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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 18, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 51
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Danish Girl a gender journey of self-discovery
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE DANISH GIRL
Now playing


Rising landscape artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is married to Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), a fellow painter specializing in portraits. They are best friends with renowned dancer Ulla (Amber Heard), going to parties with many of Copenhagen's most prominent citizenry at her behest on a somewhat regular basis. But Einar feels out of place at these affairs, like he doesn't fit in, and as such it takes a lot of time and effort on Gerda's part to oftentimes convince him to attend a single one of them.

A chance opportunity leads to a realization of self and identity that in some ways takes both of them by complete surprise, yet in other ways feels utterly rational when they step back and allow themselves to think more about it. After attending one of Ulla's events dressed up as a girl, due in large part to Gerda's prodding, the two thinking of it as a game they are playing to fool the rest of the stuffy and clueless attendees, Einar discovers he doesn't want to let newfound femininity go. With his wife uncertain of what to do or who to ask for help, her painter husband begins to disappear, a new, dainty creature calling herself Lili slowly emerging in his place.

I saw director Tom Hooper's (The King's Speech, Les Misérables) cinematic accounting of Lili Ilse Elvenes, better known as Lili Elbe, The Danish Girl, over a month ago, and in all honesty I wasn't altogether certain I'd be able to write a review of the film. The Danish Transgender woman was the first known person to go through sexual reassignment surgery, doing so at a German medical clinic in 1930 under the supervision of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and carried out by Dr. Kurt Warnekros (portrayed by Sebastian Koch in the film). Dying in June of 1931 from complications from a fourth surgery, which included a potential uterus transplant, a book based on her diaries, Man into Woman, was published in 1933, becoming an instant bestseller.

Based on the 2000 novel by David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl does not claim to be an entirely factual accounting of Lili and Gerda's relationship, as many of the actual events that propelled them forward on their respective journeys were changed for both creative and narrative reasons. Lucinda Coxon's (The Wild Target) screenplay follows suit, and, if anything, changes things up even more, and as such should not be looked at as a definitive accounting of this pair's momentous and important adventures in gender. There's a ton of historical butchering at play in the film, a thing I don't necessarily have a problem with, but also something I feel should be pointed out at the exact same time.

None of which is why I find this movie so gosh darn difficult to write about. No, the reasons for that are much more personal, as so much of Lili's journey, even at eight-plus decades after the fact, mirrors so many of the footsteps, conversations and footsteps I myself have taken, trying to react to it in words as it encompasses a critical review is agonizingly difficult. The simple truth is that, while Hooper and Coxon stumble here and there, while the melodramatic entanglements Lili and Gerda end up facing can be on the stilted side, the core events, the items dealing with one person's gender transformation and the other's reactions to it, are close to perfect. More, they're bracingly authentic, a thing I never could have anticipated before walking into the theatre for my press screening.

What's most remarkable is how confident Hooper and Coxon are in showing just how selfish Lili can be, how taking the giant leap to be herself ends up irrevocably damaging a relationship still exceedingly near and dear to her heart. As Transgender individuals, sadly far too often we hide large facets of our personality out of fear of discovery, ridicule and hate, attempting to be what others expect instead of who we know ourselves to be. When we finally embrace our inner selves, the initial gut reaction can be to run towards it not thinking of anyone else around us, and as such this directness of purpose can come across as egocentricity run amok.

This won't be palatable to some. Most, who've never had a Transgender family member or friend, aren't going to grasp what's happening, more than likely, and they'll look at Lili's treatment of Gerda and shake their head wondering why she's putting up with it. But this is also what makes Gerda such a stunning character and, in point of fact, arguably the film's main - and maybe titular - character. In more ways than one this is her story, one where she learns not just to accept who her husband is transforming into, but to embrace it herself, even if she doesn't entirely understand all of what is taking place. It's a remarkable tale, one so many families have experienced and embraced, as well as one so many others have sadly turned their back upon. Gerda looks at what is happening to Lili and puts pieces together one after the other; and as hurtful as things might become, the knowledge that the person closest and most important to her can't continue as-is trumps all else.

It's the surrounding material that's a little limp. Hooper and Coxon play it very safe, very traditional as far as the exterior, secondary plot mechanics are concerned, almost as if they realize they're presenting material some will find uncomforting (even if they shouldn't) and so they don't want to make waves with any of the rest of it. It's all very straightforward, very matter-of-fact, having a BBC television quality that's moderately forgettable. The movie is also obnoxiously framed in certain moments, much in the same way Les Misérables was, Danny Cohen's (Room) camerawork getting so in the face of some of the characters you can almost count their nose hairs.

Redmayne is superb, delivering a delicately nuanced performance that's easy to relate and respond to. But as great as he is, the real star here is Vikander. In a year where she's already been wonderful in Ex Machina, Testament of Youth, Burnt and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., what the actress does here is extraordinary. Her Gerda is a breathtaking creature, watching her come to life so intricately, with such complexity, a real joy. Vikander is electric and alive, a spectacular lithe and limber creature of elegance and understanding who only grows in importance and impact as events progress.

But it's the fact that The Danish Girl gets the core stuff right that makes it important, and equally difficult for me to talk about. While I wish the movie didn't play so fast and loose with many of the facts, Hooper and Coxon have still structured a story of self-acceptance and discovery that transcends its historical inaccuracies and allows it to ascend to a level of magnetic emotional resonance I found impossible to resist. It understands sex and gender are not the same thing, and that the former isn't a binary construct that only allows for two norms. The options are endless, and the fact the film not only embraces this, but celebrates it, makes it as important a piece of a cinematic entertainment as any to be released this year.


Abrams' Star Wars brings balance back to The Force
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

STAR WARS:
THE FORCE AWAKENS

Now playing


One can't help but walk into Star Wars: The Force Awakens without a great deal of trepidation. While the prequels, which began back in 1999 with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, carried their own baggage, director J.J. Abrams' and company's return to the core events of creator George Lucas' original trilogy are a whole different ball of wax. For many, myself included, the initial Star Wars trilogy was a cinematic rite of passage, all of it leading to places of imagination and adventure that have stuck with the majority of viewers for four-plus decades now.

If Abrams had a seemingly impossible task as it pertained to his reboot/reimagining of Star Trek in 2009, the challenge here is unfathomable, the director tackling the iconic Star Wars franchise by bringing back all of the principal 1977 players while also introducing a number of new faces for modern audiences. He is asked to compose a story and scenario that will launch a new trilogy, one that pays deft homage to Lucas' first set of films yet also erases the bad taste left in the mouths of many who found the prequels underwhelming.

With the aid of Little Miss Sunshine Oscar-winner Michael Arndt and, arguably more importantly, franchise returnee Lawrence Kasdan (a screenwriter on both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but also the writer/director of complex, character-driven genre fair like The Big Chill, Silverado and Body Heat), Abrams accomplishes his task. Not perfectly. Not without a lump or a bump here and a lump there. But overall? Beginning to end? The Force Awakens is a triumph, and whether one is a fan of Star Wars or a newcomer uncertain what all the fuss is about this is a science fiction spectacular worthy of celebration.

It has been thirty years since The Empire fell, the Emperor was defeated and the Rebel Alliance scored a major victory for freedom and democracy throughout the galaxy. In that time, a new evil has grown, the nefarious First Order, while the rebels have blossomed into the Resistance; both armies in a desperate race to find the whereabouts of the last remaining Jedi Knight, the one and only Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). With time growing short, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has sent her most trusted pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to the backwater desert planet of Jakku, looking for the final pieces of a puzzle that has mystified them all for over a decade.

By happenstance, fate or something greater, maybe even mystical, the missing information, the key to learning where Skywalker is, has found its way to scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). Assisting a lost BB-8 droid, aided by a former Stormtrooper calling himself Finn (John Boyega), Rey is forced to flee Jakku with a whole fleet of First Order warriors, led by the powerful Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), hot on her tail. When all is at its worst, when hope appears lost, a rogue smuggler comes to Rey and Finn's aid as if drawn there by destiny, ex-Rebel leader Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his best friend and co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) swooping in just when needed most.

There's plenty more to say, but to do so doesn't feel right. Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt haven't designed a story filled with surprises (most of them are pretty easy to figure out) so much as they've engineered one that the realization of what is about to transpire hits the viewer like an out-of-control Tie Fighter. What is learned, who is who and what is what, all of it matters, not just so much in regards to the greater picture as far as the new trilogy goes, but also as it pertains to the narrative here. The filmmakers maintain remarkable focus, a singularity of purpose, doing yeoman's work fleshing out Rey and Finn while also giving Solo an astonishing arc no fan of the series will ever be able to forget. They also set up an intriguing villain in Ren, and seeing where he goes next, and how his descent will be juxtaposed by the ascent of his forceful doppelganger, has piqued my curiosity something fierce.

Boyega, Driver and Isaac all acquit themselves admirably, each delivering rambunctious, full-bodied performances that do the series proud. On the flip side, Domhnall Gleeson fumbles around as the risibly evil General Hux, puffing out his chest and locking his shoulders with authority yet still unable to make this villain feel vital or noteworthy at any point. As for Gwendoline Christie as Stormtrooper leader Captain Phasma, she's got precious little to do, so here's hoping the trilogy does more of merit with her at some point in the next two adventures.

As for the original cast, there is Ford and there is everyone else, the veteran superstar the only one of the initial Star Wars trio given all that much to do. He's more than up to the challenge, and for all his documented reticence over the years to return to Han Solo he sure seems to be having quite a blast slipping back on that signature leather jacket. He shares a pair of sensational scenes with Ridley, one sitting next to her in the Millennium Falcon, no less, that are just superb, while a climactic sequence that sets the course for where things go next is unbelievably powerful in large parts thanks entirely to him, the actual actions that transpire not nearly as surprising as I can't help but think the filmmakers themselves intend them to be.

Then there is Ridley herself. As far as coming out parties go, the one the young actress has as Rey is astonishing, cementing the character as an instant Star Wars essential as well as a figure fans and non-fans alike are going to be cheering for without reservation. It is immediately apparent this new trilogy is going to revolve in large parts around her, the journey this orphaned scavenger is about to undertake one I can't help but be intrigued by. Ridley delivers a vigorously emotional performance, her reactions wondrous, and by the time she finds the courage to take a heroic step forward I was all but ready to climb out of my seat, leap up onto the screen and take it alongside next to her.

Beautifully shot by Dan Mindel (John Carter), featuring an amazing array of practical and digital effects that are continually eye-popping, the most important technical facet remains John Williams' (Jurassic Park, Superman) instantly recognizable score, the veteran Oscar-winning composer delivering deft orchestrations and memorable themes that fit the on-screen action flawlessly. There's also some deft motion capture work turned in by 12 Years a Slave Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong'o, but the less said about her and what her character is doing the better, audiences deserving to learn that information for themselves.

I will say the movie moves too fast at times, almost as if Abrams is worried if he slows down viewers will lose interest. Also, he, Kasdan and Arndt follow signature moments and ideas from the original trilogy too closely, and once the big threat to the Resistance is ascertained there is a feeling of interstellar cinematic déjà vu difficult to initially get past. Finally, as marvelous as the last scene might be - and it is really, really wonderful - the climactic cliffhanger is slightly annoying, and I'm not altogether certain everyone is going to be happy with it.

Be that as it may, the moment that Lucasfilm logo appeared on the screen, the second the theme came blaring through auditorium, I was suddenly a wide-eyed three-year-old again, shedding a couple of tears for a movie that hadn't even shown its first character let alone depicted its initial star fighter flashing across the screen. Abrams doesn't just live up to that reaction, he makes me glad I had it, Star Wars: The Force Awakens giving new life to a franchise of hope, resilience, courage and family that's been missing from theatres for far too long.


Rambunctious Sisters a Poehler-Fey gem
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SISTERS
Now playing


When their parents Bucky (James Brolin) and Deana Ellis (Dianne Wiest) decide to sell the family home, sisters Maura (Amy Poehler) and Kate (Tina Fey) are tasked with cleaning out the remainder of their childhood remembrances before the new owners can take control of the property. Not wanting to leave without one final goodbye, they invite as many of their old high school classmates as they can to a party, believing that this last rambunctious affair will be just what's needed to get them both excited about tackling their respective lives once again.

This is necessary because neither is in a great place at the moment. Straight-laced, by-the-book Maura just seems to be running in circles right now, so obsessed with making sure everyone else is doing all right she forgets to check in on her own wellbeing. As for Kate, she's maybe the loving mother of teenage daughter Haley (Madison Davenport) but that doesn't make her any less irresponsible, going through jobs and boyfriends as if both were a bag of chips ready for consumption. This party will change everything, both sisters just know it, the future going to be even brighter in large part because they were willing to let their hair down and go crazy one last time.

The glory of Sisters is how honest and authentic it feels. As crazy as things might get, as absurd as events might become, everything stays centered directly upon Maura and Kate no matter what, making their respective journeys mean something by the time drunken chaos reaches its unavoidable breaking point. Directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect), written by 'Saturday Night Live' veteran Paula Pell, this movie is a delightfully hysterical foray into frivolity and family that's a continuous hoot, everything building to a nicely comforting coda I absolutely adored.

To no one's surprise, Poehler and Fey make a sensational comedic team. It's been a joy to watch their chemistry evolve over the years, their ability to work one with the other on such a symbiotic level recalling Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. If Baby Mama was the test run for their cinematic abilities and their time hosting the Golden Globes a way to hone them, then Sisters is the fruit of their collective labors. The two have such an easy give-and-take one could watch them recite the alphabet and probably enjoy every last second of it, the ease in which they play one off the other continually stupendous.

The supporting cast is made up of a number of familiar faces, a great majority of them fellow 'Saturday Night Live' veterans, and almost all of them down the line produce a number of solid laughs. But it's Maya Rudolph as Brinda, a former high school 'mean girl' who Kate can't stand, who steals the show, her performance so beautifully complex, yet also just as incredibly hysterical, watching her is a continuous delight. Better, her final showdown with Fey is surprisingly personal, revealing hard-edged truths that actually brought a tiny little tear to my eye.

As for the rest, John Cena follows up on his scene-stealing work in Trainwreck with another unforgettable little portrait of stone cold silliness here, while veteran character actor John Leguizamo has a number of terrific little moments as a local liquor store owner who's always had the hots for Kate. Then there is 'The Mindy Project' and 'The League' regular Ike Barinholtz. He's the sexy single who just moved into the neighborhood that catches Maura's eye, he and Poehler crafting an air of sweet, simple romanticism I couldn't help but be won over by.

It's all a little thin at times, and the level of destruction that ends up transpiring ends up feeling more suitable to something like The Blues Brothers or The Money Pit than it does with the story taking place here. But Pell's script, inspired in no small way by her own relationship with her own sister, is so smart, so genuine, as crazy as things might get, the human saga at the center remains pure and realistically heartfelt no matter what. With Poehler and Fey working at such a high level, and with the laughs being as constant, and as massive, as they prove to be, Sisters is just a joy to behold, watching it a rambunctious riot I almost didn't want to see come to an end.


Howard's Sea a whale of a disappointment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
Now playing


Author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) has come to Nantucket to hear a story that by all official recorded accounts never happened. According to the company that owned the boat, the Essex was sunk by running aground and that was all there was to it, anything more just fantasy and fairy-tale nonsense that no one with an ounce of intelligence should take seriously. Yet, here he is, in the boarding house of Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) and his loving wife (Michelle Fairley) to have his curiosity satiated, the real truth behind the sinking of Essex far more incredible than anything the writer could have imagined on his own.

When he was only 14-years-old, orphan Thomas (Tom Holland) set out on his first voyage aboard a Nantucket whaling ship. The Captain of the Essex, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), is on his freshman voyage, his seasoned First Mate. Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), not exactly happy about this. The pair do not get along, not at all, but they agree to put up with one another until their ship's hold is filled with 2,000 barrels of whale oil, scouring the oceans for their prey in hopes of making these desires come to pass.

What ends up happening to the Essex is what will inspire Melville to write his masterpiece Moby Dick, Capt. Pollard and Owen Chase coming face-to-face with an undersea demon unlike anything encountered before, young Tom there to witness it all - chaotic start to bloody finish. It is this whale of a tale that director Ron Howard (Rush, Apollo 13) and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (Seventh Son, The Express) tell in their new film In the Heart of the Sea. Using Nathaniel Philbrick's best-selling book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex as inspiration, the pair bring forth an account of survival on the high seas that purports to showcase humankind's insignificance where Mother Nature is concerned, the mashed and mangled bodies of the seamen trying to live to another dawn the instruments they play their tune upon.

The framing device of an older Nickerson telling his story to a fascinated Melville actually works quite well, the film's emotional highpoint one that concerns them both as well as Fairley, the latter achieving an emotional elegance that's superb as she learns a horrifying truth about her husband only to respond with tenderness and love. The opening sequences of the Essex heading out to sea are also excellent, Hemsworth charismatically dominating, showing a robust athletic masculinity that fits these moments perfectly. There's also a terrific sequence showcasing the ship's crew in action, their initial assault on a small pod of whales glorious.

Even so, Howard and Leavitt always kept me at arm's length, never let me embrace the characters or the struggles they were enduring like I kept hoping would come to pass. The adversarial relationship between Chase and Pollard is never developed, while secondary characters, most notably a key one played by veteran character actor Cillian Murphy, are frustratingly one-dimensional. When the White Whale does show up, the sense of awe that should coincide with his appearance is shockingly minimal, and while there are some incredible moments involving the creature, there aren't near enough of them to allow for a meaningful impact.

The movie ends up playing like an odd, uncomfortable cross between Unbroken, Jaws and Alive, almost the entire second half focused upon the surviving sailors stranded in the middle of the ocean dying one-by-one as the massive whale stalks them like Michael Meyers leering at a half-naked teenager. While the actors do what they can, and future Spider-Man Holland is particularly good throughout this portion, it all feels much too tidy, much too matter-of-fact, and even those completely unfamiliar with the source material will likely never worry much about who is going to make it back to Nantucket alive.

I will say, even with the wonky and unnecessary 3-D, In the Heart of the Sea is marvelously shot by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), his use of texture, light and color phenomenal throughout. There is a filtering effect utilized that's glorious, much of the film looking as if it is shot through glass, giving me the feeling as if I were looking at a tempestuous saga of adventure and survival taking place upon a ship sailing inside a liquor bottle. Also, while the CGI effects aren't seamless, the veteran cinematographer manages to make them look far more gorgeously photorealistic than they have any right to be, the initial above-the-water appearance of the White Whale monstrously impressive to say the least.

There are additional pluses, not the least of which is Roque Baños' (Evil Dead) invigorating score, but the core problem involving an emotional attachment to the characters and their collective plight is an obstacle sadly much too mammoth for Howard and company to ultimately overcome. As Moby Dick stories go, Melville's book still stands head and shoulders above all the rest, John Huston's 1956 adaptation with Gregory Peck a fine version of the story as well. In attempting to ground things in historical fidelity, Howard's In the Heart of the Sea loses the human intimacy that makes this epic what it is, the resulting movie nothing more than an empty voyage to nowhere that sinks far more often than it swims.


Sorrentino's Youth an emotionally obvious fable
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

YOUTH
Now playing


Revered, and retired, composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is in the Swiss Alps on vacation. He's joined by his daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), who is also his assistant, and Hollywood director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), his best friend, who is currently putting the finishing touches on a script he claims will be the most important cinematic statement of his five decade career. Up-and-coming actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) is also at the resort, trying to decide if the latest, somewhat controversial part he's been offered is one he should accept. Additionally, everyone at the exclusive hotel waits with bated breath for the arrival of the newly crowned Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), the gorgeous beauty queen not shy where it pertains to sharing her opinions or flaunting her flawless body.

It will shock absolutely no one that writer/director Paolo Sorrentino's Youth in tone, style and theme recalls the works of Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini. His last effort, the exquisite and heartbreakingly intimate The Great Beauty, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, did that as well, the filmmaker emulating his countrymen pretty much to perfection with that one. Visually and contextually Sorrentino appears to be on familiar footing here, his treatise on aging, love, parenthood, friendship and the creative process hitting a number of the requisite narrative beats throughout.

All of which makes me rather surprised to be forced to admit that Sorrentino didn't deliver this time as far as I was concerned. As sensational as all of this might look - Luca Bigazzi's (This Must Be the Place) cinematography is superb - and as universally well-acted as the film proves to be - Caine is fantastic; this might just be one of 2015's best performances - emotionally Youth left me strangely cold. It meandered and wandered around, seemingly more content to show off Ludovica Ferrario's (Certified Copy) impressive production design and Carlo Poggioli's (Divergent) sumptuous costumes than it is doing anything emotionally meaningful. There's a lot of style but precious little substance, the statements it makes neither particularly profound nor one's I cared a heck of a lot to hear more about.

Not that there are not special moments of wonderment to be savored. A bit involving Dano's disgruntled superstar getting verbally shutdown by the not-as-dim-as-she-appears Miss Universe wonderful, as is another featuring him walking around the resort in full costume as a certain mustachioed WWII Nazi leader. Then there is the appearance of Boyle's chief muse, Hollywood grande dame Brenda Morel, portrayed with fiery foul-mouthed resolve by an impeccably cast Jane Fonda. This tête-à-tête between the two is divine, providing energy and electricity to a movie sadly devoid of both for the majority of its almost two-hour running time.

As for Caine, his mastery of his character as well as the motion picture itself cannot be understated. There's a sublime sequence where Ballinger is enduring the badgering of an emissary from the Queen (an appropriately fidgety Alex Macqueen) and the way the two-time Oscar-winner navigates the emotional peaks and valleys of the scene is something special. He encapsulates Ballinger perfectly, balancing his regrets as both husband and father nicely with his pride and his exhilaration at leaving a lasting legacy the world will treasure long after he is gone. Caine is as great as he has ever been, making the film worthy of at least a passing glance thanks to his efforts alone.

Yet, for me at least, this feels sadly like much ado about nothing. Sorrentino's musing are tiredly obvious throughout, and as pretty as the images he composes might be, the fact the emotional content simmered right around zero made caring about anything going on impossible. In the end Youth has nothing new to say, its Italian thematic esthetic nothing more than a mask for an emotional Schadenfreude impossible to take pleasure in.


BEST OF MUSIC 2015: Hottest Artists of the Year
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BEST OF MUSIC 2015: Feature Artist Interview
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BEST OF MUSIC 2015: Albums
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BEST OF MUSIC 2015: Singles
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BEST OF MUSIC 2015: Live Performances
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Best of Music 2015 and special interview with Allen Stone next week
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BEST OF MUSIC 2015: Worst Music
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Ham for the Holidays with Lisa Koch and Peggy Platt is amazing comedy
FINAL WEEKEND

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Adele gives Seattle a big hello with two concerts next July
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STG presents 'So You Think You Can Dance' at the Paramount Dec. 26
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Seattle Musical Theatre presents She Loves Me
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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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Danish Girl a gender journey of self-discovery
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Abrams' Star Wars brings balance back to The Force
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Rambunctious Sisters a Poehler-Fey gem
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Howard's Sea a whale of a disappointment
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