7 Blog

Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Red Army’ tells the other side of history

My fascination with the former Soviet Union was amped up after seeing the documentary "Red Army," which tells the story of the USSR's legendary ice-hockey team. My review of the film, which I write for Spokane Public Radio, was broadcast this morning. A transcription follows:

For those of us raised in the decades immediately following World War II, that coalition of nations known as the Soviet Union served as an enduring boogeyman of international politics.

To us, the USSR was tanks and soldiers marching every Mayday in Moscow’s Red Square – the same kinds of tanks and soldiers that marched into Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian invasion. It was Nikita Khrushchev famously – though perhaps apocryphally – pounding his shoe at the United Nations. And it was, every four years during both the summer and winter Olympics, the epitome of sport.

During the winter, that meant – in the main – ice hockey. And when it came to hockey, the team fielded by the Red Army may have been the best the world has ever seen – a fact that Gabe Polsky’s documentary “Red Army” makes with both style and sensitivity.

Which is only fitting. Style was the hallmark of the Red Army hockey team. These were soldiers, shepherded into the military so that they could be trained, supported – and, let’s not forget, guarded – as part of the Soviet government’s drive to symbolize the superiority of the communist system. Choosing the best candidates from thousands of boys eager to play for their country, Red Army coach Anatoli Tarasov used a blend of unique training methods, adopted both from the Bolshoi Ballet and the USSR’s long tradition of chess mastery, to shape players into men who would become magicians with pads and pucks.

To those who would argue that these Soviet men held an unfair advantage over amateur U.S. hockey players, well, just remember the “miracle” win those U.S. players managed to pull off during the 1980 Winter Olympics. Remember also that from 1976 to 1991, when paired against teams from the National Hockey League, Soviet teams won 14 of 16 match-play series. Even NHL pros couldn’t stand up to the graceful Soviets.

The sensitivity of Polsky’s film comes, perhaps ironically, from the man on whom the director focuses most closely: Slava Fetisov, the heart of the Red Army team. Bearing a manner that ranges from brusque to droll, and unafraid to speak the truth as he sees it, Fetisov is the perfect person to narrate the Soviet story. It is through him that we learn about the Soviet team’s rise under Tarasov, the hell that Tarasov’s successor – the disciplinarian Viktor Tikhonov – put the players through, the pride that the athletes felt at representing their country – pride that would force them to skate until their feet bled – and the sadness they felt when, like the USSR itself, it all fell apart.

Fetisov and a number of his Red Army teammates would go on to play in the NHL – and he, in fact, would play a part in two Detroit Red Wing Stanley Cup-winning seasons. But the Soviet team, after winning gold in 1988, has won only two medals since – neither of them gold.

Polsky makes it hard not to see this as something sad. That, of course, is the magic of what he’s accomplished – making us feel sorry for the boogeyman.

‘It Follows’ plods patiently, chillingly toward horror

I've written about the confusion over the release of the horror film "It Follows" in Spokane. Jonathan Abramson, manager of the Magic Lantern, thought he had a good chance of opening the movie first-run. But the distributor, energized by the film's showing during its premiere weekend, decided to give it a wider release.

And so the movie will open Friday at a number of area mainstream theaters. (Click here for more info.)

What I haven't written about is the film itself. Because I was able to score a screening of "It Follows," I will do so now.

First, the plot: The film, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, follows Jay, a high-school girl living in a creepily run-down section of suburban Detroit. After having sex with her new boyfriend, Jay finds herself being stalked by a mysterious, horrific force. Sometimes that force takes the shape of an old woman, sometimes a naked man. But whatever form it takes, the force pursues her with a plodding, zombie-like intent. It is up to Jay and her small group of friends to find a way around this deadly threat.

It's not as if Mitchell has come up with a particularly original plot. Sex has always been a part of the horror genre, whether we're talking about Dracula courting Mina Harker or Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees dismembering scantily clad teens. And to be honest, some of the plot twists he employs feel just a wee bit nonsensical.

What Mitchell does do, though, is mine the talents of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, whose spinning camera captures both the cool colors of a timelessly weathered Detroit and the languor of the teen inhabitants' seemingly empty lives (adults are mostly absent, except as occasional carriers of the deadly force pursuing Jay). None of the actors is a name star (newcomer Maika Monroe plays Jay), but that serves to give them an even greater sense of authenticity than any star might have achieved.

It was way back in 1996 that Wes Craven deconstructed the horror genre with the first of his four “Scream” films. In that film, Jamie Kennedy's character Randy set up the rules that, he said, "one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie."

Those rules are:

1. You can never have sex. 

2. You can never drink or do drugs. 

3. Never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, "I'll be right back." Because you won't be back.

Since the "Scream" series, filmmakers have been working hard to find new ways to explore horror. Some have been effective: "The Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity." Some have been knowingly clever: "The Cabin in the Woods." Some have drowned their story lines in gore: the "Hostel" and "Saw" series. Most have depended on gimmicks. 

Mitchell depends mostly on the tried and true, mainly patient pacing, good (if inexpensive) production qualities and a judicious use of violence. The result may not be the scariest movie ever made, but then horror is like comedy: Just as people have personal reactions to fart jokes, so they tend to have unique reactions to things that jump out of the darkness.

This much is clear, though: "It Follows" might be the best-made scary movie of 2015.

KSPS spices up movie-going on Saturday nights

Above: Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci star in "Julie and Julia."

One of the joys of movie-watching comes from seeing classic films. It's always better when those opportunities occur in a theater, as when "Movies 101" hosted a screening of "A Hard Day's Night" at the Bing Crosby Theater last August.

But some of us take those opportunities wherever they're available. Ever since the early 1980s, when movies started being made available for home viewing — first on VHS, then laser disc and, finally, DVD — more and more of us have seen classic film in the comfort of our own homes. And now that streaming is available, either through cable or satellite TV companies or through services such as Netflix or Hulu, watching movies at home has become ever easier.

My wife and I recently binge-watched the Netflix series "House of Cards," and we just finished the HBO six-episode series "The Jinx."

But back to classic film. Since 1985, one way many Spokane-area movie fans have watched the movie greats of past years has been through Spokane Public Television's "Saturday Night Cinema." First hosted by former station manager Bill Stanley, the program now boasts three presenters: Jackie Brown, Shaun Higgins and Ryan Tucker. (Full disclosure: Higgins for many years was one of my bosses at The Spokesman-Review.)

The trio not only presents a variety of films — recent showings include musicals such as "An American in Paris" and "The Music Man" along with such film-noir selections as "The Big Sleep" and "The Maltese Falcon" — but they offer critical assessments of the respective night's showing. Upcoming shows include Brown opining Friday on the 2009 film "Julie and Julia," Higgins and Tucker tackling two religious flicks, respectively 1961's "Barabbas" (April 4) and 1947's "Black Narcissus" (April 11).

"Saturday Night Cinema" airs on KSPS channel 7 at 8 p.m. For information about online viewing, click here.

Friday’s openings: Try this new movie drinking game

If you still haven't seen "Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," you still have four days to catch it on a big screen. After a 20-week Spokane run, it's one of the films that is leaving Friday to make way for the week's openings. Last chance to see the Oscar winner the way it was intended.

As for those openings, they are as follows:

"Get Hard": Will Ferrell plays a convicted felon, sentenced to do hard time, who hires a black guy (Kevin Hart) to help him figure out how to weather the hell of prison. Hey, new drinking game! Down a shot whenever a racial/homophobic joke is uttered.

"Home" (3D and regular): This DreamWorks animated feature follows a familiar formula — an alien partners with a human to make a formidable team. So phone home, already.

And tentatively, "It Follows": Sex proves problematic to a young woman when an unknown force begins to, uh, follow her. And, no, the alien's name is not Trojan.

Horror news: ‘It Follows’ goes for a wider release

Jonathan Abramson, manager of the Magic Lantern Theater, has been talking for the last couple of weeks about a horror movie title "It Follows" that he hoped to open this Friday. He sent out word this morning that "It Follows" was NOT going to open at his theater.

He gave no reason. But it comes as no surprise. Consider this.

This is hardly the first time a movie's distributor has had second thoughts about opening its product at an art theater instead of a more mainstream location. Not that we've yet received notice that "It Follows" is going to open locally anywhere else. Word on that possibility is likely to come down later today. Or on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, my "Movies 101" partner Nathan Weinbender has seen the film and is high on its scare quotient. Especially, he says, during the first half.

Here, by the way, are some of the other critical reactions:

Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post: " 'It Follows' is one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. It's also one of the most beautiful."

Hazel Sills, Grantland: "Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, 'It Follows' is the latest in a long line of sex-as-horror flicks that somehow grounds its terror both in reality and in the otherworldly, making this a smart and thought-provoking movie."

David Edelstein, New York Magazine: "My whole life I've been a horror-movie freak, and I've rarely been as scared as I was at 'It Follows.' But it wasn't a fun kind of scare. It was the so-upset-I-feel-sick kind of amorphous dread."

Whoa on that last one. Too bad for the Lantern. But let's hope "It Follows" opens somewhere in Spokane.

Who doesn't like to sit scared in a dark theater? If only it were in the Lantern.

‘Ballet 422’: an insider’s view of dance

If you're into dance, or even if you're not, you might be interested in a documentary film that opens today at the Magic Lantern. I reviewed that film, "Ballet 422," for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription of my review:

Everyone appreciates art in one form or another. This is true whether we’re talking about the intricate stroke-work of an Andrew Wyeth painting, the clever wordplay of a Bob Dylan ballad, the electric feel of Maria Callas singing “Tosca” or the grace of Robinson Cano swinging at a fastball.

What most of us don’t appreciate, though, is the work that goes into the creation of such art – the hours spent both in thought and effort preparing for the actual execution of the work in question.

Take dance as an example. In his prime, Mikhail Baryshnikov seemed to defy gravity as he propelled himself off the stage and appeared to literally hang in the air. And yet for every moment in performance, Baryshnikov spent hours, weeks, years practicing his jumps.

“Ballet 422,” a documentary film that opens today at the Magic Lantern, offers us the opportunity to witness such process. Filmed over a two-month period in 2013, the film documents the creation of a Justin Peck ballet for the New York City Ballet.

Dubbed a “wonder boy” by some critics, Peck – a member of the City Ballet’s chorus of dancers – had shown early promise as a ballet innovator. So much so, in fact, he had been invited to attend the group’s Choreographic Institute. That invite led to a two-year residency and, in the summer of 2014, Peck’s being named, at the tender age of 26, the company’s resident choreographer.

Directed by Jody Lee Lipes, “Ballet 422” picks up as Peck prepares only his third ballet for the company. And Lipes employs an almost cinema-verité, fly-on-the-wall style to capture all – or at least much – of what transpires. We see Peck trying out moves in the studio, capturing the images on a smartphone. We see him working with the individual performers, taking them through the movements he sees in his mind’s eye and adjusting his expectations based on each dancer’s physical abilities.

And we see everything else involved in a big-time production, from the ongoing run-throughs to the costume fittings, the staging and lighting to the melding of the dance with music played by the company’s orchestra – all occurring as the hours count down inexorably to opening night.

We’ve seen such insider documentaries before. Two things, though, set “Ballet 422” apart. One is how it refuses to pander to the now-familiar conceits of reality television: Lipes gives us no talking-head reflections on what we are seeing; he focuses only on what his camera captures, whether that be of a sweaty dancer skipping rope or of Peck, sitting in the audience, allowing himself a quick smile as his work is met with applause.

The other is a curious kind of G-rated feel where – even in the cut-throat world of big-city arts – no one seems to have an ego. Where everyone – Peck in particular – seems like the nicest person imaginable, united in a desire only to create fine art.

“Ballet 422,” then, may or may not be a completely honest depiction. But this much is clear: It certainly is a refreshing one.

Jewish film festival: It begins tonight

Above: Israeli pilots featured in the documentary "Above and Beyond."

One of my favorite movie events every year is the annual Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival. (I'm still reeling, so to speak, from last year's entry "Bethlehem," which had one of the most shattering endings of any film I have ever seen.) Anyway, the festival has returned for an 11th year, and it begins tonight at 7:30, at the Magic Lantern Theater, with a screening of the movie "Zero Motivation."

Screenings continue on Saturday with an 8 p.m. showing of "The Green Prince" (a 6:45 festival reception will precede the movie at Boots Bakery & Lounge, which sits across the street from the theater), and then 7:30 p.m. Sunday with "Above and Beyond."

Admission is $10 ($7 for students and seniors) per show ($25 for the reception and Saturday's show). For more information, click here.

Friday’s openings II: Hockey and holiness

We've already covered the film that will be opening Friday at the Magic Lantern. But what do mainstream movie fans have to look forward to? Well, along with the usual mix of sci-fi and contemporary gunplay, we have a religious study and a documentary about the former Soviet Union's legendary hockey squad.

Friday's openings are as follows:

"Insurgent" (IMAX 3D, 3D and regular): This sequel to last year's "Divergent" stars Shailene Woodley as a teen who helps lead a rebellion against a tyrannical society. Can you spell dystopia?

"Red Army": They were the best Olympic hockey team in the world, winning three gold medals and eight world championships between 1978 and 1992, even though they did lose to a group of hungry Americans in 1980. Their story is a little more dramatic than you might think.

"The Gunman": Sean Penn stars as the title character, a former assassin who returns to the scene of one particular crime and finds himself the hunted. What, Liam Neeson wasn't available?

"Do You Believe?": A group of people learns that faith calls for action. Hey, what's Brian Bosworth doing in this movie?

So go see a movie. And, if you can, try to enjoy.

Home viewing offers a range of quality options

More and more, home tends to be the best place to see movies that make you think. That is, of course, opposed to movies that tend to stun (if not stunt) your thinking — in other words, movies so big and loud they overwhelm their plot lines and characters and any points they might be (often inadvertently) trying to make, often with CGI. Those latter movies are what tend to play best in theaters.

Oh, sure, you can go to the Magic Lantern, which I tend to do. But even with its revolving-door practice of film exhibition, often playing playing three to five movies and often at times that don't always fit my viewing schedule, the Lantern doesn't offer the range of viewing choices that home-viewing options do.

Just to cite one example: Netflix. If you are a Netflix subscriber, one of 50 million I might add, you have access to literally thousands of movies in virtually every genre imaginable. And more recently, the service has been offering original material, such as the ongoing series "House of Cards," now in its third season.

And then you have the other options, from Hulu to Amazon Prime, Comcast On Demand to DirectTV streaming. So, yes, your choices even over the past half-dozen years have grown immensely.

The question now is what, among all these riches, is worth watching? That, of course, is a matter of personal taste. But if you pay any attention to critical views, then you might want to pay attention to a recent online story. It is an attempt to mash Netflix offerings with the critical compilation service Metacritic, and the result is titled "The best-reviewed 17 movies on Netflix right now."

Check it out. I've seen 11 of the 17, and I intend to check out the other six. I still like going to theaters, even when all that's being offered is something with Liam Neeson carrying a gun. But mostly I go there for nostalgia sake, for a sense of community and to enjoy movies that need to be seen on a BIG screen for full effect.

Movies, in other words, whose primary purpose is not necessarily to make me think.

Friday’s openings: It’s dance time at the Lantern

Dance fans don your toe shoes and get ready for "Ballet 422," which is scheduled to open Friday at the Magic Lantern. According to IMDB, the Jody Lee Lipes-directed documentary takes us backstage at the New York City Ballet as choreographer Justin Peck shapes a new performance.

As you might expect, a number of critics are pretty high on the film:

Zachary Wigon, The Village Voice: "Ballet 422 is more visually sumptuous than most narratives you're likely to see this year, featuring careful compositions that make watching the film an aesthetic experience as much as an intellectual one."

A.O. Scott, The New York Times: "Ballet 422 elegantly conveys the complex collaborations behind even a relatively modest production, and the toil and discipline that somehow deliver, for the patrons on opening night, a seamless spectacle of grace."

Noel Murray, The Dissolve: "A documentary that's both impressionistic and informative-admiring the magic of dance even in its formative stages, while also turning the making of art into a kind of procedural."

So if you are a dance fan, or even if you aren't, you might want to check out "Ballet 422." And look forward to these films opening at the Lantern sometime in the weeks after: "It Follows," "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalam" and "Deli Man."  

Fridays openings: Bad fathers and wicked stepmothers

Fans of Disney and a hard-core Liam Neeson should rejoice over this weekend's limited movie selections. Friday's scheduled openings are as follows:

"Cinderella" (IMAX and regular): Kenneth Branagh offers up a Disney live-action (if-CGI-heavy) version of the classic fairy tale. Cate Blanchett playing the Wicked Stepmother? What, Meryl Streep was busy?

"Run All Night": While protecting his estranged son, Liam Neeson's character rouses the wrath of a murderous hood (Ed Harris). Imagine that, Neeson playing a guy carrying a gun.

I'll post the Magic Lantern's openings just as soon as they're available.

Cronenberg maps the way to creepiness

When nothing worth watching opens in local theaters, I turn more and more to On Demand or other movie-watching services. That's what drew me to David Cronenberg's most recent film "Maps to the Stars." Following is a transcript of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

For a guy whose feature filmmaking career began with Debbie Harry and exploding heads, David Cronenberg has endured far longer than many other proponents of exploitative cinema.

That’s due, at least in part, to the fact that Cronenberg – over his five-decade career – has managed to avoid simple labels. Such as, say, “proponent of exploitative cinema.” It’s also due to a style that, as it has evolved over the decades, has grown increasingly complex both in theme and style. It’s only in tone that Cronenberg has remained consistent.

The early Cronenberg made movies that blended well with typical drive-in fare. They carried such colorful titles as “Rabid” and “Videodrome,” his casts tended to include the likes of porn-star Marilyn Chambers, and the special effects – exploding heads, remember? – were often as cheesy as they were shocking.

These days – indeed, since the early ’90s – Cronenberg’s movies play art houses, and his casts include the likes of Viggo Mortensen, Juliette Binoche and Michael Fassbender.

Take his latest film, “Maps to the Stars,” which I saw on my Comcast On Demand service. Among its stars is Julianne Moore, who just won a Best Actress Oscar.

But even with better actors to work with and a filmmaking style that is as patient as it is proficient, Cronenberg has defiantly remained true to his haunted roots. You can take the man out of the creepiness, but you’ll never take the creepiness out of this man’s work.

Working from a screenplay by veteran writer Bruce Wagner, whose study of L.A.’s underbelly has been played out in books, graphic novels and movie scripts, Cronenberg tells the story of several movie-centric characters at once.

Moore plays Havana Segrand, a fading movie star whose mania involves her obsession to play her own late mother in a film version of mommy’s life. John Cusack plays a cliché-spouting self-help guru, Olivia Williams his wife, and together they harbor a shameful secret. Their teenage son (Evan Bird) is a movie star in a popular comedy series whose attitude needs a serious readjustment.

And around them all skulks Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), the proverbial girl off the bus who descends on L.A. with what, at first, seems to be a misplaced sense of confidence. But quickly enough she connects, not just with a jumpy limo driver (Robert Pattinson) but with – of all people, Carrie Fisher – who introduces her to Havana, to whom Agatha becomes a personal assistant.

How all these characters interact, and the trouble they cause for one another, reflects Wagner’s dark view of Hollywood’s dream machine – an industry whose cannibalistic narcissism has been addressed by everyone from Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald to David Lynch and Sofia Coppola.

But Cronenberg, as always, paints the place with his own trademark brush, one that feels like satire but plays out more like contemporary horror. You won’t find any porn stars, and Cronenberg gives us only one bloodied skull, but if “Maps to the Stars” doesn’t disturb your sleep patterns, you might be in serious need of a therapist.

Talk to filmmaker Aurora Guerrero tonight

One of the things I find most enjoyable about film festivals — besides seeing new movies, of course — is the chance such events provide us to hear filmmakers discuss their own works. Fortunately, sometimes you don't have to wait for festivals to take advantage of such opportunities.

Such as tonight. A screening of the 2012 film "Mosquito y Mara" will screen at 6 p.m. at Eastern Washington University's Riverpoint Campus. Specifically, in room 122 of the Phase 1 Building. More to the point, a question-and-answer session with writer-director Aurora Guerrero will follow the screening.

The screening, which is free, is sponsored by a Start Something Big Grant and by EWU.

Friday’s openings: This robot gots smarts

If you like artificial intelligence — and I'm not talking about the cyborgs that run Hollywood — then you'll probably like at least one of the movies that is set to open Friday in area theaters. Friday's openings are as follows:

"Chappie" (IMAX and Regular, no 3D): A mechanized police force starts to change when one of its number receives what many Hollywood producers already have — artificial intelligence. Hasn't anyone seen "Robocop"?

"The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel": Old English people find love and happiness in a run-down Indian hotel. For the second time.

"Unfinished Business": Vince Vaughn leads a team of business losers that is trying to score a big deal. It's a Vince Vaughn comedy, starring the "other" Franco brother, Dave. Which might be an improvement.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Mommy": Here's the IMDB description: "A widowed single mother, raising her violent son alone, finds new hope when a mysterious neighbor inserts herself into their household." Oh, and it's in French (with English subtitles, naturally).

So go see a movie. And enjoy.

Film program to remember, honor Oscar Romero

You don't hear the name Oscar Romero much anymore. Time was, though, El Salvador's Archbishop was in the news both for being a good man and — as happens so often to religious men of conscience — a martyr. It was on the 24th of March, 1980, that Archbishop Romero was assassinated, causing a world-wide furor.

Romero will be remembered in a special film program that will be held on Monday, March 30, at the Magic Lantern Theater. Sponsored by the nonprofit group Hermanas Spokane, the two-film program will screen the feature film "Romero" at 4 and 6:30 p.m. and the documentary "Monseñor: the Last Journey of Oscar Romero" at 4:15 and 6:45 p.m.

Tickets to each film costs $10, $8 for students (with valid ID). Funds raised will go to help build a sustainable library in El Salvador.

Subscribe via RSS