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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 29, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 26
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Emotionally existential Sunshine an intimately human character study
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LET THE SUNSHINE IN
Now playing


Acclaimed French director Claire Denis' Let the Sunshine In is a freewheeling, practically plotless journey through midlife friendship, love and romance. For the woman behind timeless stunners like White Material, Beau Travail, Nenette and Boni and Chocolat, this is existential stream-of-consciousness filmmaking at its zenith. It is a travelogue of personal crises and longing, all of it centered upon actress Juliette Binoche giving one of the greatest performances of her Oscar-winning career.

Not to say this will be everyone's cup of French cineaste tea. Binoche plays Isabelle, a talented Parisian artist who is currently in the throngs of a passionate affair with a married banker (Xavier Beauvois). Divorced with a young daughter, Isabelle is unwilling to give up on love. At the same time, she's becoming increasingly frustrated with just how hard it is to find it. More, she's not about to change who she is and what she wants from either her romantic partner or her career just to placate a man. Not that this has ever stopped her from seeing a number of different suitors, including a popular actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who has hired her to help do the production design for his latest theatrical endeavor and even a fellow artist (Alex Descas) her friends think might be taking advantage of her. But no one seems to fit the bill, and as things progress Isabelle is starting to wonder if she's going to spend the last three or four decades of her life alone.

As funny as the film can be, a romantic comedy this is not. As emotionally cutthroat as many of the vignettes become, neither is this some sort of straightforward drama about an intelligent woman working her way through a midlife crisis. Instead, Denis has crafted something altogether unique. Working with co-writer Christine Angot, the director has decided to present a forty-something woman's life as she sees it. Naked. Raw. Unrefined. Fragmented. Determined. Complex. Mysterious. Sensual. Frustrating. Joyous. Banal. Exciting. These are just a handful of the words that came to mind as I sat in the theatre taking it all in, Denis bringing the type of introspective precision to Isabelle's current travails that reminded me of the perceptively hard-edged musings of author Virginia Woolf.

It's a lot to have to sift through, and even if it appears not much is happening the reality couldn't be more different. Isabelle is a woman navigating through uncertainty. She makes mistakes, doesn't heed her own advice, listens to ideas from others she really probably shouldn't and dives headfirst into romance when she arguably should be taking more time to better assess who it is she's currently locking hands with. At the same time, Isabelle is fiercely independent. She takes charge of situations with confident authority. She is willing to do what it takes to satisfy her own carnal desires, not appearing to always care what others think of her when she does.

In short, she is a real person, a woman walking along the streets of her life in high-heeled boots that sometimes hurt her feet even though they can also make her feel invincible in her proud femininity at the exact same time. Isabelle lives her life, that's it, nothing more than that, and at times it is almost as if Denis, Angot and cinematographer Agnès Godard (Sister) just chose a random woman on the street to follow around for a few months in order to make some sort of cinéma vérité documentary for their own amusement and not a lot else.

Yet there is visceral power to be found in this story if one chooses to put forth the effort to experience it. Denis offers up pain and longing in a manner that's uncomforting in its exactitude. There is a real sense of what it is like to feel so desperately alone even when surrounded by people all claiming to be your friends and loved ones. Isabelle's despair at the prospect that she will never find romantic happiness is terrifyingly palpable, and there were moments my heart came close to splitting apart at the seams as I sat in the theatre experiencing all of this angst and ennui right there with her.

Binoche is stunning. Watching her this past decade or so, doing transformative work for the likes of Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, Summer Hours), Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy), Cédric Klapisch (Paris) and Michael Haneke (Caché), turning in superlative supporting turns in films like Polina, Dan in Real Life and Cosmopolis, all of it has been a brilliant reminder that her Academy Award win for 1996's The English Patient was hardly unwarranted. As Isabelle, Binoche showcases a fearlessness that's haunting in its breathtaking specificity. There are no minced words; no timidly hesitant footsteps that might have made her performance feel inauthentic or facile. Instead, the actress becomes Isabelle, completely and without hesitation, her performance achieving a level of meditative expressiveness that caught me by surprise.

It doesn't always work, and the disconnected randomness of the narrative does make it difficult to fully engage with anything that is happening as fully or as completely as I would have otherwise liked. It can also feel oppressively downbeat for prolonged periods of time, Isabelle's journey showcasing a mournful, almost tragically doomed melancholic edge that's not exactly easy to embrace.

But the film's honesty is refreshing, and it's refusal to sugarcoat anything that is happening to Isabelle is equally so. It all builds to a sudden, somewhat shocking elongated scene between Binoche and a cagey, craftily intuitive Gérard Depardieu, the French icon cavalierly reveling in his masculine bravado in a way that's seductively repellant. It's a clever turn of events, Denis spinning Isabelle's story onto its head while at the same time bringing the themes and ideas that have powered her search from the beginning to be seen in a whole new light. If Let the Sunshine In isn't the director's most vital work, that doesn't make it any less artistically dazzling, the hope for a better tomorrow overflowing in thoughtful companionship and unfettered love a universal longing intelligent viewers of all types should have no problem relating to.


Imperfect Spy still catches the viewer's attention
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY
Now playing


Catcher Morris 'Moe' Berg (Paul Rudd) played 15 years of professional baseball, winding up his career with the Boston Red Sox in 1939. A man of many mysteries, the journeyman athlete was a graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Law School, read up to ten newspapers in a day, spoke a variety of languages and was a popular guest on the television quiz program 'Information, Please.' Berg was also a spy working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII, analyzing what was happening inside of Germany and Japan for the U.S. government throughout the war.

It is now 1944. OSS Chief 'Wild Bill' Donovan (Jeff Daniels) has a new assignment for Berg. Under the guidance of U.S. military specialist Robert Furman (Guy Pearce) and Dutch-American physicist Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti), the former Red Sox catcher must hunt down German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) and determine if he intends to build an atomic bomb. After meeting with Italian physicist Professor Eduardo Amaldi (Giancarlo Giannini) to learn more about his target and gaining assistance from Swiss physicist Paul Scherrer (Tom Wilkinson) and a cagey OSS spy named Martinuzzi (Pierfrancesco Favino) stationed in Switzerland, Berg prepares to meet with his target face to face, knowing that it's possible the entire outcome of the war will come down to whether or not he allows Heisenberg to walk away from their conversation alive.

The story fueling The Catcher Was a Spy is undeniably fascinating. Berg is one of the more mysteriously enigmatic figures of the 20th century, and for anyone who has read author Nicholas Dawidoff's best-selling book that screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) based his screenplay on, it's safe to say there's enough material here for a six-part miniseries let alone one, just barely 90-minute star-studded thriller. It's almost too much of a dramatic obstacle for director Ben Lewin (The Sessions) to be able to overcome, so much about this character an indecipherable conundrum. But thanks to the stellar cast (which also includes Sienna Miller, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shea Whigham and Connie Nielsen) and a charismatically multifaceted performance from Rudd that's superb, the movie works far better than it arguably should, the haunting minimalistic beauty of the final 20 minutes particularly so.

Not to say Lewin's opus still doesn't bite down on far more than it can easily chew. The relationship between Berg and his longtime girlfriend/lover Estella Huni is notable mainly because of the passionately intense performance delivered by Miller. Even with that being the case, there isn't enough time to dive into the complexities of the pair's romance. Berg works overtime to keep their affair secret even though his devotion to Huni is painfully obvious. It's undeniably doomed, this romance, yet the reasons making it so remain frustratingly ephemeral, and while I get that painting things in this fashion allows Lewin and Rodat the freedom to keep their spy an enigma, it also means a bit of his humanity sadly gets lost in the process.

The movie works best when it focuses directly on its central plot, and that's Berg putting all the pieces together so he can properly assess Heisenberg and make the decision whether or not to assassinate him. There is a noticeable tension whenever Lewin puts that part of the story front and center, and whether he's having theoretical discussions with Goudsmit or going over the mechanics of killing another human being with Martinuzzi moments like these substantially add to the suspense quotient. It should be noted that both Daniels and especially Giamatti are excellent in their supporting roles, and for a motion picture that has name stars popping in and out constantly for what can only be described as glorified cameos, the fact each actor makes the most out of every one of the scenes they appear in isn't to be taken for granted.

But this is Rudd's show and he rises to the occasion. There is something to be said about the professorial, almost emotion-free way the actor portrays Berg, conceptualizing his hesitancy to reveal too much about his massive intellect or Jewish upbringing in ways that are inflexibly intriguing. This is about as far from any past characters Rudd has portrayed in his entire career, the Ant-Man star eschewing his typical comedic and satirical ticks and tricks with complex aplomb. There is an emotional richness to this portrayal that slowly snuck up on me, all of which helps give the final minutes of this story a lingering eloquence that took me by surprise.

The jumps between dramatic relationship bits involving Huni, to sequences of the ballplayer touring Japan with other MLB stars like Babe Ruth (clandestinely taking pictures of potential sites of military interest entirely of his own accord while there), to hushed conversation with Donovan, to full-on battlefield pyrotechnics showcasing Berg, Furman and Goudsmit dodging bullets and bombs in an effort to track down Amaldi, these many transitions don't always work. There is a messiness in tone and style that results in narrative inconsistencies that do grow obnoxious, and as such it's hard not feel like Rodat's screenplay should have been given more time to evolve and breathe in order for these transitions to become more authentically organic instead of being choppily incoherent.

But the emotional core to Berg's story is sound. Rodat has composed a number of little vignettes that are compelling in their emotional breadth and informative scope. Coupled with Rudd's aforementioned strong performance as well as the film's intimately crackerjack climax, there is a perceptive humanity to Lewin's latest that cannot be denied. The Catcher Was a Spy is an imperfect examination of a curiously complicated figure in American history, and even if many viewers will feel compelled to do additional research into Berg after watching (or, at the very least, pick up a copy of Dawidoff's book) that doesn't mean the film itself still isn't worth taking the time to see.


Goofy Drew a basketball comedy winner
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

UNCLE DREW
Now playing


I can't say Uncle Drew is a good movie. I can't say it is a well-acted one, either. I can't say Jay Longino's (Skiptrace) script does anything that's surprising or that veteran director Charles Stone III's (Drumline) handling of the material feels electric or alive in ways that break the redemptive sports-comedy mold. What I can say is that Uncle Drew made me laugh, sometimes out loud, more often than not frequently. I can also say that, for as painfully simplistic and trite as the narrative proved to be, for some reason I was emotionally invested in what was going to happen to all of the characters populating this story, and while the outcome was never in doubt I still sat there in my theatre seat rooting for this team of geriatric misfits all the same.

After his entire squad, headlined by budding superstar Casper (Aaron Gordon), is stolen from him by unscrupulous rival Mookie (Nick Kroll), Foot Locker shoe salesman and basketball aficionado Dax (Lil Rel Howery) comes to the realization he's got a major problem. He spent his $5,000 life savings paying the entrance fee to participate in Harlem's annual Rucker Classic street ball tournament, the grand prize for winning a cool $100,000. But thanks to Mookie, Dax has no team and thus zero chance to win. Making matters worse, his materialistic girlfriend Jess (Tiffany Haddish) has also left him and who do you think she's shacking up with instead? Mookie.

Things change when Dax has a chance encounter with the fabled Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving). A Harlem legend, this street ball titan has been the talk of the neighborhood for five full decades. Stories of his literally breaking another player's ankle with the speed of his crossover and another of him dunking over opponents with a basketball in his left hand and a ham sandwich in his right became mythological parables of greatness handed down like the campfire tales of old, and many a man sitting in the barbershop proclaims loudly Drew would have been the greatest of all-time had he not mysteriously disappeared back in 1968. Now Dax is sitting right next to him, and this grey-bearded old man hasn't appeared to have lost a single step. More importantly, he's willing to come back into the spotlight and play at the Rucker Classic one last time, but only if his former teammate Big Fella (Shaquille O'Neal), Lights (Reggie Miller), Preacher (Chris Webber) and Boots (Nate Robinson) are allowed to join him.

It's as silly and as nonsensical as it sounds, all these seventy-something former basketball greats heading back to the street ball court for one last run hoping to show all the young whippersnappers how the game is supposed to be played in the process. As things progress Dax learns the value of friendship and family, Drew finds the strength to apologize to those he's wronged while others search within in order to be able to selflessly forgive those who did them an injustice back in the team's heyday. It's crowd-pleasing stuff, and while nothing out of the ordinary happens the film itself is still just warmhearted and endearing enough to make the sort of comforting impression most viewers are going to find difficult to resist.

The gimmick here, of course, is the sight of all of these current and former NBA greats (and WNBA superstar in the form of a very game and suitably hilarious Lisa Leslie) all donning layers of old age makeup to portray elderly ballers ready to show just how much game they've got left in their collective tanks. Inspired by a series of popular commercials featuring Irving as the title character, Longino's script has a reverence and a respect for the game of basketball that's obvious, and while many of the central gags themselves might be a little bit tired (i.e. needing to go to the bathroom frequently, turning the heat up in the van in the middle of summer, creaky bones, having a ready supply of Viagra; stuff like that), the collection of athletes giving them life are having so much fun most don't come off nearly as obnoxiously insufferable as they otherwise might have.

Not that Irving and company show a great deal of emotive range. They're all playing archetypes of one sort of another, and anytime the movies asks them to dig a little deeper in order to display some real human emotion the results aren't exactly spectacular. There's a scene during the last third between Irving and O'Neal that's particularly troublesome, the two athletes incapable of bringing the requisite emotional honesty to their dialogue that could have made Drew and Big Fella's heartfelt chat mean something substantive. There's also a sequence during the film's climactic stretch where Dax is forced into the game for reasons left unstated here that is just too silly to resonate, everything building to a moment of sports comedy cliché that's decidedly underwhelming.

But as gag movies go this one is difficult to dislike. Get Out scene-stealer Howery is the real deal, the actor giving an honest to goodness multidimensional performance even if the film itself doesn't require him to do so, making Stone and Longino's decision to anchor the story on him and not on Irving's Drew a smart one. As for those NBA and WNBA stars, their fun is infectious, their spirited (and likely mostly ad-libbed) trash-talking back-and-forth dialogues frequently providing the feature with its biggest laughs. While some jokes can go a little far, and while not nearly the slam dunk I'm sure many fans were hoping for, a soft jumper off the glass making a delicate 'swish' sound still scores two points, and in this case that's more than enough for this comedy to come out a winner.






On The Boards' NW New Works Festival an exciting evening of dance
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July theater openings mean park Shakespeare, musicals, and world premieres
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Four drag stars shared the stage in 'National Treasures'
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Big screen legend Shirley Maclaine went 'out on a limb' at McCaw Hall
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Seattle Humane - Pets of the Week
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Emotionally existential Sunshine an intimately human character study
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Imperfect Spy still catches the viewer's attention
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Goofy Drew a basketball comedy winner
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