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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 8, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 28
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Sincere Fits a stunning, emotionally forceful tour de force
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE FITS
Now playing


Growing up in Cincinnati's West End neighborhood, spending her time at the local community center working out alongside her boxing enthusiast older brother Jermaine (Da'Sean Minor), 11-year-old tomboy Toni (Royalty Hightower) becomes obsessed with the award-winning Lionesses Dance Team. While making friends with a few of the other newcomers, the youngster throws herself into learning the team's choreography with the same passion she showcases in the gym training with her brother. But when some of her fellow teammates descend into a series of fainting spells and seizure-like convulsions, Toni begins to wonder what exactly it is she has signed up for, the line between fitting in with the others and remaining true to her own personal convictions blurring into invisibility.

The Fits is a hard movie to pigeonhole. While the basic scenario is relatively straightforward, the mechanics of director Anna Rose Holmer's (Twelve Ways to Sunday) feature-length narrative debut end up being anything but routine. Working alongside co-writers Saela Davis (Ballet 422) and Lisa Kjerulff (Northern Light), Holmer's film is a coming-of-age excursion the likes of which I've rarely experienced before, the level of bracing, documentary-like exactitude as it pertains to the emotional center of the drama flabbergasting. It is a strong, thought-provoking opus that is open to multiple interpretations, all of it building to a powerhouse finale that knocked my socks off.

Toni is a fascinating character. You learn so much about her just by the way she wanders around the community center, the way she attacks her training and the back-and-forth interactions she has with Jermaine. I felt like I understood the mechanics of her world with startling intimacy even though the basics of her home life and what she is doing in school are left fairly ephemeral. A combination of the way Holmer constructs her heroine's journey, the superb, fiercely internalized performance of her young star, Toni, is a complex, emotionally determined youngster unlike any other adolescent character I've seen in a 2016 motion picture up to now.

Hightower is a find. From the first moment we see her throwing punches with Minor, to how she cannily responds to the influx of fainting spells that suddenly assaults the entirety of the Lionesses Dance Team, the young actress finds a way to make each moment feel pure and distinctly genuine. Her budding friendship with two of her fellow teammates happens with simple elegance, while her reactions to their willingness to do whatever it takes to be accepted as part of the troupe drip with poignant melancholy. Hightower is fierce, showing an interior resolve that is often broadcast without the use of words, her expressive eyes and the physicality of her body movements doing the majority of the speaking for her. It's a marvelous performance, the actress bringing things full circle in a way that shattered my heart, yet in a fashion that also had me smiling just as broadly as Toni herself as the screen faded to black.

Holmer directs with supreme confidence, allowing the film to build to a boil at its own measured pace, but not in a way that ever feels slow or drawn out. If anything, The Fits is over almost as soon as it begins; its brief 72 minutes going by in the blink of that metaphorical eye, the director, along with her two fellow screenwriters, getting rid of all of the story's fat in order to keep the focus and spotlight shining directly upon Toni, which is exactly as it should be. The themes lurking at the center, what it is talking about in regards to race, education, peer pressure, gender and just growing up in general, all of it comes through marvelously, the finished feature a stunning achievement all involved should be proud to have had a hand in creating.


Imaginative Swiss Army Man a bawdy satire of self-actualization
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SWISS ARMY MAN
Now playing


Hank (Paul Dano) is ready to say goodbye. He's been stranded on a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean for who knows how long, and with hope dwindling down to nothing the young man has decided it's time to end his misery and call it a goodnight. But just as he is about to hang himself, a mysterious body washes up onto the shore. His curiosity piqued, Hank decides to see if the man is alive because, even if they can't find a way to get off the island, at least they'll have one another's company to while away the time as they pray for rescue.

The thing about Swiss Army Man, not only is this body as dead as they come, it also possesses some extreme, unbelievable powers, including a surreal talent that allows its own undead flatulence to be so powerful that Hank can use this corpse as something of a human jet ski. What's more, it only gets stranger from there. Not only does Hank decide to drag this body around with him, the longer he hangs out with it the more reanimated it becomes, the pair carrying on conversations about life, the universe and everything in-between.

Daniel Radcliffe portrays this dead man, and this is a performance unlike few others a person is likely to see throughout the remainder of this year. Not so much a zombie as he is a horny child-like figure rediscovering his lost humanity, revealing his name to be Manny as he regains the ability to speak, somehow the former Harry Potter manages to create an intriguingly complex character out of this bit of outlandish weirdness. The relationship he ends up having with Hank is amusingly intimate, filled with diverse insights into the human condition ranging from the absurdly juvenile to the psychologically profound. Yet Radcliffe, keeps things amusingly close to the vest, never taking things nearly as broad as he easily could have considering just how extreme the material itself proves to be.

But the star here is Dano, and as amazing as he was in last year's Love & Mercy and Youth he's even better in this, his Hank a shockingly complicated character that only gets more interesting as events progress. The actor is asked what maybe should be impossible, to make the absurd, borderline offensive man a figure, not worthy of pity or sympathy, but one of respect and, dare I say, admiration. Hank is a lost soul who through unimaginable hardship, as well as the friendship and understanding of a resurrected corpse, finds the strength to put his life in some semblance of order while he also faces down the internal demons that have forced him into a shell of impenetrable timidity. It's a remarkable performance, one that walks a line between maturity and immaturity with invigorating aplomb, Dano a spellbinding presence whose magnetism only grows as things progress to their magically ridiculous conclusion.

Written and directed by newcomers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, there's little out there I can think of to compare Swiss Army Man to. In some ways it all plays like some fanciful cartoon, a surrealistic combination of Castaway, 'Adventure Time,' Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Weekend At Bernie's and Warm Bodies that wears its irrationalities on its sleeve as if they were a badge of honor. Yet the pair don't just want to shock, aren't interested in only trying to offend. Instead, they actually have something to say about relationships, love, family and friendship that is really rather divine and thought-provoking, allowing Hank's journey to salvation to take on a spiritual quality that's shockingly personal.

Do they go too far? Are they able to connect all the many dots they've got littered throughout the narrative? Does the film sometimes feel weird and unorthodox just for the sake of being weird and unorthodox? The answer is a definitive yes on all counts, and I'd be lying if I said every little beat or moment resonated with me as fully as I can only imagine they were meant to. It can also be said that, at barely over 90 minutes, some of the interior vignettes go on much too long, Kwan and Scheinert making their point yet getting so amused by Dano and Radcliffe's antics they end up holding the scene longer than I felt was necessary. Additionally, I can't say the fantastical final minutes spoke to me as clearly as they are obviously intended to, and I'm not sure making things as literal as they end up becoming works near as well as a more ephemerally mysterious coda might have.

But this is all part of the charm that Swiss Army Man somehow, someway ends up being able to generate. Kwan and Scheinert show a canny ability to defy expectation, balancing genre conventions with the patently silly as well as any other young directors working today. They eschew political correctness in a desire to discover deeper, more meaningful truths that shatter stereotypes and go beyond societal, racial and gender norms. With Radcliffe and especially Dano fully committed to the material no matter how extreme things might get, this human comedy of the divine becomes a soulful outburst of imagination and insight born out of disarray and chaos. This movie is downright wonderful, the multifaceted minutia of its various marvels so rapturously exhilarating they're worthy of applause.


Third Purge a politically astute meat grinder
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE PURGE:
ELECTION YEAR
Now playing


The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) have a problem. Running against their candidate for President, fundamentalist preacher Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), who spends Purge Night carving his sins out of the flesh of some random victim in front of his equally bloodthirsty flock in the safety of a church, is populist firebrand Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). She has made it her mission to eradicate the yearly Purge, put an end to the violence and slaughter, and as election day nears, while it's going to be close, by all accounts it's starting to look like the Senator has a real chance to win.

This does not sit well with the NFFA. With this year's Purge only a few weeks before the actual election, they've changed the rules that allow political leaders to be exempt from the carnage and slaughter. Make no mistake, Senator Roan is going to be a target, and it will be up to her trusted head of security Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), a man who almost did the unthinkable two years ago on Purge Night but found redemption instead, to keep her safe. But even they are ill-prepared for what the NFFA has in store for them, and for the next 12 hours they're going to be playing cat and mouse against the most lethal assortment of cutthroats who've ever picked up a weapon to purge with, surviving until morning a gruesome long shot, to say the least.

The Purge: Election Year is the most overtly political entry in the horror/action/thriller series yet. Returning writer/director James DeMonaco is done with being vague, finished with letting satirical elements rumble underneath the surface. Where The Purge was nothing more than an Assault on Precinct 13 clone masquerading as a home invasion thriller, The Purge: Anarchy opened up this world a little more, showcasing how this yearly onslaught of violence and murder was slowly but surely damaging the soul of the entire country at large. Here, the true political motives behind things are made irrefutably concrete, the top one percent holding power using Purge Night as a vehicle to cull the ranks of the homeless, the poor, racial minorities and anyone who is either receiving, or on the verge of becoming eligible for, anything that could be remotely construed as a government handout.

It's ambitious, especially considering the current political climate, DeMonaco actually calling out institutions like the National Rifle Association for being part of the problem, while also presenting a clueless, racist, egotistical dunderhead as the proud, verbose figurehead of an entire political party. His cast of supporting players includes a Mexican immigrant (Joseph Julian Soria), a weary inner city grocery store owner (a terrific Mykelti Williamson) and a haunted volunteer EMT (Betty Gabriel) with a shady past. Each of them fills a cultural and social niche the filmmaker is looking to comment upon, their eventual meeting up with Senator Roan all part of a greater plan that allows DeMonaco to hammer home his overarching points with the subtly of a sledgehammer.

It's still an exploitation film, a hyper-violent exercise in mayhem and destruction that is as broad and outlandish as it is cartoonish and over-the-top. Bullets fly, people get chopped up by machetes and lunatics get their comeuppance thanks to the front grill of a fast-moving automobile. There's a great idea involving the growing cottage industry of 'Purge tourism,' while the specter of children being raised in an era where violence as a celebratory once a year act has become the insidiously virulent norm looms over everything like an anvil waiting to fall.

Thing is, DeMonaco doesn't spend a lot of time fleshing any of that stuff out. As far as the tourism angle goes, it's an idea that's introduced only so that he can deliver a macabre gag at just the right moment. With the cycle of violence thing, the treating a day of murder as a national holiday and how that affects children over the course of a quarter century, on that point the filmmaker dwells quite a bit longer. Problem is, the culmination of this particular subplot is just too laughable to take seriously, the unintentionally humorous histrionics too absurd to take with even an ounce of seriousness.

But here is the oddest, and in some ways worst thing to admit: The Purge: Election Year just isn't as much fun as its predecessors mainly because it finally has the guts to lay all its cards on the table and showcase its intentions with such clarifying conviction. Because DeMonaco plays up the drama, because he takes things so seriously, he skimps on the action, doesn't go as crazy with the mayhem. If anything, the movie gets a little boring at times, the narrative slowing down for long stretches of exposition and verbal jousting, political discussions that make black and white all of the shades of grey the series had made a mark of trafficking in during the first two films.

Yet this third chapter is still worthy of a look, not the least of which is the fact DeMonaco's command of the material is confidently self-assured start to finish. Even if some bits don't work as well as it felt as if they should have, not once did I ever feel like the director wasn't in complete control of the story. DeMonaco tells things exactly the way he wants to, building things to their conclusion with precision, in the process transforming Senator Roan and Barnes' trip through Washington D.C. into a de facto Escape from New York remake. It's creepily hypnotic, building in depth and power until the whole thing explodes in a flurry of grit, gunfire and honest to goodness selfless sacrifice.

The acting is universally solid across the board as far as the principals are concerned, Mitchell and Williamson doing the majority of the emotional heavy lifting, while Grillo once again anchors things with a retro, Kurt Russell-like cool that fits both his character as well as the film itself beautifully. While I can't say I was as energized by The Purge: Election Year as much as I was the two stories that came before it, I'm still fairly enthused by what it is DeMonaco is doing here, this third chapter in the saga a politically astute meat grinder that's worthy of a look.


Latest Tarzan dangles from a vine of pointless indifference
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN
Now playing


The good news in regards to director David Yates' (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) African adventure The Legend of Tarzan is that it doesn't spend a heck of a lot of time going through the famous character's backstory. Instead, screenwriters Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Black Snake Moan) make the assumption most, even if they've never read any of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels or have seen any of the countless cinematic incarnations (ranging from Johnny Weissmuller, to Christopher Lambert, to an animated Disney version, to numerous additional takes in-between), already know who Tarzan is and what it was that made him that way. While flashbacks to the death of his parents and his being raised by a pod of apes are present, by and large the writers allows the viewer to fill in the blanks all on their own, thus making sure the bulk of the tale's running time is spent on the central story at hand and precious little else.

While technical aspects are strong, especially as they pertain to the motion capture effects utilized to bring the African beasts running through the jungle to life, sadly this is the end of the good news. Even though Yates is able to stage some solid chase sequences, while Henry Braham's (Nanny McPhee) cinematography is lush and electrifyingly alive, none of this is enough to compensate for just how unremarkable this adventure proves to be. Anemically by-the-numbers, blandly plotted to the point excitement becomes nothing less than an endangered species, watching this movie is a shockingly dull way to spend a couple of hours, and I have trouble believing even if I'd seen it as a child I still would have cared whether or not this Lord of the Apes would save his lady-love while also making sure his beloved Africa was not destroyed by unscrupulous European invaders.

British Lord John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård), known the world over as Tarzan, is invited by Belgian King Leopold II to revisit his former home in the African Congo, ostensibly to see all of the good his regime is claiming to be doing there. But American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) believes otherwise, convincing Clayton it is worthwhile to return to the place of his birth and see what is happening to the indigenous peoples residing there for himself.

So with wife Jane (Margot Robbie) joining them, the two men set out on this adventure. But things are far from what they've been told, the dastardly mercenary Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) fooling Clayton with an offer from King Leopold in order to fulfill a bargain with warlord Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). His people rule a secluded land sitting on top of a gigantic diamond mine, and in order for him to grant the Belgians access to it he wants Tarzan's head on a spike. Rom intends to give it to him, and in doing so unleash a terrible genocidal plague across the African continent the likes of which the world has never seen before.

That all actually has the makings for a pretty solid adventure, and one I'd like to think Yates is more than capable of bringing to life. But the movie never finds its dramatic feet, lurching around uncomfortably as it desperately tries to romanticize its Caucasian hero without belittling or marginalizing the Africans, whose continent it obviously is, in the process. Yet this line proves to be impossible for the filmmaker or his screenwriters to be able to walk upon, and even by adding Jackson to the mix as an American haunted by his days hunting Native Americans in the western frontier, the story's inherent 'White Savior' problem still bites them all in the butt all the same.

Even so, that's not the most obnoxious or glaring issue. The simple truth here is, The Legend of Tarzan just isn't any fun. It's all just so mundane and pedestrian, maintaining interest for anything longer than a couple of minutes proves to be an almost insurmountable chore. If I'd have been at home watching this play out on television it is likely I'd have either turned the channel or fallen asleep, the latter the more likely outcome. The story wanders around with little to no urgency, and even after Rom gets his hands on Jane in order to trick Tarzan into saving her, I honestly could have cared less if the two jungle love birds ever got back intertwined within one another's loving arms.

Skarsgård looks terrific, his abs doing almost all of his talking for him, and Jackson is in fine, if familiar, form as his new compatriot tromping through the jungle right alongside him. Robbie is maybe the best of the central trio, adding a spunky, energetic element to the proceedings that's absent whenever she isn't around. Problem is, even though her character proclaims herself to be anything but a damsel in distress that is exactly what Jane turns out to be, Tarzan's beloved pretty nothing more than fetching eye-candy he has to go to ever-greater extremes in order to save.

It does not help that Waltz, for all his talent and charm, phones in his villain, and other than a couple of novel turns of phrase that almost feel as if they were lifted from Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds, the majority of the time he looks incredibly bored. Which is more than can be said for Hounsou, the two-time Academy Award-nominee once again stranded with a one-dimensional heavy that's as stereotypical as it is a waste of talent. The actor deserves better, no question, and the fact Hollywood seemingly refuses to make good use of him is a travesty of monumental proportions.

There is a pretty good fight scene between Tarzan and one of his simian family members; and a flashback showcasing what happened to his mother while he was still a young man learning the ways of the jungle is overflowing in the kind of emotional maturity and intimate complexities the rest of the picture is sadly lacking in. But the final battle itself is a shocking letdown, a sound and fury onslaught that represents nothing long-lasting or substantive. The Legend of Tarzan isn't so much bad as it is forgettable, Burroughs' iconic character left dangling from a vine of pointless indifference the likes of which he's never had the misfortune to grapple with until now.


Dispiriting Secret Life of Pets an animated dog
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SECRET LIFE OF PETS
Now playing


The idea at the center of The Secret Life of Pets isn't a new one, but that doesn't make it any less terrific. The concept of what our beloved pets are doing in their time alone has been an animated staple the world over, animators ranging from Walt Disney to Tex Avery to Chuck Jones to Hayao Miyazaki, to so many others taking a look at it in one way or another during their historic careers. It's just one of those thought provoking questions anyone who has ever owned a dog, cat, rodent, bird or any other creature has wondered about at some point during their tenure as a pet parent, animation a perfect platform to explore thoughts and ideas relating to it.

As such, the opening introduction to this particular film is just about perfect. It's here we meet Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a terrier who lives with his perky owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) in a gigantic apartment building deep in the heart of New York City. Things are perfect, the adorable canine spending the hours she's away at work chatting with fellow pets living in the complex, including lazy, self-centered cat Chloe (Lake Bell) and perky white puffball Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) who can barely contain her romantic longings for her furry brown neighbor. But when Katie brings home gigantic mutt Duke (Eric Stonestreet) to live with them Max's world is shattered, and the only thing he can think about now is the best way to get rid of the beast so things can go back to normal.

It's all sounds very Toy Story, this opening not all that different in its way from how Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear make one another's acquaintance at the beginning of that 1995 Pixar classic. More to the point, this initial sequence of events is instantly endearing, piquing my interest while also capturing my heart. Writers Ken Daurio (Despicable Me 2), Brian Lynch (Minions) and Cinco Paul (The Lorax), director Chris Renaud (Despicable Me) and co-director Yarrow Cheney do a wonderful job setting things up, and for my part after the first ten minutes I was incredibly excited to discover where the lot of them were going to take things next.

I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up. The group, I imagine emboldened by the success of Minions, take things in increasingly outlandish and annoyingly violent directions, allowing the film to descend into madness and chaos seemingly because they all collectively believe that's what kids will find entertaining. What they appear to be going for is some sort of crazy, over the top reworking of ideas present in animated efforts as diverse as The Aristocats, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Oliver & Company and A Bug's Life. Problem is, there is no story cohesion, no semblance of structure holding one strand of the narrative together with the one strung alongside next to it. Worse, it all grows increasingly off-putting as things progress, the distasteful central twists and turns getting uglier and more noxious with each passing minute.

The central twist here involves Max and Duke getting lost in the wilds of the Big Apple, literary forced into the sewers as they come across a gigantic gaggle of displaced critters intent on showing their former human masters they're not as all-powerful as they think they are. Their leader is an angry bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart), and to call him one of the more annoying animated characters to grace the screen in quite some time is a giant understatement. Hart tries his best, his rat-a-tat-tat delivery not without its humorous charms. But Snowball is a vapid, insipidly composed character whose loathsome qualities are never tempered to the point they could ever be redeemed, tolerating him or his antics pretty much impossible.

Like Minions, and to a lesser extent the two Despicable Me adventures that first introduced the yellow pill-shaped nincompoops, the filmmakers turn The Secret Life of Pets into a series of vignettes, short little bursts of adrenaline that barely relate one to the other. It's a lot of crazy lunacy that includes massive depictions of rampant destruction, acts of ghoulish carnage and a lot of shrill moralizing that's moderately offensive. But the worst thing the filmmakers do is waste their premise, turning it into a random circus of chase and escape that barely relates to the ideas present in the opening act and promised right there in the title. The movie isn't good, the fact that it could have been, arguably should have been, is maybe the most dispiriting aspect of all this nonsense, and it's likely my disappointment makes me despise it even more than I potentially would have otherwise.


Victor Janusz and friends
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'Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs'
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The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society presents The Yeoman of the Guard
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Netrebko shines in VSO's Anna Bolena
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OUTBOUND: All Nippon Airways extends benefits to LGBT employees and customers
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ReAct Theatre presents Annie Baker's The Aliens
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Emmys 2016: TV's top award nominations will be revealed July 14
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Seattle Pride is an expression of our Constitutional rights
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Phillip Phillips interviewing next week with Seattle Gay News
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Sincere Fits a stunning, emotionally forceful tour de force
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Imaginative Swiss Army Man a bawdy satire of self-actualization
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Third Purge a politically astute meat grinder
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Latest Tarzan dangles from a vine of pointless indifference
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