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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 30, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 13
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Deutch allows Flower to emotionally blossom
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

FLOWER
Now playing


Erica (Zoey Deutch) and her best friends Kala (Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (Maya Eshet) have an unusual way of making extra cash. The 17-year-old high school seniors blackmail older gentlemen, men like local police officer Dale (Eric Edelstein), by recording them receiving fellatio from one of the underage trio. But where Kala and Claudine are pretty loose with the ill-gotten gains, Erica is obsessively saving to come up with the $15,000 needed to bail her casino-robbing father out of jail. She's willing to do just about anything to reach her goal, not really caring if the other kids at school start calling her 'slut' when word of her oral sex prowess starts to get around.

Things get a little weirder than normal for the teenager when her mom Laurie (Kathryn Hahn) has her current boyfriend Bob (Tim Heidecker) move in with them. They get even stranger when they go pick up his overweight, quietly intense son Luke (Joey Morgan) out of rehab. While at first Erica would like to stay as far away from the slightly older boy as possible, her curiosity about what happened to him in the past that helped steer him down such a dark road ultimately gets the better of her. Putting the pieces together, she figures out that Luke's issues all lead back to the mysterious Will (Adam Scott), a sexy loner all three girls have expressed being attracted to and who just so happens to frequent the local bowling alley they all utilize as their primary hangout.

The first half of director Max Winkler's (Ceremony) ribald, fearlessly amoral teen comedy/drama Flower is absolutely fantastic. Working from a script he co-wrote with Alex McAulay and Matt Spicer (Ingrid Goes West), Winkler showcases a brazen ferocity that's reminiscent of 1980's classic Heathers, the foul-mouthed blasé naturalism of the majority of what is being said and done startling throughout. But it also showcases a sensitivity and a warmth that frequently caught me by surprise, the tender kindliness that Erica occasionally displays movingly authentic.

It's possible the best bits are every single scene between Deutch and Hahn. If these two made a side career of telling mother-daughter tales once every couple of years I guarantee I'd be first in line to give each of those films an immediate look. Their easygoing back-and-forth is dazzling, and whether they're affectionately asking one another about their plans for their respective day or angrily lashing out because they fail to see eye-to-eye on even the most mundane of topics, the rip-roaring rapid-fire verbal pyrotechnics they engage in is consistently stupendous.

Stupendous. That's an adjective that also applies to Deutch's mesmerizing performance. Much like she did with the similarly uneven (if still engaging) teenage Groundhog Day meets Mean Girls variation Before I Fall, the young actress delivers a performance of such stunning, unexpected breadth and emotional expressiveness I doubt I could have taken my eyes off of her even if I had wanted to. She discovers recesses inside Erica that are prickly yet still accessible, cantankerous yet also affectionate, the tenderness the young woman can exude bellied by a bellicose self-righteousness that from a lesser actor would have been insufferable. Deutch burns up the screen in ways that are so passionately multifaceted I was dumbstruck by all of the emotional nuances she was able to mine with such aggressively calming ease.

There is a point in the film where things take a decided left turn, and while I honestly appreciate that the script is so willing to go dangle out on a ledge with such gleeful exuberance, I'm not sure there's enough time for the elements at play to metastasize and coalesce into something meaningful. It all happens so quickly, and for some reason Winkler seems equally driven to wrap this unexpected turn into the murderously surreal as fast as he can. The emotional connection that I felt like I was sharing with both Erica and Luke isn't so much shattered as it is put on instant hold, my feelings as twisted and as messy as the events that send the pair on an impromptu road trip only Thelma Yvonne Dickinson and Louise Elizabeth Sawyer (a.k.a. Thelma & Louise) could relate to at first glance.

Thankfully, the chemistry between Deutch and Morgan is so strong it manages to transcend the narrative whiplash that transpires during the climactic act. More than that, there's something about what Winkler and his team attempt to do during this sequence that still has me thinking about it with increasing specificity. While I don't think there's enough room for these moments to fully develop, it's still a pretty gutsy way to shake things up, and for a film overflowing with so many bawdy twists and turns this is one aggressively vicious curveball that, while I can't say came entirely by surprise, is still rather shocking when taken in context with the bigger, overarching picture.

But it's Deutch that has me most excited. She's so phenomenal here that I'll watch Flower multiple times just so I can dissect her performance in more exacting detail after each viewing. Winkler wisely keeps her front and center, and whether it is scenes fleshing out Erica's relationship with Laurie in eviscerating detail, moments with her and Will craftily figuring one another out or the teenager coming to realize there's more to Luke than initially meets the eye, Deutch can't do a single thing wrong as she grabs the audience by the throat and forces them to join her on this journey. Make no mistake, this is the best performance I've seen in 2018 so far, and come the end of the year this is one acting tour de force I'm positive I'll still be waxing poetic about with zealous fervor.


Spielberg's Ready Player One a fascinatingly uneven sci-fi spectacle
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

READY PLAYER ONE
Now playing


Columbus, OH teenager Wade Wilson (Tye Sheridan) lives most of his life online. Not that this is strange. It's 2045 and most of the planet does the same thing, everyone escaping from the drudgery of their overcrowded lives by logging into the OASIS, a cybernetic virtual reality dream world where a person can be or do just about anything. Created by the brilliant James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS is now the driving economic engine in the United States as well as most of the rest of the world, and as such corporations have understandably been trying to gain a leadership foothold within Halliday's company for quite some time.

When he dies, however, all bets for control of the company are instantly off, the eccentric inventor having crafted a game to take place inside the OASIS upon his death, a pursuit for three hidden keys that lead to a golden Easter Egg granting the victor ownership of his creation along with the massive societal power that goes along with it.

Under the visage of his online avatar Parzival, Wade proves to be a strong contender. Together with his online friends Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), they know so much about Halliday's life, and the pop culture influences he held dearest to his heart, their collective ability to figure out his cryptic clues is second to none. When they are joined in their quest by the equally knowledgeable Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Wade and his compatriots appear to be unstoppable. But Innovative Online Industries (IOI) executive Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), with the fervent backing of his corporate superiors and the mammoth workforce that goes along with it, also want Halliday's Easter Egg, and he'll stop at nothing, whether inside the OASIS or out in the real world, including the use of lethal force, in order to get it.

Based on author Ernest Cline's best-selling 2011 novel, Ready Player One feels like the type of movie a 'fake' Steven Spielberg would make as part of second-rate science fiction parody of the Oscar-winning director's filmography and not an actual project the real Steven Spielberg would step behind the camera to make himself. Yet here we are, Spielberg calling the shots on a motion picture that revels in the type of cinematic and cultural pop culture from the 1980s that he played a substantial role in creating. This is a movie where the main character can drive the DeLorean from Back to the Future, the Iron Giant can become a battlefield warrior and King Kong and the Tyrannosaurus Rex from Jurassic Park can all co-exist within the same environment. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cacophony of characters, catchphrases, music cues and moments from TV, film, comics, anime and literature all practically guaranteed to make a pop culture enthusiast squeal in rapture, the sheer volume of referenced source material so voluminous it's impossible to catch even a tenth of it all on first viewing.

Spielberg is hardly spinning his wheels or going through the motions, however. Having Cline massively rewrite his story with the help of screenwriter Zak Penn (The Avengers), there's honestly very little of the source material remaining in this gigantic 140-minute epic. While the characters and basic plot are the same, Spielberg cannily tries to comment on a variety of hot topics ranging from the corporatization of American politics, to the #MeToo and #TimesUp debate, to kids (and a fair number of adults) disappearing into an online wormhole to the point they're on the verge of forgetting how to exist in the real world at all. He also tries to tackle the toxic elements of geek fanboy culture, specifically white male fanboy culture, trying to show how Halliday's cutting himself off from the world led him to live an incomplete life as well as making Wade/Parzival's awaking to this revelation have far more emotional heft and complexity than it did in Cline's novel.

But this adaptation still can't overcome all of its source material's more egregious missteps. Ready Player One remains a tale that essentially revolves around the fact only true pop culture enthusiasts have the right to say anything of value about any of the beloved properties they passionately dissect and study. It is a story where to disagree with any of these 'true fans' is to be considered an imposter and a fake, where dissent or debate simply isn't allowed. It is also still a narrative that is dominated by a mixed up white teenager's obsession with convincing the main girl in his life that she would be better off with him by her side whether or not she's open to the idea, all of life's ills solved by maintaining cultural norms and not attempting to subvert them in any way whatsoever.

All of which makes Ready Player One a film that is often thematically at war with itself. Art3mis is a strong, intelligent and resourceful woman who doesn't need Parzival to solve all her problems for her. But their relationship, while more equal here than it was in the book, still comes up somewhat short, in the end reinforcing gender norms that feel stagnant and stale in ways that border on insulting. Worse, the one character in the film who does comment on the more sickening and toxic elements of gaming and fanboy culture, a remarkably designed bad guy named I-R0k, is voiced by actor TJ Miller, currently in the middle of his own sexual assault and harassment scandals. The choice to keep him in the film has the unintended consequence of making much of what I-R0k says and comments on practically meaningless, diluting the subtle perceptive power of the villain's observations to a frustrating degree.

And yet, Spielberg is still Spielberg, and once again the director of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, creates an eye-popping, astonishingly realized future world that amazes on a level that's beyond almost anything a viewer can imagine, let alone fully comprehend. The OASIS is phenomenal, each foray into it a sensory smorgasbord that gets more thrilling as Parzival, Art3mis and the rest of their crew continue on their quest. Spielberg stages a number of signature set pieces that had my heart giddily racing, the best of the bunch being a foray into a classic horror film that's as unsettling, terrifying, suspenseful, humorous and just flat-out brilliant as any single moment I'm likely going to have the pleasure of viewing this entire year.

I'm still torn on what to ultimately make of the finished feature though. While a step up from Cline's book, and while Spielberg does make a number of attempts to comment and dissect many of the more noxious elements regarding gender and race that are found inside the story, the film never seems to be fully able to reconcile any of its major themes in ways that aren't either condescending or offensive. But the set pieces are so spectacular, and the key central performances so strong, it's impossible to dismiss Ready Player One or not say, on at least a handful of mesmerizing levels, that it isn't worth giving a look. Spielberg's celebration of the '80s pop culture maelstrom he helped to create is a bizarre, energetically vibrant piece of dystopian science fiction that's as fascinating as it is exasperating, and other than that I'm really not certain what else there is for me to say.


Bleak Unsane an uncompromisingly visceral psychological thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

UNSANE Now playing

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a banker who has just moved from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. She used to volunteer as a hospice aide worker, selflessly giving her time and her love to those who needed it. But Sawyer had to leave that life behind. The victim of a driven, unrelenting stalker named David Strine, the young woman didn't even tell her mother Angela (Amy Irving) why she so suddenly fled her hometown of Boston, her fear of him so all-encompassing she could see no other recourse than to cut all ties and vanish out of state to get away from him.

Still psychologically reeling from the rabbit hole of fear that David's stalking provoked, Sawyer makes the decision to go speak with a counselor about her lingering uncertainties. Feeling pretty good after speaking with one of Highland Creek Behavioral Center's therapist, she fills out exit paperwork thinking she's setting up a second appointment sometime in the coming week. What she's actually done, however, is self-commit herself into the facility for 24-hours of observation, Sawyer unsurprisingly not at all happy with what she views as unacceptable deception on the part of the hospital in that regard. But because she throws an angry fit, the psychologists at the facility extend her stay to seven full days. Worse, there's a nurse at the facility named George Shaw (Joshua Leonard) who looks exactly like her stalker, David Strine, and thanks to his presence Sawyer understandably begins to wonder if her grasp on reality is as strong as she adamantly proclaims it to be.

Steven Soderbergh's Unsane is a down and dirty psychological horror-thriller that's as grungy and as unhinged as it is focused and intelligent. Working from a tight, uncompromisingly bleak script by Jonathan Bernstein (The Spy Next Door) and James Greer (Just My Luck), the director follows up last summer's Logan Lucky with another genre-bending, self-financed effort that has more going on just underneath the surface than initially meets the eye. Like that one, this film is rather sensational. Also like that one, convincing people to give it a shot might be more difficult than it otherwise should be.

In this case, that audiences might not initially be open to giving Unsane a look isn't altogether surprising. Not only is it a dingy psychological thriller revolving around themes of insanity and sexual abuse, even though Foy has seen her fame increase since her breakout turn in Netflix's 'The Crown,' it's safe to say this film still lacks the star power of Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Seth MacFarlane, Hilary Swank, Riley Keough and Katie Holmes that Logan Lucky brought to the table. Inspired by Sean Baker's Tangerine, Soderbergh also shot this motion picture on an iPhone and purposely gave it a squalid, lo-fi look in order to help magnify Sawyer's psychologically induced paranoia as much as possible, and while this visual aesthetic suits the material perfectly, it will just as likely turn off a small subset of potential viewers sight unseen at the same time.

Pity, because this is a pretty terrific movie. Much like he did in regards to the pharmaceutical industry and their documented corporate abuses in Side Effects, Soderbergh manages to plant some crafty bits of commentary in this film as well, this time involving both the insurance industry as well as the demands placed on mental health hospitals and the lengths they'll go to in order to cancel out any red ink from their financial ledgers. Sawyer's situation, the subterfuge involved in her initial commitment into the hospital, is inspired by a number of documented cases where individuals were tricked into self-committing for 24-hours only to find themselves stuck for much longer. Institutions would find varying ways to extend a person's confinement up to the point they exhaust their insurance coverage. Once that happened, they'd be labeled as being cured and summarily released.

That story would be fascinating in and of itself, Soderbergh and his writers giving things a surreal, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest meets Shock Corridor feel I can't help but think is intentional. But then he layers the story of Sawyer and her stalker into the mix, and for a good 45 minutes the director plays it pretty close to the vest as to whether or not the young woman is actually losing her mind and is imagining George Shaw and David Strine are the same person. Once the reveal is made, the young woman is such a frazzled mess even she is no longer certain she's got enough control of her faculties to handle the situation and convince the doctors to let her out of the hospital. It all grows increasingly uncomfortable and disquieting as it all goes along, things building to an explosively emotional conclusion that is as tragically self-destructive as it is undeniably courageous.

No punches are pulled here, Soderbergh crafting things in a manner that fits the current dialogue over gender inequality and sexual assault nicely. But that also means there is a repulsive side to things that is beyond abhorrent, and watching how the damage done to Sawyer by her stalker has changed her on such a fundamental level broke my heart in two. Foy makes all this work with an astonishing, viscerally raw confidence that's sublime. The actress isn't scared of showing Sawyer's darker, vindictive side while at the same time nakedly opening herself up so fully I became emotionally consumed by the character's fate and whether or not she'd remain psychologically whole. It's a masterful performance that only grows in strength and power, the mixture of terror, conviction, poise and uncertainly Foy displays during the film's haunting final minutes leaving me breathlessly thunderstruck.

If the movie has some lumpy moments, there aren't enough of them to become problematic. I will say the script doesn't utilize its supporting players nearly as well I personally wanted it to, and the lapses into horror convention, especially near the end, aren't nearly as successful as the psychologically unbalanced elements that make up the majority of the thriller's 97-minute running time. Soderbergh still handles it all with self-assured intensity, and the way tension ratchets up throughout is extraordinary. Unsane is an emotional powder keg that only grows in strength as it goes along, the resultant explosion one I'm likely to still be feeling the aftereffects of for some time to come.






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Seattle Humane - Pets of the Week
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Deutch allows Flower to emotionally blossom
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Spielberg's Ready Player One a fascinatingly uneven sci-fi spectacle
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Bleak Unsane an uncompromisingly visceral psychological thriller
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