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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 8 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 45
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Thor sequel fails to electrify
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THOR: THE DARK WORLD
Opens November 8


Two years after he and scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) first met and helped save the Earth from the plans of his megalomaniacal adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and only a short time after he reappeared to stop him once more on the streets of New York, Asgard warrior Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to the woman he loves. Not to sweep her off her feet - his father, the all-powerful Odin (Anthony Hopkins), wouldn't stand for that - but more because thanks to a little bit of trans-dimensional sidestepping she's managed to come into contact with an ancient, universe-destroying force known as Aether, which has decided to use her as its vessel of destruction.

This is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that over time it will slowly consume Jane, leaving her a lifeless shell, and that's one thing Thor will not stand for. But when a long-thought-dead race of chaos-seeking creatures known as the Dark Elves reappear under the ruthless direction of their demonic leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), things quickly go from bad to worse. With all the realms under Asgard's protection in danger of being drowned in eternal darkness, the God of Thunder must now trust the one being in all of eternity he knows it is in his worst possible interest to do so in order to save Jane and stop Malekith: Loki.

I liked Thor. It's a little uneven, the stuff out in the Arizona desert between Thor, Jane, and her ragtag team of scientific colleagues not near as interesting as the whimsically fantastical shenanigans taking place on Asgard. Overall, though, the movie is an enjoyably hyperbolic hoot, director Kenneth Branagh giving things a Shakespearean grandiosity I happily responded to.

But, at the same time, and until Guardians of the Galaxy hits screens next summer, this character and his extended adventures are without a doubt the least grounded and reality-based of all the Marvel The Avengers efforts to have hit the multiplex. With that in mind, it makes minimal sense that the Marvel powers-that-be would want to, at least in some small ways, attempt to do the same with this part of their hugely successful cinematic franchise, respected 'Game of Thrones' director Alan Taylor brought on board to try and balance out the fantasy elements giving things a more lived-in texture Branagh's effort lacked.

Which is fine, at first. The initial opening hour of Thor: The Dark World is light on its feet but weighty as far as the important facets of the plot dynamics are concerned. There is a noticeable sense of humor, a beguiling wit to Jane's re-entry into the story, while at the same time the danger of the Aether is never half-sold or the ruthlessness of Malekith and his Dark Elves never underestimated. More importantly, Loki continually hovers in the corner of the proceedings, reminding everyone he's still around ready to make his presence known, the best villain of the series eager to pounce but cunningly biding his time waiting for circumstance and situation to present itself.

But the fun slowly ebbs as things proceed, the script and story (credited to five different writers) growing increasingly disconnected and nonsensical as everything moves forward. More, as tactile as Taylor attempts to make things, the fantastical fun isn't anywhere near as apparent as it was the first time around, large portions drowning in angst-ridden melodramatics that grow moderately tiresome. It just isn't particularly interesting, the last act so chaotically loopy yet unrelentingly dour I was having trouble trying to figure out what the point of it all was.

JUST A TEASER?
Actually, discerning that is rather simple. Unlike Iron Man 3, which did manage to stand up as a stand-alone entry in the Marvel cinematic universe, the only reason Thor: The Dark World exists is to start putting in place the building blocks leading to both Guardians of the Galaxy and 2015's The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It's the teaser leading to the epic conclusion, little things like character development and honest human emotions unimportant just as long as the seeds of coming chapters are cunningly sown.

It does not help that Malekith is an astonishingly uninteresting villain, his plans for universal domination noticeably dull but, just as importantly, oddly nonsensical. On top of that, the climactic battle, while filled to the brim with some impressively staged dimension-jumping theatrics showcasing another reason Taylor was brought on board, isn't particularly exciting. It looks cool - the effects are awesome, the editing on point, and the sound design stellar - but all the same it just isn't thrilling, no sense of danger existing at any moment something that would have helped make what was happening matter.

The movie is still well cast, and I like that both Portman and especially Rene Russo, returning as Thor's mother Frigga, get in on the action this time around (the latter spectacularly so, reminding us how great a presence she can be when given the opportunity), while the interactions between Hemsworth and Hiddleston are suitably complex. In fact, Hiddleston once again is the film's, and in many ways the ongoing Avengers series', number-one asset, and I love the place the writers leave Loki at, hinting at some truly wonderful shenanigans hopefully to come.

But, and I know I've said this before, Thor: The Dark World can't help but feel like nothing more than an extended coming-attractions reel for adventures to come, and as a stand-alone enterprise it falls woefully short. I miss the sense of wonder, the grandiose staging, and the large-than-life imagery Branagh brought to the series, and while Taylor is certainly a competent action filmmaker I'm not sure Asgard is the Marvel comic setting best suiting his talents. There's little electricity, virtually none of it, and considering we're dealing with a thunder god, that's as big an indictment of this sequel's merits as anything I could possibly come up with.


Uneven About Time is a bewitching father-son drama
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ABOUT TIME
Opens November 8


About Time is a good movie. It is also a remarkably infuriating one. Richard Curtis' latest foray as writer/director is as glorious and as frustrating as anything found in either Love Actually or Pirate Radio, and while the highs outnumber the lows that does make the more annoying portions any less maddening. It is a movie that I feel reasonably OK recommending but with numerous reservations, the father-son dynamics of the narrative working splendidly while the love story facets sadly come up ever-so slightly short.

It has a complicated enough conceit for a movie that is, at its core, amazingly simple. On his 21st birthday Tim Hall (Domhnall Gleeson) learns from his father (Bill Nighy) the family secret that all the male members of his bloodline apparently have the ability to travel through time. Not his sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), most definitely not his beloved mum (Lindsay Duncan) - only him and no one else, a treasured secret he and dear old Dad can share, learn from, and manipulate at their leisure.

There are rules, and it isn't like Tim has free reign to go back to any point in time that he wants or change the course of human history. But, exploring his own life? Making different choices? Going along a new path? This he can do, and every now and then by doing so maybe he'll be able to help someone he's close to or find someone to open his heart to in the process.

MORE THAN A ROMANCE
Initially it appears as if Curtis is going to use these ideas and this scenario to tell a relatively straightforward love story, Tim meeting the girl of his dreams, American Mary (Rachel McAdams), only to subsequently lose her when he travels backward to help playwright Harry (Tom Hollander) achieve the success his latest work richly deserves. A good portion of the first couple of acts revolve around him trying to get back into her sphere of existence, doing all he can to win the girl's heart without coming across like a court jester playing the fool for a sadistic monarch.

But it quickly becomes apparent this is not the story Curtis is interested in telling, and as enchanting McAdams is early on as things progress her character gets pushed more and more toward the sidelines. Tim and Mary's love affair is something of an aggravating afterthought, and even though their initial meet-cute is glorious, the rest of their romance is one dimensional and stilted. It is as if the filmmaker loses interest in her as a character, almost like Curtis needed Mary as a device to get Tim where he wanted him and nothing more. As such their relationship isn't as touching as I felt it needed to be, didn't move me in any of the ways I wanted it to, making their final scenes together more routine and rudimentary than anything memorable.

The same cannot be said, however, for the actual story Curtis is telling, and let me say loud and clear this is as wonderful a thing as anything I could have hoped for when I entered the theater for the promo screening. In the same way that Field of Dreams isn't really about baseball, the director uses time travel and romantic comedy trappings to unexpectedly lead the audience into an honest, authentic, and blissfully emotional saga of a son's relationship with his father. The heart of all of this belongs to Tim and his dad, their journeys, where they are headed, how they have lived their lives, that is what all of this has been about, and for all the misdirection and the sleight-of-hand the ultimate destination brought justified tears to my eyes.

A PERFECT PAIR
None of which would matter if Gleeson and Nighy weren't so darn terrific and shared some of the best on-screen chemistry I've seen in all of 2013. They make a dynamic pair, each so easily playing off of the other that their final scenes can't come off as anything less than magnificent even if Curtis is breaking his own time-travel rules in order for them to even be taking place. I believed they were father and son, never once doubting the strength of their relationship, both actors having a field day sharing the other's company making everything happening to them hit home in a way that was personal and intimate.

The counterpoint is that, as well-realized as these elements can be, they only cast a spotlight on the portions of the film that don't come off nearly as well. I've already stated my complaints in regards to both the love story and Mary's character, but the shortcomings unfortunately do not end there. Kit Kat is also a character that is irritating in more ways than I can count, and while I have the feeling Curtis wanted to explore tangents of mental illness, recovery, support, and reconciliation, sadly none of this is as developed in a way that feels real.

There are other issues, most notably in regards to pacing (never one of the director's strengths - even his screenwriter-only efforts like Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral have problems as to length) and with side plots that add little and rarely go places of interest, but for whatever reason these issues didn't vex me as much as they normally would. Even with its problems, even though portions clearly are nowhere near as well-realized as they might have been, the core elements of About Time have a melodious, intoxicating quality that made me smile. It's a good movie, and I can't be too angry that it isn't anything more than that.


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.




Let's make merry - Andy Bell talks about Snow Globe, Erasure's new holiday album
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The 'Mother' of us all - Margaret Cho brings her acclaimed show to Seattle
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Prescription for hope - Stunning Dallas Buyers Club is a live-in emotional triumph
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Pioneer Gay illustrators remembered at MOCA
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Bodies of art - New book celebrates 'hunkiness' in all its diversity
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Serious spooks - Classic ghost tale comes to life as a perfectly realized opera
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Paul Simon and Sting: Better together? Rock legends, SMC highlight upcoming Seattle-area concerts
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Tacoma Dome to host Miley Cyrus Feb. 16
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1st same-sex wedding in Lambertville, NJ
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Thor sequel fails to electrify
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Uneven About Time is a bewitching father-son drama
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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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