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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 29, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 48
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Striking Frozen II an emotionally mature sequel
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

FROZEN II
Now playing


I was a little leery when Disney announced they were making a sequel to their 2013 smash Frozen. That female-driven musical adventure hit all the right notes and had one of the better climaxes of any of the studio's animated classics going all the way back to their first motion picture, 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It offered up a rousing conclusion that didn't require the damsel in distress to be saved by a dashing prince. The film celebrated sisterhood and in the process showed how selfless love could triumph over evil stating that acceptance, understanding and forgiveness were universal forces for change deserving of being embraced without hesitation.

Thankfully, Frozen II doesn't mitigate, lessen or belittle any of the first film's achievements. Instead, returning directors Jennifer Lee (who also crafted the finished screenplay) and Chris Buck continue the story of Arendelle's sisters Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) with gently confident authority. The characters are granted the opportunity to grow and evolve in ways that are richly complex, allowing them to go in separate directions while still gallantly supporting one another as they march into the unknown hand-in-hand. It is a sequel that exists to tell its own individual story and not just ride on the Oscar-winning coattails of its predecessor, watching it a continual joy that filled my heart with glee.

I don't want to say a lot about the plot. Even though there is a central mystery at the heart of the story, it isn't like I'm too worried about spoiling any of the many twists or turns. I don't want to say anything because I just feel that this ends up being a movie I want audiences to experience with as little knowledge in regards to what ends up happening as possible. The surprises are in the many ways the relationships between the characters evolve, and not just with Elsa and Anna, but also with woodsman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), pint-sized snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) and reindeer Sven as well. It is on their interactions Lee centers the script on, watching them all take shape in such a multifaceted and emotionally nuanced fashion a delectable treat I couldn't help but savor.

This is a darker story, definitely more mature, and I can in some ways see how a few parents might be initially worried their smaller children might be frightened by some of what happens to Elsa and Anna or that they don't understand some of the adult themes Lee and Buck choose to emphasize. I cannot say I feel the same. I've always believed younger children deserve to be challenged and shouldn't be talked down to. Many of my favorite films as a wide-eyed kid included works like The Black Stallion, Dragonslayer, The Black Hole, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Watership Down, all of which feature moments of uncertainty and darkness that, for a youngster, could feel a little bit terrifying. But I was able to navigate through that fear and I believe doing so gave me a greater understanding of a handful of life's complexities I maybe wouldn't have pondered otherwise, and I treasure the fact my parents trusted I would be able to do just that.

What I will get slightly annoyed with, and this somewhat shocks me, is the music. Don't misunderstand; I think all of the songs are pretty great. My problem is that, unlike the first film, some of them don't seem to fit comfortably inside the narrative. Groff gets an '80s-style power ballad that both knocked my socks off while it also left me more than a wee bit horrified, while a certifiably bizarre little ditty featuring Gad (but soon involveing almost the entire cast) is a bit of psychedelic whimsical silliness that hit me as being weird only for the sake of being weird. But Elsa's big number "Into the Unknown" is well worth the wait, the song helping drive the narrative forward before finally ending with a jaw-dropper of a climax that left me shattered.

Will Frozen II strike the same chord with audiences as Frozen did back in 2013? That's difficult to say. The vocal performances continue to be outstanding, the animation is as stunning as ever and most of the songs are ones I can easily imagine audiences singing aloud the choruses of as they leave the theatre. But it is a darker film, and many of the choices the characters make are decidedly adult and not always inherently comforting. Still, this is a strong, richly rewarding sequel that deftly builds on the themes introduced in the first film and are brought to a thrilling conclusion here. While not my favorite animated film of 2019 I still loved it one heck of a lot, Elsa and Anna timeless role models viewers of all races, genders and ages should happily want to emulate.


Sorrow and joy collide in dramatically introspective Honey Boy
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

HONEY BOY
Now playing


When Hollywood heartthrob and former child actor Otis (Lucas Hedges) is sent to court-ordered rehab after a horrific accident, he is tasked by his psychologist Dr. Moreno (Laura San Giacomo) to write a journal reflecting on his life. Memories of his stern, alcoholic father James Lort (Shia LaBeouf) come flooding back, as do remembrances of their days together when he was a 12-year-old (Noah Jupe) on the verge of stardom paying his dad to be his primary guardian. It's a lot to deal with and Otis isn't certain he can handle it all clean, these oftentimes painful recollections forcing him to wake in the middle of the night covered in sweat as if he's been jolted out of a deep sleep by a terrifying nightmare.

Loosely based on his own life as a child star for the Disney Channel before segueing into roles in major Hollywood blockbusters like Disturbia, Eagle Eye, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the first three films in the Transformers franchise, LaBeouf's intimately thought-provoking and hard-hitting screenplay for award-winning documentarian Alma Har'el's (Bombay Beach) feature-length debut Honey Boy is a thing of beauty. It is a complex nonlinear trek into the highs, lows and uncomforting in-betweens of a life lived on the fringes of the Los Angeles spotlight, this father-son story a vicious exposé of lost dreams, heightened expectations, overpowering addiction and unselfish love that took me by surprise.

Not to say the story is entirely fresh or original. Even though LaBeouf was inspired by his relationship with his father, this story of a young talent's difficult rise and tragic fall isn't that far removed from any number of similar tales we've seen since the birth of cinema over a 100 years ago. While the settings and circumstances change, while technology becomes more advanced and the vices of choice move beyond alcohol to newfangled, highly-addictive narcotics cooked up in a chemistry lab, the basics remain the same. Youngster has talent, gets noticed, becomes a star, uses recreational drugs and comes perilously close to seeing the career they've worked so hard to achieve flushed down the drain. Cut. Print. Scene.

LaBeouf adds the element of the iron-fisted stage father. Honey Boy is born from the give-and-take relationship Otis and James have developed while the former strives to achieve his dreams and the latter relives his own failed ones through the eyes of his overachieving son. This gives the story an extra layer of urgent immediacy I found fascinating, Har'el examining the pair's interactions with an insightful attention to detail that burrows ever-deeper into what the two of them are thinking at any given time. It's like watching The Florida Project, Mommie Dearest, Clean and Sober, American Honey (which featured LaBeouf in a key supporting role) and The 400 Blows all smooshed together into a single, gut-wrenching narrative, the director handling the story's various elements with striking elasticity.

LaBeouf, already haven given one of the better performances of his career (and of 2019) just a couple months ago in The Peanut Butter Falcon, does it again here. His James is as brutal as he is uncompromising. Yet there is also a continual glint resting in the back of his eyes hinting at the promise of what tomorrow might bring and the hope that better times are ahead. I could really feel the love this father has for his son even if he rarely knows the best way to show it, making the pain he experiences knowing that at some point their working relationship will have to end and Otis will move on into the teenager and adult years of his life without him all the more painful. There is a haunting eloquence to LaBeouf's performance that angered me beyond my internal boiling point yet also left me weeping in delicate sadness for all it is this man has attempted and failed to be. It's a bravura turn, the actor deserving of every bit of praise he's received as this film has played the festival circuit since premiering at Sundance way back in January.

Jupe is his co-star's equal. The maturity he showcases as Otis becomes the adult in the relationship with his father is gloriously. Yet the youngster also has a brittleness about him that reminded me that, for all is huffing and puffing, this was still a child unsure of how he is supposed to comfortably exist inside a very adult world he has no business being a part of. Jupe traverses though an emotional minefield as if he were walking on tippy toes and does so with a raw, unvarnished ease that's sensational, the chemistry he shares with LaBeouf nothing less than staggering.

The passages dealing with Hedges' 22-year-old incarnation of Otis aren't as effective, and as great as the actor might be (and he's very, very good) after Manchester by the Sea, Ben is Back and Boy Erased it's getting to the point I'm starting to feel he could play a character like this one in his sleep if he wanted to. But his typecasting aside these sections of the story are also the ones that feel the most routine, and while Har'el adds a handful of documentary-like dynamics there is still something oddly perfunctory about them I didn't wholly respond to.

Not that I care. Thanks to Har'el's assertively meditative direction and LaBeouf's profound, emotionally-modulated script Honey Boy is a dramatic tour de force that left me stranded between sensations of elation and sadness for the majority of its methodically paced 94 minutes. Memories of youth aren't always happy, but that doesn't mean sorrow and joy still can't coexist, and when addiction grabs the user by the throat having the guts to both give and to ask for forgiveness is sometimes the only way to leave the darkness behind and walk back into the light refreshed.


Satirically malevolent Knives Out a triumphant all-star murder mystery
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

KNIVES OUT
Now playing


Southern private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been dubbed "the last of the gentleman sleuths." An anonymous employer has tasked him with traveling to the secluded mansion of deceased author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) to investigate if the man's death was the suicide the police believe it to be. Once on the premise he is introduced to the entire Thrombey clan, their children and their relevant significant others. He also makes the acquaintance of Harlan's beloved nurse and trusted friend Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the one person the entire family seemingly can't say a single bad thing about.

Blanc suspects foul play even if investigating detective Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and local county officer Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) think he's barking up the wrong tree. But with Marta's help he thinks he can show Harlan's death wasn't what it appears to be, the private sleuth determined to hold whomever it is accountable for planning, executing and attempting to enjoy the massive financial fruits of this devilishly heinous crime.

Rian Johnson's marvelous who-done-it (and how'd-they-do-it) all-star murder mystery Knives Out is more than just a witty modern-day riff on a familiar Agatha Christie-like scenario. The man behind films as diverse as Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Star Wars: The Last Jedi has a lot on his mind with this story. His intelligently dexterous screenplay is a scathing evisceration of wealth inequality and racial biases while still managing at the same time to be an engagingly terrific thriller overflowing in amusing twists and turns. Much like Bong Joon Ho's Parasite Johnson's latest is a satirically malevolent gold mine that refuses to follow the rules of the genre its narrative exists within, all of which helps make it an explosively entertaining triumph worthy of multiple views.

The fun of this "eat the rich" scenario is watching how the members of the Thrombey family are so willing to turn on one another when they feel for even a passing second that their precious inheritance might suddenly be in jeopardy. They don't even do that great a job pretending to be a loving bunch, their open contempt for one another blatantly out in the open for Blanc to analyze under his all-seeing psychological microscope. This makes their collective affinity for Marta both calculated and suspect, and while they talk a great game about her being a part of the family, their support of the young woman isn't nearly as selfless or as egalitarian as it might look.

It's readily apparent that this is the character Johnson wants the audience to relate to and respect more than any of the others. Marta has reason to be fearful of what is happening inside the house. At the same time, she also has the most to lose if things go sideways. Even so, her innate goodness shines through even when things go tragically wrong, the luminous de Armas allowing all of the many emotions the nurse is feeling to shine through no matter how personally catastrophic her situation might appear to be. It's a subtly heartfelt performance that grows in intricate resonance as the story unfolds, the actress having marvelous chemistry with practically all of her costars, especially Craig, Plummer and a roguishly charming Chris Evans (as Harlan's acid-tongued black sheep grandson Ransom Drysdale).

I'm not sure the actual murder mystery is all that difficult to solve and I'm pretty sure I had the things figured out roughly halfway through. But I do like that, even with the flashback-heavy Rashomon-like structure of the scenario, Johnson allows the audience to put the majority of the pieces of this puzzle together roughly at the same rate Blanc does. Additionally, the answer to the question of whether or not Harlan was murdered or if it was indeed suicide ends up not being nearly as important as how Blanc's presence in their family home forces the Thrombeys to peel off the masks they wear day-in and day-out and finally reveal their narcissistic ugliness to the world. It's like Johnson has mashed-up The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie with Ten Little Indians and added a dash of Clue for good measure, doing so with such likeably confident aplomb I can't help but be impressed.

The cast, which includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Katherine Langford, Frank Oz, K Callan and M. Emmet Walsh, is outstanding, each member making the most of every second they happen to be on the screen. But this is Plummer's, Evan's, Craig's and, as already mentioned, de Armas' show, all four giving unforgettable performances I adored. For Craig, once he turns in his James Bond tuxedo after appearing in next April's No Time to Die I'd be perfectly happy if he and Johnson decided to make Benoit Blanc a cinematic mainstay. This private detective needs to return for another mystery. That's it. That's the statement, and here's hoping the box office receipts for Knives Out are large enough for this to become a reality.


Mirren and McKellen are outstanding in otherwise disappointing Liar
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE GOOD LIAR
Now playing


Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen are quite the engaging cinematic pair in director Bill Condon's (Beauty and the Beast, Mr. Holmes) playfully nimble adaptation of author Nicholas Searle's best-seller The Good Liar. As the selflessly caring retired Oxford professor Betty McLeish and the gregariously talkative widower Ray Courtnay the pair can do no wrong. Their back-and-forth banter as their characters craftily size one another up is the soul of the motion picture, watching Mirren and McKellen work their magic worth the price of admission almost by itself.

Being unfamiliar with Searle's source material I'd say this is a very good thing because, if taken on its own merits, this is a soggy thriller that I never felt an emotional connection to. Jeffrey Hatcher's (The Duchess) literate screenplay certainly isn't a disaster, and I did appreciate how respectful of the audience's intelligence the overall narrative is. But there is a stodgy theatricality to the scenario that's underwhelming, while the core surprises waiting for the film's climactic act in order to be revealed are fairly obvious and aren't nearly as shocking as they are intended to be. As an audience member it's not possible to put the pieces of this puzzle together. Instead, I just had to sit there and wait for Condon and Hatcher to explain what was happening to me, and for a mystery that is as well acted and as confidently assembled as this one that's a major problem.

The plot isn't as simple as it initially appears to be. It is 2009 and Londoners Betty and Ray meet-cute via an internet dating service and appear to hit it off right away. But he's not exactly the kindly curmudgeon he presents himself to be, and as the pair's relationship deepens and becomes more personal it's clear his intentions aren't romantic in nature. Betty's nosey grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is immediately suspicious of Ray and begins investigating the man's past, especially what he was up to in the years just after the end of WWII.

Mirren and McKellen are terrific. They have exquisite chemistry and it is never entirely clear if they're playing cat and mouse with one another or if instead they are starting to slowly fall under the other's romantic spell. While it is revealed within the first ten or so minutes that Ray is a charlatan and con man the actor still makes his character's feelings towards Betty feel like they're in a constant state of unknowable flux. Because of this, it is a genuine question as to whether he is going to go through with his deception or instead come clean with the educated woman, the hint of mischievous whimsy twinkling in the corner of his eye absolutely lovely.

Mirren is even better. By design she has to play her role fairly close to the vest. There are no hints as to who she was as a younger woman save what Betty tells Ray herself or by what she does while on her own walking through the streets of Berlin on a brief holiday excursion. The Oscar-winning actress gets to show a soft, spunky side that she hasn't allowed viewers to see in quite a long time. But Betty hides her own mysterious past, one that it's easy to perceive is tinged with regret and tragedy thanks to the way Mirren is able to silently convey such furious angst and timorous hesitation with the subtlety of her body movements and in how she returns McKellen's ever watchful gaze.

As great as they both are I didn't like that the only way to understand the core mystery at the center of the picture was via long passages of exposition and elongated flashbacks. Even though Condon stages these moments with precision and care, especially the first one in a spacious East German apartment during the Allied occupation of Berlin after WWII, I still felt like these sequences did more telling and explaining than they did moving the overall story forward. They significantly deaden the pace, and while they're all necessary that doesn't mean they work.

It does not help that the climax is too obvious, and even if I didn't know why things were going to turn out the way in which they would I still knew where they were going to end up almost right from the start. The twist has no real power, and even the most shocking elements of what transpires come off as more sickening and inflammatory than they doing anything else. Because Condon and Hatcher don't drop any hints or noticeable clues as to what is going on this character-driven mystery comes perilously close to transforming into a '70s-style exploitation thriller for the AARP set, which might have been fine had I felt the film earned such a pivotal change in tone. As outstanding as Mirren and McKellen might be this is where The Good Liar lost me, and as strong as the performances and the filmmaking are, the truth of the matter is I almost wish I'd have refrained from watching it in the first place.




Head Over Heels at ArtsWest is Go-Go fun
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Cher rocks out at Portland's Moda Center with her best and most personal show yet
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Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, Pacific MusicWorks and Seattle Symphony present a brilliant production of Orfeo ed Euridice
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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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2019 HOLIDAY EVENTS CALENDAR
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Striking Frozen II an emotionally mature sequel
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Sorrow and joy collide in dramatically introspective Honey Boy
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Satirically malevolent Knives Out a triumphant all-star murder mystery
------------------------------
Mirren and McKellen are outstanding in otherwise disappointing Liar
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