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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 27, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 39
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Full lineup announced for the 24th annual SeattleQueer Film Festival

Tickets and passes on-sale now

            Three Dollar Bill Cinema has announced the full lineup of films and events for the 24th Annual Seattle Queer Film Festival (SQFF24). The largest festival of its kind in the Pacific Northwest opens Thursday, October 10 and runs through Sunday, October 20.

            SQFF24 features the most recent in queer cinema from 28 countries, including Argentina, Guatemala, Japan, Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam, France, Germany, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The lineup of 66 programs includes 155 films, 43 feature-length films, and 106 shorts. Of the 155 films, 58% are directed by women, and they include 96 transgender filmmakers and creatives.

            “Throughout this year’s festival, we reflect on the last 50 years since the Stonewall Riots, where queer rights are today, and the vast amount of work we have to do for the future,” said Ben McCarthy, executive director of Three Dollar Bill Cinema. “We’re proud to bring to Seattle a variety of authentically queer stories that would otherwise go unseen without this festival. It’s important, now more than ever, to provide a space for the LGBTQ2+ community to come together to see themselves reflected on screen, especially when our rights and protections are being threatened daily at home and all over the world.”

            "We are excited to bring a wide spectrum of LGBTQ2+ stories from near and far, with local films like GOOD KISSER and SEATTLE’S QTPOC MUSIC SCENE. For SQFF24 we are featuring a record number of films from Latin America and twelve short film programs, including QUEER YESTERYEAR, which reflects upon queer history,” said SQFF24 Festival Director Kathleen Mullen. "We have something for everyone – from the world premiere of Seattle-made film NO DOMINION: THE IAN HORVATH STORY to the Queer Palm winner and Cannes Film Festival Best Screenplay, the sumptuous PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE."

            The festival will take place mainly on Capitol Hill this year, bringing the festival back to its roots in Seattle’s historically queer neighborhood.

•      The full festival program and online ticket sales launch September 10 at seattlequeerfilm.org.

•      Tickets and passes also available through the festival box office located at SQFF24 HQ at Gay City: Seattle’s LGBTQ Center at 517 E. Pike St., Seattle, WA 98122. Pre-festival box office hours are:

o  Wednesdays, 9/11, 9/18, 9/25, 10/2: 4:00–8:00 p.m.:
o  Saturdays, 9/14, 9/21, 9/28, 10/5: 11:00am–3:00 p.m.:
o  Monday, 10/7 through Wednesday, 10/9: 4:00–8:00 p.m.

•      Film venues include Gay City: Seattle’s LGBTQ Center, the Northwest Film Forum, SIFF Cinema Egyptian, and the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP).

GALAS & CENTERPIECES
Opening Night: SID & JUDY

•      Thursday, October 10, 6:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Egyptian

•      Director: Stephen Kijak; USA; 2019

•      Northwest Premiere

•      Expected guests: Director Stephen Kijak

•      Opening Night Gala Party following the film at the Rainier Chapter House

Director Stephen Kijak (WE ARE X, NEVER MET PICASSO) has uncovered never-before-seen recordings, photographs, and insights from the archives of Judy Garland’s third husband, producer Sid Luft (A STAR IS BORN and “The Judy Garland Show”), based on his memoir “Judy & I: My Life with Judy Garland.”

First-person accounts of Garland’s career and Sid and Judy’s tumultuous marriage are narrated by Emmy winner Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) and Academy Award nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh (THE HATEFUL EIGHT, “Atypical”) in this documentary from Showtime. Judy Garland’s status as an icon for the whole LGBTQ2+ community – her death may even have partly inspired the Stonewall riots – is highlighted through her queer following, including transgender activist and Stonewall veteran Miss Major. The SQFF24 Opening Night Film & Party is sponsored by Vulcan Productions.

Closing Night: PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
•      Sunday, October 20, 7:00 p.m., SIFF Cinema Egyptian

•      Director: Céline Sciamma; France; 2019

•      Seattle Premiere

•      Closing Night Gala Party following the film at Queer/Bar

Desire can be a powerful force, capable of consuming the heart like a roaring fire. Set in 18th-century France, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE follows Marianne, a young painter commissioned to undertake the wedding portrait of reluctant bride-to-be, Héloïse. Pretending to be her companion, Marianne discreetly observes her muse by day and secretly paints her by night. The intimate moments they share during their daily walks along the beach spark the flames of a passionate romance that defies their fate, which has been imposed on them by the norms of their conservative and repressive society.

Winner of the Queer Palm and the Best Screenplay prizes at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, out lesbian director Céline Sciamma (WATER LILLES, GIRLHOOD, AND TOMBOY, Best Narrative, SQFF 2011, and co-writer of BEING 17) wraps us in an elegant and seductive canvas, where each frame of the film becomes a stunning work of art, thanks to its breathtaking cinematography. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel deliver monumental but nuanced performances, freely inhabiting the fascinating female-centric world Sciamma constructs. An arresting and provocative drama, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is one of the most beautiful and fervent romances in recent years, one that everyone will fall in love with.

 
Documentary Centerpiece: FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO
•      Sunday, October 13, 7:00 p.m., SIFF Cinema Egyptian

•      Director: Daniel Karslake; USA; 2019

•      Seattle Premiere

•      Expected guests: director Daniel Karslake and other special guests

•      Centerpiece Gala Reception to precede the film at a TBA location

FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO weaves together stories on the national political stage and in the homes of four families caught in the crossfire to show how both church and state distort doctrine to justify continued resistance to LGBTQ2+ equality. Equal parts tear-jerking and affirming, this update of his award-winning 2007 feature FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO (Grand Jury Prize, Sundance; Audience Award for Best Documentary; SIFF), documentarian Daniel Karslake summarizes the last twelve years of conservative Christian efforts to undermine LGBTQ+ rights.

 
Narrative Centerpiece: END OF THE CENTURY
•      Wednesday, October 16, 7:00 p.m., Northwest Film Forum

•      Director: Lucio Castro; Argentina; 2019

•      Seattle Premiere

•      Expected guest: director Lucio Castro

•      Centerpiece Gala Reception to precede the film at Poquitos Capitol Hill

Ocho (Juan Barberini), a thirtysomething Argentinian poet, is cruising the streets and beaches of Barcelona when he spots Javi (Ramón Pujol), a brawny Spaniard living in Berlin. A series of chance encounters leads to a revelatory one-night stand, Javi discloses something that causes the film to dive into the past. Through fascinating temporal shifts, the film explores the possibilities of what was, what could have been, what is, and what might be. END OF THE CENTURY (Jury Prize for Best First Feature, Frameline) delivers an emotional and erotic exploration of relationship what-ifs driven by the uncertainties of romantic connection, the challenges of long-term commitment, and the allure of personal freedom.

 
PROGRAM HIGHLIGHTS
SELL BY
•      Friday, October 18, 7:00 p.m., Northwest Film Forum

•      Director: Mike Doyle; 2019; USA

•      Guests scheduled to attend

•      Northwest Premiere

Does every relationship have an expiration date? Adam (Scott Evans, “Grace and Frankie”) and Marklin (Augustus Prew, “Special”) appear to be the perfect couple on social media. But after five years, their relationship has succumbed to financial disagreements, career path arguments, and a lack of sex, leading to questions about commitment and trust. Meanwhile, their support network crumbles around them as Cammy (Michelle Buteau, “Tales of the City”) and Elizabeth (Kate Walsh, “Grey’s Anatomy”) navigate guy issues of their own. Through it all, hope persists as the group put the pieces of their lives back together. Actor Mike Doyle makes his feature directorial debut with this engaging, relatable, modern-day romantic comedy with an ensemble cast that features Patricia Clarkson and Zoe Chao.

 
SAME BUT DIFFERENT: A TRUE NEW ZEALAND LOVE STORY
•      Saturday, October 12, 6:45 p.m., Northwest Film Forum

•      Director: Nikki Si’ulepa; 2019; New Zealand

•      West Coast Premiere

This charming romantic comedy follows single mom and actor Rachel, who is immediately smitten when she meets Samoan filmmaker Nikki at a small indigenous film festival where they both happen to have entries. Usually confident and accustomed to being pursued – primarily by men she is not interested in – Rachel bumbles through new territory as she attempts to woo Nikki. Hilariously awkward yet relatable situations ensue, highlighted by the palpable chemistry between actresses Robyn Patterson and Hannah Martin, as well as a strong supporting cast. This fun romp, based on the real relationship between writer-director Nikki Si’ulepa and producer Rachel Aneta Wills, is full of Kiwi and Pacific Islander humor that’s sure to delight.

 
GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH
•      Monday, October 14, 1:30 p.m., Museum of Pop Culture

•      Directors: David Charles Rodrigues; 2019; USA

•      Seattle Premiere

They’re bringing heart to the heartland! Galvanized by the 2016 election and a resurgence of faith-based anti-LGBTQ laws, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sets out on a one-week, 25-performance tour through the Bible Belt. Though they know they can’t change an entire region in just seven days, they hope to use their musical talents to find common ground with the communities some members escaped from long ago. “We can sing, and we can love,” says artistic director Tim Seelig in this uplifting documentary, winner of the Audience Award at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

 
FABULOUS
•      Thursday, October 17, 7:15 p.m., Northwest Film Forum

•      Director: Audrey Jean-Baptiste; 2019; France

•      Northwest Premiere

Originally from French Guiana, Lasseindra learned voguing, runway walking, and body-dropping dance battling from her found family in New York City’s underground, before moving to Paris to establish her own House of Ninja and foster the French ballroom scene. In this documentary addressing overlapping struggles regarding race, religion, culture, and queerness, director Audrey Jean-Baptiste captures Lasseindra’s return to her rigidly gendered home country, where she teaches voguing workshops to LGBTQ+ youth. Her determination to live an authentic life on her own terms proves inspirational to her students, who, through dance, learn to love themselves and be proud, confident, and fabulous.

NO DOMINION: THE IAN HORVATH STORY
•      Saturday, October 12, 12:00 p.m., Northwest Film Forum

•      Director: Margaret Mullin & Nel Shelby; 2019; USA

•      Expected Guest: director Margaret Mullin scheduled to attend

•      World Premiere

This documentary salutes the life and accomplishments of the late dance champion and AIDS activist Ian (Ernie) Horvath. After a successful career as a professional dancer and founding artistic director of the Cleveland Ballet, he became a fierce advocate for creating a more secure future for American dancers and their companies. Horvath was also a passionate AIDS awareness activist during the crisis of the ’80s, most prominently by helping arts organizations with employees suffering from the disease. The virus tragically claimed his life in 1990. As a tribute to Horvath, dancers from across the country collaborated to perform his last choreographic work for this film, restaged in Seattle by Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist (and the film’s co-director) Margaret Mullin and Paul Gibson.

INDIGENOUS SHOWCASE: FORCES OF NATURE
•      Saturday, October 19, 4:45 p.m.; Northwest Film Forum

Explore the resilience and strength of two-spirit and LGBTQ identities. Curated in collaboration with Longhouse Media.

SPECIAL EVENTS, PANELS, AND WORKSHOPS
QUEERING THE SCRIPT
•      Sunday, October 13, 1:00 p.m., Northwest Film Forum

•      Director: Gabrielle Zilkha; 2019; Canada

•      Seattle Premiere

From queer subtext in the ’90s to explicit girl-on-girl romances in the present day, QUEERING THE SCRIPT charts the history of television portrayals of queer women. Award-winning director Gabrielle Zilkha (STOP CALLING ME HONEY BUNNY) interviews the creators and stars, who are integral to queer representation, and the fangirls, whose enthusiasm and activism sustain it. Featuring conversations with Ilene Chaiken (“The L Word”) and Lucy Lawless (“Xena: Warrior Princess”), this documentary celebrates LGBTQ+ TV fandoms, while calling for increased visibility for all queer women (particularly women of color) and battling tired tropes.

 
QUEER CASTING: PANEL DISCUSSION
Following QUEERING THE SCRIPT, stay for what is sure to be a lively panel discussion tackling queer casting in film and television. Should Hollywood cast only queer actors in queer roles? What does it mean to have fans as part of the conversation of storylines and casting? Be a part of the conversation as industry professionals parse this hot-button issue. The panel will be moderated by Jeremy Blacklow, director of media entertainment at GLAAD, and is co-presented by SAG-AFTRA.

HOW TO BE AN EFFECTIVE ALLY
•      Tuesday, October 15, 5:15 p.m., Gay City: Seattle’s LGBTQ Center

•      FREE

Have you witnessed someone being discriminated against, treated with total disrespect, or blatantly ignored? Do you feel overwhelmed or guilty about not knowing how to help? In this powerful workshop, you will learn techniques and gain the tools needed to become an effective ally to and advocate for those who are targeted because of their race or anyone being treated unfairly or discriminated against, through interactive exercises and discussion. Be sure to bring a notebook!

Anastacia-Renée, who will lead the workshop, is an award-winning, multi-genre writer, educator, and interdisciplinary artist. She served as the Seattle Civic Poet from 2017 to 2019 and the 2015–17 poet-in-residence at Hugo House. The author of five books, she also teaches poetry and workshops at Hugo House and local libraries, high schools, and universities.

HOW TO BE A TRANS ALLY
•      Saturday, October 19, 3:30 p.m., Gay City: Seattle’s LGBTQ Center

•      FREE

Are you new to transgender concepts? Want to learn how to be a good ally? Join us for two short films, and then stick around for a presentation and discussion with a representative from Gender Diversity, a local organization that provides education about gender-inclusive schools and support groups for families, and produces the Gender Odyssey conferences. Bring all your questions to this educational evening, and come away with a working vocabulary and a more solid understanding of how to be supportive to trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming folks!

 
IMMERSIVELY QUEER: VR SHOWCASE
•      Saturday, October 19, 1:30-4:00 p.m., Gay City: Seattle’s LGBTQ Center

•      Curated in collaboration with North Bend Film Festival

•      FREE

In this free presentation, SQFF is pleased to partner with the North Bend Film Festival, which has curated a showcase of VR/360 experiences, including some of the best immersive work in the contemporary queer storytelling space.

 
Started as the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in October 1996, the Seattle Queer Film Festival has grown into the largest event of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, gaining industry and audience recognition for showcasing the latest and greatest in queer film, from major motion picture premieres to emerging talent. An important venue in the Seattle film scene, the festival provides unique opportunities for visiting and local filmmakers to engage and entertain the Greater Seattle region’s LGBTQ and allied community. For more information, visit threedollarbillcinema.org/seaqueerfilmfest.

 
Three DollarBillCinema is a nonprofit arts organization that provides access to films by, for, and about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people and a forum for LGBTQ filmmakers to share and discuss their work with audiences. Annual programs include the Seattle Queer Film Festival, Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival, Three Dollar Bill Outdoor Cinema, and Reel Queer Youth. For more information, visit threedollarbillcinema.org.

Courtesy of ThreeDollarBillCinema



Breezy Downton Abbey an enjoyably witty 'Upstairs/Downstairs' melodrama
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

DOWNTON ABBEY
Now playing


Having never seen an episode of the BBC television series, I honestly didn't know what to expect walking into a screening of Downton Abbey. I figured with writer/creator Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) delivering the screenplay at worst I'd be in for some wittily amusing bits of dialogue, and with a cast featuring the likes of Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuppence Middleton, Geraldine James and Jim Carter I knew it would certainly be exceedingly well acted. But I didn't know what else to expect, and as I knew nothing of these characters, their backstories or any of their various interpersonal situations, I couldn't help but wonder if I was going to be more than a little bit lost.

I shouldn't have been worried. While Downton Abbey will undoubtedly please fans of the series more than it will newcomers to the material, this movie is nevertheless a great deal of breezy fun. Not particularly substantive, never aiming to do more than send the audience out of the theatre with a jolly smile planted upon their faces, none of that matters much as far as the grand scheme of things is concerned. Fellowes has written a shrewdly mischievous script that overflows in agreeable subplots, director Michael Engler (The Chaperone) orchestrating the action with a relaxed confidence that suits things just about perfectly.

Not that this handsomely mounted production is going to be a motion picture I'm going to be talking about much in the foreseeable future. It's almost instantly forgettable, and while it is easy to see why these characters and their stories made for such massively popular television, Fellowes hasn't exactly written a scenario that makes moving the action from your local PBS station to the local multiplex worthy of so much fuss. All of this feels more like a pilot for a spin-off or handful of years later continuation of the original show, and if Engler's film ends up doing good box office it won't surprise me at all if a sequel or a new series is announced rather quickly.

The plot is fairly straightforward. The residents of the Great House at Downton Abbey, most notably Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Bonneville), his American wife Cora (McGovern) and their fastidious daughter Lady Mary Talbot (Dockery), are honored to learn their home will be the site of a royal visit from their Majesties King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (James). The staff is even more excited, and even though new head butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) appears to be over his head preparing for this visit, everyone working in the Great House takes pride in the knowledge they'll be able to showcase their skills in front of the King and Queen.

With a synopsis that simple, leave it to Fellowes to stuff in about seven or eight various subplots that deftly intermingle with the core narrative. Retired butler Mr. Carson (Carter) is asked to temporarily resume his duties when Barrow doesn't appear to be up to the task. Widower Tom Branson (Allen Leech), an Irish Republican but still very much part of the family, believes he might be under government surveillance. Violet Crawley (Smith), as drolly crotchety as ever, is looking forward to matching wits with the Queen's Lady in Waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Staunton), a distant relative with whom she shares a complicated past. The Downton Abbey staff, led by Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), plan a minor revolt when they are refused the opportunity to cook, serve or clean for the King and Queen personally during their visit.

But all of that is only a small handful of the numerous strands Fellowes and Engler are juggling. There are at least four more subplots (at least), each of them vying for a viewer's attention along with the others I've already mentioned. At times it can all feel like six or so episodes of television that have been condensed into a two-hour plot for no other reason than the filmmakers believe they can do it. That they accomplish their task is a testament to the skill of all involved in making this movie a reality, but that does not mean things still don't feel moderately overstuffed. There's so much happening that some of the twists and turns of this royal visit can come across as being malnourished. Worse, a few of them are downright silly, a major one concerning Branson, Lady Mary and a mysterious gentleman monitoring the Irishman's every move undeniably so.

Thankfully the cast is so universally stellar these various missteps and miscalculations aren't worth spending any time marinating upon. Leech is wonderful as Branson, The Imitation Game actor so charming his crooked smile alone was enough to get my heart to flutter while I sat there in my seat. Dockery is equally outstanding, as are Froggatt, Staunton, Bonneville and especially a magnetically stalwart Carter. As for Smith, unsurprisingly she steals the show, the delectable relish with which she verbally attacks Fellowes' most melodiously pithy bon mots beyond compare. The film is also deliciously shot by Ben Smithardl (Blinded by the Light) and euphorically scored by series composer John Lunn, while Anna Robbins' (Wild Rose) exquisite costumes are irrefutably spectacular.

Look, Downton Abbey didn't make me feel like I needed to rush out and watch the Emmy-winning series any time soon. It isn't a movie I'm going to be remembering in all that great of detail by next week, let alone come the end of the year when awards chatter is in full swing. But none of that makes the film less entertaining, Fellowes and Engler doing a fine job making this 'Upstairs/Downstairs' melodrama worth watching whether the viewer is a die-hard fan of the source material or a complete newcomer who hasn't the faintest clue who these people are or why any of us should care about them.


Nifty Haunt scares up a labyrinth of malevolent tricks and treats
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

HAUNT
Now playing


Harper (Katie Stevens) isn't interested in doing anything this Halloween. She's ready to break free of her abusively drunken lout of a boyfriend, so going out and partying with her roommate Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain) doesn't feel like a great idea. But Harper is convinced to join in the evening's frivolities anyhow, and even though she declines to wear a costume that doesn't mean that, eventually, she'll be ready for whatever the night has to offer.

Or maybe not. Harper and Bailey are joined by friends Angela (Shazi Raja), Mallory (Schuyler Helford), Nathan (Will Brittain) and Evan (Andrew Caldwell), and after things at a downtown club grow boring, the group decides to go find a decent haunt (aka a haunted house in an industrial setting) and experience a couple of Halloween scares. The one they choose is decidedly off the beaten path. But the warehouse setup is suitably ominous and the guy out front getting attendees to sign safety waivers while collecting their cellphones is beyond creepy. Harper and her pals decide to give the place a shot, and in the process enter inside a macabre, blood-curdling labyrinth whose thrills and chills might be far more lethally literal than anything the six college students are ready to deal with.

If this were a normal haunt then the latest feature from A Quiet Place writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods likely wouldn't be particularly interesting. But as it is anything but normal, the pair's directorial sojourn Haunt ends up being a well-plotted, suitably sinister little shocker that proves to back an agreeably malevolent little punch. Even if their scenario isn't exactly original (last year's Hell Fest was just the most recent flick I can think of to tread down a somewhat similar path), the duo still craft a successful motion picture that knows what it is doing, doesn't insult the intelligence of its audience and never overstays its welcome. While not much happens that is unexpected, watching Harper and her friends battle for their lives against a bloodthirsty adversary is still a heck of a lot of fun, Beck and Woods manufacturing an atmosphere of apprehension and dread that kept my eyes glued to the screen for all 92 freewheeling minutes of the movie's running time.

I like that the filmmakers aren't afraid to take their time setting up their scenario and fleshing out their characters, while in the same breath are also eager to get right to the unnerving carnage not too soon after the six college kids step inside the not-so-faux haunted warehouse. Harper, Nathan, Bailey and to a lesser extent Evan manage to make just enough of an impression that their life or death journey through this lethal industrial maze actually meant something to me. As for Angela and Mallory, while they aren't given very much room to resonate, Raja and Helford play their parts with just enough pizzazz I wasn't that upset that Beck and Woods failed to give them as much to do as they did their co-stars. Most importantly, Stevens makes Harper a plucky heroine worth rooting for. I liked how much fragile emotional honesty she brought to her performance, her character a pleasantly vivacious 'final girl' who isn't meek and who's willing to get her hands dirty when the situation suddenly calls for her to do so.

It's all a little too straightforward, and after it becomes apparent to all six characters something horrible is going on I can't say the filmmakers do much to conceal that there are really only a couple of destinations their overall story can finish up at. There's also a lame and convenient subplot concerning Harper's much talked about boyfriend that would be annoying if not for the belligerent brutality Beck and Woods unleash when they abruptly bring it to conclusion. But overall I like that the pair never really explain the reasons why the ghouls running the haunt are so murderously inclined, and the fact it is never clear whether or not there's a supernatural element to all of this adds an aura of uncertainty I found suitably unsettling. The directors also make the most out of production designer Austin Gorg's claustrophobically minimalistic sets, cinematographer Ryan Samul's (We Are What We Are) camera navigating the cluttered nooks and crannies of this spooky environment with spirited aplomb.

Is the film great? Heck no. Is it incredibly entertaining? Unequivocally yes. I had a sensational time watching Harper and her gang run for their lives, and while I could nitpick much of what happens to proverbial death, the whole film is just such gleefully unapologetic horrific fun I can't work up the desire to try and do it. Beck and Woods have made a nice little genre gem with Haunt, and I look forward to picking this one up for my personal library so I can revel in all its nifty tricks and treats again relatively soon.


Hypnotic Ad Astra an emotional moonshot of catharsis and fury
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

AD ASTRA
Now playing


Astronaut Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the son of a bona fide hero, deep space pioneer H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). He was the commander of the ill-fated Lima Project, an attempt to head out to the furthest reaches of our solar system to probe the Universe for intelligent life other than human. But he and his crew disappeared 16 years ago near Neptune, and the only information the Earth learned about their mission was in large part thanks to the selfless actions of Clifford McBride.

Or so the story goes. After a massive energy surge emanating from the Lima Project's last known coordinates decimates electronic devices, large, small, and in-between, all over the planet, government and military officials let Roy in on a well-kept secret: they're not positive his father is dead. They think his ship is causing these deep space surges, and if they're not stopped all life on Earth could be put in lethal jeopardy. Officials want the Major to head to the U.S. base on Mars and send his father a personal message, understanding they'll be able to track his exact location if he responds. But Roy soon begins to believe there is more going on than what he's being briefed about, and one way or another he is going to learn the truth, even if he has to travel all the way to Neptune himself to do so.

If you're a fan of writer/director James Gray, I cannot imagine in a million years that you would believe that the acclaimed filmmaker's science fiction spectacle Ad Astra is anywhere nearly as straightforward as that synopsis makes things sound. The Two Lovers, The Immigrant, We Own the Night and The Lost City of Z auteur has delivered a complex, thoughtfully minimalistic interstellar saga of family, fatherhood, responsibility, grief, courage, sorrow and forgiveness that is as emotionally ethereal as it is affectingly introspective. While not without its thrills, this is nonetheless heady stuff that almost couldn't care less if the viewer is visibly excited by any of the impressively mounted action set pieces, which take place up on the screen. Instead, Gray is aiming a lot higher, his heady mission into deep space piercing both the heart and the psyche in almost equal measure.

Am I sure it all works? No. I am not. Some of the passages are so minimalist they're close to invisible. After traveling to Mars and sending the message to his father, Roy finds himself squashed by military and political subterfuge only to find an unexpected ally in the base's commander, Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga). But the reasons for their partnership are almost too convenient, too coincidental, and considering Gray's personal style is to let audiences piece things together for themselves with little extra in the way of assistance on his part, I just never fully believed the tidiness of their relationship. Additionally, Roy's whole mission is just too ominous and vital for it to be conducted with such slapdash disdain for his welfare, and I couldn't help but think there were better ways for the powers that be to keep things top secret while also ensuring the most vital component of their plan didn't inadvertently get his brains blown out traveling across the lunar landscape of the Moon.

All of that said, Gray is such an exquisite cinematic craftsman it's unlikely I could have torn my eyes away from the screen even if I had wanted to try and do so. An opening sequence depicting the repercussions of the first energy surge, leading directly to a massive orbital freefall on Roy's part, is jaw-dropping in its intensity, as is an emergency landing sequence on Mars where the Major is forced to take command of a spaceship even though he knows doing so could have unexpected repercussions relating to his primary mission. A moon buggy chase sequence and firefight is magnificently staged, while the brutally cathartic silence of the film's final act had me sitting on the edge of my seat in rapt attention even as my eyes welled up with tears thanks to the gallantly pure authenticity of the emotions being presented for me to soak up and feel.

Gray's script, written with Ethan Gross, is like a broodingly sincere outer space mashup of Solaris, Apocalypse Now, The Mosquito Coast, The Searchers, First Man and Mutiny on the Bounty. Roy's journey becomes one more of self-exploration than anything else, and it is an open question if by the time he reaches his final destination he'll instantly destroy whatever (or whomever) he finds instead of trying to understand what it is that's going on and why it is his father abandoned him and his mother 16 years ago to go on this apparently one-way mission. In the process of all of this Pitt, already on something of a career high after Once Upon a Time in&Hollywood, delivers one of the finest performances of his career, his work ranking right up there with his turns in Moneyball, The Tree of Life, 12 Monkeys, Killing Them Softly and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford rather splendidly.

While I am fascinated by, and undeniably enjoyed, Gray's movie quite a bit, several vexing annoyances still gnaw away at me, most of which I've already mentioned. I think in some ways I'm most annoyed by how he does nothing with Liv Tyler, and if I'm going to watch a sci-fi adventure where she's forced to be earthbound pining away for her loved ones hurtling through the unknown terrors of Space I'd probably choose Michael Bay's Armageddon instead of this. While that's overstating things considerably the talented actress is still wasted in a rather thankless role, and while I understand why her part is structured as it is that doesn't mitigate my dissatisfaction with how she was being utilized.

Honestly, though, who am I kidding? Gray is just far too talented for me to get too angry about any of that. With Ad Astra, I find I can't stop thinking about the film. I keep pondering many of its various nooks and crannies with almost unwavering intensity, and part of me can't wait to get a closer look so I can better dissect all it is the filmmaker is attempting to do. This is science fiction that refuses to take the easy way out or to bow to traditional genre convention even when the opportunity to do just that conveniently presents itself. This is a daring bit of storytelling subterfuge that will only grow in resonance as time goes by, the final pieces of its complicated puzzle an emotional moonshot of catharsis and fury unlike anything I could have imagined trying to fit together beforehand.




Morrissey, Lana Del Rey kick off fall season at WaMu Theater
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Some of Everything Is Illuminated muddies a great story
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Seattle's MEN IN DANCE presents 2019 Adjudicated Choreographer Showcase October 4 & 5
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Pacific MusicWorks presents 'Sanctuary in the City' concerts
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Whim W'Him's 'Choreographic Shindig V' an evening of exciting new works
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Opal Peachey previews Violet's Attic: A Grand Ball for Wicked Dolls, her new madcap show at Café Nordo
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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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Full lineup announced for the 24th annual SeattleQueer Film Festival
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Breezy Downton Abbey an enjoyably witty 'Upstairs/Downstairs' melodrama
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Nifty Haunt scares up a labyrinth of malevolent tricks and treats
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Hypnotic Ad Astra an emotional moonshot of catharsis and fury
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