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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

A single movie opening? No need to despair

Since Friday's movie opening — and, yes, that is a singular usage — is a Dan Brown/Ron Howard extravaganza, let's take a look at some other viewing options. After all, even if you do choose to see "Inferno," what will you do over the rest of the week?

(In terms of movies, I mean. In terms of sports, baseball will offer the World Series, football will boast a whole slate of games on every level, and … well, you know what I mean.)

Television offerings have never been better. Or more varied. In our house, we've been enjoying the ever-growing range of series, from BBC shows such as "Happy Valley," HBO programming such as "Westworld" and — most recently, for us anyway — the FX series "Atlanta."

As for those streaming media services, Netfilx is one of the most dependable. The service tends to rotate its movie menu, though, which results in monthly stories such as "The Best Movies Leaving Netflix in November." Among the film listed, I would second a screening of the following:

"Almost Famous": Cameron Crowe's look at a young guy's love affair with rock 'n' roll.

"E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial": Steven Spielberg at his best. "E.T. phone home."

You can access the whole list here. Take the time to see some. Dan Brown won't miss you as the film of his book is likely to be around for weeks.

The week’s openings: Dante count on it

Four words encapsulate the coming week's movies. The first two are "Dan Brown."

The third is "Inferno." Friday's main scheduled opening is as follows:

"Inferno": Based on a screenplay by David Koepp, Ron Howard continues his exploration of Brown's mythical "Da Vinci Code" series, featuring everyman Tom Hanks again playing Prof. Robert Langdon. This time, Langdon has to decode the works of Dante to uncover a plot to kill half the world. Oh, and that fourth word?

It's "ka-chingggggg!"

As always, I'll update as the local theaters finalize their individual schedules.

‘Girl on the Train’ has a Blunt appeal

I'm a fan of Emily Blunt. I try to explain why in the review of "The Girl on the Train" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I remember first seeing Emily Blunt in the 2006 comedy “The Devil Wears Prada,” which cast her – at least in the beginning scenes – as a thoroughly unsympathetic character who wields her English accent like a verbal light saber.

In the 10 intervening years, Blunt has blossomed, her roles growing ever larger even as the movies she appeared in grew ever more diverse: romantic comedies such as “The Five-Year Engagement,” dramas such as “Your Sister’s Sister,” sci-fi films such as “The Adjustment Bureau” and “The Edge of Tomorrow” and hard-core dramatic action efforts such as “Sicario.”

Now we have “The Girl on the Train,” a psychological thriller based on the best-selling novel by British author Paula Hawkins. And if her other movies have given Blunt the opportunity to stretch her skills, “The Girl on the Train” goes even further.

Blunt plays Rachel, a divorced woman who is obsessed. And troubled. When we first see her, she is riding a train – thus the film’s title – back and forth from her home to New York City. En route, twice daily she passes the neighborhood where she once lived. And as she rides past, she can’t help but fantasize about both the house in which she once lived and the couple that lives nearby.

Played out in a distinctly non-chronological order, “The Girl on the Train” is several things at once. It’s a character portrayal of Rachel, a woman stumbling through life with a blurred history that only gradually becomes clear. It’s a mystery that involves the disappearance of a woman and the subsequent investigation that Rachel is driven to be part of. It’s a look at the real life that lies beneath the thin veneer of suburban normality, a life that – as John Cheever once documented – is all too often is marked by lust, lies and the most basic kinds of betrayal.

Ultimately, though, “The Girl on the Train” is about revenge. It’s about the control that men – some men, anyway – levy over their wives and lovers and how those same men can, and do, abuse that control for their own pleasure. And, when they wake up, how powerful women can be in their efforts to set things right.

Director Tate Taylor, whose previous films include the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” and the melodrama “The Help,” weaves author Hawkins’ whipsaw plot toward a relatively satisfying – if somewhat predictable – climax. More important, though, he gets decent performances out of his cast, both the men – including Luke Evans and Justin Theroux – and the women, especially the Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett (seen most recently in “The Magnificent Seven” remake), and Allison Janney as a tough police detective.

It is Blunt, though, on whom the movie depends most. Playing the troubled Rachel, whose trek toward the truth is agonizingly slow, could not have been easy. It certainly doesn’t make her look glamorous. But it does show what it takes to become an A-level movie star.

Beauty and drive, tenacity and timing – not to mention a ton of talent.

See a bit of Mozart at The Met on Saturday

It's been nearly 230 years to the day that Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni" premiered in Prague. The opera historians out there may be thinking of that anniversary when they step into either the Regal Cinemas movie houses at NorthTown Mall or Coeur d'Alene Riverstone Stadium to see a special live broadcast of The Met's version of Mozart's classic work.

"Don Giovanni" opened on Oct. 29, 1787, in Prague under its full original title "Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni" and was, according to Wikipedia, "rapturously received." Mozart reworked the opera before it played in Vienna and elsewhere. It remains one of the most-produced operas in history.

Tickets to the special live broadcast cost $25 and change for adults. For ordering information, go here. Or here.

And if you go, make sure not to leave before the fat lady sings. What? You say that's some other opera? Well, then, never mind.

Friday’s openings redux: No point in denying changes

OK, the official movie lineups have been announced, and that means a few changes from what I listed below. Seems as if neither Rob Zombie's "31" nor the inspiration-themed "I'm Not Ashamed" will be opening on Friday.

Instead, in addition to the films already announced, here are the additional official openings:

"Miss Hokusai": Japanese animator Keiichi Hara adapts the anime "Sarusuberi," and in the process explores the life and works of artist Katsushika Hokusai. Expect a trek to Mount Fuji.

"Denial": Rachel Weisz portrays the real-life historian Deborah E. Lipstadt who fought in court the Holocaust-denier David Long (Timothy Spall). Law and order, history-style.

"In a Valley of Violence": Ethan Hawke plays a lonesome cowboy who wanders into the wrong town … and the town ends up regretting it. Would that make this "The Magnificent One"?

That's the revised list. So now go. Enjoy the movies.

Friday’s openings: Cruising through the fall slate

As we progress through the fall movie season, the usual mix of films continues to flow in (and out) of the nation's theaters. This week, a full five films are scheduled for country-wide release, most of which no doubt will make it to the Inland Northwest.

Friday's scheduled openings are as follows:

"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back": Tom Cruise returns as the free-willed protagonist of Lee Child's mystery series, this time involving his attempt to uncover a government conspiracy. Looks as if he, too, wants to make American great … uh, again?

"Ouija: Origin of Evil": A family of paranormal scammers get what's coming to them when the real dark spirits possess one of their number. They should have stuck to Monopoly.

"Keeping Up With the Joneses": An typical suburban couple (Zach Galifanakis, Isla Fisher) grow suspicious when their new neighbors (Gal Gadot, Jon Hamm) prove to be anything but typical. Key word there: "typical."

"Boo! A Madea Halloween": Tyler Perry returns with his favorite character to spoof pretty much every Halloween/horror cliche ever devised for movie entertainment. Turns out his trick is supposed to be the treat.

"I'm Not Ashamed": Based on the journals of a girl killed during the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, this inspirational film — I'm not ashamed to say — isn't something I'm remotely interested in joking about.

"31": The latest from Rob Zombie, this pre-Halloween offering follows the misfortunes of five carnival workers forced to play a sadistic game. Hmmmm, sounds familiar. Can you say "Saw"?

That's the list of potentials. I'll narrow the slate when the local theaters finalize their individual lineups.

‘Happy Valley’: The title as irony

More and more, movies are giving way in terms of quality to television. Especially to television miniseries, limited and otherwise. Not that long ago, I reviewed the HBO limited miniseries "The Night Of." This week: the Netflix series "Happy Valley," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio:

As a place name, Happy Valley is an exercise in irony. And this is true whether we’re talking about the home of Penn State University, which was wracked in 2011 by the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, or the BBC series of the same name that began streaming in August on the media service provider Netflix.

The Sandusky scandal, which involved a member of the school’s football staff sexually abusing teenage boys – and school officials ignoring the problem for over a decade – is self-explanatory. The BBC series takes a bit more explaining.

Debuting on British television in 2014, the first season of “Happy Valley” is told over six hour-long episodes. It centers on Catherine Cawood – played sublimely by Sarah Lancashire – a police sergeant working in a small town in northern England (it’s filmed in Calder Valley, Yorkshire). Seemingly bucolic, surrounded by lush green hills, the town is afflicted by deep-rooted problems – unemployment, prostitution, drugs and all the normal foibles that accompany human interaction: adultery, divorce, alcoholism, violent incidents and, yes, the occasional murder.

Catherine, we gradually discover, has an intriguing past that includes a mental breakdown following the suicide of her daughter. That breakdown resulted not only in the loss of her career as a police detective, but it ended her marriage, estranged her from her only other child – her son – and ended up with her becoming the custodian of her daughter’s son, who is the product of rape.

When the series opens, Catherine discovers that her daughter’s rapist, Tommy Royce (played by James Norton), has been released from prison. While Catherine is digesting this news, we see what she does not: that Royce has gone to work for a low-level drug operator. And we watch as that operator is approached by a revenge-seeking accountant who has dreamed up a kidnapping scheme that, he promises, will enrich them all.

Naturally, such schemes seldom go as planned when the principals – at least one of whom is a sociopath – bumble around as much as these murderous clowns do. And “Happy Valley” follows suit, especially when Catherine’s attempts to keep track of Royce involve her in the larger caper.

And did I mention that Catherine lives with her recovering alcoholic/heroin-addict sister? And that she, Catherine, is having an affair with her former husband? And that Catherine’s grandson has his own emotional problems, which grow ever more apparent when his father – the rapist – discovers his existence?

This may all seem just a bit much. But creator and head writer Sally Wainwright manages to reveal it all realistically. And this sense of authenticity – that these characters feel like real people instead of American-made TV crime-show clichés – is one reason why “Happy Valley” is such a riveting view.

The other reason is the performances, particularly of Lancashire and Norton (known to Public Television viewers from the “Grantchester” mystery series).

Netflix is screening both season one and two of “Happy Valley.” That a quality program centers on such dark human quandaries may seem like the ultimate irony. I prefer to see it as a happy coincidence.

Friday’s openings redux: Add Steel to the menu

The announcements are in regarding Friday's movie openings. In addition to those listed below, here's one more:

"Max Steel": Following in the tradition of G.I. Joe, this superhero/action flick is based in a Mattel action figure that spawned a series of comic books, a television series and movies. This latest variation, directed by Stewart Handler ("Sorority Row"), follows 16-yar-old Max McGrath (Ben Winchell), who teams up with an exterrestrial named Steel can become the superpowered Max Steel.

No critics reviews are available, which is never a good sign. So buyer beware.

Friday’s openings: You gotta have … Hart?

Fall doesn't have a long tradition of offering a great variety of films. And the reactions to them don't tend to stoke the box-office fires, especially this year. Case in point: The takes of last week's openings were 8.7 percent less than the same week of 2015.

Still, the weeks progress and the movies keep on coming. Following at the projected national releases for Friday:

"The Accountant": Ben Affleck plays a guy who, while working at "uncooking the books" of notorious figures, has trouble connecting with normal humans. That includes both the humans who get to know him (such as Anna Kendrick) and those who want to kill him (such as Jon Bernthal).

"Kevin Hart: What Now?": The latest comedy concert film from the diminutive comic. The word comedy, for some of us, could be rendered here in quotes. 

"Priceless": A guy grieving the loss of his family takes on a job that, when he stumbles onto its secret nature, has the potential of turning his life upside down. As IMDB asks, "Can love, strength, and faith redefine his past and change the course of his future?" Hmmmmm, I wonder.

As always, I'll fine tune as the information becomes available.

Women get their own in ‘The Dressmaker’

As the father of a young woman — a woman has now has her own children — I am particularly interested in stories that involve women. Particularly stories involving the roles that women have played in history. This, then, is one reason why I am so accepting — despite its obvious flaws — of "The Dressmaker," an Australian film that is playing at AMC River Park Square.

What follows is my review of "The Dressmaker," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I often think about the career of Clint Eastwood. In some respects, the man has been making the same film since he first attracted the attention of Sergio Leone. In Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, as he would do later for crime specialist Don Siegel and other filmmakers – not to mention the filmmaker he himself would become – Eastwood typically starred as a man, cast in some sort of situation where he would seek justice, or more often simple revenge, with a gun.

I thought of Eastwood in particular when I watched the Australian film “The Dressmaker,” which was directed by the long-missed Jocelyn Moorhouse and stars Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Kerry Fox, Hugo Weaving and a number of other cast members who are far better known Down Under than in the U.S.

The winner of numerous Australian movie awards, “The Dressmaker” tells the story of Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (played by Winslet), a woman of obvious high fashion, who returns to her Outback hometown late one night with a simple observation: “I’m back, you …” well, the adjective she uses is not one that I’m allowed to repeat on Public Radio (or even on the website of a family newspaper). You get the idea.

Seems Tilly has returned to clear up something. Some years before, she had been accused of murder – even though she was only 10 years old at the time. But Tilly can’t remember the specifics, so she has come home both to find out the truth and to care for her mother (played by the irrepressible Davis), who has – and this is an understatement – chosen to let herself go.

The town isn’t too keen on any of this, secrets and lies – not to mention resentment and prejudice – being what binds most of its residents into a tight klatch. Yet Tilly intrigues them, especially when she hauls out her sewing machine and demonstrates a talent both for creating fashion and converting the town’s ugly ducklings into something akin to Outback swans.

So far, so good. Yet Moorhouse’s film, her first since 1997’s “A Thousand Acres,” doesn’t go necessarily where expected. Based on a novel by Rosalie Ham, “The Dressmaker” proceeds down a number of subsequent plot paths – some of which are farcically comical, one of which involves a shocking death – rejecting each before transforming into a woman’s version of the Eastwood revenge film “High Plains Drifter.” This blend of storylines, much less emotional turbulence, doesn’t always work.

Yet the film has much to recommend it. The opening is brilliant, the cinematography is pristine, the acting – especially by Davis and Winslet – is good across the board, even if the great Weaving seems mostly to be reviving the fey manner he adopted for the 1994 drag-queen film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

Maybe most important, though, “The Dressmaker” is a woman’s story. For as long as cinema has been around, we’ve been inundated with tales of men – such as Eastwood – exacting revenge. It’s high time for movies to feature women taking names and kicking some, well …

Again, you get the point.

‘Birth of a Nation’ raises old argument

Pretty much anywhere you look you can find stories about the controversy surrounding Nate Parker, the writer-director of the soon-to-be-released film "The Birth of a Nation." And as with all art, critics are finding it difficult to separate the strength of the art from the foibles of the artist.

Still, the movie did attract an 81 percent rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, while it was a it less favored (70 percent) on Metacritic.

Following are some of the comments:

Brian Truitt, USA Today: "Parker creates a fascinating portrait of Nat Turner as neither hero nor villain. In the end, he’s portrayed as a man faced with tough decisions."

Stephanie Zacharek, Time Magazine: " 'The Birth of a Nation' isn't a great movie — it's hardly even a good one. But it's bluntly effective, less a monumental piece of filmmaking than an open door."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "The movie, uneven as it is, has terrific momentum and passages of concentrated visual beauty. The acting is strong even when the script wanders into thickets of rhetoric and mystification."

The movie opens tomorrow in Spokane. The philosophy regarding the separation of artist and artistry is yours to contemplate.

Friday’s openings redux: The hill has ayes

So, other than the three major openings identified below, Spokane will be getting an additional movie on Friday. The amended addition is as follows:

"Apparition Hill": Seven strangers, ranging from a woman with cancer to an English atheist, travel to Bosnia-Herzegovinia to see so-called apparitions of The Virgin Mary. File this one under "documentary," not the latest episode of "South Park."

So the schedule is set. Go. See a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Trains and the plains of history

Movies mentioned on the national release schedule usually affect Spokane, but not always. It sometimes takes a week or two for our fair city to catch up. Sometimes our local theaters simply never do.

Anyway, the national releases scheduled for Friday so far are:

"The Birth of a Nation": Named after D.W. Griffith's famous 1915 celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, but actually a retelling of the story behind William Styron's controversial novel "The Confessions of Nat Turner," this look at U.S. history may raise a few eyebrows — if not a few voices. The man who directed it, Nate Parker, is already embroiled in his own controversy.

"The Girl on the Train": Based on the novel by British author Paula Hawkins, this mystery tells the story of a divorced woman (Emily Blunt) who throws herself into a missing-persons investigation that may — or may not — involve her directly. Notice I avoided writing "troubled" divorced woman, which at least is the trailer's implication.

"Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life": A sixth-grade boy worries about heading into the next school year. Based on the novel by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, which is another sign that James Patterson is the co-author of virtually everything.

Note: As for the Magic Lantern, recent stories in The Spokesman-Review and The Inlander have run down the situation. Now that the lease with Joe Davis has run out, the owner of the Saranac Building will decide what to do with the space. Whatever the future holds, it's clear that, for the moment, the theater will not be running a regular program of movies. Thank you Joe and especially you, manager Jonathan Abramson, for your years of service.

Fuqua’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ is less than

It's not often anymore that we get to see Westerns on the big screen, whether they're classics or new releases. So it's understandable that some Western fans would get excited about Antoine Fuqua's "The Magnificent Seven." Following is my review of that film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio: 

Last August, the British publication The Telegraph published a story under the headline “25 films set for reboot or remake.” Among the films listed were “An American Werewolf in London,” “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”

The article mentioned nothing about Antoine Fuqua’s remake of the 1960 film “The Magnificent Seven.” It may have been because Fuqua’s film, by then, was already in the can. Or it may have been because the 1960 film – directed by American filmmaker John Sturges – was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film “Seven Samurai.”

Whatever the reason, the fact that Fuqua is not the only one working from past material makes it clear that Hollywood is less interested in pursuing fresh material than in retreading what has worked in the past. No wonder so many of the best filmmakers – David Fincher, for example, and Steven Zaillian – are stepping away from the big screen, if only temporarily, and working on projects for company’s such as HBO and Netflix.

Still, this review is not about the ongoing failures of Hollywood. It’s about Fuqua’s take on a classic movie story. Though, to be honest, the two may be much the same thing.

Fuqua’s film centers on a gunman, a “sworn” law officer named Chisolm (played by Denzel Washington). After hunting down a wanted man, Chisolm is asked to help free a mining town from the clutches of a despicable bad man named Barholomew Bogue (played by Peter Sarsgaard). To do so, he recruits a ragged band of six men, ranging from a quip-savvy cynic (Chris Pratt) and a one-time dead shot (Ethan Hawke) to a couple of guys whose native language isn’t even English (Mexico’s Manual Garcia-Rulfo and South Korea’s Byung-hun Lee).

The odds are heavily against them, of course, but the seven have justice on their side. Or, as is made all too clear, the righteousness of revenge. Either, as Chisolm says, works.

Fuqua, who is best known for his 2001 film “Training Day” – the film that won Washington his Best Actor Oscar – deserves credit for pulling together a technically proficient production. And, too, reflecting the times in which we live, Fuqua can be lauded for opting to cast his film with a sense of diversity – including a woman character no less, played by Haley Bennett – that would never have occurred either to Kurosawa or Sturges.

But … even though Fuqua clearly is making his own kind of movie, the question persists: How does it compare to the others? And the answer here is – even given its qualities – Fuqua’s movie is the lesser version.

It lacks the grandeur of Kurosawa’s three-hour plus effort. It lacks the old-school sense of honor that Sturges emphasized. Most of all, though, Fuqua’s movie lacks the character development that gives us actual reasons to care about each of the seven individual characters – and to mourn their obligatory passing.

In the end, Fuqua has made less a magnificent seven than, at best, a slightly better than average one.

VIFF 35: See movies in a scenic city

Above: Adam Driver stars in Jim Jarmusch's "Paterson," which will play at the 35th Vancouver International Film Festival.

Tomorrow begins one of the Northwest's best film festivals: the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Why is it one of the best? For starters, it's held in Vancouver, British Columbia, which just happens to be my favorite West Coast city (yes, even above San Francisco, Seattle or San Diego).

Second, it screens hundreds of feature, documentaries and shorts over 16 days (through Oct. 14).

Third, many of those films are screened in theaters set within walking distance of one another (easily accessible, at least, by those who have the ability to hoof it several blocks at a time).

You can get all of the information about the festival, lodgings, transportation and anything else you need by clicking here. And if you want some information about maybe some films to check out, click here.

Vancouver is a delight to visit in and of itself. Seeing movies at the 35th edition of VIFF only adds to the experience.

Below: Chan-wook Park's film "The Handmaiden" will also screen at VIFF 35.