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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Friday’s openings redux: Tension and tennis

And another movie has been added to Friday's openings:

"Beirut": Jon Hamm stars as a former diplomat down on his luck who is summoned back to Lebanon to help negotiate a hostage situation. The "Mad Men" star makes a bid for big-screen success.

Following are some critical comments:

David Edelstein, New York Magazine/Vulture: "Hamm still doesn’t have the outsize personality we associate with major movie stars — a lot of whom are lesser actors. But he has focus. He can think onscreen. He can make you watch him closely, trying to keep up with the wheels churning in his head. I think he has fully arrived on the big screen."

Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly: "The performances are strong and the story is absorbing; a smart diversion for adult attention spans."

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: "A period political thriller whose motivations remain timely."

And another note: In a booking coup, "Borg vs. McEnroe," which also opens on Friday, will play exclusively at the Magic Lantern.

Friday’s openings (updated): A dog’s life

Update: Another movie has been added to the list of those opening on Friday. It's scheduled to play at the Magic Lantern but likely will screen at other theaters, too:

"Isle of Dogs": Wes Anderson's tale of a young Japanese boy looking for his lost dog on an island where the government has quarantined dogs over fear of dog flu. Expect whimsy.

As for the previously announced openings:

Now that Dwayne Johnson, aka "The Rock," has become a big-time movie star, we're likely to see him in most anything — with the exception of "Hamlet." Anyway, Johnson and a CGI gorilla star in the main movie release that's listed on Friday's national schedule.

The rest of the schedule looks like this:

"Rampage": A genetic experiment gone wrong disrupts the friendship between a primatologist (Johnson) and a giant gorilla, causing the human to seek a cure for a problem that affects all life on Earth. Rock to the rescue.

"Truth or Dare": Teens get in trouble when a standard parlor game gets all haunted and stuff. A Blumhouse production, if anyone cares.

Borg vs. McEnroe: A look at the rivalry between two of tennis' great players. Two words: Shia LaBeouf (as McEnroe).

"Overboard": Anna Faris stars in this reverse remake of the 1987 comedy, this time concerning a woman who takes advantage of a rich jerk (Eugenio Derbez) suffering from amnesia. What's good for the goose …

"Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero": Animated feature about an adopted dog who becomes a World War I hero. Woof.

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

Friday’s openings redux: Two veteran leisure-seekers

Add to Friday's movie openings one more film, a study of those seeking to find the most in their final years. The additional mainstream opening:

"The Leisure Seeker": Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland play a couple who take off on a road trip, during which they have to deal with a range of obstacles from would-be thieves to growing infirmities.

Here are some of the better reviews:

Glenn Kenney, Rogerebert.com: "The movie is only willing to serve up its truths halfway. And I still teared up."

Alan Scherstuhl, The Village Voice: "The performers are always lively, often engaging, and sometimes moving, worth our contemplation even when the script flags."

Bruce Demara, Toronto Star: "The film's poignant and powerful ending does provide a saving grace."

Katherine Monk, Ex-Press.com: "The wheels never get stuck in maudlin because Mirren and Sutherland create so much dramatic momentum, they keep things rolling. More importantly, neither character shrinks from the truth. They are grown-ups playing grown-ups."

That's the lot. But if changes do get made, I'll post them.

Magic Lantern: The critics love ‘Oh Lucy!’

News from the area mainstream theaters is still forthcoming, but the Magic Lantern has announced its Friday opening:

"Oh Lucy!": A Japanese woman (Shinobu Terajima) decides to take an English class, discovers an alter-ego, falls for her instructor (Josh Hartnett) and follows him to the U.S. Strange things remain afoot in this study of cultural dissonance.

In any event, here are some critical comments:

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times: "Within the confines of this cross-cultural shaggy-dog tale, Hirayanagi locates both a sharp vein of absurdist comedy and a bitter, melancholy undertow."

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: "Hirayanagi isn't selling a packaged idea about what it means to be human; she does something trickier and more honest here, merely by tracing the ordinary absurdities and agonies of one woman's life."

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: "While it's uneven, and at times seems almost artless in its craft, the story has an idiosyncratic charm that pays off in an unexpectedly touching ending."

I'll update … so stay tuned.

Friday’s openings: Protective parents partner up

As April emerges, bringing with it the occasional spot of sun, so does the continuing new year's movie fare. According to the national movie-release schedule, the coming week looks like this:

"Blockers": It's prom night, three young girls are preparing to lose their virginity, and three of their parents want to disrupt the proceedings. Bring a sense of humor.

"The Miracle Season": Death can't stop a high school volleyball team from vying for the state championship. Bring hankies.

"A Quiet Place": A family struggles to survive in a world full of creatures that hunt humans through the sounds they make. Bring fear.

"Chappaquiddick": Another telling of the sordid tale of Ted Kennedy and the unfortunate Mary Jo Kopechne. Bring a sense of injustice.

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

‘Unsane’ could have used a better script

If you haven't yet seen "Unsane," or even if you have, you might be interested in reading the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

We’re all familiar with the kind of film that Steven Soderbergh has given us with “Unsane,” which follows the struggles of a woman committed to a mental institution. As far back as 1948, Olivia de Havilland starred in a similarly themed film, Anatole Litvak’s “The Snake Pit.”

But unlike Litvak’s effort, which was a serious attempt to look at the brutal conditions prevalent in such a hospital, Soderbergh follows a story that owes more to the “Hostels” and “Saws” of the world.

Not that “Unsane” starts out that way. After a mysterious beginning, a narrated, visually-augmented mediation on love, obsession and the color blue, Soderbergh’s film immerses us in the world of Sawyer Valentini, an intense, flinty office worker who is apparently efficient enough to warrant side-eye glances from her coworkers and pretty enough to attract the unwanted attentions of her boss.

Soon we see Sawyer in a bar, picking up stray man, then – just before the obligatory act of passion – rejecting him in a way that gives us a pretty good indication that something is rotten in the state of Sawyer’s inner Denmark. A fast that she then shares with a psychologist, who then – about as fast as you can say Screenwriting 101 – convinces Sawyer to sign papers that, unknowing to her, are voluntary consent forms.

Thus begins the scariest portion of “Unsane,” the part where someone we have come to know at least a little bit, and therefore have begun to care for – at least a little bit – finds herself the captive of a system where everything she says or does is viewed with suspicion. Where she is forced to commune with people who very clearly are NOT mentally stable.

And where any attempt she makes to correct the situation is answered with psycho-babble, with force or with a dose of knock-out drops – usually injected by needle.

That, though, is the point at which “Unsane” goes off the rails. We ultimately learn that Sawyer’s strange intensity was caused – or at least intensified – by an experience almost as chilling as her unwanted confinement. Seems she was stalked by an obsessive would-be suitor. And worse, Sawyer insists that this suitor, whom she has been desperately trying to avoid, is one of the workers in the very hospital to which she is confined.

So instead of a scintillating psychological study, “Unsane” – which was written by the journeyman writing team of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, authors of “Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector” – becomes a tawdry, all-too-predictable woman-in-peril story. One whose villain is able to cover a trail of crimes so well that no one – especially not the conniving insurance scammer – is ever the wiser. Except for Sawyer.

Which is a disappointment because Claire Foy, best known for playing Queen Elizabeth II in the HBO series “The Crown,” pulls off an impressive performance as our protagonist. And Soderbergh, who shot the film with a specially equipped iPhone, has more than enough expertise to make even the most pedestrian scene feel creepy to the max.

It’s just too bad he didn’t opt for a better screenplay.

Mozart rendered as a 1950s Coney Island carnival

Like any other art form, when opera is at its best, it can be riveting. And New York's Metropolitan Opera is among the world's finest.

Which is why we're lucky that The Met's production of "Così Fan Tutte" will be playing in a pair of area theaters on Saturday and the following Wednesday. The live production will begin at 9:55 a.m. Saturday at the Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

Two Wednesday productions will begin at 1 and 6 p.m.

"Così Fan Tutte" (also known as "Così Fan Tutti") was written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and first performed in 1790 in Vienna. The Met production, staged by Phelim McDermott, is "set in a carnival-esque, funhouse environment inspired by 1950s Coney Island — complete with bearded ladies, fire eaters, and a Ferris wheel."

Among the cast are Christopher Maltman as Don Alfonso and Tony Award–winner Kelli O’Hara as Despina, with Amanda Majeski, Serena Malfi, Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka.

As New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote, "Working with the set designer Tom Pye, Mr. McDermott zaps the story from 18th-century Naples to an amusement park in mid-20th-century Brooklyn, where, at least for a while, life becomes a carnival; where everyday codes of behavior don’t apply; and where you are continually confronted by strange figures, including sideshow performers."

A carnival atmosphere onscreen, complete with sideshow-performing singers. How could you resist?

Netflix makes a movie fan’s life so much better

Above: A scene from the Oscar-winning documentary feature "Icarus."

I'll see pretty much any kind of movie. During the years that I was reviewing films for The Spokesman-Review, I kind of had to.

These days, I get to be more particular. And if a movie doesn't appeal to me, I'll likely skip it.

Besides, what with all the choices that I have these days, I can see a lot more than just what's playing in local theaters. For example, thanks to Netflix, I've seen — over the past couple of weeks — three of this year's Oscar-nominated documentary features: "Icarus," "Faces Places" and "Strong Island."

Previously I had watched "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail." And up next is "Last Men in Aleppo," which I'll watch probably sometime over the next few days.

Seeing movies at home, even on a 60-inch 4K HD screen, isn't the same thing as seeing them in the theater. While you gain more control, and can pause to go and get treats at your leisure, you lose the trademark ambience that theaters offer. And my sound system is woefully inadequate.

Still, I'm no longer captive to what a theatrical booker thinks will play best in a Spokane movie house. And that feels pretty special.

I only wish I'd been able to see all the Oscar nominees before the actual broadcast. I might have done better on my ballot — though, to be honest, I'd have had a hard time choosing the documentary feature winner. As good as "Icarus" is, the others are excellent, too.

But then the film that I thought was 2017's best, "The Florida Project," wasn't even nominated in the Best Picture category. And my in-laws quit watching it after the first 25 minutes, texting me the following: "Does it just keep getting worse?"

Everybody's a critic. 

The week’s openings redux: Russia is coming

Well, the coming week of movies just got a bit more interesting. Along with the movies that I've listed below, here are some additional Friday openings:

"The Death of Stalin": The death of the former Soviet leader is played for laughs, what with all the palace intrigue that follows the despot's demise.

"Loveless": One of the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language, this Russian-language film centers on a divorcing couple who must team up to find their runaway son.

"The Greatest Showman Sing-Along": The story of P.T. Barnum and his circus is now inviting you to sing along with the cast. Kind of like karaoke.

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

The week’s openings: Virtual worlds galore

You can always tell when Hollywood thinks it has a hit on its hands. It occurs when nothing major opens in opposition.

And that's pretty much the case this coming week as Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Ernest Cline's best-selling novel opens on Thursday (which means that some area theaters will offer Wednesday night screenings). According to the national release schedule, the week's lineup looks like this:

"Ready Player One": When the creator of an online world called OASIS dies, it's revealed that the winner of a special contest — a virtual scavenger hunt, so to speak — will inherit control of the company. And one young player finds himself in the thick of the race. 

"God's Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness": When his church is burned down, a pastor begins to question how he's practicing his faith. Amen.

"Tyler's Acrimony": Taraji P. Henson plays a woman who reacts poorly to the fact of her husband's philandering ways. Not a comedy.

And at the Magic Lantern?

"Lives Well Lived": A number of elderly people, ages 75 to 100, tell their inspiring life stories. 

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

This Chilean film is, in a word, ‘Fantastic’

"A Fantastic Woman" played in Spokane for barely a week, and it looks as if the Magic Lantern isn't going to pick it up. So if you want to see it at this point, you're going to have to wait until it's available on some streaming service. Anyway, following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

One striking scene in the Chilean film “A Fantastic Woman” is as visually arresting as it is thematically metaphorical. In it, the character Marina – a 20-something transgender woman played by Daniela Vega – is shown walking down a city street.

A wind begins to blow. Harder, then harder still, until Marina – her clothes flapping around her – is bending over at the waist, barely able to stand, much less make any progress, against this sudden force of nature.

Welcome to her world.

Directed by Sebastián Lelio, from a script that Lelios co-wrote with Gonzalo Maza, “A Fantastic Woman” was Chile’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Oscar. Against a worthy field, including Sweden’s critically acclaimed entry “The Square,” “A Fantastic Woman” won.

And its victory owes as much to Lelio’s magically realistic stylisms as it does Vega’s powerful performance.

Those stylistic touches serve a plot that is as steeped in one of today’s most divisive issues, that of transgender identity, as it is basic: Love, unexpected death and a grief that is compounded by bias, resentment and the enduring threat of violence. In other words, pretty much the standard expected of your average Lifetime Channel movie.

Yet “A Fantastic Woman” is no mere melodrama.

The love part involves Marina and Orlando, the older man with whom she is about to move in with, an event that is curtailed when Orlando dies suddenly, and Marina is left with nowhere to turn. She certainly can’t expect any support from Orlando’s son, who can’t get Marina out of his father’s apartment quickly enough. And Orlando’s ex-wife isn’t likely to help either, wanting only for Marina to hand over her ex’s car – not to mention the dog that Marina and Orlando owned together.

Even Orlando’s brother, who at least voices sympathy, can’t – or won’t – do anything.

And then there is the police officer, a woman who claims to have seen everything and who seemingly has enough information to be on Marina’s side. But that knowledge also makes her suspect Marina’s story, especially since – at an important moment – Marina chooses to act in a way that would presume guilt.

But we know better. We get to see what no one else does, the exact circumstances of Orlando’s death, and it is clear that Marina is acting from fear. When you’re the object of scorn from everyone you meet, why would you act any other way?

That’s not to say that the film might not have benefitted had Lelio and Maza added in more of a backstory for Marina, some clues about her past and the struggles she has endured.

As it is, Lelios was lucky that he had an actress as capable as Vega to depend on. We do get to see Marina communing with another older man, presumably her music teacher. And we even get to see her perform, not just in a dance sequence – another bit of magical realism – but on the stage singing opera.

In the end, that’s enough. Vega’s Marina, with her haunted push against the enveloping winds, gives us all we need to know.

Catch Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ on Thursday

Some of those among us can't get enough Shakespeare. And the National Theatre Live is making sure we get our fill.

On Thursday, two area Regal Cinemas movie theaters — at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium — will screen the troupe's production of "Julius Caesar" at 7:30 p.m.

Broadcast live from London's The Bridge Theatre, the play stars Ben Whishaw as Brutus, David Calder as Caesar and David Morrissey as Mark Antony. As a bonus for those of us interested in gender equality, the actress Michelle Fairley is cast as Cassius.

As critic Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian, director Nicholas Hytner "has created a promenade, modern-dress production of this suddenly fashionable Roman play that is both viscerally exciting and intellectually subtle."

And, he added, the casting of Fairley is far more than a mere gimmick. As Billington wrote, Fairley "brings to the part exactly the right intensity, passion and political pragmatism. You even wonder if Brutus, who marginalises his wife and talks patronisingly of 'the melting spirits of women,' contradicts her arguments precisely because of her gender."

Next up: Macbeth on May 17.

‘Ready Player One’: Read the book, too

So far, it looks as if the movie openings I posted below are good (though I'll continue to update). One addition, though.

On Wednesday, March 28, expect one of the year's most eagerly anticipated — at least for the nerds among us — films: Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Ernest Cline's sci-fi novel "Ready Player One."

If you haven't read the book, which came out in 2011, you should know that it is set in the year 2044 — in a world so wretchedly split between the haves and have-nots that the best escape is into the virtual world of the OASIS. Inside the online environment, pretty much everyone can live out their dreams — be who they want and do what they can't in the physical world.

When the OASIS creator dies, and announces that he has set up a competition with OASIS itself as the ultimate prize, our teenage protagonist — Wade Watts — becomes one of the many players trying to win. And through both pluck and ability, not to mention with the help of a few online pals, he just might succeed in navigating the virtual world's 1980s-trivia-obsessed obstacles.

Here are some of the critical comments regarding Cline's book:

Janet Maslin, New York Times: "(I)f they are capable of arguing endlessly about 'Star Wars' trivia, they’re also living in a 27-sector virtual-reality world arranged like a Rubik’s Cube and where the 'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek' realms are right next door to each other."

Michael Schaub, National Public Radio: " 'Ready Player One' is ridiculously fun and large-hearted, and you don't have to remember the Reagan administration to love it. (Though depending on your age, you might want to keep Wikipedia open so you can decipher the references to Oingo Boingo, 'Real Genius' and 'Max Headroom.')"

But, of course, there also were the haters:

Sonny Bunch, Washington Post: "(E)ntertaining but aggressively empty of anything approaching substance. … less a novel than a series of pop culture references glommed onto a thinly sketched out version of the monomyth."

Given that Spielberg's attempts to adapt novels can miss as well as they can hit, it's probably best to approach his interpretation of "Ready Player One" with caution.

It's hard, though, not to feel just a tad excited.

Studio Ghibli Fest 2018 is coming soon

Though some movies made for children are inordinately good — basically, this applies to anything made by Pixar/Disney — many others are little more than loose collections of bad jokes and infantile attitudes.

Which is why the movies produced by Studio Ghibli are such a treat. Many of the studio's movies have been directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, and they are among some of the best animated movies ever made — combining superb animation with themes that appeal both to adults and (mostly) children.

Studio Ghibli Fest 2018, which kicks off on March 25, will feature nine animated features in all. "Ponyo," a Miyazaki effort that is celebrating its 10th anniversary, will play on March 25, 26 and 28 at two area Regal theaters: Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

Following in succession are "The Cat Returns" (April 22, 23, 25), "Porco Rosso" (May 20, 21, 23), "Pom Poko" (17, 18, 20), "Princess Mononoke" (July 22, 23, 25), "Grave of the Fireflies" (April 12, 13, 15), "My Neighbor Totoro" (Sept. 30, Oct. 1, 3), Miyazaki's masterpiece "Spirited Away" (Oct. 28, 29, 30) and "Castle in the Sky" (Nov. 18, 19, 20).

Of these, "Grave of the Fireflies" is decidedly an adult film, being Isao Takahata's grim 1988 study of Japanese children attempting to survive the end of World War II. But the others?

They're movies that offer children far more than a few bad jokes.

Friday’s openings: Several ways of being saved

Looks like a full range of movie will hit the nation's theaters on Friday, several (or all) of which should open in the Spokane area. Friday's openings are:

"Unsane": Here's the IMDB description: "A young woman is involuntarily committed to a mental institution, where she is confronted by her greatest fear — but is it real or a product of her delusion?" What make the film special? Its director: Steven Soderbergh.

"Midnight Sun": A young woman with a condition that forces her to avoid the sun at all costs falls for the hunk who lives nearby. No, she's not a vampire.

"Pacific Rim Uprising": You may have thought the Kaiju threat was over. Not a chance. And so a new generation of Jaeger pilots, led by Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), has to rise to the challenge. Banzai!

"Paul, Apostle of Christ": The life of the Paul of the film's title is told, from before the time he joins Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the other Disciples of Jesus.

"Sherlock Gnomes": Now they're making movies about garden gnomes? Apparently, and they're dragging the famous British detective Sherlock Holmes into the story.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story": A bio-pic about the one-time controversial movie star who was far smarter than the general public ever knew.

That's the initial list. I'll update as the local theaters finalist their schedules.