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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

‘While We’re Young’ may make you feel old

I always look forward to Noah Baumbach's movies, even if I don't always like them. In any event, they always have an effect on me, a point I tried to make in the review of Baumbach's new movie, "While We're Young," that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription:

Noah Baumbach is one of those auteur writer-directors who insists on taking you someplace personal. It might not be a place of your liking – for me, it often is NOT – but it’s almost always going to be someplace squeamishly memorable.

And it usually involves families. His 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale” explores the effects of divorce on a pair of brothers. 2007’s “Margot at the Wedding” features a woman ripping apart any vestige of intimacy with her sister. In 2010, Baumbach gave us “Greenberg,” which features a uniquely self-absorbed character – played by Ben Stiller – who, while house-sitting for his brother, trashes every relationship he encounters.

And now we have “While We’re Young,” Baumbach’s newest offering – again starring Stiller – and watching it left me more squeamish than ever. In short, “While We’re Young” explores the life of 40-something couple Josh and Cornelia – Stiller and Naomi Watts – whose staid, childless, middle-class existence in Brooklyn has become a bit predictable. Maybe even boring.

Certainly, Josh has regrets. Years of work on a documentary film has resulted in a six-and-a-half-hour cut that he doesn’t know how to finish. And he won’t accept help, especially from his father-in-law (played by Charles Grodin), an internationally renowned documentary filmmaker whose success Josh clearly envies. Cornelia and Josh – well, maybe Cornelia but certainly Josh, in more ways than one – feel stuck.

Then they meet Jamie and Darby, a 20-something couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, and things begin to look up. Cornelia and Josh, but especially Josh, feel rejuvenated. And instead of hanging out with their old friends, who have recently become first-time parents and are occupied with all the mess that baby-raising entails, they gradually slip into the hipster life: roller-blading, listening to music on vinyl, wearing a porkpie hat, taking a hip-hop dance class, etc.

Jamie, of course, is a filmmaker, too, though he has a much more youthful – read: clueless – style that is virtually devoid of substance. Until, that is, he gets advice from Josh and – maybe more important – producing help from Cornelia … and her dad.

When it comes, the film’s obligatory crisis involves mostly Josh. And this might make sense, and I might have cared, if I felt anything for him. But while nowhere near the jerk that, say, Stiller’s “Greenberg” character is, his Josh does little to warrant sympathy. He’s blind to his own faults, lashes out at those who want to help him, is desperate in his attempts to be something he isn’t and insists that just by doing what he thinks is right he deserves success. In other words, while Jamie might be clueless about style, Josh is clueless about life.

Baumbach deserves credit for putting talented actors to good use. Watts, Grodin and Driver – so good on the HBO show “Girls” – stand out here. And some critics are hailing “While We’re Young” as Baumbach’s break-through effort.

For me, though, viewing it was like enduring two hours of painted nails scraping a retro-hipster’s blackboard.

Friday’s openings: Who’s fooling whom about what?

Time to run down the weekend's movie openings, which is similar to last week in that several films are being released at once. This, of course, is mostly good — mostly because it gives us a better chance to see something actually good. Anyway, Friday's openings are as follows:

"Desert Dancer": Based on the life of Iranian-born dancer Afshin Ghaffarian, we learn all about his struggle to form a dance company in a country where dancing is outlawed. So, no "Flashdance," eh?

"Merchants of Doubt": Robert Kenner's documentary explores the world of so-called "experts" who speak authoritatively about such topics as climate change. In other words, well-paid Pinocchios.

"Little Boy": Religious tale of a boy who believes he can ensure his father's return from World War II. And he can move mountains.

"Ex Machina": Recruited to participate in an AI experiment, a young researcher finds himself involved in something much larger, and spookier: an outrageously expensive electric bill.

"The Age of Adaline": Blake Lively plays a woman who never ages … until she meets the man who may make her change her mind. Time, uh, will tell.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"White God": When a 13-year-old girl's father abandons her dog, she struggles to find him — and vice versa. Turns out, it is a dog's world.

"An Honest Liar": Another documentary about deception, this one explores the life and times of James "The Amazing Randi," an illusionist who devotes his professional life to exposing fakery — but then whose own life gets entwined with deception. Ah, but can he move mountains?

So that's the lineup. Something there has to grab your interest. Go out. See a movie. Enjoy yourself.

‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2’ earns a 0 percent rating

The reviews for "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" are out, and the critical one-liners — which add up to a cumulative 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — are flying fast and loose, besides being vicious.

A few samples:

Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News: "The cinematic equivalent of biting into an old brown banana."

Christopher Lawrence, Las Vegas Review-Journal: "During Blart's awkward convention speech, a fellow security guard is so inspired, she yells out, 'You go Paul Blart!' Yes, Paul Blart. You go. And take everybody involved with this mess with you."

Dave White, Movies.com: "Kevin James and Nick Bakay are credited as screenwriters, but that's only because 'Taking Naps' and 'I Went Out To Get A Sandwich' are not Writer's Guild credits yet."

Blake Goble, Consequence of Sound: "There was a point where I was considering writing a will because this film made me want to leave this Earth."

Mirren gives gloss to ‘Woman in Gold’

Some actors are almost always fun to watch, no matter what the film. Helen Mirren is one. The Oscar-winning performer ("The Queen") spices up the bio-pic "Woman in Gold," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription of my review:

I distrust inspired-by-real-life movie adaptations, especially those that attempt to reflect history. All too often they feature splashy casting, boast production values that seem drawn directly from the Masterpiece Theater library, and smooth out rough edges – in character, in plot and most of all in complexity – in an effort to make the final product fit the mold of palatable mainstream product.

“Woman in Gold,” which tells the story of an Austrian woman’s fight to reclaim art stolen six decades before by Nazi authorities, does all the above. Our protagonist, Maria Altmann, is played by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren. Production designer Jim Clay filled the same position on the 2012 BBC production of “Great Expectations.” And the script that Alexi Kaye Campbell wrote makes the legal issues addressed by your average “L.A. Law” episode look like a Supreme Court brief.

All that said, “Woman in Gold” is a surprisingly moving film. Director Simon Curtis, the same filmmaker who besides enjoying his own share of BBC-associated credits gave us 2011’s “My Week With Marilyn,” has crafted a slick, skillful and – yes, palatably mainstream – study of pain and angst, courage and long-delayed justice.

The film’s title refers to the 1907 painting by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer – who was Maria Altmann’s aunt. Bloch-Bauer died in 1925, and her widower husband fled Austria when German annexed Austria in 1938 – leading to all his possessions, including Woman in Gold, being seized by the Nazis.

Campbell’s screenplay tells two stories at once: We follow the young Altmann, played in part by “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany, from her childhood memories of her aunt to her breathless escape from Austria. And we follow the elder Altmann, now played by Mirren, as she consults with a young lawyer, Randol Schoenberg – played by Ryan Reynolds – about getting the paintings back.

The problem: They’re hanging in Vienna’s national art gallery. And a document, written by Bloch-Bauer, indicates that her intent was for them – especially “Woman in Gold” – to stay there. And so the film’s natural sense of tension is two-fold: How daring will Altmann’s escape be, and can the law ever give her rightful recompense?

Question is, how much of all this is real? Well, the basic facts, at least. Turns out there was a legal basis for Altmann’s suit, which Schoenberg argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court – though the case was ultimately resolved through independent arbitration. But as with all Hollywood versions of real-life stories, facts have been both stretched and invented – from a farfetched escape through gunfire to the casting of Reynolds to play the smallish, balding Schoenberg. Invention, though, is what we expect from Hollywood.

The question is, can some sense of authentic drama shine through all the gloss? Mirren, who can make the most absurd dialogue seem believable, does her best to make sure that it does. As does Reynolds who, though cast against type, is surprisingly good.

Credit director Curtis, too. It’s not easy to make mainstream melodrama look this good.

‘The Force Awakens’ with another teaser

Lucasfilm released the second official teaser trailer for "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" today at Star Wars Celebration 2015.

What do you think of the preview? Are you excited—or nervous—for the film's release in December?

Friday’s openings: Lots to choose from - even James Franco

What with seven movies opening on Friday, you're bound to find something you like. For once. Friday's openings are as follows:

"Monkey Kingdom": A Disney nature documentary follows the daily life of a toque macaque monkey female and her young son. Narrated by Tina Fey, but that doesn't make it a comedy.

"Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2": More of Kevin James as a dimwitted mall security guard. Maybe Tina Fey should have narrated. 

"Unfriended": A group of online friends gets haunted by someone, or something, using the account of their dead buddy. #thatsux.

"Child 44": An investigator in Stalin's Soviet Union goes after a child-killer. Wonder if he heads for Gorky Park?

"While We're Young": Noah Baumbach's latest study of contemporary life involves a middle-age couple (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) who befriend a couple of 20-somethings (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried). #lovethatfedora.

"True Story": Jonah Hill and James Franco play characters based on real people, Hill a fired New York Times Magazine writer, Franco the convicted murderer who befriended him. What, Seth Rogen wasn't available?

And at the Magic Lantern:

"About Elly": A group of Iranians gather for a weekend outing and have to deal with a series of unexpected, and unpleasant, surprises. #nonotdrones.

What a lineup, eh? Go and see a movie. And enjoy.

‘’71’: a unique blend of action and thought

Movies tend to come and go at the Magic Lantern. Occasionally, however, the theater holds worthy films over. And that certainly applies to "'71," Yann Demange's study of a young British soldier running for his life in 1971 Belfast, Northern Ireland. Following is a transcription of the review I wrote of Demange's movie for Spokane Public Radio:

Though each conflict carries its own personal stamp, all wars bear a few unspeakably sad similarities – brutality, torture, terror and death chiefly among them.

The struggle over Northern Ireland, commonly referred to as “The Troubles,” is a particular example. With underpinnings based firmly on the tortuous several-hundred-year history between Ireland and Great Britain, The Troubles generally apply to the three-decade span between October 1968 and April 1998. Throughout that complicated, internecine struggle – fueled by both religious and secular causes – military and paramilitary groups representing a number of competing factions hounded, hunted and often murdered each other. And civilians typically got caught in the crossfire. Some 3,500 people died in the process.

A number of films have tackled the war, from 1993’s “In the Name of the Father” to 2008’s “Hunger.” Some even deserve the tag of greatness: Paul Greengrass’ 2002 release “Bloody Sunday” comes to mind. Each offers its own take on the conflict. And now director Yann Demange’s succinctly titled “’71,” which is playing at the Magic Lantern, gives us something new: a thrilling, if sobering, thinking-person’s anti-war/action flick.

Demange, a British television director working from a script by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke, focuses on a young British soldier named Hook, played by “Unbroken” and “Starred Up” actor Jack O’Connell. A raw recruit, Hook finds himself sent to Belfast to work crowd control in support of the forces – official and unofficial – behind the city’s Protestant-backed majority. It’s during his first operation, led by a well-meaning but seriously naïve and inexperienced officer, that Hook and another soldier get separated from their regiment. And, after a series of savage events, Hook finds himself on the run, dodging those who want him dead and those who want to use him as a bargaining tool, dependent on either those who see him as a curiosity or those who, unable to reject their humanity, want to help him even as they desperately try figure out some way to get him out of their lives.

If Burke’s screenplay has a point, it’s that war – but in particular war as fought during The Troubles – is typically confusing, efficient only in its viciousness, and marked by psychopathic behavior in support of shifting interests brokered in the name of some larger cause. And in this struggle, the foot soldiers are treated – as Hook is told – as little more than meat.

Keying on the riveting presence of O’Connell, whose performance is an exercise in artistic restraint, director Demange tells several stories at once. As Hook runs blindly down back alleys, we are introduced to a range of secondary characters, from the British officer whose undercover activities follow secret priorities only he can fathom to the boy whose inherent sense of command intimidates those far older. By cross-cutting between these subplots – a skill credited to editor Chris Wyatt – and maintaining an action-flick pace, Demange manages to create a film that is both involving and informative.

What’s sad is that the information, old as time itself, needs to be shared yet again: War leads to nothing good.

Enjoy these ‘Wild Tales’ of mad revenge

And this just in: an addition to Friday's movie openings.

"Wild Tales" ("Relatos salvajes"): This Argentine nominee for Best Foreign Language Film features six different stories that, as Village Voice critic Stephanie Zacharek describes as the kind of "humanist movie" that "leaves us with no reassuring answers beyond a wink and a good-natured shrug." Written and directed by Damián Szifrón; in Spanish with English subtitles. 

One last, rueful look at our ‘Last Days in Vietnam’

It was on April 30, 1975, when the last U.S. troops left Saigon. Shots of those last helicopters lifting off from the U.S. embassy have become part of an indelible historical image. And, to be truthful, it wasn't our country's most honorable moment — despite individual instances of sacrifice and heroism.

Rory Kennedy's film "Last Days in Vietnam" takes us back to that moment. The documentary, which will screen on Spokane's Public Television at 8 p.m. April 28, is receiving near-universal acclaim. Some of the reviews make this clear:

Alan Scherstuhl, The Village Voice: "Vital, illuminating, and terrifying, Rory Kennedy's 'Last Days in Vietnam' probes with clarity and thoroughness one moment of recent American history that has too long gone unreckoned with… (T)his film is stellar, a dead-on stare at the moments this country tries not to remember."

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: "These stranger-than-fiction tales, piled one on top of the other in the most gripping way, not only mesmerize us, they also point up another of (the film's) provocative points, that the chaos surrounding the evacuation was, in effect, the entire war in microcosm."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "The story is full of emotion and danger, heroism and treachery, but it is told in a mood of rueful retrospect rather than simmering partisan rage."

KSPS is offering a free preview of the film, 6:30 p.m. Monday, at the Bing Crosby Theater. The doors open at 6. So get there early.

The week’s openings: Pacino and Sparks

And now we have a better idea of what mainstream movies are opening on Friday. The week's other openings look like this:

"Freetown" (on Wednesday): This "inspired by a true story" film tells the tale of Mormon missionaries, caught up in the Liberian civil war, trying to escape to nearby Sierra Leone. Gives new meaning to the term road trip.

"The Longest Ride": The recollections of an older man help a young couple weather their marital problems. Two words: Nicholas Sparks.

"Danny Collins": Al Pacino stars as a big-time music sell-out who, after learning that John Lennon once thought he had talent, is energized to reconstruct his musical career.

"Woman In Gold": Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds star in this "inspired by a true story" effort — the second one this week — about a woman suing the government of Austria for return of her family's painting (done by Gustav Klimt).

So go out. See a movie. Buy some popcorn. And enjoy.

Below: Enjoy the "Danny Collins" trailer in Russian.

Friday opening: Getting a divorce in Israel isn’t easy

This early in the week, we know only of a single film that will be opening locally on Friday. It's at the Magic Lantern.

"Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem": Having left her husband, an Israeli woman of Moroccan descent sues for divorce but must obtain a "Gett" — a document of permission for the divorce — from her obstinate husband. And he refuses. Remember the Oscar-winning 2011 Iranian film "A Separation"? This is the Israeli version, with all the twisted — and sexist — religious law inextricably intertwined.

Friday's mainstream offerings should be announced later today.

James shines in live-action ‘Cinderella’

After finally getting around to seeing the new mostly live-action "Cinderella," I had a mixed reaction. Following is a transcription of the review that i wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Beginning in 1937, when the animated feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” opened on theatrical screens four days before Christmas, The Walt Disney Studios showed they understood what it takes to make cartoons palatable to all audiences.

Just add in some cute creatures for kids, some action and romance for teens and a sense of classical drama – and a few adult jokes – for the grown-ups. The main differences these days from classic Disney involve the animated visuals, which depend mostly on Computer Graphics, and the comic asides: obvious fart jokes for younger viewers and more off-color jokes for their elders – the latter usually told fast enough that the kids don’t notice. We hope.

Oh, and sometimes the themes. As both a tacit recognition of our post-modern world and as a means of recycling ready-made material, Disney films have begun to deconstruct its take on old folktales. In last year’s “Maleficent,” for example, the QUOTE-evil-UNQUOTE fairy from “Sleeping Beauty” is portrayed as a rage-filled entity whose negative qualities were caused by a lover’s betrayal. Yep, just as it was man who killed Bambi’s mom, it was man who – in the case of “Maleficent” – literally carved up romantic trust.

Similarly, Disney’s 2010 update of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” puts far less stress on the novel’s whimsical word-play and deliberate nonsense to craft a more easily accessible tale of friendship, loyalty and female empowerment.

While both movies proved profitable, neither achieved much critical acceptance.

So now we have a new “Cinderella” – live-action, or mostly so – and anyone would be forgiven for expecting something different. Something better. But as so many Grimm’s folktales show, hope often leads to disappointment.

This new “Cinderella” IS different, in that it tends to avoid any post-“Seinfeld” ironic sensibilities. The tale is told fairly straight, if we’re using Disney’s 1950 animated version as a model. Lovely Ella is born to a loving couple and enjoys a dreamy life, and the early love she feels gives her the strength to weather her mother’s death, dad’s remarriage to the haughty trio of stepmom and stepsisters, then dad’s death and her own gradual descent into servitude.

True love will prove the ultimate salvation, though the path to that resolution is powered more by the tagline uttered by our young heroine’s doomed mommy: “Have courage and be kind.” And, yeah, this feels familiar, if only somewhat satisfying, especially to someone who thinks a modern version of the musical “Camelot” would be much more interesting were it to be told from the evil Mordred’s point of view.

This new “Cinderella” IS likely to prove popular to the very young, even if the CGI effects do little more than provide comic relief, and the off-key performances of such trained actors as Cate Blanchett and Stellan Skarsgaard feel as if they belong more to a production of “Macbeth.”

If nothing else, Lily James – the “Downton Abbey” actress who plays the adult Ella – proves a bright spark of innocent spunk. No amount of cinder ash – or clownish CGI – can spoil her appeal.

Anthony Quinn is ‘Barabbas’ Saturday night

Religious movies aren't my favorite genre. But I've enjoyed a number of them, especially those starring Charlton Heston. Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," for example, or William Wyler's "Ben-Hur."

One religious movie I never have seen is Richard Fleischer's 1961 offering "Barabbas," which stars Anthony Quinn and a host of international stars such as Silvana Mangano, Katy Jurado, Vittorio Gassman and Valentina Cortese, not to mention such American stars as Jack Palance, Arthur Kennedy and Ernest Borgnine. But I'm looking forward to it.

My chance to see "Barabbas" will come at 8 p.m. Saturday on KSPS, channel 7, Spokane's Public Television station, as the feature presentation of the station's "Saturday Night Cinema." And if you want to know more, you should listen to what Shaun Higgins — one of the show's revolving three hosts, including Jackie Brown and Ryan Tucker — has to say about the film.

Click here to access Shaun's intro. And then, like me, check out the movie.

Friday’s openings: Fast cars and lost soldiers

Movie openings are slim this weekend, unless you're a fan of big-budget, car-crashing, Vin Diesel-type male posturing. Because if that's the case, then the week's solo mainstream release is for you.

Friday's openings are as follows:

"Furious 7": The latest, and presumably last, edition in a series that began rather promisingly in 2001's "The Fast and the Furious." I say "presumably" because one of the series' original stars, Paul Walker, was killed in a car accident. And digital effects can do wonders, but completely replacing a human actor isn't yet possible. Not in any believable manner, anyway.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"'71": Jack O'Connell stars as a British soldier mistakenly abandoned on the streets of Belfast during a riot. Question is, can the kid remain, ummmm, "Unbroken"?

Time to go see a movie. And to enjoy it.

Check out ‘The Sound of Music’ on April 19, 22

It's coming more than a month late, but Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events will be presenting a 50th-anniversary special in-theater screening of "The Sound of Music" on April 19 and 22. According to the website, the two Spokane-area venues will be Regal's Northtown and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium theaters.

It was on March 2, 1965, that Robert Wise's production of the Broadway show-turned movie "The Sound of Music" premiered in New York. That opening was followed, quickly enough, by a March 10 screening in Los Angeles. The movie then moved to theaters across the country and gradually became the year's highest-grossing film.

I was one of those who saw the film at a special screening held in downtown Norfolk, Va. I was a freshman at Old Dominion College (now University), and I attended with my then-girlfriend, Terry. I had to buy special reserved-seat tickets, and I remember the whole event was treated like a night at the opera. People were dressed up, the line in front of the theater ran down the block and even at age 18 I felt all grown up.

Which is probably why, even given the film's saccharine qualities and looseness with the facts, I retain a sense of goodwill toward the whole thing. Julie Andrews was perfectly cast as Maria, Christopher Plummer did his best to bring a sense of gravity to his role as Georg, and the songs … well, unlike other musicals ("Camelor" comes to mind), the show's songs — by the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II — are virtually all hummable to a fault.

Then again, I was in love, the story was about young love and … well, love will cause you to forgive a lot of faults. Go and see for yourself.

On the big screen.

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