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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 25, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 04
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Visually Elastic Moon an imaginatively self-indulgent drama
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

DON'T COME BACK
FROM THE MOON
Now playing


There's a lot to like about Bruce Thierry Cheung's solo directorial debut Don't Come Back from the Moon. A frequent James Franco collaborator (he shot The Sound and the Fury and The Adderall Diaries for the actor/producer/director and co-directed the 2018 dystopian sci-fi action film Future World with him), the veteran cinematographer's purposefully minimalist adaptation of author Dean Bakopoulos' novel Please Don't Come Back from the Moon is disquieting in its hypnotically austere minimalism. Moving the action from Detroit to a windswept rundown town somewhere in the southern California desert on the Salton Sea, this is a coldly bleak story of youth searching for answers during a summer of senseless loss and abandonment, the resulting answers bracingly affecting even if they aren't particularly surprising.

But the movie just as equally cannot help but feel a little slight, more of a visual and emotionally visceral exercise in crafting a consistent mood and setting a dynamic tone than it is anything else. With his use of expressive close-ups coupled with long expansive shots of seemingly never-ending desert vistas of a dilapidated, crumbling community on the verge of being gobbled up by the sand, the film is undeniably visually impressive. But the use of narration and chopped-up conversations that only take shape in the vaguest of ways can't help but come across like a cinema studies major attempting to emulate Terrence Malick at his most self-indulgent. These various elements frequently feel as if they are working at cross-purposes for a great deal of the narrative, and even at a brief 82-minutes I still found sitting through Cheung's debut without squirming a little more difficult than it arguably should have been.

There is still a lived-in quality to this tale that I cannot deny. I loved the first half hour or so, the portions where Cheung, co-writing the script with the Bakopoulos, introduces us into this world and sets up the conditions the various characters all find themselves forced to deal with. The ethereally barren strangeness of both the locale and the bizarre events are fascinating, and I loved the way the director submerged me right in the center of it all with practically no explanation whatsoever. Cheung and his cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj utilize their poetically sparse and majestically vacant environment with mesmeric precision, the expressive, tragically persuasive charms of this introduction undeniable.

The basic thrust of the plot involves an entire community of abandoned wives and kids where all of the men for one reason or another have slowly left to explore their options elsewhere. The teenagers have labeled this as, 'going to the moon,' all of them urging one another not to do the same once they're old enough to make their own way in the world. Events are centered on 16-year-old Mickey (Jeffrey Wahlberg), his father Roman (Franco) taking time to teach him how to drive before slipping out of town himself to who knows where, leaving the teen to take care of his emotionally devastated mother Eva (an outstanding Rashida Jones) and younger brother Kolya (Zackary Arthur). In some ways he's better off than many of his friends, some like the lovely Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker) or his volatile, bird-loving cousin Nick (Hale Lytle) left entirely on their own after their respective dads disappear.

How does the community react? The kids, especially the teenagers, find a number of varying ways to vent their anger including staying out late partying or scrounging the crumbling buildings and factories for bits of scrap metal they can trade for items like a used bicycle or a few eggs to make breakfast with. Mickey's mom tries to fight through her own grief by opening up a makeshift barber shop in her kitchen, taking a few bucks here and there to cut the hair of the local kids or some of the remaining adults who haven't bolted for the great unknown. One of those individuals ends up being one of the lone males (Henry Hopper) still around who is hoping to land a job as a grocery store clerk. Much to Mickey's frustration he ends up falling for Eva, and it's an open question whether or not the teen is going to let their romance run its course or if he'll do whatever he can to stop it before it can begin.

While some of that sounds relatively straightforward, in reality very little of it actually is. Cheung designs things in a way that it all ends up becoming a stream of consciousness mash-up of emotional disparities that bounce off one another as if they were a rubber ball trapped inside a hollow cube being shaken by a cantankerous child. Mikey's voiceover tends to overexplain things, and his constant allusions to the surface of the moon can grow obnoxiously tiresome. But the openhearted clarity of the central story is refreshing, and the way the filmmaker manages to keep such precise focus on Mickey's attempts to put all these pieces together is impressive. There is also a naturalistic grace to his growing attachment to Sonya that's expressively rich, making her surprise decision to forgive her father (Robert Scott Crane) all the more heartbreaking because of this.

The film's third act gets a bit jumbled. Mickey decides to go looking for answers outside of his Salton Sea community, the discoveries he ends up making too ambiguous and vague to be as deeply moving as I think Cheung intends them to be. I also felt like, as hopeful and moderately heartwarming as the final moments might be, the last few scenes rang slightly a bit hollow as far as I was concerned. I just didn't buy that the choices Mickey was making were wholly genuine, and while the idea that this circle of abandonment and capitulation to life's indignities has hopefully come to an end felt sincere, it just didn't seem to me this teenager was the one who was going to be able to accomplish such a feat with anything approaching lasting success.

Granted, having not read Bakopoulos' book I could be reading this story's intentions all wrong. More than that, even though Future World was something of an eye-rolling disaster, Cheung showcases a confidence with actors and an impressive imaginative flair that makes me believe this young director is a talent worth keeping an eye on. If I don't love Don't Come Back from the Moon that doesn't mean I still didn't find much to be intrigued by and bewitched with here, this visually elastic piece of a cinematic poetry a dramatic curiosity I'm happy I took the time to see.


Timely Acceptable Loss an explosive misfire
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

AN ACCEPTABLE LOSS
Now playing


Former national security advisor Elizabeth 'Libby' Lamm (Tika Sumpter) can't forget the past. She's haunted by her part in an aerial strike against a terrorist stronghold in the Middle East. Persuaded by then Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis) to falsify parts of a report that made this attack possible, believing that doing so will potentially end the war on terror for good, once the full ramifications of their actions are clear the growing disgust she feels begins to eat away at her soul. While initially playing the part of a good soldier, doing what she can to help convince the American public of the legality of the administration's actions, since then Libby has secretly written a memoir chronicling every aspect of the plan to conduct that air strike. It is a report Rachel Burke, now President of the United States, understandably does not want to become public.

Martin Salhi (Ben Tavassoli) is a promising graduate student at a prestigious New England university of Middle Eastern descent. When Libby Lamm is hired to teach one of his classes the young man is noticeably shaken. He begins to stalk his new professor, surreptitiously chronicling every step she makes. Martin has his own reasons for wanting Libby held responsible for her part in the American military's air strike against his homeland. He's also noticeably curious as to her recent actions that he's been clandestinely observing, putting his original plan to hold her personally accountable for what he views as nothing short of the mass slaughter of innocent civilians on pause until he learns what is going on with the former government official and why she's being so strangely secretive.

That's the overly complex setup to what's happening in writer/director Joe Chappelle's (Phantoms) political thriller An Acceptable Loss, a well-intentioned ticking clock suspense yarn where tension is hard to come by and anything approaching an emotional investment in the outcome is practically nonexistent. Additionally, the subplot involving Martin isn't believable, his character arc inexplicably transforming into something out of 3 Days of the Condor or The Parallax View in a manner that is forcibly nonsensical. His involvement with Libby is absurd, and as the entire last third of the story hinges entirely on the decisions he makes and very little else this is a gigantic problem the film cannot hope to recover from.

Not that the central scenario isn't interesting. Libby's crisis of conscience isn't half as compelling as her back and forth discussions with Rachel also prove to be. While not exactly subtle, they have a strength and a resonance that's fascinating. While one does hope the answer to this moralistic argument is obvious, that the viewer would never choose to unleash the level of unimaginable carnage these characters do and then face having to live with the repercussions of their actions, it's unnerving how matter-of-factly Chappelle treats this debate. Thanks almost entirely to Curtis' chilling, confidently high-minded performance, Rachel's reasoning for changing U.S. policy in regards to first strike attacks and the need for collateral damage, no matter how massive it might be, have a bone-rattling immediacy that reminded me of statements made by a number of politicians roaming the halls of Congress and residing within the White House right this very second.

It's fairly clear what Chappelle is trying to do. He's placing a mirror to the current political miasma and asking the viewer to question everything they think they hold dear. The filmmaker does so by taking this story to its abhorrent extremes, showing in no uncertain terms what could happen when a Presidential administration is allowed to go unchecked by the rule of law and given free rein by a Congress disinterested in conducting their oversight responsibilities. Rachel is like an amalgam of Dick Cheney, Donald Trump and Martin Sheen's authoritarian political candidate with a backbone made out of string cheese that the actor portrayed in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone, Curtis playing her character with such determined gravitas I found I couldn't take my eyes off of her.

But so what? The thriller aspects do not work, especially once Libby and Martin stop working at cross-purposes. The entire will-it-or-won't-it get published aspect surrounding the former's memoir isn't interesting. Worse, it also isn't suspenseful. Nothing feels real or authentic, and there was never a second I believed what was transpiring could take place in anything even passingly resembling the real world. The last act is especially bothersome, things building to an expected conclusion that's nowhere near as shocking as is undeniably the intent.

Sumpter was magnificent in 2016's Southside with You, the actress a rising star I expect great things from in the future. While she does what she can here, Libby is such a mess of a character it's remarkable the actress makes her anywhere near as compelling as she does. But Chappelle's writing for this smart, determined woman is all over the map, and there were many moments where her decisions made so little sense, especially as they pertained to Martin, that I might have rolled my eyes in irritated frustration on more than one occasion. Sumpter can only do so much to mitigate all of this psychologically discombobulated madness, and that Libby isn't a total disaster as the protagonist has more to do with her talent and resolve than it does anything relating to the director's script.

I almost feel bad for disliking An Acceptable Loss as I do. Chappelle has something to say, and I don't think there's any minimizing he has a point in regards just how bad it might be to put unscrupulous, race-bating fundamentalists in charge of whether or not to utilize the nuclear button. But the sermonizing is as plodding and as tiresome as the inept plotting of the suspense-thriller aspects of this tale unfortunately prove to be. For all of the film's high-minded aspirations, it's just too silly and stupid to be able to live up to any of them, Chappelle's drama an explosive misfire that's nothing short of a complete waste of time.


Scarecrow Video and film critic Robert Horton present Scarecrow Academy: '1959: The Greatest Year in Film History'
Local 501(c)(3) Scarecrow Video, the largest private video library in the world, is partnering with Seattle Weekly film critic Robert Horton to present '1959: The Greatest Year in Film History,' a year-long series of film screenings and discussions celebrating one of the most important years in cinema.

1959 marked a high point of Hollywood studio filmmaking, the rise of new independent cinema, the great flowering of international movies, and the beginning of the French New Wave. The year represents the bridge between cinematic mastery bred in the silent era and the stirring tumult that would arrive in the 1960s.

Join us on 2nd and 4th Saturdays at 1pm in the Scarecrow Screening Room for the best films from the year including North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and A Bucket of Blood.

Each program will include an introduction, screening, and post-film discussion. These events are free and open to the public, but RSVPs are encouraged at blog.scarecrow.com/scarecrowacademy

WHAT: Scarecrow Academy - 1959: The Greatest Year in Film History

WHEN: 2nd and 4th Saturdays, January 26th Through May 11th at 1pm

RSVP at blog.scarecrow.com/scarecrowacademy

WHERE: The Screening Room at Scarecrow Video, 5030 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105

ABOUT SCARECROW VIDEO
Storytelling is at the heart of film's ability to inspire empathy. Over a hundred years ago, we began using film to tell our cultural stories. Scarecrow Video is devoted to gathering and sharing as many of these cinematic stories as possible. With its vast collection of 132,000 titles, Scarecrow is one of the most important video libraries in the world. Scarecrow Video became a non-profit in 2014 to continue the founding vision of uniting people through film, and just celebrated its 30th anniversary as an institution and landmark. But, much like public radio and television, Scarecrow Video will not be able to continue without the support of its community. Find out how you can help.

Nearly every night Scarecrow offers free films, lectures, and unique programming in The Screening Room. The space is also available to non-profits and community groups, all in an effort to build communities around our shared love of film. Providing a physical space for all to convene around film arts and culture is just one way that Scarecrow gives back to the community. Other free programs in which Scarecrow fosters community through film include:

Children's Hour - Using short videos from the Scarecrow archive, storybooks curated by the Seattle Public Library, and interactive activities centered on a theme, Children's Hour offers auditory, visual, and tactile learning in a fun environment - all at no cost to families.

Silver Screeners - Scarecrow partners with Seattle senior and community centers to deliver film screenings and discussions for older adults who might otherwise be unable to access films from the collection.

Movies in the Park - In partnership with Magnuson Park Community Center, City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, and Seattle Parks and Recreation, Scarecrow hosted free, family-friendly movie nights. Hundreds of attendees explored other cultures through four unique, family-friendly films and children's activities without needing to leave Seattle.

ABOUT ROBERT HORTON
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the longtime film critic for the Everett Herald and Seattle Weekly. He is a regular contributor to Film Comment magazine, and the author of Frankenstein (Columbia University Press) and Billy Wilder: Interviews (U. Press of Mississippi).

He has been a Fulbright Specialist, an adjunct professor at Seattle University, the curator of the 'Magic Lantern' film program at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, and a speaker with Smithsonian Journeys. His work is linked at the website The Crop Duster.

Courtesy of Scarecrow Video






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Seattle Humane - Pets of the Week
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LETTER TO THE EDITOR
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Visually Elastic Moon an imaginatively self-indulgent drama
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Timely Acceptable Loss an explosive misfire
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Scarecrow Video and film critic Robert Horton present Scarecrow Academy: '1959: The Greatest Year in Film History'
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