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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 12, 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 50
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
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Horrific Pyramid unworthy of discovery
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE PYRAMID
Now playing


Right at the start of 2013's Arab Spring, American archeologists Holden (Denis O'Hare) and his tenacious daughter Nora (Ashley Hinshaw) make a stunning discovery in the middle of the Egyptian desert. Buried under the sand is a pyramid, lost to civilization for untold thousands of years. It's the find of the young century, the pair almost beside themselves in excitement as to what secrets could be awaiting them inside.

For reasons that are more than understandable, both their University backers as well as the Egyptian government have ordered them to leave the country. But curiosity, as well as a desire to reacquire a lost robot loaned to their tech guru Zahir (Amir K) by NASA, leads them into the pyramid, if only for a quick look, documentary filmmakers Sunni (Christa Nicola) and Fitzie (James Buckley) following their every step.

In some ways eerily similar to this past August's As Above So Below in that it involves a group of young people (more or less) descending into an underground labyrinth only to discover a hellish doorway leading straight into damnation, the B-grade horror yarn The Pyramid doesn't exactly reek of originality. The directorial debut of longtime Alexandre Aja collaborator Grégory Levasseur (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D are just three of the productions they've teamed up on), the movie starts out as another found footage fright fest before randomly transforming itself into something else entirely, not for anything story based, but more because it can. It's a little bit of a perplexing mess at times; there's no better way to say it than that.

This does not make the film a total loss. Things are set up pretty well, even if what gets the five people inside the pyramid is moderately contrived, while the early thrills and chills offered up as they initially make their way through the stone and sand corridors are suitably unsettling. There's a decided, if not unexpected, Indiana Jones meets The Mummy vibe that's intoxicating, the found footage esthetic helping to augment the rising tension nicely.

It helps that Levasseur has O'Hare to center things around. Until the screenwriting starts to let him down - more on that in a moment - the stage and screen veteran (he's had notable roles in everything from Dallas Buyers Club to 'American Horror Story' to Duplicity to 'True Blood') anchors the proceedings agreeably. He's stoic and controlled in ways that are believable, authoritative, and is able to deliver quick bursts of narrative exposition in ways that propel the story forward instead of halting things in their tracks. More, the father-daughter bond he forms with Hinshaw is endearing, making the terror to come that more effective in the process.

But there aren't a lot of places to go, and while the supernatural elements utilizing Egyptian mythology and ancient religions are suitably unnerving, that doesn't make any of the events themselves surprising. There is a rote familiarity to everything that happens and the order the cast members are dispatched in that's tiresome, and as gruesome as some elements turn out to be, that hardly makes the majority of them frightening.

Then there is the script. Writers Daniel Meersand (Removal) and Nick Simon (Cold Comes the Night) have come up with a reasonably decent scenario and populated it with characters who, at least at first, have the appearance of being a collection of adventurers, scientists and journalists worth spending time with. But as things go forward, each of them is let down in one way or another, none allowed to form the kind of emotional dimensionality that would force the viewer to care if they survived their ordeal. In the case of O'Hare, he's the one that's inexplicably thrown entirely under the bus, the film's greatest asset suddenly transformed into its most colossal nincompoop, all to earn a random gotcha scare that's more insulting than it is anything close to effective.

Levasseur does what he can, he and his editor Scott C. Silver compiling their various bits of footage in a way that's viscerally intriguing. But about the time the script starts to go off the rails it is almost as if the director, too, has grown tired of all that's transpiring. Suddenly the proceedings start to get drowned in Nima Fakhrara's (The Signal) nice, if omnipresent, score. On top of that, it's like he gives up on the found footage format just as the third act starts slipping into gear, camera angles and visual points of reference popping up that could not possibly come from either of the two primary cameras that are supposedly filming all of the action.

In all honesty, I actually wouldn't have cared about that last item had the film not ended up so routinely blasé. Mixing things up as far as this genre is concerned, slipping back and forth between found footage and standard visual compositions is hardly a novel idea, but it is one most motion pictures of this ilk are unwilling to dabble in. I like that Levasseur felt the need to play with the format, I just wish he would have done so from the onset and not just at the point things were falling apart. It reeks of desperation and as such becomes a more noticeable a visual hiccup because of it.

For all my bellyaching, in all honesty as tired as the format might be, 2014 has been a fairly strong year for found footage horror yarns. The Den, Willow Creek, The Sacrament, even the aforementioned As Above So Below, all have yielded their fair share of divine moments of terror and despair. However, as good as the production values might be, as strong as the overall cast is, the same cannot be said for The Pyramid as a whole. Levasseur shows potential as a director, just not enough of it to overcome his debut's deficiencies, making this one horrific descent into the subterranean unknown unworthy of discovery.


Scott's Exodus an epic disappointment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS
Now playing


Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott's (Alien, Blade Runner) epic retelling of the Biblical story of Moses, is a mess. The script, credited to four writers, is undercooked, does little to develop its primary characters or enliven its central storyline, just following the generally accepted scenario of the relationship between Moses and Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses without adding anything close to substantive or consequential insights. While the movie looks incredible, while its painterly images are astonishing, dramatically this one is dead on arrival, the only triumphing of the spirit going on being the viewer's ability to sit through all 150 minutes without falling asleep.

There are moments, make no mistake. Moses' (Christian Bale) late night, closed-door meeting with Hebrew slave Nun (Ben Kingsley) where he learns the story behind his birth and how his mother Bithiah (Hiam Abbass) came to call him son, achieves a level of emotional intimacy the majority of the picture sadly lacks. Even better is Ramses' (Joel Edgerton) heartfelt, deeply tragic reaction to the final plague sent down to cleanse his city and force him to release the slaves from their bondage, his early interactions with his young child talking about the majesty of parental love giving it powerful weight and introspective meaning.

Really, though, that's about it. Scott, always one knowing how to compose images of striking visual potency, does little to create anything from a dramatic standpoint that's long lasting or personal. The Nile running red? Striking, yes, but in a clinical way, the Rube Goldberg machinations required for this first plague to come to pass far too eccentrically whimsical. Early battle scenes with Moses and Ramses fighting side-by-side for the glory of the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro)? Expertly staged but lacking the same robust, visceral bite similar sequences in both Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven showcased in spades.

As for the signature bits essential to this particular story, they're hit-and-miss throughout. I really liked how Scott and company handle Moses encountering the Burning Bush, the initial entry into this seismic event for the Hebrew messiah-to-be moderately stunning. But the parting of the Red Sea? The delivering of the Ten Commandments? These sequences are oddly forgettable, more interesting from a technical perspective than they are for anything else. As for the plagues, other than the two already mentioned, they fall bizarrely flat, a couple - hail, locusts, especially frogs - going so far as to border on the unintentionally comic.

The biggest problem, though, is that both Moses and Ramses are set as individual characters right from the start and do little in the way of transformation as the film progresses. Sure, the former admittedly finds God, going from die-hard atheist to devout follower, but that change hardly feels as profound as it by all accounts needs to, the Hebrew savior as rigidly stoic from the first moment we're introduced to him as he is when the screen fades to black. As for Ramses, other than a couple of tender moments with his infant son, he's a selfish jerk from the jump, his histrionic behavior getting old long before he faces down his estranged brother in the soppy sand of a waterless Red Sea.

I can't get as angry as others have over the casting of the two principals. Bale doesn't do a bad job, and he's no worse for the role of Moses than Charlton Heston was way back in 1956, it's just the writing and the way the character is structured that ultimately does him a far greater disservice than his genealogy does. As for Edgerton, physically he's every bit as striking as anything anyone could hope for, it's just his character's craven and supercilious one-dimensionality that makes him an aggressively tiresome bore.

The problem is the supporting cast, veterans like Turturro, Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Paul and Ben Mendelsohn all so laughably attired, so creepily made up or so comically over the top, the impressions they make are hardly winning. Then there is the depiction of God, a child speaking to Moses and giving him guidance a nice idea in theory, but in execution feels like nothing more than pandering on both Scott and the studio's part to religious conservatives. The kid they've chosen, who isn't bad, is so lily white, so remarkably Caucasian, it's almost as if he's stepped onto the set directly after appearing in a 1950s television sitcom and as such stands out for all the wrong reasons.

Cecil B. DeMille's second crack at The Ten Commandments (he made a silent version in 1923) is hardly perfect. A product of its time, the movie is a large-scale epic made inside the Hollywood system and as such features a cast of recognizable superstars and character actors all of whom play things larger than life with nary an ounce of subtlety. Yet for all its excess, all its faults, the movie has heart, it has conviction, and more than that, it allows for an open dialogue about faith and religion that makes the transformation of both Moses and Ramses to have an immediate and potent intimacy that's remained surprisingly effective almost six full decades after its original theatrical release.

Scott's take on the material cannot say the same. Exodus: Gods and Kings doesn't have heart, has trouble establishing an emotional connection with the viewer. On top of that, it doesn't care to tackle the central questions in regards to faith and religion in ways that could be considered profound or complex, instead pandering to the rigidly faithful while hoping the sheer scope and size of the production will keep everyone else interested. The movie is a discombobulated jumble that fails to realize any of its inherent potential, making it one of the more frustrating disappointments released in all of 2014.


Intimate Wild a journey of spiritual and mental endurance
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

WILD
Now playing


Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) believes she's hit rock bottom. Her mother Bobbi's (Laura Dern) death at a relatively young age due to cancer was a shock to the system, leading the wife and college student down a dark path of drug abuse and sexual indiscretion that could only end in her own destruction if it had continued unabated.

Freshly divorced, knowing things need to change, Cheryl makes the eye-opening decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), an 1,100 mile journey from the Southern California border through Oregon to the Northern Washington border. Untrained, unprepared and completely not ready for the massive undertaking she's put before herself, the recovering addict who still hasn't dealt with the demons and despair revolving around the loss of her mother hasn't the first clue as to why it is she's doing this. Yet, make no mistake, the woman who emerges from the wilderness back into civilization 94 days after her journey began isn't the same one who decided to take that first initial step into the desert, discovering a state of clarity and calm she never would have imagined possible beforehand.

Based on Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir chronicling her journey hiking the PCT in 1995, Wild is a solidly rousing portrait of a woman on the edge, who goes to the most unimaginable of extremes in order to rediscover the woman she once upon a time believed herself to be. It's an emotionally cathartic adventure of determination and sacrifice, one that offers up numerous instances of personal introspection coupled with physical resolve. It's consistently fascinating all the way through, director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) keeping a steely focus on Strayed, allowing for the visceral complexity of her endeavor to hit home all the more powerfully in the process.

At the same time, much like this past summer's Aussie Outback drama Tracks with rising young star Mia Wasikowska, this outdoor examination chronicling the triumph of the human spirit over Nature's most extreme obstacles is only partially successful. Anchored by an impressive performance from its lead, one that is entirely lived-in, beautifully authentic, free of artifice or any sort of falsehood, the movie nonetheless doesn't quite ascend to the next level. It kept me at arm's length throughout; never embracing me as fully as I kept hoping it would, never striking a wholly satiating balance between its central story and the various subplots fueling its heroine's drive to finish her singular quest.

Initially, screenwriter Nick Hornby's (An Education) adaptation held me transfixed. I liked the way it waffled between Strayed's time on the PCT with her memories of growing up with her brother Leif (Keene McRae), living with the free-spirited Bobbi and the dissolution of her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski). These transitions worked, added additional insights as to who this woman was and why this action was important to her to undertake. It added a level of complexity to the proceedings I responded to, everything building in a step-by-step fashion that allowed each new revelation on the trail to have a little more weight in the process.

But all too quickly this flipping back and forth between Chery Strayed's current condition and her self-destructive past becomes something of a minor annoyance, inadvertently diluting the inherent power of the protagonist's quest for personal rediscovery. It allows unwelcome melodrama to seep in where it isn't welcome, casting a moderately maudlin, saccharine-laced shadow over the proceedings that's annoyingly distracting. Hornby and Vallée can't seem to make up their minds as to what it is exactly they are trying to say or the best way to get whatever points it is they're attempting to make across, the film unavoidably stumbling slightly because of this.

Also much like Tracks, there's also the issue that, for all her isolation, for as much as she is on her own, it was rare that I ever felt Strayed's trek was putting her in harm's way. That sense of isolation from the world at large never came fully to life, and other than a brief bit where the absence of water produced unanticipated peril and an amusing bit involving her hiking boots, I never believed the woman was in danger. When the stakes became raised it always seemed like there was some soothsayer or savior around the corner to provide a kind resolution to the trauma.

While the same could be said in regards to the memoir, the difference is that there Strayed's writing still conveyed her fear of the unknown, it allowed for the reader's eyes to be opened to the glory and wonders of the world and the inherent goodness of others in ways that felt cathartic, intimate, never nothing less than true. Here only some of that same sort of feeling is realized, some interactions having weight and majesty to them while others feel oddly contrived no matter how close to real events they very well might have been.

All the same, Witherspoon is terrific, and as she's in close to every scene, usually entirely on her own, this is a very good thing. She finds all the layers whirling inside of Strayed, never apologizing for her shortcomings and failures while at the same time making her easy to root for as she attempts this aggressively eccentric form of outdoor recovery. The actress allows her character to become an open book, lets the chips fall where they may, embracing any and all challenges as they come to pass, allowing the audience to be there with her every step of the way.

Vallée's latest never ascends to that next level. It doesn't transcend the material like somewhat similar motion pictures like 127 Hours, Into the Wild and Jeremiah Johnson did once upon a time. It has trouble balancing all the elements of its story into a cohesive whole, Bobbi's fight against cancer and Cheryl's relationship with both her mom and her estranged brother never developing as clearly as I kept hoping each of these various subplots would.

Yet, more often than not, the film remains entrancing, always offering up moments of subtle, delicately simple intimacy that struck me right in the heart. Assuredly shot by up and coming cinematographer Yves Bélanger (Laurence Anyways), featuring a completely immersive sound mix that's incredible, Vallée once again shows he's a talented director keen to tackle any and all challenges that are set in front of him. More than that, though, Wild does Cheryl Strayed's journey along the PCT justice, allowing insights into a spiritual achievement that took far more than physical endurance and chutzpah for her to accomplish.


Imaginative Comet ablaze in romantic delights
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

COMET
Now playing


Dell (Justin Long) knows instantly Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) is the woman for him, so much so he's utterly unafraid to ask the vibrant and vivacious young lady for her phone number even though her current boyfriend is standing right there. Fast-forward six years and the pair are together, trying to make the best of it, doing what they can to overcome a series of successes and missteps that have made their relationship what it is.

But will it continue? That's the central question being asked throughout writer/director Sam Esmail's daring and audacious debut Comet, a beguiling romantic comedy-drama hybrid that floats within space and time on its own uniquely idiosyncratic wavelength. It bounces back and forth within this six year timeframe in nonlinear fashion, examining aspects of Dell and Kimberly's relationship trying to find signature moments that have driven it forward.

Think of the film as sort of the bouncy, dialogue-driven second cousin to Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine only not anywhere near as tragic or as depressing; and while I won't make any statements as to what ultimately happens to Dell and Kimberly I will hazard a guess most won't be emotionally devastated by where everything ends up. It's a fun, thought-provoking two-person melodrama, anchored by performances from Long and Rossum easily ranking as two of their best, the movie never anything less than magnetically entertaining even when certain aspects and pieces don't fit as well together as I maybe would have liked.

And it doesn't all fit together. Some bits aren't remotely believable, aspects of the pair's relationship existing in some sitcom meets Cable TV netherworld screenwriters adore but most viewers cluelessly bat their eyes at wondering what all the fuss is about. Dell's dialogue is particularly problematic at times, so whip-smart and lightning fast it oftentimes sounds a whole heck of a lot better and more profound than in reality it actually is. There's a bunch of hogwash being spouted every so often, Esmail so eloquently cute with his verbiage it tends to overshadow the central romance around which everything revolves.

Even so, Comet is a heck of a lot of fun. Long, even saddled with some insane sequences of dialogue that would make David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin blanch, is so terrific he manages to make even the most idiotic moment believable. Better, he and Rossum have stupendous chemistry, lighting the screen ablaze more often than not, even when their affair ends up on the proverbial ropes. More, the film showcases a talented artist in Esmail worth keeping an eye on, and while this freshman effort isn't without its faults, the ingeniously and imaginatively crafted delights far outweigh any overall apprehensions about the finished picture I otherwise might have had.


Rock's Top Five an insightful comedic sensation
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

TOP FIVE
Now playing


The best film comedy should make the viewer uncomfortable. It should get them to think about ideas and points of view outside their comfort zone. It should take chances, should go into territories that push buttons and very well could cross the line. It should know where too far is, but it shouldn't state exactly what that point on the map might be upfront, leaving the viewer continually on edge as to if - or when - things might go horrifically off the rails. If you're not offended by something that's happened over the course of the picture's running time then the filmmakers have done something wrong, just how much you've been offended going to be the dividing line between whether or not you end up thinking the movie as a whole has been worth one's precious time.

Chris Rock's Top Five made me furious. Brutally so, asking me to laugh at things that went so far beyond the pale at one point I was fairly certain I did two or three spit takes in reaction to some of what was being said, discussed and laughed at. There were a couple moments where I was fairly certain I wanted to throw something at the screen, and I can't say every bit of what the filmmaker was choosing to show me I was even slightly okay with.

And, you know what? That's okay. Because, wouldn't you know it, Rock has done and crafted a smart, skillfully structured comedy of verbal wit and energetic fervor that is remarkably unafraid of the repercussions if at any given second someone says the wrong thing. Channeling Woody Allen, doing his best Richard Linklater meets John Cassavetes impression, the comedian turned actor turned writer turned director (this is his third effort behind the camera, Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife being the other two) has finally ascended to the next level. I'm not going to mince words, flaws and all, even with segments that offend, Top Five is incredible, and in many ways is the best comedy released by a major studio in 2014.

The film chronicles a day in the life of Hollywood superstar and former standup comedy sensation Andre Allen (Rock) as he navigates the streets of New York doing publicity for his new movie, a drama based on a Haitian slave uprising. On top of juggling various junket interviews, he also has to deal with events surrounding his impending marriage to reality television star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). Topping it off, he's also supposed to shepherd New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) around town, giving her an inside look at his life he's never given anyone, especially a journalist, up until now.

That's it. That's all there is, the whole movie a series of conversations, most of them between Andre and Chelsea, as the two of them discuss their loves, careers, families and everything in-between. They get insights into one another's lives allowing them to make a deep connection in a relatively brief amount of time, talking about things that are relatable and intimate no matter what a person's race or skin color might be. It's witty, sharp, prescient and far more profound than one would ever anticipate beforehand, giving the movie a deeply poignant resonance that goes well beyond the laughs.

As for those laughs, there are indeed plenty of them, Rock populating his film with a bevy of talented entertainers and comedians who are all at the top of their respective games. More than that, though, they're all willing to allow themselves to be showcased in less than stellar light, everyone reflecting differing shades of grey, allowing them to become more three-dimensional, more human, no matter how brief their respective screen time might prove to be. Tracy Morgan, Kevin Hart, Cedric the Entertainer, J.B. Smoove, Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones, all of them and more impact the proceedings in ways that constantly surprise, allowing the film to construct a sense of innate realism and authenticity that's astonishing.

Issues do arise. Union's reality starlet, while having a couple of unexpected moments of depth, is by and large the most underrated principal character, her shrill neediness becoming more and more obnoxious as things progress. More egregiously, Rock writes Dawson into a corner she's almost unable to crawl herself out of, Chelsea in some respects the least believable, most ethically challenged depiction of a New York Times reporter in cinema history. She has secrets that, while not as shocking as I'm sure they're intended to be, call far more attention to themselves than they should, and it's doubtful any newspaper anywhere, no matter how dubious its standards might be, would employ anyone who engages in the types of subterfuge she - intentionally or not - ends up trafficking in.

Then, there's that stuff that made me angry. There are admittedly a couple of subplots I found decidedly uncomfortable, most notably one involving the sexual inclinations of a primary character's significant other. Thing is, as retro as portions of this facet of the narrative sometimes felt, it's hard to tell if this brief tangent is offensively homophobic or refreshingly open-minded, leaving it entirely up to the audience to figure things out themselves. Andre and Chelsea's reaction to this revelation isn't as depressing as it initially seems, the two engaging in a thought-provoking conversation about sex and sexuality that might not have been possible without the moderately stereotypical preamble into it.

It's Rock's willingness to tread in uncertain water that ultimately makes his third directorial outing such a success. While not up to the standards of say Allen's Annie Hall or Cassavetes' Faces, while not achieving the same breathless immediacy of Linklater's Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, or Before Midnight, the film nonetheless shows the former standup doing something amazing. The movie is personal, heartfelt and undeniably candid. More than that, it's also very, very funny, each laugh checkered with mind-blowing insights allowing Top Five to resonate on a deep, almost soulful level I responded to heart, body and, most of all, soul.


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2014 HOLIDAY CALENDAR
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Northwest News
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LETTERS
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Oscars Best Original Song long list includes Patti Smith, Lorde, Coldplay, and Ethan Hawke
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Horrific Pyramid unworthy of discovery
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Scott's Exodus an epic disappointment
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Intimate Wild a journey of spiritual and mental endurance
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Imaginative Comet ablaze in romantic delights
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