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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 6, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 27
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Violently unsubtle Purge prequel a dystopian nightmare
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE FIRST PURGE
Now playing


No one would accuse any of the Purge films of being subtle. Set in the not-so-distant future, this stripped-down dystopian horror effort presents an America where, for one night a year, all crime - including murder - is legal. The brainchild of writer/director James DeMonaco, each story showcases what might happen during this evening of debauchery and bloodshed. The 2013 initial entry focused on a suburban home invasion scenario with a wealthy Caucasian family forced to fight for their lives, while its 2014 follow-up The Purge: Anarchy opened up the concept and actually showcased what happens out on the streets of low-income minority neighborhoods. As for 2016's The Purge: Election Year, DeMonaco took things to their logical conclusion, showing just how involved government officials and conservative religious zealots - almost all of them white, male, and very, very rich - were in ensuring that the poor, the disabled, and anyone of minority descent were left lifeless at the end of each and every Purge Night.

With the story pretty much reaching its climax during the last film, DeMonaco wraps things back to the beginning with The First Purge. Turning over the directorial reins to Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands), the story this time is set in an America that is much closer to the one we now live in. A right-wing wannabe oligarch has taken control of the presidency by using a mixture of fear-mongering, race-baiting, and craven subterfuge to convince U.S. citizens to elect him into office. Once in power, he and his minions, calling themselves the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), come up with a plan to allow all crime to be legal overnight for one 12-hour period. Calling it 'the Experiment,' this crazy idea will be tested on Staten Island, its low-income citizens offered a cool $5,000 if they remain in the city - more if they take part in the evening's activities.

But this radical sociological theory, the brainchild of scientist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), goes well beyond anything anyone could have imagined, especially after the government secretly sends in disguised agitators, dressed in white supremacist regalia, to systematically kill everyone they encounter with extreme prejudice. It's the template for what the NFFA hopes will become a national event, the seedlings for what will become Purge Night planted underneath the slums of the Staten Island apartment complexes where much of the slaughter will transpire.

It's all as in-your-face and as exploitive as it sounds, DeMonaco not exactly hiding the fact this world he is imagining is very similar to the one we're trying to live in right at this particular moment in history, albeit one without an evening of legalized rape, murder, and all of the rest. But the fear-mongering? The rampant lies? The race-baiting and escalation of tensions between the few haves and the numerous have-nots? The politicization of health care, the rights of immigrants, and social welfare programs designed to assist those in need? It's all here, sitting alongside the stylized ultra-violence and the plethora of obvious, if still admittedly effective, jump scares.

While these movies have never honestly risen to the potential of DeMonaco's premise, that for some reason also hasn't made them any less compelling or diluted their ability to startle. It's an odd franchise, one that hasn't exactly gotten better as it has gone along but, at the same time, still manages to emotionally shock and satirically comment on real social and political problems in a way that is somewhat difficult to turn one's eyes away from. It's a mixed bag, and it's hard not to wonder what might have happened had these films sported a bit more intelligence and weren't so didactically overt in their heavy-handed symbolism.

Even so, I've honestly found plenty to like about all the Purge pictures, even this one. The majority of the actors here acquit themselves admirably, most notably Y'lan Noel as a local drug kingpin who quickly surmises that the Experiment is just an excuse to eliminate Staten Island's minority population and he and his crew are the last line of defense to make sure this doesn't happen. Also quite good here is Lex Scott Davis as a longtime resident and activist who attempts to convince people to not take part in the evening's events only to find herself forced to protect what matters most in her life using all means, including lethal ones, at her disposal. While no one is going to win an Academy Award for their efforts, the collective authenticity of the primary cast is never in doubt, and caring about whether they live or die is surprisingly easy to do.

I'm not sure what else there is to say. As far as The First Purge is concerned, Tomei's appearance is more of a glorified cameo than it is anything else, and I can't say the change from DeMonaco to McMurray in the director's chair gives this prequel a narrative tone or a visual aesthetic all that far removed from its three predecessors. It's all as bluntly heavy-handed as ever, this latest effort even going so far as to feature its very own villain who enjoys grabbing women by the you-know-where just so it can (rightfully) point out just how obscene and intolerable such behavior should be, even if its perpetrators are almost never held accountable. If you liked the other installments in this franchise you owe it to yourself to give this prequel a look, as it's every bit as solid as they were. As for everyone else, why you're even reading this review in the first place I honestly have no idea.


Ferocious Sicario sequel a violently exploitive thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO
Now playing


After a suicide bombing at a packed Kansas City store leads back to drug cartel coyotes bringing undercover terrorists across the southern border masquerading as migrant workers, the U.S. government covertly tasks federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to create havoc in Mexico. They want him to start a war between cartel bosses, hopefully crippling their activities while also forcing the Mexican government to take lethal action for itself. Graver enlists the help of assassin Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the duo coming up with a plan to kidnap Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a powerful cartel chief, in order to sow the seeds of chaos.

At first all goes as planned. But while transporting the teenager back into Mexico to be looked after by authorities there, Graver's military convoy is attacked by corrupt police working for the cartels. Forced to defend themselves, the soldiers slaughter more than a dozen officers while Isabel escapes into the desert during the confusion. When the unit heads back into the U.S. before Mexican authorities can make an international incident out of what has just happened, Alejandro stays behind to track the girl. What no one knows is that the carte blanche they'd been given by the White House has been rescinded thanks in large part to this one bloody firefight on the wrong side of the border, and that means all loose ends, including Isabel, need to be tied off.

Picking up some time after the events of 2015's Sicario, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan continues Graver and Alejandro's stories with Sicario: Day of the Soldado, an aggressively pugnacious sequel that's a viscerally uncomforting descent into a self-created hell on earth overflowing in violence and death. New director Stefano Sollima ('Gomorrah') picks up the reins from the departed Denis Villeneuve, and while he's nowhere near the visually fluid cineaste his predecessor is, the filmmaker brings an exacting documentary-like feel to things that is assuredly confident. Far from an easy film, working in moral grey areas so noxious that breathing in their fumes for too long is dangerous to one's health, this dramatic thriller is rough going, and as impressive as the film might be I'm equally not altogether sure I enjoyed watching this story play itself out to its ethically ambiguous conclusion.

While not the hushed gut-punch of an opener that the first film cleverly showcased, the prologue to this sequel is still brutally insidious in ways difficult to put into proper perspective. Sheridan and Sollima do not shy away from the senseless violence of the suicide attack, so much so the pair almost revels in the exploitive nuances at the core of its depiction. Watching how the pair depict what is happening on the southern border, the way in which they analyze the actions of the bombers, a casual viewer uninterested in digging deeper than surface level would undoubtedly conclude the filmmakers are parroting right-wing talking points - and might even feel the two are engaging in blatant race-based fear mongering.

The remainder of the film dissects those initial observations with thuggish specificity. Sheridan's script is a blunt instrument that revels in a number of stereotypes, a great many of them disturbingly xenophobic. At the same time it also goes to great lengths to dissect the militarization of the border and decry the U.S. government's all-too-frequent strategy of turning to bombs and bullets to solve complex problems relating to national security. Graver and Alejandro might be very good at their respective jobs, but the truth of the matter is their involvement oftentimes makes things worse, not better, and this is a simple truth each of them appears to be perfectly comfortable with.

This gives the movie a murky, morally conflicted quality that is both a plus and a minus. The fact Sheridan is so willing to descend into such complicated depths of the human condition and the political consequences of violence is certainly laudable. That he so often has to utilize so many egregious and repugnant stereotypes to get there is just as unfortunate. The resultant movie fascinates and appalls in almost equal measure, which makes Isabel's journey into this isolated and barren nightmare all the more difficult to endure.

I can say that Del Toro and Brolin are still outstanding, and young Moner brings a hauntingly mesmeric innocence to things that in the end is devastating. Sollima, while nowhere near the kinetically enthralling visualist Villeneuve is, still stages a handful of pugnaciously primeval moments that undeniably get the blood pumping. Channeling the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson, who crafted the score for the original, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir's (Tom of Finland) music is instantly compelling, having a stirring, nerve-rattling eloquence that's magnificent.

But Day of the Soldado is missing an anchoring presence like the one so mesmerizingly provided by Emily Blunt in the first film. It was through her FBI agent Kate Macer's eyes (and to a lesser extent those of her partner Reggie Wayne, smoothly underplayed by a pre-Get Out Daniel Kaluuya) that we saw the starkly dreary immorality of life on the Mexico-U.S. border. It was also through her we were able to maintain both a sense of sanity and a connection to our own humanity as viewers. As Alejandro ominously tells her, 'Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end you will understand.' And that was true. As terrible as it all was, through her we were able to gain some sort of uneasy understanding of the maliciously loathsome events playing out up there on the cinema screen.

Here, however, there is no center. There is little to anchor one's emotions upon, no one to help give this growing sense of revulsion perspective. Alejandro and Graver, while not total monsters, know who they are and understand that the actions they undertake to battle the drug cartels aren't exactly doing their immortal souls any semblance of good. Even when they do decide to take a stand against doing the unspeakable, that doesn't mean they're doing so for entirely selfless reasons. This sends the movie down a rabbit hole of ever-escalating detestation and cruelty that only grows more extreme and senseless, making this sequel an observational exercise of violence and inhumanity and precious little else.

Which is likely the point. It's easy to simplify things, to say Sheridan and Sollima are doing nothing more than trading in racist caricatures and fascist stereotypes. But I do think what the filmmakers are attempting is far more complex than that, and by presenting this world and these characters as they do they're making the argument that the whole dialogue around what to do about drug cartels and immigrants crossing the Mexico-U.S. border illegally is fundamentally rotten. The sequel wants to take U.S. government policies on how to deal with all of this to task, presenting them as jingoistic, short-sighted pieces of propaganda lunacy deserving not so much of reevaluation as of being dispensed with and dismantled altogether.

Does Sicario: Day of the Soldado achieve its goals? I don't have an answer to that question. The way it presents so much of its mayhem and murder is more akin to a mid-1970s grindhouse exploitation thriller or a 1980s Cannon Films low-budget sensationalistic actioner than to its 2015 predecessor. Because there's no focal point to what is happening, Sheridan's script becomes a mishmash of themes and ideas that can offend just as often as they elucidate. As of right now, I'm just not sure what I think about this sequel, and until I do, I just don't see how I can offer up any sort of recommendation for others to see it.


Quietly introspective Trace an emotionally inspirational character study
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LEAVE NO TRACE
Now playing


Debra Granik rocked my world with Winter's Bone, a searing, transcendent character study about an Ozark teenager who through sheer force of will manages to hold her family together while also unraveling the mystery behind her drug-dealing father's disappearance. The movie made a star out of Jennifer Lawrence, who received her first Best Actress Academy Award nomination, while also managing somewhat surprising Oscar nods for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for John Hawkes. It was also my pick for the best film of 2010 and as of right now sits comfortably in the upper echelon of my favorite pieces of cinema of the 21st century, so it should come as no surprise I've been waiting with bated breath for a while now to see what Granik had in store for us next.

That would be the engrossing, masterfully nuanced Pacific Northwest drama Leave No Trace. Based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, Granik's movie is a quietly empathetic stunner featuring a magnificent performance from veteran actor Ben Foster and an even more impressive one from newcomer Thomasin McKenzie. They play Will and Tom, a father-daughter duo living under the radar in the eight-square-mile expanse of Forest Park, located in the hills just outside Portland. They're illegally camping, and as such they are constantly on the move, trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities as best they can.

Co-written with frequent collaborator Anne Rosellini, Granik's latest is never quite what it appears to be. It's a character study of a psychologically wounded everyman who views himself as his daughter's savior, while she in turn slowly comes to realize there's more to the world at large than what her father chooses to show her. During their trips to the local VA hospital she gets the opportunity to see and interact with other psychologically wounded military vets and begins to learn there's more to Will's ailments than she ever realized. Progressively, Tom comes to see that her future prospects and overall happiness cannot be chained to her father's current mental status. At the same time, she refuses to leave him alone, instead hoping she can find him some sort of assistance that will allow him to heal and her to stay a vital part of his life.

It's meditative, relatively simple stuff, events progressing with a thoughtful grace and a level of sympathetic understanding that's remarkable. Granik allows her film to go practically silent at key moments, the sounds of nature, the hospital, or the hustle and bustle of the city the only sounds guiding Will and Tom to their next destination. Through this, the director discovers a level of cathartic communication and psychological rejuvenation that feels organically authentic, the emotional progressions that subsequently transpire achieving a humanist resonance I fully embraced.

There's a great, albeit brief, turn from Dale Dickey in a key supporting role that is as far removed from her ferociously primal Ozark matriarch in Winter's Bone as anything I could have dreamt possible. There is also stunning, reflectively sparse camerawork from Michael McDonough (Sunset Song) that held me spellbound. The way he and Granik utilize their frame is almost otherworldly, little clues leading to a bigger picture waiting for Tom to discover during her introspective investigation into the human psyche, most of them cleverly lurking right there in plain sight.

But it is the acting of the two leads that makes the film special. Foster has been an underrated and undervalued talent for years now. From 3:10 to Yuma to 30 Days of Night, from Ain't Them Bodies Saints to Lone Survivor, from The Messenger to Hell or High Water, the man has given so many memorably varied performances there just isn't time to list them all. With Will he arguably does his finest work yet, inhabiting this wounded warrior and determinedly loving father in ways that even with my high appreciation of his abilities went far beyond anything I was ready for. He's so restrained, so uncomfortable in his own skin, so breathtakingly superb I can't help but hope that Oscar voters remember him when it comes time to cast their nomination ballots.

New Zealand talent McKenzie is maybe even more incredible. Much like she did with Lawrence in Winter's Bone, Granik confidently directs another young actress, helping her find emotional nuances inside her character that go well beyond anything a casual viewer ever could have anticipated. McKenzie is fearless, unafraid to go absolutely still and absorb the quiet majesty of all that is happening around her, while in the very next instant she's just as ready to purposefully stand up for herself and her future needs when the situation finally arises for her to do so. She's mesmerizing, and there was never a moment I wanted to take my eyes off of her, Tom such an intriguing character I could hardly wait to learn what she was going to do next.

Unlike either Down to the Bone or Winter's Bone, I can't say I felt the same sense of urgency watching this motion picture as I felt the first time I sat down to take a look at Granik's previous two endeavors. At the same time, the director's restraint, her use of space, and her willingness to allow her talented actors the freedom to craft such magnetically vibrant performances, all of it is extraordinary. Leave No Trace is a human mystery where the clue to answering complex psychological riddles squarely resides in the familial bonds a father shares with his only daughter, Tom's ability to see the bigger picture while also taking charge of her life on her own accord an inspirational stunner to say the least.






Oregon Shakespeare Festival celebrates diversity
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'Empire' star Serayah headlines Club Silverstone's PRIDE street party in Tacoma on July 14
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Not just the big hair - Hairspray's little moments also please
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Tony Award®-nominated singer Mary Bridget Davies to appear at Dorothy's Piano Bar and Cabaret at Seattle First Baptist Church on July 14
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Lea DeLaria - star of 'Orange is the New Black' - kicks off Tacoma Pride Festival on July 13 with one-woman show 'A Man for All Seasons' - with special guest Kim Archer
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Seattle Opera presents free community forum exploring intersection of race, opera
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The 14/48 Projects presents 'When You Wish Upon A Pizza'
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Seattle International Butoh Festival 2018: Awakenings to be held July 5-15
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Seattle Humane - Pets of the Week
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Violently unsubtle Purge prequel a dystopian nightmare
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Ferocious Sicario sequel a violently exploitive thriller
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Quietly introspective Trace an emotionally inspirational character study
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