the musical number 'Mystery of Love', a Best Original Song nominee from Call Me by Your Name.

Since we're on the subject of Call Me by Your Name, the gay coming-of-age film didn't go home empty handed Sunday night. James Ivory was honored with the Best Adapted Screenplay award and also made history by becoming the oldest Academy Award recipient (in a competitive category) at 89 years old.

'A story familiar to most of us, whether we're straight or gay or somewhere in between,' Ivory stated in his acceptance speech with a walking cane dangling from his left arm. 'We've all gone through first love, I hope, and come out the other side mostly in tact.'

Jimmy Kimmel hosted the telecast for the second consecutive year; however, he fell flat in contrast to 2017's ceremony. None of his jokes were really that funny with the exception of asking 88 year-old Christopher Plummer how Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, compared to the real Alexander Hamilton.

Kimmel did bring up the sexual misconduct issue in his 11-minute monologue, wittingly saying that film icon Harvey Weinstein was expelled by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for allegations that range from sexual harassment to assault, but that the only other person banned from the film industry's prestigious organization was a former member caught distributing VHS screeners (or advance copies) of nominated films to other Academy members.

Various A-list celebrities, including Ansel Elgort, Armie Hammer, Margot Robbie and Guillermo del Toro, joined Kimmel in surprising an audience across the street from the Dolby Theatre attending a special screening of A Wrinkle in Time with snacks. Elgort and Hammer used a cannon to shoot hot dogs out to the crowd, while Robbie and Emily Blunt handed out candy. It was certainly entertaining.

Seattle's own Eddie Vedder performed a stirring cover of Tom Petty's 'Room at the Top' during the sentimental In Memoriam portion of the program.

The night's best moment, however, came when Frances McDormand was called to the podium to accept her second Oscar for Best Actress for her leading work in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Midway through her speech, she set her statue on the floor of the stage and asked all female nominees in every category to stand up, which they did proudly from Meryl Streep to Greta Gerwig to Rachel Morrison, the first woman to be ever be nominated for Best Cinematography (Mudbound).

'Look around, Ladies and Gentlemen,' she stated with a joyful laugh. 'Because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed.' She concluded with two words, 'Inclusion Rider,' which in industry terms is something actors can add to their contracts that guarantees the workforce on a particular movie project will be equally gender and racially represented.


Emotionally humanistic Wrinkle an imaginative sci-fi adventure
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

A WRINKLE IN TIME
Now playing


Meg Murry's (Storm Reid) scientist father Dr. Jack Murry (Chris Pine) disappeared four years ago. Since then she's been going through the motions of her life, the intelligent 12-year-old cutting herself off from almost everything that was once important to her save her mother Dr. Dana Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her overly precocious adopted younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Just as things reach their emotional low point, Meg is visited by three strange women, Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), all of whom claim to be in touch with the Universe. More importantly, they say they know what happened to Mr. Murry, and they believe only his children will be capable of finding him.

Joined by classmate Calvin O'Keefe (Levi Miller), Meg and Charles Wallace are whisked away on an interstellar adventure that takes them further away from home than any human beings have ever gone before. Along the way they will learn of the constant battle between Light and Darkness, Mrs. Which granting them a look at what can happen when the latter grabs hold of the human psyche and begins twisting it to its dangerously destructive designs. They are also introduced to the 'It,' a being of pure evil that works just as hard for the Darkness as the three ladies do for the Light. It is with this 'It' that Mr. Murry is currently being held, and it will be up to Meg to put the final pieces in their proper order if any of them have a chance of returning to Earth and making sure the balance between good and evil remains in alignment.

Along with Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain adventures and Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time quintet was unquestionably one of my absolute favorite series of novels I had the pleasure to read growing up. L'Engle's efforts, in particular, shattered the way I looked at myself and the world at large. They gave me hope that the impossible could be realized, that the journey to discovery began with understanding who I was as a person and what it was I wanted most from life. While it would take me more years than I care to count to figure all of that stuff out, I honestly believe I would not be the writer, critic, coworker or friend I am today had these stories not been a part of my own personal adventure, L'Engle helping my imagination soar in ways it never had before I'd become acquainted with her writing.

But A Wrinkle in Time has never lent itself to being filmed. There have been a small handful of attempts, most notably a four-plus hour television miniseries broadcast in 2003. Yet none of them have managed to convey the mixture of magic, emotion, realism, fantasy and imagination L'Engle excelled at manufacturing. More, her story is so layered and complex, so filled with metaphorical meanderings born of psychology, science fiction and romantic longing, keeping track of the various ups, downs and mesmerizing in-betweens is something of a rapturous literary exploit in and of itself.

Taking the reins of a reported $100-million budget, Selma, The 13th and Middle of Nowhere director Ava DuVernay unquestionably tackles her most ambitious project yet. Working from a script by Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia), the filmmaker pulls out all the stops in her attempt to bring L'Engle's timeless story to life. Most of the time she's wondrously successful, at others coming up infuriatingly short, the movie ultimately a thoughtful, emotionally pure piece of fantastical entertainment that won me over to its side even if its more obnoxious missteps are undeniably difficult to overlook.

It is the human angle where DuVernay excels. Scenes of Meg being bullied at school, her inability to access her feelings whenever her father's name enters into the conversation, the way the youngster lights up from within whenever she sees Charles Wallace do something incredible, all of it resonates in a manner that's sublime. These scenes have the same kind of introspective, documentary-like edge the director brought to her previous endeavors, she and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler (Beauty and the Beast) utilizing a visual language that's fairly atypical to productions similar to this one.

When things do explode into colorful fantasy, the resultant images the pair put on display in vibrant, widescreen glory are eye-popping in their authentic magnitude. Better, they do not overshadow the human journey Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin are all on. In fact they augment it, precious little feeling showy or self-indulgent from a visual effects standpoint. If anything, DuVernay is more interested in the tactile and the lived-in than she is in the supernaturally expansive. Scenes of suburban cul-de-sacs overtaken with Stepford-like madness and crowded beaches overrun in gluttony and immoderation pack the biggest wallop, as do Mrs. Which's visions of the 'It' at full strength carnivorously turning friend into foe and joy into anger.

As much as I loved so much of this film, there are still pieces that held me at a distance. While Winfrey is nicely cast as the all-knowing Mrs. Which, unlike turns in pictures like Beloved or Lee Daniels' The Butler, features that were made well after she'd become a global icon, here she can't really disappear into the role. It does feel like she's playing herself, and as such I felt myself being somewhat taken out of the story for the majority of her appearances. While the same can't really be said of her two co-stars Witherspoon and Kaling, their characters are still fairly broad, undeniably cartoonish portraits of goodness, levity and joy that can come off as comical if viewed in the wrong light, making the taking of either of them seriously frustratingly difficult.

There is also something to be said about a movie that almost requires the viewer read the book that inspired it in order to fully understand all that is happening and why. While it is obvious DuVernay and her team treasure and adore L'Engle's source material, that does not mean they are still able to transpose all of its delicate themes and ideas to the screen successfully. Even though significant changes have been made (don't go looking for the twins; they're nowhere to be found), most of them still don't streamline things in a way that feels entirely manageable for those unfamiliar with the novel. It can be rough going as far as that is concerned, and while I never lost track what was going on and why I couldn't help but still feel like not every viewer is going to be so lucky.

But DuVernay's humanistic approach can often be spellbinding. The gentle mixing of the broadly cinematic with the starkly personal is exceedingly powerful, especially during the film's magnificent conclusion. Meg's choice to stay and fight for what she believes in and cherishes no matter what the cost a selfless testament to the sort of heights a person can aspire to when they fully set their mind to doing so. The level of understanding, the idea that anything is possible as long as love, compassion and sacrifice are on hand for the assist, that a person no matter what their race, gender or age can accomplish just about anything when labels are put aside as if they never existed, all of that is present here. A Wrinkle in Time might not be as magnificent as L'Engle's novel (and I can't say I expected it to be), but even so DuVernay's adaptation is still a spellbinding family-friendly adventure worth venturing out to see.


Violently repugnant Sparrow a viscously captivating espionage thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

RED SPARROW
Now playing


After suffering a career-ending injury, Bolshoi prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is determined to find a way to ensure she and her sick mother Nina (Joely Richardson) continue to live in their large apartment and the pair's medical bills continue to be paid. To that end, at the urging of her uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking government official, Dominika agrees to go out with a shady Russian businessman who wants to add her to his large stable of mistresses. But this is all a ruse, an excuse to get this duplicitous millionaire in a room away from his security guards, what happens after the former ballerina is able to achieve this changing the course of her life in ways she never could have anticipated.

Given the choice by her uncle to either be killed for having seen more than she should have or be sent to a special academy for spies who specialize in sexual manipulation, with the understanding that her mother will continue to receive medical care Dominika quickly acquiesces to her uncle's suggestions. Within four months she proves herself to be quite adept to adapting to all that is asked of her while at the same time maintaining a level of resolve and self-respect that keeps her from becoming nothing more than a mindless government surveillance drone. She does so well, Vanya decides to test Dominika and see just how far her skills have progressed, sending her to seduce CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in hopes he'll inadvertently reveal the identity of an American mole inside the Russian government during a moment of romantic candor.

Based on the novel by former CIA analyst Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow is an old school spy vs. spy throwback that takes itself very, very seriously. Working from a layered, intricately comprehensive script by Justin Haythe (Snitch), director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I Am Legend) doesn't pull any punches as far as the grotesque abhorrence of psychological and physical manipulation is concerned. He treats the material with total solemnity, showcasing every bone break, knife wound and bullet to the head with a tenacious ruthlessness that's purposefully discombobulating.

This conceit tends to work. The film has an exceedingly hard edge, one that recalls '70s thrillers like The Day of the Jackal, The Destructors, The Parallax View and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it's clear that Lawrence revels in taking no prisoners as he steers this story towards its chilling conclusion. But the violence almost always feels part of the story, events that help shape the characters thus allowing for additional insight into why many of these shady, duplicitous figures end up making the decisions that they do. It's very methodical, each piece of the narrative building upon the next in a manner that is exacting yet rarely feels self-indulgent or superfluous, the director creating an insidious aura of melancholic repugnance that's chilling.

As completely as I responded to the material overall, there were still moments where I couldn't help but feel as if Lawrence was going a step or two further than necessary. There is an act of brutality that transpires between Dominika and the businessman that plays like some variation of a scene found in grindhouse exploitation thrillers like The Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave, and while the scene isn't played for thrills, isn't designed to titillate, it's still so extreme in its vile cruelty I was almost angry at the director for including it. I didn't like the moment, not at all, and while that might seem a little hypocritical considering my fondness for retro B-grade horror that tends to revel in scenes similar to this one, it's the nature in which Lawrence chooses to depict this event that sickened me, images here so senselessly loathsome I'm not going to be shaking them anytime soon.

Yet I find that Red Sparrow continues to grow on me the further I get away from my initial viewing. Haythe's screenplay does a fine job of fleshing Dominika out, giving her layers of depth and nuance that only grow in power and determination as events evolve. I loved the way in which she and Vanya interact, the nature of their relationship overflowing in destructive venom that only gets more potent the longer and more often they continue to work together. The writer does a fine job of maintaining the intelligent convolutions that helped make Matthews's novel a bestseller, the ways in which the various twists and turns ultimately take shape undeniably compelling.

As far as the acting goes, this is a showcase for Jennifer Lawrence and Matthias Schoenaerts, both of whom are exceptional, everyone else, including a reasonably intense Edgerton, forced to make do with whatever emotional scraps might have been left dangling for them to make use of. Recent Academy Award nominee Charlotte Rampling is particularly underutilized, and it's hard not to imagine in the television miniseries version of this story her hard-edged matron of the sexual spy school would have had a heck of a lot more to do. Mary-Louise Parker, on the other hand, appears to be having a grand time vamping it up as an American who inadvertently crosses Dominika's path, and while her time in the story is decidedly brief that doesn't make it any less memorable.

Unsurprisingly, much like many of Lawrence's previous films, notably Constantine and Water for Elephants, this thriller proves to be an immaculately designed visual marvel featuring crack production design from Maria Djurkovic (The Imitation Game) and superlative editing from Alan Edward Bell (The Dark Tower), while Jo Willems's (30 Days of Night) impressively visceral cinematography is intoxicating in its elegantly observational refinement. James Newton Howard's (Detroit, Nightcrawler) score is also superb, his music propelling things forward down an increasingly dark and twisted path that Dominika must successfully navigate if she's going to make it to the end alive.

I have plenty of reservations as far as it pertains to Red Sparrow, not the least of which being that scene of sexual desecration and blood-splattered mental abuse that closes out the first act and helps send the former ballerina on a one-way path to a place often referred to as 'whore school' by a number of the secondary characters. There's also a massive leap of faith that needs to happen in order to accept that Dominika could become such a crack agent with such minuscule training (four months isn't exactly a lot of time), ballet and espionage not exactly two professions that normally walk happily hand-in-hand.

But I still can't shake this movie. Jennifer Lawrence's focused, nakedly raw performance is sensational, and I love that Haythe has constructed his narrative in a manner where all the clues are right there to be dissected and discussed assuming the viewer is observant enough to make note of them. Red Sparrow likely won't jump start a new franchise, the ugly, harshly repugnant nature of things not going to sit well with a great many members of the audience, yet I still find I liked it all the same. This is a thriller I'll be thinking about for some time to come, and I have this sneaking suspicion I'm going to be taking a second look at it sooner rather than later.


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