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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

In the world of ‘Frank,’ quirky is as quirky does

When I read album reviews on sites like Pitchfork or NME, I often find myself getting frustrated (and I meant often) when the critic reviews an artist’s persona instead of the talent exhibited on his or her recorded output. (An example I just made up: “This music is unlistenable and pretentious, but they recorded the album in a little girl’s treehouse, and that’s pretty cool. BEST NEW MUSIC.”) Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed the new dark comedy “Frank,” which concerns a (somewhat terrible) band with an off-putting name (don’t even bother pronouncing the Soronprfbs) that becomes a viral hit due to the eccentricities of its frontman. If you missed the film while it was playing at the Magic Lantern, it’s now available on demand and as a digital rental through iTunes, and I think it’s worth a watch. A transcript of my review, which was broadcast on Spokane Public Radio last weekend, is below:

In 1983, a handsome blonde man from Alberta, Canada, walked into an L.A. recording studio looking to lay down some tracks. He simply called himself Lewis, and he came armed with a handful of aching, melancholy songs that sounded like fuzzy transmissions from another planet. His recordings were compiled on an album titled “L’Amour,” and as soon as it was released, Lewis seemingly vanished. After the album was discovered at a Canadian flea market in 2008, it became a minor internet sensation, and an exhaustive search for this strange crooner, whose lilting vocals are faraway and often mumbled, arrived at one dead end after another.

It was a terrific story, one that music journalists rightly salivated over. Who was this man, where did he cultivate his unusual style and, assuming he was still alive, did he know people were looking for him? A second Lewis album was uncovered shortly after “L’Amour” was reissued on CD, and the man himself was tracked down just last month – his real name is Randall Wulff, and he’s living quietly in Canada with no interest in the royalties his music has accrued. It ended up being an anticlimactic finish to a tantalizing mystery, and yet it still lends Lewis’ songs an eerie, unshakable aura.

I bring this up because I thought about Lewis all the way through the new Irish comedy “Frank,” which gets its name from a mysterious musician who always wears a bulbous papier-mâché head with a painted-on expression that could be perceived (depending on how you look at it) as welcoming, inquisitive or perpetually surprised. Frank is the eccentric frontman of an unknown experimental rock band with a deliberately unpronounceable name, and his style exists somewhere between Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. None of his bandmates have seen the face beneath the mask. They know nothing of his background. His fake head has become an appendage they regard as fact rather than affectation.

The very notion of a guy living inside a papier-mâché cocoon seems dubious, but Frank turns out to be inspired by a cult musician named Frank Sidebottom, a satirical creation of the late British comedian Chris Sievey. Michael Fassbender plays the film’s version of Frank – or at least we assume it’s Michael Fassbender under that head – and he’s magnetic, unsettling and yet strangely soothing, and we eventually come to accept the sight of his goofy, googly-eyed façade. Perhaps we succumb to the same form of Stockholm syndrome as his band. Fassbender is one of our best actors, and he brings a serious intensity to a role that could have easily devolved into a cheap gimmick.

Our entry point into the strange world of Frank and his band is an unremarkable corporate drone named Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), who is constantly writing pop hooks in his head based on the mundane things he sees while walking down the street. Jon has a chance encounter with Frank’s band after their keyboard player hurls himself into the ocean, and he offers to step up and perform at their gig that night. Before he knows it, he’s the newest member of the band – which also features erratic manager and songwriter Scoot McNairy and glowering Theremin player Maggie Gyllenhaal – and follows them to a secluded country cabin where they plan to record their first album.

For most of its running time, “Frank” is a rigorously conventional comedy about a deeply unconventional group of people, and sometimes it’s aggressive in its attempts to make us laugh at how weird these wannabe outsider artists are. But the film’s third act transforms into a sly, stinging commentary about the indie music scene, as Frank and company make their way to the South by Southwest music festival and discover a shortsighted culture in which context is valued over content. Frank, like the enigmatic Lewis before him, becomes famous not because of his craft but because of his anonymity, and there’s something quietly tragic about a guy being marginalized as a novelty when he’s trying to be taken seriously.

This is not a great movie, and there are some stretches that are almost violently quirky – it doesn’t help, either, that the score often relies on sitcommy musical cues. But its heart is in the right place – we really come to care about this initially repellent band of misfits – and its very last scene, in which a song we’ve heard several times takes on a new and heartbreaking context, is surprisingly effective. Like its namesake, “Frank” is weirdly charming, occasionally off-putting and probably best when taken in small doses.

Friday’s openings: Some quality in this ‘Maze’ of movies

What's Friday at the movies have to offer us? A bit of sci-fi, some comic domestic disturbance, a tad of neo-noir, two dueling UK comics and Terry Gilliam. There may be even more.

For the moment, though, this is likely what the Friday movie slate looks like:

“The Maze Runner”: Unable to remember how he got there, our young protagonist must vie with a group of boys to escape a dangerous, ever-changing maze. Don't they call that high school?

“This Is Where I Leave You”: When a man dies, members of a dysfunctional family are forced to face the problems that have separated them. Jason Bateman and Tina Fey should find something to laugh about here.

“A Walk Among the Tombstones”: Liam Neeson stars as a former cop who does private security work, for “favors,” and gets hired to investigate a deadly kidnapping team. Be fun to see what accent Neeson uses this time.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“A Trip to Italy”: Adding Al Pacino and more to their impersonation battles, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon continue their trek (begun in 2010 with “The Trip”) through la bella Italia. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

“The Zero Theorem”: Christoph Waltz stars in the former Python cast member Gilliam's look at a computer hacker getting distracted from his quest to figure out the meaning of human existence. The distraction? A woman, naturally.

Anyway, enjoy.

‘Viaggio Sola’: the examined traveler’s life

Anyone who loves international travel, especially those who travel first class, should appreciate “A Five Star Life,” which opens at the Magic Lantern Theater today. I have been around the world during the past couple of decades, though not first class. But I can dream, as I did when I previewed “A Five Star Life.”

Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

To Hollywood’s way of thinking, contemporary adult life is a maze of Seth Rogen romantic comedy, Nicholas Spark melodrama and E.L. James sexual heat.

Throw in a bit of “South Park” sentimentality and I just might consider signing up. Otherwise … mmm, no.

It would seem hard, if not impossible, to make a movie that captures the far more plausible view of life involving trying to find a way to live that speaks to your own personal sensibilities. A way that allows you to connect with other when you need to, and be on your own when that suits you, that provides you enough opportunity to live – simply stated – the way you want

That’s certainly true of Irene, the protagonist of Italian director Maria Sole Tognazzi’s film “A Five Star Life” played by Margherita Buy. That title, by the way, is an unfortunate alteration of the original, a point that I will return to in a moment. But while unfortunate, it’s not incorrect. Irene has, after all, what some people would consider a dream job: As an employee for a hotel-rating service, she travels the world, staying in five-star establishments, enjoying all their luxuries even as she judges their quality.

Does the attendant greet her with eye contact and a smile? Does he address her by name? Does her room come as advertised, the bed’s headboard dust-free, the view heavenly? Is the room-service wine served at the correct temperature? Are directions to the spa easy to follow, and are staff members at the ready to help confused guests, even those who appear not to be among the regular clientele?

Irene has a virtual manual full of such requirements, each of which she handles with a demanding eye that would cow Gordon Ramsay. And in between moments, she lounges in her bathrobe, sneaks a smoke on the veranda, maybe indulges in a flirtation but more typically makes calls to those she depends upon for intimacy.

Which is where the plot to “A Five Star” life could have gone wrong, but never does. Irene’s best friend is Andrea, former boyfriend and now best friend and confidante. In between her visits to Shanghai, Morocco and Berlin, Irene and Andrea eat meals, see movies but mostly just enjoy the comfort of each other’s presence. When she isn’t with Andrea, Irene spends time with her married sister, whose husband and two daughters give Irene a view of the life that she might have had – and, in the movie’s version of a crisis, provide her with a sense – though perhaps only momentarily – of fear and regret.

What “A Five Star Life” addresses is nothing less than an examination of a life, of the choices that woman makes and – more important – why she makes them. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that director Tognazzi, working from a script she co-wrote, finds an ending to Irene’s story that isn’t just happy but both authentic and adult.

As for that title, I prefer the Italian original, “Viaggio Sola” – or, as Irene might say, “I Travel Alone.”

Friday’s openings: Dolphins, abductions and womanly woes

The local movie scene improves somewhat this week, what with the Magic Lantern offering a trio of interesting offerings, while the mainstream theaters will stick with the standard Hollywood pap involving captive mammals, abused women, mob stories and corporate apologia.

Friday's openings are as follows:

“Dolphin Tale 2”: Remember the dolphin with an artificial tail? (Can you spell homonym?) This sequel involves that dolphin, now sad, being paired with a new female. Beware four of the scariest words in the English language: “Inspired by true events.” Starring Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman and some child actors.

“No Good Deed”: When a psychopathic killer escapes captivity, he threatens a lone woman and her young daughter. You can finish the saying suggested by the title on your own, right? Starring Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson.

“The Drop”: When a couple of guys rob a bar that is famous for handling mob money, focus narrows on the bar's owner. I'll take everything you got, pal, plus a Jack Daniels chaser. Starring James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy.

“Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt”: Third in the trilogy version of Ayn Rand's 1,000-plus-page famous fantasy about bad government and good rich guys. Paul Ryan-approved. Starring … never heard of them.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Starred Up”: When a young rebel is sentenced to prison, he rejects every attempt to help him — even when offered by the fellow inmate who happens to be his father. Brits behind bars. Starring Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn.

“A Five Star Life”: A 40-something Italian woman begins to question how happy she is with with her nomadic life as a hotel inspector. La vita non é bella? Vero? Starring Margherita Buy.

“Life of Crime”: Based on Elmore Leonard's 1978 novel “The Switch,” this comic caper follows a couple of bumbling kidnappers who abduct the wife of a man who doesn't want her back. A new twist on marriage counseling. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def, Tim Robbins. Isla Fisher and John Hawkes.

‘Calvary’ explores a dark, marginally comic Ireland

Note: An earlier version of this post misidentified the theater that “Calvary” is playing at. It is playing at the AMC River Park Square.

Love me some Brendan Gleeson. And who isn't awed by the wild Irish coastline? Still, neither was enough to keep me from scratching my head when the curtain rose after a screening of the film “Calvary.”

Following is a review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

It feels strange to criticize a film that, one, boasts good technique; two, features a number of good performances; and, three, follows a dramatic structure that feels both true to its intent and natural in its symmetry.

But what do you say, then, when even given all that, a film just leaves you shrugging your shoulders in dismay? That even as you’re accepting the ending as plausible, even inevitable, you think, “This is the best they could come up with?”

The “they” in this equation is one person, Anglo-Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh, writer-director of a film titled “Calvary.” And it is that film, which is playing at AMC River Park Square, that led to a shoulder shrug so intense I’m still feeling the resulting muscle pull a week later.

Let’s start with the plot: McDonagh’s film begins in a church confessional. Father James (played by the peerless Brendan Gleeson) is taking the confession of a man who starts out by describing the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy by a Catholic priest. “That’s certainly a startling opening line,” Father James says, revealing both screenwriter McDonagh’s proclivity for offbeat humor and what may be Father James’ single flaw: a sense of humor weighed down by irony.

Then something really startling happens: The confessor says that, in one week, he is going to kill the good Father. Not because the priest is bad but precisely because he is good. That, he claims, will make more of an impact.

McDonagh doesn’t identify the would-be killer, and the Father – after consulting his superior – doesn’t sound an alarm. The threat did occur, after all, during confession. And so McDonagh continues his movie, introducing us to a collection of strange characters, any one of whom might have good reason to off a priest. Or two. There’s the butcher with a penchant for hitting his wife, who is having an open affair with the African-born village mechanic. There’s the belligerent pub owner, the aging writer with a death wish, the hustler who talks like Ratso Rizzo, the doctor with the attitude of a morgue attendant and the rich guy who made millions during the recession that crippled the rest of Ireland and who loathes himself only moderately more than he loathes everyone else.

All of the cast is good, though none can quite match the Shakespeare-trained, gleefully shaggy Gleeson, who – as always – tends to steal any film he appears in.

As Father James walks through the village, which is set next to hills more emerald-green than Darby O’Gill’s eyes, we learn that his own past includes a marriage, a dead wife, bouts with alcoholism and a suicidal daughter – who shows up, apparently, to provide McDonagh the means to give us what he seems to think will provide a meaningful postscript to the follow-through promised by his film’s title.

It won’t work for everyone. It certainly didn’t for me. But then I’m not Irish, I’m not Catholic and my own skill at irony may be far less weighty than I’ve always feared.

Friday’s openings: A run through the Forrest

Not for the first time, I have to question the wisdom of those who book movies for Spokane's theaters. In this case, the folks at AMC.

Now, I like the AMC. It's convenient to where I live, and the manager — Rob Holen — is one of the nicest, most gracious guys I've ever met, personally or professionally. But Rob doesn't book his movies. Somebody who works in the corporate office does. Which explains why this week, along with the new releases, AMC is featuring both a screening of the 1994 release “Forrest Gump” (in IMAX, no less) and a second run of “Magic in the Moonlight” — one of Woody Allen's lesser creations since at least the mid-'90s.

Guess they need to find something to fill those 20 screens in the lull between Labor Day weekend and the beginning of the fall season. But “Forrest Gump” and second-rate Woody Allen? Seriously?

“A Hard Day's Night” just showed in a 50th-anniversary special event at The Bing to a full house. Imagine watching that Beatles movie in IMAX with the AMC's sound system. Ah, well. AMC never consults with me.

Anyway, here is the new stuff the week will offer:

“The Identical”: A so-called “faith-based” look at what might have happened had the twin of an Elvis Presley-type singer not died at birth but been raised separately, with one boy becoming The King and the other a gospel preacher. Sounds like the devil in disguise.

“Innocence”: After losing her mom to a surfing accident, a teen girl moves with dad to Manhattan — only to discover that her exclusive prep school is home to a coven of witches. Bubble bubble, baby.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“The One I Love”: With their marriage falling slowly apart, a couple spends a weekend examining their relationship — and the experience becomes surreal. Because … of course. (Also, the Lantern is reopening the Polish feature “Ida” and the Korean-made/English-language feature “Snowpiercer.”)

So go. Enjoy. And … run, Forrest, run!

‘Dog Day’ documentary offers reprieve from dog days of summer

It’s a pretty lousy week for movies. Next week doesn’t look much better. Yes, we’re just hitting the lull that always occurs between the end of summer movie season and the beginning of Oscar season, when Hollywood uses late August and early September as a dumping ground for one bad movie after another. (Consider that the only major release of the week worth seeing is 30 years old.)

So it’s a good thing that we’ve got the Magic Lantern to provide us with some interesting, offbeat indie selections, and tonight it’s hosting a special screening of one of the year’s most entertaining documentaries. It’s called “The Dog,” and it’s a fascinating true crime story, a warts-and-all character study and look at the inspiration behind one of the best American films of the 1970s.

Here’s my review, which I recorded for Spokane Public Radio:

When Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” was released in 1975, it was an instant critical and commercial success, becoming the fourth highest-grossing film of that year and landing an Oscar nomination for Best Picture amongst perhaps the best batch of nominees in Academy Awards history. It’s an offbeat, darkly comic crime thriller that audiences gawked at in morbid fascination: The ad campaigns screamed, “It’s all true,” because how else would anyone have believed the story otherwise?

As “Dog Day Afternoon” garnered universal praise and awards consideration, John Wojtowicz, the inspiration for Al Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik character in the film, was serving a 20-year prison sentence in a Pennsylvania penitentiary. Three years earlier, he’d been all over the news for a failed bank robbery he had orchestrated with two accomplices in New York City, a crime that, had it been successful, would have supposedly funded a sex change operation for Wojtowicz’s male lover. It made for perfect tabloid fodder, lurid and violent and nearly impossible to fathom, but the personalities and motivations behind it turn out to be much more complex.

“The Dog,” a new documentary that steps back and allows Wojtowicz to tell his own story, begins as a quirky stranger-than-fiction crime story and slowly transforms into something more somber, a portrait of a strange man whose overblown mythology was entirely of his own creation. It’s a fascinating character study, one that directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren spent 11 years putting together, as well as a colorful look at post-Vietnam America as viewed from the fringe, when a haze of brutality and paranoia hung over everything and gay Americans struggled to find their place in society.

Wojtowicz, who passed away in 2006, is the kind of guy who the documentary form was created for. He’s intense, direct, overflowing with personality and unbelievably frank about his sexual history. Being anything other than straight in the ’70s was already a taboo, but Wojtowicz was vocal about his attraction to both men and women: He joined a number of gay advocacy groups and later (illegally) married a man named Ernie Aron (John wore his military uniform, Ernie a white wedding gown and a blonde wig), who would become Liz Eden following gender reassignment surgery.

As the film progresses, details of Wojtowicz’s home life come into sharper focus, and we sense that perhaps he lived a sadder existence than he lets on in his interviews. He ended up serving three of his 20 years, and once he was released he would stand outside the Chase Manhattan Bank he’d held up, wearing a shirt that read “I robbed this bank.” He later tells a story about applying for a job as a bank security guard, trying to convince the management that no one could better protect a bank than an honest-to-God bank robber. A TV news report from the time shows him signing autographs and taking pictures with his “fans,” while one of the bank tellers he held hostage looks on in disapproval.

It’s hard to tell if Wojtowicz’s tough guy persona was the product of delusion, posturing or insecurity; that he held up a bank and then ordered pizzas for his captors suggests that he was always operating on his own bizarre wavelength. “The Dog” is an entertaining documentary not just because of its subject matter, but because it simply gets out of Wojtowicz’s way and lets him talk, and his personal yarn grows stranger as it unravels. Wojtowicz attempts to direct the film he’s in – Berg and Karaudren leave in moments in which he yells “action” before he starts to talk and “cut” when he’s finished – just as he directed the events of his own life, and whether or not he’s a reliable source, he knows how to tell a deeply compelling story.

Movies 101: No time for stage fright

That photo above captures a moment during the “A Hard Day's Night” special event that Spokane Public Radio sponsored last week at the Bing Crosby Theater. The evening began with a special taping in front of a live audience of the “Movies 101” show, which featured four of us discussing both Richard Lester's movie and the music of The Beatles.

From left, the participants were Patrick Klausen (“Movies 101” engineer and producer), me (acting as host), Mary Pat Treuthart, Nathan Weinbender and special guest Leah Sottile.

The sold-out event continued with a screening of the movie, which was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its 1964 U.S. release, had been digitally remastered and boasted both a pristine sound track and picture. Most everyone agreed that, even if they'd seen the movie originally in a theater, they'd never experienced it as well as at The Bing.

One woman, who came up to me after the screening, was from a town just a few miles outside of Liverpool. She, too, was glowing.

In everyone's honor, I include an embedded version of my favorite Beatles tune.

The week’s openings: The horror, the horror

Bit of a slow weekend for moviegoers, but then the summer season is nearly over. Bring on the fall.

The week's opening are as follows:

“The November Man” (opens tomorrow): Pierce Brosnan plays a retired CIA agent whose duty call-back involves taking on the kid he once mentored. What, Bruce Willis wasn't available?

“As Above, So Below”: When an archaeological team explores the catacombs of Paris, they discover … horror! Another found-footage venture into … ooooh kids, scary!

“Ghostbusters”: AMC brings back the 1984 hit comedy for a special run. “This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.”

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Frank”: Michael Fassbender plays an eccentric leader of a band who insists on wearing a papier-mâché headpiece. (The Lantern will also pick up a second-run screening of Woody Allen's “Magic in the Moonlight.” “The One I Love” has been pushed back to Sept. 5.) 

Not so much ‘Magic in the Moonlight’

As a longtime fan of Woody Allen's films, I was particularly disappointed in his latest work, “Magic in the Moonlight.” The following is an edited version of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Once Woody Allen started pursuing film direction with a passion, he commenced making films that – even when uneven in tone, plot or character – always seemed to be made with care. From the stark opening credits, plain white letters against a black backdrop, to the stunning cinematography of such artists as Gordon Willis and Sven Nykvist, Allen’s movies have been, even when all else fails, wonders to watch.

Until “Magic in the Moonlight,” that is. It’s not often that a Woody Allen movie fails on every level. But it happened here.

Take the storyline. Colin Firth plays Stanley, a world-famous magician obsessed with unmasking fake spiritualists. Called in by a friend to debunk a young would-be medium named Sophie (Emma Stone), Stanley accepts with all the alacrity of one who is self-absorbed to a fault. Stanley’s arrogance is so ingrained that he isn’t aware – or perhaps he simply doesn’t care – when he hurts someone’s feelings. We’re never told why he is this way – one of Allen’s plot oversights – and Stanley’s temperament becomes especially annoying when we are introduced to his beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), a kind sort who shows an abiding fondness for her narcissistic nephew.

A hint to what makes Stanley tick comes when, after failing to prove the spiritualist a fake, he does a sudden turn-around. He admits that his obsession with fake crystal-ball-gazers comes from his insistence, reinforced by fear, that nothing exists beyond death. And since this is the case, life holds no, well, magic for him. (A magician who doesn’t believe in magic; Allen clearly hasn’t lost his ability to portray irony.)

And along with magic, Stanley doesn’t believe in love. Until, when he begins to believe that Sophie is the real thing, he finds himself falling for her. Never mind that he has a fiancé, played ever-so-briefly by Catherine McCormack, who is his perfect egotistical match. And never mind that Sophie, a poor young American, is being courted by a ukelele-playing millionaire (Hamish Linklater) who offers her a life beyond her wildest dreams. And never mind that no hint of a mutual affection passes between Stanley and Sophie ever. As Allen has said, “The heart wants what it wants.” And so, clearly, does his screenplay.

But if all that isn’t bad enough, “Magic in the Moonlight” is technically sloppy. Simon McBurney, who plays Stanley’s friend, has a hairstyle that changes in virtually every frame – and it drew my eye to it every single time. In another scene, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji allows a shadow to fall over an actress’ face. In yet another, the principals go out of focus.

The totality of this – thematic, structural and technical sloppiness – stands in direct contrast to the 78-year-old Allen who, in other recent films such as “Blue Jasmine” and “Midnight in Paris,” had been demonstrating a creative renaissance.

I won’t blame the flaws of “Magic in the Moonlight” on age, though. More likely, Allen — at least here — just stopped caring.

Don’t miss ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

I'm not a big fan of self-promotion, which is ironic considering I've spent a career providing promotion for most everyone I've written about. That said, I want to post a reminder here that Spokane Public Radio is sponsoring a 50th-anniversary screening of “A Hard Day's Night” tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater.

The self-promotional part of this announcement concerns the live taping of “Movies 101,” the show I do with Mary Pat Treuthart and Nathan Weinbender for SPR. We will begin a live taping the show, focusing on “A Hard Day's Night,” at The Bing at 6:40 p.m. Doors to The Bing will open at 6, and the movie itself is scheduled to begin at 7:35.

Tickets are $10 and will be available at the door. My advice: Arrive early. Last I heard more than 550 tickets had already been given out.

Friday’s openings: From sin to the afterlife

From Frank Miller grim to sports-flick inspiration and spiritual exploration, the coming week of movies offers a wide range of themes and styles. Friday's movie openings are as follows:

“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (3D and standard): Co-directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez, this graphic-novel adaptation follows in the tone and style of Rodriguez's 2005 original, blending stark black-and-white imagery with spot color and neo-noir themes of sexuality and violence. In other words, something for everyone.

“When the Game Stands Tall”: Based on the real story of a California high school's 151-game winning streak, how that streak gets broken and what the coach (Jim Caviezel) does to return the team to its winning ways. Inspiration, thy name is sports flick.

“If I Stay”: When a teen's family is involved in serious car accident, she (Chloe Grace Moretz) lapses into a coma and hovers between life and death. Her spirit watches what goes on around her as she debates whether to live or die. Based on a 2009 novel by Gayle Forman. 

“Calvary”: Brendan Gleeson plays a priest whose goodness makes him the perfect target for a man angry at the Catholic Church. I confess, I want to see it.

Also reopening, “Earth to Echo,” the “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” variation.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Alive Inside”: A documentary exploring the work of a man who uses music to treat the effects of memory loss. Considering all the problems associated with contemporary health care, his experience must involve a hard day's night.

“K2: Siren of the Himalayas”: A hit at February's Spokane International Film Festival, winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary, this feature film blends historical coverage of a 1909 attempt to summit the Himalayan peak and another expedition that set out to do the same thing a century later.

So now go. Watch. Enjoy.

HBO’s ‘Cheshire Murders’ a real-life horror story

I saw a number of movies in theaters last week. But nothing affected me more than a movie I just happened to catch on my television. So that movie, titled “The Cheshire Murders,” is what I decided to review for Spokane Public Radio.

Why? Well that is the operative word, in more ways than one. The main reason has to do with just how scary the movie is. It is a documentary that examines a horrible, deranged act committed by two men who victimize an unsuspecting family. In other words, as I try to explain in my review, the movie is a study of something that is the real-life equivalent of the bogeyman.

An edited version of my review follows:

Horror movies thrive on our innate fears. Fears of creatures bearing sharp teeth, of bloodsucking vampires and mindless zombies, of extraterrestrials wielding anal probes, of weapon-wielding sociopaths – anything, in short, that lurks in the dark zones of our imagination and threatens to pounce on us with murderous intent.

Chances of our being confronted by anything other than our fears are actually remote. Reality has no room for vampires or zombies, much less curious beings from other galaxies. And sharp-toothed animals pose no real danger to anyone who stays out of the woods, the ocean or the jungle. Even the threat posed by psychopathic killers is so low as to be virtually nil.

Yet our fears persist. And moviemakers keep playing to them. And we continue to sit in the dark, chewing on our popcorn as blends of these imagined threats haunt us on screens both big and small.

Sometimes, though, sometimes … horror is real. And as the HBO documentary feature “The Cheshire Murders” proves, when such a danger does manifest itself, it can prove senselessly, mercilessly fatal.

Released a year ago, and available both through HBO On Demand and on DVD, “The Cheshire Murders” explores a heinous crime that occurred in July 2007 when two men, Steven Hayes and Josh Komisarjevsky, broke into the suburban home of Cheshire, Connecticut, doctor William Petit. The day before, Hayes and Komisarjevsky had spotted Petit’s wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their daughter, 11-year-old Michaela, at a local store. When they showed up at the house, the men beat Petit with a baseball bat and left him tied up in the basement. They then restrained Hawke-Petit, Michaela and the couple’s other daughter, 17-year-old Hayley.

Over the next several hours, they mulled their options before, the following morning, deciding to take Hawke-Petit to the bank and force her to withdraw some $15,000. Upon returning to the house, Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted Michaela, Hayes raped and – when it became clear that William Petit had escaped – murdered Hawke-Petit. The two then doused the house with gasoline, set everything on fire and attempted to escape.

They didn’t get far. Notified by bank officials, who had called 9-1-1, police officers were waiting outside. They arrested Hayes and Komisarjevsky but were unable to save either of the daughters, both of whom died from smoke inhalation. Petit alone survived.

The crime made national headlines, as much for its senseless nature as for the ferocity with which it was carried out. And even though co-directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner do a comprehensive job of exploring the case, that aura of senselessness pervades everything.

We learn of the defendants’ past histories, which involved sexual abuse. We hear from police officers, lawyers, prosecutors and family members. We listen to Hayes’ taped confession. The film questions the actions of Cheshire police, who were sitting outside as the three women were being murdered. It argues the effectiveness, even worth, of the death penalty. We gets lots of theories and opinions and rants both quiet and angry. But “The Cheshire Murders” never satisfactorily answers the most basic question of all: Why?

The sound of that silence is more frightening than even Hollywood could conceive.

Movie openings: Allen’s latest and others

I remember when Woody Allen films never received a first-run release in Spokane. Or, rather, their Spokane first runs occurred long after the rest of the country had screened them. And sometimes they never opened here at all. Let's be thankful that era has passed, since it gives us the opportunity to see “Magic in the Moonlight” when it opens on Friday.

Allen's newest work is only one of eight films that open this week (the comedy “Let's Be Cops” opens Wednesday), which makes the second week of multi-movie premieres.

The week's openings are as follows:  

“Let's Be Cops” (opens Wednesday): The trailers for this offbeat comedy, which has two guys (Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr.) getting off by pretending to be police officers, seem hilarious. But director Luke Greenfield gave us Rob Schneider's 2001 comedy “The Animal.” So muting your expectations met be a safe bet.

“The Giver”: It's taken more than 20 years for Hollywood to bring Lois Lowry's Newbery Award-winning 1993 novel to the big screen. It will be interesting to see whether director Philip Noyce (“Rabbit-proof Fence”) is able to avoid Hollywood's cookie-cutter stylistic tendencies. The trailer, which is full of pretty young faces (including Taylor Swift), would seem to say not.

“The Expendables 3”: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, etc., return. Question: How many times can an “expendable” survive before becoming labeled “intrinsic”?

“Magic in the Moonlight”: Allen's newest has Colin Firth playing a magician charged with unmasking a spiritualist fake (Emma Stone). Reviews are mixed to good for what is a blend of the downbeat with romantic fluff. But beware: Rex Reed gives it a top rating.

“What If”: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan play friends who mull over whether it's possible to blend friendship and love. Based on a stage play by T.J. Dawe, so you know there'll be lots of talking.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Rich Hill”: This hard-hitting documentary focuses on three teen boys who cope with all the trappings of poverty — anger, frustration, want, a lack of good parenting, etc. Stylistic but ever-so depressing.

“Mood Indigo”: Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) gives us this love story (based on a novel) about a wealthy guy (Romain Duris) who wants to cure his lover (Audrey Tautou) from a curious ailment involving a flower growing in her lungs. Is this death by whimsy?


Happy birthday, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

Fifty years ago today, a little movie called “A Hard Day's Night” opened in New York City. It had premiered a month before in London, which is only natural because the movie's stars — as everyone born on Earth and older than middle-school age knows — are four young lads from Liverpool who called themselves The Beatles.

Perhaps you've heard of them. John, Paul, George and Ringo?

Anyway, I'm gonna use that fact as a means of publicizing an upcoming Spokane Public Radio event. A 50th-anniversary screening of “A Hard Day's Night” will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20, at the Bing Crosby Theater. The event will include a live-taping of “Movies 101,” the show I cohost with Mary Pat Treuthart and Spokesman-Review staff writer Nathan Weinbender; the three of us will be joined by former Inlander writer Leah Sottile.

Tickets to the event, which is a fund-raiser for the station, cost $10 and are available both in advance and at the door.

Oh, and here's some Beatles advice: Don't be a mod or a rocker. Be a mocker.

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