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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 1 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 44
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Star-studded Last Vegas plays a so-so hand
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LAST VEGAS
Opens November 1


Billy (Michael Douglas), Paddy (Robert De Niro), Archie (Morgan Freeman), and Sam (Kevin Kline) have been best friends for over 30 years. They've gone their separate ways, of course, life leading them in differing directions, but they've always kept in touch, maintaining an unbreakable brotherly bond.

Make that close to unbreakable: Billy and Paddy have been in a state of silent feuding since the tragic death of the latter's beloved wife. But when consummate bachelor Billy announces he's going to get married - to a woman half his age, no less - Archie and Sam take it upon themselves to throw him a Las Vegas bachelor party, and they're going to drag Paddy along for the celebration whether he's open to burying the hatchet with his longtime friend or not.

I'm not going to proclaim that Last Vegas is anything magnificent, that it reinvents the wheel or goes that far off the expected path. I cannot say calling it a geriatric The Hangover is altogether off the mark, and while Billy, Paddy, Archie, and Sam are no Wolfpack (thank goodness), it isn't like they're above getting into a bit of trouble while messing about inside the casinos and out on sidewalks of a glossily neon lit Las Vegas. Bygones will be bygones, friendships will be re-forged, and new romances might be kindled, none of it happening in a way that isn't expected or foregone at any point of the quartet's journey.

All the same, this warmhearted, melodramatic comedy of brotherly love is pretty easy to enjoy. While Dan Fogelman's (Crazy, Stupid, Love.; Tangled) script is fairly rudimentary, he somehow still manages to supply his Oscar-winning cadre of actors (not just men - the divine Mary Steenburgen is also along for the ride) with multi-dimensional characters they don't seem slightly embarrassed about inhabiting. On top of that, journeyman director Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure; While You Were Sleeping) captains this ship with relative ease, never overdoing dramatics to the point of nausea or amplifying the humor to a state of absurd annoyance.

VETERANS AT WORK
Combined with the smoothly charming talents of the cast, Last Vegas is incredibly easy to watch, and while there wasn't a single transformative moment to be found in the entire motion picture, that doesn't mean I felt my 105 minutes spent watching it were misspent. If anything, the opportunity to see Freeman and Kline have such a field day riffing on character traits developed when they were younger is a minor hoot, each man doing far more for this movie than it will ever likely do for them. Both have some wonderful, remarkably authentic moments sprinkled with real emotion and honest humor, each finding subtle depths and layers to Archie and Sam that initially aren't apparent.

De Niro and Douglas don't fare quite as well, but that has more to do with the rote nature of Paddy and Billy than it does with either of their performances. The movie calls for them to play on trademarks and quirks filtered through a lens that recalls stuff like Romancing the Stone, Wall Street, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, but then doesn't seem to particularly care if they do anything more than what is expected. Sure, each man is in good form, and without question they share a nice, unhurried form of chemistry allowing for even the more lackadaisical bits to have more oomph than they otherwise would have had. They just don't have any sort of signature standout scene in the same way both Freeman and Kline do. More, they don't appear to be as equally invested in trying to create one.

It goes without saying much of this makes little to no sense, and the fact that the foursome become Vegas titans in an astonishingly short period of time is insane. But the movie moves efficiently and without pretense, never trying to do any more than it should even if that also means it doesn't make much of an attempt - if any at all - to do anything outside of ordinary.

Last Vegas isn't a great movie - it's not even much of a good one - but it goes down easy and features some nice sequences that made me smile. Enough? Probably not, but in this instant I don't care enough to make any sort of fuss. Make of that what you will.


War without winners - Visually seductive Ender's Game is a dour disappointment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ENDER'S GAME
Opens November 1


There are numerous problems with Ender's Game, writer/director Gavin Hood's (Tsotsi) ambitious adaptation of Orson Scott Card's influential 1985 science-fiction favorite, not the least of which is its muddled moralistic center and waveringly hesitant point of view. But there are an almost equal number of merits, including strong performances from a generationally diverse cast (which includes relative newcomers like Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld as well as seasoned veterans like Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, and Ben Kingsley) and a creatively imaginative visual design setting the film apart from the typical young-adult fantasy-adventure crowd. It is, in its own way, a movie at war with itself, and as such grows increasingly perplexing as things progress to their expectedly ambiguous (and, of course, sequel-hinting) conclusion.

Set in the near future, the story revolves around Ender Wiggin (Butterfield), the third son of a patriotic family who, according to Colonel Graff (Ford), has the making of a true master solider, a field general armies will follow into battle and whom enemies will be unsympathetically demolished by. You see, decades prior the planet was attacked by a hostile race of insect creatures known as the Formics, and while humanity was victorious, this violent, carnage-seeking menace is expected to return. It is believed by those in charge that future wars must be fought by children, their ability to adapt and understand, coupled with their ease with new technologies, making them the key to success. Finding the right leader to wage these battles is the chief mission of Graff and his aide, Major Gwen Anderson (Davis).

CHILDREN'S CRUSADE
Elements of Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Joseph Conrad, and even George Lucas abound, the film version of Card's novel ad-libbing freely from sci-fi royalty of every color and stripe. Hood mines this territory with confidence, never wavering in his stylistic choices keeping a somber, almost reverentially dour tone throughout no matter what it is that is happening to Ender at any given time. Even moments of joyful experimentation are colored through a tragically elegiac lens, and the full thrust of what exactly Graff is working so diligently to transform these children (all are in their mid- to early teens) into is never lost for a second.

At the same time, as a viewer this sadistic, almost fascist, close to sociopathic, form of nonstop militaristic brainwashing grows more uncomfortable as the film progresses. It is almost as if the filmmaker watched Paul Verhoeven's tongue-in-cheek, highly cynical, deeply satirical take on Heinlein's Starship Troopers and took it seriously, feeling he could up the ante by spelling out explicitly that the conversion of youngsters into warmongering monsters in the name of a nebulous 'greater good' is perfectly acceptable.

Whether or not it is, I am not one to say. Whether I find the watching of such a thing for almost two hours entertaining, however, is a different matter entirely. Five minutes of ethical reconsideration just doesn't feel enough to me in regard to the sheer volume, size, and scope of the potential genocide being discussed, debated, and maybe even acted out by the kids pulling the trigger. There is no light in this darkness, no sense of hope, and while showcasing the painful miseries of war isn't a bad thing - it's a very good lesson for kids to take note of, in my opinion - being beaten over the head with didactic ferocity isn't my personal cup of tea. It's never entirely clear if Hood is embracing this ideology or condemning it, the action-filled spectacle belittling any chance of an honest, intelligently complex discussion at virtually every turn.

VISUALLY IMPRESSIVE
But, even with so much it's culling from, even with so many similarly styled adventures having hit theaters over the past handful of years, Ender's Game looks incredible, Hood and his team offering up an impressive visual milieu that had me continually intrigued and fascinated. There are also some great bits of verbal wit and flair that caught me oftentimes by surprise, Butterfield underplaying his character beautifully while Ford chews scenery with the requisite grizzled crustiness. Steinfeld, thankfully better here than she was in the ill-fated Romeo & Juliet, is also solid, while a sublime Abigail Breslin pops up in a key role as Ender's older sister adding a bit of humanistic grey-area shading that the majority of the film sadly lacks.

I appreciate Hood's singularity of vision, and the fact he convinced a studio to give him this much money and freedom to craft this dour militaristic spectacle is rather astonishing. You get the feeling they were under the impression this could be some sort of interstellar Hunger Games, another young-adult franchise depicting the cost of war in a way that is still exciting and cheer-worthy while at the same time honestly assessing the painful, tragic sacrifices that revolution and conflict generate, regardless of the conflict's worthiness (or lack thereof).

I just wish there were some sort of balance here, some nuance of insight. Ender's Game looks incredible, and the cast does their collective best, but the taste left in my mouth after it came to an end was loathsome. Having never read Card's novel, I don't know if it is inherent to the book or not (or if the author's much-debated personal views regarding gender and sexuality factor into any of this, either), or is a facet of the adaptation only. Not that it should matter - a film needs to stand on its own, source material be damned, and suffice it to say Hood's take doesn't measure up, falling short as both social commentary and as entertainment, making it another 2013 disappointment destined to be forgotten before the year comes to its end.


Inhuman bondage - Mesmerizing 12 Years a Slave is a powerful story of survival
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

12 YEARS A SLAVE
Opens November 1


Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an accomplished musician living with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and their two children in the antebellum North. He is a free man, and while he has no illusions that his white friends regard him as their equal, that doesn't make him less happy or content with his current situation. He can do what he pleases, no strings attached, he and his wife making a good living and certain to pass on their forthright qualities to their son and daughter.

While Anne is away with the children, Solomon makes the acquaintance of Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam), two circus magicians looking for a musician to augment their act. They promise him three weeks of work at a healthy salary, plus expenses. But these two are not what they seem, and upon his arrival in Washington, D.C., Solomon is drugged, stripped, and chained to a wall. Branded with a new, false name he is forced to embrace as his own, he has been kidnapped and summarily sold into slavery, this erstwhile Northern family man now headed into the Deep South for a life no longer under his own personal control.

Based on Northup's memoir of pre-Civil War abduction and dehumanization, Twelve Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen's (Shame) and screenwriter John Ridley's (Red Tails) adaptation is as essential a piece of cinema as anything that's hit theaters in ages. It is not an easy sit - that goes without saying - but I hope that doesn't scare people away from buying a ticket and heading out to the multiplex. While the movie is a bit of a tough-minded history lesson, it's also so incredibly well made, so well written, so vividly acted, paced, shot, scored, and edited, the fact that it's also a small taste of bitterly upsetting medicine is beside the point.

NO PUNCHES PULLED
McQueen and Ridley do not flinch, do not pull away, making sure to keep the focus on Northup and his evolution - or, tragically, in this case devolution - from start to finish. He remains the central figure throughout, and while secondary characters pop up and become of vital importance, it is this man's dozen-year saga that audiences should be continually locked in on. More, they make everything happening to him feel as if it is also happening to the viewer, putting us in Northup's shoes giving an inside look into this vile institution whose reverberations are still affecting the United States today, a full century and a half after it was formally ended.

I still feel like I'm making it sound as though watching this movie is more of a chore than a pleasure. I really don't want that to be the case. The characters are fully formed, three-dimensional, and continually interesting, even the abhorrent ones. The filmmaking is precise and intimate, everything propelling forward with primeval intensity. There is an emotional fluidity that's nothing short of astonishing, and for McQueen this might be the culmination of everything he's being building toward since Hunger hit screens in 2008 and Shame in 2011.

It's doubtful any of this would be as extraordinary as it is without Ejiofor. What's great about his performance is the complete absence of pretense about what it is that is happening to him. When Northup is abducted, while he initially feels emboldened to protest, just as quickly he grasps exactly what his status is and the evil that has suddenly transpired. But, even though all he has known, lived, and loved has been stripped away from him, his humanity still remains, making his choices and the consequences of them all the more potent in the process.

Ejiofor, so great for so long in films as diverse as Dirty Pretty Things, Kinky Boots, Serenity, Talk to Me, Redbelt, and Salt, delivers a potent, stripped-to-the-bone performance that mines all the inner territories coursing through Northup's being, yet still plays close enough to the vest to keep some aspects of himself carefully hidden. He comes alive when necessary, curls up into an internal ball when needed, and gives into the longing for personal intimacy when the weight of all he's been through becomes overwhelming. It's an amazing piece of acting, the full impact of all that's transpired coming through in every crack and crevice of the man's facial movements.

STRONG SUPPORTING CAST
There are some equally great performances, not the least of which come from Benedict Cumberbatch as Northup's initial owner, who respects him for his intellect and suspects that the journey to his acreage didn't transpire exactly as he was told it did, and Sarah Paulson as the suspicious, conniving, and somewhat insecure Southern belle wife of the protagonist's second owner. Both actors don't have a lot to work with or much in the way of screen time, but make the most of every second they are allowed. They're superb, making an indelible impression in the process.

But the duo everyone will be talking about (in addition to Ejiofor, of course) walking out of the theater are Michael Fassbender as plantation owner Edwin Epps and Lupita Nyong'o as his most prized slave possession, Patsey. The former doesn't just dwell on bringing out Epps' more monstrous facets (of which there are many) but also attempts to paint a depraved picture of a man in a constant state of self-doubting freefall, allowing him to become more than a horrific stereotype turning him into something far more terrifying and much more abhorrent. As for newcomer Nyong'o, she has scenes that ripped my heart in half and left it bloodied and bruised protruding from my chest, the layered complexity of her performance and portrait catching me by surprise each step along the way.

It's hard to imagine a movie will look into this heart of American darkness with more meticulous an eye anytime soon, McQueen latching onto Northup's story refusing to allow it to lapse into melodrama or treacle. His filmmaking acumen is beyond reproach, the technical aspects never overshadowing the human story, every piece augmenting the next allowing the story to bloom and blossom as it likely wouldn't have otherwise. No, 12 Years a Slave isn't easy, isn't simple, isn't warm and cuddly - but that's perfectly fine, because it was never meant to be.




Get on the bus! An exclusive interview with Priscilla touring actor Bryan West
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The naked Drewth - Meet Drew Paradisco, Seattle drag mom extraordinaire
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Magnificent Mootz (or, Mootz the magnificent - whatever works visually) - Young actress is a tour de force in Seattle Rep's new production
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Love wins out - Seattle Shakespeare Co. jazzes up a romantic comedy classic
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Stop on red - Azeotrope offers a second chance to see its edgy inaugural play
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P!nk makes love to Seattle
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Janelle Monae unleashes energetic Showbox set
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1st same-sex wedding in Lambertville, NJ
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Star-studded Last Vegas plays a so-so hand
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War without winners - Visually seductive Ender's Game is a dour disappointment
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Inhuman bondage - Mesmerizing 12 Years a Slave is a powerful story of survival
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Northwest News
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Letters
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P!nk explodes at KeyArena
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