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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

SIFF 2016, day three: Stranger than fiction

(Pictured: An animated Gael García Bernal in “Zoom”)

My dispatches from the 42nd annual Seattle International Film Festival continue below, with a couple of absorbing documentaries and a dirty-minded whatsit from Brazil.

“Author: The JT LeRoy Story” – The particulars of JT LeRoy’s ascendancy in the ranks of the literary world are so convoluted and so insane that it’s almost impossible to believe it really happened. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, a San Francisco writer named Laura Albert began publishing sordid tales of truck stop hookers and drug addicts under the sobriquet Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy, who was described as being a young man whose life had thus been defined by vagrancy, prostitution and physical abuse.

LeRoy’s vivid style and enigmatic persona caught the attention of the literati, so Albert hired her 20-something sister-in-law to don a short blonde wig and large sunglasses and to pose as LeRoy during public appearances. “JT” became something of a cult hero and fashion icon, rubbing elbows with film directors, rock stars and tastemakers. Everyone was fooled.

Jeff Feurerzeig’s documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” is an engrossing record of the most elaborate literary ruse since Clifford Irving’s fake Howard Hughes memoir, and it only gets crazier as it rolls along. Albert herself, who posed for years as LeRoy’s British assistant, is on-screen for much of the film, explaining why and how she did what she did, and why her JT LeRoy guise shouldn’t be considered a hoax.

“Author” certainly makes us consider Albert’s pathology – think about how much energy it must have required to keep up such a complicated ploy – but it’s really about the elusive nature of fiction and how the art scene values personality and a colorful backstory above all else. Walking out of the theater, I had completely different questions than the ones I had walking in, but I don’t think any two-hour film could conceivably cover all of the strange wrinkles of this story. It’s fascinating.

“Gleason” – I’ll be writing more about “Gleason” in the coming months – I’m told it will likely play Spokane in the late summer – so I won’t spend much time on it here, except to say it’s one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had in a theater in some time. Directed by J. Clay Tweel (“Finders Keepers”), the documentary is a look at Spokane native and former NFL linebacker Steve Gleason as he and his wife Michel grapple with his intensifying ALS symptoms. It’s harrowing and life affirming in equal measure, and one of the most candid, unflinching portraits of illness I’ve ever seen. If you do have a chance to make it to SIFF, “Gleason” plays on Saturday and Sunday at the Egyptian.

“Zoom” – A crazed, ambitious, cheekily perverse nesting doll of a comedy, in which three individual plots with distinct visual styles begin to merge and eventually swallow one another whole. The film’s elliptical structure allows for each of the film’s trio of main characters – an aspiring comic book artist (Allison Pill), a womanizing film director (Gael García Bernal, rendered in rotoscoped animation) and a Brazilian fashion model (Mariana Ximenes) – to alter and influence one another’s storylines in increasingly unexpected ways.

Director Pedro Morelli and writer Matt Hansen have never made a feature before, and “Zoom” sometimes plays like they crammed every idea they’d ever had onto the screen: Subplots involve smuggled cocaine, a life-size latex sex doll, meddling Hollywood producers, an infomercial personality, plastic surgery, a lesbian bar owner and an unfortunate emasculation. The film ends up being far too pleased with its own lunatic construction – I get the sense that this was specifically tailored to find a cult audience – but it’s certainly never boring.

Tomorrow: A wannabe rapper, and the latest from Japan’s weirdest director.

Mystery invades Auntie’s tonight

Suspense and mystery will be on tap at Auntie's Bookstore tonight when three regional writers share their literary efforts.

Seattle writer Ingrid Thoft ("Identity") will read from her novel "Brutality," former Spokane Police Captain Frank Zafiro ("Under a Raging Moon") will read from his novel "The Short List" and Spokane-based writer/publisher Steve Oliver ("Moody Gets the Blues") will read from the latest issue of The Dark City Mystery Magazine.

Here's a preview, courtesy of Oliver:

"In The Dark City committing a crime doesn't mean you'll go to jail. Justice often listens to the clever rather than the innocent. Don't make too much of this, it's just life. We've all lost the girl, lost the guy, had our wallets stolen. And you don't want to assume that people, even those who love you will know that you are good and true. They just may decide to think the worst. Spring begins with stories featuring a guy who is in need of a good defense, a woman who suspects her husband of double-dealing, a drug dealer who is dishonest, an innocent who is abused, and a parrot held for ransom. Thanks for visiting The Dark City."

The reading starts at 7. It's free and open to the public, and the authors will be available to sign purchased copies of their books.

SIFF 2016, day two: Identity crisis

Attending a film festival in a city as big as Seattle requires some juggling. It’s not enough to simply show up and watch movies: You have to figure out which films are playing at the theaters nearest you, and then you have to calculate how much time it takes to get from theater A to theater B.

I’m staying for a week on Capitol Hill with some gracious friends (thanks again, Curtis and Stefan!) who live a stone’s throw away from the Egyptian Theater. That might sound convenient, but the Egyptian doesn’t start showing films until the afternoon on weekdays. Most of the festival takes place downtown, and the next closest theater is a 15-minute walk away from where I’m crashing. And since most screenings require you to arrive at least a half hour early, you soon discover that you spend a lot of time simply standing around and waiting.

My schedule thus far hasn’t allowed for me to see quite as many movies as I’d ideally like (other work has conflicted with several of the press screenings), but that will change beginning today. But I still managed to check out two films on Tuesday, one a disappointment and the other a revelation.

“Complete Unknown” – I have a self-imposed rule that I like to call (for lack of a better name) the Michael Shannon Rule, which states that any film is immediately improved when graced with the presence of Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon.

That’s not to say that all films featuring Shannon are inherently good. Consider “Complete Unknown,” a shallow, too-solemn exploration of regret and heartbreak that requires Shannon to dial down his innate magnetism. He plays Tom, an agricultural analyst whose birthday party is interrupted by the appearance of a mysterious woman named Alice (Rachel Weisz).

Over the course of a particularly tumultuous evening, we learn that Tom and Alice (not her real name) have a history: He turned down her romantic gestures 15 years ago, and she’s been running from herself ever since, traveling the world and creating elaborate new personae everywhere she goes. She’s moonlighted as a surgeon, a teacher, a biologist and a Chinese magician’s assistant, which sounds less like the premise for a meditative personal drama than excised subplots from “Catch Me If You Can.”

Tom and Alice eventually break away from the party to walk and talk and opine on love and the nature of identity, but both characters feel more like dramatic symbols than real people. Director Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) often shoots his actors in claustrophobic, handheld close-ups that render most of the frame deliberately ill-defined and bleary, a visual strategy that tidily sums up a film in which neither of its central characters come entirely into focus.

“Kilo Two Bravo” – While the dramatic stakes of “Complete Unknown” feel relatively low, they couldn’t be higher in director Paul Katis’ graphic war thriller “Kilo Two Bravo.” Based on a true story, the film centers on a group of British paratroopers stationed on a bluff overlooking Afghanistan’s Kajaki Dam in 2006.

During a routine operation in a dried-up riverbed, one of the soldiers steps on a landmine that blows off his leg. As the other men in the battalion run to his rescue, it’s discovered that the ground around him is riddled with buried explosives that subsequently take down several more soldiers. The rest of the film keeps us stranded in that riverbed with the wounded men, as the company’s medic tries to treat the injured men and as the other soldiers look on helplessly on the hills above.

“Kilo Two Bravo” doesn’t operate with the artificial urgency of an action film, moving instead with the rhythms and randomness of real life. Katis, screenwriter Tom Williams and the talented cast of mostly unknown actors have created a believable group of young men, and the hierarchies established within the camp feel authentic. And while the film is often unbearably bleak, the men use gallows humor as a way of coping with their predicament, ribbing one another even as they lay bleeding in the sand.

That this is Katis’ debut feature is a surprise. It’s remarkably assured filmmaking, an absorbing exercise in sustained tension. Every time somebody takes a step, you almost feel your body tensing up, anxious for another explosion to shatter the film’s otherwise unsettling silence. “Kilo Two Bravo” is unapologetically violent, and nearly every other word is an expletive, but when it reaches its emotional conclusion, the poignancy is more than earned.

(The film, originally titled “Kajaki,” is currently streaming on Netflix and is available for digital rental on Amazon and YouTube.)

Tomorrow: Two documentaries and a half-animated head trip.

Give thanks for the Magic Lantern

For so many reasons, it's good that Spokane still has the Magic Lantern to depend on. Yeah, the theater is a throwback, especially in these times of plush, reclining seats, big sound systems, etc. But that kind of contemporary comfort matters far less when you're watching a thoughtful exploration into some realm of cinema than when you're just gawking at exploding cars.

So it's nice to know that films such as "The Man Who Knew Infinity" and "The Meddler," whether they appeal to you or not, will get a second chance to attract an audience when the Lantern picks them up for a second run — as it will be doing beginning Friday.

There's no word yet from the Lantern whether it also will pick up the Luca Guadagnino film "A Bigger Splash," though I hope it does. But to be fair, people who want to see it in those much-publicized plush seats have two more chances. The film, which stars Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, will play today and Thursday at AMC River Park Square before moving on.

I've always been grateful that some of the Spokane area's mainstream theaters choose, on occasion, to screen something other than the latest superhero blockbuster wannabe. One week, though, is hardly long enough for any film to play, even in Spokane. Which is why I'm thankful for the Lantern — and, more and more, for Netflix.

Friday’s openings redux: Two at the Lantern

And opening Friday at the Magic Lantern, a pair of second-run features:

"The Man Who Knew Infinity": Based on the biography by Robert Kanigel, this biopic tells the story of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who grew up poor but earned admittance to Cambridge University and then did groundbreaking work during the early 20th century. Bring a calculator.

"The Meddler": Susan Sarandon and Rose Byrne star as a widowed mother and her independent daughter who struggle to forge a mature relationship. In other words, like most every mother-daughter relationship since the dawn of time.

That's it so far. I'll update as needed.

SIFF 2016: Life’s a bitch

The 42nd annual Seattle International Film Festival has been in progress for nearly two weeks, but I’ve just arrived right in the thick of it. People take their movies seriously here: Most screenings sell out, with lines snaking around the theaters and down the next block.

They’re also passionate – and often vocal – about their opinions on those movies. Consider last night’s screening of writer-director Todd Solondz’s new film “Wiener-Dog,” which inspired a gentleman at the front of a packed Egyptian Theater to bellow, “This movie sucks!” That outburst inspired scattered applause, and a woman sitting near me shouted back, “I agree!”

I’d expect no other response. Solondz is a polarizing, unforgiving filmmaker: His movies, which include “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness,” are basically comedies, but they’re deadpan in the face of discomfort, humiliation and deplorable human behavior. Because they go to creepy, unpleasant places, and because his characters tend to be either reprehensible or pathetic, he’s often condemned as a sadist. That may be true – he obviously finds pleasure in making us squirm in our seats – but it’s also clear that he has certain affection for some of the losers and weirdoes he creates.

“Wiener-Dog” is structured as a quartet of increasingly depressing episodes involving a wayward dachshund (named, at various points, Doody, Cancer and Wiener-Dog) as it is shuffled from household to household. (I’m reminded of Robert Bresson’s great religious parable “Au Hasard Balthazar,” in which a donkey is passed from one horrible owner to another.)

The film opens as a pretentious married couple (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy) adopts the dog for their young, sickly son. After the dog ingests a chocolate granola bar and nearly dies, it’s saved from euthanasia by a dowdy veterinarian’s assistant (Greta Gerwig, embodying “Welcome to Dollhouse” heroine Dawn Wiener), who embarks on a bizarre cross-country odyssey with an old high school classmate (Kieran Culkin).

The dog becomes more of a supporting player in the film’s two closing chapters, which involve (respectively) a frustrated screenwriting professor (Danny DeVito) and an ailing woman (Ellen Burstyn) who’s visited by her moneygrubbing granddaughter (Zosia Mamet).

Each of these four segments contains a few glimmering moments of humor and empathy, but none of them ever quite take off as standalone entities: Right when they’re about to hit their stride, Solondz moves on to the next scene. And despite its bizarre construction, “Wiener-Dog” doesn’t possess the structural audacity of Solondz’s “Palindromes,” which cast eight different actors as one character, or “Storytelling,” similarly episodic but far more daring.

Considering the subject matter of Solondz’s earlier films – pedophilia, obscene phone callers, abortion, racism, the Holocaust, children with disabilities, murder and suicide – “Wiener-Dog” is a walk in the park for much of its running time. That’s not to say Solondz strays from potentially upsetting material: Some of the issues he considers here, mostly in passing, include juvenile cancer, alcoholism, heroin addiction, immigration, Down’s syndrome and the crushing banality of death.

But in the end, things turn truly ugly, and the audience turned with it. I wondered with sympathy how many members of the SIFF crowd were unfamiliar with Solondz’s work, lured in by the presence of a cute dog and blindsided by its glum consideration of human nature.

For those who are familiar with Solondz, his glowering pessimism is starting to feel a bit one-note. In his ever-expanding library of grotesques, that sweet, doting canine, which becomes the casualty of the narcissism and shortsightedness of its owners, is one of the writer-director’s more pitiable creations. In that respect, “Wiener-Dog” may be the most sneakily nihilistic film Solondz has ever made: If such a pure, sweet creature can’t find solace in this world, then what hope do the rest of us have?

Friday’s openings: Turtles, romance and mockery

What with the Memorial Day holiday slowing things down a bit, it may take a while to get a final listing of the week's releases. So far, though, Friday's mainstream openings are as follows:

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows": The fraternal reptile quartet returns to battle new threats to New York City, including a pair of other mutants, a warthog and a rhinoceros. Somebody get these guys a pizza.

"Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping": Former SNL star Andy Samberg stars in this mockumentary (that he co-wrote) about a Justin Bieber-type pop/hip-hop star. Heavy, yo.

"Me Before You": A young woman, hired to aid a quadriplegic man, does the typical — she falls in love. Bring hankies.

As always, I'll update as the week progresses.

SIFF 2016: The world in a weekend

The second full weekend of the 2016 version of the Seattle International Film Festival commences this afternoon. And to think: The whole event, comprising a plethora of world cinema, is just four and a half hours away.

Some of the weekend's SIFF highlights include:

Friday

"Therapy for a Vampire": An Austrian film about a vampire seeking psychological help from none other that Sigmund Freud.

"The Island Funeral": A Thai study of three young people who head into the country's dangerous interior only to discover a mysterious new society.

Saturday

"Oddball": An Australian heart-warmer about a farmer and his dog who stand between a penguin sanctuary and some hungry foxes.

"First Girl I Loved": A U.S. teen drama about a girl who falls in love with the most popular girl in her high school, which causes her more than the usual expected problems.

"Kingdom of Clay Subjects": A coming-of-age story about a 10-year-old Bangladesh boy who struggles to figure out how caste and gender work in his village.

Sunday

"Seasons": The creators of "Winged Migration" tell the history of Europe told through the animals that populate the continent.

And then you'll have plenty of time to drive home Sunday afternoon.

And one more for Friday: ‘A Bigger Splash’

And now comes late word that the film "A Bigger Splash" will also open on Friday. The film, which was directed by Italian director Luca Guadagnino, is based on the 1969 French film "La Piscine." The story revolves around a rock star (Tilda Swinton) and her younger lover (Matthias Schoenaerts), whose life gets complicated when one of the rocker's former lovers (Ralph Fiennes) comes to visit with his Lolita-like daughter (Dakota Johnson) in tow.

As an aside: The film was shot in the Italian island of Pantelleria, a place where my wife and a spent a week recently. We spotted most of the shooting sites, which were fairly easy to find since you can drive the entire circumference in around two hours. But the stars and crew were long gone. As were the tourists. Maybe I'll write more about all that Pantelleria has to offer at a later time.

Friday’ openings redux: A bit of Austen lite

And an addition has been included in the mainstream movie lineup for Friday. The added opening is as follows:

"Love & Friendship": Whit Stillman ("The Last Days of Disco") gives us his comic take on a Jane Austen-type tale of manners. Kate Beckinsale stars as a scheming woman who invades a household intent on matchmaking, both for her daughter and herself. No doubt they drink tea, too.

Of course, if you're ambitious, you might drive to Seattle to try and catch a 7 p.m. screening of "Chimes at Midnight," the restored copy of Orson Welles' 1960 film that is a compilation of several Shakespeare plays. Welles' intent was to build a play around the character of Falstaff, who was the young King Henry V's drinking buddy. For more information, click here

But whatever you do, go see a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: X marks the apocalypse

Yeah, you can expect more from a Marvel-ous world on Friday, as well as an adventure involving mirrors, when the week's new movies open. A tentative list of Friday's mainstream movie openings is as follows:

"X-Men: Apocalypse": When an ancient threat arises, the mutant superheroes find themselves again split between self-interest, their dubious feelings toward ordinary humans and their ongoing sibling-like rivalries. In other words, life as usual in the X-Men world.

"Alice: Through the Looking Glass": Having disposed of Lewis Carroll's novel "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," Tim Burton gives way as director of this version of Carroll's follow-up novel. Since the same stars — from Mia Wasikowska to Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter — are involved, expect once again to disappear down a rabbit hole.

I'll update as needed, including the Magic Lantern.

SIFF 2016: The weekend is just the beginning

I've mentioned it before, but now it is here: The 2016 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival. Click here to get a look at the weekend's offerings. And know that if you jump in your car right now, you can catch several screenings today, besides those that will open Saturday and Sunday.

Here's one for today, though: "Our Little Sister," a Japanese film by director Hirokazu Kore-eda, that tells a story about sisters growing close as they pay last respects to their late father.

Friday’s openings redux: To vaxx or not to vaxx

You may remember a controversy that occurred last month at the Tribeca Film Festival. It involved a movie, a documentary titled "Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” that had been initially accepted into the festival before being abruptly pulled from the lineup.

You can read about the controversy and other filmmakers' reactions here.

That film is scheduled to open Friday at the Magic Lantern Theater. Following are snippets from two very different reviews:

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: "It's a polemic. But it's a passionate advocate for its viewpoint, and that makes for compelling viewing."

Joe Leydon, Variety: "Slickly produced but scientifically dubious hodgepodge of free-floating paranoia, heart-rending imagery - lots of shots of cute infants who reportedly were damaged by vaccines - and anti-Big Pharma conspiracy mongering."

Stake out your own position and make a choice. The Lantern is also opening a second run of "Eye in the Sky."

‘Ferris Bueller’ takes it easy, again

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Truer words were never spoken, even from a fictional character.

In 1986, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” took Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck and Mia Sara an epic ditch day in Chicago. Helmed by the late, great John Hughes, the film was a hit with critics and audiences—and it’s even spawned “Fight Club”-inspired fan theories, not to mention cultural critiques of 80s-era politics, race, class and gender in academic circles.

Although the film premiered on June 11, Chicago is getting a jump on the 30th anniversary celebration this weekend at Ferris Fest with film screenings, actor Q & As, location tours and, of course, a “Twist and Shout” parade.

If you can’t make it to Chi-Town, Fathom Events and TCM Big Screen Classics are screening the film at theaters across the country, including Regal Cinemas Northtown Mall and Regal Cinemas Riverstone at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 18.

Shake it up, baby.

The week’s openings: The yuks take precedence

Note: This post has been updated.

It's a week for laughter, assuming you find humor in movie versions of popular apps, mother-daughter comedies, buddy comedies and Seth Rogen. Anyway, Friday's scheduled mainstream releases are as follows:

"Angry Birds": It may be one of the most-downloaded apps of all time, but even when voiced by actors such as Peter Dinklage, Jason Sudekis and Kate McKinnon, what's needed here is a killer script. Or any script at all. Time will tell.

"The Meddler": Newly widowed, a woman (Susan Sarandon) moves across the country to be closer to her unmarried daughter (Rose Byrne). Imagine the potential for comic high jinks.

"Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising": Rogen and co-sars Rose Byrne and Zac Efron are back. But this time Efron and his pals are not the problem. The women of a local sorority are. As if.

"The Nice Guys": Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe star as mismatched investigators trying to find a young woman in danger in this period-piece crime caper/comedy. Let's hope all the good scenes haven't been wasted in the interminable trailers that have been running for what seems like the past three years.

That's it for the moment. Stay tuned for updates.