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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 12, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 41
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Cooper and Gaga shine in electrifying A Star Is Born
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

A STAR IS BORN
Now playing


Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is an aging superstar musician who is trying to finish out a long stadium tour battling exhaustion and an addiction to painkillers while he also spending his off hours guzzling hard alcohol as if it were water. He's a case study in Rock 'n' Roll clichés, and even with his fatherly older brother and stage manager Bobby (Sam Elliott) trying to look out for him, Jackson isn't one to take advice or instruction with open arms. He's more prone to respond to whatever impulse strikes his fancy at any given moment, believing that this creative passion is what has made his music so popular to millions all over the globe.

Ally (Lady Gaga) is a struggling songwriter with a killer voice working as a waitress at a swanky hotel restaurant in order to pay the bills. Once every month or so the ladies at a popular Drag bar give her the opportunity to perform, the customers thrilling to her renditions of French classics like 'Ma Vie en Rose.' On one such night who should walk through the door but the one and only Jackson Maine, and the moment Ally sings he knows she has what it takes to be a star. As the night goes on, the two of them talk about life, music and everything in-between, igniting a fiery love affair that will change both of their lives forever.

So begins A Star Is Born, the fourth official reworking of the story first dreamt up by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson back in 1937. That film featured Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, while the 1954 musical adaptation starred Judy Garland and James Mason. As for the 1976 version, Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand filled the roles of the two lovers whose careers ended up going in opposite directions, the drama winning the Oscar for Best Original Song for its love theme, 'Evergreen.' Now Cooper, making his directorial debut while also crafting the script with Eric Roth (Munich, The Insider) and Will Fetters (Remember Me), tries his hand at giving this timeless story fresh life, saying he succeeds at doing so a colossal understatement.

The first half of this new take on the story is incredible. The portions where Jackson and Ally meet, romantically intertwine and learn how to make music together are superb, Cooper and Gaga achieving a melodic harmony that held me spellbound. It all culminates with that moment from the film's trailer where the amateur songstress is challenged to take the stage with a bona fide superstar, discovering that by doing so she's a force of musical nature to be reckoned with. Magnificently staged and immaculately shot with mesmerizing intimacy by the great Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, mother!), there is a pleasingly pulverizing vitality to this scene that's extraordinary. It sets the stage for the dramatic maelstroms to come, Cooper doing a grand job of making certain the audience is invested in the fates of both of these characters no matter how messy their story might soon become.

The second half, after the pair get married and Abby's fame grows while Jackson's battles with illness and addiction brutally begin to take their toll, it's admittedly a bit of a comedown after that explosively thrilling first hour or so. Even for those unfamiliar with any of the previous versions of the story, it isn't like the tale being told is a new one. Countless other films, television show, plays, operas and books have traveled through similar terrain, so figuring out where the two central characters here are headed isn't difficult. This unfortunately mutes some of the emotional intensity, and if not for the overall excellence of the two leads as well as the supporting cast this likely would have been a far more gigantic problem than it happily ends up proving to be.

And, make no mistake, Cooper has cast his film marvelously. Elliott gives a bold, full-bodied performance, the emotional scars left in the wake of his and his younger brother's troubled past running deep. But so does the unvarnished love, respect and admiration Bobby feels for Jackson, especially when he takes a long, candid look at what he's been able to do with his life as it concerns his musical career. Elliott might not have a lot of screen time but he unquestionably makes the most of it, a third act scene between him and Gaga a barnburner of sibling pride and personal regret that knocked me senseless.

But he's not the only one who delivers. Andrew Dice Clay is sensational as Abby's chauffeur father Lorenzo, while Dave Chappelle is subtly masterful as Jackson's childhood best friend and confidant Noodles. Additional performances of note include Anthony Ramos as Abby's coworker Ramon, Rafi Gavron as music producer Rez and Greg Grunberg as Jack's trusted driver who convinces the woman who has caught his boss' eye to get on a plane and fly to his next concert whether or not she initially thinks doing so is a good idea. Also worth mentioning are D.J. Shangela Pierce and Willam Belli as a pair of Drag performers at the club Jackson first sees Abby perform in, the two adding a shot of adrenaline to the movie that's delightful.

Then there is the music. Featuring songs co-written by Cooper, Gaga and a number of other pop, country and rock heavyweights, every song matters, and not only because they're easy to listen to and, in most instances, hum along with. They also propel the story forward, all having an impact on where both Jackson and Abby are headed at any given moment. They are the driving, palpitating heartbeat at the center of the drama, Cooper utilizing each one at just the right time in order to augment their emotional effectiveness.

I'm not going to lie. While I think both Cooper and Gaga are stunning, and while I enjoyed their interpretation of A Star Is Born quite a lot, because there wasn't really anyplace the story could go other than in the same directions covered similarly in the previous versions I can't say the last act did much for me. I knew what was going to happen, and because of that the tears did not fall.

That does not mean I do not think Cooper's directorial debut isn't worthwhile. It is. That does not mean I wasn't blown away by much of what the filmmaker is able to accomplish. I was. It just means the final moments, while impressive, didn't pierce the heart nearly as much as I am sure they were intended to. Even with that being the case, Cooper's spin on A Star Is Born is still pretty darn terrific, so much so I might be inclined to say it's my favorite out of all four takes on Wellman and Carson's original source material.


Rousing First Man lifts off into greatness
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

FIRST MAN
Now playing


Long before Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) became the commander of the Apollo 11 and landed on the surface of the Moon, the astronaut would have to endure a series of personal and professional trails where failure, success, tragedy and good fortune would all travel in uneasy hand-in-hand. He and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) would have to endure the death of their second child Karen (Lucy Stafford) to cancer. They would have to find a way to remain resolute when members of Neil's astronaut unit in the Gemini and Apollo programs were laid to rest when horrifying mishaps and technological failures would result in their deaths. They needed to remain strong when a variety of complicated emotional hurricanes, whether they be personal, institutional or political, suddenly manifested themselves and threw their lives of and the lives of their two children into unanticipated chaos.

This is the story at the heart of director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and screenwriter Josh Singer's (Spotlight, The Post) dramatic retelling of the events that lead up to Armstrong stepping foot upon the Moon. Based on the book by James R. Hansen, First Man is an intimate, character-driven saga of resilience and fortitude, everything culminating with that triumphant July 1969 moment where one small step became a gigantic galactic leap that was celebrated all around the globe. It showcases the strength of focus required to pull off such an achievement. The film is an emotional powder keg that grows in furious intensity as things build to their historic conclusion, Gosling and Foy delivering intimate, stoically subtle performances that amaze in their multifaceted intricacy.

Even with that being the case, I had trouble embracing Chazelle's latest with open arms. The movie is so focused on recounting the ups, downs and perilous in-betweens both Armstrongs encountered between 1961 and 1969 that at certain points the story becomes more focused on the mechanical minutia of how things were being done than it does on the emotional dynamics that kept Neil and Janet determined to keep pushing forward. Additionally, as strong as cinematographer Linus Sandgren's (Battle of the Sexes) dynamic, viscerally astute images might be in all of the training sequences or during the actual Gemini and Apollo missions, for the majority of the motion picture his mostly handheld, documentary-like handling of the material drove me a little bit mad. This cinéma vérité aesthetic that Chazelle chose to go with for his film frankly didn't work for me, and as such I had a devil of a time maintaining emotional investment in what was going on for all 141 minutes of the story.

None of which means First Man doesn't soar. Its opening sequence chronicling Armstrong on a test flight bouncing off the upper edges of the Earth's atmosphere and having to find a novel way to get his plane pointed back towards the ground is suitably gut-wrenching. Later sequences showing the Gemini astronauts going through various training mechanisms designed to push them to the limits of human endurance are equally thrilling. As for the Gemini VIII flight where Armstrong and fellow astronaut Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott) successfully docked with an orbiting vehicle for the first time in human history only to encounter a whole new set of life and death problems after doing so, my palms were so sweaty afterward I was afraid to grab my water bottle as I was certain it was going to slip right out of my hands.

Then there is the Apollo 11 mission itself. Wow. Seriously. Wow. I'm having trouble coming up with any other word to do the whole sequence justice. Once Armstrong, Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) take off for the Moon things soar beyond the stratosphere in ways that defy easy or simplistic description. Featuring unbelievably immersive sound design, startling images courtesy of Sandgren and special effects team, an unbelievably kinetic score by Justin Hurwitz (La La Land) and meticulously vigorous editing courtesy of Oscar-winner Tom Cross (Whiplash, Hostiles), from start to finish the Moon landing segment is arguably the most sensational bit of filmmaking I've had the pleasure of witnessing in all of 2018. The moment the screen ballooned out into full IMAX my heart nearly burst right out of my chest. Yet, through it all, Chazelle keeps the focus on Armstrong's very personal, intimately human story, allowing the emotions that have been percolating underneath the surface to finally break through in a profound, honestly sincere manner that brought instant tears to my eyes.

There's plenty more that could be said. Jason Clarke is simply superb as fellow astronaut Edward Higgins White, the moment he and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) took their seats in one of the Apollo capsules for what should have been a routine oxygen test putting a gigantic lump in my throat that remained there for quite some time. I was also blown away by a sequence depicting Armstrong's early tests of what would become the vehicle he would triumphantly land on the Moon, his reaction to what most would consider to have been a failure to mission leaders Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and Robert Gilruth (Ciarán Hinds) perfect in its can-do forceful minimalism. If I don't love First Man entirely that doesn't mean I don't think Chazelle's daring recounting of one of the great achievements in all of human history still doesn't enthrall, this Armstrong-centered drama as close to being must-see entertainment as anything likely to be released to theatres for the remainder of the year.


Frantic Haunted Halloween an unremarkable Goosebumps sequel
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

GOOSEBUMPS 2:
HAUNTED HALLOWEEN
Now playing


In the small town of Wardenclyffe, New York, middle school best friends Sonny Quinn (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Sam Carter (Caleel Harris) have made an astonishing discovery. Hidden deep within the bowels of the dilapidated Stine house they have found a book locked away inside a gigantic cedar chest. Their curiosity understandably getting the better of them, the two open it, never imagining that in doing so they would release the maniacal puppet Slappy (Avery Lee Jones), a magical ventriloquist's dummy who desperately wants a family.

While at first Sonny and Sam are enamored with their new wannabe brother's charms, especially after he makes a giant fool of the local bully Tommy Madigan (Peyton Wich), it soon becomes apparent that Slappy isn't the kindhearted bosom buddy he proclaims to be. He wants to turn all of Wardenclyffe into a giant Halloween playground, utilizing the fabled Tesla Tower at the heart of their town to bring various ghouls, goblins, witches and other assorted supernatural baddies to malevolent life. With the determined help of Sonny's take-charge older sister Sarah (Madison Iseman), it's up to the kids to stop Slappy's reign of terror before it can really get started.

Much like 2015's modest hit Goosebumps, director Ari Sandel's (The Duff) energetic sequel Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is a kitchen sink adventure that throws in as much from author R.L. Stine's literary creations as it possibly can in one self-contained motion picture. Also like that film, there's so much going on at any one moment caring about what is happening as far as the general overall scenario is concerned is frustratingly difficult. It's a lot of visual razzle-dazzle and animated running about that comes off as nothing more than candy-colored much ado about nothing, and as such I can't say I particularly cared about anything that was happening or if this trio of pint-sized heroes was going to emerge victorious over their sentient dollified foe.

Not that younger audiences will probably care. As a return to Stine's world, there's so much happening from an action perspective, and so many eye-popping delights to wonder at (including a massive purple tarantula made almost entirely of helium-filled party balloons), the fact Rob Lieber's (Peter Rabbit) script doesn't add up to anything substantive likely won't matter. But for adults, at least for this adult at any rate, the tiresome fast-paced lunacy unfortunately grows old fast. It felt like the plot was more just running in derivative circles than it was trying to do anything creative or original, content to live insider of Stine's universe without being driven to give it some sort of nuance or edge that might make it stand out as its own distinctive piece of pop storytelling.

Don't get me wrong. I like the fact that Lieber and Sandel make Sarah her own person who admits when she makes a mistake and shows a modicum of intelligence as she resiliently attempts to save the day. I like that Sonny and Sam have a real friendship based on trust and understanding. I like that none of them wait around to be saved by someone else but do still put forth the effort to reach out for additional help. I like that Sarah and Quinn's single mother Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) takes the time to listen to her children and to treat them with respect, dishing out fair punishments when needed while heaping on heartfelt parental praise just when her kids need it the most. Finally, there's a truly delightful Halloween III: Season of the Witch gag near the end that brought a gigantic smile to my face, and it's this sort of freewheeling creative ingenuity the remainder of the sequel frustratingly lacks.

It's likely I'm the wrong audience for this. As much as I adore and support family-friendly horror outings (the enchanting The House with a Clock in Its Walls a recent example I'm happy to cheerlead for), for whatever reason R.L. Stine's Goosebumps phenomenon passed me by. I just never got into any of the books, and the low rent television show did nothing for me. As for the two movies, they're too consumed with throwing every single monster in the author's arsenal at the audience. I don't feel like they trust their viewers so the filmmakers overwhelm them with so many monstrous sights and sounds there isn't enough time to think about how threadbare both narratives end up proving to be. Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween didn't scare up any of my interest, my ghostly indifference to Sarah, Sonny and Sam's collective plight the scariest outcome of them all.


Creatively bankrupt Venom an enthusiastically obnoxious misfire
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

VENOM
Now playing


Venom is a bad movie. Maybe not The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Elektra, Batman and Robin or Catwoman sort of bad, but still pretty unbearable. This is more like on the level of The Fantastic Four (either the 2005 or 2015 versions; both are equally mediocre), 2003's Daredevil (the one with Ben Affleck) or 1983's Superman III (the one with Richard Pryor and where the Man of Steel fights his drunken doppelganger), meaning this latest comic book adventure isn't without its moments, but overall is still nothing short of a misbegotten waste of time. It doesn't work, its nonsensical, slapdash plotting and overly frenetic, visually repellent action sequences making this film hugely difficult to sit through for all 112 minutes of its running time.

Based on the Marvel comic book character created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie, the popular antihero first made his big screen appearance in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3 back in 2007. Unlike that version, this time around everybody's favorite friendly neighborhood wall-crawler is nowhere to be found. Here we are introduced to Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a hard-hitting investigative television journalist working for a station in San Francisco whose career comes to an immediate halt the moment he decides to ask wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropic industrialist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) a series of tough questions that claim he's nothing short of a criminal. In the process of getting fired, he also manages to undermine his lawyer fiancée Anne Weying's (Michelle Williams) career as well, so it's no wonder she cancels their engagement and kicks him out of their apartment with a justifiable anger that is both vicious and decisive.

Fast-forward six months and Brock is quickly getting down to his last nickel when suddenly a whistleblower working for Drake comes to him for help. They want to get the word out that something terrible is happening back at his corporate headquarters, something murderously not of this world. After getting access to Drake's top secret laboratory Brock comes into contact with some sort of slimy black entity that infects every fiber of his DNA. Turns out, this creature, known as a symbiote, is indeed an alien visitor and it needs a compatible human host in order to survive on Earth. Calling itself 'Venom,' he grants Brock a set of otherworldly powers that allow him to do things that normally wouldn't be possible, the cost of which being that when transformed fully into this demonic monster sometimes the pair have to chomp down on human flesh if they want to keep their collective strength.

Directed by Zombieland and Gangster Squad filmmaker Ruben Fleischer, this movie is a giant tonal mess that borders on incoherence. Whether he, the studio or writers Jeff Pinkner (The Dark Tower), Scott Rosenberg (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey) are at fault for this I honestly cannot say as blame looks like it could be tossed around fairly liberally. The truth is that, even for a motion picture that runs almost two hours and feels a lot longer, one still gets the odd sensation that there is a great deal of the intended narrative missing. It's hard to tell how much of the comedy is intentional and how much of it isn't as there were a number of instances where I felt like I was laughing when I probably shouldn't have been. Toss in characterizations that are threadbare, half-baked and, in one instance, borderline inexcusable to the point of being offensive and there is precious little about this one that should get anyone excited to see it.

Even though he is arguably the worst investigative journalist ever depicted in a motion picture, Hardy stills ends up being far more winning as Eddie Brock than he by all rights should be. Still, I liked his awe-shucks demeanor and his clownish mannerisms, something about the laidback way in which he slowly stumbles through this story oddly effective. The guy is a total schmuck and Hardy isn't afraid to play him that way, the actor having a disheveled moxie that's surprisingly endearing all things considered.

But the rest of the cast? I don't have the first clue why they're all in this other than picking up a rather large paycheck. Williams has no character to play, none, and the fact she's still able to make Anne almost worth caring about is a testament to her massive talent more than it has anything to do with this particular movie itself. Ahmed is in standard villain mode, and while he's fairly good doing it there was never a moment I felt like Drake was any sort of physical threat, and that includes all facets of the story taking place after another symbiote enters into the picture and decides to bond with him. As for Jenny Slate, a marvelous actress who has already proven just how gigantic her talents are in films like Obvious Child and Landline, what Fleischer and the writers do to her made me all kinds of angry, the way her character is treated as shameful as it is frustrating.

Earlier this year director Leigh Whannell made a low budget thriller about a quadriplegic given superhuman abilities thanks to a high-tech electronic device inserted into his back. That movie was Upgrade, and it was a magnificent amount of fun, star Logan Marshall-Green taking the story by the horns and making something fairly close to perfect out of it. It's oddly similar to the plot dreamt up here, so for all those expressing interest in giving this comic book adventure a look I'd highly suggest picking up Upgrade on Blu-ray DVD for a look instead.

However, I cannot, I will not, say the same about Venom. Overflowing in people doing dumb things, I feel in some ways the only thing I can really accomplish here is to state my dissatisfaction of the film and leave it at that. There's so much more I could add but I honestly just don't have the energy to do so. As already stated up front, this is a bad movie, and much like they did with the character of Spider-Man, I'm starting to wonder if it's only a matter of time before Sony throws up their hands in surrender and turns over the rest of the characters they own in the web-slingers universe back over to Marvel Studios to see what they can do with them. At the very least, the worst they could come up with on how to utilize this demonic antihero can't be any worse than what's been done here, this dull, tediously frenetic misfire a superheroic failure that's as instantly forgettable as it is enthusiastically obnoxious.




EVERYTHING IS LOVE: Beyoncé and Jay-Z return with On the Run II
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2018 TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival preview
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Seattle's Men in Dance Festival at the forefront of innovation and re-imagination in the world of dance
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Jane Eyre a historic heroine to emulate
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Seattle Symphony's 'Totally '80s' concert celebrated the 1980's (yes, really!) last weekend with two Broadway stars and it was 'Totally AWESOME'
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Seattle Humane - Pets of the Week
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An open letter to the community on the Kavanaugh appointment from GSBA President and CEO Louise Chernin
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Cooper and Gaga shine in electrifying A Star Is Born
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Rousing First Man lifts off into greatness
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Frantic Haunted Halloween an unremarkable Goosebumps sequel
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Creatively bankrupt Venom an enthusiastically obnoxious misfire
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