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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Leave No Trace’ carries a huge emotional impact

Two intriguing films open today at the Magic Lantern. Here is a review of one, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The opening scene of “Leave No Trace,” Debra Granik’s newest film, presents us with what looks like a natural paradise: tall trees, dense green undergrowth, hills and ravines, all contributing to the kind of solitude and quiet that some people crave.

We quickly meet two of those people: a man named Will (played by Ben Foster) and his mid-teenage daughter Tom (played by Thomasin McKenzie). They appear to be camping, comfortable in their abilities to live and seemingly thrive in an outdoors setting. But mostly they appear to be comfortable living with each other.

Much of that perception changes, though, when we learn that the two are hiding. It changes even further when they are apprehended by the authorities, not just police but by social workers who, when Will and Tom are officially processed, arrange for them to no longer be “unhoused” – which is the euphemism of choice – but to live indoors.

And gradually we learn what we need to know: Will is a former Marine, a combat veteran whose suffers from bad dreams, a broken man who can’t stand – or at least can’t stand for long – any existence that forces him to live in what most of us would consider to be normal society.

In other words, they aren’t hiding because they’re running from the law. They’re running from societal expectations that Will won’t, or can’t, face.

His only real connection to the larger world, in fact, is Tom, his daughter by a woman who is long gone, a budding adult who is as fiercely protective of him as he is of her. Yet as both come to realize, what’s broken in Will is not broken in Tom. And ultimately she is going to have to make a choice: staying with dad or pursuing a life of her own.

Granik, who co-wrote her screenplay with Anne Rosellini, adapted “Leave No Trace” from a novel titled “My Abandonment” by Portland writer Peter Rock. Granik and Rosellini have teamed up on a number of projects, most notably the 2010 feature “Winter’s Bone” – a movie that helped introduce audiences to the actress Jennifer Lawrence.

Like “Winter’s Bone,” “Leave No Trace” doesn’t unfold with a typical Hollywood-type narrative. Instead of the dramatic highs and lows, it proceeds in a stately, evenly paced manner that smacks of authentic life. And the casting, from veteran Foster – familiar from such shows as HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and feature films such as “Hell or High Water” – to newcomer McKenzie, not to mention a number of secondary performers, only adds to the film’s low-key, realistic feel.

Which clearly is Granik’s intent. She’s far more interested in understanding her characters, in showing how they interact, both with each other and with their environments, than in coming to any larger judgments either of them or of the decisions they make.

Not that her characters refuse to act. In the end, Tom does make a decision – and that decision, hard as it proves to be, gives us some confidence that, in the long run, she’s going to be just fine.

As for Will, that's a whole other question.

Have fun at the expense of ‘Krull’ tonight, Saturday

Most directors have at least one — or maybe two — movies on their resume that they'd rather forget. Alfred Hitchcock had "Family Plot." Stanley Kubrick had "Eyes Wide Shut." Steven Spielberg has "Hook."

Peter Yates doesn't belong in the ranks of top-tier directors. Still, he made a few good films. "Bullit" (1968), for example. Also, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1973) and "Breaking Away" (1979).

But in 1983, Yates gave us the sci-fi clunker "Krull," a film that Janet Maslin of The New York Times called "a gentle, pensive sci-fi adventure film that winds up a little too moody and melancholy for the 'Star Wars' set, though that must be the audience at which it is aimed."

And that was Maslin being kind. David Ansen of Newsweek was more brutal: "Under the tone-deaf direction of Peter Yates, Krull manages to be both lavishly overdone and bizarrely half-baked."

A far more entertaining assessment of "Krull" will be on display at 8 p.m. tonight and at 12:55 p.m. Saturday at two Regal Cinemas locations, Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium. The event: RiffTrax Live! "Krull."

If you aren't familiar with the RiffTrax events, they feature a film screening with three comedians making snarky comments.

Director Yates died in 2011 at age 81. But even he might have appreciated how funny RiffTrax can be.

Friday’s openings redux: Five more great escapes

With area theaters having finalized their bookings, Friday's amended movie-release schedule boasts a number of changes:

"McQueen": The life of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen is profiled in this probing documentary. Time to dress up.

"Beautifully Broken": The lives of three families are intertwined by war. Bring a conscience.  

"Papillon": Charlie Hunnam stars as the protagonist, Henri "Papillon" Charrière, in this retold story of the man who escaped from a French penal colony. Remember Steve McQueen.

"Puzzle": A suburban woman's life takes a new turn when she discovers a talent for solving jigsaw puzzles. Start with the corners.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (2D experience in IMAX): Stanley Kubrick's classic 1968 sci-fi film will screen for the first time in IMAX format (at AMC River Park Square). HAL? HAL? Do you read me, HAL?

That's the list. So go, see a movie. And enjoy.

‘Eighth Grade’ to open Friday at Magic Lantern

It's hard to think that a 28-year-old guy (his birthday is today) would be the best person to make a film about a girl facing her final week of eighth grade. But Bo Burnham is no ordinary guy.

A YouTube sensation as a teen, a recording artist before he was 20 and a standup comic of some renown, Burnham chose to write and direct a movie — his first feature film — about the trials and challenges of social media. And to use said girl (played by the preciously charming newcomer Elsie Fisher) as his protagonist.

The result, titled simply enough "Eighth Grade," just finished its first run in Spokane at AMC River Park Square. It now opens on Friday at the Magic Lantern, which is a far better fit, playing alongside such alt-moviehouse fare as the documentaries "Won't You Be My Neighbor," "RBG" and "Three Identical Strangers" plus the narrative features "Leave No Trace" and "Sorry About That."

Boasting a 98 percent fresh rating on the critical website Rotten Tomatoes (87 percent among audiences), "Eighth Grade" is one of those films that is bound to receive some Oscar recognition at the end of the year. (If not, it will be a crime against art.)

Whatever happens, though, "Eighth Grade" remains one of the most intelligent, illuminating and touching films ever made about adolescence. See if it you can.

Friday’s openings: Robot dogs and dead puppets

Dogs have been big in the movies of late. On Friday, the film "Alpha" — which imagines the beginning of the love affair between dogs and humans some 20,000 years ago in Europe — opened. And this coming Friday, a new generation of dog-like creatures will be at the center of yet another release.

According to the national movie-release schedule, Friday's releases are:

"A.X.L.": Alex Neustaedter stars as a teenager who befriends a robotic dog. Open the dog bay doors, Arf!

"The Happytime Murders": Melissa McCarthy and her former partner (the first puppet to get hired as a cop, voice by Bill Barretta) track down the perpetrator who is targeting the stars of a one-time television show, "The Happytime Gang." They want to discover who's, uh, pulling the strings.

As always, I'll update when the local theaters finalize their bookings.

‘Whitney’ reveals the down side of celebrity fame

The documentary "Whitney," which played locally at the Magic Lantern Theater, is screening on the streaming service Netflix. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

We all want success. In whatever occupation we choose, we want to enjoy the rewards that come from doing a good job and being recognized for it.

But fame? The idea of fame sounds great, especially if you’re a Kardashian whose only talent is a penchant for self-absorption. But the reality of fame is that it cuts both ways: For everything it provides, it demands a price.

The list of celebrities who have endured rather than enjoyed fame is long. And those for whom fame proved to be a fatal trap is depressing indeed. Take the 27 Club, those celebrities who died at that tender age, a group that includes Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix and several others.

All were done in by drugs or alcohol, or drugs andalcohol. And fame, in one way or another, affected all their lives negatively.

By contrast, Whitney Houston lived far past the age of 27. She was 48 when she died in February, 2012. But according to Kevin Macdonald’s documentary “Whitney,” her life ended up being as afflicted as any celebrity’s life ever has. And fame, in the end, did her more harm than good.

Born to Cissy Houston, a singer in her own right, and John Houston, an entertainment executive and sometimes political hustler, Whitney and her two brothers grew up mostly on their own, traded from one family member’s house to the next.

At some point during their teens, the Houston siblings began dabbling in drugs. And earlier, according to one of the brothers, during one of these home-stays both he and his sister were sexually molested by an older cousin.

When Whitney was in church, however, nothing seemed amiss. Even in her early teens, her singing displayed a talent that far surpassed her mother’s. And as she grew, her natural beauty not only earned her jobs as a model but it – and her voice – attracted the attention of recording executives such as Clive Davis

As Macdonald demonstrates, both through archival footage and through a number of interviews with Houston family members, friends, former employees and outside observers, Houston’s rise from that point was meteoric, boasting a peak that rivaled any singer’s in history, with seven consecutive No. 1 songs and more than 200 million records sold worldwide.

But as Macdonald shows also, Houston faced challenges that continually inflamed her inner emotional demons. Throughout the hit songs and concert tours, the various movie appearances – especially 1992’s “The Bodyguard” with Kevin Costner – she struggled: with the expectations of black audiences who saw her as too white, with members of her own family who wanted a cut of her fortune (her father sued her at one point for $100 million), with the separation from her longtime friend Robin Crawford and during her difficult 14-year marriage to the singer Bobby Brown.

The result was several years of isolation, aborted comebacks and intermittent drug relapses, culminating with a sad end in a Beverly Hills hotel bathroom – all portrayed through lurid stories printed in supermarket tabloids.

Fame may not have killed Whitney Houston, but it didn’t save her either.

Take a ‘Walk on’ the wild animated side

Fans of Japanese animation have another treat coming on next Tuesday and Wednesday. At 7 p.m., the Regal Cinemas theater at Northtown Mall will screen the 2017 film "The Night is Short, Walk on Girl."

Directed by Masaaki Yuasa, and adapted from a novel by Tomihiko Morimi, the film follows a young woman as she accompanies a group of teens on a night out in Kyoto and becomes the target of attention by an infatuated fellow student.

Here are some reactions by critics:

Richard James Havis, South China Morning Post: "The whole thing is a postmodern trip, with animation styles varying greatly to fit the mood: bright pop art colours, dark Rembrandt tones and everything in between."

Tara Brady, Irish Times: "By the final act in this film, the randomness coalesces into something philosophical."

Allan Hunter, Daily Express: "A restless mixture of inventive animation and over-elaborate storytelling set over a single long night in Kyoto."

Note: Both screenings are in original language with English subtitles.

Outdoor ‘Grease’ screening moved to Sept. 6

If you were planning on attending the Inlander Sounds & Cinema showing of "Grease," which was scheduled to show at 6:30 Thursday night in Kendall Yards, better change your plans.

The outdoor screening was postponed, the paper reports, "due to unhealthy air conditions." The event has been moved to Sept. 6.

Unless you've been asleep for the past several days, smoke from regional fires have permeated the Inland Northwest. As of this afternoon, the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency reported Spokane County's air quality index at 172. Any reading above 150 is considered "unhealthy."

The screening of "Grease," part of The Pacific Northwest Inlander's summer-movie series — Suds & Cinema — celebrates the 40th anniversary of the 1978 film, which was directed by Randal Kleiser and stars John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Stockard Channing.

The series is held in Olmsted Park, which is located at 2335 W. Summit Parkway. Click here to access the Inlander's events Facebook page.

The week’s openings redux: Live-action ‘Little Mermaid’

AMC River Park Square just posted its final movie bookings, and there is an adjustment to make to Friday's opening schedule:

"The Little Mermaid": No, it's not the Disney animated version. This is a live-action film starring William Moseley and Poppy Drayton. Moseley plays a reporter who, along with his niece, discovers a mysterious woman who they come to believe is the real little mermaid.

The film is the first release from a new production company, MVP Studios.

Catch Elvis Presley’s 1968 TV Comeback Special

Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977. I had to look up that exact date, but I do remember the day itself.

I was sitting atop a riding lawnmower, working my way across the yard of my then-parents-in-law. This was in southern Ohio, and the air was hot and humid. My wife, as with the in-laws now my ex-wife, came running out of the house.

"Elvis died," she said. And the world shifted.

Well, not exactly. Life isn't a TV reality show (except, it seems, if you live in the White House these days). I continued mowing the lawn, we later fixed dinner, went to bed and ultimately returned to our regular lives (which at the time was as graduate students in Eugene, Ore.).

But as with all celebrity deaths, Elvis' death did have an effect. And the effect of his passing was bigger than that of most entertainers. Not just for the the profound impact he'd had on the American music scene but also for the sad way in which it came about (at the relatively young age of 42 and during a period of steady decline).

All of which makes the most recent Fathom Events offering, the "Elvis '68 Comeback Special" so memorable. It marks that period in Elvis' life in which, following his meteoric rise in the 1950s, he was again proving to be a great entertainer. This event, which will be shown locally at two Regals Cinemas theaters — at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium — will screen twice, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and the following Monday (Aug. 20).

If you never knew what made Elvis special, or have forgotten, this event should prove both illuminating and educational. 

The week’s openings: Action, action, action

Action is the reason for the summer movie season. And action is on tap this week, according to the national movie-release schedule. Along with "Crazy Rich Asians," which opens on Wednesday — and which I previewed last week — Friday's openings are as follows:

"Alpha": Once upon a time, man was man and wolf was wolf. Then they teamed up, and wolf became man's best friend. This is how that might have happened. Arf.

"Mile 22": Indonesian star Iko Uwais ("The Raid," "Star Wars: The Force Awakens") plays a cop who has key information on corruption in his home (unidentified) country and who must depend on a team of Americans to smuggle him to safety. Oh, some guy named Mark Wahlberg is in the movie, too.

And at the Magic Lantern, two second-run pickups: "Sorry to Bother You" and "Leave No Trace:"

As always, I'll update when the area theaters finalize their bookings. 

When triplets become ‘Identical Strangers’

The riveting documentary "Three Identical Strangers" is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. Following is my review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I once argued with a friend of a friend – you know the kind of person I mean – who took issue with what I had to say about reviewing film. I’d said that I wanted to know as little as possible before going into a screening so that the film could work on me the way the director intended.

She said that was ridiculous. That I should know as much as possible to be able to fully understand what I was watching.

I considered her point. And as with many things in life, the compromise that I’ve come to over the years is to find a middle ground. I find out just enough about a movie before I see it – but no more.

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t really matter. With a Melissa McCarthy comedy, for example, you pretty much know what you’re in for. But with a documentary such as “Three Identical Strangers,” you’re better off knowing just enough.

Partly that’s because the movie, directed by British filmmaker Tim Wardle, is based on a real-life story that first hit the news in 1990. So you may already be familiar with some of the story going in.

Here’s what it won’t hurt you to know: On his first day of college, New Yorker Bobby Shafran stepped onto his upstate campus and was greeted like a long-lost friend. Guys yelled hi, girls hugged him and everybody called him by name. Only it was the wrong name. They called him Eddy.

That same day, with the help of a new college acquaintance, Bobby met the guy he’d been mistaken for and discovered something incredible: He had a twin brother. And his twin’s name was Eddy Galland.

Of course, the story made news. But then things got even weirder. Because of the news stories, a third boy popped up: David Kellman. And now the boys were triplets.

Amazing, right? So much so that if it weren’t real life, someone would dismiss it as a screenwriter’s fantasy. But it did happen. And the boys became instant celebrities, appearing on TV talk show, scoring a walk-on appearance in Madonna’s movie “Desperately Seeking Susan,” even opening their own New York restaurant – a natural progression for three by-then, 20-something boys who were in love with having found their long-lost brothers.

Here, though, is where I have to be careful. Because all of this is only half the story. The rest of Wardle’s movie, which he slowly reveals as the socio-cultural mystery it incredibly is, involves two things:

One is the kind of pain that can come when a rush of infatuation gives way to the reality of actual experience, in this case when the twins discover that for all their physical likenesses, their personalities are distinctly different.

The other is the back story of their birth and the reasons for their separation, which touches on a larger story of a social-engineering experiment that has yet to be resolved.

The result, then, is a fascinating tale that reveals the truth behind the headlines – a truth you should now be fully prepared to learn.

‘Graveyard of the Fireflies’: For mature ‘kids’ only

I don't know who is doing the programming for Studio Ghibli Fest 2018, but somebody has made a mistake.

The festival is, of course, part of the ongoing Fathom Events series that brings special movie screenings to theaters all over the country. In our area, they play mostly at two Regal Cinemas locations: Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium. In this case, the films are animated features from Japan's world-renowned Studio Ghibli.

Animated movies, however, aren't always for children. And even mature children will have trouble with "Graveyard of the Fireflies," the Studio Ghibli Fest 2018 feature that will play Sunday, Monday and Wednesday at Northtown and Riverstone Stadium.

The film series is presented by the organization GKIDS, which on its Wikipedia page is described as a company that puts "a focus on 'sophisticated, indie' animation."

And make no mistake, "Grave of the Fireflies," which was released in 1988, is exactly that: a sophisticated work of art. Directed by Isao Takahata, who just died in April at age 82, and adapted by Takahata from a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, the film is arguably one of the great animated movies of all time.

But for young children? Probably not. "Grave of the Fireflies" tells the story of two young Japanese siblings, a brother and sister, who struggle to survive the aftermath of World War II. Living in Kobe, and now orphaned, the two endure the firebombing of the city and are forced to live hand-to-mouth as well as they can.

Takahata, perhaps following Nosaka's lead — I haven't read the original story — gives his film a mystical feel, with the young sister bonding with fireflies. So, yes, "Graveyard of the Fireflies" is well worth seeing, with the usual stunning Studio Ghibli visuals.

Just don't expect Takahata to compromise the story's ending. He doesn't do Disney.

Catch the Beatles and ‘Yellow Submarine’ tonight

It feels a bit self-serving, since I will be a minor part of the event, but I wanted to remind Beatles fans that a special 50th-anniversary screening of the animated movie "Yellow Submarine" — featuring the music of The Beatles — will be presented at 7:30 tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater.

The screening will be preceded by a 6:30 p.m. live taping of "Movies 101," the weekly Spokane Public Radio show that I co-host with Mary Pat Treuthart and Nathan Weinbender.

Here's the important news: The event, "SPR Goes to the Movies: Yellow Submarine," will feature a cleaned-up print — done frame-by-frame — and remastered sound to better hear familiar Beatles tunes such as "When I'm Sixty-Four" and lesser-known songs such as "Only a Northern Song."

It's always a treat for the Beatles fans among us to hear the group's music in a bona-fide concert hall. The fact that they're accompanied by a groundbreaking animated movie is a bonus.

Or so says the Walrus, goo goo g'joob.

Friday’s openings redux: Go way west, young woman

And the final bookings information is in. No real changes to what I posted below, except for a film that opens Wednesday Aug. 15:

"Crazy Rich Asians": Constance Wu plays a New Yorker who treks to Singapore to meet her boyfriend's family. I didn't choose that title, but it likely says pretty much everything you know.

That's the list. Anything changes, I'll post it here.