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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 14 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 11
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Charming Mr. Peabody & Sherman a jovial historical jaunt
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

After the opening prologue to DreamWorks' Mr. Peabody & Sherman I was deathly afraid I was about to watch an animated movie that was going to outright murder a beloved piece of my own personal childhood. The first act of the movie, set in and around Marie Antoinette's pre-revolutionary France (pre only by a scant few moments, in point of fact), is horrendous, loud, shrill, obnoxious and forced in ways that were instantly off-putting. I was uncomfortable and upset in ways I could barely comprehend, and as the movie was going to run for an additional 80 minutes I was pretty much positive I was about to be in for an abnormally long afternoon at the multiplex.

Then something happened. As soon as our lead character, super-smart, inventively loquacious and atypically fond of puns canine Mr. Peabody (voiced by an unrecognizable Ty Burrell), and his 'pet' adopted boy Sherman (Max Charles) return home to modern day New York City things magically take a turn. Suddenly this movie - inspired by the acclaimed shorts created by Jay Ward featured as part of 'Rocky and His Friends' and 'The Bullwinkle Show,' directed by Lion King and Stuart Little handler Rob Minkoff, and written by 'Dirty Sexy Money' scribe Craig Wright - was everything I hoped it would be, funny, inventive, smart, intuitive and genuine in all the ways that matter.

The shorts, there were over 90 of them, were inspired gems that never spoke down to children while at the same time treated parents with respect. They were wildly irreverent while also maintaining a fondness for historical accuracy (or, at the very least, something close to it), a combination that made each an idiosyncratic delight full of whimsical, and edifying, surprises. More than that, though, in their own way they also shed honestly ascertained parenting insights, the relationship between Mr. Peabody and Sherman as authentic and as well thought out as any network television animation has ever seen (and that includes both 'The Flintstones' and 'The Simpsons').

Wonderfully, the movie embraces this esthetic, adding a plucky newcomer in the form of spunky, somewhat spoiled elementary school queen bee Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter) to the mix as the catalyst that gets the ramshackle, devil-may-care plot going at full speed. She's the one that convinces Sherman to use Mr. Peabody's time machine, dubbed the WABAC, against his adoptive father's wishes. She's also the one that forces them to get into all sorts of mayhem and trouble as they find themselves stranded outside the gates of Troy before a certain clandestine invasion and chatting with Leonardo da Vinci right before he paints the 'Mona Lisa.'

But as much as she changes the game, the focus always remains where it needs to, and that's squarely on the relationship between Mr. Peabody and Sherman, how they relate one to the other, neither taking their counterpart for granted, as they navigate parent-child mechanics that are as timeless and as omnipresent as history itself. Throughout the eras, throughout all cultures, being a kid is a miraculous exploration, one that can be made spellbinding and inspirational with the right adult helping to lead the way. As for that parent, raising a child is a mind-boggling journey that rests uneasily upon an ever-changing learning curve, finding the confidence and chutzpah to face all the obstacles with love and acceptance no matter what a constant challenge.

It is here where Minkoff and Wright excel, making sure those indefinable yet instantly recognizable facets come to the forefront with an open heart and without any extra didactic padding or melodramatic pretense. Much like the original shorts, the pair do not talk down to children while also making sure to include numerous elements their parents will enjoy and embrace as well. It is this relationship between Mr. Peabody and Sherman, between father and son, that gives the movie its impetus, gives it its effervescent kick, and as such ends up being a thematic through line easy to embrace and even simpler, if you can believe it, this is a dog and his boy tale, after all, to relate to.

Unlike the shorts, however, history is played fast and loose and is more of the Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure variety than it is anything else, which in and of itself isn't a bad thing, it's just not a trait I found invigorating or, for that matter, interesting. There's some nifty stuff in Egypt circa King Tut, but it gets derailed by overblown pyrotechnics and Indiana Jones-like bits of daring-do, that annoyed me more than anything else they did. Also, it took quite some time before I warmed to Penny, her character and demeanor initially too annoying for its own good.

Be that as it may, I liked Mr. Peabody & Sherman. It didn't murder my childhood, didn't derail my happy memories of watching 'The Bullwinkle Show' in the morning before school in the 1980s. More than that, the movie allowed my imagination to soar while also bringing a semblance of comfort to my heart, even the missteps not derailing my enjoyment of the whole (save for that abhorrent prologue) one single bit. It's a good movie and, in many ways, an even better update of a classic, iconic bit of animated television, and something tells me when I watch it again, I'll enjoy it even more the second time around.


Forgettable Chemistry a drug-addled nightmare
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Better Living Through Chemistry is a bad movie. Worse, there was no reason for it to be. Expertly cast, reasonably well paced and featuring a decent enough premise - small town pharmacist feeling like his life is in a depressing rut begins an affair with a seductively glamorous local who introduces him to the psychedelic wonders of his wares, things spiraling quickly out of control thereafter - the movie should at the very least be worth a handful of a few perceptively unsettling laughs. Instead, directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, who also wrote the trite script, revel in sitcom level platitudes, doing nothing with either the material or their all-star collection of actors, the film leaving a relatively bizarre, uncomforting aftertaste that's as distasteful as it is unfortunate.

Sam Rockwell is Douglas Varney, a lonely man trapped in what he thinks is a tyrannical marriage with domineering wife Kara (Michelle Monaghan). He runs the local pharmacy, seemingly forced upon him by his truculent father-in-law Walter (Ken Howard), and for all intents and purposes has given up on trying to do anything close to interesting with the remainder of his life.

Enter Elizabeth Roberts (Olivia Wilde). She's wealthy. She's sexy. She's also stuck in a bad marriage. To top it off, she's a hopeless addict whose free-spirited tendencies are hardly secretive. Elizabeth gets her hooks into Douglas something fierce, leading him down a mind-bending path of alcohol and recreational drug use that allows his inhibitions to vanish and his true opinions to come out into the open. Sure, there's the unintended side effect of his pharmacy suddenly being investigated by the DEA, but that doesn't stop the pair from living it up like never before, repercussions be damned just as long as a good time is had by all.

Other veteran actors appearing here include Jane Fonda and Ray Liotta, while a bevy of recognizable faces show up in a series of supporting roles. But this is Rockwell's showcase, plain and simple, the filmmakers wisely placing him front and center, allowing the celebrated performer to cut loose and go ballistic like only he can. He's as unhinged and uninhibited as ever, a handful of second act monologues crackling with the same kind of sardonic, acid-tongue ferocity the actor has long been known for.

Good thing, too, because without him I'm not sure there would be anything positive to talk about. Moore and Posamentier's script feels like an idea desperately searching for a valid reason to exist more than it does an actual feature-length narrative, the pair falling upon the most rudimentary of rom-com and Capra-esque melodramatic clichés in order to get themselves from points A to B to C. The characters are sketchily written at best, all of them nothing more than blank ciphers who barely register as flesh and blood creations. More, at times it is like each is inhabiting a completely different motion picture, making the fact they're all supposed to be existing in the same cinematic universe, let alone the same small Americana drenched town, hopelessly difficult to believe.

Wilde admittedly has moments - I do like it when she gets the opportunity to cut loose and revel in her comedic abilities (watch her in Butter and you'll see what I mean). And there is a grand sequence right before the third act begins its dreadful cycle into mediocrity where I thought, just for a second, Rockwell was going to be able to save things all on his lonesome. But it sadly doesn't happen, and at no time did I ever feel like the filmmakers had a good enough handle on things to allow any of what was going on to matter in a way I'd be happy with. Better Living Through Chemistry is a waste of time, the whole thing nothing more than a bad drug that's about as addictive as a placebo washed down with a tap water chaser.


Glossy Speed built from recycled auto parts
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a regular guy making a day-to-day living in Mt. Kisco, New York, he and his team of automotive pros rebuilding classic cars while doing a bit of underground street racing on the side. A lucrative deal with former town bad boy turned racing superstar Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) allows the wary former rivals to engage in tepid attempts at friendship. This goes tragically south, however, when an impromptu race leaves Tobey's protégé Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) dead and the wealthy Dino claiming ignorance of any wrong doing.

Fast-forward two long years. Tobey is out of jail itching for revenge, and he and his gang of trusted cohorts know how to get it. They'll show the world just how guilty and evil Dino is, beating him at his own game in a super-secretive, high-stakes, winner-takes-all street race sponsored and run by the mysterious Monarch (Michael Keaton). Now he's got 48-hours to get from one side of the country to the other, driving the same souped-up Mustang he original restored for his nemesis to sell on the open market not so long ago to get him there.

Is it any surprise that Need for Speed is dumb movie? Based on a best-selling series of video games, using a plot that even the Fast & Furious series would consider absurd, featuring characters that are as thin as they are one-dimensional, there is nothing here that breaks the mold or goes beyond B-grade convention. This is a tired, trite and unapologetically nonsensical exercise in automobile chase film clichés, and I can't imagine anyone anywhere who might of even theoretically assume it would have been anything otherwise.

Yet as inane as all of this might be, I've got to give it up to director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor). The veteran stuntman doesn't skimp where the cars and their racing are concerned, attempting to manufacture an old school barnburner along the same lines of Vanishing Point, Gone in 60 Seconds or Two-Lane Blacktop. He gleefully follows in the footsteps of Grand Prix, Bullitt, The Road Warrior, Ronin and To Live and Die in L.A., the filmmaker and his crackerjack team staging sequences of vehicular mayhem that are without a doubt mind-blowing.

It's gloriously staged stuff, and if I were willing to check my brain at the door and let all of what Waugh offers up gently rev me into petrol-drenched submission I'd probably be out in some random empty parking lot doing cartwheels while the smell of burning rubber drowns me in its scent. The sound design is without compare, almost to the same level as to what Ron Howard and company came up with for their Formula 1 racing epic Rush. As for the cinematography, Shane Hurlbut's (Terminator Salvation) camerawork is fantastic, more often than not granting the viewers a bird's eye view behind the wheel that's stunning.

Be that as it may, the script is relentlessly stupid, and as much fun as Keaton seems to be having, no one else in the movie appear to be enjoying themselves near as much, save maybe an exceedingly game Imogen Poots, the mechanics behind her character and why she's even around not even slightly important. Paul approaches things as if he's still on the set of 'Breaking Bad,' and while I appreciate his commitment at the same time his Tobey ends up being such a dour, doleful presence, sitting with him for two full hours is far more difficult than it really should be. As for Cooper, his villain is about as threatening as a dull butter knife, the usually charismatic veteran phoning it in as if he's teaching a Villainy 101 online correspondence course for the University of Phoenix.

It does not help that, for as stunningly designed, photographed, edited and scored the final race proves to be, the actual mechanics of it are so beyond silly they're almost insulting. There's also no discernible reason why anyone would choose to be a part of such an event. It doesn't feel like there's anything in it for the competitors. And although it's announced over and over that the winner gets to keep all the competing cars after what ends up happening to them (hint: it ain't pretty) at the end of the race, in the end, this doesn't seem like all that great a prize, what with jail time, hefty fines, not to mention massive doctor bills sure to ensue when the race is over.

Granted, considering the source material, I'm thinking I should be thankful Need for Speed ended up being so compulsively watchable as, in all fairness, it could have easily been anything but. Waugh's attempt at a genre throwback to films of the late 1960s, early 1970s is commendable, while his tip of the hat to fellow directors as diverse as John Frankenheimer, William Friedkin, Monte Hellman, Peter Yates, George Miller and a whole slew of others is exceedingly well done. I just wish the interior components making things look so snazzy held their own with nearly as much strength as the engine propelling the drama forward does. Then maybe we'd have something to talk about, potentially even worth driving for ourselves.


Joyous Shoot Me an inspired comedic biography
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

I'm not sure it's possible to dislike Elaine Stritch. The Tony and Emmy Award winning comedian, now in her 80s, is as vital and as confident as ever, her joie de vivre and zest for living life as apparent now as it has ever been at any point in her rambunctious, sprawling six-plus decades in the public spotlight. She is a woman of substance, talent, intellect and imagination, and to call or think of her as anything less would be a disservice in more ways than I can possibly count.

It is this life that the new cinema vérité style documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me attempts to explore, doing just that and then some rather marvelously. With the woman herself at the center of it all, filled with interviews and candid observations from the likes of Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, John Turturro and the late James Gandolfini, director Chiemi Karasawa does a sublime job of examining this exceptional artist's life and career in immaculate detail.

I was struck oftentimes by just how candid much of this proves to be. Stritch doesn't hold back, and like most great talents she is without a doubt her own worst critic. She speaks openly about her struggles, especially how they related to her alcoholism and fight against diabetes, but also her fear of getting old and her later realization that age was something to be embraced, not feared. The comedian opens up about it all while at the same time her friends, co-workers and those inspired by her comedic fearlessness wax poetic about all she's meant to them as they've struck forth on their own professional careers.

Interspersed throughout all of this are archival and vintage clips of Stritch in action. Some of them we've obviously seen before. Many of them we blissfully have not. All work in dexterous tandem with everything else going on inside the film, Karasawa weaving things together in a melodious tapestry of inspiration and intellect that's as rapturous and informative as it is entertaining and, more often than not, hysterical.

So, again, is it possible to dislike the legendary comic? Not to my mind, and as far as I'm concerned Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me proves it without anything close to resembling doubt.




Megan Hilty comes 'home' to sing songs of Stephen Schwartz with Seattle Men's Chorus
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IN THE MOOD: 1940s Big Band, swing dance musical revue at Benaroya Hall
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Slant Eye for the Queer Guy - Bravo's 'Queer Eye' Jai Rodriguez talks to SGN's Teriyaki Temple (aka David Luc Nguyen)
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Forbidden Broadway comes to Edmonds Center for the Arts
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ArtsWest presents an accomplished production of Wendy Wasserstein's Third
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Taproot's Pretty Fire a heart-warming and touching performance
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Music of Remembrance presents Brundibár - Original cast member and Holocaust survivor Ela Stein Weissberger to visit Seattle and attend performances
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U.S.-based Bainbridge Legacy Organic Vodka named 'World's Best Vodka
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Northwest News
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LETTERS
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Charming Mr. Peabody & Sherman a jovial historical jaunt
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Forgettable Chemistry a drug-addled nightmare
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Glossy Speed built from recycled auto parts
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Joyous Shoot Me an inspired comedic biography
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