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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 11, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 02
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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The future is female
Director Josie Rourke makes the leap from the British stage to direct Mary Queen of Scots

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS
Now playing


Adapted from the biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by Dr. John Guy, director Josie Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon have crafted the female-driven historical epic Mary Queen of Scots. The movie chronicles the period of 16th century history where Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returned to her native Scotland, not mostly under Protestant control, to take her rightful place upon the royal thrown. Not only does the film deal with how she attempts to rule her country in the face of violent opposition and underhanded political subterfuge, it also looks as the relationship she has with the British monarch Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). It is a fast-paced, undeniably fascinating jaunt back in time, this examination of these two women and the level of opposition they continually were faced with, mainly by the men who felt they should be in power, mirroring current 21st century events in a number of eerie, sometimes unsettling ways.

After opening in limited release, including in Seattle, back in early December, Mary Queen of Scots is expanding nationwide this week. A few days just before New Year's I had the opportunity to get on the phone with Josie Rourke and briefly discuss exactly what it was that drew the esteemed British theatre director to make her motion picture debut handing this project. Here's some of what she had to say:

Sara Michelle Fetters: I wanted to ask you, initially when the project came your way, were you already familiar with Dr. John Guy's book? Were you already interested in this story?

Josie Rourke: I was not familiar with Dr. Guy's book. I did know to some extent the story of Mary Queen of Scots because I'm a theater director by trade. I've directed a lot of plays set in that period of history. As you know, Shakespeare was writing around that time. Christopher Marlowe. That group of playwrights from that time period, English playwrights in particular. So I've had to do a ton of research about that period in order to direct plays that were written then. I knew about Mary Queen of Scots. I mean, I had this kind of sense [about her] that was validated by John's book. I call it a kind of Spidey Sense that Mary had perhaps been done something of a disservice by how she'd been portrayed by history. One of the great things about John's book, and why I was so pleased to light upon it when I found it, was that it really is a revisionist take on Mary's story. It goes back into the archives and shows really how her reputation was done serious damage both by people in her own time and in the subsequent years. She was painted as kind of incompetent. Whereas, actually John takes her much more seriously as a political figure.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I really love the way that in Beau's script it shows how history can be so unkind. How it can just be so unkind to women, especially women in power.

Josie Rourke: Completely. I think that that's in a number of ways, isn't it? One of those ways is that it's just incredibly hard, particularly then, and probably still now, for these women to be taken seriously, for them to be within Mary's own time to be thought of by significant political figures, such as John Knox, as anything but an aberration. I mean Knox genuinely thought that the rule of Mary was against God and against nature, and that was what he felt about women monarchs in general. It's funny, some people have sort of said or written that this is a kind of feminist take on it or there's a sense what we've done is re-written history in order to make it feel contemporary, whereas actually what we've done is just shown this history in a way we've not seen before.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Was there trepidation on your part? I mean, you've had such an amazing and successful career directing productions for the theatrical stage, jumping into a project of this scale, was their any hesitation? Or did you just know immediately and just put both feet in and go for it?

Josie Rourke: I've been offered screenplays and movies before. This felt like the right one to begin with in contrast to a bunch of the stuff that I'd been offered and spoken to people about. Saoirse was attached to it and that made it very, very appealing to me, and I could see how she could be extraordinary as this woman.

I think what you do next in order to get your confidence is you build out a team. The next person to come on board after Saoirse was Beau, who's been a great friend for many years now. This gave me huge strength in the team. Finding John's book, that was another big step.

One of the great things about having that experience in the theater is that you're very used to collaborating, and I felt confident in being able to build a cast around Saoirse and around the project that I could get the very best from. It would be wrong for me to say that it's not with a degree of fear that one approaches a project of this scale, but you know, I'm fearful the day before I start rehearsal on a play. That's a necessary part of being alive, I think, and being an artist. If you stop feeling that, then it's probably time to give up, isn't it?

Sara Michelle Fetters: Totally. I completely agree. I loved the naturalistic chemistry of everyone in the film. Even when all the character are working at cross-purposes from one another. All of those group scenes with Saoirse, it was Mary Stuart's world. I honestly believed they were all living there at that point in history.

Josie Rourke: Oh! What an amazing thing to say. Thank you.

That was one of our main aims, just to make you believe these people actually existed and to humanize them, to understand how these figures actually lived a human life as well as being these great icons. Rehearsal was very helpful. We all got to spend a lot of time together working on the screenplay and rehearsing, and some scenes were done before we started. We also worked with a lot of the movement with this amazing choreographer, Wayne McGregor. He just got people very comfortable in their clothes and in their own skin with the characters. That was a big help, I think.

Sara Michelle Fetters: How hard was this film to cast?

Josie Rourke: That was one of the great joys, really, for me. I love casting. It's one of my favorite parts of the process. I think the thing in theater where we get to do it is much more often than people do in film because film projects tend to have a sort of lifecycle of a couple of years. I both direct and also work with a team when I cast a project, and we've done six, seven theatrical shows this year already. So casting, it's a big part of what I do, what I think about all the time, and I think it's part of my role as director to be able to look at an actor doing one very particular thing and imagine and extrapolate how they might be able to do a very different one.

Sara Michelle Fetters: How important was it to you all to stay historically accurate but then to also balance that with telling a great story?

Josie Rourke: I think that there were two decisions to diverge from accuracy. One of which is in the meeting of the two queens, which never happened, although it's always impossible to dramatize this story between them without that happening and I think that's probably why dramatists have been doing that for over 200 years. I mean, the first person to write that scene was a German playwright in 1800. Friedrich Schiller wrote it in Mary Stuart and that's one of the most famous plays in German. You know, Katharine Hepburn played that scene as Mary in Mary of Scotland. The two queens together, it's a famous scene even if it's not a factual moment in history. We felt in order to tell the essential truth of their relationship, even though they wrote all these letters to each other, rather than just have the letters and rely only on those, we wanted to have that one great scene where they meet.

The other way in which it diverges is in representation. There are people of color playing characters who might have been white. But that's a thing about my work. It's always been true in theater. You can do that. I don't tend to direct all-white productions of anything really. So that was that, but everywhere else, although you have to make choices from the evidence about the story of Mary Queen of Scots, everything else cleaves pretty closely to the history. We may have compressed time here and there, but it's based on Dr. Guy's absolutely excellent book that is one of the most painstakingly researched histories about Mary that's around.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I don't want to talk about it too much just because I don't want to spoil it for people, but the scene in Mary's room where things get deadly. It is such an extraordinary moment. That had to be an emotional day, I would assume.

Josie Rourke: It was a deeply emotional day and also, talking about historical accuracy, that we embraced what actually happened. You could say it's an assassination or an attack, nearly 50 men charging into Mary Stuart's chamber. You can actually visit the room in Holyrood that they charged into in order to commit that murder. We had the same number of men on the day as there were on that fateful day in history, and that was just logistically incredibly complicated to actually shoot and work out all those bodies. But it did give you that visceral sense of what it must have been like.

We talk about being faithful to the history, but that was one of the moments where being faithful to the history brought incredible temperature to the drama and also just made it extremely visceral. We were just recreating something that had happened and a lot of people feel that actually that was done in order to potentially make Mary miscarry. It was an act of terror as much as it was an act of violence. We all felt that that day, I think. It was definitely emotional.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I do have to ask, for Margot, did she feel any pressure stepping into her role? I mean, there've been so many great actresses, obviously most recently with Cate Blanchett, who have portrayed Queen Elizabeth. Yet she really does make it her own.

Josie Rourke: She does. I agree. She's wonderful. In answer to your question, I think she felt so much pressure that she initially said, 'no.' [laughs] I think partly because she was so aware of the extraordinary history of actresses who've played this role. That's a great testament to Margot's humility, that she wouldn't necessarily just want to take the big, shiny thing that's in front of her but that instead she's weighing herself carefully against what she feels she can do and what she has the ability to do. One of the ways in which I convinced her to do it was I wrote her a, we can call it a letter, like in the film, but in reality, it was a long email, saying, 'Look, I understand why this is daunting and that's amazing that you have that correct respect to those actors who have played this role before you, but I really want you to play, not this icon, but this woman and get to an essential truth of what she was like as this young woman.'

And Margot said she felt she needed help to do that, and I also wrote to her that I wanted her to know that the thing I've done for 15 years of my career is to help actors prepare and that I'd help her prepare for it. I think that gave her the confidence to take it on and it was the beginning of a great creative relationship between her and me because we both really dived into that preparation together. We had a really good and fluid way of working together and great reference points. I understood what she needed as an actor and how to really help her find the best in her performance. It was a very joyful process.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Margot does not have as much screen time as Saoirse does, and yet she's still able to build a three-dimensional character, so when we see her in that moment with the two queens together, we're devastated by what Elizabeth does and says there.

Josie Rourke: I think one of the ways in which she does that is in every single scene, no matter what the scene is that she's playing, she's thinking about Mary. We would say in acting terms, this was her point of concentration. Mary is her point of concentration. In a way Elizabeth manages to be such a big part of this story by being all about THE story, which is Mary's story.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Back to Saoirse for a moment. Could you imagine making this film without her?

Josie Rourke: No. I made this film because of her, really. It was Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots. From the beginning. It wasn't Mary Queen of Scots with Saoirse Ronan that got me involved.

Sara Michelle Fetters: In some ways it just makes me angry to think that this is a 16th century story but it's also about things that are happening right now here in the 21st century. It's like we haven't changed at all.

Josie Rourke: Yeah. That's true. But, then, that's the Renaissance, right?

The Renaissance. That's when so much of contemporary politics as we understand it was invented. A lot of the handbook that people are still reading now about politics in the 21st century were written in the 16th century. Machiavelli wrote The Prince. That's why we call people Machiavellian in that period, and I think, and I'm not delegitimizing your anger, I think you're right, but I also think we have to understand that the DNA of modern politics is in this moment of Renaissance history. If we are unsatisfied with what is happening now, one of the things we need to do is remind ourselves what happened then and to my mind particularly look back at the lives of women in politics and how they are portrayed and presented and often undermined. We need to look back and say these heinous actions and policies actually had their roots in this period.

Sara Michelle Fetters: For you personally, what did this movie end up meaning to you? Where do you see yourself going from here?

Josie Rourke: Yeah, I'm completely hooked on the movies. I had an extraordinary time with this. I've always known cinema's power as an audience member, but to understand its power a little better as a director has been an amazing thing. Honestly, it's helped me feel in different ways how vivid people's response to this movie has been. To be in the kind of conversations where people are saying, 'It feels so now.' Having them comment on how now is just like it was 500 years ago and wondering if that is a good thing or a bad thing, wondering what do we need to do. That's been incredible. I think one thing that's been consistently great is to understand what a cultural impact [the movie] can have.

To be in a debate with people about whether or not the Renaissance was actually queer. Like the number of opportunities I've had to say to people, 'No, no, no, you don't understand. It was a different kind of tolerance, but there was tolerance in that period.' To think that the history of people being comfortable with a sexuality other than heterosexuality simply is a product of the past, I don't know, 50 years of human history. It is also wrong. I think there's a very interesting set of cultural conversations that the movie has sparked about representation, about where we think our history might be in our sexuality, in our feminism, in our rights, in our ability to express who we are, in representation. That's been amazing to me. Like the vividness of that and the ability of the film to have that reach and spark those debates, I find that genuinely exciting. I've worked in theater for 15 years, and theater's about sparking conversation, so it was amazing to realize how great a conversation a film can start. That's really cool.

Sara Michelle Fetters: And what do you want audiences to take away when they leave the theatre? What do you hope they're talking about?

Josie Rourke: I want them to understand how much extraordinary dimension and power there is in these two women, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, as actors because I think these are absolutely exciting and important performances. That's the first thing I think that will resonate for them. The other thing is that I hope that by showing our political history from the perspective of a woman director that there's an opportunity for people to think about what power was then and what it is now, because the terrible thing about Mary Queen of Scots is that actually her downfall was not her incompetence. It was her compassion. It was that she forgave. There is a cruelty to that world that is vivid and awful and demands sacrifices of your compassion and of yourself that I don't think has necessarily stopped in contemporary politics.

[NOTE: Sara Michelle Fetter's review of Mary Queen of Scots appeared in the SGN on December 14, 2018. To access her review online, visit www.sgn.org and select the December 14, 2018 edition in our online archives.]


Minimalist Rust Creek an effectively tense Appalachian thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

RUST CREEK
Now playing


After college senior Sawyer Scott (Hermione Corfield) receives a surprise phone call regarding a plum new job located in Washington, D.C., the ambitious young woman drops everything, including plans to head home for Thanksgiving, to drive cross-country for an interview. While passing through Kentucky she inadvertently takes a wrong turn and gets hopelessly lost, her GPS not helping matters and, if anything, just keeps sending her in increasingly annoying circles. After Sawyer stops on the side of the road to get her bearings, brothers Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and Buck Pritchert (Daniel R. Hill) pull over to offer their assistance.

Or so they say. Actually, after watching Sawyer drive around aimlessly they're worried she might have seen the two of them doing something criminal just off the side of the road. As the two work for one of the more ambitious methamphetamine producers this side of the Appalachia Mountains, the siblings decide they're not going to take any chances and will make sure a tragic accident befalls the young woman. But Sawyer is quicker on her feet and sharper of intellect than they both surmise, and even though she suffers a ghastly wound to her thigh she still manages to escape into the woods with her life.

Things get stranger from that point forward in director Jen McGowan's (Kelly & Cal) suitably minimalist thriller Rust Creek, her extremely well-crafted feature an inventive combination of Wrong Turn, Deliverance and a top-tier episode of 'Justified.' But screenwriter Julie Lipson gives things an aggressively feminist spin that suits the story nicely, events having a primordial angst that uncomfortably blurs the line between right and wrong. It's compelling stuff, and even if things work themselves out in ways that are hardly shocking, I still enjoyed watching this one quite a little bit.

The pivotal turn in the plot happens with the arrival of secretive meth cooker Lowell (Jay Paulson). He saves Sawyer from her travails in the forest and tenderly nurses her wounds. But for a variety of reasons he also can't let her go, and while he's not exactly keeping the woman prisoner, he's also not about to allow her to wander alone in the wilderness anymore or, even worse, make her way back to the main road and go running for the police. Lowell isn't an evil man but he is involved in some very bad business, and as such his options as to what to do with Sawyer are severely limited.

What's great about Lipson's script is that she doesn't make even a passing attempt to transform this story into a romance. Instead, it ends up being more a meeting of minds, Sawyer and Lowell learning intimately personal things about one another that allows an understanding bond to form between them. Their blossoming friendship is born from an organically authentic need to learn what it is that makes the other tick. There is no judgment. There is no long-winded speech about how circumstance and poverty have forced Lowell to become an expert meth cooker or why misunderstanding and distrust has led Sawyer to become estranged from her parents. Instead it's just two people trying to make the best of an impossible situation, and personally I found this part of the story to be undeniably fascinating.

While there's some dialogue that touches upon life's various twists of fate as they apply to both characters, Lipson allows these two adults to get to know one another as human beings first before any of that nonsense is spoken aloud. This gives the film surprising depth, and I really liked how natural the pair's growing connection with one another proves to be. Paulson's understated performance is wonderful, while a pair of critical scenes between his character and the Pritchert brothers ooze in unnerving hostility. As for relative newcomer Corfield (she played one of the Syrens in Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the ill-fated A-Wing pilot Tallie in Star Wars: The Last Jedi), the young actress is nothing short of excellent. She delivers a robust, dynamically vibrant performance, the ravaged and wrecked physicality of her portrayal only exceeded by the emotional complexity she ends up confidently infusing Sawyer with.

McGowan never overplays her hand, and while she doesn't push the pace she just as importantly never allows things to feel as if they are dragging or filled with any superfluous fluff. Her staging of the initial confrontation between Sawyer and the Pritcherts drowns in a form of claustrophobic dread that made me suitably sick to me stomach, and I loved how in even the story's quieter moments there's a palpable sense of uneasiness that never dissipates.

A subplot involving the local sheriff (Sean O'Bryan) and his overly diligent deputy (Jeremy Glazer) isn't as effective as other aspects of the narrative prove to be, while the identity of the person pulling all of the strings that tie everyone together isn't much of a surprise. Granted, considering McGowan and Lipson don't play this aspect of the plot all that close to the vest, it's pretty obvious the pair understand audiences are likely to figure out what's going on rather quickly. As such, they make the reveal of who this person is and what motivates them to do such murderous evil fairly early on and because they do this character actually becomes more despicably threatening as things move towards their climax.

By doing this, the film bristles over with an intense form of anxiety and terror it might not have possessed otherwise, making me believe this twist was never meant to be considered a secret in the first place. Rust Creek is a strong thriller that does both its central characters as well as the audience watching it proud, treating both with intelligence and respect for the entirety of its 108-minute running time. It starts 2019 off on the right foot, keeping me excited to discover what the remainder of the year is going to offer up for me to watch next.


Diverting Escape Room an enjoyably inventive thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ESCAPE ROOM
Now playing


Zoey (Taylor Russell) is a physics prodigy who has trouble speaking her thoughts and opinions aloud in class. Ben (Logan Miller) is a grocery store stockroom clerk with a troubled past that has stifled all of his opportunities for any sort of advancement. Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) is an Iraq War veteran who has been having difficulty putting her days in combat behind her. Jason (Jay Ellis) is a high-powered stockbroker and financial wizard who has no trouble stepping on the heads of others if it means he can achieve advancement. Mike (Tyler Labine) is a truck driver whose failing physical health can be traced back to his days working as a coal miner. Danny (Nik Dodani) is a gaming enthusiast with a knack for problem solving even if his social skills leave something to be desired.

Six strangers, each having their own unique (if secretly troubled) background all find themselves invited to an exclusive Escape Room where the first one to find all the clues and solve every puzzle will win the grand prize of $10,000. But what initially appears to be a bit of harmless fun turns out to be anything but. Soon they discover this isn't a game at all, each room they enter offering up a set of lethal challenges that will literally kill them if they fail to decipher every puzzle. Additionally, whoever set up these rooms knows more about them than they do themselves, Zoey, Ben, Amanda, Jason, Mike and Danny all tied together in a secret way that if they're not careful might just lead to their collective undoing.

The first wide release of 2019, director Adam Robitel's (The Taking of Deborah Logan, Insidious: The Last Key) Escape Room is an inventive little horror-thriller that has a fair amount of fun with its somewhat familiar premise. Sort of a real world variation on Vincenzo Natali's 1997 cult favorite Cube combined with the current escape room craze, the movie spends more time than expected fleshing out its characters while also still coming up with a variety of moderately inventive ways to kill off its cast one at a time. Bragi Schut (Season of the Witch) and Maria Melnik ('American Gods') have written a nifty little screenplay that toys with convention in a handful of imaginative ways, and while the actual outcome isn't ever in doubt getting there is still a heck of a lot more fun than I anticipated before sitting down in the theatre to give the film a look.

I think what I liked most is that it never feels as if Robitel is rushing things just for the sake of attempting to keep the pace moving at breakneck speed. While never measured or methodical, the filmmaker still takes the time to allow the viewer to get to know these characters well enough so that when some of them meet their doom there's an actual emotional response from the audience when it happens. I honestly cared about the majority of them, especially Zoey, Mike and Amanda, their collective fates meaning something to me to the point I genuinely hoped all of them were going to find a way to make it through this ghoulish maze alive.

Not that elements couldn't have been handled a bit better than they unfortunately are. A flurry of brief flashbacks spotlighting the sextet's connection to one another are inelegantly inserted into the proceedings, most of this exposition so well delivered verbally by the character they affect the most, the inclusion of these scenes outside of the escape room end up feeling frustratingly superfluous. I also can't say I was pleased with the way Danny was treated, and while I get that he is supposed to be just to the wrong side of annoying there was something about the way he's written and portrayed that just didn't sit well with me. Not that Dodani is bad, mind you, his performance is perfectly fine, it's that the character is the only one that feels like a giant cliché.

I should also say that the final act is tediously messy. Not only is the climax haphazardly structured, it's also obvious, and I can't say anything that happened during the finale caught me by surprise. Most egregiously, the blatant setup for a sequel is damningly obnoxious, especially considering the filmmakers could have achieved the very effect they're going for if they'd ended things with a key character's victorious, self-empowered smile instead of including a silly epilogue that makes all of this suddenly feel like an episodic syndicated television show from the '80s instead of a self-contained feature film.

No matter. Robitel sets up a number of winning set pieces for his characters to attempt to get themselves out of, not the least of which is an upside-down pool hall with a collapsing ceiling (which makes it the floor) that's like something out of The Poseidon Adventure only with a twisted psychotic bent that's efficiency homicidal. There's also a terrific score courtesy of composers John Carey and Brian Tyler (Crazy Rich Asians), their rich variety of themes helping augment the action splendidly. Because of this none of the picture's more egregious shortcomings stop it from entertaining, Escape Room a diverting little chiller I couldn't help but enjoy.






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Photographic Center Northwest presents their 22nd Juried Exhibition January 17 - March 14
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Century Ballroom hosts OutDancing For A Cause benefiting Play Your* Part and King County Sexual Assault Resource Center January 18
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Nora Michaels delivers a great night of music at her 71st birthday show and CD release at Highway 99 Blues Club
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Seattle Humane - Pets of the Week
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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Head's up re: the REAL Seattle Womxn's March 2019
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The future is female
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Minimalist Rust Creek an effectively tense Appalachian thriller
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Diverting Escape Room an enjoyably inventive thriller
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