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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 23, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 08
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Surrealistic Annihilation a humanistic sci-fi quest for truth
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ANNIHILATION
Now Playing


On the eastern coastline of the United States, a giant swath of land known as 'Area X' is guarded by the U.S. military and studied by a dedicated team of scientists. A growing anomaly, referred to as the 'Shimmer,' has slowly been growing in size, doing something to the landscape and to all forms of life residing there as it consumes more and more territory. For the past three years, every group of soldiers and scientists that have gone into the Shimmer have not returned, all of them presumed dead until information proving otherwise is found.

An Area X psychologist and the woman tasked with selecting all potential candidates to enter the Shimmer, after sending so many to what she can only assume was their doom, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) decides to lead the latest expedition herself. This time, she's assembled an all-female team, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), all volunteering for a variety of cryptic reasons, all of them personal. They are joined at the last minute by esteemed biologist and retired soldier Lena (Natalie Portman), her reasons for heading into the Shimmer ones she'd rather no one other than Dr. Ventress knows about.

I haven't read any of the books in author Jeff VanderMeer's award-winning 'Southern Reach Trilogy,' of which Annihilation is the first installment, but from what I understand writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) has reworked the material considerably as far as the script for his feature adaptation is concerned. However faithful this movie might or might not be, what can be said is that this is pure science fiction and is as thought-provoking, intellectually challenging and as spiritually fascinating as anything that's hit theatres this side of 2014's Under the Skin or 2012's Cloud Atlas. It is a mystifying, continually absorbing trek into the cryptically unknown, the ideas being discussed and discovered putting the human experience as a whole under a powerful microscope where the image being dissected isn't always an appealing or satisfying one.

Much like Ex Machina, Garland's second directorial outing is undeniably cold and cerebral. Yet that doesn't mean the filmmaker isn't interested in the finer points of the human condition. There is a mournful emotionalism that powers things forward to their conclusion, an intensely visceral aching for something more out of life that appears to be driving each of these women onward. The pain and disappointment each has dealt with in their respective pasts affects their personal judgment in a variety of ways. Some let their curiosity increase in intensity. Some allow fear to take root and fester. Some need answers, a hunger to get some form of understanding as to why so many were apparently sent to their untimely doom investigating the Shimmer.

Finally, some just want to fight. They want to fight back against dangers real or imagined. They want to fight back against anything that looks as if it is going to destroy all they know and hold dear. Most of all, they want to fight back because doing so lessens the frustration and anguish they feel from their own personal indiscretions, mistakes made in hunger and lust they worry might have led someone they cared about to go on a suicide mission in order to avoid what likely would have been a heartbreaking confrontation.

These are just some of the emotional elements that lay at the heart of Annihilation. Garland attempts to sweep them together into one somber mélange, and more often than not he is successful. Watching these women attempt to navigate an uncertain psychological minefield that sits right alongside an ever-shifting practical environment where nature appears to be bending in on itself and all sorts of mutations violently hunger to feast on their flesh is pretty extraordinary. Each idea and concept the director presents proceeds to bounce off those around them in a multitude of ways, the literal and the figurative joined at the hip in such a manner making heads or tails out of every presented piece is likely impossible on initial viewing.

But Garland doesn't expand on and flesh out every character as cleanly or as succinctly as much as I would have liked. Thompson's Josie randomly spurts out some of the film's most essential and thought-provoking pieces of information, her brilliance never in doubt as she observantly studies the Shimmer and its seemingly inexplicable mysteries. At the same time, I never had a sense I knew who this woman was, her calm grace in the face of tragedy and terror, not to mention fear for her own survival after mutated creatures begin to hunt them, never feeling quite right to me. The choice she ends up making near the end, while enigmatic and ethereal in a manner that caught me slightly by surprise and brought a quiet tear or two to my eyes, still rang slightly hollow as far as I was concerned, and I'm not altogether certain I entirely grasp what Garland wanted me to take away from the moment.

There is also the issue of Oscar Isaac. Portraying the only soldier to return from the Shimmer, I can't say I was particularly shocked or surprised by anything that ended up being revealed about the character. While his ties to Lena are exposed in the film's first few minutes, how he survived and the ordeals he experienced while out on his mission are hardly revelatory. I knew almost immediately what the twist was going to be and was honestly a little taken aback by just how straightforward and obvious this particular plot point turned out to be.

None of which lessens the power Garland's sophomore outing has to enthrall. Featuring a colorfully ingenious landscape right out of Princess Mononoke or Howl's Moving Castle, Mark Digby's (Dredd, Never Let Me Go) exquisite production design is like a surrealistic Hayao Miyazaki-inspired animated wonderland come to vibrant practical life. There's always something to look at and obsess over, each flower, crystal tower and flesh-covered mutation a gloriously intriguing enigma worthy of discovering an answer to. This is a world one wants to crawl inside and live in for hours, maybe even days, at a time, the dangers of doing so almost secondary to the naturalistic discoveries and environmental truths that could potentially be revealed.

I'm not sure how much I liked Annihilation. I'm still sitting here dissecting its pieces, mulling over its ins and outs in ways that aren't always entirely satisfying. But I'm also blown away by the ambition and the imagination of Garland's latest, consumed by the myriad of ideas and emotions it revels in with such pointedly, scientifically exacting precision. Allowing Portman the freedom to deliver a performance that shifts and evolves like the landscape she is investigating, this is a piece of science fiction cinematic wonderment I'll have trouble forgetting, it's ultimate destination one of self-inflicted humanistic absolution worthy of additional examination.


Magnificent Fantastic Woman an empathetic drama of self-acceptance
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

FANTASTIC WOMAN
Now playing


Waitress and singer Marina (Daniela Vega), a young woman with big dreams, is dating 57-year-old Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a highly successful businessman long divorced from his overbearing and angrily self-righteous ex Sonia (Aline Küppenheim). She loves him, and he loves her back, the two making quiet preparations for a romantic getaway away from the hustle, bustle and noise of their everyday lives.

Tragedy strikes. After sharing a delightful birthday dinner, Orlando suffers an aneurysm, tumbling down a flight of stairs and sustaining a number of horrifying injuries. Rushing him to the hospital only to see him die on the operating table, Marina is forced to call her beloved's brother Gapo (Luis Gnecco) and inform him what has happened. Later on, struggling with the best way to face and deal with her grief, she is then hounded by a female police detective (Amparo Noguera) and barred from attending Orlando's funeral by the vindictive Sonia. Things couldn't appear to be going any worse for the emotionally devastated woman. But Marina refuses to give in, persevering as best she can as more obstacles are thrown her way in her altruistic pursuit to mourn for Orlando in a manner that the pair's love deserved.

For a variety of reasons, I find it difficult to talk about the luminous brilliance of writer/director Sebastián Lelio's (Gloria) Oscar-nominated Best Foreign Language Film A Fantastic Woman with anything approaching coherence. Needless to say, this is a superb drama, one that flirts with being a thriller only in reality to become nothing short of a marvelously introspective character study of self-identity and grief that proves to be universally accessible in its emotional resonance. Understandably notable for featuring a Transgender actress in the lead role, Lelio's opus deserves to be lauded and embraced for reasons that go beyond the politically timely, this story one of tender understanding and observational restraint that shook me right to my core.

Vega is stunning. She delivers a performance of such breadth, scope and unwavering strength the cumulative power of what she accomplishes is unquestionably exceptional. She gives herself entirely over to Marina and in the process brings the viewer inside her skin in a way that's breathtaking. What's notable is that she does this by not just being a Transgender actress in a Transgender role. While that facet of her performance cannot be ignored or denied, that does not lessen or minimize just how complex and complete her rendering of this young woman becomes. Vega balances multiple levels of grief as she is also forced to stare down various forms of intolerance that don't just want to minimize her existence, but want to hopefully erase it altogether. Through it all, her iron-willed resolve materializes with brutally unnerving vivacity, the empathetic grace that is achieved in the process extraordinary.

Throughout the film, Lelio adds a bevy of visual concepts that, to some, will strike as initially obvious and maybe even a little facile. But as things progress it becomes apparent that the director's use of mirrors and reflective imagery has been utilized in order to twist things back on the viewer, to force them to walk with Marina as she confidently strides forward on her journey of acceptance. He and cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta (Mozart's Sister) strike a sort of balance between the elliptically ethereal and the grittily documentarian. By doing this, they dive into the Transgender experience in a way that is refreshing in its subtle, naturalistic simplicity, Marina's everyday struggle to unapologetically be herself achieving a dignified universality that's all-encompassing in its sympathetic warmth.

I admit that I couldn't help but see myself in elements of this story. I understand much of what Marina is facing from the inside, and it's undeniable that I was affected by this while I was watching the movie for the first time. But there is a reason I try not to talk about my own Transgender experiences as a critic and film writer, and, much like the main character here, it is because I want my abilities and my talents to speak for themselves unclouded by blind misconception and misplaced attempts at understanding. I am passionate about cinema because I am a human being who has been moved by the sights, sounds, stories and images I discovered as a youngster and grew to adore and cherish as I grew older while passionately striving to learn more about the medium. While my Transgender experiences shape who I am and my worldview, they are not the end all-be all for who I am, these just one facet of the greater human journey all of us are on whether or not we choose to recognize this to be the case.

That is the glory of what Lelio has accomplished. Marina has dreams and aspirations that go far beyond just being accepted as the woman she undeniably is. She is a talented singer. She is a passionate lover. She is an exceptional human being who cares fervently about others and their well-being no matter how clueless they might choose to be about topics they fail to take the time to understand with anything approaching intelligence, let alone respect. She speaks up for herself when forced into a corner. But, more importantly, she makes the boldest and brightest statement by just living her life out in the open, the simple task of slipping on shoes and walking to work a courageous form of activism that should never be undervalued or underestimated. A Fantastic Woman is spectacular because it doesn't just understand this, it celebrates it, making the film a stunning cinematic achievement that I cannot help but hope viewers of any age, gender, race or political ideology make it a point to see.


Enjoyably silly Game a goofy good time
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

GAME NIGHT
Now playing


Ultracompetitive Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) host an annual game night at their suburban home. Regular guests include the laidback Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), her droll husband Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and the rather vacuous, if still good-natured and kind-hearted, Ryan (Billy Magnussen). He always shows up with some random bubble-headed blonde, something the two married couples take great joy in poking fun at him about. That's what makes Ryan's date to their latest game night so surprising, the juvenile thirty-something arriving with the smart, witty and altogether way out of his league Sarah (Sharon Horgan) as his companion.

Good thing, because this evening's competition is going to be unlike any the group has ever played before, so the more strong players the better. All of them have been invited to the home of Max's smooth-talking, investment banker brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), and he's put together something special for them, a true challenge that will see how each of them can communicate and work together as teammates. Brooks has thrown together a murder mystery party and he's the prospective victim, Max, Annie, Michelle, Kevin, Ryan and Sarah the amateur detectives all in direct competition to solve the crime before the others do.

With the comedy-thriller-romance Game Night, things don't exactly work out as Max, Annie and their friends expect. Brooks doesn't get fake kidnapped. Unbeknownst to the entire group he actually gets kidnapped for real, all of them wrongly thinking they're heading out to partake in an interactive bit of silly intellectual fluff when in all actuality the life and death stakes are quite literal. Screenwriter Mark Perez (Accepted, Herbie Fully Loaded) has engineered a deliciously anarchic scenario that plays out like the haphazard, devil-may-care composite of fellow subversively absurdist comedies like Into the Night, Adventures in Babysitting, Risky Business, After Hours and Date Night, while directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein handle all the chaos and calamity with confidence and flair. It's a heck of a lot of fun, and even if the movie might overstay its welcome, for the most part I had a terrific time sitting in the theatre watching things play out to their ridiculously cheery conclusion.

The nice thing here, and the reason the film works as well as it does, is that Perez has done a fine job of crafting six uniquely appealing characters all of whom are worth spending time with. While the focus is naturally on Max and Annie, thankfully the script doesn't forget about the other four primary adults. Bunbury, Morris, Magnussen and especially Horgan all get stuff to do, each actor up to the challenge of stealing a choice scene or two. They interact effortlessly with one another, the collective charm they showcase undeniably appealing right from the second all six of them share the screen for the first time.

But the real show-stopping standout is Jesse Plemons. Playing Max and Annie's freshly divorced next door neighbor and former game night participant Gary, a police officer with an unnerving fondness for his floppy-eared dog, this feels like a breakout moment for the veteran character actor and comedian. He's an unnerving force of nature, the steadily focused intensity of his stare making me decidedly uncomfortable. Yet Plemons does this in a way that led to a number of steady belly laughs, each line delivery, jerk of the head or raise of an eyebrow causing me to quietly giggle. The physical rigidity of his body movements is something to behold, everything building to a penultimate moment near the end that had me laughing so hard I was fighting back tears.

It can get a little too overly convoluted, and it does take a little while for the screenplay to get to the crux of what is going on and why. There are also madcap side events that transpire, most notably one featuring a blink-and-you-might-miss-him Danny Huston, because the film needs something zany and weird to happen and for practically no other reason, although a strand involving government witnesses and a secret list of names feels tossed in only because the story requires a McGuffin to trigger Brooks' kidnapping. I also can't say the final reveal, which leads to an impromptu car-versus-plane showdown on a secluded tarmac, did much for me, the story coming perilously close to running on fumes by that point of the narrative.

But Bateman and McAdams are a superb comedic pair, the two actors playing off of one another as if they've been doing it their whole careers. As for Daley and Goldstein, the confidence they display behind the camera is impressive, and I really liked how they were able to balance all of the different characters, locations and subplots with what appeared to be relative ease. It's good work, especially with how deftly they utilize a variety of unique, board game-based visuals, this film a serious step in the right direction after their ill-conceived remake of Vacation understandably crashed and burned with critics and audiences alike back in 2015.

Game Night feels like one of those comedies from the 1980s, usually made by Touchstone Pictures, more often than not starring the likes of Bette Midler (Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune) or Richard Dreyfuss (Stakeout), or even better the both of them (Down and Out in Beverly Hills), and that's a good thing. While its edges might sometimes be a little rough, the fact the film is so willing to take so many idiosyncratic chances while affably reveling in its R-rating is a thing I happily applaud. That it does so by putting its characters, their relationships and the collective journey front and center before everything else is even more impressive, all of which makes this a gleefully enjoyable comedic contest of murder, mystery and mayhem well worth playing.


Unsettling Double Lover a romantically lurid psychological thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

DOUBLE LOVER
Now playing


Chloé Fortin (Marine Vacth) is 25-years-old. She is a former model who became disillusioned with the life even though she was making good money. Suffering from frequent stomach pains, she goes to countless doctors, none of whom are able to come up with a credible diagnosis for what's ailing her. Believing it might be psychosomatic, Chloé is referred to psychologist Paul Meyer (Jérémie Renier), a young, good-looking professional who quietly and intently listens to his new patient with a sensitive ear.

Fast-forward a few months, and even though it goes against all ethical standards, Paul has fallen for Chloé, the pair entering into a passionate relationship. They even move into an apartment together, their romance quickly speeding towards what looks like marriage and, in the future, children. But things are not as serene as they appear. Chloé suspects Paul is lying. As the young woman's stomach pains return she also begins to dig into her boyfriend's past, her grasp on reality beginning to fracture into a myriad of shimmery, light-catching pieces almost as if she were a mirror shattering on the bathroom floor after being cruelly pushed from the shelf in anger.

I was not familiar with Joyce Carol Oates's novel Lives of the Twins before I sat down to watch writer/director François Ozon's (Frantz, In the House) uncomfortably spellbinding adaptation Double Lover, so I had no idea just how crazily psychotic this lurid piece of pulp fiction was going to get. I almost don't feel like one viewing of the film does it justice, and I find I'd like to jump right back in for a second viewing right away so I can spend more time dissecting its ominously abhorrent twists in greater detail. Ozon toyed with my emotions so completely I found myself alternating between hating what it was he doing here and loving it with every fiber of my being down to the last strand of DNA. Equal parts De Palma, Hitchcock, Cronenberg and Lynch, the acclaimed French auteur still manages to make the material his own, all of it centered upon a performance from rising star Vacth that's as fearlessly complex as it is heartrendingly intimate.

It's difficult to know how deep to dig into the plot, as spoiling one little nugget of what happens at any given point could potentially ruin the host of surprises Ozon has in store for the viewer. What can be said is that Chloé's investigation reveals what she thinks is a double life for, not just Paul, but in many ways herself, too. By starting to explore her sexuality she begins to long for family, siblings and all the creature comforts of home in a manner she's never felt worthy or deserving of in the past. But Chloé also uncovers more questions than there are answers, and the more craven her pursuits the more she starts to wonder if she's cannibalizing her own flesh, almost as if she has some sudden longing to self-mutilate even though she's certain none existed before Paul came into her life.

Vacth, whose first breakout role also came working for Ozon in 2013's Young & Beautiful, is magnificent. Chloé mentions early on that she used to be a model, and the way the actress carries herself is a constant reminder of this passing remark. Her effortless physicality is spellbinding, especially when the weight of all that is happening begins to take its toll. Vacth showcases these mental and physical changes with graphically demoralizing subtlety, the ways in which Chloé begins to change as so many carnivorous adversaries, maybe real, maybe imagined, begin to eat away at her devastatingly visceral in their carnal succinctness.

Renier, another Ozon regular appearing in 1999's Criminal Lovers and 2010's Potiche, is also very good, but talking about his performance as Paul leads me into another narrative minefield where exploding a secret or two becomes something of a devilish inevitability. What I can say is that he plays two sides of a single coin. Darkness and light, levity and cruelty, love and lust; one does not exist without the other, the actor doing a grand job of toying with these dueling psychological aspects with a clever minimalistic enthusiasm that's often unexpected. Two Grande Dames of French and British cinema, the wonderful Myriam Boyer and the luminous Jacqueline Bisset, also make appearances in a pair of key supporting roles. Both make immediate, unforgettable impressions yet I'm loath to go into any sort of detail about either of their characters, Bisset, in particular, having the greatest impact on Chloé's quest to understand what is happening and what it will take for things to return to some sort of normalcy.

Manuel Dacosse's (Evolution) sultry cinematography is intriguingly seductive in the way in which it utilizes symmetry, reflection, color and a swarm of mirror images to help augment the emotional and psychological ocean Chloé is attempting to navigate. It's stunning stuff, so effortlessly refined it took me almost half the motion picture before I realized just how fully and completely he and Ozon were manipulating and subverting all it was I thought I was looking at. The way the pair kept me on my toes only helped make Chloé's journey all the more bracingly affecting, the haunting final moments an emotional punch to the gut that left me speechless.

It can get fairly lurid at times, and I can't say all of the purposefully cryptic pieces end up fitting together as succinctly as I found myself hoping they were going to. There's also an inherent pulpiness here that sometimes becomes moderately, and I believe unintentionally, comical, a third act bit of full-blown, gorily unpleasant body horror not so much unnecessary as it is cartoonish its bloody asperity. Yet Ozon keeps the focus right where it needs to be no matter what is happening, Chloé standing right in the middle of all that transpires. As such, Double Lover is a gripping descent into the psychological abyss, the discoveries waiting to be found there captivatingly vast.




SGN EXCLUSIVE: Arnaldo Inocentes talks about March is Cabaret Month in Seattle
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Hamilton's OK by me
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Mark Morris Dance Group's 'Pepperland' needs a touch of danger
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Fats Waller musical at Seattle Musical Theatre - SMT's Ain't Misbehavin' touchingly recalls the true essence of the swinging era of boozy, smoky, sexy, and outrageous nightclub fun.
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LGBT newcomer Matt Palmer is hoping to attract eyes and ears to his music
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Medieval Women's Choir present Spring Celebration concert March 10
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Seattle Children's presents The Little Prince and The Journal of Ben Uchida
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Oscars 2018 nominations announced:

Call Me By Your Name nets 4, Chilean trans movie A Fantastic Woman up for Best Foreign Language Film

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Seattle Humane - Pets of the Week
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The Smashing Pumpkins and Dua Lipa announce Seattle summer concerts, Justin Timberlake and Jason Mraz add second shows
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Surrealistic Annihilation a humanistic sci-fi quest for truth
------------------------------
Magnificent Fantastic Woman an empathetic drama of self-acceptance
------------------------------
Enjoyably silly Game a goofy good time
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Unsettling Double Lover a romantically lurid psychological thriller
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