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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Grahame’s last gasp makes for a worthy view

Classic film stars usually make for interesting profiles. That's the reason so many magazines are still in print. And why films such as "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" was made. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio: 

Gloria Grahame is one of those names most movies fans may recognize but don’t really know. And why would we?

Grahame’s time in Hollywood was relatively brief, from the mid-1940s through the late 1950s, and she never reached the height of stardom that, say, Lauren Bacall or Barbara Stanwyck did. Partly this was because she became too associated with the femme-fatale characters she played in such films as “The Good Die Young” and “The Bad and the Beautiful.”

And even though Grahame did win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for that latter film in 1953, her career lingered also because – the story goes – she was difficult to work with. That reputation, which she earned on the set of the 1955 film “Oklahoma!” plagued her almost as much as did the problems involving her four marriages – the last one to the son of her second husband, the director Nicholas Ray.

Much of this is glossed over in the movie “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” which was adapted from the memoir of the same title by actor/author Peter Turner. But Grahame’s past, which includes a bout with the same cancer that eventually killed her, lurks always in the background, threatening to – as it finally would – emerge and devour everything.

Turner, who originally hailed from Liverpool, was just 26 in 1978 when he met the then-54-year-old Grahame. Both were renting rooms in the same London boarding house. Turner was trying to break into the very theater scene that had offered the not-yet-faded-star Grahame a few featured roles. The two hit it off and began what would be an at-times turbulent three-year relationship.

But, then, what besides emotional turbulence would you expect from a pairing of someone who is young, impassioned and hungry with someone who is older, dubious yet equally hungry? Certainly not a happy ending.

And yet Turner’s story, as brought to life by director Paul McGuigan, is as full of love and support as it is the inevitable breakup of a doomed relationship. That’s because screenwriter Matt Greenhaigh focuses on Turner’s family, who took Grahame in and – for no other reason than because they were generous, good-hearted people – provided the dying movie queen solace when she most needed it.

As Grahame, Annette Bening captures both the actress’s vulnerability and her flintiness, holding her own against a case of talented British actors, including Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham as Turner’s parents, Stephen Graham as Turner’s older brother and even Vanessa Redgrave, who appears in a cameo as Grahame’s mother.

Another Brit, Jamie Bell, has the most screen time, portraying Turner as a naïve, hopeful young man, as sure of his love for this mercurial woman as he is unsure about pretty much everything else. The actor, who came of age 18 years ago in the film “Billy Elliott,” even gets to show off his dancing skills in one scene.

Yet over the whole production hovers the legacy of the late Grahame, someone who was used – and abused – by Hollywood even more than she used those who loved her for herself.

Catch Henson’s puppet-filled ‘Dark Crystal’

When he died in 1990, Jim Henson was the subject of more melancholy obituaries than I could ever hope to read. Most of the writers had grown up watching Henson's work on television, especially the shows "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show."

Most of the obits also mentioned Henson's film career, though only a few mentioned his 1982 film "The Dark Crystal."

The Internet Movie Database describes the plot of that film, which Henson co-directed with Frank Oz, this way: "A thousand years ago the mysterious Dark Crystal was damaged by one of the Urskeks and an age of chaos has begun. The evil race of grotesque birdlike lizards the Skeksis are gnomish dragons who rule their fantastic planet with an iron claw. Meanwhile the orphan Jen, raised in solitude by a race of the peace-loving wizards called the Mystics, embarks on a quest to find the missing shard of the Dark Crystal that gives the Skesis their power and restore the balance of the universe."

Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune was impressed. "You have to love a fantasy whose greatest peril is the Bog of Eternal Stench," he wrote.

A reviewer for Urban Cinefile was even more impressed: "A wonderfully invented world full of characters that transcend their puppet limitations thanks to the energy and creativity of the Jim Hansen and Frank Oz team of puppeteers and voice actors."

And now comes your chance to see this puppet-inspired, fantasy extravaganza. "The Dark Crystal" will screen at 2 and 7 p.m. Feb. 25 and 28, March 3 and 6 at Regal Cinemas' Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene Riverstone Stadium cinemas.

May the Henson be with you.

Friday’s openings redux: This ‘Burden’ is all Radcliffe

Along with the movies that I've already mentioned, a taut little thriller is being added to Friday's openings:

"Beast of Burden": Daniel Radcliffe plays a guy, caught between the government and a drug cartel, who is playing one against the other as a means of saving his wife. Only he has to do it from the cockpit of his small plane. Yow.

As of Tuesday, the film had attracted only a single review, which you can access here.

Catch ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ Thursday at Northtown

As a teenager, I became obsessed with the plays of Tennessee Williams. I was, and still am, drawn more to the gentler, sadder studies of thwarted love such as "Summer and Smoke" and "The Glass Menagerie."

But I've also admired his rougher, more angst-filled plays such as "Night of the Iguana," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and especially "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Of course, even though over the decades I have seen various staged productions of each, my obsession was fueled mostly by the versions that I saw on film — usually viewed late at night and rendered exclusively in black and white. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in particular has enjoyed a number of adaptations — the most famous being the 1958 version directed by Richard Brooks and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives (as Big Daddy).

But there have been others. My favorite was the the 1984 "American Playhouse" version starring Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones and Rip Torn. Why my favorite? Because the three principal actors, especially Torn, seemed earthier, and more believable as the characters they were portraying. And well … because they offered something different than the Brooks version.

Now we have a "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" for a new generation. Fathom Events presents the National Theatre Live version of Williams' play for one night only, 7 p.m. on Thursday, at Regal's Northtown Mall 12.

The play is a filmed production that was staged in 2017 in London's West End. It stars Jack O'Connell, Sienna Miller and Colm Meaney. "(T)his Young Vic production brings combustible conviction to a smoldering classic that has only rarely ignited in performance in recent years," wrote New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley.

Now, if only they'll do a restaging of "Summer and Smoke."

Lantern to feature Oscar-nominated shorts

If you didn't catch the Oscar-nominated Animated and Live-action Shorts that played briefly at AMC River Park Square, you might want to catch them beginning Friday when they open at the Magic Lantern.

My partners on "Movies 101," the weekly show that Mary Pat Treuthart and Nathen Weinbender do for Spokane Public Radio, discussed the two programs on a recent show. (The second half of the show we discussed Clint Eastwood's most recent feature "The 15:17 to Paris").

But if you don't want to take the time to listen to 11 minutes or so of our discussion, check out the following comments from other critics:

Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times: "The Oscar-nominated (animated) shorts may have smaller running times, but the themes tackled are often big." (Note: The Animated program includes three films that did not make the final list of nominees but were added to fill out the program to a fuller running time.)

 Glenn Kenny, New York Times: "The mastery of computer animation here is staggering."

Ella Taylor, NPR: "This year's crop of Academy Award-nominated live-action shorts — several of them made as newbie filmmakers' calling cards — make up in earnest humanity for what they lack in technical sophistication."

Friday’s openings: Step into alternate reality

As the heat caused by "Black Panther" subsides a bit, a new crop of movies is set for release. And according to the national release schedule, that crop should include:

"Annihilation": Writer-director Alex Garland follows his film "Ex Machina" with this sci-fi-themed story of a team of women that heads into a mysterious area where the laws of nature are all mixed up. You don't mess with Mother Nature.

"Game Night": A group of friends gradually discover that the fantasy evening they're engaging in is a real-life mystery. Yes, it's a comedy.

"Every Day": A woman falls in love with a man who becomes someone new every day. Match.com should offer this option.

And at the Magic Lantern: The Oscar-nominated Animated and Live-action short films.

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

‘15:17 to Paris’: taken from the headlines

If you've seen Clint Eastwood's new film, "The 15:17 to Paris," you might be interested in reading my review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Grammarians don’t like it when people use the word “literally” incorrectly. As in, “I literally eat like a horse.”

Wrong, though maybe it is possible to eat LIKE a horse. But literally? Not unless you gobble oats straight out of a feedbag. Or graze on the grass growing in your front yard.

So when I say that Clint Eastwood’s new film, “The 15:17 to Paris,” is a literal portrayal of real events, well … I can almost, if not literally, feel my grammarian friends wincing. But here’s my point: Eastwood’s film might be among the most realistic retellings of an actual story ever made.

And there’s one major reason for that. Beyond the fact that Eastwood shot in locations where the story took place, including on an actual train, Eastwood chose not to cast his film with professional actors.

Instead, he chose Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler to play themselves – three average American guys who, when presented the opportunity, acted heroically.

Yes, the word hero may be one of today’s most overused term. But if any three people do deserve to be called heroes, Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler fit the bill. Because it was these friends from childhood who, on Aug. 21, 2015, charged a gunman on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris and, in the process, managed to stop what almost certainly would have been a massacre.

Based on the book-length memoir of the same title, written both with the help of journalist Jeffrey E. Stern, Eastwood’s film may not be the most artistic work he has ever done. Certainly, it’s no “Mystic River” or “Letters from Iwo Jima.” But at least in technical terms it does display the professional quality that marks Eastwood’s typical filmmaking style.

That includes the script that he works from, playing as it does with chronology, the intent clearly being to build drama. Which is good because so much of “The 15:17 to Paris” is spent documenting what propelled Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler to their moment in history that it resembles a Lifetime Channel travelogue, one featuring three young guys mostly either drinking beer or taking selfies in such scenic locales as Rome, Venice and Amsterdam.

While the opening scene follows the gunman – a 25-year-old Moroccan named Ayoub El Khazzani – boarding the train, his roller bag filled with semiautomatic weapons and some 300 rounds of ammunition, we’re then transported back a dozen or so years to when Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler were attending a Christian middle school in Sacramento, Calif.

And the film unfolds from there: The three bond while playing war and visiting the principal’s office. They split up (with Sadler leaving for public school and Skarlatos going to Oregon with his father), and – later – Stone struggles to find fulfillment after joining the Air Force and washing out of para-rescue school.

Everything builds toward the final, heart-pounding confrontation, presaged by a scene of Stone, looking over the grandeur that is Venice, wondering if his life is headed toward something meaningful.

He and his pals would find out soon enough. And I mean that literally.

‘Philadelphia Story’: Hepburn at her best

Movie fans are well familiar with the name Katharine Hepburn. She's a Hollywood legend, having received a dozen Best Actress Oscar nominations, four of which she won: "Morning Glory" (1934), "Guess Who's Coming to Diner" (1968), "The Lion in Winter" (1969) and "On Golden Pond" (1982).

But you may not have known this: At one time, she was considered a failure, at least in box-office terms. Her films were flops.

All that changed, however, in 1940 when she starred in the stage-play adaptation, "The Philadelphia Story." Written By Donald Ogden Stewart (and Waldo Salt) and directed by George Cukor, the movie was taken from Philip Barry's Broadway play.

In the movie, Hepburn stars as a socialite who, on the eve of her second wedding, begins to question herself. Does she love her intended (John Howard), the reporter who has come to report on the event (James Stewart) or the man she divorced because he didn't meet her high standards (Cary Grant)?

"The Philadelphia Story" ended Hepburn's string of flops, becoming the fifth most popular U.S. film in 1941. It ended up being nominated for six Oscars, winning two: Donald Ogden Stewart for Best Writing (screenplay) and James Stewart for Best Supporting Actor.

The film also ranks high on several of the lists put out by the American Film Institute, which rates it as the No. 5 among its Top 10 romantic comedies.

And now Inland Northwest residents will have an opportunity to see why the film, and Hepburn, are held in such high esteem when the film plays at 2 and 7 p.m. on Sunday and Wednesday at two area Regal theaters: the Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

As John C. Mosher wrote in the New Yorker, "The film is a Hepburn triumph, and moviegoers who resent the theatre's habit of requisitioning their stars may feel that Miss Hepburn's time on the stage has not been spent in vain and that she simply prepared herself for this achievement."

‘Dirtbag’ snares most 2018 SpIFF awards

So, the 2018 Spokane International Film Festival — the 20th version of that annual event — has passed. And yet it's still in the news.

As in how the documentary "Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey" took just about every SpIff award it was eligible for. In the category of Juried Awards, "Dirtbag" took Best Feature and Best Documentary.

As for the audience awards, the Finnish/German/Estonian film "The Fencer" was named Best Feature, but "Dirtbag" won both Best Documentary and Best Northwest Feature.

Among the other Juried winners, the documentary "Expedition Alaska" won Best Northwest Feature and took second to "Dirtbag" as Best Documentary. The Best of the Northwest Short was Will Magness's "The Manual," with Magness taking the title of Most Promising Filmmaker.

The complete list can be found here.

The Manual - Teaser Trailer from Wil Magness on Vimeo.

Friday’s openings redux: Noir queen Grahame’s last gasp

Seems there's a single addition to Friday's list of movie openings. And it is based on a the real story of a Hollywood legend:

"Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool": Annette Bening stars as Gloria Grahame, the one-time Hollywood flame who — in the last years of her life — had a fling with a much younger British actor, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell). The Liverpool of the film's title is where Turner's family lived when Graham, facing the cancer that would eventually kill her, asked to come stay with them.

"There is a tremendous warmth and tenderness to this sweet, sad love story," wrote reviewer Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian.

To see some highlights of Grahame's career, click here.

Friday’s openings: African kings and early humankind

So, finally we're heading into 2018 all by itself. No leftover 2017 films (except for those playing at the Magic Lantern), just films from the new year. And the openings on Friday's national schedule are:

"Black Panther": Chadwick Boseman stars as the title character, the superhero alter ego of an African king who is forced to fight against enemies who would threaten his homeland. Not the story of Huey Newton.

"Early Man": "Wallace & Gromit" creator Nick Park brings his claymation technique to this story of early humankind, when a guy named Dug is forced to fight against a dastardly lord who is threatening his tribe. Also, no Huey Newton.

"Samson": Hunky Taylor James stars as the biblical character who ends up duped by Delilah and, ultimately, is forced to fight against enemies who threaten his homeland. Have I taken the joke far enough?

I'll update as the local theaters, including the Magic Lantern, update their listings.  

SpIFF 2018: One legend and a closing party

And, finally, we arrive at the end of the 2018 Spokane International Film Festival. Tonight's program features not only the documentary "Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey," which screens at 7:30, but also the closing-night party at the Montvale Events Center.

The party will begin following the screening (about 9:30 p.m.) Here's my review of tonight's documentary, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Fred Beckey wasn’t the kind of guy you necessarily would want to have had standing on your doorstep, asking for a favor – a place to crash, say, even if only in your backyard.

But if you were stuck on the side of a mountain, he was someone you’d probably want tethered to the other end of your line.

Why? Because he knew better than most how to get to the summit. Jim Donini, former president of the American Alpine Club, said that Beckey knew “more about the mountains of North American than anyone who has ever lived.”

Donini is one of several people that documentary filmmaker Dave O’Leske interviewed for his film “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey,” which plays tonight at 7:30 at the Bing Crosby Theater and which closes out the 2018 Spokane International Film Festival.

What O’Leske’s film makes clear is that Beckey, who died in October at the age of 94, never passed up an opportunity to live his life exactly as he wanted.

And the life Beckey wanted was one that allowed him to climb every mountain he could find. Just for the record, he climbed a lot over his seven-decade career, managing to achieve more first ascents than any other American mountaineer.

He also lived an existence that was uncompromising, one that earned him a number of descriptors, from “maverick” to the “dirtbag” of the film’s title, the definition of which is “a person who dedicates her or his entire existence to the pursuit of climbing, making ends meet using creative means. Often found living near major climbing destinations, the dirtbag is a rebel with a cause who finds happiness in nature."

How creative was Beckey at making ends meet? He lived a largely itinerant life, living out of his car for extended periods, scrabbling for what he needed, whether that be food, gas or lodging. In one shot, O’Leske pictures Beckey holding a sign that says, “Will belay for food,” followed by three exclamation points!

Beckey also depended on the support given to him by friends, some of whom he would cut ties with when they would – or could – no longer accompany him. Throughout the film, O’Leske interviews person after person who shares tales of how Beckey – a lively, addictive and magnetic personality – would sacrifice everything, including enduring relationships, in his quest to conquer yet another peak.

Eric Bjornstad, one of Beckey’s many climbing partners, summed the man up this way: “Just a one-track mind, most of the time. If it wasn’t on women, it was on climbing.”

And though largely unknown by the public at large, Beckey – to the end of his life – remained one of those climbers whose legendary status persists among his peers, many of whom have gone on to fame and fortune.

In chronicling Beckey’s life, which took O’Leske a decade to do, he depends on the interviews, archival film footage, the occasional animated sequence and one-on-one sessions with the famously reclusive climber himself.

The result is fascinating study both of a man and the mountain-climbing mania that drove him.

SpIFF 2018: Straight from Tehran and more

And the 2018 Spokane International Film Festival comes down to the final two days. And maybe the best is still to come. Tonight's features at the Magic Lantern are:

"Tehran Taboo" (6:30 in the 100-seat house): The sex lives of a prostitute, a musician and two young women intersect in this harsh, animated look at modern Iranian life. "All told, it’s an audacious debut" (Hollywood Reporter).

U.S. and Canada Shorts (6:45 p.m. in the 33-seat house): "The Ragman — a Hobo's Story Untold" (:16, U.S.), "The Devil Needs a Fix" (:10, U.S.), "Game" (:14, Canada), "Swim" (:12, U.S.), "It's Just a Gun" (:14, U.S.), "The Curtain" (:17, Canada), "This Place Called Nuka — Courting Adventure in Wild Alaska" (:22, U.S.).

For ticket information, click here.

SpIFF 2018: This UFO mystery is ‘Endless’

Three days are left to enjoy the 2018 Spokane International Film Festival. And tonight's movie offerings, which will screen at the Magic Lantern, offer another quality filmgoing experience.

"The Endless" (6:30 p.m. in the 100-seat house): Two brothers, having escaped a UFO cult a decade before, are tempted to return — only to face a mystery they have to solve before it's too late. "[A] rich banquet of mind-bending weirdness" (Variety).

Animation Showcase (6:45 p.m. in the 33-seat house): "Hedgehog's Home" (:10, Croatia/Canada), "Catherine" (:12, Belgium), "The Talk: True Stories About the Birds & the Bees" (:9, Canada), "Threads" (:9, Norway/Canada), "Darrel" (:3, Spain), "CORP" (:9, Argentina), "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" (:12, Netherlands), "I Like Girls" (:8, Canada), "Min Börda" (:15, Sweden).

Tickets are still on sale for Friday's 7:30 p.m. screening of "Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey" at The Bing Crosby Theater. Access SpIFF ticket information here.

SpIFF 2018: Foils and outdoor fun

As the 2018 Spokane International Film Festival enters its second half, two films are on the schedule for tonight's screenings at the Magic Lantern. They are:

"The Fencer" (6:30 p.m. in the 100-seat house): An Estonian in trouble with the Russian secret police fencer returns home and must face the music. "This sweetly told, ’50s-set Estonian drama is essentially ‘School of Rock’ with swords instead of guitars" (The Guardian).

"Expedition Alaska" (6:45 p.m. in the 33-seat house): Teams race through 350 miles of Alaska's roughest terrain. "As much of a challenge as the race was for the competitors, it was equally daunting for the filmmakers behind the documentary" (REI at the Movies).

Click here for SpIFF ticket information.