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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Friday’s openings: From sin to the afterlife

From Frank Miller grim to sports-flick inspiration and spiritual exploration, the coming week of movies offers a wide range of themes and styles. Friday's movie openings are as follows:

“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (3D and standard): Co-directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez, this graphic-novel adaptation follows in the tone and style of Rodriguez's 2005 original, blending stark black-and-white imagery with spot color and neo-noir themes of sexuality and violence. In other words, something for everyone.

“When the Game Stands Tall”: Based on the real story of a California high school's 151-game winning streak, how that streak gets broken and what the coach (Jim Caviezel) does to return the team to its winning ways. Inspiration, thy name is sports flick.

“If I Stay”: When a teen's family is involved in serious car accident, she (Chloe Grace Moretz) lapses into a coma and hovers between life and death. Her spirit watches what goes on around her as she debates whether to live or die. Based on a 2009 novel by Gayle Forman. 

“Calvary”: Brendan Gleeson plays a priest whose goodness makes him the perfect target for a man angry at the Catholic Church. I confess, I want to see it.

Also reopening, “Earth to Echo,” the “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” variation.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Alive Inside”: A documentary exploring the work of a man who uses music to treat the effects of memory loss. Considering all the problems associated with contemporary health care, his experience must involve a hard day's night.

“K2: Siren of the Himalayas”: A hit at February's Spokane International Film Festival, winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary, this feature film blends historical coverage of a 1909 attempt to summit the Himalayan peak and another expedition that set out to do the same thing a century later.

So now go. Watch. Enjoy.

HBO’s ‘Cheshire Murders’ a real-life horror story

I saw a number of movies in theaters last week. But nothing affected me more than a movie I just happened to catch on my television. So that movie, titled “The Cheshire Murders,” is what I decided to review for Spokane Public Radio.

Why? Well that is the operative word, in more ways than one. The main reason has to do with just how scary the movie is. It is a documentary that examines a horrible, deranged act committed by two men who victimize an unsuspecting family. In other words, as I try to explain in my review, the movie is a study of something that is the real-life equivalent of the bogeyman.

An edited version of my review follows:

Horror movies thrive on our innate fears. Fears of creatures bearing sharp teeth, of bloodsucking vampires and mindless zombies, of extraterrestrials wielding anal probes, of weapon-wielding sociopaths – anything, in short, that lurks in the dark zones of our imagination and threatens to pounce on us with murderous intent.

Chances of our being confronted by anything other than our fears are actually remote. Reality has no room for vampires or zombies, much less curious beings from other galaxies. And sharp-toothed animals pose no real danger to anyone who stays out of the woods, the ocean or the jungle. Even the threat posed by psychopathic killers is so low as to be virtually nil.

Yet our fears persist. And moviemakers keep playing to them. And we continue to sit in the dark, chewing on our popcorn as blends of these imagined threats haunt us on screens both big and small.

Sometimes, though, sometimes … horror is real. And as the HBO documentary feature “The Cheshire Murders” proves, when such a danger does manifest itself, it can prove senselessly, mercilessly fatal.

Released a year ago, and available both through HBO On Demand and on DVD, “The Cheshire Murders” explores a heinous crime that occurred in July 2007 when two men, Steven Hayes and Josh Komisarjevsky, broke into the suburban home of Cheshire, Connecticut, doctor William Petit. The day before, Hayes and Komisarjevsky had spotted Petit’s wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their daughter, 11-year-old Michaela, at a local store. When they showed up at the house, the men beat Petit with a baseball bat and left him tied up in the basement. They then restrained Hawke-Petit, Michaela and the couple’s other daughter, 17-year-old Hayley.

Over the next several hours, they mulled their options before, the following morning, deciding to take Hawke-Petit to the bank and force her to withdraw some $15,000. Upon returning to the house, Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted Michaela, Hayes raped and – when it became clear that William Petit had escaped – murdered Hawke-Petit. The two then doused the house with gasoline, set everything on fire and attempted to escape.

They didn’t get far. Notified by bank officials, who had called 9-1-1, police officers were waiting outside. They arrested Hayes and Komisarjevsky but were unable to save either of the daughters, both of whom died from smoke inhalation. Petit alone survived.

The crime made national headlines, as much for its senseless nature as for the ferocity with which it was carried out. And even though co-directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner do a comprehensive job of exploring the case, that aura of senselessness pervades everything.

We learn of the defendants’ past histories, which involved sexual abuse. We hear from police officers, lawyers, prosecutors and family members. We listen to Hayes’ taped confession. The film questions the actions of Cheshire police, who were sitting outside as the three women were being murdered. It argues the effectiveness, even worth, of the death penalty. We gets lots of theories and opinions and rants both quiet and angry. But “The Cheshire Murders” never satisfactorily answers the most basic question of all: Why?

The sound of that silence is more frightening than even Hollywood could conceive.

Movie openings: Allen’s latest and others

I remember when Woody Allen films never received a first-run release in Spokane. Or, rather, their Spokane first runs occurred long after the rest of the country had screened them. And sometimes they never opened here at all. Let's be thankful that era has passed, since it gives us the opportunity to see “Magic in the Moonlight” when it opens on Friday.

Allen's newest work is only one of eight films that open this week (the comedy “Let's Be Cops” opens Wednesday), which makes the second week of multi-movie premieres.

The week's openings are as follows:  

“Let's Be Cops” (opens Wednesday): The trailers for this offbeat comedy, which has two guys (Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr.) getting off by pretending to be police officers, seem hilarious. But director Luke Greenfield gave us Rob Schneider's 2001 comedy “The Animal.” So muting your expectations met be a safe bet.

“The Giver”: It's taken more than 20 years for Hollywood to bring Lois Lowry's Newbery Award-winning 1993 novel to the big screen. It will be interesting to see whether director Philip Noyce (“Rabbit-proof Fence”) is able to avoid Hollywood's cookie-cutter stylistic tendencies. The trailer, which is full of pretty young faces (including Taylor Swift), would seem to say not.

“The Expendables 3”: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, etc., return. Question: How many times can an “expendable” survive before becoming labeled “intrinsic”?

“Magic in the Moonlight”: Allen's newest has Colin Firth playing a magician charged with unmasking a spiritualist fake (Emma Stone). Reviews are mixed to good for what is a blend of the downbeat with romantic fluff. But beware: Rex Reed gives it a top rating.

“What If”: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan play friends who mull over whether it's possible to blend friendship and love. Based on a stage play by T.J. Dawe, so you know there'll be lots of talking.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Rich Hill”: This hard-hitting documentary focuses on three teen boys who cope with all the trappings of poverty — anger, frustration, want, a lack of good parenting, etc. Stylistic but ever-so depressing.

“Mood Indigo”: Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) gives us this love story (based on a novel) about a wealthy guy (Romain Duris) who wants to cure his lover (Audrey Tautou) from a curious ailment involving a flower growing in her lungs. Is this death by whimsy?

Enjoy. 

Happy birthday, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

Fifty years ago today, a little movie called “A Hard Day's Night” opened in New York City. It had premiered a month before in London, which is only natural because the movie's stars — as everyone born on Earth and older than middle-school age knows — are four young lads from Liverpool who called themselves The Beatles.

Perhaps you've heard of them. John, Paul, George and Ringo?

Anyway, I'm gonna use that fact as a means of publicizing an upcoming Spokane Public Radio event. A 50th-anniversary screening of “A Hard Day's Night” will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20, at the Bing Crosby Theater. The event will include a live-taping of “Movies 101,” the show I cohost with Mary Pat Treuthart and Spokesman-Review staff writer Nathan Weinbender; the three of us will be joined by former Inlander writer Leah Sottile.

Tickets to the event, which is a fund-raiser for the station, cost $10 and are available both in advance and at the door.

Oh, and here's some Beatles advice: Don't be a mod or a rocker. Be a mocker.

“Boyhood” lives up to - and transcends - its audacious concept

A lot of great films have used nifty storytelling devices to deal with what it means to grow up.

It's nothing new: Michael Apted's “Up” documentary series, for example, chronicled a group of British schoolchildren through adolescence and into adulthood, catching up with them every seven years. And director François Truffaut documented 20 years in the life of actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played Truffaut's alter ego Antoine Doinel in five films, beginning when he was 14 in the 1958 landmark “The 400 Blows.”

But writer-director Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock”) found a new spin on the formula, taking 12 years to tell the story of a precocious kid and his non-traditional family in a single film. The result is “Boyhood,” which finally reached Spokane's AMC Theatre today following a successful limited release.

There are still a few months left in the movie-going year, but I'm calling it now: This is the best movie of 2014. I doubt I will see anything better. Below is my review of the film, which I recorded for Spokane Public Radio - it could have easily been twice as long:

The first time we see Mason, he’s sprawled on his back on a lawn in his Texas suburb looking up at the sky. He’s five or six years old, that age when you first become aware of and start to question your surroundings, when you begin paying attention to the confusing and seemingly contradictory constraints of the adult world and discover your own way of interpreting the universe. 164 minutes later, Mason is 18, and it’s his first day of college. He’s hiked to a vista near the university with a new group of friends, and he sits on a rock as the sun sets, infinite possibilities stretching out before him.

These moments bookend Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” a film of quiet transcendence and aching authenticity, perhaps the best movie I’ve ever seen about what it’s really like to grow up. Any discussion of the film must begin with the way it was made. From the summer of 2002 to the summer of 2013, Linklater assembled his cast for several weeks each year and sculpted scenes with them, resulting in a series of snapshots documenting 12 years in the lives of its characters. The effect is unlike anything we’ve seen in a single film before: We watch the characters age and develop in real time, and the world around them follows suit.

Linklater has always been fascinated by the march of time, from his early day-in-the-life tableaux “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused” to his superb “Before” series, which has charted a relationship over the course of three films and 18 years. “Boyhood” is his most audacious narrative experiment yet, and it’s tempting to praise the movie simply for that audacity. It’s actually something I’ve been wrestling with since seeing the film: Is my response to the movie founded on its emotional impact, or is it simply knee-jerk amazement at Linklater effortlessly pulling off such a tricky landing?

But the truth is the film’s methods simply can’t be separated from its content. This is a film about age, about the passing of time, about the formative years when our personalities and senses of humor and moral compasses come into focus, how our bodies and minds develop while our fundamental essences remain more or less the same. To see a process so nebulous and complex explored with near-documentary realism is an awe-inspiring experience. The movie works simultaneously on two equally fascinating levels – Mason grows up, but so does Ellar Coltrane, the actor playing him –and at times we catch the film functioning as a record of its own making.

As in life, there’s no clear-cut story in “Boyhood.” It sort of separates itself into chapters, though Linklater avoids the use of title cards or music cues, so that there are instances when we notice Mason has aged in a year from one shot to the next. Mason’s parents are divorced, and he and his older sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) live with their mother (Patricia Arquette), a hardworking woman who goes from one troubled romantic relationship to another. Mason’s father (Ethan Hawke) isn’t always around, but when he does show up (in a black muscle car he’s no doubt been driving since high school), he urges his kids to think for themselves and to take risks, perhaps to prevent them from emulating him.

Most coming-of-age tales hit all the prominent dramatic signposts of adolescence, but “Boyhood” does the opposite. We don’t see Mason’s first kiss, the first time he gets drunk or the moment he loses his virginity, but Linklater takes the time to show him choking down lukewarm beer with his friends in the basement of an unfinished house, watching his parents fight from a closed upstairs window, attending a release party for one of the “Harry Potter” novels. What’s onscreen is as telling as what’s left off, and Linklater has perfectly captured the curious nature of memory, how our minds often favor minor details over seemingly significant ones.

Linklater is one of the best, most fearless American filmmakers working today, and yet he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the revered likes of Paul Thomas Anderson or Joel and Ethan Coen (he deserves to be). Perhaps it’s because his movies rarely announce their greatness: Like their creator, they tend toward modesty and contemplation and favor dialogue over action; they’re unassuming portraits of wallflowers, intellectuals and outcasts that are almost romantic in their plainness.

I first saw “Boyhood” in May at a sold-out screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, where it was awarded Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress for Arquette. Crammed in the corner of the very back row of the Harvard Exit Theatre, I knew then that I was witnessing something special. Despite its central conceit, this isn’t the kind of film that sets out to astonish you. It is not an epic. It is, for all the grandeur surrounding its premise and the scope of its production, a small, intimate movie.

And yet its smallness is precisely what makes it so extraordinary. “Boyhood” doesn’t contain many epiphanies. It is about transformation, but it is not particularly interested in transforming us. It shows us life as it really is, which is often shapeless, pointless, meandering, inconsequential. We can, however, find profundity and tremendous beauty in that meandering, and so we do in this film, which rewards us in ways that movies rarely ever do.

The trailer for “Boyhood”:

Can’t get down with ‘Get on Up’

Unlike other musical biopics, such as “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Ray” and “Walk the Line” — which involved the work of singers who either weren't of my generation or of my liking — “Get on Up,” Tate Taylor's look at James Brown, hit me personally. Brown was hitting his prime just as I was graduating from high school, and he had a profound influence on those of my generation.

So, I tried to control my expectations about what a Hollywood filmmaker such as Taylor would do with Brown's story. Even so, I was disappointed, as the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio demonstrates. A transcript of my review follows:

I used to laugh when my high school friend Billy Wells would pretend to be James Brown, lip-syncing to songs such as “Prisoner of Love” or “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” He would imitate Brown’s stage antics, which involved dancing to apparent exhaustion, collapsing, being led offstage by his bandmates – in those days the Famous Flames – only to break away, return to the spotlight and continue to sing about, mostly, that desperate, elusive emotion called love.

And so I was particularly interested in “Get on Up,” Tate Taylor’s bio-pic of Brown. Billy and I had experienced the real thing, so I wondered how Hollywood would interpret Brown’s rise-from-the-ashes, but always troubled, success story. And, to be fair, “Get on Up” gets much of the basics right. As the movie makes clear, the real James Brown was fortunate to survive his birth, much less become one of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century. The rhythmic gyrations that Brown performed onstage masked a lot of pain, rage and, the source of it all, fear.

Multiple references – including various Brown biographies – were used as source material for what Taylor (writer-director of “The Help”) has put onscreen, though in true Hollywood tradition the movie amends and even invents situations for dramatic purposes. Brown was born dead, but was quickly revived. His father was a neglectful abuser who was absent for long periods. He was abandoned by his mother. He was sent to prison for stealing clothes. He did live for a time in a brothel. He and his friend Bobby Byrd had a mercurial friendship that continued until Brown’s death in 2006. Brown himself was a single-minded, complex individual who was both a focal point of black pride and a serial womanizer known to abuse his wives – he had four in all. And, no, a plane he was traveling in while touring Vietnam wasn’t nearly shot down, but in 1988 he did engage in a wild interstate car chase with police.

Enough occurred in Brown’s life to warrant an entire miniseries. And that’s probably the route that Taylor should have taken, because as it turns out many of the artistic choices he did make to re-create all this in a mere two-hours-and-28-minutes feel as wrong as – in the context of “Get on Up” – Frankie Avalon wearing a dashiki.

Unlike other such musical biopics – “Ray,” say, or “Walk the Line” – Taylor opts for a non-chronological framework that blends far too many contrasting styles: breaking the fourth wall with irritating inconsistency, employing lengthy musical scenes filmed as if he’s Jonathan Demme shooting a Talking Heads concert, introducing characters only to drop them, letting Dan Aykroyd play Brown’s agent with all the subtlety of a bad Saturday Night Live routine. The result is a film that, even anchored by Brown’s marvelous songs lip-synced by the hard-working Chadwick Boseman, isn’t half as profound it pretends to be.

If James Brown isn’t somewhere shaking his head in frustration over “Get on Up,” I can assure you one thing: My friend Billy Wells and I certainly are.

Some actors just can’t do decent accents

Accents are hard. As someone who has embarrassed himself attempting to speak at least three languages other than his native English, I can say this with conviction. And those were attempts at full conversation. Let's not mention the memorized phrases that I've managed to mangle in Polish, Chinese and Albanian.

But then I'm no actor. And I'm not called to take roles where, 1, I have to accept the role of someone from another culture and, 2, speak in that character's native accent. The list of actors who have done so well is long, though any such list would have to start with Meryl Streep. Brits such as Daniel Day Lewis and the Australian Toni Collette aren't too bad either.

But the list of those who do accents poorly is arguably even longer. As the embed below demonstrates — though, I would take issue with Brad Pitt's performance in “Snatch.” It may not have been perfect Irish Gypsy (Pikey), but it certainly fit the role.

(I would add this the list is depressingly contemporary. Go back and check out some of the performances by such classic film actors as Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy and even Michael Caine — and we'll comment about those bad trailers on some future blog post).

Check out ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ at dusk

I've never minded watching movies alone. When I was in sixth grade, I convinced my mother to let me go and catch a matinee of “The Ten Commandments” at a local theater. It was a Saturday, and I'd been sick for the last couple of school days, so I really had to work hard to convince her. But I did. And as I sat there, alone in the dark watching Charlton Heston part the Red Sea, I was content.

I'm not sure I've ever enjoyed a movie experience more. The fact that I was sick again on Monday and had to stay home was an added treat. (Side note: Mrs. Whang, I still hate you.)

But seeing movies in a crowd can be fun, too, right? I can remember when the U.S. version of “Three Men and a Baby” was released (though I can't remember where I saw it – either the Lincoln Heights Cinemas or the North Division Cinemas, two theaters that closed down long ago). I recall the house was packed and that during one moment – it was when two of the three actors, Ted Danson, Steve Guttenberg and Tom Selleck, change the baby's diapers – the laughter was so loud it drowned out the movie's sound track.

These days the only sounds you're likely to hear in a movie theater not associated with what's happening on-screen are the crinkling-rustling of popcorn bags, people carrying on conversations as if they're in their living room or the sound of a phone going off (yeah, that still actually happens).

Still, under certain conditions, seeing the right movie in public can add to the experience. That, one can hope, will be the case tonight at 7 (which, I guess, is supposed to be the time of “dusk”) when Movies at the Rocket Market screens the 2004 offbeat comedy “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Two things: One, the folks at the Rocket admit that they got the idea from the Perry District summer-movie screenings at The Shop, so give them props for honesty; two, the movie screenings will run through August.

Oh, and they are free.

You can get all the information you need about events at The Rocket by clicking here. But my advice? If you’re interested only in seeing the movie, purchase a copy and see it in the comfort of your own home. If, on the other hand, you’re totally fine with experiencing the movie in a public, outdoor setting, then this might be just the cinematic adventure for you.

One more thing (just for “Napoleon Dynamite” buffs): Maybe bring your Moon Boots. You might want to dance.

Friday’s openings: From boys to Ninja Turtles

Few filmmakers excite the appetite of critics more than Richard Linklater does. Showing both a facility for mainstream (“School of Rock”) and independent film (“Waking Life,” his “Before” trilogy), Linklater is receiving some of the best reviews of his career for his film “Boyhood.” And lucky for area movie fans, “Boyhood” is opening on Friday here in Spokane.

Oh, so are a gaggle of other offerings, from the blockbuster (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”) to the curious (James Cameron's 3D study “Deep Sea Challenge”).

Friday's openings are as follows:

“Boyhood”: In his “Before” series, Linklater links three films over a 14-year period. Here, he follows a character (played by Ellar Coltrane) over a dozen years, from ages 5 through 18 — in real time. As Philadephia Inquirar critic Stephen Rea wrote, “Is it dumb to say, 'Wow'?” … I don't care. Wow.”

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (3D and standard): Reboots are all the rage. And Jonathan Liebesman (“Battle of Los Angeles”) does what he can with our favorite surfer-speak mutant turtles. Whoa, dude, seriously?

“I Origins”: Mike Cahill follows his haunting Sundance darling “Another Earth” with this sic-fi-based look focusing on a scientist (Michael Pitt) who discovers that eyes truly may be a path to the human soul. Even if you don't wear glasses.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey”: Lasse Hallstrom adapts the book about an upstart Indian restaurant opening across the road from a fabled top-flight French eatery run by a demanding chef (Helen Mirren). Go light on the curry, please.

“Into the Storm”: The storm of several centuries hits the big screen, instead of opening on the Syfy channel where such disaster flicks boasting no-name casts typically play.

“Step Up All In” (3D and standard): The movie franchise that helped launch the career of Channing Tatum churns on with a new cast and a sorta new storyline. Let's dance!

“Deepsea Challenge 3D”: James “Size Does Matter” Cameron follows his own self as he braves the depths of the ocean in his Deepsea Challenger submersible. Question: How did he fit that ego in such a small vehicle?

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger”: Joe Berlinger (“Paradise Lost: The Murders at Robin Hood Hills”) documents the story of a former Boston mobster who may, or may not, have been a confidential informer for the FBI. Who to believe, a murderous crook or the government? Hmmmm, hard choice.

(Opening Aug. 15: “Rich Hill”: Winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, this film follows three boys who live in an impoverished Midwestern town.)

Lots to choose from. So go. See a movie. Enjoy.

Don’t eulogize Studio Ghibli just yet

I saw reports on Sunday that Japan's Studio Ghibli, the film studio synonymous both with the world's best anime and the man associated with it — Hayao Miyazaki — was closing. And I read the various eulogies bemoaning the passing.

Turns out the mourning may have been a bit premature. The reports seem to have been based on an interview with the studio's general manager, Toshio Suzuki, that aired on Japanese television. Seems Suzuki used words that were far closer to “reconstruction” — or, in English terms, restructuring — than words referring to any definite closing.

So, maybe the eulogies and cries of anguish were uncalled for. Maybe, since Miyazaki's retirement — which was announced earlier this year — Studio Ghibli is merely rethinking how it does business and will continues to churn our quality films. Whatever happens, Miyazaki himself doesn't seem too disturbed.

And if the studio does close, well, that would be too bad. But we'll always have such films as “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Grave of the Fireflies,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Howl's Moving Castle” and the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away” to comfort us.

That's some solace.

Hoffman’s final turn makes him ‘A Most Wanted Man’

One of the summer's little movie treats is “A Most Wanted Man,” made by the Dutch-born filmmaker Anton Corbijn, who emerged from the music-video world to make the Joy Division biopic “Control” and the downbeat George Clooney project “The American.” Following is the review that I wrote of “A Most Wanted Man” for Spokane Public Radio:

It’s never pleasant to memorialize someone, but the task is made even more difficult when that person was a public figure, had won an immense amount of acclaim and, for reasons involving addictive behavior, ended up dying too young. A two-fold temptation always exists: one involves inflating the impact of the person’s passing – the word “tragedy,” for example, is used far too often; the second, which applies especially to artists, involves exaggerating the legacy that gets left behind.

This is how I have chosen to begin my review of “A Most Wanted Man,” Anton Corbijn’s intense, riveting and darkly ominous adaptation of John Le Carré’s 2008 spy novel. In true Le Carré fashion, Corbijn’s film tells a story of people, some weak, others merely well-intentioned, navigating the dangerous waters of espionage in which lurk the single-minded sharks of political ideology. And standing at the film’s heart is the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

A leading man in a character actor’s body, Hoffman – who died in February of a drug overdose at age 46 – starred in more than 50 films. Moving effortlessly between independent and mainstream projects, he worked for a number of big-name directors, from the Coen Brothers to Paul Thomas Anderson. He earned four Oscar nominations and won for playing the title role in Bennett Miller’s 2005 film “Capote.”

But – and here is where I have to be careful – I would argue that Hoffman pulled off perhaps his greatest performance in Corbijn’s version of “A Most Wanted Man.” I say version because by condensing Le Carré’s 322-page novel into a 122-minute film, Corbijn’s screenwriter – Andrew Bovell – made some necessary changes to Le Carré’s story, the main one involving Hoffman.

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, the head of a German counter-espionage group that targets terrorists, such as those who had plotted the events of 9/11 while – to the German government’s embarrassment – living in Hamburg. A blend of rogue agent and instinctual predator, Gunther suspects an international philanthropist of helping fund Islamist terrorism. When a hapless Chechen immigrant stumbles into Hamburg, Gunther sees a chance to set a trap. The Chechen, a Hamburg banker and an altruistic immigration lawyer, all become pawns in Gunther’s plan.

Unlike the book, which splits its attention more equally between the main principals, Corbijn’s film is haunted by Hoffman’s Gunther. Overweight, chain-smoking, drinking at all hours – even while on duty – Gunther is the epitome of a man driven by past failures, by the need to do what he thinks is right even when all notions of right and wrong get twisted by political expediency. He’s a man whose strength of purpose is, ironically, what makes him most vulnerable to the sharks who pose as his allies.

Powerful in every way, and boasting the talents of actors such as Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe, “A Man Most Wanted” is fueled by Hoffman’s unique ability to explore the deepest recesses of his character’s soul. That it was his final performance makes his achievement – and I don’t think I’m overstating this, his very legacy – even more worthy of praise.

Friday’s openings: Beyond the ‘Galaxy’

Following Scarlett Johansson's transition into the Internet — setting her up for, hmmm, her role in “Her”? — a sci-fi week-of-sorts continues in the nation's theaters.

Friday's major openings are as follows:

“The Guardians of the Galaxy” (3D, 3D IMAX, standard): An offbeat team of space rogues must stand against dark forces to save the galaxy from a deadly menace … which is shorthand for Marvel Comics' adapting a minor band of characters dating back to 1969 (with a transition in 2008) to these contemporary comic times. Starring Chris Pratt and an almost unrecognizable Zoe Saldana.

“Get on Up”: Chadwick Boseman (“42”) stars as the great funk/soul singer James Brown. The fact that Hollywood felt it had to use the likes of Ice Cube, Pharrell Williams and Mick Jagger to inform contemporary audiences about who the Godfather of Soul was is … well, sad. And for most older audiences, unnecessary.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“The Grand Seduction”: To save itself from financial ruin, a small Newfoundland town tries to seduce a doctor into sticking around. Starring the American Taylor Kitsch and the Irishman Brendan Gleeson, this Canadian film earned four of its country's top movie awards (winning one, Gordon Pinsent for Best Supporting Actor).

Note: I''ve updated this post to include the viewing formats for “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Below: You want to know the real James Brown? Watch the documentary below.

‘Documentary Storm’ weathers well

In running down the ways that people could access “The Staircase,” the crime miniseries that I reviewed below, I found a website that offers free documentaries of all types. It's called Documentary Storm, and it gives you free access — say again, free access — to hundreds of documentaries in 24 different categories from Art to War.

It doesn't have everything (my first search, for “Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows,” was fruitless). But the overall selection does look interesting. I'm going to check it out this very afternoon.

New ‘Mad Max’ will be a Hardy adventure

I'd heard that George Miller was updating — or, you prefer, “revisiting” — his “Mad Max” series. But it wasn't until I saw the first trailer, which screened at the recent San Diego Comic-Con, that I could be sure. Enjoy the trailer, which I've embedded below.

‘The Staircase’ examines U.S. justice

Being a movie fan means that you seek film out wherever you can find it. It used to be that if nothing worthwhile was playing in the theater, you were out of luck. Then in 1961, recently released movies — instead of just oldies — started playing on television. A couple of decades later, home-video was born. And now, with Netflix, Hulu, various On Demand services and more, you can watch pretty much any movie any time you want.

That's what led me to “The Staircase,” an eight-part, six-hour 2004 miniseries that I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. My review follows:

Being married to a law professor makes me no more of a legal expert than does my obsessive watching of the television show “Law & Order.” What those two pursuits illustrate, though, is my long-held interest in American jurisprudence – especially in how that system is interpreted though television and film.

While mainstream movie theaters have opened little of interest throughout most of July – except, of course, for fans of Michael Bay, Melissa McCarthy and talking apes – I found myself looking for something a bit more mentally stimulating. And that’s how I stumbled upon “The Staircase.”

Actually, one of my wife’s Gonzaga Law School colleagues – Professor Ann Murphy – recommended “The Staircase,” which was released in the U.S. as a 2004 miniseries. And she lent us her copy of the two-DVD set, which comprises eight 45-minute chapters.

French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade – best known for having won an Oscar in 2002 for the Documentary Feature “Murder on a Sunday Morning” – focuses “The Staircase” on a 2001 murder in Durham, North Carolina. Novelist Michael Peterson was accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, whose blood-spattered body was found at the base of a staircase in their home.

While Peterson claimed his wife’s death was an accident, Durham police suspected otherwise. And in short order, they arrested Peterson and tried him for murder. With his cameras haunting Peterson, his family and defense team – led by the charismatic attorney David Rudolf – de Lestrade gives us as much access to the inner workings of the legal process as any fictional narrative. The difference, being, of course that “The Staircase” presents real-life people.

Yet I doubt any credible novelist’s twists, subplots and dramatic discoveries could compete with what de Lestrade gives us. You have the crime itself, which devastates a seemingly happy blended family that includes five children. You have the conflicting expert opinions on whether Kathleen’s death was the result of murder or an accidental fall facilitated by wine and valium. You have questions about Michael’s past, including his connection years earlier with a woman whose manner of death eerily resembled Kathleen’s. You have questions about Michael himself that the prosecution uses as a bludgeon against the defense’s picture of a perfect Peterson marriage. And you have the last-second appearance of an important piece of possibly exculpatory evidence.

All aspects of the case and the movie – which is freely available online – are well documented. And the controversies surrounding both are still being argued, with all parties claiming to reflect the literal truth. De Lestrade has even followed up with a 2013 sequel, “The Staircase II: The Last Chance,” which I haven’t yet seen, that apparently centers on questionable forensics used by the prosecution.

But regardless of the court decision, that search for a so-called truth is what makes “The Staircase” so fascinating. Does such a truth exist? De Lestrade’s movie would seem to answer no. It holds a mirror up to the legal system, and those of us who look tend to see whatever fits our own view of the world.

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