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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 17, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 07
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Toni Erdmann a humanistic comedy of heartbreak and forgiveness
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

TONI ERDMANN
Now playing


German music teacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) doesn't see a lot of his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). She's a corporate strategist assisting in a major restructuring plan for a multinational company based in Bucharest, and as such it isn't like she's able to head home to see her eccentric father anytime she wants. But when a break in his teaching duties is coupled with the tragic natural death of his beloved dog, on a whim Winfried decides to head to Romania for an unannounced visit, surprising his daughter at her place of work.

Ines does her best to bear the burden of having her father around for a couple of days, withstanding his cracks about her workaholic lifestyle and his constant practical joking as best she can. What she never could have predicted is that, after his visit had apparently come to an end, Winfried would return in disguise, pretending to be her firm's CEO's idiosyncratic life coach 'Toni Erdmann.' Ines doesn't know what to make of this, especially after she realizes this isn't some brief gag but a long-term ploy her dad intends to maintain until she learns some mysterious life lesson; what that is supposed to be she hasn't the first clue.

Writer/director Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann is considered by many to be the frontrunner to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. After its debut at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival it was immediately hailed as an instant classic, even landing on Sight & Sound magazine's list of the 100 best motion pictures of the 21st century even though it still hadn't even seen a theatrical release in its home country of Germany at the time of publication. By all accounts, this is one of the most critically acclaimed cinematic achievements in recent memory, and as such my excitement to give it a look was understandably high.

All of which can't help me feel slightly disappointed in the fact that, while I enjoyed and admired Ade's latest endeavor a great deal, I was not nearly as bowled over by the 162-minute comedy-drama hybrid as much as many of my fellow critics appear to be. Do not misunderstand, this is a good movie, at times even a great one, I just don't think it's a masterpiece, at least not on the first watch, and while I'll be happy to reassess those feelings with a second viewing, as of right now I'm hard-pressed to understand what all the euphoric fuss has been about.

What I will say is that there isn't nearly enough praise being thrown in Hüller's direction, and pretty much everyone, everywhere is calling her performance a work of unadulterated brilliance. It's even better than that, the talented actress extraordinary, her fearless emotional dexterity as she traverses through Ade's complex dramatic minefield mind-blowing. Raw and unvarnished, subtle yet full of explosive, unexpected rejoinders, Hüller goes for broke, and much of what we learn about Ines and her relationship with Winfried has everything to do with how she wordlessly reacts, or chooses not to react, to any of his increasingly absurdist antics. This is a marvelous performance, and it is something of a pity the actress didn't receive Oscar recognition for her stunning virtuosity.

The movie, however, tends to move in fits and starts, Ade juggling a multitude of themes, concepts and ideas without always knowing exactly what she wants to do with them. While the core of the story is the relationship between father and daughter, that's only the tip of the iceberg as the filmmaker is also looking at current European dynamics revolving around everything from politics to currency to corporatization to cultural homogenization. It's a lot of stuff to try and absorb, and not all of its struck a chord with me, Winfried/Toni's comedic antics sometimes undercutting the points I found myself believing Ade was trying to make.

Nonetheless, this is a compelling film, one filled with intriguing insights. There's so much to comprehend and mull over I tend to think it's flat-out impossible to understand all of the various ins and outs in a single viewing. More, when it is funny, and as Toni Erdmann is billed as a comedy the laughs are intentional, it is exceedingly so, a couple sequences in particular so hysterical I almost couldn't believe what it was I was witnessing. Better, Ade has a fantastic ability to meld humor and melodrama in ways that are natural and intimate, a late act meltdown resulting in an extended showcase of naked frustration blossoming into a naturalistic embrace of forgiveness and understanding that had me choking back tears while I giggled uncontrollably.

All of which obviously makes Toni Erdmann a good movie; I'm just not ready to proclaim it a masterpiece. Not to say Ade's third feature isn't one, it might in time prove to be an all-time classic piece of cinema, I just don't think an initial glance is enough for me to state anything that leads in that particular direction. While much of this film is glorious there are also some lumpy segments that don't appear to go anyplace substantive, making the extreme length something of a minor problem. But when Ade's opus works it admittedly does so with a level of precision and genius that's mesmerizing, making this a modern comedy of heartbreak, forgiveness and family deserving of multiple looks.


Verbinski's Cure a chillingly unsettling treatment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

A CURE FOR WELLNESS
Now playing


Ambitious Wall Street stockbroker Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), on the verge of a major promotion, is given an unusual assignment by the executives currently in charge of his firm. It seems their CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), has lost touch with reality, sending a letter claiming he has no intention to return to his company and that he has decided to remain at an exclusive spa in the Swiss Alps for the foreseeable future. With a massive merger with another firm in danger of falling apart due to his absence, these executives task Lockhart with going to the spa and bringing back their CEO, and in no uncertain terms do they press upon him that failure isn't an option.

I won't say anything more as far as plot is concerned as it pertains to director Gore Verbinski's (Pirates of the Caribbean) ambitious, surreal and deeply unsettling metaphorical horror-thriller A Cure for Wellness. Rest assured, this spa, run by a secretive German named Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), is quite the unusual place, its residents not so much getting better as they are transforming into an emaciated zombie-like state they seem to have few if any issues about. It's a mystery inside a puzzle trapped within an enigma lurking in the center of a nightmare, Lockhart's chances of discovering what is going on, let alone escaping from this mountain fortress, dubious at best.

Working from a story he concocted with screenwriter Justin Haythe (The Lone Ranger, Revolutionary Road), it's safe to say Verbinski's reach far exceeds his grasp at times. This is a long, sometimes pretentious enterprise, one that calls to mind influences ranging from Stanley Kubrick, to Kaneto Shindô, to John Carpenter, to Tod Browning, to Val Lewton, to Rod Serling, to Roger Corman. At the same time, it's decidedly original, telling a horrifying tale of self-determination, ambition, malice, greed, kindness, regret and love that continually got under my skin. The film is beautifully terrifying, and while not every piece works nearly as well as some of those around it, I was so swept inside the intoxicatingly gruesome ambiance the director had created I could have cared less about any of the elements that didn't work while reveling in all of the ones that did.

Unsurprisingly, this is certainly a visually opulent affair. Exquisitely designed by four-time Oscar nominee Eve Stewart (The King's Speech, The Danish Girl), featuring astonishing art and set direction, the movie is a feast for the eyes, something to look at, revel in and dissect seemingly in every frame. Bojan Bazelli (Pete's Dragon) shoots things magnificently, he and Verbinski choosing to engage in a series of long, exaggerated takes where the camera becomes a window into the soul of the health spa, slowly but surely revealing it to be an unparalleled house of horrors. It's an unnerving approach, one that fits the material nicely, and even at almost two-and-a-half-hours in length not once did I look at a watch, grow bored by anything that was happening or wish to leave my seat.

Not that some sequences don't drag on a little too long or prove to be a little on the obnoxious side of the equation. There's a side plot concerning the inhabitants of the village below the spa that never quite works, one extended bit where Lockhart journeys into their midst to hopefully get a handful of answers obnoxiously underwhelming. It also never makes a great deal of sense as to why the staff at the spa aid and assist Dr. Volmer as they do, their mindless obedience more taken for granted than it is satisfactorily explained. Finally, while the climactic maelstrom of fire and fury is certainly exciting, it's also much too on-the-nose considering how ephemeral and inexplicably nondescript the majority of the story is, bringing things to a somewhat literal close that's not altogether satisfying.

Even so, A Cure for Wellness captured me within its disconcerting web. I found DeHaan to be a suitably complex and wounded hero, his selfishness and egotistical superiority giving way to new feelings of sacrifice, determination, resilience and even love with compelling specificity. I was also quite taken with veteran British actress Celia Imrie (Bridget Jones's Diary, Highlander), her performance as one of the spa's wealthy clients a fascinatingly cryptic marvel that grows in luminous intensity as her character's story arc draws to a disturbingly ghastly close.

Best of all, though, is relative newcomer Mia Goth. The young actress is dazzling, and while the less known about her character the better, rest assured she navigates through some unbelievably complex terrain with attention-grabbing aplomb. Equal parts naive and knowing, fragile and resilient, Goth gives the movie notable texture, continually pushing Lockhart to discover the truth even if his doing so might lead to unimaginable tragedy. She's glorious, the luminosity the actress displays striking in its mesmerizing virtuosity.

Verbinski has always been a stylistic filmmaker, one who can justifiably be taken to task for not caring a lot about the substance just as long as it all looks amazing and crafts a disquietingly chilling spell. But when he manages to combine his more florid visual tendencies with a solid script, like with his remake of The Ring, the Oscar-winning animated feature Rango and the criminally underrated dark satirical comedy The Weather Man, the director typically creates features that are impossible to resist. While I need to dive into these particularly nerve-racking waters again for another swim, I find myself believing A Cure for Wellness deserves to be amongst Verbinski's best, and the more I dissect its various layers the more confident in that determination I find that I become.


AKRON: An interview with screenwriter and director Brian O'Donnell

One of the most inventive Gay coming-of-age films ever is finally out on DVD and VOD!
by MK Scott - SGN Contributing Writer

At the 2015 Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival I was thrilled to see a new coming of age film about two Gay college students who are conflicted by a family secret. (This was in my Top 5 of the best films at the 2015 SLGFF.)

What I found was an inventive tale of two Gay lovers with no coming out issues, no health issues or small community conflicts, it is a simple story of two families that dealt with a family tragedy and how it will affect the family now that old wounds resurface.

The film synopsis from the AKRON website reads:
Benny and Christopher, college freshmen, meet playing football and begin a relationship. They fall in love supported by their family and friends. As their love for each other grows, a past tragic event involving their mothers comes to light. This revelation tests their own love and Benny's close-knit family.

Throughout this reflective love story, with the beauty of rural Ohio as its backdrop, Benny travels an emotional journey that examines both his own feelings and his family's ability to come to terms with the past. AKRON is a sensitive and unique independent film that puts a progressive, Midwestern spin on a classic family drama.

So I was doubly thrilled to have a chance to speak with writer/director, Brian O'Donnell by phone.



MK Scott: Brian, I am thrilled that your film, AKRON is finally on DVD and video on demand. This was one of the best films that I saw at the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival back in 2015. That - in fact it, one audience member commented at the post-screening, who noticed it was the first post coming out, post queer film, post acceptance and pro love genre, which was fabulous, very inventive and very unique.

Brian O'Donnell: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.

MK: Based in the Midwest, you have full acceptance, but other conflict, so it was very refreshing to see. How did you get the idea for the story?

Brian: I started writing at NYU years ago and I worked in the theatre for years and then I stopped writing altogether - I'm also a painter - but always with the intention of writing something again at some point. So I went to the opera one night, with a friend of mine who brought me to see Il Travatore at the Metropolitan here in New York and I was really inspired by the really classic structure - thematic structure - two houses against each other because of fate - because of something that happened. So all of the characters are good people, but they're all struggling with an incident in their lives.

And there's a very strong love relationship between the lead characters and a very strong relationship between the mother and child in the opera. And as I was watching it, I thought, this is what I would like to write. I'd like to write a Gay version of this. Obviously, not the same story, but the same concept, the same - I've been trying to figure out how to write about Gay love. And - and will write about Gay love in the - from a different perspective, so that we can be past, as you said, we can be past the coming out scenes, we can be past the struggle of just because a character is Gay doesn't mean they necessarily have to be dealing with shame or dealing with homophobia. I was very much inspired by young people that I'm meeting these days who are coming out and living in their truth at a much earlier age and many of them are being accepted by their friends and their families and many of them are having boyfriends and breaking up, having new boyfriends and living a life that was very different than the life that I was growing up with and very different than what I'd seen in movies. I think - it was really exciting to write scenes between two guys talking to each other where they're both out, they're both happy and healthy and they can be talking about things that interest them that have nothing to do with their Gay identity other than the fact that they are Gay men who have these interests.

MK: Wonderful, 'cause one thing I found to be extremely unique was the fact that it's like I have seen so many films that have to do with coming out, have to do with family acceptance and so forth - so I'm glad we were able to move beyond that and not even have a story reflected on that. It was actually the fact that, okay, we've already done the coming out process, you know, off camera, and the family acceptance off camera, so let's get on to the next chapter of the story.

Brian: I'm glad you responded to that and that's what a lot of people are responding to and honestly that's what the actors responded to and in the movie we have a Mexican American father in the Midwest. And he (Joseph Melendez) said that he read it and he realized he'd never seen this role before - this role never existed before for a Latino father to be accepting and loving of their Gay son and he was excited to do it for that reason. So it really was - the concept was to re-frame things and to talk about where we are now, where we should be now, where we can be now and to draw the line a little bit further ahead so that we don't have to create characters that are based on the same things that we've been seeing in the past. I think people are still coming out, people are still struggling, obviously there's incredible homophobia out there, and so I encourage people to make the stories that you want to make, and, in fact, if it's a coming out story, make it, but I would also encourage people to try and take a different perspective so that it's not a clichéd story, because we have seen so many of those.

MK: And I had noticed that you actually are from Akron, Ohio, yourself.

Brian: Yes, I am.

MK: Was any of the film autobiographical?

Brian: It wasn't. No, I mean, as - it was a very exciting thing for me to set in Ohio so as I was writing I could put them in locations that I knew already - and when we went there, we pretty much got to shoot in all those locations that I imagined, so that was - that was fun. But it's not based on any of my personal story or any story of individuals that I know personally. It's really a work of fiction.

MK: Now, where did you come up with the idea about the tragic family incident between the mothers?

Brian: That was really the very first scene that I thought of, what the film was built on. I think it was important to have an underlying theme that anybody could relate to. So whether you're straight, whether you're Gay, whether you're young, whether you're old, I wanted to concentrate on things that would resonate to people because of experiences in their own life. So starting off with the scene that we do, and understanding that there is grief that's been experienced by characters in the film, and then you see how that affects different members of the family in different ways. It was really a central component of the script as I was writing it. Just as first love was, just as the moment in a young person's life when they let go of their mother's hand as the primary source of love and hold onto their first boyfriend's hand and what that means to a parent and what that means to a son at a moment when the son is a young man. Right? So these were things that anybody can relate to. And so it was fun to focus on those things.

MK: And where did you find that beautiful cast of Benny and Christopher?

Brian: Well, we hired a casting agent there in New York, who works in theatre and in film. I think we saw over fifty guys for each of those roles and really talented Broadway actors and theatre actors and - Matthew Frias, who played Benny, sent us a tape in from the West Coast, and as soon as we saw it, immediately knew he was Benny. He was flawless in his audition tape. Edmund Donovan, who plays Christopher, came in and did an audition in front of us in New York and it was again the same thing - it was just - you could tell that they understood the roles, that they had worked on the nuances of the scenes; of course, it doesn't hurt that they're good looking. They looked like movie stars. But it was the connection that they had to the material and the understanding of not just their roles, but the whole, the script as a whole. They did not meet until the day before the shoot. We gave them Skype times so they met virtually and introduced themselves to each other and worked on the script with each other, but we were thrilled that they brought not only the professionalism that we saw in the auditions, but the chemistry that is really palpable when you watch the film, That's all them, they're just really terrific young actors.

MK: 'Cause they had actually had such great chemistry. All the way throughout - in fact, meeting and getting together was just so instantaneous, the chemistry was fabulous. And so the only - basically, the only conflict that they had was the fact that their mothers hated each other.

Brian: Exactly! It's clear that they're not the same person, that they have slightly different goals in life and as young people, you're blind to that, so yeah then - the main force of conflict certainly comes from the incident that occurred between their mothers and the fact that their loyalty is tested. Whose side do they choose at that age? That stage? And how the love for both your mother and your boyfriend - and you're put in that situation. It's really an impossible choice to make.

MK: And it also had a Romeo and Juliet kind of thing while - and, of course, in this case, a Roman and Julian kind of thing - scenario.

Brian: Yes, I was really inspired by traditional dramatic structures, but really injecting a very progressive theme on top of those.

MK: Now, any chance that you might be revisiting the story again? Like with a sequel or any kind of related story?

Brian: That's a good question, and it was funny. As soon as we were done shooting it, the crew was mostly young, mostly straight kids, actually from Ohio, kept saying so when are we doing the sequel when they get married? And I said, well, do we know if they get married? Do we know if they stay together? I don't even know. I don't really know personally what happens after the last page of the script. I think that's one of the strong things about the very ending is that the audience is - is left not knowing exactly what's going to happen to them and is possibly curious. I'm writing another script that is a completely different story, but it would be a good - it could be a fun idea a few years down the road to revisit it. God knows I'd love to work with all the actors again.

MK: Alright, and so tell me a little bit about the next film that you'll be doing?

Brian: Okay, well, it's very early stages right now. I'm working on the script um - so - I'm still in a really fun discovery stage right now. But if all goes well the script would be shot mostly in India - in Mumbai. It's based on my experiences - I've been several times; I have very dear friends who live in Mumbai. And I've met some really extraordinary people and have been exposed to the Gay world there that's - that I have never seen depicted on film - that I think might surprise and really touch people when they - when they see these characters. So I'm still a bit - I'm still at the stage right now that I'm excited about the story. I'm excited about the characters. So I'm hoping to finish the script and start working to collaborate with producers there. AKRON was shown in Mumbai at the film festival, which is the LGBT film festival in Mumbai. It was mind-blowing! It was in this old art-deco theatre downtown. And they sold out every screening - five hundred young Gay men were in the audience to watch my movie and they cheered during scenes, they applauded after certain lines. I mean a lot of the film festivals that I've been to - LGBT, the crowds tend just to be an older crowd - that they're not necessarily sure how to crack that nut of getting younger people there. But in Mumbai it was almost exclusively young people, so just very exciting energy over there and I'd like to tap into that with my next project.

MK: And, also, I read that you are the executive director of the Calamus Foundation. Tell us a little bit about that.

Brian: Yeah, sure. Calamus Foundation is a small, private grant making organization that was created by a man named Shelly Kaplan who was an architect here in the city who passed away about seven, eight years ago now and left in his will a certain amount of his fortune to create a foundation - a trust to create a foundation to make grants to LGBT - and it's part of the AIDS organization - mostly here in New York, but across the state as well, so I work with a really fantastic board there to give some large grants that make a difference, often matching grants to organizations which works with LGBT elders, the LGBT Center and the largest funder to set up a twenty-four hour drop-in center for kids who need a place just to get off the street. It's a terrific day job, for sure. And I also am the national grant manager at Broadway Cares, which I do now on a part-time basis, but I've been affiliated with them for 18 years now. So I've been in the fight to support with HIV and AIDS and LGBT rights and support groups for quite a long time now.

MK: Okay, and I've got one last question - this is my burning question. In your own coming out process, what was your biggest conflict or your biggest hurdle?

Brian: My biggest hurdle in coming out - it took me awhile. I'm 46 now. I was born in 1970; I lived and grew up in Ohio. When I moved to New York, I lived in the Village and went to NYU. I was certainly meeting Gay people. But this was also at the time when there was no medication for HIV and AIDS and I was in a position of how does one come out and be Gay - if one can't have sex, because you'll have to have sex. Obviously, I was well aware of condom use and safe sex, but it made it - it - it was a very - it was a very scary time for anybody, but it was a very scary time for Gay men. And, it was hard to create - to open myself up to my Gay identity without having it be immediately attached to incredible fear and, as well, I was born and raised Catholic. I was not in fear of eternal damnation, but I did think about my parents - I was worried about their reaction and them - if you add to that, you come out as Gay and then they think you're going to die of AIDS. You know, it's just so strongly linked back then that I think it really was a - it was a difficult time for me to come out. So kids are coming out in their teens now - as early as like ten, but then we didn't have the Internet. We didn't have access to a lot of information. It was just getting enough bravery, getting enough courage to navigate through the reality back then, because obviously there was a - a strong desire there, there was a strong - there was a strong desire to meet a man who I could fall in love with, but I wasn't sure how that would happen. How it could possibly play itself out. So little by little, I was able to, you know, figure it out and - the first time that I fell in love with a guy, then it was over. Oh I get it, now. This is actually quite simple. But I had a lot of fear and a lot of things that obstructed me to get to that point.

That's what I wanted to show in the movie - I wanted the characters to be for the audience to recognize that these characters are Gay because they fall in love with each other and the love that they have and the chemistry is not deniable that - being Gay certainly does include having sex with men, but certainly does include being attracted to men. But to me I wanted to portray it as being Gay means you have the drive, the ability, the need to fall in love with another man. And have it be about love.

MK: And, I think, that's one of the reasons why the film is just so unique, and it is a complete original. And that's why I think people should see it, because it is completely different than any other Gay film out there. You know, it's like someone said in the audience, it was like this is: you basically have invented a completely new genre.

Brian: Well, I'm thrilled that that's the response. I'm really glad that people are connecting to it, for sure. It was a movie that I wanted to see, that I hadn't seen, so I thought I guess I better make it.

AKRON is now available from Wolfe Video, Amazon and across all digital platforms including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, and WolfeOnDemand.com

MK Scott is a Seattle-based arts blogger. Check out his blog at outviewonline.com.


Don't Knock Twice a ghostly disappointment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

DON'T KNOCK TWICE
Now playing


After nine years of battling addiction and other personal demons, American-born sculptor Jess (Katee Sackhoff) has returned to London clean, sober and filled with the hope of reentering the life of her now teenage daughter Chloe (Lucy Boynton). While the youngster is understandably wary about reconnecting with her mother, disturbing current events make reconciliation not so much desirable but a necessity.

Chloe believes a supernatural force is stalking her, looking to do her harm because she partook in some silly midnight dare. While Jess is initially incredulous that things are exactly as they've been described, her disbelief doesn't make her desire to do right by her child any less substantial. Together, they will battle an evil force that defies rational understanding, crossing planes of existence that will test them both like nothing ever has before.

Don't Knock Twice is a handsomely mounted supernatural thriller with its fair share of enjoyable thrills and chills. It is also a little too routine as far as its core components are concerned, many of its primary tricks and twists telegraphed long before they happen. Director Caradog W. James (The Machine) plays around with Howl screenwriters Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler's latest concoction as best he can, and his emphasis on Jess' internal emotional struggle is laudable, but overall the movie is undone by its tired over-familiarity, everything building to a pointless last-second reveal that's as unfortunate as it is tedious.

What's funny is that, even with major issues affecting the horror portions, there's still a lot about this movie that I really like, most notably the relationship between Jess and Chloe. The fact that Huckerby and Ostler don't pander to the audience, don't spell everything out, that's a good thing. Even better, James asks his two actresses to play things fairly close to the chest, both doing a good job of not revealing more about their respective pasts than is necessary. As a family drama about an estranged mother and daughter attempting to reconnect under impossibly tragic circumstances, much of this works quite well, and I admittedly began to wonder what the story might have been like had the filmmakers went the full Tennessee Williams route and omitted all of the supernatural demonic nonsense.

That's honestly where this thriller comes up regrettably short. The mythology surrounding the primary evil, ostensibly the demonic spirit of a woman killed for being a witch (even though no proof existed she was one) who now haunts and kills anyone silly enough to knock twice on the door to her former home, is lazy and unconvincing. The script combines elements of various Japanese thrillers (like Ju-On), Dario Argento's best works (like Suspiria) and American creep-fests like Candyman but unfortunately doesn't do anything interesting with this material. Instead, it is haphazardly presented and emotionally undercooked, and even when things descend into full dimension-hoping chaos I can't say my pulse ever rose to any measurable degree.

It all looks terrific, however, and much like he showcased with the criminally underrated (and barely seen) sci-fi drama The Machine, James' visual chops are impressively superior. Richard Campling's (Age of Heroes) production design and Alex Woodward's art direction are standout attributes that help the film craft a suitably eerie ambiance. Cinematographer Adam Frisch navigates things with classy, confident grace, the images he creates casting a suitably ominous spell. All of that is coupled with a terrific performance from Sackhoff, the actress crafting a strong, intelligent heroine who utilizes her insecurities and personal setbacks as fuel to keep her engine revving in order to see her daughter doesn't become food for an undead adversary eager to feast on her soul.

All of which makes Don't Knock Twice a frustrating mixed bag. The two key performances are good, and the actual human drama between the main characters proves to be a compelling foundation worth building upon. But the actual horror and thriller aspects just don't gel together with any of the other elements, making James' latest genre effort a movie I respect multiple elements of even if I can't say I enjoyed nearly as much of it as I can't help but wish I did.


Opulent Great Wall a muddled monster mess
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE GREAT WALL
Now playing


The East meets West giant-monsters-attacking-ancient-China fantasy adventure The Great Wall is both a heck of a lot better than anticipated and far worse than anyone could have possibly imagined. Directed by legendary auteur Zhang Yimou, uncontestably one of the world's greatest living filmmakers, the man's list of classics including cinematic essentials like Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Ju Dou and To Live, the movie is a visual feast. Featuring stunning costumes designed by Mayes C. Rubeo (John Carter), incredible production design courtesy of Oscar-winner John Myhre (Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago) and eye-popping art and set direction, oftentimes there's so much going on in the frame it's almost impossible to take it all in.

Then there are the Chinese members of the cast, a selection of all-star talents both veteran and newcomer who give the material a level of grit and gravitas it would never have obtained without their participation. The gorgeous Jing Tian is Lin Mae, a fearless warrior who defies gravity as she leads her troops into battle. Zhang Hanyu is the weary and wise General Shao, commander of a vast legion known as the Nameless Order tasked with protecting all of China from a strange, carnivorous adversary. Rounding things out is the great Andy Lau as military adviser Strategist Wang, a man determined to uncover the secrets of the creatures at the foot of The Great Wall in order to make sure victory remains possible no matter how elusive it might initially appear.

Sadly, as glorious as all of those elements might be, none of it matters nearly as much as it potentially could have had this been a strictly Chinese production without Hollywood input. Considering that the story was conceived by Max Brooks (World War Z) and The Last Samurai collaborators Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz while the screenplay was written by Carlo Bernard (The Sorcerer's Apprentice), Doug Miro (The Uninvited) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), it goes without saying this was never going to be the case. There is a serious disconnect between material and the filmmakers, nothing ever connecting in a way that could be construed as even moderately satisfying. Worse, in the end the whole thing becomes nothing more than a stereotypical White Savior monstrosity, Matt Damon's ace bowman and mercenary William Garin showing up at just the right minute to lead the Chinese to victory.

For so many writers, the story itself is pretty rudimentary, almost as if the six of them took turns writing lines on the front and back of a restaurant napkin while downing vast quantities of sake. Battle-scarred warrior William and his trusted compatriot Tovar (Pedro Pascal) have arrived in China hoping to trade for a magical substance known only as 'Black Powder.' Coming to the base of The Great Wall, they are captured by the Nameless Order who are under the command of the revered General Shao. But before any decision can be made as to the pair's destiny, Shao's legions are under assault from a vicious, carnivorous horde of ancient creatures known as the Tao Tei. Forced to take up arms in order to survive, William and Tovar prove themselves to be powerful fighters, the two suddenly faced with the choice as to whether they should stay and assist the Nameless Order in their travails or steal away in the night with stolen supplies of Black Powder hidden in their saddle bags.

The initial attack by the Tao Tei is extraordinary, showcasing Yimou at the height of his powers. Soldiers balletically fling themselves off of the Wall descending into a horde of lizard-like carnivores only to spring back to the top in order to rearm themselves. Massive fireballs are launched via mechanical catapults, while various groups of well-armed soldiers attempt to take the creatures out by hand when a handful of them breach the defenses. It's all staged about as spectacularly as one could hope for, and while nothing rises to the level of the bamboo forest fight sequence in House of Flying Daggers or the graceful lakeside duel to the death in Hero, the director deftly conjures up images and moments that recall both films all the same.

But it's all so stupid. Worse, it barely makes any sense, and there are times where it felt like huge portions of the narrative had been excised from the finished film for no easily discernible reason. A key supporting player portrayed by Willem Dafoe, a man who has been waiting a quarter of a century to make his escape from China, is nothing short of a complete idiot, his supposedly fool-proof plan a reckless boondoggle that's categorically insane. An entire subplot revolves around magnets and the effect they have on the Tao Tei, but how and why it works is never convincingly explained. More than that, there is mention made that this strategy to fight the beasts has been utilized before but for some reason was kept secret from the Nameless Order for 900 years, the only reason it's been revealed to the soldiers now having to do with the young Chinese Emperor (Junkai Wang) wanting one of the creatures as some sort of living prize or pet.

Then there are the Damon elements. It isn't that William's insertion into the story isn't plausible, it is. It's just that the cadre of story and screenwriters allow him to show up and save the day even though his character knows practically nothing of the enemy the Chinese are fighting or the strategies they've devised over the centuries to stop them. While I'm not saying the character could not emerge out of this carnage a hero, that's perfectly fine; but to make him the primary reason success or failure comes to pass is a tired, culturally insensitive cliché that's close to inexcusable, the film's climax off-putting and insufferable in large part because of this.

It's hard to understand what it was that attracted Yimou to this project, the revered director certainly never showing an interest to work inside the Hollywood studio system before now. While he certainly doesn't brush the film off or not give it his full attention, that doesn't make the risible aspects or the blatantly stupid portions any less unacceptable. There are facets of The Great Wall to be adored, maybe even reveled in, there are just not enough of them to make sitting through all the turgidly offensive and grotesquely asinine bits worthwhile. The movie is a muddled monster mash that's as disappointing as it is insignificant, and I imagine as far as Yimou is concerned he'll think twice before accepting another paycheck from Hollywood anytime soon.


Twenty years of RENT:

An interview with Skyler Volpe

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Seattle Asian American Film Festival presents 5th annual festival February 23-26

LGBTQ in Focus (Shorts Program) on Saturday, February 25

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Thalia's Umbrella presents When Love Speaks - a celebration of love poetry
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2017 Grammys: Seattle Symphony wins its third Grammy; Bowie and Adele earn multiple awards
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Annex Theatre presents Scary Mary and the Nightmares Nine
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Letters
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Metallica, Sturgill Simpson announce upcoming Seattle concerts
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Toni Erdmann a humanistic comedy of heartbreak and forgiveness
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Verbinski's Cure a chillingly unsettling treatment
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AKRON: An interview with screenwriter and director Brian O'Donnell

One of the most inventive Gay coming-of-age films ever is finally out on DVD and VOD!

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Don't Knock Twice a ghostly disappointment
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