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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Christmas openings: Music, memoir and survival

Moviegoing on Christmas Day has always been a tradition in my house. And regardless of what North Korea thinks, I'll be seeing something — not “The Interview,” clearly — next Thursday, too. Following are the mainstream Christmas Day movie openings”

“The Imitation Game”: Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, the British math whiz who led the team that cracked the vaunted German Enigma Code. Elementary, eh Watson? 

“Into the Woods”: Rob Marshall directs the Broadway musical by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. It's not such a Grimm event.

“The Homesman”: Saved by a determined woman (Hilary Swank), a weathered cowpoke (Tommy Lee Jones) agrees to help the woman shepherd a wagon full of emotionally disturbed women to safety. Shades of “Lonesome Dove.”

“Big Eyes”: A take on the true story of Walter Keane and his artist wife, Margaret. He only had eyes — for money.

“The Gambler”: A university professor hits the skids when his obsession with gambling causes him to do unscrupulous deeds. Mark Wahlberg reprises the role James Caan played in the 1974 original. What's next? Sonny Corleone and a “Godfather” redux?

“Unbroken”: Angelina Jolie directed this adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's nonfiction biography of World War II survivor Louis Zamperini. Next to “The Boys in the Boat,” one of the more incredible memoirs I have read in years. Hope the movie does the story justice.

So enjoy your Christmas. See a movie.

Amid the headlines, ‘Citizenfour’ lurks

Given all that's been going on recently, especially with what the FBI is calling a cyberattack by North Korea on Sony Pictures, it's easy to forget the other big cyber news of the past couple of years: Edward Snowden and the documents he shared regarding the National Security Agency. If you need a reminder, you might check out “Citizenfour,” the documentary playing at the Magic Lantern Theater.

Following is a transcription of the review of “Citizenfour” that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In the first film classes I ever took, Manny Farber used to fill the air with pithy pronouncements. His point, I think, was to provoke us, to shake us out of our comfortable lives and to make us think about things in a new way.

I remember once he was talking about that nature of political acts. And in the middle of his diatribe, a student started to sneak out of the lecture hall. “See? See?” Farber said, pointing to the student. “THAT is a political act!” The student, chagrined, stood up straight and said, “I’m just going to meet up with my girlfriend.” In response, Farber smacked the lectern. “EVERYthing,” he bellowed, “is a political act!”

I thought of that incident while watching Laura Poitras’ intriguing, and in many ways frightening, documentary, “Citizenfour.” I thought of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, the riots in Ferguson, Mo., people wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts. I thought of terrorist attacks, of police-force militarization, of reports that pretty much everything we say over the phone or write online is being surveyed by some algorithm gauging the threat level of our comments.

And then I thought of most of us, sitting comfortably in our homes, surfing the web, posting on some social media site or waging a war of words either with friends or – more likely – complete strangers over some random issue, blithely unaware that the very words we use – Al Qaeda, say, 9/11 or government surveillance – is likely attracting attention.

That’s the kind of mindset that “Citizenfour” rouses. Poitras’ documentary, which unfolds like an Alan Furst espionage thriller, is more than a mere documentary. As Chicago Reader film reviewer J.R. Jones wrote, “This is history.” It was in January 2013 that Poitras – already known for her work on the documentary television series “P.O.V.,” started receiving emails from a mystery source self-named Citizen Four. The source claimed to have documents that showed how the federal government, through the National Security Agency, was conducting a vast system of surveillance on U.S. citizens.

Before long, we find ourselves in a Hong Kong hotel room. And there, not yet a symbol of – depending on how you define patriotism, treasonous treachery or whistle-blowing heroism – is Edward Snowden. Mind you, this is before the, at this point, former NSA contract worker had released any of the top-secret documents he possessed.

We watch as Snowden – a guy who comes across as calm and unassuming, nervous but serious about his commitment to the ideals of a transparent society – is interviewed by the men who would ultimately shepherd the documents into public hands: investigative reporters Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill.

And we continue to watch as, when those documents hit the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post and London’s The Guardian – and as, subsequently, his face fills TV screens – Snowden begins to realize just how completely the life he once lived is now over.

At that point, Snowden resembles the guy trying to sneak out of Manny Farber’s class. Meanwhile, the rest of us sit by – watching.

‘The Interview’ canceled

Sony has canceled the Christmas Day release of “The Interview.”

The movie, starring James Franco and Seth Rogan (who also directs) is a comedy about a TV news reporter who lands an interview with Kim Jong Un, only to be enlisted by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean dictator. The film has been at the center of a massive hack of Sony Pictures' computer system, a hack that some suggest North Korea is behind. Recently, the hackers threatened violence against moviegoers who see the film.

The New York premiere was canceled, and theater chains announced plans to not screen the comedy, including AMC and Regal, which operate theaters in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene.

USA Today quoted a Sony statement: “In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film 'The Interview,' we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners' decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.”

Friday’s Lantern openings: Horror and more

Other than the mainstream openings, we can always — well, usually — depend on the Magic Lantern to open films that are … mmm, a bit more challenging. In addition to second runs of “My Old Lady,” “The Skeleton Twins” and “Elsa & Fred,” Friday's Lantern solo first-run opening is as follows:

“The Babadook”: Following her husband's death, a single mother has to cope with her young son's fears of what she thinks — thinks, mind you — is an imaginary monster. As the reviewer for Empire magazine wrote, “One of the strongest, most effective horror films of recent years — with awards-quality lead work from Essie Davis, and a brilliantly designed new monster who could well become the break-out spook archetype of the decade.” Yow.

The week’s openings: Hobbits and bad habits

Peter Jackson's overblown adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien's children's novel “The Hobbit” has drawn a lot of commentary. This, for example. And this. But whatever you think of what Jackson has put on the screen, you might be interested in knowing that the final chapter, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” will be arriving in area theaters on Wednesday. The rest of the week's openings will premiere on Friday.

The whole of the week's mainstream openings are as follows:

Wednesday

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”: Martin Freeman and Ian Mckellan star in this final chapter of a bloated adaptation. Not necessarily just for Tolkien/Jackson fans only, but … how may times can you make the same movie?

Friday

“Wild”: Reese Witherspoon stars in director 's adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir about a woman who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail for emotional therapy. Maybe just seeing the movie will provide all the solace I need.

“Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb”: Museum employee Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) must collect a band of helpers to save things when the magic powers of The Tablet of Ahkmenrah begin to die out. No, Burt Wonderstone isn't needed.

“Annie”: Quevzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) stars in the title role of the little comic-strip character brought to the big screen. If you don’t like the movie, don’t fret: The sun’ll come out tomorrow.

“Top Five”: Chris Rock stars as a comedian who seems to have lost the ability to be funny. Kevin Hart, take note.

So go to the movies. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Charlton Heston redux

Seems when directors age, they turn curiously religious. That would explain why Darren Aronofsky (45) made “Noah” and why Ridley Scott (77) has made his version of “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which is the only major mainstream opening this coming weekend. Then again, things in the Old Testament do blow up pretty good.

Friday's openings are as follows:

“Exodus: Gods and Kings”: Welsh-born Christian Bale plays Moses, and Australia's Joel Edgerton steps in as Rhamses in Scott's version of the Bible story. So, does that make Edgerton The Joker to Bale's biblical Batman?

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Citizenfour”: Continuing its recent streak of screening documentaries, the Lantern presents this look at Edward Snowden, the man most famous for leaking National Security Agency files. Screening times might be confidential, so make sure to call the theater and ask for “Jonathan.”

“The Immortalists”: In this English-made narrative film, two biologists tackle the problem of human aging with the motto, “Live forever, or die trying.” Sponsored by Cialis.

Friday’s openings: It’s a horror story

In the true tradition of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” horror movies have adopted a visceral style that is far creepier than anything Hammer Films ever devised. That kind of horror is what fans of mainstream film have to look forward to this weekend. Friday's openings are as follows:

“The Pyramid”: A team of researchers investigates a pyramid only to become targets of an evil presence. Reminds me of the last time I shopped at Wal-Mart.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Pelican Dreams”: The director of the documentary “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” follows up with this look at a pelican that was rescued from the Golden Gate bridge. Sounds like filmmaker's career has gone … to the birds (bah-dah-BOOM).

“Happy Valley”: Want to know what happened during the year following former Penn State assistant football coach Gerry Sandusky's arrest on child abuse charges? This documentary reveals all … to those with stomachs strong enough to handle it.

So go to the movies. And enjoy. Or, this week anyway, at least try to.

Friday’s openings: The pharaoh’s curse strikes Spokane

If you thought last week’s slate of cinematic offerings was dismal, this week’s is even more of a letdown. We’re right in the middle of Oscar season, and yet we’ve only got one new wide release to look forward to this Friday (and it’s a low-budget horror film that isn’t being screened in advance for critics, so I think its Oscar chances are low). Luckily, the Magic Lantern, always a dependable source for offbeat cinema, is adding a couple of interesting documentaries to their slate. The openings are as follows:

At the AMC:

“The Pyramid”: It’s hard to tell from the trailer, but this looks like it might be another one of those found footage horror movies – just when you thought it was safe to go back into the theater. In this one, produced by Alexandre Aja, a group of archaeologists fall victim to a supposed “pharaoh’s curse,” unearthing (and then later getting trapped in) a tomb filled with vicious undead things and booby traps that would make Indiana Jones weep.

At the Magic Lantern:

“Happy Valley”: This is a fascinating but gut-wrenching documentary set amidst the 2011 Penn State sexual abuse scandal, when the school’s assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on multiple charges of child molestation. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev (“My Kid Could Paint That,” “The Tillman Story”), “Happy Valley” is as much about the media circus that followed as it is a community being stripped of its innocence. (Note: The film is only playing for a special one-week engagement.)

“Pelican Dreams”: Another bird-centric documentary from director Judy Irving (“The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”), “Pelican Dreams” chronicles the story of Gigi, a wounded brown pelican who was captured on the Golden Gate Bridge in 2008. Irving’s primary focus is to document the majesty of our feathered friends, but she also deals with such issues as oil spills and assimilating rehabilitated animals back into the wild.

Below: The trailer for “Happy Valley”:

Wednesday’s openings: A brief history of animated penguin movies

(Pictured above: Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day and Jason Bateman, being held at gunpoint by their agents)

Last week’s cinematic offerings were very nearly nonexistent, what with the newest “Hunger Games” installment scaring off any potential competition. This week isn’t much better – thanks a lot, Thanksgiving! – but AMC’s release schedule includes three new titles opening on Wednesday. The films are as follows:

“Horrible Bosses 2”: Most comedy sequels are exercises in diminishing returns – take a concept that’s proven to work, then copy it over and over again until all invention and spontaneity is beaten out of it. For every winner like “22 Jump Street,” there are a dozen or so duds – some not-so-esteemed examples from this year include “A Haunted House 2,” “Think Like a Man Too” and “Dumb and Dumber To.” Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day reprise their roles from the 2011 hit, and this time they’re embroiled in an O. Henry-ish plot to kidnap the grown son (Chris Pine) of their philandering boss (two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, obviously slumming). Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey also return, promising to be half as funny as they were last time.

“Penguins of Madagascar”: Here’s another sequel – or, to be more specific, a spin-off – this one of a popular animated franchise. The goofy penguin sidekicks from the “Madagascar” films take center stage in this fourth entry in the series, which proves that it’s only a matter of time before the Minions from “Despicable Me” get their own feature. (Edit: I guess I spoke too soon.) The voice cast includes all the kids’ favorites, including John Malkovich, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter and Werner Herzog.

“The Theory of Everything”: Director James Marsh specializes in nonfiction – his 2008 breakthrough “Man on Wire” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature – so he seems a promising choice to helm this biopic of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, based on his wife Jane Hawking’s memoirs. Eddie Redmayne’s work as Hawking is already gaining significant award buzz, and this might prove to be the mainstream launching pad for actress Felicity Jones, an up-and-comer and critics’ favorite for so long. The trailer for “The Theory of Everything” is below.
  

‘Whiplash’ has a tough emotional beat

One of the more affecting films I have seen in some time is “Whiplash,” the first feature by the writer-director Damian Chazelle. Following is a transcription of the “Whiplash” review that I recorded for Spokane Public Radio:

In the spring of 1967, I endured eight weeks of what the U.S. Army calls “basic training.” Along with about 150 other recruits, I spent that time running, learning about weapons, running, making beds and waxing floors, running, polishing brass and spit-shining boots and, of course, running – all under the tutelage of men wearing Smokey-the-Bear hats who treated us, mostly, as if we were scum they wanted to wipe off the heels of their own spotless boots.

Over those eight weeks, I had two drill instructors. One, Sgt. Smith, was a taskmaster whose yelling always had a point, whose encouragement was equal to his wrath and whom, in that curious psychological need of teenagers in duress, we came to admire. The other was SSgt. Bailey, a bully whom, purely and simply, we hated.

The two men and their differences came to mind as I watched “Whiplash,” a first feature by 29-year-old writer-director Damian Chazelle. Though the literal experience the movie’s protagonist Andrew (played by Miles Teller) undergoes is far different than mine, the emotional violence he weathers feels appallingly similar.

Andrew is a first-year student at a prestigious New York music school (think Juilliard). He seems nice enough: genial, excited about learning to drum like his hero – the great jazz drummer Buddy Rich. And he is driven: We first see him, alone at night in a practice room, running through riffs on his drum kit – and attracting the attention of a teacher named Fletcher (played perfectly by J.K. Simmons).

Fletcher says he is looking for players for his jazz troupe and gives Andrew an invite: Show up the next morning at “6 a.m. sharp.” Which is when writer-director Chazelle first ratchets up the tension. Andrew wakes late, runs to the room – only to find it empty. But he waits. And waits. And when, at 9 a.m., the others show up – including Fletcher without a word of explanation – we understand that Andrew’s hazing has just begun. When Fletcher – at first friendly but then slowly but inexorably more and more demanding – nearly decapitates Andrew in a barely controlled rage, we begin to suspect just how far this hazing will go.

“Whiplash” is clearly no easy view. Adapted from his own Sundance award-winning short, Chazelle’s feature is as exquisitely filmed and acted as it is emotionally trying. Teller, so good in last year’s “The Spectacular Now,” is superb as the young, impressionable but single-minded Andrew. And Simmons, familiar from television shows such as “Oz” and, of late, Allstate Auto Insurance ads, is the sublime sociopath as teacher who just may, for both the right and wrong reasons, get the best from his student.

“Whiplash” has its flaws. We’re given only the slimmest of reasons for why Andrew would put up with Fletcher’s humiliation and absolutely none for why Fletcher so freely hands it out. An event leading to the film’s climax, though shattering, feels too convenient. And any final judgement regarding the ethics of Fletcher’s quote-unquote teaching method is largely avoided.

At its essence, though, “Whiplash” is both riveting and daringly original. And, personally, right or wrong, it reminded me that my admiration of Sgt. Smith faded long ago, while my hatred of SSgt. Bailey still smolders.

Friday’s openings II: No new light at the Lantern

Following up the movie report immediately below, word from the Magic Lantern is that nothing new is opening on Friday. The Lantern plans, however, to open a documentary titled “Pelican Dreams” on Nov. 28. Carrying over next week will be “Elsa & Fred,” “Boyhood,” “Laggies” (which we review on “Movies 101” Friday), “The Skeleton Twins,” “The Trip to Italy” and “My Old Lady.”

Click here for more information.

Friday’s openings: Get your ‘Hunger’ on

Some questions seem to exist just to plague us. Such as, why does dental floss seem to run out just when you have what seems like an entire carrot embedded between your molars? Or why do other drivers (never you) speed up instead of slow down when the light turns yellow? Or why do I always tend to find movie seats that attract people who, 1, love to rattle their bags of popcorn and, 2, delight in chewing with their mouth open?

Along with these unanswerable queries comes one involving movie scheduling: Why is it that some movies open with hardly any competition at all, while other weeks offer so many choices it is virtually impossible to see them all — not and have an actual personal life, anyway.

This coming week offers one of the more sparse schedules in recent weeks as only one huge mainstream opening is scheduled, accompanied by a little movie aimed at devout Christians. Friday's openings are as follows:

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1”: Katniss and her pals continue their fight against the power. A series final that is so big it has to be told in two, count them, two parts. Somebody call Peter Jackson.

“Saving Christmas”: Kirk Cameron feels the need to put some Christian reason back in the season. And a happy holidays to you, too.

I'll pass on the Magic Lantern schedule when it becomes available. 

‘Interstellar’ no match for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

“Interstellar” is earning mostly good reviews. But it has its critics, from astrophysicists to mainstream movie viewers. In the following review, which is an edited version of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I explain which side I come down on:

From that first time we look up at the stars, most of us are filled with wonder. And with that wonder come the inevitable questions: How big is space? Is there anyone else out there? What does this all mean? Is the moon really made of cheese?

Just kidding on that last one. Mostly. Though as with that question, along with the others, we all find our own answers. Or at least ways to rationalize our ignorance. Those are our only real options.

Not everyone accepts that spirit of helplessness, of course. The religious among us adhere to faith. Astrophysicists employ science to formulate theories about the very formation of the universe – or, some would say, universes. Artists such as filmmakers use – in many cases abuse – various aspects of both religion and science to imagine scenarios that attempt to probe into such inherent queries.

Take the greatest science-fiction film ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Though “2001” used the special effects overseen by Douglas Trumbull to create an amazing representation of space travel – especially for 1968 – the real strength of Kubrick’s masterpiece rests in its refusal to do anything more than pose questions. What is the significance of the monolith? Where does astronaut Dave Bowman go at the film’s end? What exactly is a “bush baby”? If you search the Internet, you can find answers – or at least working hypotheses – regarding each. But Kubrick’s movie? It remains stolidly silent. And this is one key to the film’s greatness.

Contrast “2001” with Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated sci-fi film “Interstellar.” Divulging too much of the film’s plot will spoil things, so suffice it to say that “Interltellar” is set, in the not-too-distant future, on an Earth that has become a death-trap for humanity. Overpopulation has caused such a strain on the planet’s resources that the end of life appears imminent. Through a series of circumstances that end up being far less coincidental than originally portrayed, a farmer-slash-astronaut named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is convinced to pilot an expedition through a wormhole to another galaxy where new habitable worlds potentially exist.

Nolan’s film, which was co-written by him and his screenwriter brother Jonathan and runs a lengthy two hours and 49 minutes, plays with time and space to, at once, tell the story of Cooper’s expedition, portray what happens on Earth and, ultimately, reveal the alternate and literally uncountable ways the two settings intersect. And it does this in a manner that, in visual terms at least, makes for a scintillating view – from the shots of immense dust clouds threatening farmlands to the image of a wormhole sitting near Saturn.

Unlike Kubrick, though, the Nolans time and again resort to quick fixes for complex plot problems. Different rates of aging a problem? Just blame it on relativity. At loose ends for a romantic subplot when the main male-female connection involves a father and daughter? Just settle for the most obvious-if-implausible resolution. Incapable (or unwilling) to leave the audience grasping for answers involving creation? Just point to some unknowable power.

On top of that, the Nolans work hard to explain more than is necessary. As in one extended McConaughey monologue that has him hanging out in some sort of a galactic library. They also have some of their characters act against their very training and vote to make the right decisions based on the wrong reasons (which is countered when someone else does exactly the opposite). And they simply ignore the fact that the very powers they imagine could have resolved the whole Earth-is-threatened problem from the get-go.

Every single one of these inconsistencies took me right out of “Interstellar.” And like Toto revealing the secret behind Prof. Marvel’s would-be Wizard of Oz, they lessened more than they amplified the mystery.

This won’t bother every viewer. But for me? I’m more intrigued by massive monoliths – and whether they’re made of cheese.

Another Friday opening: Elder love

The Magic Lantern finalized its schedule today, which means that it will be opening three films on Friday: two first runs and a pickup second run from AMC River Park Square. I already posted descriptions of the documentary “Awake: The Life of Yogananda” and “Laggies” in previous posts.

“Elsa & Fred,” the other opening feature, tells the story of two elderly people who find a final chance for love. I think it somehow involves a Clapper.

So, go to a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Movies both dumb and otherwise

Note: This is an updated post to reflect changes in the Magic Lantern's lineup.

Initial reports suggest that the weekend will be fairly quiet, especially after a week featuring the opening of two of the fall's biggest releases, “Interstellar” and “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”

But that doesn't mean that we won't experience diversity in theme or genre. We have comedy, emotional turmoil, romance and political commentary, sometimes all at once (sometimes even intentionally).

Friday's openings include:

“Dumb and Dumber To”: Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels reprise the roles they played in the 1994 original (but not in the animated series or in the 2003 follow-up “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd”). Note: Entrance requires your taking an IQ test.

“Whiplash”: A student drummer (Miles Teller) wants to be good so badly he's willing to endure the harassment of his teacher (J.K. Simmons). Someone's gonna get — wait for it — a beatdown.

“Beyond the Lights”: A Beyonce wannabe finds that the price of stardom might be a tad high, especially if she is forced to forgo the guy with studly abs. Ah, the price of fame.

“Rosewater”: While covering protests in Iran, a journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal) finds himself detained and tortured. Written and directed by “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. So … this is a comedy?

And at the Magic Lantern (a pickup of “Laggies” and, potentially, a run of the senior romance “Elsa & Fred”):

“The Kill Team”: A one-night special 7 p.m. screening on Tuesday will feature this documentary about a U.S. soldier who gets caught between war crimes and his own sense of personal morality.

 “Awake: The Life of Yogananda”: This documentary tells the story of the author of “Autobiography of a Yogi,” the man who helped popularize Hindu spirituality outside Asia. My ommmmmmmmm my.

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