And, yes, it seems the Force is still with us. At least, J.J. Abrams style. The new "Star Wars" is just one of three movies opening at the mainstream theaters this week. The openings are as follows:
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens": The story that George Lucas first imagined, and then nearly ruined, continues. Screenings on Monday night were, according to Variety, "overwhelmingly positive." Somewhere, the Force is smiling.
"Sisters": Tina Fey and Amy Poehler take their comedy act to the big screen (again), playing sisters who decide to throw a party before their parents sell the family abode. Question: How many Bill Cosby jokes will they make?
No word yet on the mainstream openings. But the Magic Lantern is reporting two new Friday releases:
"Heart of a Dog": Known as a performance artist, Laurie Anderson turns to documentary filmmaking to meditate over the death of her beloved dog. Cue the Beethoven.
"Chi-Raq": Spike Lee is making a number of best-of-2015 lists with this adaptation/updating of Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata" set during a time of gang violence in Chicago. Lee, it seems, may be working out an Oedipus complex. (Yeah, I know, Sophocles wrote the "Oedipus" trilogy. But the joke was too good to pass up.)
I'll pass on the specific mainstream openings when they're available.
Along with Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," Bob Clark's "A Christmas Story" and the various productions of "A Christmas Carol," "Miracle on 34th Street" gets trotted out every holiday season. And why not? There is something magical about Edmund Gwenn, playing a man who calls himself Kris Kringle, who gets hired as a Macy's Santa but then must defend himself in court because he keeps claiming that … well, that he is the real Santa.
Besides Gwenn, look for the always dependable Maureen O'Hara and a 9-year-old Natalie Wood. Interesting side note: The film was originally released in May because 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck thought that, according to Wikipedia, "more people went to the movies in the summer."
Whatever the truth of that at the time (Zanuck would eventually be proven true), the first reviews were mostly good — and have remained so over time:
Bosley Crowther, the New York Times: "(L)et's catch its spirit and heartily proclaim that it is the freshest little picture in a long time, and maybe even the best comedy of this year."
TV Guide: "(Edmund) Gwenn won an Oscar for his role, and for many, his charming, endearing performance has been identified with the spirit of the Christmas season ever since the completion of this sentimental production."
Kate Cameron, New York Daily News: "It is light, it is charming, it is delightfully funny and completely captivating. It is all that, and something more. It has an undefinable spiritual quality that raises the spirits of the beholder into a happy, hopeful mood."
Anyway, seeing such a movie classic is a good way to start off the holiday season. Then you can resume shopping.
Below: Check out the trailer for the original 1947 version of "Miracle on 34th Street."
One of the films playing locally is getting awards-show attention. That would be "Room," which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
Any psychologist will tell you how important the first five years of a child’s life are. If you don’t know any psychologists, go see Lenny Abrahamson’s film “Room.” Five-year-old Jack will show you virtually everything you need to know.
Jack is one of two central characters in “Room,” which writer Emma Donoghue adapted from her own novel. The other character is Joy – known to Jack as “Ma” – the woman who has raised her son in a 12-by-12 room all his short life. How and why they ended up there is gradually revealed over the course of the film’s first half; then, in the second half, we watch as they struggle, individually, to adapt to the larger world.
And through it all, Jack serves as our narrator, naming the parts of his world – the bed, the wardrobe in which he sleeps, the skylight that is their only connection to the outside world. Skylight, that is, and Old Nick, the mysterious male presence who haunts Room, coming in at night – usually after Jack is asleep.
Otherwise, at least at first, that outside world doesn’t really exist to Jack. Ma – fiercely protective Ma – has told him that Room is all there is. That the images he sees on television aren’t real. There is only him, her and the things in Room.
But now Jack is 5, and Ma tells him he’s old enough to know the truth. That the outside world IS real, and that they have to find a way to go out into it. At first, Jack doesn’t believe her. “I don’t like this story,” he screams. He’s understandably afraid. When Ma tells him her plan of escape, he wants to wait. Maybe when he’s 6, he says. No, Ma answers, it has to be now.
The key to the success of Abrahamson’s “Room” and, presumably, Donoghue’s novel, is the contrast between the story’s real situation – a kidnapping and seven-year-long imprisonment of a young woman – and how that woman, now a young mother, is able to make the experience into a magical journey for her son. She contains her own fears so that she can raise Jack in what he perceives as a nurturing world, Room. This serves as a testament to her strength and the power of her love.
It’s only afterward, when both mother and son have to deal with the good and bad of the larger world, that she implodes. But again, Abrahamson conveys that process in a way that allows us to observe while listening to Jack’s precocious perception of it.
Credit Abrahamson’s cast for much of the film’s success. Following a handful of choice roles, such as in 2013’s “Short Term 12,”Brie Larson does double duty, first as a loving mother and then as a woman struggling to deal with her lost childhood. Joan Allen, too, deserves mention.
But young Jacob Tremblay as Jack deserves the spotlight. Never has a pre-teen pulled off a more adult performance. His observation that “There is so much of place in the world,” is both simple and profound.
I've always thought it was perfectly appropriate for Ricky Gervais to be host of the Golden Globe Awards broadcast. Gervais is nothing is not irreverent, which is just what the Globes deserve, same as any overhyped event representing a small group of people who are nowhere near the most important in their field.
Still, Hollywood loves pageantry. Always has. In fact, it depends on it. So the more times it can show off its wares with glamour and glitz parading along red carpets, the more we're likely to pay ever-rising prices to see zombies stalk humans, cars explode and teens lead the revolution. Or something similar.
Anyway, I digress … the group that Gervais will front during its Jan. 10 broadcast released its nominations today. You can access the entire list here. But here are some highlights:
Todd Haynes' "Carol," a film that hasn't yet played Spokane, received five nominations: Best Drama, Best Director (Haynes), Best Actress (Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara), Best Score. Note that the New York Film Critics Circle has already named "Carol" as its Best Film of 2015.
Other Best Film Drama nominees include: "Spotlight," "Room," "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "The Revenant." Best film Comedy or Musical nominees are: "Joy," "Spy," "The Big Short," "The Martian" and "Trainwreck."
Which … let's just stop right here. "The Martian" was a comedy? Oh, you crazy Golden Globe voters. What were you thinking?
Although televisions are improving, both in size and quality, they still can't replicate the quality of a good movie screen. Which is at least one reason why area movie theaters sometimes schedule special events, such as operas, etc.
Another reason might be that there just isn't enough good material to attract people into theaters, and showing golden oldies is a cheaper way to go.
Whatever the reason, true film fans are likely to be happy about this announcement: Through Fathom Events, NorthTown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium are going to participate in a year-long classic movie series presented by Turner Classic Movies. TCM Big Screen Classics will debut Sunday Jan. 17 and Wednesday Jan. 20 with screenings of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
Other movies in the series include "The Maltese Falcon" (in honor of its 75th anniversary), "The Ten Commandments" (in honor of its 60th anniversary), "On the Waterfront" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's." For a full list and schedule, click here.
Personal note: I first saw "Butch Cassidy" in 1970 at a drive-in. It played on a double feature with "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." Ah, weren't those the days.
And then comes word from that bastion of independent/alternative/foreign film, Spokane's one and only Magic Lantern. Like the area's mainstream theaters, it is opening only a single film on Friday. Which is:
"Theeb": The setting is western Arabia, the time period is 1916, and the story that this Jordanian film (told in Arabic with English subtitles) tells involves a young Bedouin boy attempting to outwit enemies intent on killing him. And just to be clear, the boy's name is Theeb — not Lawrence.
It's funny when December arrives, and we're all occupied with holiday preparations, that some of the biggest movies arrive to tantalize us. Then again, it's even funnier when certain December weeks arrive and only a single new mainstream feature opens. That's the case this week.
Friday's movie opening is as follows:
"In the Heart of the Sea" (in 3-D and regular): Ron Howard gives us a sea saga based on the actual story that served as the basis for Herman Melville's 1851 novel "Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale." In other words, a thar-she-blows tale in which Thor (Chris Hemsworth) trades his hammer for a harpoon.
I'll post the Magic Lantern openings, plus any additions/changes, when I can.
If you haven't seen the movie "Brooklyn," you're missing out on one of the best films of 2015. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
The story of immigrants coming to America is an old one. It encompasses a wide range of nationalities, ethnicities and religious preferences – and it’s been conveyed in as many different movie genres: romance, coming-of-age, crime, Western, tragedy, comedy. You name it.
So coming into a screening of director John Crowley’s adaptation of Irish writer Colm Toibin’s novel “Brooklyn,” you could be excused for not having high hopes. Yes, Toibin’s novel has attracted critical acclaim and a handful of awards. But novelistic quality has never automatically translated into cinematic success.
And a brief outline of the plot doesn’t help make its case: Ellis Lacey is a young woman, living tentatively in a small Irish village. Seeing no future for her, Ellis’ sister arranges with a Catholic priest for her to immigrate to the U.S. The trip over is hard, and the battle she has with homesickness is even worse. But Ellis gradually discovers an inner strength, and she endures. Pretty soon, she grows comfortable with her work, finds romance and begins to blossom – even to think of an actual career and a family life.
Then something happens at home, and Ellis is drawn back into her former world. Only this time, things seem different. She is different. And when life in the village begins to offer her opportunities she’d never before entertained, Ellis becomes torn. Should she return to Brooklyn? Should she stay? How, after all, do you define “home”: Is it the place you grew up in, or is it the place where you first found your adult voice?
At this point, what we’ve got is the basic template for a Lifetime movie. But director Crowley, working from a screenplay written by Nick Hornby, is far more talented than that. And with Hornby’s help – along with a skilled cast – he makes Ellis’s story into something truly special.
First of all, Crowley takes his time. “Brooklyn” unfolds gradually, giving us ample opportunity to know Ellis and the people to whom she comes in contact. And because he is so patient, Crowley is able to affect the kind of feel that a documentary filmmaker might achieve: an unerring sense of authenticity. At no single moment does Ellis change; instead she does so in fits and starts, which makes her eventual transformation that much more effective.
And throughout, Hornby’s screenplay – following, presumably, Toibin’s novel – veers back and forth through a range of emotions, embracing sadness when it comes, never avoiding Ellis’ tentative steps toward adulthood but also adding just enough comic asides to make her experience feel bearable.
It’s Crowley’s cast, though, that pulls everything together. Veteran actors such as Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent, as – respectively – a stern but understanding boarding-house matron and a friendly priest – do what is expected. But it is former child star Saoirse Ronan – the girl in Joe Wright’s masterful 2007 film “Atonement” – who shines.
At times, Crowley fills the screen with only Ronan’s face – and it’s almost as if, through her expressions alone, she manages to convey everything we need to know about this one young immigrant’s story.
It's not often that anyone outside of the Kardashian crowd gets to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform (though I'm not sure any of the Kardashians even care). But it just so happens that the opportunity to see the Bolshoi is being extended, on Sunday, to residents of the Inland Northwest.
What all this says about 2015 is clear: It was a good year for good film, with no clear candidate an Oscar favorite. Not, of course, that an Oscar means all that much anymore in terms of actual quality, what with the democratization of the awards process (not to mention the Motion Picture Academy's historical tendency to substitute mainstream tastes for critical appraisal). But Oscar still remains the, uh, gold standard of movie awards.
"Carol" has yet to open in the Inland Northwest (it was released nationally on Nov. 20). "Mad Max" premiered last May, and "Spotlight" is playing now at AMC River Park Square.
Note: An earlier version of this blog post misidentified the director of "Mad Max: Fury Road."
Earlier today, I noted that the movie awards season had already begun. Then I posted the 2015 IFP Gotham Independent Film Awards, which represents the honors from an organization that has been around for 25 years.
Big deal. Let's now look at the choices of a group that has been around for 106 years. The National Board of Review, which was founded in 1909, has been handing out awards since 1932 (its first Best film was "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang"). The NBR today named "Mad Max: Fury Road" as its pick for Best Film of 2015.
Kind of a surprising call for a supposedly stuffy group of effete critics and academics.
Among other NBR awards: Best Director, Ridley Scott ("The Martian"); Best Actor, Matt Damon ("The Martian"); Best Actress, Brie Larson ("Room"). The group's Top Films list (which includes only nine choices) is as follows: "Bridge of Spies," "Creed," "The Hateful Eight," "Inside Out," "The Martian," "Room," "Sicario," "Spotlight," "Straight Outta Compton."
You can access the whole of the National Board of Review's 2015 awards by clicking here.
Remember: It's never too early to begin preparing for that Oscar pool.
It's still way too early to talk about who the potential Oscar nominees might be, much less Oscar winners, but one awards show held in New York last night is at least an indicator. "Spotlight," the movie about journalists investigating the Catholic Church that is now playing at AMC River Park Square, won the IFP Gotham Independent Film Awards on Monday.
The event, which is held annually to honor independent film, chose "Birdman" as its top film last year. And "Birdman" went on to win the 2015 Oscar for Best Picture.
Other winners included actress Bel Powley for "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" and actor Paul Dano for "Love and Mercy." You can get the complete list by clicking here.
And if it's any added benefit for your early-early Oscar pool, I think "Spotlight" is definitely one of the best films of the year. But, hey, we have all of December to go.
I can't wait for, among others, to see "Birdman" director Alejandro González Iñárritu's follow-up feature "The Revenant."
No word yet on what the exact coming week's schedule is for the area's mainstream theaters, but at least we know what will open at the Magic Lantern: two Spokane exclusives.
"Room": Based on Emma Donoghue's novel, director Lenny Abrahamsson's film centers on a woman (Brie Larson) and her young son who, after being freed from their imprisonment in a small space, must deal with the real world — the boy for the first time.