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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Bela Lugosi: Happy 132nd birthday

Lots of famous people were born over the years on Oct. 20. Among them, English architect Christopher Wren (in 1632), French poet Arthur Rimbaud (in 1854), Kenyan strongman Jomo Kenyatta (in 1891), Sen. Wayne Morse (in in 1900), pundit Will Rogers Jr. (in 1911), columnist Art Buchwald (in 1925), baseball Hall-of-Famer Mickey Mantle (in 1931), actor Jerry Orbach (in 1935), news broadcaster Connie Chung (in 1946), rocker Tom Petty (in 1950), rapper Calvin Broadus (Snoop Dogg, in 1971) and too many more to list here.

But my favorite: Bela Lugosi (in 1882). The star of “Dracula” had been acting in films for 14 years, mostly in what is now Romania, when he got his big break, portraying the title role in Tod Browning's 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. Though he starred in a number of other Hollywood films, from “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932) to “The Black Cat” (1934), Lugosi's heavy accent and his growing dependence on pain drugs limited his opportunities.

He ultimately ended up working for Ed Wood, dying during filming (in 1956) of what would become what many consider one of the worst film's ever made: “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (released in 1959). Wood, who had shot footage of Lugosi for use in “Plan 9” and another unfinished film that was to be titled “The Ghoul Goes West,” completed filming of “Plan 9” by casting his wife's chiropractor as a stand-in.

Many actors have portrayed, from Lon Chaney Jr. to Louis Jordan, Christopher Lee to Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Gary Oldman to … yes, even Adam Sandler. But as with the role of James Bond, which will always be associated with Sean Connery, Lugosi's performance remains the one to which all others are compared.

Ultimate irony: Martin Landau would go on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in for portraying Lugosi in Tim Burton's 1994 film “Ed Wood.”

Anyway, happy birthday, Bela Lugosi.

‘Gone Girl’: a stylish study in gimmickry

Nathan Weinbendeer and I share movie-reviewing chores at Spokane Public Radio. This is good because, though we agree on most things, we come at movies often with a far different perspective — the product of, if nothing else, the 40-odd-year difference in our ages. Since we try to cover as many movies as we can, and since we are both limited to one review a week, we usually don't comment on the same movies — except for when we tape Movies 101.

This week, though, is an exception. We disagree so much on David Fincher's “Gone Girl” that we agreed that I should add my voice to the mix. That way, with two perspectives, you readers/listeners can better decide what your own views are.

So, then, my SPR review of “Gone Girl” follows:

A couple of summers ago, I read Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl” and, for about half of it, I was enthralled. Well, enthralled might be a little strong, but I definitely felt pulled into Flynn’s twisted exploration of marital discord.

For the life of me, though, I cannot remember how Flynn ends her novel. That’s because at a certain point, her plot goes in a completely unexpected – at least to me – direction. And from that page on, “Gone Girl” ceased to be a serious read and reverted to what I’d call an immensely readable literary curiosity. A more accomplished, if you will, Dan Brown experience.

This, then, was one reason why I wanted to see director David Fincher’s adaptation of Flynn’s novel. I’ve long been a Fincher fan, admiring both the visual narrative and intellectual backdrop he’s given to films as different as “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “The Social Network,” “Zodiac” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” I was anticipating what he would do with “Gone Girl,” even if Flynn was listed as the resident screenwriter.

And my reaction? Mostly disappointment, which seems perfectly appropriate when talking about what is a plot line based on little more than narrative gimmickry.

“Gone Girl” tells the story of Nick and Amy Dunne. It begins with Nick (played by Ben Affleck) examining his wife, Amy (played by Rosamund Pike), musing about cracking open her skull so that he might be able to pin down her thoughts. But told from Nick’s point of view, at least at first, the narrative actually portrays Nick as a right guy soon immersed in a mystery.

One day Nick discovers Amy missing, and their living room bearing signs of a struggle. Concerned, he calls the police … and just that quick Fincher’s movie – following Flynn’s novel – becomes a curious blend of social commentary, would-be social satire and police procedural. Given Fincher’s abilities – not to mention track record – you would think that he’d find a way to handle all of that effectively. Which he does, but only to a point.

Oh, the police part works well enough, if you overlook the strange casting decisions that include Neil Patrick Harris and, yes, Tyler Perry. And so does some of the social commentary/satire, mainly because of Affleck’s natural sense of beefy smarm and Pike’s android-probe stare and ice-princess charm.

But the rest? What the movie tries to say about social media is pretty obvious, especially the points about perception being more important than reality and that a lie repeated long and hard enough can easily become an accepted representation of the truth. And Flynn’s observations about the societal roles of woman and the implicit difficulties of marriage become meaningless when that all-important plot twist – which I won’t expound upon – is revealed.

In the end, it all feels muddled, as if Fincher struggled – and failed – to find just the right plot device to help propel a movie, based on a book that is one big he-said/she-said – yes, gimmick – from beginning to end.

These are a few of my unfavorite things

If you're a baseball fan, then you probably watched — as I did, — both major league championship series games last night. In the first, the Kansas City Royals completed a sweep of the Baltimore Orioles by winning 2-1, and in the second the San Francisco Giants took a 3-1 lead by posting a 6-4 comeback win over the Si. Louis Cardinals.

(Notice I avoided using the cliche “commanding lead” in the Giants score? Hey, for nearly five years, I was a sportswriter and then page editor first at The Spokesman-Review and then The Spokane Daily Chronicle. My colleagues and I tried to avoid cliches like … like … the plague.)

Anyway, my Vancouver (WA) friend Tom Knappenberger — who recently joined the ranks of the retired — sent me a link to a story about a controversy that was inspired by something that occurred in the KC-Baltimore post-game interview. It seems that, during the interview, KC pitcher Jeremy Guthrie wore a t-shirt bearing the inscription “These O's Ain't Royal.”

And this apparently upset some baseball fans. Mostly, I presume, from Baltimore.

Wow. This has inspired me to share a few of my own dislikes. Because I began this blog in 2003 as a movie blog, let me share with you a few things that upset me about contemporary cinema:

  • Dan Aykroyd in “Get on Up.” Is he from France?
  • Neil Patrick Harris in “Gone Girl.” Doogie Howser go home.
  • Pretty much ever Michael Bay movie ever made. Except maybe “The Rock.”
  • Steve Martin in the “Pink Panther” reboots. We're sorry, Peter Sellers.
  • Seth Rogen and James Franco, period. Kim Jong-un wants you … for dinner.
  • Nicholas Sparks' scribblings. Welcome, Mr. Hanky, the Christmas poo.
  • The guy who talked all through as screening of “Kill the Messenger” on Tuesday night. OK, he was explaining the plot to a woman wearing an acoustical assistance rig. But seriously. Inside voice only, please.
  • Filmmakers who insist on using their cameras like salt shakers. It ain't art, pal, it's a business.
  • Chris Tucker. Click here, if you dare.

I could go on all day. In fact, let me add one final dislike:

  • Self-important film critics.

There. I feel so much better now — and not in the slightest way inclined to apologize for anything. Maybe I'll even print up a t-shirt.

SpiFF-Mini: Catch a taste of cinema Oct. 26

Over the past few years, the Spokane International Film Festival — for which I serve as a member of the board — has tried to be more of a presence than a several-day-long festival in February. Through such programs as the Professor's Series, and the occasional partnering with such venues as the Magic Lantern and The Bing Crosby Theater, SpIFF has attempted to make its brand better known.

Which was one of the reasons behind the formation of SpiFF-Mini, a series that began last week with a showing of the film “Dead Show 2: Red Vs. Dead” and continued Monday night with “Purgatorio: A Journey into the Heart of the Border,” a meditative 2013 documentary about the U.S.-Mexican border by Mexican director Rodrigo Reyes.

SpIFF-Mini will conclude at 7 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Magic Lantern with a screening of “The Return to Homs,” another 2013 documentary, this one following two young men caught up in the Syrian conflict. Directed by Talal Derki, the film — wrote the Hollywood Reporter — “should endure as a viscerally direct, consistently informative account of how participants experience the hazards, tedium and lethal thrills of urban combat, and as a portrait of young men radicalized and energized by their circumstances.”

“The Return to Homs” will be introduced by Kristin Edquist, a professor of government at Eastern Washington University. For more information, go to the Magic Lantern or SpIFF websites.

Friday’s openings: War and love, oil and aging

Note: This post was edited to include a third opening film at the Magic Lantern.

Back in Spokane after an eight-day trek around Iceland, where I learned to say Eyjafjallakötull more or less correctly (thanks to the many t-shirts and refrigerator magnets providing pronunciation guides). Now, back to the business of what's opening at local theaters, which this week includes everything from World War II to the joys of aging with style.

First, at the mainstream theaters:

“Fury”: The crew of an American Sherman tank faces down German resistance during the final months of World War II. Wow, never heard that story before.

“Book of Life” (3D and regular): This CGI production follows the story of Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) as he fights to get back to the woman he loves. Family time.

“Men, Women & Children”: Characters of all ages (played by a cast including, of all actors, Adam Sandler) have to deal with how social media have affected their lives and relationships. Hint: Things don't go well.

“Best of Me”: A rekindled love affair leads to trouble for all involved. Two words: Nicholas Sparks.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Pump”: A documentary about America's addiction to oil. Think maybe it has something to do with corporate profits?

“Advanced Style”: A documentary exploring the lives of seven New Yorkers and their respective ways of dealing with aging. Substitute “flair” for “style” and you know what to expect.

“Soul of a Banquet”: A documentary on Celia Chiang, the woman who, in 1961, introduced authentic Mandarin dishes to the U.S. Chances are, after watching, an hour later you'll want to watch again.

And, finally, a second Spokane run of “The Skeleton Twins.”

So go see a movie. And enjoy.

The film fan finds a home in Rejkjavik

No matter where I go, I seem to be haunted by film. I write this in a hotel room in Reykjavik, Iceland, where I am on a week-long stay with my wife. This country, which is just slightly smaller than the state of Ohio, claims a population — about 320,000 — that is less than Spokane County. Yet it boasts a film festival that is as varied as it is impressive.

We arrived in Reykjavik at about 6 a.m. Sunday morning. And after busing from Keflavik Airport to the capital, we dropped our bags off at our hotel (the Hotel Holt), and walked around. Reykjavik is relatively small and, not unlike Spokane, has a central area that each to navigate on foot. (The above photo is my attempt to show just how different the Icelandic language is to English.)

In the late afternoon, we headed to the Bio Paradis theater where, with no problem at all, we were able to see three documentary features on the final day of the Reykjavik International Film Festival. “Evaporating Borders,” which explores the immigration problem facing Cyprus (but that has implications for the entire world). “Ballet Boys,” which explores the world of youth ballet in Oslo, Norway. And “Waiting for August,” a study of family life in contemporary Romania.

And that's how we spent our first day in Reykjavik. No film festival today. Guess we'll have to hit a few museums.

Wonder if we can find one devoted to movies?

‘The Equalizer’ is a tad bit … too, too much

I like to say that I sit through movies so that others don't have to. And I've been doing it professionally since 1984. Last week I sat through “The Equalizer,” which I … well, let me explain in the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In 1970, the average price of a U.S. movie ticket was $1.55. Today, that price is closer to $8.15, some five times more expensive.

Of course, ticket prices aren’t the only thing about movies that have grown. Budgets have, also. And while the size of theaters has decreased, and then increased, depending on industry trends, the use of special effects has grown perhaps most of all. Furthermore, the tendency for CGI clutter mirrors the very way movies unfold their plots.

Take “The Equalizer,” Antoine Fuqua’s latest big-screen teaming with two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington. It has its roots in a series that hit American television nearly 30 years ago. Starring Edward Woodward, an actor as British as Earl Grey tea, TV’s “The Equalizer” focused on Robert McCall, a former intelligence – likely CIA – agent. Similar to many retirees, Woodward’s McCall took the odd job here and there, though with a difference: He used his special skills, and a variety of weapons when needed, to “help” out often powerless individuals – abused wives, for example. And he had a quiet kind of force that made bad guys listen.

Boasting Washington in the lead, Fuqua’s version of “The Equalizer” plays like a pilot for a potential series reboot. This new McCall works days at a Home Depot-type business, joking with customers, mentoring a young coworker, and skillfully dodging queries about his past. We see that his sparely furnished apartment is filled with books belonging to the Modern Library and that, often unable to sleep, he spends nights at a diner straight out of a Production Design 101 class, drinking tea and reading, among other novels, Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

It is here, in this diner that resembles an Edward Hopper painting, that McCall meets Teri (real name Alina), a teenage streetwalker played by Chloe Grace Moretz. It is through Teri that McCall gets his first glimpse of the Russian-speaking mobsters who control her. And it is about this time that McCall begins feeling an old pull, one that he apparently had promised his recently deceased wife he would fight. That pull concerns his tendency to draw upon his agency experience to set the world right. Problem is, that pull inevitably results in violence.

For the first half hour of “The Equalizer,” Fuqua – whose 2001 film “Training Day” won Washington his second Oscar – gives us a film that works as a slow, stylistic reveal. Even when that reveal comes, the style continues – slo-mo shots mingled with close-ups, effective use of shadows, dark colors and gimmickry involving McCall’s stopwatch.

But then, unaccountably, McCall transforms into a combination Jason Bourne and Frank Castle – aka “The Punisher” – whose expertise transforms his warehouse workplace into a tool-laden killing field. And unlike Woodward’s McCall, who might have used a corkscrew to open a good claret, Washington’s character wields the implement in ways that would make even Charles Manson blush.

All things considered, Fuqua’s “Equalizer” might not be bigger. But more brutal, more bloody? Mmmmm, about five times as much.

From myth to truth: Native American Film Festival

From almost the beginning of the U.S. film industry, mainstream America has been portraying — in most cases inventing portrayals — of its indigenous population. In recent years, though, artists representing that population — painters, photographers, poets, novelists and filmmakers — have been reworking their images. And, in the process, searching for something much closer to a truth.

That's likely what you can expect to find Oct. 11 at Sandpoint's Panida Theater when the Idaho Mythweaver will present its American Indian Film Festival. The event, which begins at 6 p.m., will include four films written and directed by native filmmakers: ”Injunuity,” “Indian Relay,” “Grab” and the documentary feature “This May Be the Last Time.”

In his review for Variety, film critic Guy Lodge wrote this about “This May Be the Last Time”: “An Oklahoma-based son of the Seminole tribe himself, (filmmaker Sterlin) Harjo begins by matter-of-factly relating the story of his grandfather’s mysterious death in 1962 — a sincere pretext for a probing examination of the singular-sounding spiritual music that nursed his family through their grief.” 

Tickets to the four-film program run $12 and are available in advance online, at various locations around Sandpoint and at the door. 

Friday’s openings: Get Gone (Girl) or be Left Behind

From the religious to the satanic, comic to mysterious, the week's movies offer a range of experiences. Some might even be worth seeing. The week's openings are as follows:

“Left Behind”: Nicolas Cage plays a man who, when his wife and child mysteriously disappear, tries to discover what happened — and why. Based on the religious novels. Warning: Don't text while driving. 

“Annabelle”: A family gets haunted by a vintage doll possessed by … satan? Or is it … Chucky?

“Hector and the Search for Happiness”: Simon Pegg plays a psychiatrist who embarks on a round-the-world trip to see what makes people happy. Hint: It's not a PS4.

“Gone Girl”: David Fincher directed this adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel, which tells the story of a man (Ben Affleck) who is accused of murdering his wife (Rosamund Pike). And, no, he does not play in the NFL.

“Love Is Strange”: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play an aging couple who, when one loses his teaching job, are forced to live with family members until their finances get settled. Remember what they say about friends, family and visits that last longer than three days.

The Magic Lantern is opening nothing new, but “The Trip to Italy,” “Alive Inside,” “A Most Wanted Man” and “Magic in the Moonlight” continue.

‘This Is Where I Leave You’ … meh

Some of the best shows on television revolve around family life. “Modern Family,” for example. And movies have tackled the same topic with originality and skill. “Ordinary People,” for example. Or my wife's favorite, “Home for the Holidays.”

Unfortunately, “This Is Where I Leave You,” which is in theaters now, doesn't quite live up to those standards, despite having a first-rate cast. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

If you were to look the term “family dysfunction” up in a dictionary, you might see a picture of the central characters from “This Is Where I Leave You.” In adapting his own novel, screenwriter Jonathan Tropper places great emphasis on the notion that this is one screwed-up family.

Being screwed-up, of course, is a relative condition. All these characters are troubled. Depressed even. Unable, or unwilling to relate as a family might.  All, then, are definitely unhappy. But only in what we call a first-world fashion.

Yes, middle son Judd (played by Jason Bateman), is having a particularly hard time. We’ve barely opened our Milk Duds before Judd discovers, one, that his wife is having an affair with his boss and, two, that his father has died. But guess what? His siblings are all facing some sort of crisis, too. Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is married to a jerk and still pines for her former lover. Brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is desperately – even grimly, but vainly – trying to impregnate his wife. Baby brother Philip (Adam Driver) may be the happiest of the bunch: manifesting his Peter Pan syndrome by carrying on an affair with a woman a good 15 years his elder.

One thing is clear: Each sibling feels no need to connect with any other family member. Which is why, following dad’s death, Mom Altman (Jane Fonda) calls them all home and expects them to sit Shiva – the traditional Jewish manner of grieving – for seven long days. Her intent is clear: Forced intimacy.

Of course, as Tropper’s screenplay makes clear – as clear as director Shawn Levy can make it make anything – Mom idea of intimacy is part of the problem. She wrote a best-selling book on child-rearing, a tell-all tome centered on her own family, that made her kids – to their ever-lasting shame – mini-celebrities. Not only does she seem to not realize the effect this has had on her family, Mom gushes to anyone willing to listen the juicy details of the great sex she had with her dead hubby – all while displaying the ample charms of her augmented breasts. Fonda, a two-time Oscar winner, eats her dialogue as if they were bites of kugel.

And Fonda is hardly the movie’s only skilled actor. Bateman has become one of the most reliable straight men in TV or movies. Fey’s “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” credentials make clear her comic appeal. And so with the others: Stoll (who played Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”), Driver (best known for the HBO show “Girls”) and various others, from Kathryn Hahn to Rose Byrne, Dax Shepard to Timothy Olyphant.

No, the problem with “This Is Where I Leave You” isn’t due to the cast. Nor does director Levy do much that is noticeably wrong. The movie just plays off-key from the start, with sitcom situations subbing for real emotional entanglements and subsequent resolutions feeling about as deep as – speaking of the First World – a 20-second ad for Geico car insurance.

Friday’s openings: Trolls, comedy and bad Denzel

Another coming Friday and another lineup of movie offerings. And imagine that, we actually have a few choices to work with. The week's openings are as follows:

“The Equalizer” (also IMAX): Denzel Washington stars in Antoine Fuqua's update of the 1980s-era television show about a vigilante loner who seeks justice for the powerless. Question: When did Denzel Washington transform into Wesley Snipes?

“The Skeleton Twins”: Former “Saturday Night Live” cast members Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as estranged twins who try to mend their relationship. Is it just me, or has Wiig been making some fairly great career choices?

“My Old Lady”: An American (Kevin Kline) takes possession of a Parisian apartment — and its unexpected inhabitant (Maggie Smith), who foils his plan of making a quick score.

“The Song”: An aspiring singer-songwriter finds success ain't what he thought it was. Here's a line from one critic's review: “There are many hurdles to overcome here, including headlines, gossip and someone who has lost his way and must find it with religion.”

“The Boxtrolls” (3D/2D): Based on the children's novel “Here Be Monsters,” this animated feature explores the underground world of creatures who come out at night. Between the creatures and their human foes, two guesses as to who the real monsters are.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Tale Me to the River”: When a few recording stars from Memphis team up to record a new album, the whole of American music is examined. Terence Howard narrates the documentary,

“A Most Wanted Man”: Don't miss the second-run showing of this adaptation of John Le Carre's novel, featuring the last great performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And don't forget to enjoy.

Take ‘The Trip to Italy’ this weekend

I've spent a bit of time in Italy. From Trentino-Alto Adige in the north to Sicily in the south, from Sardegna to the west to Le Marche to the east, I've driven the main autostradas and back roads to big cities and mountain villages alike. So two of the last several movies I have seen struck me as something special. The first was “Five Star Life,” which I reviewed last week.”

This week the movie is “The Trip to Italy,” Michael Winterbottom's sequel to his 2010 movie “The Trip,” which stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon engaged in a kind of comic competition as they drive through Italy. The film opens today at the Magic Lantern, and following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Travel documentaries can be deadly dull. My version of hell would be any hour spent listening to some talking head warble on about the joys of visiting Oslo, Norway, lutefisk eateries. Give me Anthony Bourdain, and his knowledge of good food and drink accompanied by those trademark cynical asides.

This shows you why I am such a fan of Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Winterbottom, if you don’t know, is an English director of such films as “24 Hour Party People” and “The Killer Inside Me.” Coogan is an English movie and television performer, known for his “Alan Partridge” character and films such as “Night at the Museum” and “Philomena.” The Welsh-born writer and actor Brydon is less familiar this side of the Atlantic, though he did appear in Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.”

What’s important is that in 2010, the trio – with Winterbottom directing, Coogan and Brydon mostly improvising – released a mockumentary titled “The Trip” (which evolved from a BBC series). The film boasts a simple set-up: Coogan and Brydon play fictional versions of themselves, touring England’s finest dining establishments so that Coogan can write a story for the newspaper The Observer.

At the last moment, Coogan’s girlfriend had backed out, leading him to invite Brydon – with whom he shares a nettlesome friendship based, largely it seems, on their continuing comedy one-up-manship (revolving around, among other things,  their respective abilities to impersonate Michael Caine). What the film becomes, then, is a study of the two characters, engaged in an mostly friendly road-trip competition, with fictional – we assume – details slowly being revealed as the English countryside whizzes by and, gradually, a series of gourmet meals are shown prepared and devoured.

Sounds boring, right? Far from it. Coogan and Brydon are brilliant performers. And Winterbottom is so skilled at keeping their talents at the center of his film, all while surrounding them with natural and gastronomic beauty, that it’s hard to appreciate that beauty when the movie offers up so many ongoing invitations to laugh.

“The Trip to Italy,” which opens this week at the Magic Lantern, is a perfect sequel. This time it is Brydon who has been approached by The Observer, and he calls Coogan – living in Los Angeles and on hiatus from his U.S. television series – and invites him to come along. In the first film, an arrogant, restless Coogan was the more dominant of the two. Here, though, their roles slowly reverse. It becomes clear that Brydon, and not Coogan, had ended up writing the Observer stories. And it is the very-married Brydon who finds himself tempted into bad behavior. A subdued Coogan, meanwhile, attempts to bond with his estranged teenage son while fighting with Brydon over his musical tastes: Alanis Morrisette, anyone? And the impersonation competition now involves Al Pacino.

The result is a deeper, richer comedy, still filled with laughs but underscored by a sense of real life. And this time the background is la bella Italia. Really, now. What’s not to like?

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.”

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