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Movie Reviews
Poignant Doubt an exercise in faith
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Doubt
Opening december 19


Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is not a man who believes in convention. It is the winter of 1964, and he has come to St. Nicholas to help move the school into a new age of tolerance and learning, even if some, most notably the longtime principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), don't agree with his activist methods and irregular actions.

But what of Father Flynn's attentions towards the school's first (and only) black student, young Donald Miller (Joseph Foster)? Are they as innocent as he claims, or is there something far more insidious going on that nobody knows about? Just the thought is enough to frighten Sister James (Amy Adams), a young new teacher who connects with her students like few of her older compatriots, her suspicions leading her to confide in Sister Aloysius almost without thinking.

Soon a battle of wills erupts between the headstrong nun and the activist priest, neophyte Sister James caught somewhere between them. Did he do the unthinkable? Who knows - there is no proof, after all - but just the hint of scandal is enough for this highly piteous trio to enter into a crisis of conscience and faith putting everything they believe to the ultimate of tests.

Oscar-winning filmmaker John Patrick Shanley's (Moonstruck) adaptation of his own Tony Award-winning play Doubt is a very good movie. It is not, however, a great one. Extremely well acted by the leads and full of complicatedly intelligent discussions well worth ruminating on, all the same this picture isn't as transcendent or as timeless as some might like you to believe.

Which isn't even close to being a bad thing. Good movies with something to say are far too few and even farther between, and just because this one doesn't shake the heavens with magnificence, don't think that makes it any less worthwhile. There is plenty to chew on, even more to debate with friends in the morning, its themes concerning faith, morality and educational authority as timeless today as they probably were during the era in which this story is set.

Ironically, the thing holding the film back from greatness is the very creator who made it such a smash sensation on theatrical stages all across the United States. Shanley is so intent on opening up his play into something visually cinematic he ends up doing far more harm than good. He allows gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) to go hog wild with eccentric camera angles and uncomforting lighting schemes, the picture sometimes having such a crooked and cockeyed point of view it actually becomes just a wee bit disconcerting.

More than that, the director tends to hammer home the inherent subtlety of his piece with almost didactic forcefulness. The wind can't just blow; it must also destroy umbrellas and nearly push people over. Rain can't just fall; it must all descend from the sky with all the fury and pain of Noah's flood. It all gets to be more than a little bit too much, and more than once I found myself sitting in my chair silently wishing the filmmaker would just take a chill pill and let things be.

Somehow none of this destroys the drama's emotional power. If Shanley the director tends to overdo things here or there, Shanley the writer does such an exquisite job of crafting a fascinating storyline that the film's visual shortcomings are hardly the problem they probably should be. There are no easy answers found within this high-octane tête-à-tête, the central mystery as beguiling and unanswered at the end as it was at the very beginning.

Instead, the film's focus is firmly fixated upon Sister Aloysius. Her undying faith is the point from which all else springs, her stunning realization of just exactly what it is she's done, and what it means in regards to said faith, truly devastating. The look on Sister James' face as she takes it all in nearly left me breathless, the beginnings of tears welling in her elder's eyes all it took for me to choke up in painful understanding right along with her.

No surprise, but the acting is more or less sensational. But while Streep will undoubtedly get the majority of the accolades, and while this is certainly a marvelous performance, I can't quite claim it to also be one of the woman's very best, her work in pictures as diverse as Sophie's Choice, Ironweed, One True Thing and The Bridges of Madison County having far more sway over me then what she does here.

If anything, to my mind the one with the most difficult role is former Junebug nominee Adams. It is her job to react to all the madness swirling around her. She is the one who has to respond to both Streep and Hoffman's advances, the one who has to sit there and take all that they say in with an open heart, revealing her true feelings not with words, but only with the multitude of expressions gallivanting across her awestruck face. It's a tough task but Adams proves more than up to the challenge, her supporting performance arguably one of the best anyone is going to see all year.

One thing there will be no argument about is Viola Davis. The veteran character actress has one scene, but it is such an amazing moment, such a visceral exercise in brutal honesty and heartrending emotion, this maybe 10-minute sequence of film becomes absolutely impossible to forget. Building slowly and methodically, Davis raises herself to a virtuoso level you just don't expect, her farewell look to Streep stopping my blood so completely cold I almost needed to slap myself in the face to get it flowing again.

All of which makes it kind of a pity Shanley feels such a need to show off behind the scenes. The actors are just so good, and the writing is just so sharp, none of these visually battering theatrics are even vaguely worthy of the effort they obviously took to stage. All they really did was throw me out of the story, unsettling my equilibrium enough it took me a moment to get re-encapsulated inside the filmmaker's rigorously theological quagmire.

Yet the film still can't help but rise above these problems with - dare I say it - almost divine ease. It is as if there is an angel sitting on the motion picture's shoulder, helping the director ultimately steer things toward success even when some of his more unfortunate instincts almost did him in. By the time it was over, I knew I was watching something wonderfully memorable, Doubt leaving no skepticism on my part as to its own poignant majesty.

Courtesy of moviefreak.com


Shaky third act keeps Timecrimes a conundrum
Shaky third act keeps Timecrimes a conundrum by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Timecrimes
Opening december 19


Héctor (Karra Elejalde) is a happy man. Sitting on the lawn just outside his brand-new country home, he can't imagine a better environment for him and his wife Clara (Candela Fernández) to sit back and relax within. Secluded, right in the middle of lush forest and with nary a bit of traffic, this is about as far out of the way as two people can get, peace and quiet the only thing either of them are in the mood to think about.

That changes when Héctor spies a nude woman through his binoculars up on a nearby hillside. Hiking up there to see what's going on, the middle aged man is bizarrely attacked by a grotesque figure with a pair of shears, the attacker's head wrapped in a blood-soaked pink bandage.

Wounded, he finds himself in a secret scientific compound, the lone attendant (director Nacho Vigalondo) having him hide in a mysterious contraption filled to the brim with sinister looking milky water. Next thing Héctor knows he has inexplicably traveled back in time, and just when things look like they can't get any worse, he finds he's face to face with a potential killer who looks surprisingly much like himself.

Award-winning short film director Vigalondo makes the leap to features with his trippy Seattle International Film Festival favorite Timecrimes, a Twilight Zone wannabe that sets a suitably creepy vibe only to unfortunately fall to pieces during the climax. Undeniably easy to watch, the film still isn't very fulfilling, the aftertaste left by the over-familiar finale one I just didn't like.

Up until then, however, Vigalondo's debut is one heck of a lot of sinisterly unsettling fun. Combining the very best of intellectually driven sci-fi and horrifically uncomforting slasher films, the picture twists, turns and wraps back in on itself so many times it could make your head spin. For a good hour I was completely on the edge of my seat, continually inching ever-forward, hungering to discover what was going to happen next.

The problem is, at a certain point all of this identity multiplicity gets a little silly. More than that, once the major twist is revealed, there's really only one place for all this admittedly suspenseful chaos to go. If the director is hoping to wow audiences with a killer finale, sorry to say, it just doesn't happen. The shock of who lives and who dies is so obvious it can't help but become tediously ho-hum.

Still, Timecrimes can be a total hoot. Vigalondo stages everything with a crazy manic energy that's utterly infectious, while cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano photographs it all with an urgent immediacy that's quite compelling. The film is also extremely well acted, Elejalde a particular standout giving Héctor an everyman forcefulness impossible not to relate at least in some small part to.

It's still not enough. All the inanely familiar madness unleashed during the third act dilutes all the goodwill built up during the first two thirds, and as much as I wanted to enjoy myself, it was almost as if the director was daring me to do otherwise. While it doesn't completely fall apart, the movie comes just close enough to doing so I couldn't help but be disappointed, and if I could go back in time and do it again I'd probably end up passing on Timecrimes completely.

Courtesy of moviefreak.com


The Punisher better than sex
by Rajkhet Dirzhud-Rashid - SGN A&E Writer

The Punisher: War Zone
Opening December 5


Sometimes, when sex isn't happening, I'll take violence as a substitute. Okay, I'm wired stranger than the average person, but hey, whatever blows your panties off, right? Right.

With those words of wisdom in mind, and still burning over a recent breakup, I gleefully threw myself into enjoying the full-on, pedal-to-the-metal ultraviolence ripping up the screen at the screening of The Punisher: War Zone. And take it from me, someone who celebrates the darkness of Kali Ma as well as the light of nicer goddesses, this one ain't for wusses or the faint of heart.

Like you need a plotline with all of these things blowing up, there actually is one, and it's pretty well integrated into the comic book action. Also, Ray Stevenson is the best Punisher since Dolph Lundgren's moody pout set a junior high, closeted Transperson like myself to fluttering with adolescent joy.

So, the plot of this latest in the incarnations of the Marvel comics come to life is even tastier than the last big-screen foray a few years back. Stevenson plays the grim-faced hero/vigilante with a heart, who goes on an all-out war to eliminate the major mob players in New York City, particularly a new group of criminals led by Billy (Dominic West), a whackjob who loves the sight of his own face  that is, until he is given a makeover by Frank Castle (Stevenson) during a shootout between the feds and Billy's gang. Thus Jigsaw is born, with a murderous desire to take down Castle, aka The Punisher, at all costs. Recruiting his truly crazy brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson) and a lowlife army, things get ugly, bloody and explosive pretty damned quick, but not before an FBI agent with a grudge of his own (Castle unknowingly blows away his partner, who is undercover in the middle of the aforementioned bloodbath) enlists the aid of an obsessed psychoanalyst to go after Castle and bring him in. Also Julie Benz plays the dead fed's wife (she looks great with black hair, but you'll remember her as the blonde vampire on Angel and Dereks girlfriend), who has a sweet little girl who Frank ends up having to save. That's probably the dorkiest part of the film, but I still ate it like a dish of potato chips with hot sauce on them. Bottom line, this film will give it you in the best way, and hey, it won't stand you up, laugh at you or make you cry (like a lover will) after all the good sex.


Great Speeches a powerful local documentary
by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

Great Speeches from a Dying World
Now Playing


I remember watching Wild Kingdom with my dad when I was kid and seeing a lion blithely carry off a wildebeest calf despite the dramatic protests of the mother. I was horrified that the filmmaker didn't intervene. My dad shrugged and said, "Boy, that's just nature."

Long before I understood what the "Prime Directive" meant in Trekkie lingo, I understood that Marlin Perkins was not there to save every wildebeest calf from the clutches of a hungry lion. He was there to document how lions hunt wildebeests.

This is the dilemma of the documentary filmmaker, especially when his homeless subjects are living dangerous, unpredictable, and self-destructive lives.

In his sophomore effort, local documentarian Linas Phillips addresses his problem with the opening voice-over. "I never thought I'd become friends with a guy like this." A couple of minutes later an angst-ridden Phillips says, "I'd see them sleeping in doorways, waiting in food lines, getting kicked off of benches; then I'd get into my car and drive home to a nice warm bed."

These are strange moments coming so early in the film, a sort of oblique disavowal (a specialty of many Seattleites) of all that is to come. And it may be a bit misleading. In the end, Phillips handles his subjects with dignity and grace, much more dignity and grace than one expects given this odd, though honest, opening statement. It feels self-consciously inaccurate as if he really wanted to say, "I'm not going to save these people, but someone must tell their story."

And that is exactly what documentarians do: They tell stories, even the stories we don't want to know, the stories we pretend don't exist.

I came to Great Speeches from a Dying World with a mixture of hope and cynicism. When the locals make good movies, it adds texture to the Seattle film scene. However, when you tell me I'm going to see a documentary about homeless folks I tend to shrink back like a cold scrotum.

But Phillips gets things mostly right even if the documentary could be a bit shorter. He takes a subject that's a tough sell at best and turns it into surprisingly insightful film through the use of one fascinating and simple device. The people in the film (many of whom I recognized) recite some of the best-known and eloquent speeches of the Western world. The result is far from simple but amazingly thought provoking given their circumstances.

They recite speeches from a diverse list of cultural and political sources including John Donne, JFK, Chief Sealth, Sojourner Truth, and Jesus Christ (no "H" initial present in the ending credits). The speeches are delivered in simple and unaffected styles that allow a haunting inner humanity to escape from each person. At times the viewer gets beyond the veneer and sees not just a homeless person, but a person with dreams, dreams of buying food at a grocery store, of having a dog, or of living in a home.

There are no easy solutions to homelessness and Phillips is careful to acknowledge the complicity of his subjects in their circumstances. But it's still maddening to hear some nitwit piously say things like, "The city should do more to help the homeless." This is the type of platitude that drives me nuts. I want to reply, "No shit, really? Why hasn't anyone thought of that before and why haven't you run for office with dynamic ideas like that?"

But the problem is much deeper than this. If it were up to me, I'd say we should give every homeless person a camera and tell them to go make movies. Telling stories, your own or those of others, can be an empowering experience. In fact, it makes me wonder how this documentary changed the lives of the speechmakers.


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