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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Friday’s openings redux: Scots, Danes and Germans

In addition to the movies listed below, two other films are scheduled to open on Friday. The added listings are as follows:

"The Land of Mine": This joint Danish-German production, which is set near the end of World War II, tells the story of a tough Danish sergeant whose job is to use a group of young German POWs to clear mines off a beach.

"T2 Trainspotting": Twenty years later, the protagonist of Danny Boyle's original film about a bunch of Scottish drug addicts returns home. And perhaps mayhem ensues. Again.

That's the lot. So go. See a movie. And enjoy.

‘Ghost in the Shell’ originator likes Johansson casting

In a blog post on Monday, I wrote about the new live-action version of the Japanese manga/anime "The Ghost in the Shell." I mentioned the fact that the casting of Scarlett Johansson has caused many to question Hollywood's practice of "whitewashing," that is using white actors in roles originally designed for non-white actors.

The controversy, which involves a number of Hollywood films, was covered pretty well in this 2016 Hollywood Reporter story.

What I did not do is include comments from anyone personally involved. Here, for example is Johansson herself, on "Good Morning America"

"I think this character is living a very unique experience, in that she is human brain in an entirely machinate body," Johansson said. "She's essentially identityless." And, she added, "I thought to myself … I can play this character. I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously."

Here's what the new version's director, Rupert Sanders, had to say to The Evening Standard: "We’re not making a small Japanese version of the film," he said. "We’re making a global version of the film, you need a figurehead movie star. The world basically cast Scarlett Johansson, she’s the person people want to see in this role.”

And, finally, the director of the original, 1995 animated version told the New York Times that he had no problems with the new version. In fact, Mamoru Oshii defended the casting of Johansson, and he gave a pretty good reason why.

“The Major (Johansson's character) has a Japanese name, but she’s a cyborg,” he said. “Her age and background are unknown, just as much as her nationality. In Japan, the characters in manga and anime are normally ‘stateless,’ so I have nothing against Scarlett playing the Major. In fact, I personally think she fits the image of the movie, and couldn’t have imagined a better casting.”

The criticisms aren't likely to stop anytime soon, but that at least is an added perspective from someone personally involved with the original production. In any event, Johansson had what is likely the best last word — for now.

"Any question of my casting will hopefully be answered by, you know, by audiences when they see the film," she told "Good Morning America."

Below: The YouTube video below compares scenes from the 1995 anime version of "The Ghost in the Shell" with scenes from the trailer for the new live-action version. 

Fridays openings: Manga and a baby boss

Amid the various controversies that hit Hollywood on a regular basis, one of the most recent involves what some people call whitewashing. That is, the casting of white actors in roles originally designed as non-white characters.

Think of Emma Stone, whose skin is nearly translucent, playing the character of Allison Ng — supposedly one-quarter Chinese, one quarter Hawaiian — in Cameron Crowe's "Aloha."

Now think of Scarlett Johansson playing the character of Major in "Ghost in the Shell," the live-action adaptation of the manga series (dating back to 1989) that went on to become a 1995 animated film, a couple of television series and even a second animated film (2015). Major's full name, actually, is Motoko Kusanagi who, though a cyborg, is clearly Japanese.

Johansson, just as clearly, is neither Japanese nor a cyborg.

The fact of this may, or may not, bother you. Regardless, you'll soon have the chance to judge for yourself just how effective Johansson is in the film as "Ghost in the Shell" is among those included in the coming week's national schedule. Which is as follows:

"Ghost in the Shell": Johansson's character is a cybernetic police officer whose special section investigates the work of a master criminal.

"The Boss Baby": Alec Baldwin lends his voice to the title character, a suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying baby who teams up with his 7-year-old brother to … save the world? Very loosely based on the children's novel by Marla Frazee.

"The Zookeeper's Wife": Jessica Chastain stars as Antonia Zabinski, a Polish zookeeper who managed to save hundreds of people from the Germans during World War II. Based on real events.

And at the Magic Lantern?

"My Life As a Zucchini": Based on a novel by Gilles Paris, this French-made animated film follows the touching story of a young boy who must adapt to life in an orphanage.

That's the list so far. I'll update as the local theaters finalize their bookings.

‘My Scientology Movie’: Two movies in one

The Magic Lantern specializes in playing interesting documentaries. One such film is "My Scientology Movie," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio:

Nothing inspires an intriguing documentary more than a good mystery. The unknown provides a ready storyline, and all the filmmaker has to do is find the right narrative in which to investigate it. Barbara Kopple knows that. Werner Herzog does, too. And mystery, in one form or another, has been the central feature of every Errol Morris film from “The Thin Blue Line” to “The Unknown Known.”

The mysteries in question, of course, come in a variety of forms. The factor that Kopple, Herzog and Morris have in common is the human experience: What are people, really, and why do they do what they do?

Director John Dower asks similar kinds of questions in his documentary film "My Scientology Movie," which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. The difference comes in the way Dower frames both his questions and his overall investigation.

For one thing, he uses Louis Theroux – filling the role of host, or what the British term a “presenter” – as his surrogate. It is Theroux, the son of writer Paul Theroux and a documentarian in his own right, who meets with various former Scientologists, who treads on – or at least near – private Scientology property and who oversees casting of Dower’s movie within a movie.

Which is the second thing that Dower does differently. He’s not content to copy Alex Gibney, whose 2015 documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” provides a stunning inside look at the religion that the late L. Ron Hubbard founded. No, Dower is more of an entertainer, and he imbues his storytelling style – fronted by the wry, nerdy Theroux – with a somewhat lighter touch.

And so Theroux oversees the hiring of a cast of actors whose job is to play out a number of scenes alleged to have taken place behind closed doors – scenes that in real life featured Scientology leader David Miscavige and, at times, one of his most notable acolytes, actor Tom Cruise. They play out under the direction of a man named Marty Rathbun, formerly one of Miscavige’s chief enforcers of church discipline.

So while we see the real Miscagive and Cruise only in archival footage, we see one of their actorly counterparts – the one playing Miscavige – commit misdeeds, including physical assaults, that stand in dire contrast with the real man’s shining public persona.

Then amid Theroux’s sometimes Monty Python-like bumbling confrontations with various Scientology officials, Dower does a third thing: He has Theroux begin to question Rathbun, the very person who is his main link to the disaffected Scientology community.

It’s a natural thing to do, because why wouldn’t you question the motivations of someone who had been active in the church for more than 20 years but who now is preaching against it? Yet other than Rathbun’s spouting a few profanities, the sequence never really goes anywhere.

Dower’s “My Scientology Movie” is an intriguing view. The part of the mystery that Dower neglects, though, is the very basis of what Gibney’s film explores: What drew these people to this religion in the first place?

Lantern continues to spotlight real cinema

The fact that nothing new is opening this week at the Magic Lantern simply means that you have one more week to see the films that are now playing there. And the range of those films, in both subject and style, is impressive.

The documentary "Kedi" is a study of the street cats of Istanbul. "A United Kingdom" is the based-on-a-true-story of the relationship (later marriage) between Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams of Great Britain. "The Salesman" is Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning film about how a husband and wife react to her being sexually assaulted. "Lion" tells the story of an Indian man's struggle to find the home he barely remembers. And then "My Scientology Movie" is a documentary that uses a unique style in which to look at the religion that L. Ron Hubbard founded.

As for that last one, here are a few critical comments:

Noel Murray, Los Angeles Times: "(Presenter Louis) Theroux raises troubling questions about psychological warfare and how devoutness shades into fanaticism."

John Semley, Globe and Mail: "What the film lacks in the way of harrowing, jaw-dropping revelations, it makes up for with Theroux's charm and breezy charisma."

Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: "At times it plays like an extended skit on 'The Daily Show'; yet its disorder also makes its insights — like how strongly the church's training sessions resemble acting classes - feel refreshingly organic."

The Lantern is scheduled to open the Oscar-nominated animated film "My Life as a Zucchini" on March 31.

Friday’s openings redux: Harrelson and MacLaine

In addition to the three movies that I listed below, two more films will be opening on Friday. They are:

"Wilson": Woody Harrelson plays a character with few personal boundaries who seeks out his ex-wife and the girl she gave up for adoption. Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes ("Ghost World"), it is a kind of comedy.

"The Last Word": Shirley MacLaine plays a forceful retired woman who wants to writer her own obituary and ends up befriending the young newspaper reporter (Amanda Seyfried) who is assigned the job.

In addition, if you didn't get the opportunity to see the Oscar-nominated animated film "The Red Turtle," AMC River Park Square is bringing it back for a second run.

Along with reporting no new openings, the Magic Lantern announced that the French-language animated film "My Life as a Zucchini" will open on March 31.

Friday’s openings: Laughs, thrills from the past

So what can we expect from this Friday's movie openings: How about more of the same? Maybe good, maybe bad, but definitely familiar.

The scheduled national openings are as follows:

"Life": A crew on a space station is the first to encounter alien life. Turns out it's hungry. See: "It! The Terror from Beyond Space."

"Power Rangers": A posse of Americans teens suddenly find themselves possessing super powers, which they use to fight an evil power. See "Super Sentai Zyuranger" (which was later adapted for American audiences as "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers").

"CHIPS": A couple of California Highway Patrol officers bumble their way around Los Angeles. See "CHIPs."

There might be more. There usually is. I'll post when the information becomes final.

‘Kong’ is all effects, silly story — duh

It's made a little over $73 million since its March 10 release, which isn't breaking any records. Still, that's a respectable opening for "Kong: Skull Island," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription:

The great ape called Kong first hit the big screen in 1933. IMAX technology has been around since 1970. Now, in 2017, the two have joined forces, and the result almost makes a good movie. Well, half a good movie.

That was the realization I came to as I walked out of a screening of “Kong: Skull Island” and I began to wonder what I had just watched. Up until about halfway through the movie, I had been lulled by the IMAX big screen and 3D projection into enjoying something that was little more than a visual spectacle. But the attendant story all that technology was trying to tell? In that respect, not so much.

Set in 1973, “Kong: Skull Island” is a kind of mashup between the story of Kong, which has been retold at least twice since its debut – in 1976 and 2005 – and another look at that ghastly American debacle known as the Vietnam War. Think “King Kong” meets “Apocalypse Now.”

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, working from a team-written screenplay, gives us a story that begins with an obsessed mystery man with government connections. Actually, it begins during World War II with two enemy pilots duking it out on a beach – but I’ll get back to that.

The mystery man (played by John Goodman) manages to arrange an expedition to a mysterious island. For the final leg, and for added security, he convinces the authorities to let him bring along an American helicopter company. Fresh from duty in Vietnam, the chopper crews are led by a commander – played by Samuel L. Jackson – who makes Marlon’s Brando’s Colonel Kurtz look like a wimp.

Before the jungle dew has settled on the chopper blades, mayhem ensues – which causes Jackson’s character to go on a quest for vengeance. A vain quest, I might add, because … well, the Vietnam analogy isn’t for nothing.

Anyway, the remaining World War II vet (engagingly played by John C. Reilly) meets up with the survivors of the decimated expedition – including an intrepid Brit played by Tom Hiddleston and an American photographer played by Brie Larson – and they all try to make it to the coast. Which is code, you see, for last chopper out. Because again, Vietnam.

It’s clear that the screenwriters strived to find a new story to tell, one that was something more than the traditional tale of it being beauty who kills the beast. But what they came up with instead doesn’t bear close examination.

Because little about their script makes any sense. Not the island masked by a perpetual storm. Not the hole in the Earth from which ancient lizard monsters emerge. Not the story that the atomic tests were a cover-up for an attempt to kill such monsters. Nor the fact that a giant ape lives here. And especially not that the ape in question passes up squishing Larson’s tomboyish character when he gets the chance.

Still, none of this matters. Not really. Not to anyone sitting in front of that big screen and wearing those 3D glasses. Not, at least, until the house lights go up.

Below: Enjoy the trailer in beautiful Italian.

‘Sense of an Ending’ joins Friday’s openers

OK, strange things are afoot at the Circle K, Ted. Quick: Name the movie reference.

Yeah, it's an easy one. What's harder is getting a final take on the movies that are scheduled to open on Friday. In contrast to what I wrote below, iooks at this point as if the new Danny Boyle film, "T2 Trainspotting," will NOT open. But along with about a billion-jillion screenings of Disney's live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast," another UK-inspired film apparently will:

"The Sense of an Ending": Based on the novel by Julian Barnes, this film tells the story of an aging man (Jim Broadbent) who is forced to look back at a past he might not be remembering quite as accurately as he has always thought.

Barnes' novel won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. In it, wrote the New York Times reviewer, "Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam."

Let's hope the movie is half as good.

Get ready for a ‘Big Bang Theory’ spinoff

I don't usually write about television on this blog. The exceptions I tend to make are for limited miniseries that I admire, such as ESPN's "O.J.: The Making of America," HBO's "House of Cards" (at least the first season) and the BBC crime miniseries "Happy Valley."

What I don't usually do is write about standard sitcoms. Yet I read something on IMDB this morning that caught my attention. It was a report from Variety that the creators of "The Big Bang Theory" have received permission to produce a spinoff. "Young Sheldon" will go into production and premiere during the 2017-2018 season.

OK, I can't think of a TV show that is both more popular, and more trashed, than "The Big Bang Theory." Having debuted in 2007, the show was the most watched series in 2016 (attracting nearly 20 million viewers). Yet the show consistently attracts critics among the public that lampoon not just its attempts at humor but its basic concept.

Here are just a few comments (courtesy of Reddit):

"I don't know if I speak for everyone, but it gives the impression of being a show for smart people but really it's just sex jokes over and over again. Just because it has smart people in it, doesn't make you an intelligent viewer for watching it."

"(I)t's a 'comedy for smart people' that is filled with dumb jokes. Making a dumb joke about smart things does not make for a smart joke. I don't enjoy most stereotypical U.S. laughtrack sitcoms, why would I enjoy this?"

"It's 'Two and a Half Men' + a thesaurus."

And those are among the milder critiques.

It's been years since I've heard television referred to as "the idiot box." But it's clear that the notion persists: Some people will watch anything. Not that I refrain from watching my own versions of escapism (anyone watch "Star Trek Voyager"?), but it's hard to argue with the great Groucho Marx.

“I find television very educating," Groucho once said. "Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book."

Friday’s openings: Beauty goes beastly live-action

Disney releases its live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast," and that's the main story of the mainstream releases for the coming week. The national schedule offers a couple of other offerings, but those are — as always — iffy for the local scene.

As of now, the potential look of Friday's openings is as follows:

"Beauty and the Beast": Emma Watson stars as Belle in this Bill Condon-directed adaptation of the fairly tale turned book turned movie turned cartoon turned musical turned, again, movie. Or somewhat in that order.

"The Belko Experiment": Put a bunch of people in a building, cut off all the exits and then tell them to kill one another — or they die. There, that's my pitch in 23 words! Whaddaya think?

"T2 Trainspotting": It's 20 years later and Danny Boyle reunites his cast of Scottish druggies (including Ewan McGregor) for another go-around. Choose life. Choose a job, Choose a career. Again.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"My Scientology Movie": Broadcaster/filmmaker Louis Theroux documents his attempts to reveal the workings of the Church of Scientology. And, for the record, L. Ron Hubbard died on Jan. 24, 1986.

The Lantern will also pick up a run of "A United Kingdom."

I'll have the final listings when they become available.

‘Emily’ tells a unique spiritual love story

Ryan Graves and Kelly McCrillis are graduates of Whitworth University. They both now live in Portland, where they are struggling filmmakers. "Emily," which opens today at the Magic Lantern Theater, is their first feature. Graves directed, McCrillis produced, they collaborated on the story that Graves turned into a screenplay. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Emily and Nathan have a problem. She is a committed Christian who faithfully attends her Bible study group. Nathan, her husband, has lost his faith. What’s worse, he may never have believed but had convinced himself that he did as a way to please the woman he loves.

But now Nathan can no longer pretend. And that’s a problem, one that Portland-based filmmaker Ryan Graves explores in his first feature film titled “Emily,” which opens today at the Magic Lantern Theater. Essentially, Graves asks two questions: What can two people who care for each other do when one of the foundations of their relationship crumbles? And, going forward, how can that couple reconcile such a split in basic belief.

This is the fundamental plot for what used to comprise your average Sunday-morning TV melodrama. It’s also a situation that writer-director Graves knows first-hand. A 2011 graduate of Whitworth University, Graves took the plot of “Emily” at least partly from his own life. What’s special about his movie, though, is that it neither resorts to cliché nor wallows in self-involvement.

Most art is based, in one way or another, on personal experience. What’s important in the creation of art is how you explore the meaning behind that experience. And the strength of what Graves does involves not just the quality of his film’s production but how he works out the thematic issues he raises.

Shot in "about 18 days," using mainly two Portland-based actors – Rachael Perrell Fosket as Emily, Michael Draper as Nathan – “Emily” was made on a $20,000 shooting budget, with another $7,000 put toward post-production. Despite these constraints, which included filming in Graves’ own apartment, the film has a tight, professional feel, from its cinematography through camera work, editing and use of music, that many such low-budget projects lack.

And since the story depends so much on its two principal actors, Graves was fortunate to find Fosket and Draper. For her part, Fosket imbues the character of Emily with a quiet determination that becomes the essence of her faith: She will not give up on the man she loves. Draper, in portraying a man who is caught between his love for his wife and his need to forge his own spiritual path, never makes Nathan seem less than human.

And in fact, it is the humanity of Graves’ film that makes it stand out from the recent flurry of mainstream movies that probe Christian issues, many of which are both aimed at audiences already inclined to accept the religious message and ever so condescending to those who do not.

Graves takes us somewhere else, to a place where love is valued more than dogmatic belief. He never says that Emily and Nathan won’t continue to have problems. He doesn’t try to convince us that Nathan will never rediscover the faith that he has lost.

What he does do is pose a far more fundamental proposition: That a more realistic approach to marriage is not one based on rigid adherence to a theological doctrine but one founded on empathy and mutual acceptance.

‘Kong: Skull Island’ won’t monkey around

Expect most Inland Northwest movies screens to be filled with ape antics on Friday, considering "Kong: Skull Island" will be playing pretty much on demand beginning Thursday night.

Don't believe me? AMC River Park Square is losing six films — say again, six — and will be replacing them with prints of "Kong: Skull Island" in standard frame, 3D and 3D IMAX. The other two major chains, Regal Cinemas in Northtown Mall, Spokane Valley and Coeur d'Alene, plus the Village Centre sites at Wandermere and Airway Heights — are likely to follow suit.

What can we expect from "Kong: Skull Island"? Well, it's no great stretch to say that this will another update of what directors Meriam C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack — with the help of a gaggle of screen writers — gave us back in 1933. It's interesting to note that, even though they use the same name for the creature (Kong) and the same basic setup (outsiders invading a remote island and encountering a primitive world ruled over by ancient creatures and a giant ape), they current production team gives no credit to the franchise's originators.

And that's the word for it: franchise. A quick search of IMDB shows a number of King Kong references, led by the major efforts in 1933, the Dino De Laurentiis production in 1976 (the one featuring Jeff Bridges and a briefly topless Jessica Lange), and Peter Jackson's 2005 version.

FYI: The one I want to see is Ishiro Honda's 1962 effort "King Kong vs. Godzilla." 

Anyway, if you wondered whether no-name director Jordan Vogt-Roberts had the required competence to helm such a potential blockbuster, know that the film has attracted an 81 percent positive rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Following are some of the comments:

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly: "We didn't come to Kong: Skull Island for the characters (well-developed or otherwise), we came for the damn dirty ape. And director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Industrial Light and Magic's Kong is a CGI showstopper."

Owen Gleiberman, Variety: "The surprise is that Skull Island isn't just ten times as good as Jurassic World; it's a rousing and smartly crafted primordial-beastie spectacular."

But, of course, there have to be naysayers:

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: "Nothing can supplant the charm of the original Kong, who, thanks to the film’s stop-motion process, bore a touch of the tremulous and the hesitant to go along with his chest-thumping might, and Vogt-Roberts is smart enough not to try. Instead, he turns the trip to Skull Island into precisely that: a trip."

Go and make up your own mind. You'll likely have lots — and lots — of chances.

Friday’s openings: The big ape returns

It's been a while since the great ape known as Kong has played the big screen. But another version is, at this point, Friday's only major mainstream movie opening. The national release schedule looks like this:

"Kong: Skull Island": According to IMDB, "A team of explorers and soldiers travel to an uncharted island in the Pacific, unaware that they are crossing into the domain of monsters, including the mythic Kong." What, did no one see "The Lost World: Jurassic Park"?

For once the Magic Lantern is working ahead. Spokane's alternative theater lists two opening films for Friday:

"Kedi": Fresh off its screening at the Spokane International Film Festival, this documentary takes a look at the feral cats that roam the streets of Istanbul. No litter for these kitties.

"Emily": A young married couple's happiness is threatened when one undergoes a spiritual crisis. Whitworth filmmakers Ryan Graves and Kelly McCrillis will be on hand to intro their film during Friday and Saturday evening screenings.

As always, I'll update when the local information becomes official.

Baldwin documentary one of the year’s best

When the Oscars were handed out a week ago, the Best Documentary Feature award went to the ESPN production "O.J.: Made in America." But though worthy, it had stiff competition. Below is my review of one of the other nominees, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Of the five 2016 films nominated for Best Documentary Feature, three deal with American race relations. And one of those films, Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” serves a valuable dual purpose: It both refreshes our collective memory of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and it introduces a great American writer to a new generation of readers.

James Baldwin isn’t exactly a forgotten man. But whenever lists of influential writers of the 20th century are made public, his name is seldom included. Yet as Peck’s film shows, Baldwin was an important voice during one of this country’s most turbulent eras.

Born in 1924, Baldwin was a precocious New York City kid who grew up facing prejudice both because of his race and, later, because of his sexual orientation. In fact, Baldwin was writing about the lives of gay men long before the birth of any kind of gay movement.

Having made connections in the New York literary scene, writing for such publications as The Nation and Partisan Review, Baldwin – to escape what to him was a stultifying atmosphere – moved to Paris. Then in his mid-20s, Baldwin blossomed, over the years churning out novels such as 1953’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” as well as essays, criticism and even stage plays.

Peck mentions some of this in “I Am Not Your Negro” – which is a line that Baldwin himself delivered – but his focus is on a period encompassed by the deaths of three major voices in the civil rights movement: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In the years before his own death in 1987, Baldwin worked on a book about the three martyred leaders – a book he never finished.

Using Baldwin’s own words, spoken with an understated sense of power by the actor Samuel L. Jackson, Peck shapes a narrative that both captures the strength of Baldwin’s intelligence and convictions while portraying the racial struggles that confronted each of the slain men – all of whom were Baldwin’s friends. Peck augments Jackson’s spoken narrative, which is drawn from a number of Baldwin’s written works, with visuals collected from a variety of sources: newsreels, television shows (such as those hosted by Dick Cavett) and – as visual footnotes – movies such as “The Defiant Ones,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “In the Heat of the Night.”

But even when our protagonist is put up against the charismatic screen presences of Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, or even King or Malcolm X, director Peck makes sure that it is Baldwin who stands out. And Baldwin makes the director’s job easy. For whether responding to Cavett, contradicting a pompous (and white) professor of philosophy, or in 1965 debating the noted conservative William F. Buckley in front of an audience of Cambridge University students, Baldwin commands our attention.

“The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country,” the prescient Baldwin says. How bright that future is, given recent events, is more questionable now than ever.