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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 22 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 34
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Too beautiful for its own good?
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

FRANCESCO CILEA'S
ADRIANA LECOUVREUR
DECCA BLU-RAY


If you don't require a novel or gripping plot, opera videos don't come much better than this new Blu-ray of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. The music is gorgeous; the production from Covent Garden is tight and attractive; and the singing/acting is wonderful. Soprano Angela Gheorghiu sometimes bores me, but not here. She is at the height of her powers and is perfectly suited to this role. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, aside from singing well, adds dimension to an otherwise uninteresting character. Mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina is vocally spectacular and acts effortlessly. Finally, Alessandro Corbelli is perfect in every way for his role in this love quadrangle.

That such a musically attractive opera as this is so seldom staged raises interesting questions about what makes a great opera great. As regular readers well know, my overriding passion in opera is for those singers whose combination of voice, technique and artistry can raise the hairs on my arms and make me sob with excess of emotion. So, even with such a cast as this one, why is this work not in my top 10 or even top 20? The answer lies in the clichés of the plot. Why does the silly plot of Verdi's Il Trovatore not at all impede the thrills I can get from its singers? That plot, however silly, is nonetheless fun and dramatic, while giving the singers plenty to get passionate about. In Adriana Lecouvreur we're confined to little more than the frustrations of the loves of all the characters. I find that boring.

And, let's face it: Cilea is no Verdi. He writes beautifully for the voice, and his orchestrations are fun and interesting. But the music is almost too gorgeous...too close to the purely sentimental. Was Cilea too concerned with beauty to dig below the surface into earthy emotion?

Having said all that, this is a very enjoyable disc. The recording engineers did a good job, giving us a DTS HD Master Audio surround sound that is free of distortion and well balanced. Conductor Mark Elder keeps everything lively and sparkling. Director David McVicar moves people around the stage so well that the back-stage opening scene is a marvel of tightly coordinated entrances and exits. Sets and costumes are lush (to match the music?). I can't imagine a better production.

If you are not familiar with Angela Gheorghiu, this is the perfect way to learn of her many talents. She is a beautiful woman, and her always-lovely voice is large enough to make the most of musical climaxes without ever pushing her instrument beyond its ample capabilities. This role of a self-obsessed actress is a natural for her. Cilea gives her two lovely arias, which I don't ever expect to hear more beautifully sung. As her two-timing lover, Jonas Kaufmann gives more dimension to the role than is usually encountered. During his liaisons with Olga Borodina, his conflict and deviance leave no doubt as to his character. He's in excellent form and delivers his aria with sweeping phrases, effective dynamics and radiant tone. Borodina's voice is a wonder of dark richness and smooth perfection.

This Decca release is from the 2010 production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. This is the first time the opera has been mounted there since the very early 20th century, shortly after its composition. With such a cast on hand, I'm very glad that we get the chance to experience what is about as good as this one gets.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.


Expendables III brings half-baked geriatric action trilogy to an end
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE EXPENDABLES III
Now playing


What is there to say about The Expendables III? More than I thought, less than is necessary and little that's all that important, this capper to the 1980s-style brawny, star-studded action trilogy pretty much exactly what you expect it to be and nothing too much more. Creator and star Sylvester Stallone has rounded up the core group from the first two films, added Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas and Harrison Ford to the hero side and brought in Mel Gibson to dance and preen as the principal baddie. He's also enlisted Twilight heartthrob Kellan Lutz, UFC champion Ronda Rousey, boxer Victor Ortiz and rising star Glen Powell to bring in a younger audience, hoping that they, along with a PG-13 rating, will make the film even more accessible to audiences across all age spectrums.

What he has not done, writing alongside Olympus Has Fallen scribes Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, is give them a scenario or a narrative worthy of the fuss. There's nothing here that's slightly original, which isn't a surprise, of course, considering the types of Raw Deal, Invasion U.S.A., Delta Force and Cobra motion pictures this series emulates, but considering the sheer size of the cast (not to mention the two-plus hour running time) it's more noticeable than ever this time. What in all honesty should be nothing more than a bullet-riddled tale of revenge ends up being so much less, mainly because focus can't be maintained and momentum is hard to come by, everything presented with an indifferent triviality that's moderately irresponsible.

It does not help that the effects are bottom of the barrel, almost SyFy Channel-like in their second tier video game appearance, explosions and aerial dogfights about as exciting and believable as a race between three-legged tortoises. It also doesn't help that, in the pursuit of a PG-13 rating, the blood has been literally drained from the proceedings, the amount of gunfire, bullet holes, knifings and impalements virtually the same as previous outings, only without the gooey red excretions that typically go right alongside such things. This has the effect of making the ultra-violence silly, tension and suspense vanishing, all in the pursuit of making it easier for teenagers to buy tickets, showing, once again, the disgusting hypocrisy of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) as it pertains to the ratings system.

Yet, there are multiple points of light and jolliness in this monstrosity that hit me by surprise. The group's first mission is to rescue Snipes from an Eastern European prison train, and once he's introduced he dominates the first 30 minutes with charismatic, violently electric magnetism that's infectious. Ford, taking over for the departed Bruce Willis as the team's CIA contact, also seems to be having a blast, and while he's barely in the film, he makes the most of every scene and one-liner he's asked to be a part of.

Then there's Gibson, and while it's not a shock he makes for a transfixing villain, he still provides a nasty, ruthless punch to the proceedings that's sorely missed whenever he isn't around. He preens and prances his way through things with melodiously thuggish grace, and I can't help but wonder what he could do in a more straight-forward action-adventure yarn portraying a similar sort of bad guy. As for Banderas, he's a breath of fresh air, taking over the latter third of the picture portraying a character who in lesser hands would have been nothing short of insufferable. He's the Puss-in-Boots meets Desperado wannabe Expendable, and as such he steals every moment and every scene he shows up in with stratospheric ease.

The plot is the type of total nonsense one expects, Expendables leader Barney Ross (Stallone) disbanding the main members of his mercenary unit when he learns former friend turned most reprehensible enemy Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson) is still alive and ticking and not six-feet under like he'd been led to believe. Turning to a younger group of killers (Lutz, Rousey, Ortiz and Powell) he thinks are even more disposable than his usual team, he embarks on a suicide mission under the direction of CIA handler Drummer (Ford) to take Stonebanks down. However, when things go wrong, it's up to the older Expendables (Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Snipes, Banderas), along with Drummer and friendly mercenary Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), to set things right, old and new schools uniting to make sure justice is delivered and evil is vanquished.

Why this takes over two hours I have no idea, the film illogically padded in order to allow newcomer Kelsey Grammer (don't ask) a few choice one-liners and to let the youngsters (most notably Rousey) to show off their individual skill sets. Director Patrick Hughes, who did such a grand job handling all the mysterious, brutal dynamics of the spellbinding modern Western Red Hill, seems out of his elements here, the movie having trouble maintaining momentum and energy even when tanks are firing and motorcycles are flying through the air.

Listen, you know what you're going to be getting where it comes to The Expendables III, so anyone buying a ticket shouldn't be particularly shocked by the lo-fi ambiance of the visual esthetics or the third-rate nature of the script. Thanks to Snipes, Ford, Gibson and especially Banderas (with a notable assist from Schwarzenegger getting to 'the chopper'), the sequel is hardly a waste of time, all of them adding moments of levity, charisma and fun to a movie oddly devoid of all three much of the time. All the same, I'm glad this series is ending because now I can go revisit the '80s favorites these have been aping and pretend like this half-baked trilogy never existed in the first place.


Initially fascinating Giver runs out of insights
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE GIVER
Now playing


There's a reason it's taken about two decades for someone to make a movie out of Lois Lowry's best-selling piece of young adult fiction The Giver. On the surface this futuristic morality tale set in a dystopian land where emotions have been muted and all color has literally been erased from existence doesn't scream as being anything too complex or original; but digging into the prose one quickly discovers that initial observation is anything but true. Complex, intelligent, filled with themes and ideas that are universal in both power and importance, the book is a series of frank, unsentimental, yet emotionally overpowering discussions between pupil and teacher chronicling the world's virtues, evils and everything in-between in remarkably exacting detail.

In other words, The Hunger Games this is not. Heck, it's not even Divergent (even though that Veronica Roth trilogy owes a gigantic debt to Lowry's novel), this story not exactly filled with action, pyrotechnics, love triangles or anything overtly spectacular. Yes, revolution does play a part in the outcome, but getting there is hardly as startling or as filled with adrenaline as one might presuppose, the whole thing more My Dinner with Andre meets 1984 than it is Star Wars crossed with The Never-Ending Story.

Thus, there have been some noticeable changes from the source material, the chief amongst them being the aging up of the protagonist, curious student Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), from 12 to 17. Also added in is something of a mild love triangle (not that any of the central characters know exactly what 'love' is, per se) between him and fellow teenagers Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), while the last third is devoted to a frenetic chase sequence juxtaposed with a moralistic conversation both of which are a little on the heavy-handed side of the equation.

But the main thrust remains the same, the crux of the narrative revolving around Jonas being given his adult profession becoming his community's new 'Receiver of Memory,' a highly esteemed position of great authority and significance. He quickly learns, however, that this job isn't anything close to what he thought it would be, the man responsible for instructing him, nicknamed 'The Giver' (Jeff Bridges), showing him facets of a world long destroyed he can barely comprehend. Jonas quickly surmises that a world without emotion, without color, without choice, without free will, is one that will never be fulfilling.

And that portion of the film works. Beautifully, in point of fact, director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Rabbit-Proof Fence) doing a splendid job empowering the scenes between Bridges and Thwaites, giving them a palpable sense of inherent realism I found invigorating. The juxtaposition between a (literally) black and white world and a past history filled with color, tears, blood, suffering and triumph is startling, the themes at the center of Lowry's source material popping off the screen. There is a sense of discovery that gives the proceedings a literary, almost theatrical quality that I responded to whole-heartedly.

It's when Jonas is forced to spring into action that things begin to lose their focus, the script by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide (Mother Night) having trouble maintaining fidelity to the source material in ways that don't feel didactic and overtly melodramatic. As good as everyone is, and Bridges, Thwaites and Meryl Streep (playing the community's omnipotent Chief Elder, deathly fearful of what young Jonas has in store for the only world she's ever known) are all terrific, that doesn't make the last third less bombastic or clumsy, the ham-fisted nature of the emotions being presented never coalescing in ways I found genuine.

In honesty, none of this hits me as too gigantic a surprise. The nuances of Lowry's book, the way it bends and weaves with such poetic eloquence, the way it works primarily on a decidedly interior level, none of these are facets that make for an easy adaptation from page to screen. There's nothing inherently cinematic about the way the author presents her climactic revolution and yet everything that happens in those last chapters is breathlessly exciting and powerfully emotional. A movie trying to showcase any of that visually was always going to have more than its fair share of trouble, so the fact Noyce and company don't quite figure it out wasn't a shock.

But it is unfortunate. As low-tech and old school as much of the presentation might be (there's a decided '80s sheen reminiscent of stuff like The Last Starfighter and Flight of the Navigator oozing all over this) it fits the material beautifully. More than that, Noyce has a decided knack for making scenes filled with nothing more than page upon page of dialogue between two characters feel thrilling and active, the director allowing his actors room to roam, breath and create, giving their discussion an brisk vibrancy that's quietly entrancing.

So when it begins to lag, dwell too much in the more obviously sentimental aspects of its narrative, this can't help but be frustrating. For a good two-thirds I was far more invested in what was going on and why than I had anticipated, and I can honestly say the simple beauty of the initial bits had me close to convinced Noyce and company had figured out the path to allow Lowry's work to transition to the silver screen. But that's sadly just not so, and as good as The Giver is initially, the sour taste left by the final act is just too foul to easily get beyond.


Suitably depraved Sin City not worth revisiting
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SIN CITY:
A DAME TO KILL FOR
Now playing


In 'Just Another Saturday Night,' veteran enforcer Marv (Mickey Rourke) attempts to put the dots back together when he finds himself on a plateau overlooking Sin City, a pair of wrecked automobiles by the side of the road and a handful of bloody college punks laying at his feet. In 'The Long, Bad Night' self-confident professional gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) returns to his hometown to make the ruthless Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) look like the chump he is. In 'A Dame to Kill For,' reformed bad boy Dwight (Josh Brolin) finds himself under the thumb of his duplicitous former lady-love, the intoxicating temptress Ava Lord (Eva Green). And, finally, in 'Nancy's Last Dance,' still pining over the selfless death of her beloved protector Detective Hartigan (Bruce Willis), kind-hearted stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) enlists Marv's help in making sure the man who did him in finally pays for his crimes.

Welcome to Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's long-awaited follow-up to their somewhat surprising 2005 success Sin City. Utilizing the same CG-generated visual esthetics of the first film, framing everything in icy cold black and whites with splashes of neon tinted color, the sequel is every bit as eye-popping as its predecessor was, giving things a look and a feel that's uniquely, and intriguingly, distinctive.

Unsurprisingly, also much like that previous pulp effort, this film is a case study in style over substance, Rodriguez and Miller trading in hard-boiled noir tropes, not doing a single thing one would ever consider character-driven, complex or subtle. That said, unlike the original, this one isn't anywhere near as much fun, and while moments of pleasure can be found, they're so few and far between, getting to them isn't worthy of the effort. This is a case where more isn't more, the filmmakers just engaging in shameless self-aggrandizing exploitation simply because they can and not because either the movie or the stories being told are benefiting from their efforts.

It's not a total loss. Marv was a fan favorite who dominated the first Sin City even though he wasn't a gigantic part of the film as a whole, Rourke's animalistic bombast suiting the character and his demeanor perfectly. Rodriguez and Miller were smart to find a way to use him more this time, this pugilistic wrecking ball appearing in all four tales, becoming a vital cog in three of them. The opening segment revolving entirely around him is easily the film's best vignette, his taking out a cadre of upper-crust trust fund college nincompoops a bloody descent into giddy madness the rest of the picture has trouble equaling.

Problem is, because this is all artifice, because everyone is a noir caricature and not a three-dimensional flesh and blood creation, caring about anything that's happening is close to impossible. Furthermore, few of the talented actors filling the roles are able to tap into the smarmy skins of their respective characters, only Rourke and Boothe rising above the fray, tapping into the giddy cartoonish gruesomeness of Rodriguez and Miller's world. Not even Green, so stunning as a similar sort of vixen in 300: Rise of an Empire (itself also based on one of Miller's graphic novels), can create much in the way of heat, which is really saying something, considering she spends almost half her screen time nakedly on display for the world to savor and salivate over.

If not for the snappy dialogue, bursts of adrenaline-fueled abandon, and idiosyncratic narrative fury, the first Sin City would have been nothing but a lust-filled masculine fantasy designed entirely for the prurient eyes of 13-year-olds too young to know exactly what it is they're salivating over. This time around, Rodriguez and Miller dispense almost entirely with the subtext and just revel in said fantasies, allowing their adolescent minds to blossom in full-force forgetting to craft situations and stories that could appeal to more than just those with the basest and most libidinous of appetites.

It does not help that the pair chose the worst of the four stories to end with, Alba's revenge-driven assault indifferently staged and even more insipidly structured. There's no drive to the events, no power to the emotions forcing her into action, and by the time she puts her plans into motion I almost needed someone to nudge me back awake as I was incredibly close to nodding off in disinterested boredom. The whole bit is as pitiful as it is forgettable, everything leading to a conclusion that is both foregone and ridiculous each at the exact same time.

There's not a lot more to add. Those waiting with bated breath for this sequel to arrive will want to rush out and give it a look no matter what I say; while everyone else will wonder why so much fuss is being made for a motion picture that took nine long years to finally see the light of day. While not deadly, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For barely has a pulse all the same, watching it about as much fun as eating a knuckle sandwich or getting hit over the head with a tire iron, and I for one don't find either enjoyable and as such I don't intend to be watching this sequel again anytime soon.


No ifs, ands, or buts about it, Stay is terrible
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

IF I STAY
Now playing


I was about two-thirds of the way through Gayle Forman's best-selling novel If I Stay when I had the early opportunity to view director R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) and screenwriter Shauna Cross' (Whip It) movie adaptation starring rising talent Chloë Grace Moretz. Once it was finished I knew I would not waste my time reading the final few chapters. Not because the book wasn't any good, it's actually quite well-written; but because the film version was a colossal waste of time and talent, so mind-numbingly awful that any affinity I might have been feeling for Forman's source material was instantly erased as soon as the credits rolled.

Make no mistakes, If I Stay might be the worst film of 2014, and considering I've already endured such putrid disasters as Winter's Tale, Ride Along and The Legend of Hercules, that's not a statement I make lightly. Cutler's film is a hackneyed, overly melodramatic mess that talks down to its audience and wallows in the basest forms of simple-minded sentimentality. On top of that, it does a grave disservice to its main character, leading to an answering of the titular query that's as insulting as it is abhorrent.

The plot is vintage Hollywood hokum. Moretz is Mia Hall, a Portland, Oregon high school senior and cello prodigy waiting on pins and needles to hear from Julliard on whether or not she's been admitted to attend. On the day her letter of acceptance (or denial) is scheduled to arrive, thanks to an impromptu snow day, she and little brother Teddy (Jakob Davies), dad Denny (Joshua Leonard) and mom Kat (Mireille Enos) decide to take a late winter trip to see the grandparents. A patch of icy road later, Mia finds herself literally having an out-of-body experience, the entire Hall family suffering an unthinkable tragedy leaving the eldest child a spectral observer at the hospital forced to choose between life and death.

Like the novel, the movie begins with the auto accident, Mia becoming an ethereal witness to her family's fates while also an almost helpless observer as hospital staff go out of their way to save her life. As she's told repeatedly, it's up to her where or not she lives or dies, the young teen taking this challenge as an opportunity to revisit important moments in her life, most notably a wide-eyed romance with young rock and roller Adam (Jamie Blackley). She embraces memories both happy and sad involving her parents while also reveling in her love of classical music and the subsequent bonding with her cello. The youngster is, in her own way, weighing the pros and the cons of whether or not she actually wants to live through this ordeal, everything more often than not revolving back to her apparent oversize love for Adam.

While an admittedly silly and inherently melodramatic concept to be sure, at least as things pertain to Forman's source material somehow the author manages to make this overly emotional obnoxiousness feel authentic and resonant no matter how syrupy things get. More, there is a weight to the central tragedy involving Mia's family that hits home like a punch to the gut, making her ghostly journey all the more effective in the process.

But as far as the movie is concerned? Well, let's just say there aren't a lot of positives for me to sit here, recollect on and subsequently write about. The film is a disaster pretty much from the moment the Hall family's car is run off the road culminating in one of the most absurd, close to insulting conclusions I've had the misfortune to sit through in some time. It wastes a fine, suitably complex performance from Moretz while also throwing both Enos and Leonard under the bus giving all of them little to work with and even less to do.

It does not help that Moretz and Blackley have no chemistry. Their all-powerful love is about as affecting as a swift kick to the head or curt slap to the face, the kid coming through as more of an egotistical toad than he does anything else. Blackley never attaches himself to the character, never finds a way to get him to feel multidimensional or real, and by the time all is done I was so put off by his whiny, self-centered antics I started to wish Adam had been in the car along with the rest of the Halls so I wouldn't have had to put up with him.

Cutler and Cross never find a way to make the material anything less than insufferable, and even when they do get something right (there's a beautiful scene between Moretz and Enos while washing dishes that's as touching as it is subtle, while the Julliard audition sequence is suitably bravura) they immediately undercut these moments with flashes of rank, almost amateurish, blasts of inane sentimentality making them all for naught. It all builds to final moments that are so poorly handled, so misdirected, so blatantly sensationalistic, they're laughable, thus making sitting through all 106 minutes of this fiasco a massive waste of time.

I can't say whether or not I'd feel the same had I finished the novel. I can only imagine Forman's prose follows the same pathways as this adaptation, but based on the first two-thirds of the book I'm going to guess she handles it all tons better than the filmmakers do here. Not that it matters. If I Stay is so bad, so unrelentingly terrible, I'm never going to read the last few pages, and the only time I'm even going to think about this story or these characters again is when I compile my ten worst films list of 2014.


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Legendary comedian's death shines spotlight on depression, addiction
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Questions of the Heart: When John Q. Mormon takes on Johnny Queer Mormon
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Northwest News
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LETTERS
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Neon Trees interview coming soon
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Too beautiful for its own good?
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Expendables III brings half-baked geriatric action trilogy to an end
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Initially fascinating Giver runs out of insights
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Suitably depraved Sin City not worth revisiting
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