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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 22, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 16
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Emotionally clichéd Elephants a frustrating mess
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Water For Elephants
Opening April 22


After his parents are killed in an automobile accident and the bank repossesses their house, Cornell veterinary science student Jacob (Robert Pattinson) forgoes his finals and instead hops a train heading to an unknown destination. By doing so, he accidentally joins the Benzini Bros. Circus, and after convincing hotheaded owner and ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) to not toss him overboard, the young man is positive this is exactly what he needs to escape the emotional demons assaulting him.

Things get complicated the moment Jacob meets August's sexy younger wife and star center ring attraction Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). August is pathologically jealous and sports a frighteningly violent temper - a combination that could put Jacob's very life in danger.

Things get worse when the circus buys a gigantic elephant named Rosie. The lovable pachyderm apparently is unable to understand simple commands, and if she doesn't learn some signature tricks soon, the cost of keeping her could put Benzini Bros. out of business.

Based on the best-selling and emotionally rapturous novel by Sara Gruen, Water For Elephants is a rousing Great Depression-era tale of memories, regret, heartbreak, and heroism which I adored each and every page of. Its intimately researched saga of a young man taking charge of his life and the elephant who sparks a dangerous romance between two unlikely soul mates had me in tears more often then I care to admit.

Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (Beloved, Living Out Loud) have adapted Gruen's novel for the screen, and let's just say the results are nowhere near as sublime. The pair have streamlined and condensed the prose considerably, excising key characters and parsing down the emotional action into cliché bits of melodrama that sadly grow tiresome. The resulting movie is a disappointing (if admittedly well-cast) letdown, and by the time it was over, all I could do was shake my head and wonder what went wrong.

Things begin well enough. The early sequences of Jacob learning the ropes of circus life and interacting with the wildly unstable August are priceless, and the cagy Waltz dominates the picture completely. From the way he twirls a cigarette between his fingers to how he rolls over every syllable of his dialogue with a malicious glint in his eye, the Inglourious Basterds Oscar-winner captured the essence of the material and the character to absolute perfection.

In many ways, a lot of the first half reminded me of glossy old Hollywood classics like Trapeze as Lawrence created a surreal, slightly hazy milieu that felt like a half-remembered dream. The sparks between Jacob and Marlena are palpable, and while Witherspoon is by far the better actor, there is something about the energy between her and Pattinson that makes him more worthy of emotional investment then he would have been otherwise.

But as things trudge along, the movie becomes sadly less and less interesting. Lawrence seems to be more engrossed in creating beautiful picture-postcard images than in grounding the core dramatics into anything real. By the time fists start flying and helpless souls are getting tossed off the train, the rushed nature of the denouement becomes borderline assaulting.

The last third of the picture is so glossy, so overly produced, so drowning in the tired over-familiar dramatics of a bad Douglas Sirk impersonation that any chance for the audience to care about what is going on is lost. Lawrence and LaGravenese don't just drop the ball; they kick it halfway across the stadium after they fill it so full of holes it becomes a lifeless shell of its former self.

The worst thing is that the final sequence - a shocking flurry of events that worked with a breathlessly brutal and poignant beauty in Gruen's novel - become borderline laughable as depicted by Lawrence. It's like the director goes into full Beastmaster mode, showcasing C-level theatrics he didn't stoop to in either of his previous (and somewhat silly) big-budget sci-fi spectacles. He doesn't know when to stop and doesn't know how to let the dialogue or the actors speak for themselves without drowning them with syrupy music or ungainly visual cues. The movie becomes an unceremonious mess, and in some small way made me question what I found so appealing about the source material in the first place.

There is a moment at the very end that shows the type of film this could have been while also signifying everything that Lawrence did wrong while attempting to bring it to life. Hal Holbrook has a brief monologue, a tiny bit of important insight into Jacob's journey, that shows what a great actor can do when given the opportunity. The music disappears, the camera fixes upon his weathered face, and the director allows LaGravenese's dialogue and Holbrook's delivery to speak for themselves.

But just as things reach their crescendo, Lawrence brings back James Newton Howard's (The Green Hornet, The Dark Knight) slightly overbearing score and starts playing with camera angles that undercut everything the character is trying to say. The power of the moment is drained away in its entirety, showcasing perfectly just how frustrating an experience watching Water for Elephants can be.


Gory Scream 4 a sequel for the next generation
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Scream 4
Opening April 15


Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has returned to her hometown of Woodsboro on the anniversary of the first time she was forced to face a mysterious ghost-faced killer intent on sending her to the grave. Fellow survivor and friend Dewey Riley (David Arquette) is now town sheriff, while former investigative reporter and author wife Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox) is struggling to overcome a bad case of writer's block as she tries to pen a book not based on lethal events she was personally involved with.

What happens next is hardly a surprise. Ghostface is back and he (or she, or them, or & you get the idea) is intent on forcing Sidney to relive past events as they dispatch those close to her in an attempt to remake the events from over a decade ago. They don't want a sequel; they want a new interpretation, changing the rules of the game as they construct their version of cinematically inspired terror for a cybernetic generation obsessed with social media and internet fame.

I didn't want another entry in the Scream series. The 1996 original directed by horror maestro Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson is darn near perfect, changing the rules of the genre while also bringing forth a template that has been copied and beaten to death ad nauseam ever since its release. It was the birth of self-aware horror, giving the genre new life in a way no subsequent chiller (including hits like Saw or Paranormal Activity) has been able to match.

But the series ran its course relatively quickly, and while I was - and still am - a big fan of 1997's Scream 2, by the time things came to their conclusion in the relatively lackluster Scream 3 in 2000, it was readily apparent that what was once fresh and exciting was starting to go stale. Granted, that final chapter wasn't written by Williamson as The Ring and The Skeleton Key scribe Ehren Kruger took over in that department, and his more straightforward and clinical approach was not especially interesting.

Now comes Scream 4, a film that isn't so much a sequel as it is a remake, and once again Craven and Williamson manage to rise to the occasion in a way that is hugely surprising and highly entertaining. This crazy boondoggle of a B-movie slasher mystery is lots of fun to watch, and while the body count has risen and the gore level is higher, the sass, smarts, suspense, cynicism, and humor from the original are all back.

Starting with the ingenious opening title sequence, it becomes readily apparent that neither Craven nor Williamson are interested in returning to a dried-up well. Instead, they've taken the ideas of the first film and twisted them in on themselves, using the technological advances of the last decade and society's celebrity-obsessed culture to give the series an invigorating kick. They also play on Hollywood's horror movie remake frenzy by commenting on what's been going on while they challenge all of their audience's expectations at the same time, crafting a giddy mystery that's as incisive as it is fun.

I like the fact that Williamson has again populated his story with a group of interesting characters a viewer can relate to and feel something for, and while not all of them are as fully realized as I'd have liked them to be, the threat of their demise still carries an emotional value not seen since Sidney faced down Billy and Stu. Better, the list of suspects here actually makes sense - any number of people could be the knife-wielding Ghostface - and while I was pretty sure I knew who it was at about the midpoint, that didn't make the ultimate climactic revelation any less thrilling.

While it's fun to have Campbell, Cox, and Arquette back playing characters I've grown to adore, new arrivals Rory Culkin, Erik Knudsen, Marielle Jaffe, Hayden Panettiere, and Emma Roberts are certainly up to the challenge of being the face of Craven and Williamson's next generation. Panettiere and Roberts in particular are worthy of adulation, both having a field day with the whip-smart dialogue, which allows the two young actresses to make indelible impressions.

It goes without saying that this long-in-coming sequel could never match the original's impact. I remember seeing Scream at a promo screening in a theater a couple of blocks away from the University of Washington. My fellow audience members and I were not prepared for what we were about to witness. The terror-infused euphoria that engulfed the audience was nearly apoplectic, and as we left, we knew we'd just seen something that was going to transform the cinematic horror game as we knew it.

This sequel will not do that, but it does entertain, it's fun, and the way it challenges the very idea of what a remake is can be exhilarating. Craven, no stranger to having his own classics reinterpreted (what with lifeless new versions of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Last House on the Left), shows that even at 71 years of age, he can still be a horror director of merit, while Williamson gets out of screenwriting purgatory after Cursed by returning to his roots in order to subvert them in a way I rarely saw coming. Scream 4 is a glorious return to form for everyone involved, and I imagine, much like the original, it's one I'll enjoy watching many times more in the foreseeable future.


Sick reveals secrets and corruption of Big Pharma
by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Sick
New City Theater
Through April 30


A young woman reveals, in bits and pieces, a hellish descent into madness, complete with suicidal moments and homicidal moments. She's riveting, occasionally funny, and sweet. She's accompanied by a bell-dinger who stops her story and restarts it with another trigger word. Ultimately, it turns out this whole ordeal was a big mistake by well-meaning doctors!

That's the experience of Sick, written and performed by Elizabeth Kenny at New City Theater. It's a memoir of her experience in being prescribed drugs she didn't need, with extremely toxic side effects. It's a very watchable piece of theater, as she turns her odyssey of three years into a 75-minute performance. If you don't know a lot about Big Pharma, or newish medicines for depression and anxiety, you'll learn a lot. I'd also have happily watched for three hours, if that's what it took to tell her story.

Mostly what you learn is that you have to be responsible for your own body and not give away all your power to doctors who unwittingly are performing experiments on you. Perhaps it's also an indictment of raising women to want to please. Kenny does say, near the beginning, that she's a pleaser. She wants to please the doctors with the 'right' answer, and looked less than critically at what they were prescribing until it became clear that she could really die from their prescriptions, or kill someone else.

You might want to see more than one performance, because the performances, while not quite improvised, are a bit different every night, and parts might be told differently. In fact, you won't get the entire story in one sitting, which might frustrate you. Then, again, the whole story isn't the point.

Tina Kunz Rowley sits at the side and rings a bell in the middle of Kenny's stories, halting them and leading her into another, with a word that prompts another story. It's a verbal dance. On occasion, Kenny disobeys the rules and adds a few sentences, if she thinks something important is getting left out.

Kenny details how she got into this cycle by experiencing ovarian cysts that apparently burst periodically and painfully. Various doctors begin to prescribe strong medicines to her that may or may not help. She began to experience odd side effects, and rather than do the responsible thing (stop prescribing that drug!) the doctor prescribes another drug, as well. We know so little about drug allergies and sensitivities. Those long lists of problems at the end of a commercial (don't take this drug if you are x, or have y, or experience loss of z) mean that bad things could happen to you.

If Kenny had felt empowered to disobey doctors and stop taking medications that clearly produced horrible side effects for her, she might never have had to go through what she ended up enduring. This is not a criticism of Kenny or her choices. Her piece is more an indictment of the medical establishment and the blithe confidence it shows in powerful medications that are prescribed and then combined with others. Then the establishment scratches their heads in bafflement while the patient pays the ultimate price: pain, suffering, induced mental illness (in this case), loss of job, loss of stability, need for care since the patient can no longer care for herself&.

We live in an age of 'miracles and wonders' as Paul Simon wrote some years ago. These drugs have helped millions of people who would have suffered in silence in the past. But we don't know a lot about them, and they work differently on different people, so they should be used with great care and stopped as soon as they don't appear to have the right positive effects.

Yet, Big Pharma convinces doctors (who are as human as any) that the downside is only a 'side effect' and will go away if you just keep taking the medicine. And Big Pharma pays for the scientific studies, and gives monetary incentives to doctors for prescribing.

Kenny's performance reminds us that the doctors' oath to 'do no harm' might be a matter of simply telling someone to lie down for a few days & but it feels so much more medical to prescribe a drug, doesn't it?

For more information, go to http://shadylaneproductions.org/sick/ or www.brownpapertickets.com or call 206-420-8404.

Discuss your opinions at sgncritic@gmail.com.




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Cut Copy transcendent at Showbox SoDo
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A Dyke About Town: Marcia Ball an amazing performer
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Emotionally clichéd Elephants a frustrating mess
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Gory Scream 4 a sequel for the next generation
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Sick reveals secrets and corruption of Big Pharma
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Q-Scopes by Jack Fertig
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Chateau Ste. Michelle welcoming back The B-52s
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Northwest News
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Letters
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