7 Blog

Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Friday’s openings: From boys to Ninja Turtles

Few filmmakers excite the appetite of critics more than Richard Linklater does. Showing both a facility for mainstream (“School of Rock”) and independent film (“Waking Life,” his “Before” trilogy), Linklater is receiving some of the best reviews of his career for his film “Boyhood.” And lucky for area movie fans, “Boyhood” is opening on Friday here in Spokane.

Oh, so are a gaggle of other offerings, from the blockbuster (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”) to the curious (James Cameron's 3D study “Deep Sea Challenge”).

Friday's openings are as follows:

“Boyhood”: In his “Before” series, Linklater links three films over a 14-year period. Here, he follows a character (played by Ellar Coltrane) over a dozen years, from ages 5 through 18 — in real time. As Philadephia Inquirar critic Stephen Rea wrote, “Is it dumb to say, 'Wow'?” … I don't care. Wow.”

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (3D and standard): Reboots are all the rage. And Jonathan Liebesman (“Battle of Los Angeles”) does what he can with our favorite surfer-speak mutant turtles. Whoa, dude, seriously?

“I Origins”: Mike Cahill follows his haunting Sundance darling “Another Earth” with this sic-fi-based look focusing on a scientist (Michael Pitt) who discovers that eyes truly may be a path to the human soul. Even if you don't wear glasses.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey”: Lasse Hallstrom adapts the book about an upstart Indian restaurant opening across the road from a fabled top-flight French eatery run by a demanding chef (Helen Mirren). Go light on the curry, please.

“Into the Storm”: The storm of several centuries hits the big screen, instead of opening on the Syfy channel where such disaster flicks boasting no-name casts typically play.

“Step Up All In” (3D and standard): The movie franchise that helped launch the career of Channing Tatum churns on with a new cast and a sorta new storyline. Let's dance!

“Deepsea Challenge 3D”: James “Size Does Matter” Cameron follows his own self as he braves the depths of the ocean in his Deepsea Challenger submersible. Question: How did he fit that ego in such a small vehicle?

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger”: Joe Berlinger (“Paradise Lost: The Murders at Robin Hood Hills”) documents the story of a former Boston mobster who may, or may not, have been a confidential informer for the FBI. Who to believe, a murderous crook or the government? Hmmmm, hard choice.

(Opening Aug. 15: “Rich Hill”: Winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, this film follows three boys who live in an impoverished Midwestern town.)

Lots to choose from. So go. See a movie. Enjoy.

Don’t eulogize Studio Ghibli just yet

I saw reports on Sunday that Japan's Studio Ghibli, the film studio synonymous both with the world's best anime and the man associated with it — Hayao Miyazaki — was closing. And I read the various eulogies bemoaning the passing.

Turns out the mourning may have been a bit premature. The reports seem to have been based on an interview with the studio's general manager, Toshio Suzuki, that aired on Japanese television. Seems Suzuki used words that were far closer to “reconstruction” — or, in English terms, restructuring — than words referring to any definite closing.

So, maybe the eulogies and cries of anguish were uncalled for. Maybe, since Miyazaki's retirement — which was announced earlier this year — Studio Ghibli is merely rethinking how it does business and will continues to churn our quality films. Whatever happens, Miyazaki himself doesn't seem too disturbed.

And if the studio does close, well, that would be too bad. But we'll always have such films as “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Grave of the Fireflies,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Howl's Moving Castle” and the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away” to comfort us.

That's some solace.

Take a dip into Water Monster

I've been watching music videos since the early 1980s, when MTV first began broadcasting the likes of The Human League, Men at Work, Pat Benatar and more to an audience hungry to see moving pictures along with their favorite songs. So I was pleasantly surprised when Adam Boyd, with whom I serve on the board of the Spokane International Film Festival, posted the embed below. It's a music video for the Spokane musical group Water Monster, and it was made by local filmmaker Sean Finley.

I should say that I'm a big fan of all three: Water Monster, Sean Finley and Adam Boyd. Take a look and you just might become a fan, too.

Hoffman’s final turn makes him ‘A Most Wanted Man’

One of the summer's little movie treats is “A Most Wanted Man,” made by the Dutch-born filmmaker Anton Corbijn, who emerged from the music-video world to make the Joy Division biopic “Control” and the downbeat George Clooney project “The American.” Following is the review that I wrote of “A Most Wanted Man” for Spokane Public Radio:

It’s never pleasant to memorialize someone, but the task is made even more difficult when that person was a public figure, had won an immense amount of acclaim and, for reasons involving addictive behavior, ended up dying too young. A two-fold temptation always exists: one involves inflating the impact of the person’s passing – the word “tragedy,” for example, is used far too often; the second, which applies especially to artists, involves exaggerating the legacy that gets left behind.

This is how I have chosen to begin my review of “A Most Wanted Man,” Anton Corbijn’s intense, riveting and darkly ominous adaptation of John Le Carré’s 2008 spy novel. In true Le Carré fashion, Corbijn’s film tells a story of people, some weak, others merely well-intentioned, navigating the dangerous waters of espionage in which lurk the single-minded sharks of political ideology. And standing at the film’s heart is the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

A leading man in a character actor’s body, Hoffman – who died in February of a drug overdose at age 46 – starred in more than 50 films. Moving effortlessly between independent and mainstream projects, he worked for a number of big-name directors, from the Coen Brothers to Paul Thomas Anderson. He earned four Oscar nominations and won for playing the title role in Bennett Miller’s 2005 film “Capote.”

But – and here is where I have to be careful – I would argue that Hoffman pulled off perhaps his greatest performance in Corbijn’s version of “A Most Wanted Man.” I say version because by condensing Le Carré’s 322-page novel into a 122-minute film, Corbijn’s screenwriter – Andrew Bovell – made some necessary changes to Le Carré’s story, the main one involving Hoffman.

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, the head of a German counter-espionage group that targets terrorists, such as those who had plotted the events of 9/11 while – to the German government’s embarrassment – living in Hamburg. A blend of rogue agent and instinctual predator, Gunther suspects an international philanthropist of helping fund Islamist terrorism. When a hapless Chechen immigrant stumbles into Hamburg, Gunther sees a chance to set a trap. The Chechen, a Hamburg banker and an altruistic immigration lawyer, all become pawns in Gunther’s plan.

Unlike the book, which splits its attention more equally between the main principals, Corbijn’s film is haunted by Hoffman’s Gunther. Overweight, chain-smoking, drinking at all hours – even while on duty – Gunther is the epitome of a man driven by past failures, by the need to do what he thinks is right even when all notions of right and wrong get twisted by political expediency. He’s a man whose strength of purpose is, ironically, what makes him most vulnerable to the sharks who pose as his allies.

Powerful in every way, and boasting the talents of actors such as Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe, “A Man Most Wanted” is fueled by Hoffman’s unique ability to explore the deepest recesses of his character’s soul. That it was his final performance makes his achievement – and I don’t think I’m overstating this, his very legacy – even more worthy of praise.

Hear a coroner’s secrets tonight at Auntie’s

For the past several years, some of the most popular shows on television have involved forensics. And crime scene investigation. And one of the integral parts of CSI involves the coroner, whose medical expertise aids the investigators in their attempts to ascertain the how and why of death — particularly murder.

That's television. In real life, coroners are far less expert than their fictional counterparts. And one person who is well aware of the limits facing real-life coroners is Robert West, former physician-coroner in Kootenai County, Idaho, and author of the book “It Can (and Does) Happen Here” (Abbott Press, 170 pages, $13.99 paperback).

Here's a short synopsis of West's book provided by the publisher: “When a loved one dies in a mysterious manner, we rely on coroners and medical examiners to tell us what happened. The stakes are high: Coroners seek justice for the dead, exoneration for the wrongfully accused, and closure for the families of victims. They are always on call and work closely with law enforcement.”

Smith will read from his book at 7 tonight at Auntie's Bookstore.

These cookies will chase the clouds away

Above: New Zealand's Milford Sound is often shrouded in clouds.

As time goes on, I seem to develop more and more ties to New Zealand. My former Bloomberg Government colleague, Chelsea Stone, hails from there. Her sister, the food blogger Delaney Mes, lives in Auckland. And my friend and former Spokesman-Review colleague, Dan Mitchinson, recently moved to the southern tip of the South Island.

Maybe it's time to make a return trip myself.

Ah, but while I'm seeing if that can somehow be arranged while I'm still ambulatory, I want to share the latest post from Delaney Mes' blog, Heartbreak Pie. It's a cookie recipe that I'm going to squirrel away for a special weekend.

One that will see me munching on cookies as I dream again of, mmmm, Milford Sound.

Friday’s openings: Beyond the ‘Galaxy’

Following Scarlett Johansson's transition into the Internet — setting her up for, hmmm, her role in “Her”? — a sci-fi week-of-sorts continues in the nation's theaters.

Friday's major openings are as follows:

“The Guardians of the Galaxy” (3D, 3D IMAX, standard): An offbeat team of space rogues must stand against dark forces to save the galaxy from a deadly menace … which is shorthand for Marvel Comics' adapting a minor band of characters dating back to 1969 (with a transition in 2008) to these contemporary comic times. Starring Chris Pratt and an almost unrecognizable Zoe Saldana.

“Get on Up”: Chadwick Boseman (“42”) stars as the great funk/soul singer James Brown. The fact that Hollywood felt it had to use the likes of Ice Cube, Pharrell Williams and Mick Jagger to inform contemporary audiences about who the Godfather of Soul was is … well, sad. And for most older audiences, unnecessary.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“The Grand Seduction”: To save itself from financial ruin, a small Newfoundland town tries to seduce a doctor into sticking around. Starring the American Taylor Kitsch and the Irishman Brendan Gleeson, this Canadian film earned four of its country's top movie awards (winning one, Gordon Pinsent for Best Supporting Actor).

Note: I''ve updated this post to include the viewing formats for “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Below: You want to know the real James Brown? Watch the documentary below.

‘Documentary Storm’ weathers well

In running down the ways that people could access “The Staircase,” the crime miniseries that I reviewed below, I found a website that offers free documentaries of all types. It's called Documentary Storm, and it gives you free access — say again, free access — to hundreds of documentaries in 24 different categories from Art to War.

It doesn't have everything (my first search, for “Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows,” was fruitless). But the overall selection does look interesting. I'm going to check it out this very afternoon.

New ‘Mad Max’ will be a Hardy adventure

I'd heard that George Miller was updating — or, you prefer, “revisiting” — his “Mad Max” series. But it wasn't until I saw the first trailer, which screened at the recent San Diego Comic-Con, that I could be sure. Enjoy the trailer, which I've embedded below.

‘The Staircase’ examines U.S. justice

Being a movie fan means that you seek film out wherever you can find it. It used to be that if nothing worthwhile was playing in the theater, you were out of luck. Then in 1961, recently released movies — instead of just oldies — started playing on television. A couple of decades later, home-video was born. And now, with Netflix, Hulu, various On Demand services and more, you can watch pretty much any movie any time you want.

That's what led me to “The Staircase,” an eight-part, six-hour 2004 miniseries that I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. My review follows:

Being married to a law professor makes me no more of a legal expert than does my obsessive watching of the television show “Law & Order.” What those two pursuits illustrate, though, is my long-held interest in American jurisprudence – especially in how that system is interpreted though television and film.

While mainstream movie theaters have opened little of interest throughout most of July – except, of course, for fans of Michael Bay, Melissa McCarthy and talking apes – I found myself looking for something a bit more mentally stimulating. And that’s how I stumbled upon “The Staircase.”

Actually, one of my wife’s Gonzaga Law School colleagues – Professor Ann Murphy – recommended “The Staircase,” which was released in the U.S. as a 2004 miniseries. And she lent us her copy of the two-DVD set, which comprises eight 45-minute chapters.

French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade – best known for having won an Oscar in 2002 for the Documentary Feature “Murder on a Sunday Morning” – focuses “The Staircase” on a 2001 murder in Durham, North Carolina. Novelist Michael Peterson was accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, whose blood-spattered body was found at the base of a staircase in their home.

While Peterson claimed his wife’s death was an accident, Durham police suspected otherwise. And in short order, they arrested Peterson and tried him for murder. With his cameras haunting Peterson, his family and defense team – led by the charismatic attorney David Rudolf – de Lestrade gives us as much access to the inner workings of the legal process as any fictional narrative. The difference, being, of course that “The Staircase” presents real-life people.

Yet I doubt any credible novelist’s twists, subplots and dramatic discoveries could compete with what de Lestrade gives us. You have the crime itself, which devastates a seemingly happy blended family that includes five children. You have the conflicting expert opinions on whether Kathleen’s death was the result of murder or an accidental fall facilitated by wine and valium. You have questions about Michael’s past, including his connection years earlier with a woman whose manner of death eerily resembled Kathleen’s. You have questions about Michael himself that the prosecution uses as a bludgeon against the defense’s picture of a perfect Peterson marriage. And you have the last-second appearance of an important piece of possibly exculpatory evidence.

All aspects of the case and the movie – which is freely available online – are well documented. And the controversies surrounding both are still being argued, with all parties claiming to reflect the literal truth. De Lestrade has even followed up with a 2013 sequel, “The Staircase II: The Last Chance,” which I haven’t yet seen, that apparently centers on questionable forensics used by the prosecution.

But regardless of the court decision, that search for a so-called truth is what makes “The Staircase” so fascinating. Does such a truth exist? De Lestrade’s movie would seem to answer no. It holds a mirror up to the legal system, and those of us who look tend to see whatever fits our own view of the world.

Auntie’s presents Jance tonight at The Bing

You may have heard of J.A. Jance. If you're a mystery fan, you probably have. If you're a fan of Pacific Northwest mysteries, you almost certainly have. Whatever, you might be interested to know that Jance will appear at 7 tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater to preview her latest novel “Remains of Innocence” (Morrow, 405 pages, $26.99).

Jance, who splits time between Seattle and Arizona, is the author of three different mystery series featuring the protagonists J.P. Beaumont, Joanna Brady and Ali Reynolds. “Remains of Innocence” is her 17th Brady book (she's written 22 Beaumont books and nine Reynolds novels), and it involves two cases — a death in New York, a murder in Arizona — that fall in Sheriff Brady's lap.

Tickets to the event, which are $3, are available at Auntie's Bookstore and at the door. Click here for more information.

Friday’s openings: ‘Hercules’ comes on strong

As the slow days of midsummer pass, and we all recover from our Michael Bay mugging, a number of films open in local theaters bearing themes as diverse as Greek mythology, 30-something angst and contemporary spies.

Friday's opening are as follows:

“Hercules” (IMAX 3D, regular 3D and standard format): Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as the Greek demigod. Still not ready for Shakespeare, Johnson takes on watered-down Aeschylus.

“And So It Goes”: Rob Reiner (“When Harry Met Sally”) returns with this senior-centered look at what happens when a working man (Michael Douglas), one, discovers that he is a grandfather and, two, is forced to take care of his preteen granddaughter (Sterling Jerins).

“Wish I Was Here”: Zach Graff (“Garden State”) continues to explore contemporary life, this time documenting the problems of a guy in his mid-30s who is having troubles reconciling his career, family and personal ambitions.

“Lucy”: Scarlett Johansson stars as a woman, used as transport for a valuable chemical, who evolves into a brainiac capable of doing marvelously nasty things to the men who had taken advantage of her. 

“A Most Wanted Man”: The late Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in this adaptation of the John le Carré novel about spies fighting international terrorism.

“The Fluffy Movie”: The comic Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias performs in concert.

And at the Magic Lantern: Nothing new is opening, though it will continue running “Life Itself,” “Belle,” “Ida,” “Snowpiercer” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Special note: AMC Riverpark Square is scheduled to open Richard Linklater's film “Boyhood” on Aug. 15. That's one to definitely put on your personal movie calendar.

‘Tammy’ is an extended series of fat jokes

Thanks to the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Margaret Cho and George Carlin, not to mention the late, great Bill Hicks (NSFW), it's possible to enjoy off-color jokes — otherwise known as politically incorrect humor — because a larger point is being made. In other words, fat jokes — as just one example — aren't just opportunities to laugh at the overweight. They are an opportunity to, maybe, laugh at our overall cultural obsession with looks. Or maybe they're the holding up of a cultural mirror inviting us to reflect on why such nasty humor is appealing. And so on.

Except in Melissa McCarthy movies. I've never watched her sitcom, “Mike and Molly,” so I can't comment on what happens there. But her movies? “Bridesmaids,” which won McCarthy — incredible as it was — an Oscar nomination, shows just how comedically talented the woman is. It uses her stature directly, forcing us to accept her as someone who doesn't fit standard norms of beauty but who still insists on blazing her own original path. And it is hilarious.

But in her succeeding films, “Identity Thief,” “The Heat” and now “Tammy,” the point has been less about the directness of McCarthy's character as it has been about using McCarthy's talents to repeat the same comic schtick over and over. Until, in “Tammy,” it's as if another lame “Saturday Night Live” routine has been adapted to the big screen.

“Tammy” is so stupid a character that she doesn't known who Mark Twain is. She doesn't know the meaning of the word “pattern.” She works at a hamburger joint and she literally has no idea what the Affordable Care Act does. In fact, the movie is so full of stupid and pathetic moments that I can't begin to list them all. The problem is that “Tammy” never actually melds McCarthy's talents (even those mired in her now tired mannerisms) with the overall story, which tries to offer up some sort of life lesson.

As in, apply yourself, get an education, find a job and work hard — no one says anything about not eating Doritos for lunch — and you give yourself a better chance to enjoying a happy life. Duh.

Without ever doing any of those, though, McCarthy's character still manages to attract the attentions of the obligatory love interest (Mark Duplass).All because he sees her inner beauty, don't you know.

The best thing I can say about “Tammy”? It isn't the worst film I've seen this year.

But it's close.

Spielberg’s shark is cousin to these ‘Apes’

I've already commented on “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which is leading the week's box-office. But I thought I'd post the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, if for no other reason than to emphasize how surprised I was at how good it is. A transcript of the review follows:

Summer hasn’t always been a hot season for cinema. In fact, until the July 4th weekend of 1975 – when Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” made it unsafe to visit the beach – summer was considered a bad time to release movies.

These days, other than the Christmas holidays – when Oscar hopefuls vie for attention – summer is the province of blockbuster wannabes. Just ask Michael Bay, who has never seen a summer-movie season he won’t mug with a handycam – which actually emphasizes something: Summer movies don’t usually rank very high on a critic’s quality list.

But Matt Reeves has changed all that. And he’s done it by making a movie about – well, talking apes. And it’s hardly the first one. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a sequel to the franchise reboot of a series dating back to 1968. That’s when the original adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel hit the big screen. Four sequels came in quick succession, followed by Tim Burton’s 2001 “reimagining” and this reboot’s 2011 prequel, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

That places Reeves, the talented director both of the alien-invasion flick “Cloverfield” and the vampire variation “Let Me In,” eight films along the storyline progression Boulle envisioned. Despite that late start, though, Reeves has given us one of the best “Apes” films since that moment Charlton Heston roared the memorable line: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”

What director Franklin J. Schaffner's 1968 film boasted in originality was offset by cheesy special effects. Nearly a half century later the kinds of effects Reeves has access to not only allow him to digitally depict individual talking apes with incredible authenticity but also to create an entire Apes culture.

“Dawn” picks up a decade after “Rise,” when a human-created flu – which scientists brewed up using Apes as breathing petri dishes – has decimated the human population. A band of survivors lives in what is left of San Francisco and is running out of fuel, which has caused their leaders to eye a dam that sits in Apes-controlled territory. Caesar, the genetically evolved ape from “Rise” (played by digitally enhanced Andy Serkis) is the Apes leader – and it is he, with his mixed feelings about humans, who stands between them and members of his own troop who would exterminate anything non-ape.

Like any good summer blockbuster, things in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” blow up real good. Cars, trucks, buildings, downtown San Francisco. But thanks to his screenwriters, especially Mark Bomback, director Reeves has plenty of opportunity to explore intimate moments – between humans, between apes and even inter-species. Sure some of those moments stretch credulity: My three-year-old iPad has trouble firing up in minutes, but a decade-old one in this film powers up in seconds. Right.

Still, no matter. The summer-movie season isn’t about literal truth. It’s about virtual believability. And “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is about as believable, and poignant, as a movie about talking apes could possibly be.

Enjoy the weather - and ‘The Goonies’

Tonight, of course, would be a good time to go and listen to Mozart in Manito Park. But if you prefer movies and you still want to enjoy this fine summer weather while it's here, then I'd suggest taking your family to Riverfront Park. Because that's where Richard Donner's 1985 film “The Goonies” is playing tonight at 7.

“The Goonies” is one of the mid-'80s young-adult films that, unlike John Hughes' work, is pure fun. Shot in and around Astoria and Cannon Beach, Ore., the film tells the tale of a bunch of outsiders — Goonies, if you will — who, in danger of losing their home, stumble onto a treasure map that leads them to an actual pirate ship. Oh, and they have to battle a gang of murderous counterfeiters to get the gold and jewels.

Donner, who is also known for “The Omen,” the original Christopher Reeves “Superman” and “Lethal Weapon,” employed a style that is pure Steven Spielberg in making “The Goonies.” Which is only natural since Spielberg dreamed up the story, which Chris Columbus fleshed out into a full screen play (Spielberg also served as executive producer and, apparently, is developing a sequel).

But maybe the most memorable aspect to the film is its cast, which is full of actors who went on to extended careers. Among the kids, we have Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman and Martha Plimpton. Among the adults, Joe Pantoliano, Robert Davi and the late NFL player John Matuszak. (Here are some other interesting notes about the movie.)

Like most Spielberg-influenced kids films, “The Goonies” strikes a tone that tries to appeal both to adults and children. As a result, it may be a bit intense for some young movie fans. During a recent at-tome screening, my then-5-year-old granddaughter started crying — though her 3-year-old brother wasn't troubled at all. So use your best judgment.

And enjoy the summer night.

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