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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 11, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 50
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Stripped-down Carl(a) a drama of self-discovery
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

CARL(A)
Video-On-Demand


Carla (Joslyn DeFreece) is an Internet Transgender sex worker living in New York. Her best friend, Cinnamon (Laverne Cox), is a prostitute earning bucks out on the street. Together, the pair go through their day-to-day travails with spirit and spunk, dreaming of a better life as they do whatever they can to afford hormone therapy, doctor's visits and, hopefully, sexual reassignment surgery.

It's easy to see why micro-budget indie drama Carl(a) is getting a cursory theatrical release coupled with a decent-sized VOD rollout. In wake of the success of Tangerine, with 'Transparent' winning Emmys, The Danish Girl garnering major league Academy Award buzz and co-star Cox tearing things up in 'Orange is the New Black' and Grandma, why not throw another story about Trans characters trying to make their way through life's hardships into the void and see if it can find an audience? It just makes sense, especially considering the largely positive notices that have followed co-writer/director Eli Hershko's drama during its film festival run over the past few years.

Thankfully, the movie is worthy of a look even outside comparisons to all of those thematically similar projects. Hershko, writing with Christopher Theokas, has managed to craft a fairly honest, dramatically incisive look at two Trans women in the middle to late stages of their individual transitions. A subplot involving Carla and a new boyfriend, Sam (Gregg Bello), a former voyeur on her porn web channel, is insightful, the arguments they have in regards to her desires and wants to proceed towards final surgery particularly powerful. There's also a great tangent involving her dreams of becoming a shoe designer, the filmmakers keeping things simple and direct during these portions, while DeFreece is never more naturalistic and composed than she is during a conversation with a mouthy fashion designer who marginalizes her talents practically at first introductions.

The major crux of the film concerns Carla and her loving grandfather (a superb Mark Margolis), the latter, for reasons not particularly difficult to figure out, trying to reconcile his granddaughter with the rest of the family, mainly her mother (nicely portrayed by Janice Mann). He keeps setting up meals with the entire clan only to see them go horribly wrong, mainly because of the transphobic, hurtful ranting of grandson Frankie (Christopher Kloko). But the real problem is the quiet, simmering hatred emanating from Carla's dad (Elliott Mayer), the man hiding an inner monster behind the face of a clueless oaf.

There is some good stuff here, much of it insightful and honest, and I am absolutely certain there are plenty of Transgender children who will be able to relate to at least one moment of dialogue passing between Carla and her immediate family. Same time, these sequences are also heavy-handed and didactic, slamming points home with zero subtlety and no dimensionality. Frankie is especially off-putting, composed more to fit narrative designs than ones that fuel story realism. Hershko and Theokas have a point to make, but they do so utilizing a sledgehammer, marginalizing the bigger picture in ways difficult to sometimes get beyond because of it.

I guess my problem is, and this is something of a weird one, the movie just tries too hard. It's so concerned with depicting an 'authentic' Transgender journey it loses sight of what a real one of those actually is. Unlike Sean Baker's Tangerine, not at all like 'Transparent,' if there is humor, it feels forced, while the dramatic permutations between Carla and her family are more often than not melodramatically leaden. It's a case of good intentions trumping good screenwriting, and as such there are far too many points where I felt like the preaching in regards to the complexities of the Transgender experience trumped everything else of entertainment value.

But DeFreece is excellent, delivering an intimate, finely detailed performance that's sublime. She has moments with Margolis, an Emmy nominee for 'Breaking Bad,' that are just sublime, while a third act showdown between her and Mann bubbles over with just the type of depth and emotional truth much of the rest sadly lacks. But DeFreece never gives up on the movie or her character, not for a single solitary second, the talented actress displaying an intensity of vision and focus that reminded me of Gena Rowland's work for John Cassavetes in films like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence.

Ultimately, Carl(a) wins me over for refusing to completely become a fairy tale, yet at the same time offering its main character some semblance of hope for future happiness. While the mechanics of this are a little schmaltzy, what Hershko and DeFreece do with them are anything but. A final scene between Carla and Sam actually brought passing tears to my eyes, a sense of possibility and accomplishment permeating the last seconds that made enduring the lumpier, more overdramatic bits worth the effort of doing so.


Gangster melodrama Legend a forgettable misfire
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LEGEND
Now playing


Adapted from John Pearson's best-selling The Profession of Violence, writer/director Brian Helgeland's Legend chronicles the rise and fall of notorious London gangsters Ronald and Reggie Kray during the 1960s. The twins are portrayed by Mad Max: Fury Road and Locke star Tom Hardy in a remarkable dual performance, the actor cutting a magnetic swath as he composes two distinct characterizations that are continually easy to tell one from the other. Equally terrific is Emily Browning as Reggie's bride Frances Shea, the beautiful young actress doing a splendid job of holding her own even if the film itself doesn't always know quite what to do with her.

But that is only one of the many problems haunting Helgeland's latest directorial outing, the screenwriter behind masterworks like L.A. Confidential and Mystic River having a terrible time crafting a narrative that's worth maintaining interest in. Far from being an outright disaster like The Order, unlike his last effort, the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, it's hardly noteworthy, either, the movie an oddly routine and rote crime opus that haphazardly follows a standard, Scorsese-esque template without seemingly a desire to do anything innovative with it. The movie is strangely forgettable, and even with someone as talented as Hardy giving all he's got in a dual role there's frustratingly little to get excited about.

The story begins with the even-tempered Reggie manipulating government officials to get his psychologically unbalanced brother Ronald out of a mental institution and then proceeds to follow them as they centralize their growing criminal empire by buying up nightclubs and partnering with the American mafia on casino operations. Through it all they do their best to stay one step ahead of Scotland Yard, most notably obsessed detective Nipper Read (Christopher Eccleston), something that proves increasingly difficult as the years go by.

Intermixed into all of this are a number of subplots, the most important of which is Reggie's courtship of charming East End dynamo Frances. Their relationship is supposed to be the emotional crux around which all else revolves, the beating heart on which the movie generates its energy and momentum from. But, while both Hardy and Browning are good, while they do exhibit a great deal of natural chemistry, the romance itself is tamely monotonous. Even a climactic twist feels forced and false, almost as if it were designed solely to allow the audience to accept Reggie's acts of murderous violence in ways they do not as it pertains to Ronald.

There are some nice moments sprinkled throughout. An uncredited Paul Bettany has a solid cameo as Kray rival Charlie Richardson, a scene where the police pounce upon him while he's watching England in the 1966 World Cup priceless. Even better is the moment when Reggie brings Frances to meet Ronald for the first time, the latter so nonchalant about his homosexuality the whole sequence ends up having a compelling authenticity so much of the rest of the film exasperatingly lacks. The movie is also expertly shot by Dick Pope (Mr. Turner) and magnificently scored by Carter Burwell (Fargo), and from a technical standpoint I can't say Helgeland drops the ball in any noticeable way.

But it doesn't matter. Eccleston is wasted, given so little to do his fixation on the Krays doesn't make any sort of rational sense. David Thewlis, as the brothers' chief financial operator Leslie Payne, is equally underserved by Helgeland's script, and while he's got a couple of nice moments sparing with Hardy (as Ronald) the fact so little is done with him when his character is vitally important to the outcome is maddening to say the least. This is also the second film I've seen in the last week or so that borrows a thematic device from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard only, unlike Joy, fumbles the execution, the reveal not so much a shock as it is just plain stupid. Worse, it devalues Frances, as well as Browning's performance, to nothing short of an afterthought, a thing that would have made me angry had the movie been even slightly more interesting than it actually is.

Hardy deserves better. He's excellent, almost making me want to give the film better marks based on his efforts alone. But Legend really does waste the majority of its potential, Helgeland never tapping into the story of the Kray brothers in a way that is essential or lasting. The whole thing is more akin to Gangster Melodrama 101 than it is anything else, the upside being it's so unremarkable I'll likely have trouble recollecting in the future just what about it that made me so unhappily disappointed in the first place.


No toil, no trouble, Kurzel's Macbeth a Shakespearean stunner
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MACBETH
Now playing


'Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.'

Aussie filmmaker Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders) has absorbed that key quotation from William Shakespeare's Macbeth and taken it to heart, composing an adaptation of the Bard's epic of murder, mystery, magic, mayhem and revenge and twisted it into a blood-curdling saga that gets under the skin and refuses to let go. His movie is a visual stunner that sits upon the viewer's nerve endings as if it were a razor looking to slice and dice each of them one at a time. The fever-pitch of psychological upheaval is established right from the start, Scottish General Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) at a funeral for his youngest child standing alongside his equally distraught, grief-stricken wife the Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) in a wind-swept wasteland subtly hinting at the calamity to come.

The story should be familiar. After a major victory over a warlord attempting to overthrow Scotland's King Duncan (David Thewlis), Macbeth is granted a vision of a royal future by a cadre of mysterious witches (Kayla Fallon, Lynn Kennedy, Seylan Baxter, Amber Rissmann). Revealing this prophecy to his ambitious wife, she in turn urges him forward, tasking him to take control of events by any means possible. With blood on his hands, Macbeth is crowned the new King, but insecurity and madness soon start to govern him, loyal soldier Macduff (Sean Harris) the first to realize things are amiss, much to his own personal regret and tragedy.

One could wax poetic about the themes and ideas present in Shakespeare's text for hours and not come close to dissecting them as fully as one would like to, because as simple as the story might appear the depth fueling all that transpires still remains mind-blowing. Kurzel streamlines things considerably, axing gigantic portions of the text, keeping things as minimalistic and as centralized as he can. He attempts to ground events in a hardened reality that's practical and concrete while at the same time manufacturing an ethereal otherworldly mood. It's a crazy balancing act, one that purists will likely have trouble with, but also one, for my part, I found hypnotically fascinating.

The witches are the chief victims of the parsing down of the text, and those waiting for some 'double, double toil and trouble' or pricking thumbs signifying something wicked is on the way will be severely disappointed by their absence. Thing is, as memorable as those moments are in the play, it actually makes sense that they've been excised, their tonal mysticism not playing as well with the psychologically unbalanced ecosystem Kurzel has composed for the characters to inhabit. Instead, he allows the feelings and the ideas driving those and other words integral to Shakespeare's play to be conveyed by image, light and mood, bringing in dialogue only when it matters most.

There is another variation on the source material, one that doesn't so much change the text as it looks at a central character in a somewhat different light, and it's safe to say this might just be the film's most controversial, if also inspired, aspect. Lady Macbeth has always been portrayed as the epitome of evil, a harbinger of doom who manipulates and cajoles her loving husband to do things that will lead to damnation. She usually does this with an abandon bordering on gleeful, nothing more than a seductive demon reveling in death and destruction in pursuit of a type of power that, while addictive, is incredibly short-lived.

Kurzel looks at Lady Macbeth from a different vantage point altogether, asking Cotillard to humanize this monster like I cannot say I have ever seen before. The two of them, while never shying away from her primary part in what will be Macbeth's downfall, also show sympathy for this woman, allowing her a level of poignant sadness and regret that's stunningly heartfelt. 'Out, damned spot!' takes on an entire new meaning, as do hands covered in the blood of innocents, all of it conveyed skillfully by a determined Cotillard, the actress embodying these emotional complexities with remarkable ease.

The streamlining can be frustrating. Macbeth's right arm in battle and most trusted ally Banquo (Paddy Considine) isn't as developed as well-developed as I'd hoped he would be, making what eventually comes to pass between the two of them less demoralizing than by all rights it should be. But he fairs better than Lady Macduff (Elizabeth Debicki), and while her arc - as does that of her children - remains the same as it does in the source material, the impact her journey had on me was shockingly negligible considering the fiery nature of what transpires. She suffers eloquently but little more than that, and it almost feels as if key scenes between her and McDuff were left someplace on the cutting room floor never to be seen again.

Still, Kurzel has composed a version of Shakespeare's play that's instantly essential. Playing like some visually dynamic homage to Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick and Julie Taymor, it's all gritty and grimy in ways that stuck to me like a dagger of the mind, one that didn't so much reveal a false creation as it did the cold, unassailable truth of the human condition almost all know yet few would like to admit having dallied with. With Jed Kurzel's (The Babadook) stunning score and Adam Arkapaw's (McFarland, USA) awesomely impressionistic cinematography leading the way, Macbeth casts a mighty spell. It screws the viewer's courage to the sticking-place, forcing them to look into corners of themselves they would rather not peer, and much like the innocent flower there's a serpent hiding here, one whose venom is a glorious cinematic elixir worth being poisoned by.


Muddled Asthma a painfully clueless mess
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ASTHMA
Now playing


Gus (Benedict Samuel) is a New York City loner who spends his days feeding his drug habit, chain-smoking and trying to avoid phone calls from his wealthy father (Jerry Zucker). One day he decides to steal a Rolls Royce, more because he can than for any real reason, and on a spur of the moment whim agrees to give free-spirited tattoo artist Ruby (Krysten Ritter) a ride into the country to the hippie commune of a semi-famous rock star. Along the way he plants the car into a ditch and claims to be going to see his sick, bedridden mother (Rosanna Arquette), when in fact he's off to score some heroin and has long, existential conversations with an imaginary werewolf (Nick Nolte). Gus is pining for a world he's too young to know a thing about, let alone have any memory of, Ruby driven close to mad wondering what it is she sees in this loser that makes her ponder trying to save him from his own selfish miseries.

If there is a point to Asthma, the debut narrative feature for actor-turned-director Jake Hoffman (The Wolf of Wall Street), I'm not sure I get what it is. This is a ponderous, emotionally indulgent addiction melodrama that wanders around aimlessly, desperately trying to find a reason to matter. It uses quirk and whimsy to mask just how one-dimensional and unappealing the main character is, never following through on any of its bigger ideas, content to showcase Samuel in all his skuzzy, smoke-covered glory and little else. The movie is a waste of time, and trying to figure out what drew anyone involved to be a part of it is way beyond me.

As always, those kinds of statements are a bit unfair. Ritter is a striking, gawkily intriguing talent and, whether it is 'Veronica Mars,' 'Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23' or the excellent Netflix series 'Jessica Jones,' she always finds a way to capture the attention no matter how banal or pointless things going on around her might prove to be. Her introductory scenes in a nightclub are kind of delightful, while her climactic verbal smackdown of Gus is an electrifying jolt the film itself had been frustratingly missing up to that point. I'm not going to say Ritter's terrific, the movie around her is just too unsatisfying and dull, but she does make the most of every moment she is a part of, a thing almost no one else in the eclectic cast (which includes Goran Visnjic and Iggy Pop) can claim.

I should also say that David J. Myrick's stripped-down, cinéma vérité esthetic is oddly appealing, giving things a gritty, documentary-like sheen that's wholly appropriate to both the subject matter as well as the world Hoffman is attempting to create. Hoffman's use of locations is also strong, suggesting that his directorial chops aren't nearly as suspect as the overall mediocrity of the motion picture itself might lead some viewers to initially surmise.

But it's his writing skills I can't help but question, Hoffman's script a cloying hodgepodge of ideas and themes a gigantic barrelful of similar motion pictures have tackled far more successfully over the decades. Films like The Lost Weekend, Clean and Sober, Barfly, Sid & Nancy and this year's far more invigorating and impressive Heaven Knows What can't help spring to mind, Asthma sorely lacking on all fronts when those comparisons are made. Gus just isn't a guy I liked spending time with, watching him meander around gracelessly about as entertaining as having tiny hot needles poked into my eyes Clockwork Orange-style. The movie just isn't very good, watching it about as much fun as the body-numbing hangover incurred after an all-night bender downing tequila shots sans chasers.


Naughty Krampus a Yuletide horror treat
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer
KRAMPUS
Now playing


It's December 23, and Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) isn't happy. Not only is he belittled by his schoolmates thanks to his unwavering belief in Santa Claus, his older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) finds it pretty darn silly as well. He's also noticed that his parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) are having difficulties, and while neither of them say so out loud to him the signs of their marital dysfunction are obvious. Only Grandma Omi (Krista Stadler) can see what Max is going through, quietly urging him in her native German tongue to keep his Christmas spirit intact no matter how horrible things might on the outside appear.

This proves impossible with the arrival of Aunt Linda (Allison Tolman) and her bellicose and belligerent husband Howard (David Koechner). Not only do they get on his parents' nerves, they've also brought along his cousins Howie Jr. (Maverick Flack), Stevie (Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel), all of whom love badgering and playing pranks on their impressionable relative. Throw in the presence of Great Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), a notorious boozehound if there ever was one, and the stage is set to ruin Christmas all but good, Max so distraught by it all he's tempted to give up on his family - let alone this holiday - once and for all.

Back in 2007, veteran screenwriter Michael Dougherty (Superman Returns, X-Men 2) made his feature directorial debut with the horror anthology Trick 'r Treat. The film was unceremoniously dumped by Warner Bros, almost as if they had no idea what to do with it, barely releasing it before shuffling it off to DVD and Blu-ray with zero fanfare whatsoever. Funny thing? Movie was terrific, and over time it's garnered a substantial cult following, one large enough that there's talk of a sequel, one the filmmaker hopes to get into production soon.

With that being so, it should shock relatively few that his second directorial effort, the Christmas-themed horror-comedy Krampus, is wonderful, this freaky Yuletide frolic an insidious creature-feature that plays out like the devilish lovechild spawned from the mating of Gremlins and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Dougherty, working with fellow screenwriters Todd Casey and Zach Shields, has composed a gem of a thriller, crafting a genuinely entertaining rollercoaster of suspense, tension and laughter that only gets better as it moves along. It builds to a final scene genre aficionados will uneasily chuckle over as if they were insane, the closing sequences an ingenious melding of 'The Twilight Zone,' It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol bordering on divine.

It all revolves around a demonic force, an anti-Santa Claus, that does not take kindly to Max giving up on his Christmas spirit, even for a passing second, and decides to give him exactly what it was he momentarily wished for. But, as the old proverb says, one better be careful making careless wishes because they just might come true, this supernatural creature eager to pick off all those gathered in the Engel family home one-by-one, eager to drag them off into the underworld as punishment for forgetting the true meaning behind the holiday.

Beautifully shot by Jules O'Loughlin (Wish You Were Here), featuring crackerjack production design by Jules Cook (Chappie), the real star is the superb practical creature and puppet effects, Dougherty pulling from a bag of visual tricks Joe Dante, John Carpenter and John Landis would likely stand up and applaud. Better, he takes his time unleashing them, using the viewer's imagination as his primary weapon of anxiety. He keeps the focus on the creepy situations at hand, the characters' growing terror planting seeds that will grow into solid thrills and chills later on.

But what makes the film work is that Dougherty refuses to play things as farce, doesn't allow the actors to take any of their characters into the realm of larger-than-life superficiality. Sure, Howard is an uncouth oaf, but he's actually also a solid family man who adores his wife and passionately loves his children, the mistakes he's made ones he's somehow learned to live with. As for Tom and Sarah, they know their marriage is in trouble, but they equally understand what it is going to take for them to find a way to fix it, and while the fight will be difficult and long it is also one they are starting to realize they are willing to wage.

The same could be said for everyone trying to survive until Christmas. All have their flaws. Each battles their own insecurity. Yet, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, they're still a family, and as such they're willing to do whatever it takes to keep one another safe. When one of their own is absconded by the devilish creatures knocking at the door there is real weight to the loss, and as such I found myself becoming more and more invested in the outcome as things progressed towards a conclusion.

There are moments of stupidity, to be sure, twins Stevie and Jordan falling for an exceedingly obvious trick that had me rolling my eyes, and Howie Jr. hungrily reaching for a sugary snack that had mysteriously appeared as if out of thin air is dumb with a capital 'D.' Yet somehow Dougherty manages to make these sequences work far better than they have any right to, mainly because the reactions on the parts of the parents are so heartbreakingly genuine. The tension that rises as each of them slowly but surely falls to the pesky demons assaulting the house is palpable, all of which makes Max's understanding of the situation and what it will take to stop it all the more rousing.

Krampus is a naughty little movie, and I mean that in a good way, and once again Dougherty proves himself to be a crafty genre-bending filmmaker willing to make old school high-concept thrillers the likes of which studios are now reticent to put into production. As Christmas miracles for horror fans go, this is one stocking stuffer certain to be enjoyed for many years to come.


Seattle Men's Chorus delivers lots of comfort and joy in entertaining concert
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rReflection and redemption: ArtsWest's Wonderful Life
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Book-It's Emma 2015 a holiday treat!
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The 5th Ave. presents The Sound of Music
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TAYLOR SWIFT GIVES $50,000 TO SEATTLE SYMPHONY TO SUPPORT MUSICIANS OF TODAY AND TOMORROW
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Best of Music 2015 and special interview with Allen Stone next week
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The Chainsmokers give Seattle fans a smoking, hot show
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Intiman Theatre announces Valerie Curtis-Newton as co-curator of the 2016 Intiman Theatre Festival
Curtis-Newton will partner with Intiman's Andrew Russell to program festival dedicated to black female playwrights

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Holly Woodlawn dies at 69
Trans entertainer inspired 'Walk on the Wild Side'

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Seattle LGBT Community Center
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Seattle musicians Brandi Carlile, Death Cab for Cutie, and Seattle Symphony earn Grammy nominations
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Stripped-down Carl(a) a drama of self-discovery
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Gangster melodrama Legend a forgettable misfire
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No toil, no trouble, Kurzel's Macbeth a Shakespearean stunner
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Muddled Asthma a painfully clueless mess
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