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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 6, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 14
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Familiar Pyewacket still casts a creepily unsettling spell
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

PYEWACKET
Now playing


Teenager Leah Reyes (Nicole Muñoz) is obsessed with the occult. With the recent death of her father, she's been playing around with Black Magic alongside her best friends Janice (Chloe Rose), Aaron (Eric Osborne) and Rob (Romeo Carere). Nothing major, mind you, but just enough that when she speaks with occult author Rowan Dove (James McGowan) at a local book signing it almost sounds like she knows what she's talking about.

But when her still-grieving mother (Laurie Holden) gets a new job out of town and forces them to take up residence in a secluded house out in the middle of the woods, Leah finds herself angry in ways she never thought possible. After an argument takes that vitriol to another level, the teenager does the unthinkable. Going into the depths of the forest, she performs an act to summon the malicious spirit Pyewacket, making a wish for vengeance that she doesn't really want or think she's even going to get. After all, demons, magic, the Dark Arts, none of that actually exists, and whatever it is that Leah has asked for, even at the cost of her immortal soul, it isn't going to come to pass, so it's not like she has anything to worry about.

Considering his outdoor survivalist camping thriller Backcountry and now his supernatural horror yarn Pyewacket, I'm not at all sure I'd ever want to journey into the woods with talented writer/director Adam MacDonald. Seclusion. Fallen leaves. The sound of an eerie wind whipping through the trees. Moonlight playing tricks on the eyes. MacDonald knows what he's doing, and with cinematographer Christian Bielz once again magnetically assisting him, composing uncompromisingly unhinged visuals guaranteed to keep the viewer discombobulated, and featuring crackling sound design that sends minions of shivers dancing malevolently up the spine, it's safe to say MacDonald's handling of things inside this supernatural demonic shocker is every bit as strong as it was with his much more grounded, bearishly grizzly 2014 debut. (The amazing team behind the film's sound design are Claudia Pinto, Faustine Pelipel, Shaun Gratto and Christopher Guglick and the film's music composer is Lee Malia.)

Not that Pyewacket is as consistently successful as the director's previous effort was. There's not a lot of suspense as to where all of this is heading, Leah making an almost unconscionably bad teenage decision that doesn't exactly lend itself to a wide variety of outcomes. Figuring out how things are going to twist and turn isn't difficult, and because of this suspense during the critical final act is substantially lessened. I just wasn't surprised by anything that happened during the last 10 to 15 minutes, and considering where things end up the fact this isn't more of a problem is honestly rather astonishing.

Or maybe not. MacDonald is an ace at setting a mood. Better, he knows that he has to put his characters first, make them intriguingly multidimensional, otherwise none of the coming nastiness that's intent on doing them harm will matter in any memorable way. Here, we don't need to have the particulars spelled out for us in regards to what exactly happened to Leah's father. No, what we need to see is how this loss is affecting his widowed wife and emotionally flailing daughter. It's their relationship that is key; the pain they collectively feel, their inability to express this overarching ache to one another in ways that might possibly be cathartic or comforting, that is the fuel that will light the candle of the coming demonic doom Leah inadvertently ignites.

As for that said mood, dang does MacDonald do a bang-up job there. As already mentioned, this film's sound design had me twisting and turning in my seat as if my chair were covered in recently sharpened razor blades. The director is out for blood, and while this thriller is a slow-burn affair that craftily bides its time until just the proper moment to unleash a flurry of dexterously ominous thrills, the craven wickedness of it all is portentously intoxicating to say the least. There's a sensational sequence where Leah is certain something terrible is going on and Janice spends the night at her best friend's new house to prove her wrong. The scene MacDonald stages between the two actresses the next morning is bone-chilling in its minimalist dread, the brief bit of unspoken terror passing from one girl to the other setting the stage for the events of the climactic act.

It should also be said that the filmmaker, much like he did with Missy Peregrym in Backcountry (whose voice also makes an appearance here), gets a spectacular performance out of his lead, former child star turned rising adult talent Muñoz. The young actress is fantastic, taking a rather stock character in Leah and finding increasingly intriguing ways to make her feel fresh and original. I loved the way she transitions through various emotional states of being as quickly and as precisely as any excitedly passionate teenager would, the misbegotten, misdirected anger the youngster is venting towards her equally emotionally wounded mother instantly credible.

Muñoz doesn't attempt to dull her character's blunt demeanor or hardened edges instead understanding that Leah's flaws are just as vital to understanding who she is as her more compassionate virtues are. In the process, this makes her flippantly angry decision to unleash Hell on Earth all the more devastating, and even though she doesn't believe her spell will actually work, the fact she even goes through the motions of casting it still remains tearfully heartbreaking due to just how completely the actress gives herself over to her character's anguished state of being.

If only the conclusion weren't so foregone, it's entirely possible MacDonald might have crafted a paranormal stunner the likes of which I'd be extolling the virtues of for the rest of 2018. Even so, I still think Pyewacket is worthy of a look. Not only does Muñoz give a marvelous performance, the director continues to show an uncanny ability to frighten in ways that are intimately sinister and, more importantly, unbearably human. He continues to put his characters first, making them live and breathe in ways that are innately relatable. All of which makes this thriller a rewarding genre rollercoaster, flaws and all, and if one is going to venture alone into the woods looking for a good scare MacDonald's latest hike into the unknown is an awfully good place to start.


Emotionally astute Love a difficult drama to embrace
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LOVE AFTER LOVE
Now playing


Love After Love is a spectacularly well made, intelligently constructed and beautifully acted motion picture. Its depiction of the lingering aftereffects of death, of how grief wreaks havoc across the board refusing to take prisoners, all of that adds up to something profound by the time things reach their cathartically fatalistic conclusion. Director and co-writer Russell Harbaugh delivers a passionately minimalist John Cassavetes-like drama worthy of as much praise as likely will be thrown its way, the finished feature a promising debut I imagine a great number of viewers will be talking about fondly for the remainder of the year.

So imagine my embarrassment and frustration to admit that I didn't enjoy watching Love After Love. At all. Not for almost a single second of its brief 91-minute running time. I just had trouble developing a connection to what was going on, and while individual scenes crackled with necessarily brittle emotional elasticity, and while screen veteran Andie MacDowell delivered a magnificent, soul-searing performance, I still had a damnable time trying to connect to anything that was happening.

Do not misunderstand me. I respected the heck of what Harbaugh was attempting to do. The director's script, co-written with Judy Berlin and 3 Bedrooms filmmaker Eric Mendelsohn, is viscerally aggressive in how it analyzes grief, magnificently unafraid to use humor, anger, silence, longing and regret with unflinching virtuosity. The pair have sculpted an intelligent scenario that follows a close-knit collection of character with a graceful, unforced ease that's remarkable, and because of that I won't begrudge anyone who chooses to stare at me sideways with a shocked, dumbfounded look as they try to figure out why I didn't enjoy a heartfelt and authentic human drama that apparently had so much going for it.

The plot is moderately straightforward and would likely make a playwright like Eugene O'Neill (The Iceman Cometh) or Arthur Miller (Death of Salesman) smile in respectful appreciation. When family patriarch Glenn (Gareth Williams) dies after a horrifying battle with throat cancer, Nicholas (Chris O'Dowd) and his younger brother Chris (James Adomian) each try to move forward in their own lives even as an overwhelming sense of grief shadows their every move. Meanwhile, their mother Suzanne (MacDowell) also attempts to carry on, eventually finding solace in another man's arms much to the chagrin of her two sons. Together, this trio bob and weave through the days and the months even though each feels as if the foundations they've built their lives upon is slowly crumbling beneath them, and even if they don't always agree with the decisions the others might make, only as a family will they be able to put this loss behind them and regain some semblance of collective balance.

Chris doesn't get nearly as much development as Nicholas and Suzanne do so Adomian has a more difficult time crafting a memorable character. He does have a sensational last scene, delivering a stand-up routine at a comedy club that is funny, sincere, cathartic and genuinely moving. O'Dowd is quite good, mainly because he does such a terrific job of not trying to hide any of his character's more selfishly ugly qualities. There's this great scene between Nicholas and Suzanne at a dinner party, the two sitting together casually while the rest of the family and their guests scurry about, and it's clear the two have already had a bit to drink and are right on the verge of being tipsy. They're having a discussion about happiness, what that word means to each of them and whether or not they currently have it in their own lives. It's a splendid mother-son moment, and it isn't until later we figure out exactly what it is Nicholas is hinting at when he answers Suzanne's questions, O'Dowd doing a fine job of concealing his characters true adulterous longings with a mixture of self-effacing innocence and cryptically oblique charm.

But it is MacDowell who shines brightest. The veteran actress is magnificent. Delivering what might be a career-best performance, MacDowell can't do a single thing wrong, finding emotional beats inside of Suzanne that are oftentimes entirely unexpected. There is a scene where the collegiate drama professor is dressing down one of her female students for delivering an audition in an outfit she feels is inappropriate, that the young woman is using her sex appeal and not her talent to secure a good grade. The thing is, Suzanne's reaction is born both from her belief in the student's ability but also in the fact she's still reeling from Glenn's death. The way MacDowell changes her vocal inflections while at the same time contorting her body into a variety of different positions almost as if she were an angry tortoise moving in and out of her shell as if she didn't know which way she wanted to go, all of it is extraordinary. If anything, I wish the movie spent more time with her than it does, the sections revolving around Suzanne without question the only ones I couldn't take my eyes off of.

All of which sounds great and, make no mistake, that's what it is. And yet, I took very little in the way of pleasure sitting through this film. As smart and as complex as the narrative Harbaugh and Mendelsohn have composed might be, personally it just kept me at arm's length. I also think it's possible I hated Nicholas the longer I was forced to be around him. Even if O'Dowd's performance is undeniably strong, this character just worked so many of my nerve endings that watching him self-destruct as if he were a teenage cutter slicing up his arm with a metaphorical razor just wasn't for me.

I should point out just how richly rewarding composer David Shire's (All the President's Men) dexterous score proves to be. Equally stunning is Chris Teague's (Landline) richly impressionistic cinematography, the way he and Harbaugh allow scenes the freedom to play themselves out at their own richly winsome pace sublime. With MacDowell's magnificence holding things together, and with the filmmaker's showing an resolute ability to cut to the emotional heart of the matter with such incisive meticulousness, the fact that I don't particularly care for Love After Love nearly as much as I probably should is as surprising to me as it likely will be to anyone else. Yet this movie, for all its laudable aspects, left me wanting for more, a personally frustrating turn of events to say the least.








Sprint right over to see The Great Leap
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Alexandra Tavares is riveting in Ironbound
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Taproot's Crowns a gospel celebration of African American culture
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April showers bring lots of theater
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Brandi Carlile wows hometown fans with stellar performance at Moore Theatre
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Photographic Center Northwest presents "ALL POWER: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party'
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Seattle Humane - Pets of the Week
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Macha Theatre Works' Smoke & Dust is a must-see
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Meshell Ndegeocello to perform one night only at the Jazz Alley
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Familiar Pyewacket still casts a creepily unsettling spell
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Emotionally astute Love a difficult drama to embrace
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