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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 23, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 43
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Guillermo del Toro's Peak a romantically gothic ghost story
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

CRIMSON PEAK
Now playing


It is 1901, a new century is still in its infancy and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is eager to make her mark on the world. Coming from a working class background, her loving father Carter (Jim Beaver) a self-made man who molded his New York reputation, and his fortune, through hard work and an unstoppable resolve, the young woman is looking to be a writer on the same level as Mary Shelley, crafting dark, dangerous stories of the macabre she just knows readers will thrill to.

Into her life comes mysterious Englishman Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). He and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) have come to America looking for financial backers to fund a miraculous invention they believe will revolutionize the mining industry. There is something about this tall, well-mannered foreigner that catches Edith's eye, so much so she finds herself falling for him, much to the consternation of the protective Carter. Yet, when tragedy strikes, she finds it easy to fall into his comforting arms, the pair getting married and eventually heading back across the ocean to the Sharpe's ancestral home, the secluded countryside mansion Allerdale Hall.

There are ghosts lurking everywhere in director Guillermo del Toro's latest spine-tingling horror opus Crimson Peak, but much like similar supernatural winners Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone, the real dangers coming to assault the protagonists here are of a much more human nature. Allerdale Hall is by all accounts a house that literally drips blood, the thick, gelatinous red clay on which the mansion was built seeping through every nook, cranny and crevices. It gives things a sinister, unsettling atmosphere that only becomes more disquieting when bruised, battered and deformed apparitions make themselves known to a confused, yet still curious, Edith, the reasons for their arrival the central mystery around which all events inside del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins' (Dragonslayer, Mimic) malevolent screenplay revolve.

Those expecting some down and dirty tale of ghosts out for revenge have another thing coming, del Toro's name-dropping of Frankenstein author Shelley early on speaking volumes. This movie owes more to Alfred Hitchcock's take on Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca or Francis Ford Coppola's unabashedly sexual envisioning of Bram Stoker's Dracula than it does Paranormal Activity or The Grudge, the whole thing a rapturously elegant old school gothic opus that emphasizes the sensual above everything else. The pace is measured, relationships between the three leads are emphasized, and the house itself becomes a character maliciously helping to orchestrate the action; and while the conclusion is suitably violent, it's never so much so it overshadows the emotions fueling the carnage.

At the same time, said central mystery is very easy to solve, and while watching the pieces being put together is an uncomforting hoot those with even a moderately keen eye know where all this is heading within the first few minutes. Additionally, as dashing heroes go, Charlie Hunnam, playing Edith's former suitor and erstwhile protector, Dr. Alan McMichael, leaves a great deal to be desired. He's got nothing to play, del Toro and Robbins writing him the movie's only completely invisible character (and this includes the ghosts themselves), his love-struck surgeon cum amateur investigative detective a one-dimensional cypher who isn't faintly interesting.

Thankfully, the rest of Crimson Peak is aces. Thomas E. Sanders' (Saving Private Ryan) production design is a triumph, the rotting beauty of Allerdale Hall speaking for itself. Same goes for Kate Hawley's (Edge of Tomorrow) magnificent costumes, each piece of clothing having a lived-in carnality that's uncomfortably intimate, helping the actors disappear into their respective characters more than just their performances alone would allow. As for veteran Dan Laustsen's (Brotherhood of the Wolf) camerawork, it's divine, each image having a hypnotically eerie elegance suiting the proceedings perfectly.

Then there are the performances of Wasikowska, Chastain and Hiddleston. All three are terrific, each digging deep, giving themselves over wholly to del Toro's psychologically unhinged turn-of-the-century gothic world. Wasikowska is a wonderful heroine, a strong-willed presence who, in spite of her fear, continues to search for the truth knowing doing so might be the only way to ensure survival while also potentially allowing the restless souls stumbling through Allerdale Hall some semblance of peace. Chastain is equally stunning, devouring her lines with a cadaverous relish that's almost reptilian in its seductive viciousness.

As for Hiddleston, for those who only know him as the Marvel villain Loki, they will be gob smacked by his cryptic, heartbreakingly complex majesty. You can feel the ghosts of Laurence Olivier and Gary Oldman influencing his performance, as well as elements of his aloof, set adrift rock star vampire from Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, but then the actor takes things in such an internalized, self-aware direction the overall impact is staggering. He is a romantic victim to the nth degree, understanding his failures and shortcomings yet remaining terrified to do anything about them. Thus, when the time comes, when life and death must be decided, Hiddleston makes this moment of truth stunning to behold, a heartfelt moment of clarity and purpose the consequences of which stuck a dagger through my heart while also bringing a couple of tears to my eyes at the same time.

It's no secret that del Toro's affinity for horror and its romantically gothic undertones are immense. Elements of this are obvious throughout Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (as well as both Hellboy adventures), while his two bona fide masterpieces The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth dwell in this seductively chilling realm with a quietly unnerving majesty unique in and of themselves. Even more traditional, Hollywood-friendly efforts like Mimic, Blade II and Pacific Rim have their moments where they drip into this morbid terrain, making each of them more emotionally intriguing because of this than they maybe had any right to be.

While there are issues, most of them are so minor, and the pleasures the film unleashes are so massive, Crimson Peak is still a shimmering example of gothic romantic horror at its best. With top-notch performances from Wasikowska, Chastain and Hiddleston, featuring stellar technical efforts from the entire production team, del Toro has crafted a magnetic spellbinder that does the genre proud. It's one of the acclaimed director's better efforts and, more than that, it's also one of the year's most memorably fascinating thrillers.


Compelling Victoria a visceral one-take powerhouse
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

VICTORIA
Now playing


Victoria (Laia Costa) is ready to call it a night. Out at a Berlin nightclub, dancing herself into happy oblivion, she's on her way home to get some sleep before having to open a neighborhood café in a handful of hours when she runs into charming local Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his rambunctious cadre of friends. Giving into temptation, she follows him to an apartment complex rooftop for a couple of beers, learning more about Fuss (Max Mauff), Blinker (Burak Yigit) and the fresh out of prison Boxer (Franz Rogowski) in the process. But it is Sonne who she shares an instant connection with, the young expat from Madrid starting to believe there's a spark of intense mutual feeling developing between the two of them.

Things take an unexpected turn when an old debt on Boxer's part comes abruptly due. The man responsible for protecting him while he was behind bars wants to be paid for his troubles, and he's got a little job he's sure the ex-con and his friends would be perfect for. No real planning required, this little early morning jaunt inside an out-of-the-way bank vault will be easy money, only taking a bit of pluck, moxie and courage on the group's part to see the job done.

Victoria is a 138-minute, one-take wonder that is far more than its (admittedly sensational) cinematic trick. The film is a descent down a perilous rabbit hole, a dank and dangerous noir excursion that dexterously begins as anything but. Director and co-writer Sebastian Schipper sets up a fun, almost friendly scenario, Sonne and Victoria hitting it off nicely, making a believably intoxicating connection that's as universal as it is passionate. There's a great moment between the two of them involving a piano that's divine, the aura of early romantic entanglement so palpable it permeates throughout the entire theatre.

Schipper and his fellow writers set up a morning of youthful abandon, allowing a sense of the impossible being suddenly possible that anyone who has spent a night exploring seemingly forbidden activities in their late teens or early twenties should be able to relate to no questions asked. Of course, engaging in things that are not allowed, or at the very least frowned upon, can have unintended consequences that can last for the rest of one's life, and if the activities engaged in take an even more perilous turn, they might just end it. One bad decision, even if made with the most heartfelt and innocent of intentions, can change everything, and what starts out as a moonlit fairy tale can become a sundrenched morning nightmare at the flip of a switch.

None of this should work. Why does Victoria allow herself to get swept up in Boxer's dilemma? What is it about his friendship with Sonne that forces all the guys to follow him into danger? Why do they act like idiots the moment things look like they're about to take a somewhat astonishing turn towards success? But, what's interesting is just how organically everything happens over the course of this two-plus hours, the way Schipper slipped me right into his heroine's shoes to the point her choices shockingly ended up becoming my own positively astonishing.

Costa is remarkable, delivering a performance of sublime elasticity that gloriously encompasses everything Victoria is going through. She rides a startling emotional rollercoaster filled with highs, lows and numerous in-betweens. The chemistry she develops with Lau happens with subtle ease, the way she transitions between moments so authentic it gives the proceedings a documentary-like verisimilitude it never could have achieved without her. Costa is mesmerizing, first second to last, the final sight of her dealing as best she can with the aftermath of all she's experienced a punch to the gut like no other this year.

The movie is a trick, of that there is no doubt, Schipper's storytelling precision coupled with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen's detailed handheld camerawork beyond impressive. But if it were only this trick, only a visual device utilized to get curious cinemagoers inside the theatre, then the movie would be good, maybe a bit better than that, but not extraordinary, and that is exactly what Victoria is. The script is so tight, so intimately wound, that each turn of the screw becomes increasingly relatable no matter how outlandish or extreme things ultimately become. This is something amazing, watching it a visceral mindbender that runs the full gamut of the human experience.


Effectively sparse Spies an engaging Cold War thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

BRIDGE OF SPIES
Now playing


With the Cold War raging, the FBI has arrested Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) as a Russian spy. Wanting to show the world that American justice is equal for everyone no matter what the crime, the Justice Department, with the assistance of his fatherly boss Thomas Waters, Jr. (Alan Alda), urges esteemed Brooklyn lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend the accused to the best of his abilities. While his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) would rather he'd decline, the patriotic jurist sees it as his duty to take on the case, realizing that by doing so he'll likely become the second most hated man in the country, the first being the client he's now agreed to represent.

Understanding just how great a service he has done for his country, after the trial has come to an end and the appeals process has been exhausted, the State Department has a new task for Donovan, one they are certain he is the most suitable candidate to take on. There has been an international incident in Russia, a CIA plane crashing to earth, its pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) being held as a spy. The government would like the lawyer to go to East Berlin and negotiate for his release, not as his country's representative but as a lawyer still trying to speak for his client even after the battle has ostensibly been lost. They want Donovan to trade Rudolf Abel for Francis Gary Powers, and they want him to do it before the Air Force pilot gives into interrogation and reveals secrets the CIA would rather stay unspoken.

Inspired by real events, Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies is a handsomely mounted, remarkably entertaining procedural that's as compelling as it is informative. While not quite soaring to the same, instantly classic heights as the filmmaker's last historical endeavor, Lincoln, this is without a doubt one of the storied director's best films in over a decade, at least since the double-whammy of Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, probably since his criminally underrated A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. It is an invigorating, old school drama made with the same care and attention to detail Stanley Kramer brought to films like Judgment at Nuremburg, Inherit the Wind and The Defiant Ones, showing a measured touch that in many ways is extraordinary.

Not that the film isn't without its idiosyncratic quirks. Working from a script by Matt Charman (Suite Française) and, most notably, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit, Raising Arizona), there is an absurdist, slyly comedic thread dangling throughout, one that energizes scenes and moments in oftentimes startling ways. The conversations between Donovan and Abel are particularly captivating, the level of understanding that grows between the two men ingeniously coupled with a knowing acid-laced comprehension that the incidents they are involved in have little to do with law and order and almost everything to do with political gamesmanships between competing nations.

Hanks is in stoic, all-American everyman mode, channeling his inner Gregory Peck or Henry Fonda in order to bring Donovan to life. Yet the performance is still sensational, filled with little beats and moments that help shade the whip-smart lawyer in ways that amaze. Whether he's going one-on-one with Rylance or verbally dueling with The Lives of Others star Sebastian Koch (as an East German lawyer determined to get a deal for his country that would put them on par with the U.S. and Russia) over the life of another captured American, collegiate graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), the two-time Academy Award-winner is at his best, crafting a portrait of resilience, creativity and intelligence that's fascinating.

It is Rylance, however, who steals things. The veteran character actor, known for a variety of roles in projects as varied as 'Wolf Hall,' Anonymous, The Other Boleyn Girl and Angels and Insects, gives one of the year's best performances, exuding a quiet, knowing awareness that ends up befitting Abel magnificently. He dominates every moment he's a part of even if he doesn't utter a line, the way he sits on the corner of a bed smoking a crumpled up cigarette speaking volumes. His observations as to what is happening and why offer up a form of clarity that does not exist until he puts words to them, Rylance finding a way to give his cagey, world-weary spy a knowing electricity that allows for his presence to be felt even if he's justifiably sidelined for the majority of the film's second half.

Unsurprisingly, on the technical front the movie is aces across the board. Veteran Spielberg contributors cinematographers Janusz Kaminsk (Schindler's List) and editor Michael Kahn (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) are each at the top of their respective games, while new collaborators costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone (Moonrise Kingdom) and production designer Adam Stockhausen (The Grand Budapest Hotel) do a spectacular job helping the director give this Cold War world life. Only composer Thomas Newman (Side Effects) comes up short, his music never achieving liftoff, the music instead sounding as if he's attempting his best John Williams imitation instead of allowing his own Oscar-winning instincts to lead him in a personal, and likely more effective, direction.

There are a handful of other, relatively minor annoyances, not the least of which is the way the script hangs Ryan's loving wife out to dry with precious little to do other than pine for the safety of her husband, but in the end these do not matter nearly as much as they could have in lesser hands. Spielberg is in fine form with Bridge of Spies, his handling of the material confidently self-assured and magnetic. A stunning procedural, this is an intimate, engagingly personal thriller that held me spellbound first moment to last, building to a suitably tense climax upon the film's titular location that's as appropriate as it is divine.


Dynamic Steve Jobs an electrifying triumph
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

STEVE JOBS
Now playing


Steve Jobs is not a traditional major studio Hollywood biopic by any stretch of the imagination. Resembling more a Broadway play as if it were written by David Mamet and Paddy Chayefsky working in tandem, presented like one of Louis Malle's astonishing Andre Gregory collaborations, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have crafted a one-of-a-kind cinematic sensation worthy of a standing ovation. This is a film driven by the rat-a-tat-tat nature of its dialogue, each verbal twist and turn a thrilling mystery as to what is going to be said next and who is going to be lucky enough to get in the last word.

The film is split into three sections, each set minutes before various important product launches Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is front and center to introduce. The behind-the-scenes mayhem is kept to a minimum thanks to the efforts of marketing maestro Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the harried public relations wiz and close Jobs confidant, the one who has to monitor access to her charge before festivities begin. During the first event, the launch of the Macintosh personal computer in 1984, the most interesting guest inside the dressing room is Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the Apple exec's ex-girlfriend there to push him to recognize his 5-year-old daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss) as his own and finally step up to the plate financially.

Other guests include John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the man coerced to leave Pepsi in order to come to Apple as CEO, and programmers Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the latter the co-founder of the company responsible for changing the face of personal computing while tinkering in a garage alongside Jobs. They aren't the only people Joanna allows into the room with her boss, but they are the most important ones, each person adding input and insight as they make their respective cases for what they'd like him to say to the adoring throngs loudly cheering in the adjoining auditoriums for each respective product launch.

Sorkin, working from Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography of the Apple icon, has crafted a sensational script, one that's potentially even better than his Oscar-winning one for David Fincher's The Social Network. As mentioned, events are entirely driven by dialogue, things progressing forward with urgency and haste solely through the verbal interactions. More, the level of insight and understanding he is able to generate as to who Jobs was, his drive, his tenacity, his geocentricism, his self-awareness and, yes, his genius, all of that and more is on display. It's a no-holds-barred accounting of the man that attempts to dig below the surface in order to discover universal truths, not all of which are savory, whether it succeeds or not directly tied to the viewer's own idiosyncratic point of view.

Boyle is working at the top of his game, the man behind films as diverse as 127 Hours, Millions, Trainspotting and the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire navigating this untraditional terrain with sparkling, invigorating efficiency. The way he separates the three product launches (the NeXTcube in 1988 and the iMac in 1998 join the Macintosh as the other two) borders on dazzling, how he and his cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler (Sunshine) visually identify each shift in time both ingenious as well as completely organic to the story itself. It's one of the most technically accomplished motion pictures released to theatres in all of 2015, yet it's also just as doubtful most will recognize this truth, the inherent theatricality of the piece potentially keeping some from noticing.

None of which would matter a lick if the performances were not up to snuff. Thankfully, everyone in the cast, every single person, no matter how big or small their respective part might be, is just wonderful, the most surprising of whom might be Rogen as Wozniak, the veteran comedian showing a depth and a range he hasn't before now. But as good as he might be, and he is wonderful, the real standouts are Fassbender, Winslet and Daniels, all three giving performances as grand and as magnetic as anything they've ever given. It's no great stretch to imagine that each could very well win Oscars for their turns, Winslet in particular subtly and cunningly becoming the film's heart and soul as things progress to their rightfully open-ended conclusion. In most respects Hoffman is the voice of Jobs' conscience, the complicated Jiminy Cricket sitting on Pinocchio's shoulder doing her level best to steer him in as decent and as humane a direction as possible.

I'm not an Apple historian. What I know about Jobs and his time with the company amounts to little (most of it tied to my recent watching of Alex Gibney's documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine). With that in mind, I can't comment on how accurate a representation of the man at the center of all of this is. What I can say is, from a filmmaking perspective, from an entertainment standpoint, Steve Jobs is an exhilarating spellbinder, moving at a fervent pace as it attempts to show genius and all that comes with it - the good, the bad and the decidedly in-between - as intimately as it can. In the end the orchestra being conducted are the audience's own emotions, Boyle and Sorkin the clever maestros making beautiful music out of them for everyone to enjoy.




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Reflections on the county clerk in Kentucky
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Selena Gomez books May 13 concert date in Seattle
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Guillermo del Toro's Peak a romantically gothic ghost story
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Compelling Victoria a visceral one-take powerhouse
------------------------------
Effectively sparse Spies an engaging Cold War thriller
------------------------------
Dynamic Steve Jobs an electrifying triumph
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