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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 19 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 38
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Talented cast enlivens dramatically muddled This is Where I Leave You
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU
Now playing


There's a lot to dislike about the star-studded ensemble comedic drama This Is Where I Leave You. Adapted from his own best-selling novel, Jonathan Tropper's screenplay is incredibly lumpy at times, filled with maudlin, treacle-laden stretches of melodrama that travel perilously close to second-rate sitcom territory. It revolves around a conceit which tends to work better in literature than it does acted out either on the stage or, in this case, the cinema screen, the fact four siblings would allow themselves to be hornswoggled into putting their lives on hold to participate in a week-long Jewish funeral ritual, when most of them aren't even slightly religious, difficult to believe.

Yet the movie, rather nicely directed by the typically heavy-handed Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel), is proof that a talented cast can make the most of just about anything, the entire lot so achingly good that even the more maudlin aspects of the story feel far fresher, more alert and far more authentic than they have any right to. Each of them have signature moments which bring the film to life with authority, all having delicate, naturalistic chemistry with the other, allowing for even the most inane plot twist to sing with surprising potency. More than that, thanks to their efforts, they help Levy find the inherent truth hidden within Tropper's narrative pretzel, bringing insight and understanding into a motion picture desperately in need of both.

Corey Stoll, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman and Adam Driver are Paul, Wendy, Judd and Philip Altman, four siblings who return to their familial home for the funeral of their loving father. Their mother Hilary (Jane Fonda), a successful author who used their respective childhoods as basis for her world-renowned book on child-rearing, tells them dad's final wish was for the lot of them to follow Jewish custom and spend the next seven days in one another's company. Never mind the fact he was an atheist and the rest of them are hardly religious. No. All of them, including their respective significant others (if they have them) are stuck together for the next week, all back under the same roof they grew up under once upon a time.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Judd's marriage is a mess thanks to the fact his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) is having an affair with his boss, radio shock jock Wade Beaufort (Dax Shepard). Paul's wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) is going insane over their inability to conceive a child. Wendy still has all sorts of feelings for her former beau Horry (Timothy Olyphant), her affection for him magnified thanks to the fact the wife and mother of two still feels guilt over a car accident both were involved in as teens leaving him slightly brain damaged as a result. As for baby brother Philip, he's a habitual screw-up who's trying to pull things together by romancing the older Tracy Sullivan (Connie Britton), a psychologist who got her passion for her profession in no small part thanks to Hilary's book.

It's a lot of stuff, and when you throw in complications regarding Judd's pending divorce, coupled with his reconnecting with former high school friend and the town's resident ice skating instructor, Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), as well as Hilary's intent to maybe write a new book based on how her children respond to their father's death, it's all rather more than the movie's skeletal structure can bare. Tropper's script has trouble maintaining cohesive focus and, as such, some dramatic elements feel schmaltzier and sappily anticlimactic than they inherently should be, giving things a glossy, almost plastic-like façade that can't help but be distancing.

Yet the actors, every single one of them, are so good, so invested in the material as well as the characters they are playing, they somehow make this supercilious pabulum not just worth stomaching, but practically worthwhile. Bateman shines, Fey has a number of notable monologues and one-liners, Stoll shows once again he's one of the more criminally underrated character actors working today, and Driver, well gosh darn it all if Driver doesn't just go and steal the entire film right out from underneath his moderately more famous co-stars. There is a complexity to his performance that's surprising, and while he may not genetically look a thing like his cinematic siblings, after about two minutes I fully bought he was the family's well-meaning, somewhat self-centered, black sheep screw-up.

But then everyone is good. Byrne, Hahn, Olyphant (a million miles away from "Justified" territory, that's for sure), Spencer and especially Britton all get a scene or two to shine in, each of them bringing something to the table that adds to the film's overall charm. More than that, though, Levy doesn't push, doesn't layer on the sap or push the melodrama into overdrive. He allows things to progress as naturalistically as they probably can, and even though some of the twists the plot has in store for the Altman clan are hardly authentic, thanks to the director's even-keeled approach they end up feeling a lot more honest than they would have otherwise.

This Is Where I Leave You has plenty of problems. Structurally, it's far too bloated and needlessly complicated, especially considering that the actual resolutions to the Altman family's fractured dynamics are hardly shocking. Yet Tropper doesn't tie everything into bright shiny bows, doesn't give everyone the picture perfect denouement they would probably prefer. There is a melancholic grace to the last few minutes that I found touching, Levy allowing these bits to stand on their own with little unnecessary embellishment. With the entire cast hitting on all cylinders, the movie ends up being something of a minor success, and while I'm sure all involved hoped for more, considering how bad this could have been, being "pretty good" is nothing to scoff at.


Impressively crafted Runner an unfinished dystopian boondoggle
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE MAZE RUNNER
Now playing


Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) doesn't know what's going on. He awoke on an elevator in the middle of a place known only as The Glade, not knowing anything other than his name. No past. No history. No knowledge of world events. No recollection as to who put him here and why. He's a blank slate, but that doesn't mean he doesn't know wrong when he sees and feels it, and being here in The Glade that is multiplied by infinity.

He's not alone. A group of fellow male youths has been residing in The Glade for some time now. Led by Alby (Aml Ameen), the ragtag collection of teens and young adults has done a grand job of setting up a rough facsimile of civilization. But all of them know there is more to be done. More, if they're going to survive, then they're going to have to figure out the only true obstacle handicapping all chances at freedom: The Maze.

Like seemingly everything fifth or sixth movie to come down the pike these days, the new fantasy-adventure The Maze Runner is based on a piece of popular Young Adult fiction, this one by best-selling author James Dashner and, naturally, the first part of a potential trilogy. It goes without saying that Thomas, along with The Glade's first and only female arrival, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), are the key to solving The Maze and making sure Alby and the rest of the so-called Gladers survive. It also proves unsurprising that there is a massive conspiracy behind their imprisonment, a nefarious group of faceless and nameless watchers testing them to see how they respond when push comes to shove and their respective lives are on the line.

Unlike similar teen-friendly dystopian adventures like Divergent, however, there is a wonderful complexity to this 'Lost' meets Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games meets any number of end-of-the-world apocalyptic excursions, Dashner's source material supplying intriguing characters and thought-provoking situations throughout. There is a palpable sense of doom and dread, a weight many stories of a similar ilk made in the wake of the Harry Potter fantasies, Twilight and The Hunger Games have lacked. Life and death both have real meaning, and when a Glader meets their doom it isn't pretty, it isn't light and it certainly isn't taken for granted.

Visual effects wunderkind Wes Ball makes his narrative feature directorial debut, and for once the hype hasn't been wrong. Ball has an astonishing visual sensibility, yet at the same time never loses focus of character and of story, keeping both front and center. He keeps things almost entirely focused upon Thomas and his view of events, allowing the personal dynamics and interactions of the Gladers to drive the action forward and not vice-versa.

That does not mean he skimps on the fancy stuff. The design of The Glade itself, the ominous high walls of The Maze surrounding it, all are impressive, while Thomas and his fellow Gladers' forays into the labyrinth itself is something to see. His first nighttime incursion inside to save Alby from certain death, working alongside primary 'Runner' Minho (Ki Hong Lee), is stupendous, filled with uncertainty and danger, everything building to a white-knuckle face-off with a mysterious creature none who have ever laid eyes on have lived to talk about it.

The issue, sadly, is the same one that handicaps so many of these attempts at bringing similar pieces of Young Adult fiction to the screen. The screenwriters and studio are so intent on franchise building, so hoping to craft a series of motion pictures that will make them box office dollars hand over fist, they forget to tell a satisfactory standalone tale. There is an annoying unfinished quality about this film that's more frustrating and annoying than it is anything else, the last 20 minutes a boondoggle of unfinished ideas and themes building to a horribly muddled cliffhanger where nothing is resolved and little is explained.

You can get away with leaving things in an unfinished state. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire did this beautifully, as did both of the initial chapters of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. The Empire Strikes back set the bar for this sort of thing 34 long years ago, revealing a devastating truth about one hero's father while another was stuck in a state of frozen, death-like hibernation.

Yet all of those films feel complete in and of themselves, and while a larger story certainly still exists, the one going on inside their respective running times is satisfactorily self-contained. Characters see their story arcs evolve, while the central dynamics of the primary narratives don't leave important facets dangling in the air for no particular reason other than they can. These movies work, all easy to return to and enjoy, making them happily re-watchable outside of the other chapter's in their respective cinematic sagas.

This is not the case here. As good as many of the individual pieces might be, as handsome a production as it is, as an individual enterprise, the finished film is a frustrating affair. There is little resolved and even less that is acceptably explained, making individual characters' heroics and/or sacrifices have little meaning or weight in the process.

While the ethnically diverse ensemble of young actors is a good one (recognizable faces like Will Poulter, Blake Cooper and Thomas Brodie-Sangster make indelible imprints alongside O'Brien, Scodelario Lee and Ameen), while Ball makes an impressive debut orchestrating things behind the camera, that doesn't lessen the frustration I felt by the time the end credits began their scrawl. The Maze Runner is well made, and I certainly found myself intrigued and fascinated by much of what it had to offer; the fact it ended up being nothing more than a prequel to a sequel I'm likely never going to get the chance to see is a dumbfounding disappointment I'm having trouble getting past.


2014 Fall Film Preview - Part I (September & October)
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

The calendar might tell you Summer doesn't officially end until September 23, but you can tell as far as Hollywood is concerned the warm-weather cinematic silly season ended a couple of weekends ago. Just look at the release schedule. Last week saw the debuts of two low budget enterprises, the Pierce Brosnan spy thriller The November Man and the found footage Parisian horror opus As Above So Below, while today brings forth no major wide releases save the independently produced faith-based drama The Identical.

For the major studios, school is back in session and the NFL has started its new season, thus making the turn towards more high-minded entertainments par for the course. They tend to look at the Fall movie season as the point audiences are inclined to see more intelligent fair and less big budget silliness. It's also the point where they unleash the majority of what they feel are their major Academy Award players for the year, chasing Oscar with a cavalcade of star-studded dramas and comedies typically directed by some of Hollywood's biggest names.

Not that what might be construed as summertime fair has been eschewed altogether. Just the opposite. High-profile sequels include the continuation of The Hunger Games franchise, Mockingjay - Part I, releasing November 21, A Dolphin Tale 2 (September 12), a The Conjuring spin-off entitled Annabelle (October 3) and the comedies Dumb and Dumber To (November 14), Horrible Bosses 2 (November 26) and Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (December 25). Rounding things out is the climactic installment in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, as well as more antics from Ben Stiller's bedraggled security guard Larry Daley in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, which reunites the actor with Robin Williams sadly for the final time, both films releasing on December 19.

On the flip side, directors as varied as Christopher Nolan, Clint Eastwood, Scott Frank, David Fincher, Terry Gilliam, Jason Reitman, David Ayer, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tommy Lee Jones, Dan Gilroy, Alexandre Aja, Michael Mann, Jon Stewart, Angelina Jolie, Bennett Miller, Jean-Marc Vallee, Ridley Scott and Mike Leigh all have films scheduled to go into various stages of release, and while some of those films have been seen already, the majority are still waiting to be discovered by audiences eager to mull over the many nuances. Also finally seeing nationwide release are Sundance, Telluride and Cannes Film Festivals favorites like Whiplash (October 10) with Miles Teller, Lynn Shelton's Laggies (October 24), Camp X-Ray (tbd) with Kristen Stewart, the ingenious thriller The Guest (September 17) from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barret, the Australian Outback survival tale Tracks (September 26) and the star-studded ensemble comedy This Is Where I Leave You (September 19).



The following is just a small list of films and events scheduled for release in Seattle during September and October. As always, release dates are subject to change and not everything mentioned here will actually end up venturing into your local Cineplex. Make sure and check local listing to be sure.

September 5
Forrest Gump (IMAX Re-release), The Identical, Innocence, A Letter to Momo, Starred Up

September 12
A Dolphin Tale 2, The Drop, God Help the Girl, The Last of Robin Hood, Love is Strange, The Man on Her Mind, A Master Builder, No Good Deed, Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation

September 17
The Guest

September 19
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Flamenco Flamenco, The Maze Runner, The Skeleton Twins, This Is Where I Leave You, Tusk, A Walk Amongst the Tombstones

September 26
The Boxtrolls, The Equalizer, Hector and the Search for Happiness, K2, Keep On Keepin' On, The Notebook, Take Me to the River, Tracks

October 3
Annabelle, Gone Girl, Kelley & Cal, Last Days in Vietnam, Men, Women & Children, Pride

October 3-5
SIFF Cinema Egyptian: Grand Opening Celebration - SIFF reopens the Capital Hill landmark with a series of free screenings including Seattle favorites like Amélie, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Kagemusha, My Neighbor Totoro, Pan's Labyrinth and Y Tu Mama Tambien

October 9-19
The 19th Annual Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival - Three Dollar Bill Cinema unleashes their latest two-week orgy of LGBT films and filmmakers upon Seattle. Just-announced titles include Sundance Film Festival hit Appropriate Behaviour and Patrik-Ian Polk's Blackbird with a full lineup to be announced later this month.

October 10
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Dracula Untold, The Interview, The Judge, Kill the Messenger, One Chance, The Two Faces of January

October 17
Best of Me, Birdman, The Book of Life, Fury, Kill the Messenger, Lilting

October 24
Dear White People, The Good Lie, Laggies, Ouija, St. Vincent, White Bird in a Blizzard

October 31
Art and Craft, Before I Go To Sleep, Horns, Nightcrawler, Saw (10th anniversary re-release), Whiplash, Why Don't You Play In Hell?


Gleefully subversive Guest a welcome visitor
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE GUEST
Now playing


David (Dan Stevens) has come to the Peterson home to pay his respects. He served with their eldest son Caleb, was there when he died, and as such made a promise to his friend to let both his parents and two siblings know he was thinking of them and only them as he made the ultimate sacrifice. He's charismatic, charming, intelligent and polite, and for grieving mom Laura (Sheila Kelley), alcoholic dad Spencer (Leland Orser), teenage daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) and wide-eyed youngest Luke (Brendan Meyer) he's potentially a breath of fresh air that could reunite their struggling clan and make them a loving familial unit once again.

Or is he? David is driven, and it's obvious he does in fact care for his ex-comrade's family, but his methods? Those are not entirely above board. He's as quick with a fist as he is with a crooked smile, adept at both firing off compliments and firearms seemingly at the exact same time. While he appears to have the Peterson's best interests at heart, there is something amiss about both his past as well as his reasons for giving them a helping hand, Anna in particular starting to realize there's more to David than he's willing to talk about.

Much like the pair's stunning, wildly entertaining You're Next, less is more where it comes to director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett's borderline brilliant thriller, The Guest. Don't ask about the plot twists. Don't watch the trailers. Don't dissect any reviews - including this one - too closely. Let the film's absurdly convoluted meanderings, all character-driven, all in service to the overall plot, wash over you without any foreknowledge of what is about to unfold, nothing done just for the sake of doing something unexpected or different. See how David and Anna relate to one another and engage in their impromptu chess match not having a clue as to how things will turn out or which one of them will end up making the most important moves.

Barrett and Wingard toy with the audience, but never insult them, even the most jaw-dropping twists coming from a place of authenticity and truth, making the horror and chaos to come more affecting in the process. The shock and awe of the unanticipated mess is extreme, yet the emotional center of the story being told remains strong throughout, and as such, staying invested in the Petersons and their plight is easy to do. The pair does not beat around the bush and they do not pull their punches, yet at the same time they mostly eschew reveling in the more exploitive and disturbing aspects of all that is taking place.

None of which would matter if Stevens (known for his prim and proper turn as Matthew Crawley in BBC's 'Downton Abbey' more than he is for anything else) wasn't so darn amazing as David. He's criminally charismatic, charming in ways that send chills down your spine, giving a complex, multifaceted performance as he brings this violence-inclined Good Samaritan to life. I couldn't take my eyes off of him at any point, a late scene between him and Kelley sitting right on the knife's edge of tension, tragedy and love as he navigates between what he feels must be done in order to survive and what he'd rather do as a wannabe member of the Peterson family.

He's nearly matched by Monroe. Between this, At Any Price and Labor Day, the young actress is quickly proving herself to be a multifaceted scene-stealer of the first degree. She's not only the one who has to put the pieces of David's story together, but also the person who must figure out the best course of action when she comes to the conclusion his presence isn't nearly as benign or as selfless as it might on the surface appear. She has to face him down, maybe even out think him, engaging in a match of wits and wills she knows she shouldn't be a part of, yet not shying from the challenge, even if she desperately would like to. Monroe makes this inner turmoil palpable and heartrending, leading to a final exclamation so pitch perfect, yet so darkly hilarious, I found myself wanting to leap from my theatre seat and cheer.

I could say so much more, but I find myself reticent to do so. Much like You're Next, Barrett and Wingard have once again assembled together a thriller filled with deft bits of homage to a litany of classics. At the same time, name-dropping a single one of them would ruin many of the inherent surprises subtly buried within the narrative's numerous strands. As filmmakers they are growing in leaps and bounds, the gleefully subversive and monstrously entertaining The Guest showcasing both at the peak of their respective powers, the finished movie likely one of the best I'll have the pleasure to watch in all of 2014.




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An opera unlike any other
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Northwest News
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LETTERS
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Lisa Fischer moves from back to front of the stage for Seattle shows
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Talented cast enlivens dramatically muddled This is Where I Leave You
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Impressively crafted Runner an unfinished dystopian boondoggle
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2014 Fall Film Preview - Part I (September & October)
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Gleefully subversive Guest a welcome visitor
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