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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 16, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 07
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Darkness falls as Noir City returns to SIFF
TCM host Eddie Muller on his festival lineup of Classy A's and Trashy B's

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

NOIR CITY FILM FESTIVAL
SIFF CINEMA EGYPTIAN THEATRE
February 16-22


For fans of classic films, the return of the Noir City Film Festival to the SIFF Egyptian is cause for celebration. Best-selling author, Film Noir Foundation founder and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) 'Noir Alley' host Eddie Muller returns once again to showcase seven days of dark, twisted favorites he likes to call, 'One week of classy A's and trashy B's.' An intoxicating mixture that ranges from signature classics like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, two films that made a superstar out of Humphrey Bogart, to lesser known discoveries like 1942's Quiet Please, Murder with George Sanders and 1950's The Man Who Cheated Himself with recognizable character actor Lee J. Cobb in one of his few starring roles, each night offers a familiar favorite paired with a lesser known discovery, the idea being audiences will treat them as a double-feature and stay for both.

I had the great pleasure to chatting with Muller over the phone about the Noir City festival, his upcoming trip to Seattle, working for TCM, film restoration and a number of other items covering both classic and modern film. Here are some of the highlights from our sprawling, hour-long conversation:

Sara Michelle Fetters: Looking at the lineup this year, A) it's outstanding, but B) it's also an interesting mix of familiar favorites and then a lot of really provocative, so-called 'B's' in here, too. How did you come up with this lineup?

Eddie Muller: You can call them 'B's,' because they truly are. But there were a few things involved with programming this year's festival. Number one, I really wanted to reclaim the term 'B-movie' for actual B-movies, because I think a lot of people misuse the term these days. They think it's a pejorative, like, 'Oh, that's just a B-movie,' like it's cheesy or something. In a lot of people's minds, that's what defines a B-movie. It's somehow discussing the quality of the film, or what type of film it is.

In reality, a B-movie from this era was nothing but a movie made to play on the bottom half of the double-bill. That was one of the reasons. I was tired of people saying stuff like this. It's amazing! Last night I was standing in the lobby of the theater and somebody who was kind of new to the whole thing walks up to me and says, 'Should I just ask you what is your definition of Film Noir?' and this woman walking by says, 'They're B-movies!' It's like, no! Don't listen to her! That's just not true, and I don't know where people get this weird idea about what a B-movie is. Every studio either had a B-unit or they were a studio that existed for the express purpose of making B-movies.

When you went to the theatre there was the A picture and a B picture, and invariably people went to the movies to see the A picture. That was the one that was getting the publicity. That was the one that was getting the reviews. But as a bonus, it was like, here's the B picture, too. That's how generous all of this used to be, right? Also, because the movies were a lot shorter back then, you could have two movies, because the A picture might be 90 minutes long, and the B picture would be 65 minutes long or 70 minutes long, or something similar to that.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I look at the first two nights of the festival. There's John Huston's The Maltese Falcon. There's Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. But then there are the films they are paired with. I'd never even heard of Quiet Please, Murder, but once I read the synopsis and saw that it starred George Sanders I knew it was one I had to put right at the top of my list. As for William Cameron Menzies's 1944 WWII Noir Address Unknown, I had heard of that one, but I never imagined I'd get the opportunity to see it in a theatre paired with a Hitchcock classic.

Eddie Muller: And they both went over like gangbusters at the festival, here in San Francisco! They're crowd pleasers. I just think that, when you present these films in the proper context, and you're telling people here's what a B-film was, it just makes such a difference. These films were shorter. They had smaller budgets. They were a proving ground for a lot of directors. These movies were a lifeline for a lot of actors who, maybe, not always, were on the way down. These films forced people to be more creative and resourceful. They were working with less.

Those two movies, they don't have to apologize for anything. They're really well written and beautifully directed, beautifully photographed, and it's amazing what they could do in Hollywood during this time period.

But the other idea with this festival was that I really wanted to show the films in chronological order. I just felt that it was really important for people to see how Film Noir developed and why I think The Maltese Falcon is the first real example of it. But I also want to show people that this style touched on other types of film. Address Unknown is not really a Film Noir, and neither are Flesh and Fantasy and Destiny. But they look sort of like Film Noir, especially Flesh and Fantasy, but the film itself is still a slightly different thing, more like an early 'Twilight Zone.'

Sara Michelle Fetters: What is it like putting a festival like this together with the folks over at SIFF? How does Noir City differ from say the version your putting on in San Francisco right now?

Eddie Muller: Well, in San Francisco these are presented as double-features, so there's only one ticket price for each set of films. With SIFF running the theatre and being a non-profit, it's understandable they'd still want to sell individual tickets for each film, but I've still programmed things in the double-feature format.

SIFF did want to focus on some big titles. The Big Sleep. Mildred Pierce. Films like that. SIFF had kind of requested those, and that's fine by me. Here's the chance to see The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Mildred Pierce on a big screen, which is nice. We worked to place them into the proper flow of the program; but, like you pointed out, I'm really excited about showing the B-movies that are very rare; showing audiences just how different B-movies could be. Jealousy is a print from the British Film Institute that is a very arty, European-style take on a B about a woman who is kind of framed for murdering her husband. Her already suicidal husband. Then stuff like Blind Spot, Bodyguard and The Threat, these are all classic B-movies, in some cases, made by people that you'd never heard of again. Blind Spot is directly by this guy named Robert Gordon. Nobody knows anything about him. But Bodyguard is directed by Richard Fleischer, it's an early film of his, and he'd go on to be one of the biggest A-list directors in Hollywood.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Does it surprise you at all by how successful this festival has been on an annual basis? That people have really embraced the whole idea of Noir City and are so excited to see these films?

Eddie Muller: I'm not going to say I'm surprised. I am going to say I'm grateful. I think it fulfills something that maybe people didn't even know they wanted, or needed, but as the festival has gone on, it will be 20 years that I've been doing this film festival this Spring, the popularity has only increased. As the culture has veered further away from this kind of communal, movie-going experience, it's only gotten more popular. The culture, going one way, has created the opportunity for success for this festival because the people who come to it are people who love movies. They don't want to see the new thing just being rammed down their throat. They can think for themselves.

In some respects, it's a style thing. Obviously, there's a whole section of the culture, a younger section of the culture, that has embraced it, whether it's retro-style or the cocktail culture, any of that kind of vintage, these people really turn out for Noir City. I think it gives them a chance to meet like-minded people and explore these films as they were originally meant to be seen, communally in a darkened theatre. They can dress up, if they choose to. In San Francisco, it's amazing - it's like a party, a social event.

Seattle's a little tougher on that front. [laughs] Everybody wants their parkas and their flannel. You all come out for the movies, you love the films, but you don't dress up. I've come to the conclusion that Seattle doesn't dress up for anybody.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Well, we dress up for Star Wars and Star Trek, but that might be just about it.

Eddie Muller: Well, yeah. That's almost to be expected, right? But all joking aside, I do want to be clear, none of what I said doesn't mean Seattle isn't appreciating the festival. You do. A lot. It's just that Seattle doesn't dress up, which I think is interesting because it's also apparent just how seriously your city takes these movies. Seattle loves classic film. The passion is palpable.

I do think it helps that my being so visible as a host, providing context, it's helps to put a face and voice to the festival. I honestly don't know how significant it is, but I do think it is significant. I think if these were un-hosted events I don't know if Noir City would go over quite as well.

But it isn't like I'm taking people back to film school. It's just fun context to make the movies that much more interesting. I give you a backstory. If you're saying, 'I've never seen this guy before, who is he?' I'll tell you who he is. I think that really helps.

Sara Michelle Fetters: You talk about being visible. I think a major case could be made that you've never been more visible than you are right now, what with the success of 'Noir Alley' on TCM.

Eddie Muller: The response has been fantastic. It's meant so much to me. Obviously, if somebody comes along, gives you your own television show, even if it's nothing different than what you've been doing all along, that's still a validation. Having audiences embrace what we're doing? That's even more of one.

Of course, I can reach more people on 'Noir Alley' than I could ever reach doing book tours or hosting Noir City festivals in cities like Seattle. What I find most gratifying about the whole experience is that Turner Classic Movies has not tried to co-opt anything that I do. They haven't tried to change any of it. They saw what I did and said they wanted me to come do the same thing for them. But they have never tried to make me fit any other mold but my own. They've always been like, 'Just do what you do. That's fine.'

Sara Michelle Fetters: I actually interviewed the late TCM host Robert Osborne a couple of times, and I always got the feeling after speaking with him that that was exactly his point of view as it pertained to talking about and exploring, not just classic film, but all films. Period. It's nice to hear that this is how TCM is still choosing to do things.

Eddie Muller: That's exactly right. Robert always set the tone for the network. What I find very gratifying was that when they said they wanted me to do the show I immediately responded by saying I was going to write my own material. And they said that was fine. No pressure. No questions asked. I could never get in front of a camera and just speak somebody else's words about a movie. I can't do that.

When I wrote my first introductions, they were long, much longer than the standard TCM introduction. Their response? They said it was fine. They thought it was good. It separated Noir Alley from anything else on TCM. It was distinct. They felt that, if I was fine with it, then they were good with these introductions being a little longer and more intricate, too. That was pretty empowering.

It's just, that's my comfort zone. I only do a movie a week. Current TCM prime time host Mankiewicz does everything. Ben isn't going to do five-minute intros to every movie. It wouldn't make any sense. It would be logistically impossible for him to record that many, at that length. So I get this little perk of I can talk as much as I want, and it's comfortable for me to do that.

And they built me that set. [laughs] Everybody is very jealous of my set.

Sara Michelle Fetters: You've got the show; it's a success. You do Noir City every year; it's a big success. You're at the Film Noir Foundation, still helping run things and making all these decisions in regards to restorations and other matter related to these classic films. How do you balance everything?

Eddie Muller: It's sort of all integrated, but still distinct. Everything flows together. Even 'Noir Alley' is part of that now. The restoration we just did for the Film Noir Foundation of The Man Who Cheated Himself, which we will be showing in Seattle on February 22nd, that just started because I just knew the film had to be restored. The only print that we knew existed contracted Vinegar Syndrome. We were never going to be able to show that film again. But I was like, let's see if we could find some good material. Let's see if we can get this film in shape so it can be exhibited.

I knew that there was a negative out there, but the rights issues on this movie are very questionable. It was like nobody actually owned it. So you have to be very persuasive and talk with the people who possess the negative. You have to convince them to hand it over to you. You say, 'You're not going to be able to make money with this movie anyway because you don't own it. So give it up. Let us save it.'

That happened, and because that was what transpired it gave us the opportunity to restore the film. As soon as it is restored, of course, we now have a film to show at the Noir City festivals. Once that happens, I also work in partnership with a company, Flicker Alley, that produces DVDs and Blu-Rays, and so it's like, now we can put this movie out on DVD and Blu-ray. Then once we know we've got a digital transfer to make the Blu-ray, I talk to the head of programming at TCM and it's like, now we can show this on 'Noir Alley' because TCM has never had the opportunity to show this film before.

So there you go. Film Noir Foundation, Noir City, the Blu-ray/DVD market and then showing on TCM, the restoration of this film touches all of the things that I'm involved in. And that's how it should be. It works really well. Everybody has an interest in it and everybody contributes, which I think is fantastic. The Film Noir Foundation pays to have the film restored, but then the cost of doing a digital transfer and the cost of all of those other things gets kind of shared between all of these other partners who have an interest in the film once it has been restored. It works really well. It's a good system.

Sara Michelle Fetters: What's next for you? What do you still want to do that you haven't already?

Eddie Muller: That's a good question. I don't know. The answer is that I always want to be productive and I always want to do creative things. I think that's what I'm doing, even if I do wish I had more time to work on the novel I'm writing. I've also had a script that I intend to film and turn into a movie that I've been trying to get done for a year and a half now, and I can never find a long enough window of time to just concentrate on that.

Sara Michelle Fetters: For people who are uncertain about attending a festival like Noir City, what do you say to them?

Eddie Muller: I have absolutely no idea why someone would be pensive. I'll answer that question with an anecdote. A friend of mine, I wish I could find this post and send it to you, this fellow who came from just outside Washington, D.C., he came to the festival in San Francisco and he wrote this beautiful post. It wasn't even about the movies. It was about the experiences; going to the festival and watching these movies with all different types of people. He said that, one night, on the last Monday, we showed this Humphrey Bogart movie, Conflict.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Such a great movie.

Eddie Muller: It is. It's very, very good. But, anyway, he sat next to a guy who had never seen a Humphrey Bogart movie before and the guy admitted to him that he was just walking by the theater and I saw all of these really incredible looking people going into the theater. This is my crowd that dresses up, right? He just stood there and watched for ten minutes and realized that it was a mix of people just going to a movie. It wasn't a private party. Wasn't some high-priced thing. He saw all these other people going in wearing jeans and t-shirts and thought, 'I've got to see what this is.' He just went in cold. He didn't know what Film Noir was. He didn't know anything about it at all. But he said it was a revelation. He watched Conflict and it was like it was one of the greatest things he'd ever seen. The guy was 24-years-old. He had no idea what this was. But he didn't care. It was just a great experience. The movie captivated him and he said to this guy from Washington D.C., 'I'm coming back.'

That's it. That's all you could ask for, so that's my answer to that question.

Sara Michelle Fetters: You look at the Noir movement of the '40s and '50s, you look at the counter-culture movement of the '70s, these were huge moments in cinema history where the major Hollywood studios actually funded some pretty daring and dangerous films. Do you think that in today's environment that something like this is even possible? That even though there are filmmakers out there that want to try to tell some of those stories, especially with the current political and social climate being what it is, that anyone in Hollywood would be willing to take similar sort of risks?

Eddie Muller: That's a good question. I don't know. I think our culture is so fractured now that I don't think there's anything that would be a tidal wave like Film Noir was, or like those films you speak of from the 1970s were. It's just a thousand cuts now. Sequels and superheroes. Franchises. Back then, back when Billy Wilder could make Double Indemnity, this was a time when there was a major shift in Hollywood. You take hugely popular stars, stars like Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, and you make them murderers. You could get the audience to kind of empathize with them.

When it looks like they're not going to get away with the murder, you're secretly going, 'Come on, come on. They're going to pull this off, right?' That's pretty subversive for America in 1944. I don't know that you can do anything like that in a movie today. What's subversive today? I don't really know. People thought La La Land was subversive because it was a musical. I don't know.

Now, it's not that the form in any way is subversive; it's more like they're just trading parts. It's like they're saying, 'We're going to make this movie, but we're going to have a Black cast in it,' or 'We're going to switch and make the women the stars of this thing.' You know what I'm saying? And that is important. That is different. I'm not belittling any of that. But that's just reconfiguring the tried and true. I'm not sure there's anything truly subversive there.

The way Film Noir just looked different than anything else; do you think it's possible to have that happen now? I don't know. I guess, in some respects, that was like action movies. All of a sudden, when you got The Matrix, it just changed the way people photograph action. Now, I think that is a movement that is over and done. I do not need to see another slow motion bullet traveling through the air as long as I live. I don't need to see people go into an exaggerated leap and suddenly it's slow motion. But that movie did do something different. It changed things. There's no denying that.

I guess that's my answer to your question. I just think the culture is far too fragmented now for anything to appear to be a massive shift. The Hollywood studios don't take those sort of risks.

Noir City begins tonight at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian Theatre with 1941's The Maltese Falcon and 1942's Quiet Please, Murder. Some of the notable films scheduled to be screened during the festival are Mildred Pierce, 'Shadow of a Doubt,' 'The Big Sleep,' 'Kiss of Death' and a freshly restored print 1950's 'The Man Who Cheated Himself.' Tickets can be bought at the SIFF Egyptian box office or at https://www.siff.net/year-round-cinema/film-festivals/noir-city.


Coogler's imaginative Black Panther a heroically timeless spectacle
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

BLACK PANTHER
Now playing


Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, otherwise known as the MCU, became a thing, Marvel Studios got started with tidy, entertainingly self-contained adventures like Iron Man and, to a much lesser extent, The Incredible Hulk. But things began to change somewhat with the release of Iron Man 2 in 2010, the studio starting to rather obviously be planning something bigger, planting little tidbits of extra information that hinted towards the larger comic book universe everything was building towards. While 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor still worked in and of themselves, it was also clear both were engineered to be prequels to 2012's The Avengers, this massive superhero team-up the end all, be all for the MCU.

This has been an issue that's only grown in magnitude and obviousness as the MCU has expanded. While sequels like Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have overcome feeling like prequels to a different story audiences haven't seen yet, other entries into this super-powered universe, efforts like Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, have struggled to come across as anything other than vehicles conceived and designed to get all of these characters into one place at the right time for this May's massive Avengers: Infinity War, none of them working outside of the larger story being told and as such aren't very entertaining or worth watching more than once.

Not that Marvel hasn't made some very entertaining movies. Both Guardians of the Galaxy adventures are a heck of a lot of fun, as are Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming. But none of them feel as if they are willing to take much in the way of a risk, and while filmmakers like James Gunn and Taika Waititi seem to have had some freedom to make the interstellar exploits of the crew of The Milano and the Nordic wanderings of the God of Thunder their own, it was equally apparent Marvel wasn't going to allow them to stray too far afield in a way that would make getting to Avengers: Infinity War more difficult than it needed to be.

In my opinion this way of doing things has always hampered the films of the MCU to varying degrees, and while some of the entries have flirted with greatness, sadly none of them has ever been able to actually get there. These are nice movies, fun little throwaway larks featuring comic book favorites that are almost all initially enjoyable if also equally frustrating in that almost none are worth returning to for a second look. More, even though each follows a different set of characters with their own unique powers, they all still follow the same template, making being surprised by anything that ends up transpiring at any point during their respective narratives almost impossible.

All of which makes Ryan Coogler's turn behind the camera captaining one of these MCU installments even more impressive. After making a striking debut with 2013's based-on-fact, tragically devastating drama Fruitvale Station and following that up with the stunning, Oscar-nominated Rocky spin-off Creed in 2015, the young writer/director was seemingly given the keys to the kingdom by Marvel as it pertained to Black Panther, the studio apparently feeling comfortable to let him do whatever he wanted with this story of an African superhero from the secluded fictionalized nation of Wakanda. He makes a movie that's unlike anything else in the MCU, and while certain beats and story points follow a traditional pattern, the world Coogler has crafted as well as the people he has constructed to live within it are so uniquely three-dimensional I sat in mesmerized awe for every single second of the film's briskly paced 134-minute running time.



After the death of his father, Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the African nation of Wakanda to be crowned King. He is joined on the trip by his trusted protector Okoye (Danai Gurira) and his nation's most highly skilled spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), his grieving mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his inventive technological genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) eagerly awaiting his return back at the royal palace. Unbeknownst to the majority of the world, save for a trusted few, T'Challa is also the Wakandan protector known as the Black Panther, a vibranium-clad hero entrusted to keep his people safe from the prying eyes of outsiders.

On a secret mission to capture international arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), things go sideways for T'Challa, Okoye and Nakia when CIA analyst Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) unexpectedly shows up on the scene at just the wrong time. Things get even worse when the mysterious mercenary Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) becomes involved, his knowledge of Wakanda, its culture and its secrets catching everyone by surprise. Turns out, he also has a claim to the country's throne, and what he wants to do with it, if he is able to snatch it out from underneath T'Challa, will have a calamitous impact upon the clueless nations of the Earth.

The basic thrust of Coogler and Joe Robert Cole's screenplay revolves around a recognizable hero's journey Joseph Campbell would have been more than pleased with. T'Challa's quest will be one of success, failure and redemption that will open his eyes to a wider world, helping him understand where his people and his country need to go next in order to continue to thrive and prosper. It's pretty standard stuff, and none of what happens should shock anyone, and while Black Panther isn't an origin story, there are certainly elements of one planted throughout the motion picture like little hidden Easter eggs waiting to be discovered.

Thankfully, Coogler and Cole have gone out of their way to make something extraordinary out of these and a handful of additional familiar tropes inherent to the genre. They have made it a point to make these characters fiercely intelligent and more than capable of standing up for themselves no matter their age, gender or life experience. They make decisions that are both good and bad, learning in the process how to stay true to their core beliefs or, if they are unable to do so, pay a steep price for this moral failure. It is a movie that celebrates African culture in a manner comic book epics of this size and budget never have before, Coogler presenting a fully realized vision that is colorful, dynamic and impressively genuine.

Boseman is outstanding. Jordan crafts arguably the MCU's most intriguing, angrily heartfelt and tragically multifaceted villain, doing so with a fiery emotional verisimilitude that's astonishing. Serkis steals scenes left and right, his maniacal exuberance as Klaue downright infectious. As for Freeman, he's obviously having a befuddled blast as his CIA operative discovers there's much more to Wakanda than initially meets the eye, his ultimate emergence as a hero as well justifiably worthy of a tiny little cheer of its own. Veteran Forest Whitaker (whose character I won't go into any detail about whatsoever) and perennial bad-ass Bassett make the most of any moment they happen to be a part of, while rising stars Daniel Kaluuya (an Oscar nominee for 2017's Get Out) and Winston Duke each get a handful of opportunities to make a lasting impression they're more than up to the challenge of making the most of.

But it is the young women fighting alongside T'Challa who prove to be the most memorable members of this stellar ensemble. Each manages to create unique, captivating characters I found I kept wanting to spend more and more time with, all doing so in their own idiosyncratic way. But while Nyong'o and Wright get the most playfully lively opportunities to charm, it is the fiercely dedicated passion Gurira brings to her portrayal of the warrior Okoye that impressed me the most. She is dazzling, commanding the screen with her intricately nuanced turn, and in the process added layers of depth and meaning to her character as well as to the film as a whole that took my breath away. I was stunned by what she was doing, Gurira deserving of becoming a major international star and here's my hope that after people see her in this film that's exactly what happens.

Featuring incredible camerawork from Academy Award nominee Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) and gorgeous costumes designed by the great Ruth E. Carter (Selma), the visual aesthetics of all that Coogler has envisioned is of an imaginatively creative scale unlike anything I had anticipated. More than that, though, he and Cole have also manufactured the MCU's most explicitly political film, the pair's story talking about issues of race, protectionism, humanitarianism and immigration that comes alive as if it was pulled from today's most recent headlines. But they do so in a way that never preaches, that isn't forced but is instead an integral part of T'Challa's journey to becoming the type of hero his people truly can be proud of. In the process, Black Panther becomes a movie that grows beyond its own comic book roots, Marvel allowing Coogler the freedom to craft a vital, representative, culturally authentic and universally reflective adventure almost certain to be enjoyed, debated and discussed for many years to come.








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The Seattle Rep debuts a world premiere with Ibsen in Chicago
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The Cuff brings legendary DJ/Producer Tony Moran to headline this month's 'Fantasy Party' on Saturday, February 17
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Tennessee Williams birthday events to recall late playwright in Key West
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Seattle Humane - Pets of the Week
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Justin Timberlake sets T-Dome date for November, Jason Mraz at Marymoor Park this summer, Camila Cabello coming to Seattle in April k.d. lang to appear at the Moore Theatre and on Vashon, Paul Simon to visit Seattle on farewell tour, Sasquatch unveils 2018 lineup
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Darkness falls as Noir City returns to SIFF
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Coogler's imaginative Black Panther a heroically timeless spectacle
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