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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Magic Lantern offers three mysteries in one

A question of identity will be on tap at the Magic Lantern when the Friday movie slate commences. The lantern's new offering is as follows:

"Three Identical Strangers": A set of identical triplets, separated at birth, reunite — largely by coincidence — and prove to be ideal subjects for science. Among director Tim Wardle's documentary film's several sterling reviews are:

Gayle MacDonald, The Globe and Mail: "Wardle takes his audience on an engrossing, heartbreaking journey into the lives of three innocents whose lives became experiments for scientists on a quest to unravel how identity is shaped."

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: "So bizarre is the tale that Tim Wardle tells, in his new documentary, and so unnervingly mixed the emotions that it provokes, that the less you know about it beforehand the better."

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: "Well after the astonishment of its narrative fades, "Three Identical Strangers" is a movie to make you think twice about your own siblings - and maybe take a long look in the mirror at yourself."

The week’s releases: Denzel, Abba and the Dark Web

Denzel Washington may have won two Academy Awards for his acting, but in recent years he's been trying to reinvent himself as an action star — one, though, with a brain. Washington's newest film is one of three releases on the week's national schedule, which looks like this:

"The Equalizer 2": Washington returns as Robert McCall, the former CIA special operative who works freelance dispensing his own kind of justice. When a friend is murdered, he goes postal on her killers. Directed again by Antoine Fuqua.

"Mama Mia! Here We Go Again": The music of ABBA accompanies this story, building from the 2008 original, to tell the stories of two pregnancies separated by two-plus decades. Oh, Fernando.

"Unfriended: Dark Web": The week's third sequel, following 2014's "Unfriended," focuses on a teen girl who comes upon a laptop, whose owner will do anything to get it back. Even turn to Facebook.

As always, I'll update when the local theaters finalize their bookings.

‘First Reformed’ reflects Schrader’s confused beliefs

In his second feature film, 1979’s “Hardcore,” writer-director Paul Schrader told a story that was steeped in his own strict Calvinist upbringing. It involved a seriously religious man, played by George C. Scott, who goes from his Midwest home to California in search of his runaway daughter.

Why California? A private detective has shown the man a pornographic film in which his daughter is clearly featured. Over the course of “Hardcore,” Scott’s character engages in discussions about sexuality and religion that tell us pretty much everything we need to know both about his character and about Schrader’s own theological uncertainties.

Yet as Roger Ebert wrote of the film’s ending, it is “a mess, a combination of cheap thrills, a chase, and a shoot-out, as if Schrader wasn’t quite sure how to escape from the depths he found.”

Now, let’s fast-forward nearly 40 years. Schrader’s latest foray as writer-director has given us “First Reformed.” And, it appears, his obsession with – and uncertainty about – religion hasn’t abated. Nor has his ability to coherently address that uncertainty much improved.

“First Reformed” focuses on the Rev. Ernst Toller (played by Ethan Hawke) pastor, and caretaker, of a historic church on the eve of its 250th anniversary. He speaks to us, the audience, through a journal he has vowed to keep for a year, which marks the date on which he will burn it.

Toller is a solitary man, a former military chaplain still grieving the loss of his soldier son, whom he had talked into enlisting. The boy’s death in Iraq ruined his marriage, and left him reeling emotionally – until Jeffers, the pastor of the nearby super-church (played by Cedric the Entertainer), came to his rescue.

Or so it seems, because even Jeffers knows that while Jesus left the garden on occasion, Toller dwells incessantly in Gethsemane. And so when a young parishioner named – yes, Mary (played by Amanda Seyfried) – comes to Toller with a problem, it doesn’t take long for him to unravel.

Mary’s husband is an environmental activist so convinced that the world is going to hell that he has asked his pregnant wife to abort their expected baby. A tragedy soon ensues, leaving Toller even more shaken and troubled, especially when the rich business man who is underwriting the church’s anniversary celebration confronts him about his participation in a memorial service performed on, of all things, a toxic waste site.

This, of course, is the point at which Schrader makes an unfortunate artistic choice. Instead of working toward an ending that intelligently, and satisfyingly, merges all the loose plot ends he has conceived, he opts to engage in a kind of magical realism that involves futile gestures, self-mortification and, ultimately, a kind of fantasy dream-fulfillment.

The sad part is that in doing so Schrader wastes the good work of cinematographer Alexander Dynan – whose framing of every scene is flawlessly precise – and by Hawke, who continues to evolve as an actor in independent productions such as this.

In this case, though – to echo Ebert – Hawke ends up drowning in the depths that Schrader himself, again, can’t find the means to escape.

Catch ‘Big’ in its ‘classic’ anniversary screening

One of the things that bugs me about sports reporting is the use of the term "classic."

Take, for example, a typical Golf Channel special presentation about a "classic" match. Which likely will involve something from, say, 2015. Whatever match they show might be many things, exciting even. But classic? Not so much.

But I don't want to pick just on sports reporters. It's all just advertising anyway, another way to arouse attention for something the producers want to sell. And it applies to all kinds of media, including — and maybe especially — movies.

That's my lead in for the upcoming, and latest, TCM Big Screen Classics presentation, which will be screened at 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday at the Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium: The 1988 film "Big."

Now, I like "Big." If you'll recall, it features Tom Hanks — then 32 and still years away from his two Best Actor Oscars — as a young boy who mysteriously turns into a grown man, goes to work for a toy company and changes everyone's life, before … well, if you haven't seen the film, you should.

In fact, I would suggest you go to any one of the four different upcoming screenings. I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy the movie.

Just don't call it "classic." 

The week’s releases: Public lands, private people

And so there are two additions to the schedule of local mainstream theaters. They are:

"Leave No Trace": Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie star as a father-daughter duo who get caught living in a public park and, because of dad's PTSD, have trouble adapting to what most of us would consider to be a normal existence. Like … going to the store?

"Sorry to Bother You": An African-American man (Lakeith Stanfield) goes to work for a call center and finds the secret to success is his voice. His "white" voice.

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

Catch Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ at Northtown

At first, the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was hesitant about adapting Alexander Pushkin's novel "Eugene Onegin" as an opera. He thought the plot was too simplistic to carry a full three-act production.

After all, Pushkin's story — almost all of which was written in verse — involves a young man's spurning of a woman, his vainly trying to court her years later, and in between inciting a friend into engaging in a deadly duel. The strength of the novel is its poetic framework.

But Tchaikovsky reconsidered. And by 1878, he had finished his work, both as composer and librettist, and a year later the opera premiered in Moscow. Nine years later it opened in Prague, and four years after that it opened in Hamburg (with Gustav Mahler conducting).

Some 130 year later, Tchaikovsky's opera is still being performed. In fact, opera fans can see a production at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Regal Cinemas theater at Northtown Mall when The Met: Live in HD presents "Eugene Onegin" on the big screen.

American soprano Renée Fleming (Tatania) joins Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin) in the production, conducted by Valery Gergiev.

For those unfamiliar with the opera and its plotline, click on this handy beginner's guide. The head to Northtown, sit back and enjoy the show.

Friday’s openings: Vampires on vacation

Action and animation are on Friday's mainstream movie schedule, according to the national release schedule. The offerings are as following:

"Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation": When the Hotel Transylvania crew embarks on a summer monster-vacation cruise, Drac falls under the spell of the ship's mysterious — perhaps nefarious — captain. Ooooooh, kids, scary. 

"Skyscraper":  Dwayne Johnson plays a security analyst who, while assessing the safety of the world's tallest building, is blamed for the fire that threatens the top floors where his family is trapped. Hot town, summer in the city …

And at the Magic Lantern:

"The Gospel According to Andre": Documentary filmmaker Kate Novack explores the life and times of fashion designer André Leon Talley.

"Hearts Beat Loud": Nick Offerman stars as the father of a young woman (Kiersey Clemons) whose plans for college get disrupted when the two of them co-write a hit song. Can you Spotify?

As always, I'll update when the local theaters finalize their bookings.

‘Sicario’ sequel offers an artistic dark view

One of the movies I saw last week was "Sicario: Day of the Soldado," Stefano Sollima's sequel to Denis Villeneuve's 2015 original film "Sicario." Following the the review of Sollima's film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

We’re set squarely in the middle of the summer-movie season, a time traditionally reserved for superhero and other kinds of blockbusters. When we encounter evil – a murderous alien, say, or a hungry shark – we typically also meet the people (women as well as men) who band together as the forces of good.

The two “Sicario” films take a different route. The 2015 original, which was directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script by Taylor Sheridan, was a taut, mean little study about the fight against what some people – including the current resident of the White House – see as a dire threat: Mexico’s drug cartels. Whatever the truth of that viewpoint, the original “Sicario” showed Villeneuve at his best, creating a world that is frightening and compelling in its ability to pull us into Sheridan’s dark fantasies.

The central character of that film, an FBI agent played by Emily Blunt, is nowhere to be seen in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” a sequel – also written by Sheridan – but this time directed by Italian-born director Stefano Sollima, one of the directors of the Italian-language TV series “Gomorrah.” But as the original “Sicario” ultimately proved, Blunt’s character was merely a tool, used by a maverick CIA agent named Matt Graver (played by Josh Brolin) and his rogue colleague Alejandro Gillick (played by Benicio del Toro).

Graver and Gillick return in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” a film that picks up where the original left off. This time the actions of the duo demonstrate even better the arrogance, and the duplicity, of the authorities that command them.

Alarmed by a suicide-bombing that occurs in the American heartland – in a Kansas City supermarket, to be specific – the U.S. Department of Defense (headed by a character played by Matthew Modine) decides to enlist Graver to solve the problem. Their plan: to start a conflict between the cartel leaders, thinking that they’ll engage in a civil war that will eliminate them all.

To that end, Graver – having again enlisted Gillick – embarks on a mission to kidnap one of the cartel leader’s daughters (played by Isabela Moner). But things go wrong, as they so often do, and Modine’s character orders a shutdown. And a cleanup. Which means the elimination both of the girl and of Gillick.

That’s where things get really interesting. The other part of the plot involves a young man, a U.S. citizen of Mexican heritage (played by Elijah Rodriguez), who gets enlisted by his cousin to work for one of the cartel bosses. Ultimately, his fate gets intertwined with Gillick’s in a way that makes a “Sicario 3” almost obligatory.

Sollima is no Villeneuve, which is hardly surprising. Few filmmakers can match Villeneuve’s talent for blending arresting visuals with a coherent narrative. But Sollima does have enough skill to keep “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” interesting, even when Sheridan’s script opts to exploit political points for mere excitement.

And credit Sollima for having the great good sense to use Brolin and especially del Toro in ways that give each the freedom to haunt the screen as well as anyone can.

Get ready for some ‘Fireworks’ tonight, Saturday

Fans of Japanese animation remember Makoto Shinkai's 2016 film "Your Name," which told a story of two young teenagers who — in a twist of interwoven fate — end up switching bodies. The comic, and not so comic, experiences they then face are a prelude to their ultimately — maybe — finding each other when the situation gets corrected.

So, get ready for a similar venture, presented by the same producer, tonight and Saturday when another Japanese animated fantasy comes to local screens (an earlier screening was held on Tuesday). "Fireworks, Should We See It From the Side or the Bottom," a film co-directed by Akiyuki Shinbô and Nobuyuki Takeuchi, will screen again at 7 tonight and at 12:55 p.m. Saturday at Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

Tonight's screening will be in original language (with English subtitles), while Saturday's will be dubbed.

The film involves a teenage girl who draws the attention of two boys, classmates and best friends who vie for the girl's attention. A magic orb enters the scene, allowing the characters to play with time. And maybe make their lives better.

And who hasn't wished for such a magical object at least once in their lives?

The week’s openings redux: Go west, old coot

Looks as if there's one addition to the week's collection of movie openings. Set to open on Friday is:

"Boundaries": Christopher Plummer stars as a guy who, after being kicked out of his nursing home — he deals pot, apparently — is driven across country by his daughter (Vera Farming) and her son (Lewis MacDougall). Radical, man.

That's it for this week. So go, see a movie. And even if you have to skip July 4th festivities, enjoy.

The week’s openings: Small superheroes, big mountains

It's a split week, what with the holiday right in the middle. So, according to the national movie-release schedule, we have a Wednesday opening and one on Friday. They are:


"The First Purge": You can only have so many sequels, so the producers of this franchise have reverted to … a prequel, giving us the background on how the whole Purge process started. Straight from the headlines.


"Ant-Man and the Wasp": Paul Rudd returns as the pint-size (at times) superhero, only this time he is joined by Evangeline Lilly as his new partner — The Wasp.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Mountain": This 2017 documentary is basically a love letter the the world's highest peaks.

As always, I'll update when the local theater finalize their schedules.

Fred Rogers: a bona-fide good neighbor

I had the chance to see the documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

My first impression of Fred Rogers was not particularly favorable. I found the host of the popular children’s TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” strange and off-putting, square to the point of absurdity.

I was then in my 20s ,and I shared my thoughts to a close friend who had children. And my friend, who at the time was every bit as cynical about the world as I, was uncharacteristically dismissive in his reply.

“My kids love the guy,” he said. “They can’t get enough of him.”

I’d like to say that my friend’s reaction changed my mind. But I would be lying. Still, they did make me wonder: What did the kids see that I did not? What was I missing?

Well, all these years later the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” gave me an answer. In this collection of the late host’s interviews, of commentaries provided by others – from friend and colleagues to family members and celebrities such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma – filmmaker Morgan Neville gets right to the heart of Rogers’ appeal, which children picked up almost immediately:

He was genuinely kind and concerned, and he exhibited what most people, especially children, need most: total and unequivocal acceptance.

To quote the man himself, “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they're loved and capable of loving.”

What’s more, it was no act. In interview after interview, those whom Neville talks to don’t refuse to dish dirt, they simply can’t seem to find any dirt worth dishing. Not that Rogers was a saint, even if he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. He had his doubts, his fears and even if he – as his wife explained – was unable to express his anger in words, he himself explains that he could express it through music. Banging on a piano, for example.

Professionally, Rogers began working in television in 1953. Only a couple of years out of college, he took a job in programming for the Pittsburgh community television station WQED. It wasn’t until 1966 that Rogers debuted “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for the station, and not until two years later did the show begin airing on Public Broadcasting stations around the country. It remained a PBS mainstay until Rogers retired in 2001.

The show, for those who never saw it, offered a stark contrast to regular children’s program. As producer Margaret Whitmer said, “If you take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have ‘Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.’ Low production values, simple set, an unlikely star.”

“Yet,” Whitmer added, “it worked.”

Part of what made the show different, other than the respect it had for its audience, was how serious Rogers was about explaining the confusing vagaries of life to children. He had no qualms about tackling such touchy issues as divorce or racism, and he even dedicated one show to – following the death of Robert Kennedy – the topic of assassination.

But the real draw was Rogers himself. Kids could see right away how genuine he was, even if it took some adults decades longer.

Barry Keoghan: He can sure hide his Irish

One of the most impressive talents that many international actors are capable of involves affecting an American accent. Think about the likes of Cate Blanchett or Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan (especially in "Lady Bird") or Kenneth Branagh.

And then think of Barry Keoghan, the Irish actor from "The Killing of a Sacred Deer," "Dunkirk" and most recently "American Animals." The accent that Keoghan (which is pronounced something like Kee-own) puts on may not resemble a specific locale, especially since the character he plays is supposed to be from Kentucky.

But go see "American Animals" and then listen to his actual accent in the interview embedded below and compare. His work is excellent.

Click on the embed and see.

Friday’s openings redux: A bit of India comes

Continuing with its recent trend of showing Hindi-language films, AMC River Park Square will include among its Friday movie openings the Indian film "Sanju." The other films already announced will open as well:

"Sanju": Based on the life of Indian actor Sanjay Dutt, this Hindi-language film (with English subtitles) explores the story of a man who rose to the heights of Indian life while, at the same time, fell to its depths.

The film, which was directed by famed Bollywood director Rajkumar Hirani, reportedly is opening on some 4,000 screens across India alone.

Also, the Magic Lantern isn't opening anything new this Friday. The theater has announced it will open the documentary "Mountain" on July 6.

Last chance to catch ‘West Side Story’

I was 14 or so when I first saw "West Side Story." I was living in Hawaii at the time, and I'd gone with a bunch of other kids to see the film at an outdoor theater at the naval air station at Barbers Point.

When the film was over, as everybody else trailed out, I stayed in my seat. I didn't want anyone to see me crying.

Movies have always affected me emotionally. And that's especially true for movies that explore great themes, such as the Romeo and Juliet plotline that Ernest Lehman (working from Arthur Laurents' stage play book) wrote for the Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise-directed film.

And let's not ignore the musical score of Leonard Bernstein (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim).

"West Side Story" is the subject of a special screening at a couple of local Regal Cinemas-owned theaters: Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium. Two showings will be held at both theaters Wednesday, at 2 and 7 p.m.

Once again, you can watch a young Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer fall in love, watch the Jets and the Sharks dance-fight and enjoy the Oscar-winning performances of Rita Moreno and George Chakiris (the film won five Oscars in all). And all on a big screen.

Just don't let anyone catch you crying at movie's end.

(BTW: Here's a great interview with the film's screenwriter, Lehman, on how he practiced his craft. Lehman was the guy who did scripts for such films as "Sabrina," "North by Northwest," "The Sound of Music" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?")