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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Climax’ is a wild dance toward the extreme

It played only a week, but the film "Climax" made quite an impression on those who saw it. That's not to say that it the impression necessarily was good. Following is a review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

You may not know the name Gaspar Noé, and you can be forgiven for that. Noé is an Argentine-French filmmaker whose work is somewhat limited – he’s made only five feature films since 1998 – and his films aren’t the kind to play at your average neighborhood multiplex.

That’s because Noé is what you call an extreme filmmaker, which means that he tackles subjects – murder, rape, incest, what have you – and explores them in ways that both stretch the imagination and test the boundaries of what even the most liberal among us might consider the furthest limits of taste.

Which might not be so bad except that while doing so he attempts to convince us, his audience, that he has an actual point to make.

I’ve seen only three of Noé’s films. His first feature, “I Stand Alone,” is the story of a butcher who, in addition to being a violent thug, ends up sexually abusing his daughter. His follow-up, “Irreversible,” was a cleverly constructed depiction of a single evening in which a woman (Monica Bellucci) is viciously raped and beaten and, in response, her boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) tracks down the man he thinks is the rapist and beats him to death.

Did I say “Irreversible” was cleverly constructed? Yes, because Noé tells the story backward, beginning with the horror and ending with a pleasantness that we know is only a precursor for the unspeakable events to come. And that construction arguably is what gives the film its sense of gravity, making it more than mere exploitation – even if most viewers would rather drink radiator fluid than watch it.

Which likely also holds true for “Climax,” Noé’s latest film – which just ended a short run at the Magic Lantern Theater. “Climax” introduces us to a French dance troupe that, on the eve of an American tour, holds a rehearsal in a remote schoolhouse. After a final run-through, the dancers celebrate by listening to music, by doing more dancing, by talking trash about each other, by smoking (some of them) and by drinking (again, some of them).

It appears, though, that someone has spiked the Sangria with LSD – at which point the party gradually evolves into a kind of sybaritic spectacle that further devolves into that kind of orgy that Caligula might have organized, involving – following some favorite Noé themes here – rape, beatings, emasculation, urination, death and, yes, incest.

Like “Irreversible,” “Climax” – this may be hard to believe – has some qualities, at least during the first 50 minutes (the point at which the drug starts to take effect). Noé begins his film by introducing his cast, each of the 20 dancers giving us a brief rundown on who they are by answering questions posed by an off-screen interviewer.

Then in an extended sequence, he has the dancers work out their intricate, gymnastic dance routine, shot in a single take, the camera buzzing in and out, up and down, making us less observers than part of the riveting action

At the 50-minute mark, though, Noé heads into an aesthetic netherworld, the point of which only he is capable of seeing.

‘Ruben Brandt’ is animation for adults

One of the more unusual films opening on Friday is attracting a curious number of reviews that work hard at saying, at least one literally, that it is an example of style over substances. But virtually all admire the style.

The film in question is the R-rated Hungarian animated import "Ruben Brandt, Collector," and it begins its run Friday at AMC River Park Square. Here are snippets of some of those reviews:

Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail: "Ruben's story may be as oddly illogical as any of his nightmares, but the animation here is a dreamy delight." (3 out of 4 stars.)

Peter Rainier, Christian Science Monitor: "If you have an eye for this sort of thing, and a passing knowledge of famous art, the film, if nothing else, will provide a fun opportunity to pick out a pageant of imagery from some of the great treasures of art history." (And, by the way, he gave the film an A-minus rating.)

April Wolfe, AV Club: "What's so grand about Ruben Brandt isn't its story or the characters, which are both abstractions. It's the animation-the detailed artwork, so dense that it warrants repeat viewings." (Also an A-minus rating.)

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "The story never fully lives up to the ideas, and the ideas themselves are fuzzy and scattered." (No specific rating, as usual.)

And, finally, the literalist:

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly: "It's a triumph of style over substance. But what style!" (The irony? He rated it at a B-minus.)

Opinions. Everyone's got one.

(Note: The embed below is in Hungarian. If you don't speak the language, just enjoy the visuals — the, uh, style … so to speak.)

Friday’s openings redux: Love and stolen art

There appear to be some additions to Friday's movie-openings menu, and some look fairly interesting. Decide among yourselves what intrigues you the most:

"Ruben Brandt, Collector": An animated film from Hungary that tells the story of a psychiatrist, the paintings that are haunting him and the thieves he hires to steal them. "Art is the key to the troubles of the mind."

"Cruel Intentions 20th Anniversary": The 1999 update of the 1782 novel "Dangerous Liaisons" is mostly notable for the star power of its then-young cast, which includes future Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Phillippe and Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar.

"Trading Paint": Join Travolta plays a veteran race-car driver (in a movie that looks like a Nicolas Cage hand-me-down).

"Gloria Bell": Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio remakes his own 2013 film into an English-language version starring Julianne Moore as the title character, a free-spirited woman in her 50s attempting to find love on her own terms.

That's it for the moment. I'll note any last-minutes alterations.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ returns to the big screen

Few lawyers have received a more admiring portrayal than that of the character Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's 1960 novel "To Kill a Mockingbird." Despite how Finch was cast in a less-flattering light in Lee's posthumously published novel "Go Set a Watchman," the Finch in "Mockingbird" is a decent man, intent on seeing that justice be done — no matter the cost.

Lee's novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is probably best known because of the 1962 film directed by Robert Mulligan, adapted for the screen by Horton Foote. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Mulligan's film won three, including Best Adapted Screenplay for Foote and Best Actor for Gregory Peck.

It's Peck most of us tend to see when we think of Finch. And it is his innate sense of dignity that comes off the screen when Reverend Sykes (played by Bill Walker) tells young Scout (Mary Badham), "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing."

Mulligan's movie returns to the big screen on two dates, at 1 p.m. on Sunday and at noon and at 7 p.m. March 27, at two Regal Cinemas' theaters: Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

In a time of racial and cultural polarization, seeing "To Kill a Mockingbird" just might give us some hope that things can get better.

Friday’s openings: Doppelgängers of doom

Last year, when "Get Out" earned Jordan Peele a Best Original Screenplay, he became the first African-American to win such a coveted award. In addition to critical accolades, the film was a box-office hit, taking in some $176 million — all on a paltry $4.5 million budget.

Now, comes the second act. Peele's sophomore outing as writer-director, "Us," is Friday's single major opening, according to the national-release schedule:

"Us": A suburban family of four's daily life is turned upside down when they are confronted by a quartet that seems to be their … doubles? To quote Walt Kelly's comic-strip "Pogo," "We have met the enemy and he is us."

As for the Magic Lantern, in addition to a second-run opening of the documentary "Apollo 11," it is opening:

"To Dust": A grieving Hasidic cantor, having just lost his wife, teams with a community-college biology professor to investigate what happens to a body after death. Don't let the description deter you: This is a dark comedy.

"Birds of Passage" ("Pájaros de verano"): During the 1970s, an indigenous tribe in Colombia attempts to take control of the drug trade in their area with tragic consequences. Very much not a comedy. In Wayuu and Spanish with English subtitles.

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

‘Everybody Knows’: Farhadi’s study in Spanish

I'm a sucker for Spanish-language films, partly because I've studied the language for years and can basically order beer — "una cerveza, por favor" — whenever I want. More important, though, Spanish-speaking filmmakers have made some of the most important films over the past few years.

So I was excited to see "Todos lo Saben" — which translates as "Everybody Knows" — and specially because it was written and directed by the noted Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has never won an individual Academy Award. Two of his films, though – 2011’s “A Separation” and 2016’s “The Salesman” – have snared Best Foreign Language Oscars.

It’s one of those curiosities that Best Picture Oscars go to producers instead of to the people who do the actual hands-on work.

That said, Farhadi is a much-respected artist who both writes and directs his films, and who concerns himself with serious issues of family strife, of clashing temperaments, of the power of long-held secrets and of the damage that feelings of lost honor can cause.

All those themes are explored in “Everybody Knows,” a Spanish-language film whose title translates to “Todos lo Saben.” Farhadi moved to Spain, at least in part to escape the censorship restrictions of his home country, and – likely because of his reputation – he was able to recruit some of the best Spanish-speaking talent.

Penelope Cruz (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 2008’s “Vicky Christina Barcelona”) stars as Laura, a woman living in Argentina who returns to her small-town Spanish home with her two children to attend the wedding of his sister. Her husband Alejandro, played by the esteemed Argentine actor Ricardo Darín, has – shades of complications to come – stayed home.

Typical of Spanish celebrations, the opening half hour of Farhadi’s film features one big party, Laura’s homecoming central to the festivities that seem to involve the whole town. This includes Paco (played by Javier Bardem, Cruz’s real-life husband and the owner of his own Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2007’s “No Country for Old Men”).

And this is where things get interesting. Laura and Paco have a past, one that involves both a love affair and a transfer of property that once belonged to Laura’s family but is now owned and operated as a vineyard by Paco and his wife Bea (played by Bárbara Lennie).

Unresolved emotions, both between Laura and Paco – but also between Laura and Alejandro and even more so between Paco and Laura’s extended family – still simmer below all the seeming good cheer. They come to a boil when Laura’s teenage daughter Irene goes missing and then virtually explode when it becomes clear that Irene has been kidnapped, references to a former tragic abduction made in newspaper clippings left on Irene’s bed.

All this fits filmmaker Farhadi’s favorite themes. Yet “Everybody Knows” is less a psychological study than it is a film that uses psychological complexity to service a generic plot – one that has more in common with a crime-based mystery-thriller than a sober study of domestic entanglements.  

Even the way the movie is filmed, with its editing providing the narrative a freer flow, is different – though this may be merely a sign of Farhadi’s new-found artistic freedom.

What endures is his touch with actors, in this case some of the best that cinema has to offer – not just in the cases of Cruz, Bardem and Darín but, too, with all the supporting cast members.

Farhadi’s career has entered a new chapter. And I, for one, am excited to see what comes next.

“Neither Wolf Nor Dog’ returns to the Lantern

You might have missed the documentary film "Neither Wolf Nor Dog" when it played last year at the Magic Lantern Theatre. If so, you're in luck because the Lantern is bringing the film back for a special one-night screening on Monday.

The movie was directed by Steven Lewis Simpson and adapted by screenwriter Kent Nerburn from his own 1996 novel. It will play at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are the standard $9 price.

The plot (from Rotten Tomatoes): "A white author is summoned by a Lakota Elder who asks him to write a book about his perspective. After a blundering false start, he is all but kidnapped and sucked into a road trip through the heart of the contemporary Native American landscape."

Randy Cordova of the Arizona Republic had this to say about the film: "The film is quite strong when it comes to creating a sense of place; you feel like a visitor in the tiny kitchens and museums they step into (the movie was filmed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and small Rushville, Neb.)."

And L. Ken Wolgamott of the Lincoln (Neb.) Star wrote this: " 'Neither Wolf Nor Dog' transcends its budget to become one of the most insightful contemporary Native-based films I’ve seen."

Dogs, wolves and Native American elders. What's not to like?

Friday’s openings: Teens in troubled love

Three different kinds of movies are set to grace the area's theaters come Friday, though at least two are bound to appeal to a younger audience. According to the national movie-release schedule, Friday's openings are:

"Wonder Park": A young girl rediscovers her imagination, and as a result she is catapulted into a struggle to save a fantastical amusement park. Move over, Walt Disney.

"Five Feet Apart": Required to retain a safe distance because of their respective life-threatening diseases, two young teens nevertheless fall in love and … well, you can imagine the rest.

"Captive State": When an alien force take over Earth, humankind splits into two groups — those who collaborate and those who resist. Guess who we're supposed to sympathize with?

And at the Magic Lantern (besides a second-run opening of "Arctic"):

"Climax": When a group of French dancers embark on a weekend rehearsal at a remote schoolhouse, someone spikes the punch with LSD — and some fairly interesting things occur. Some peaceful, some not so much.

"CatVideoFest 2019": A collection of cat videos culled from a variety of sources, including (and perhaps especially) YouTube.

As usual, I'll update when the area theaters finalize their bookings.

Spanish-language ‘Everybody Knows’ opens at AMC

The biggest complaint that I hear about the movies that open each week involves what people see as the endless parade of mindless entertainment. I mean, how many superhero movies can one see in a lifetime?

That complaint, of course, doesn't apply to the Magic Lantern, Spokane's enduring art-house movie theater. The Lantern continues to show a range of quality films, its current lineup comprising several Academy Award winners.

But neither does the complaint always apply to the area's mainstream theaters. The various Regal Cinemas show special lineups of Fathom Events features that include everything from Japanese anime to the Bolshoi Ballet. And Spokane's downtown theater chain, AMC River Park Square, brings in a regular rotation of alternative film — from documentaries to art-house to foreign-language offerings.

Alongside several showings of "Captain Marvel," the latest superhero flick that opens on Friday, AMC will also show a Spanish-language film translated as "Everybody Knows" (or in Spanish "Todos lo saben").

The film stars two Oscar-winning actors, the married couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, and is directed by the Iranian-born filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (the Oscar-winning director of 2011's "A Separation"). The story involves Cruz's character returning from Buenos Aires to her former home city of Madrid, only to be forced face past family secrets that emerge when her daughter is kidnapped.

Here are some critical comments:

Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times: "There's a lovely sense, throughout the film, of how real life sometimes interrupts things, the way a child's prattling disrupts the pretty wedding ceremony, or how even in the midst of grief breakfast must be made."

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: "The movie is not to be skipped. You should sample its mixture of bacchanal and gall, and revel in Farhadi's dependable deftness, as he sketches and frames his collection of characters."

Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail: "As he transfers his talents to a European setting and Spanish-speaking cast, Farhadi loses none of his remarkable ability to observe close relationships collapsing under stress."

People can complain. But the quality is out there, amid all the alien attacks and other examples of mind-numbing cinema — all of which, let's be honest here, can on occasion be pretty much all we want from a movie.

Just not all the time.

Lantern adds another Oscar winner: ‘Vice’

As I pointed out recently, the Magic Lantern is offering a refresher course on several of the Academy Award-nominated films from 2018. And the lesson continues on Friday as the theater opens the feature film "Vice."

"Vice" is Adam McKay's take on the life and times of former Vice President Dick Cheney. McKay, as you might know, directed the 2016 Oscar-winning feature "The Big Short."

By contrast, "Vice" — though it was nominated for eight Oscars — won only the award for Makeup and Hairstyling. Which is only natural, since the transformation of Christian Bale (who plays the title character) is remarkable.

As for the film itself, it's an exercise in how to blend bio-pic reality with the kind of fantasy usually reserved for comedy. And "Vice" does boast its share of humor, but … well, that's likely going to depend on your politics.

Whatever, here are some critical comments:

Leah Pickett, Chicago Reader: "You cannot simply sit and absorb this movie. Love it or hate it, you are one of its characters."

Peter Howell, Toronto Star: "The singular achievement of Vice may be its depiction of Cheney as more than a punch line and more than the mwah-hah-hah plotter behind George W.'s 'What, me worry?' demeanour."

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Adam McKay's flame-throwing take on Dick Cheney, played by a shockingly brilliant Christian Bale, polarizes by being ferociously funny one minute, bleakly sorrowful the next, and ready to indict the past in the name of our scarily uncertain future."

Let's hope that Travers' final three words aren't prophetic. 

Friday’s openings: This superhero is a true Marvel

Fresh off its first Oscar, which went to the animated film "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," Marvel Entertainment is looking to corner the movie market on Friday with the release of a single film:

"Captain Marvel": Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson plays the title character, Carol Danvers, who stands up to protect Earth from two warring alien civilizations. Look also for, of course, Samuel L. Jackson.

Larson won her Oscar for 2015's "Room," a film in which she played a superhero of a completely different sort. And if you're at a lost as to who her Captain Marvel character is supposed to be, then read this story from cnet.com.

I'll update when the area theaters finalize their listings.

‘Hale County’: an indelible American portrat

One of the five Oscar-nominated documentary features, "Hale County This Morning, This Evening," played in Spokane for a single night (at the Magic Lantern). I missed that screening, but I was able to catch the film because it is streaming through iTunes. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In the summer of 1936, the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans descended upon Hale County, Alabama, a rural area that sits in the west-central part of that Deep-South state.

Working on a magazine article, the two spent weeks documenting the experiences of three tenant-farmer families. And while the article was never published – seems the magazine editors wanted something a bit less poetic than what Agee gave them – the material he and Evans collected eventually became the 1941 book that bears the famously literary title “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

Eight decades later, Hale County has a far different look. But the feel – that of people living on the fringes of the American dream – remains the same. We know this because of a documentary feature titled – in the literary fashion of James Agee – “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.”

Directed by RaMell Ross, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” was shot over a five-year period. As a teacher and basketball coach, Ross – also an accomplished photographer – came to know both the community and its residents who these days, as opposed to the era in which Agee and Evans visited, are almost exclusively African-American.

And Ross does something unique. Instead of creating a narrative, one built around a storyline about the respective life-struggles of certain characters, he works to capture life as Hale County residents experience it daily, framing his film in sequences that often are starkly different.

One minute we may be watching a young boy, little more than a toddler, running from one room to the next. Then we may cut to a pair of young men standing in a yard, bracing themselves against the wind emanating from an approaching thunderstorm.

We may find ourselves viewing the county’s landscape from a moving car, both moving through a town filled with people on sidewalks apparently expecting a parade, and passing by field after field filled with cotton plants ripe for the picking.

We may see boys riding past on horseback or uniformed girls chanting cheers at a basketball game, glimpses of a solar eclipse, men and women moving furniture into a second-floor apartment, boys lounging in a locker room and even a woman chastising a little girl too shy to say her own name.

Ross doesn’t completely avoid introducing us to the characters whose life he is documenting. We do meet Daniel, a boy looking to play basketball for nearby Selma University. And we meet Quincy and Boosie, a young couple parenting their precocious young son Kyrie while facing the prospect of Boosie’s delivering a set of twins.

But “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” which was nominated for an Oscar, is no “Hoop Dreams”-type saga of triumph over adversity. Split into chapters bearing on-screen questions such as “What is the orbit of our dreaming,” Ross’ film is merely an artistic glimpse of a life, and a community, that most of us will never see firsthand, but a life put in a perspective that we can all understand: sometimes joyous, sometimes mundane and sometimes utterly, utterly sad.

Friday’ openings redux: Memories of the moon

And the final bookings are in. In addition to the movie openings I've already mentioned, this is what else to expect on Friday:

"Never Look Away": Nominated for two Academy Awards, this German film — directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — tells the story of a German artist who is tortured by memories of his past life.

"Apollo 11": A documentary film, screening in IMAX, about the 1969 NASA mission to the moon.

Here are some critical comments about "Never Look Away":

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "The title of 'Never Look Away' is deliciously ironic: This is one of the most mesmerizing, compulsively watchable films in theaters right now."

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: "Stately rather than stealthy… but you are borne along, nonetheless, by the clash of characters, and by the ironies of historical momentum."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "Even when it stumbles, it remains watchable and engaging, partly because von Donnersmarck possesses an old-fashioned Hollywood showman's sensibility."

In addition, AMC River Park Square is bringing back a number of Oscar winners, including "A Star Is Born Encore" (an extended version of the original film), "Free Solo" and "The Favourite."

Social Justice Film Fest begins Friday night

Above: A scene from the documentary feature "The Providers."

Those who are interested in social-justice issues should put this upcoming film festival on their calendars. I'm referring to the three-day Best of the Fest Social Justice Film Festival, which will be held March 1-3 at the Magic Lantern Theatre.

As I wrote previously, the festival, which is sponsored by a consortium of agencies, comprises 12 films. All were culled from the 2018 “Hope & Democracy” Social Justice Film Festival, which was held in October in Seattle.

The festival will begin on Friday with a 7 p.m. screening of the documentary feature "The Providers," which focuses on a trio of health-care providers working in a rural American community hit with both a shortage of doctors and negative effects of the national opioid crisis. The film will be paired with the short "Mexico: In Search of the Lost Migrants."

Programs will continue throughout the weekend. Each screening will be accompanied by panel discussion involving regional experts, including faculty members from UW Rural Medicine Program and, in some cases, the filmmakers.

Best news: The festival is free and open to the public.

Last chance to catch these Oscar winners

Now that the Motion Picture Academy has had its say, you might want to take a couple of last chances to see what 2018 films won 2019 Oscars. Several of those films are playing at the Magic Lantern Theater.

"If Beale Street Could Talk": Although Barry Jenkins' follow-up to his 2016 Oscar winner "Moonlight" should have garnered more nominations, it did snare the Best Supporting Actress award for the deserving Regina King.

"The Favourite": Nominated for 10 awards, this Yorgos Lanthimos offering won but a single Oscar — but that one was a stunner, a Best Actress honor for Olivia Colman, who was almost apologetic for taking it from the presumed, uh, favorite in this category, Glenn Close.

"Free Solo": This documentary feature detailing Alex Honnold's untethered climb of Yosemite's El Capitan was awarded the Best Documentary Feature statuette.

"Roma": Also nominated for 10 Oscars, this Alfonso Cuarón film earned three awards — Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography and Best Director (the latter two of which both went to Cuarón personally).

This is the Magic Lantern lineup through Thursday. And a particularly good lineup it is.