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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Last chance to see two particularly non-mainstream movies

It's Thursday, which is the usual day that movie schedules change (except, of course, when movies open on Wednesday). Two of the more interesting — yes, I'm using that word intentionally — films that have played in Spokane recently are leaving.

Those films are Woody Allen's "Cafe Society" and Mat Ross' "Captain Fantastic."

Allen's movies aren't likely ever to attract the crowds they once did, his personal foibles attracting a lot of haters. Beyond the fact that that ongoing controversy brings up the ago-old argument about whether we should separate the artist from the art, it also detracts from honest criticism of the art itself. Even though one of the great American filmmakers, Allen has always been inconsistent, capable of making gems such as "Annie Hall" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and outright duds such as "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" and "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion."

"Cafe Society," which earned an overall 70 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, might be closer to the latter than the former — at least according to a number of critics. Here are a couple of the comments, bad and good:

Moira MacDonald, The Seattle Times: "Maybe Woody Allen waited too long to make 'Café Society'; it seems, weirdly, to be an uninspired remake of itself."

Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic: "It'll probably never make it into anyone's list of the 10 most-important Allen films. But I'd watch it again over a few movies that would."

Ross' film is a contradiction: a straightforward look at a principled, if-flawed character (played by Viggo Mortensen), that is better made aesthetically than philosophically. It earned a 78 percent rating on RT. Check out two sample remarks, good and bad:

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: "Mr. Mortensen, whose intensity has the sting of possession, has a way of making you believe his characters can do whatever they set their minds to: fly, leap over buildings, save the world."

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times: "In largely succumbing to the very complacency its characters claim to abhor, it turns out to be — I hate to say it — a far less interesting movie than it appears."

As always, my view is that you should go and judge for yourself. It's your last night to see them both first run, here in Spokane, on the big screen.

Addendum: I was going to let this post go as is. But I can't pass up adding my own five cents: "Cafe Society" is far closer to Allen's best work than any of his artistic failures. It's a lamentation, an ode to regret and romantic failures, one that blends a best-hits list of all Allen's familiar emotional concerns — from lost love to fear of death — with great acting and even greater cinematography (by three-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro). For me, "Cafe Society" is a must-see. As for "Captain Fantastic," I agree with Chang.

Friday’s openings: Sausages, dragons and literature

Another week and another grand lineup of Hollywood's finest will be screening at your neighborhood metroplex. Friday's openings are as follows:

"Sausage Party": The Hollywood Reporter describes this animated film as "an R-rated comedy about food products waiting to be sold at a supermarket." Seth Rogen (one of four screenwriters) gives voice to a hot dog who harbors lust for a bun (voiced by Kristen Wiig). Forgive the pun, but … it was the best of times, it was the wurst of times.

"Indignation": Writer-director James Schamus adapted Philip Roth's novel about a young Jewish kid (Logan Lerman) attending a mostly gentile Ohio college in 1951 who has trouble adapting to an adult world of unfamiliar expectations. It's Roth, so you know it'll be literary. In other words, no happy ending.

"Pete's Dragon": This blend of live-action and computer-generated Disney remake of its own 1977 production tells the story of a young boy who is both friend and protector of an actual dragon and what happens when some townsfolk attempt to capture the creature. Question: Is the dragon's name Puff?

"Anthropoid": A based-in-fact historical study of Operation Anthropoid, which involved the assassination in 1942 of Nazi SS General Reinhard Heydrich by a British-trained team of Czech and Slovak agents. The German authorities responded with their usual degree of compassion and understanding.

"Florence Foster Jenkins": Veteran British director Stephen Frears offers up this biopic about the title character (played by Meryl Streep) whose riches bought her the chance to sing at Carnegie Hall, even though her vocal abilities would have made Tiny Tim seem like Luciano Pavarotti.

And that's the lot. Go. See a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Cats and dogs, heroes and villains

It seems like theaters have been filled with nothing but superheroes and supervillains for the last few months, but this weekend brings about the final comic book movie – and, arguably, the last major blockbuster release – of the summer.

Here are the week’s wide releases:

“Suicide Squad” – After the boondoggle that was “Batman v. Superman,” the folks at DC try their luck with an all-star cast of bad guys who are assigned to fight even badder guys. Early reviews are middling, but it will no doubt make a boatload of cash anyway.

“Gleason” – I saw this documentary about Spokane native Steve Gleason, a former NFL player living with ALS, at the Seattle International Film Festival, and it’s still fresh in my mind. Emotionally wrenching, but nonetheless uplifting.

“Nine Lives” – Remember the 1980 comedy “Oh! Heavenly Dog,” in which Chevy Chase is murdered and reincarnated as Benji. No? Well, whatever, here’s a movie where Kevin Spacey gets turned into a cat.

At the Magic Lantern:

“Wiener-Dog” – The latest from drolly misanthropic director Todd Solondz (“Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness”) is a quartet of stories involving an unfortunate dachshund and its various owners. You can read my review of the film, which I also saw at SIFF, here.

Below: The trailer for “Wiener-Dog.”

‘Music of Strangers’ strikes a fine tune

Morgan Neville's documentary "The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble" opens today at the Magic Lantern. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

You hear a lot these days about culture. As in, it’s important to respect the traditions that different peoples of the world abide by. Not just the ways they live and talk but also the values they hold, the customs they follow, the rituals to which they pay homage. The need for this is so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning.

Except that it’s also a point of argument, too. Because what happens when cultures clash, as they have since the first moment one group of humans encountered another group – one that talked differently, that acted differently, that simply looked … different? The result quite often is fear and mistrust, and just as often violence. Some aspects of human interaction never seem to change.

So a balance has to be found, one that is inclusive instead of exclusive, one that recognizes – and even respects – differences while working hard to find at least a sense of common ground. And according to world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, one good way to find that needed sense of community – regional, national and international – may be through music.

Ma is the focal point of Morgan Neville’s documentary “The Music of Strangers,” which carries the subtitle “Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.” It was back in the year 2000 when Ma, who spends so much time on the road that his son once thought he worked for the airport, had an idea: Why not invite a group of diverse musicians to participate in a musical experiment?

That experiment, which took place at the Tanglewood Music Festival, featured a unique confluence of players including a bagpiper from Spain, a clarinetist from Syria, musicians from China and Iran who play stringed instrument as exotic as they are unfamiliar, and a host of other players, most of whom we never get to meet up close and personal.

Which may be the only negative thing that I can say about “The Music of Strangers.” For while I appreciated getting to know the Galician bagpiper Christine Pato, the displaced Iranian Kayhan Kalhor and equally displaced Syrian Kinan Azmeh, I wanted to know far more than Neville is able to give us during his film’s 96-minute run time.

The problem, of course – and it’s hardly a problem at all – is that Neville has to make room, however languidly, for a theme. And he has to make time for the music.

The theme can be summed up in Ma’s declaration that “The clearest reason for music, for culture, is that it gives us meaning.” It is that meaning that comforts Pato when dealing with a mother who is losing her memory, that comforts Kalhor and Azmeh in their domestic alienation, that helped Chinese musician Wu Man survive her country’s Cultural Revolution.

And the music? To this untrained ear, it seems like a perfect blend between East and West, with room for everyone to add in a distinctive riff or three. As the Syrian Azmeh says, "Music … can it stop a bullet? Can it feed someone who is hungry? Of course it can’t."

It can, however, both nourish and help meld our disparate souls. And sometimes that’s enough.

See this movie, if you have the ‘Nerve’

Now that it's clear that "Nerve" opens today, you might want to know what some of the nation's critics are saying about the horror flick starring Julia Roberts' niece, Emma.

Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times: " 'Mr. Robot' meets 'Battle Royale'… a neon-saturated teenage dream, high on first kisses and digital hearts."

Jeanette Catsoulis, New York Times: "[The] screenplay … amounts to little more than a string of flashy stunts before fizzling to a contrived close. For all its hints at imminent catastrophe, 'Nerve' feels surprisingly tame."

Owen Gleiberman, Variety: " 'Nerve,' let's be clear, isn't a movie to take seriously, yet its fast lunge at topicality — the way it uses the contest at its center as a lightning-rod metaphor for how young adults interact in the digital age — is part of what's fun about it."

And just for good measure:

David Ehrlich, indieWIRE: "Blisteringly cool one moment and ridiculously silly the next, this punchy and propulsive late-summer surprise is able to capture the way we live now because it displays such a vivid understanding of the reasons why we live that way."

Friday’s openings redux: Woody’s and other worlds

According to the AMC website, two smaller movies have been added to Friday's opening list (though, actually, their first showings are Thursday night — go figure). The two additional openings are as follows:

"Cafe Society": A young New Yorker (Jesse Eisenberg) heads for Hollywood to work for his talent-agent uncle (Steve Carell) and endures a number of lessons in life and love. Expect to hear some jokes at the movie industry's expense.

"Captain Fantastic": The head (Viggo Mortensen) of a family living remotely must, following a tragedy, deal with the wants and needs of his maturing children. In other words, teens wanna party.

That's it so far. So go, see a movie, And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Bourne and some bad moms

(Note: This post has been updated to reflect a Wednesday movie opening.)

Along with a couple of Magic Lantern specials, the coming week of movies offers action, comedy and at least one fright night. The week's's scheduled movie openings are as follows:

"Jason Bourne": Matt Damon returns for another chapter in the super-agent-goes-rogue saga, with Paul Greengrass also returning as director. Holy shaky camera, Batman.

"Bad Moms": Overworked and underloved, a trio of young mothers goes on a spree. Talk about desperate housewives.

"Nerve" (Wednesday): A high school senior (Emma Roberts) gets involved in an online game that is anything but. It's not paranoia if they're really after you.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"The Music of Strangers": Cellist Yo-Yo Ma joins a group of international musicians to prove that music truly is the world's common language. 

"The Innocents": Based on a real story, a young Red Cross volunteer in 1945 Poland finds that she's needed at a convent to handle several delicate situations.

There may be changes. I'll update as needed.

This is surely one sweet ‘Hunt’

If you haven't seen the New Zealand import "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," which is playing at the Magic Lantern, you might want to check it out. That's the argument that I make with the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

To say Ricky Baker is incorrigible would be a massive understatement. Barely into his teens, the parentless New Zealand boy for most of his life has been shunted from one foster family to the next. And even a short list of his transgressions – which includes thievery, vandalism, arson and more – would be enough to earn him a trip to juvenile hall.

But Ricky – one of two central characters in New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi’s feature film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” – is being given one last chance. Either he makes a go of it with the backwoods couple Bella and Hec, or juvey looms large in his future.

That’s where Waititi’s film begins, with Ricky being shepherded to his new home by a by-the-book child-care worker and her ever-compliant police-officer partner. But instead of treading the plotline of so many previous stories of mismatched partners, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” transforms into a wild, at times fantastic, trek that – for a number of reasons – never ignores the emotional strains that, gradually, link and then bind these partners securely.

The first twist comes early on when, after just beginning to accept his new home, Ricky is jerked suddenly back into insecurity. And his response is classic: He heads into the bush, convinced that he is better off on his own. That he gets immediately lost and runs through his rations in about the first half hour, is as humorous as the near-catastrophe he inadvertently caused before leaving. And that sense of humor is what filmmaker Waititi uses to keep his movie from sliding into melodrama.

The second twist involves Hec – played by veteran actor Sam Neill – whose pursuit of Ricky comes first out of a sense of obligation but evolves into eventual affection for the boy. And why not? As played by Julian Dennison, as winning an adolescent actor as you’re apt to find, Ricky is a total charmer.

That the two bond even as they become the focus of a national manhunt fits naturally into Waititi’s narrative, with Hec being cast not only as a kidnapper but also a pervert. We know the truth, of course, which sets the tone as “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” dashes toward its climax, which involves an eccentric bushman, dozens of police vehicles and Ricky’s acting like off-road NASCAR driver.

Waititi gets a lot out of his cast. Even at age 13, Dennison is a natural-born performer. Though she’s not onscreen that long, Rima Te Wiata as the earthy, loving Bella makes a sincere impact. And Neill, some of whose best performances over a long career have pitted him with children, is the same as ever: low-key but carrying emotions that simmer just below the surface.

Not everything that Waititi comes up with works. The characters of the child-care worker and her lackey are played too broadly, and at times the film’s pacing feels just a tad too frenetic.

But those are quibbles. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” tackles some fairly serious issues, but it handles those issues with just the right sense of the sweet.

Next week, the Joker’s on you

For those who love their graphic novels brought to the big screen, Fathom Events is offering a special treat on both Monday and Tuesday, July 25-26: A special screening of DC Comics' animated feature "Batman: The Killing Joke."

The screening, which will include two "never-before-seen featurettes," will be shown twice in Spokane (7:30 and 10 p.m.) at AMC River Park Square and at Regal's NorthTown Mall, and in Coeur d'Alene at Regal's Riverstone Stadium.

Coproduced by DC Comics, Warner Bros. and Fathom Events, the film reunites filmmakers involved with the popular "Batman: The Animated Series," and includes both cast members: Kevin Conroy as The Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker.

The basic plot, which focuses on The Joker's rise as a villain, is as follows: "Now escaped from Arkham Asylum, The Joker devises a plan to prove that one bad day can make anyone as insane as he is — setting his sights on Commissioner Gordon. It's up to the Dark Knight to put a stop to The Joker's latest scheme and save one of Gotham City's finest."

One of the special features involves actor Hamill (better known as Luke Skywalker) explaining how he was cast in the project. The other is a behind-the-scenes look at how The Joker's dance scene was choreographed.

Make sure not to laugh.

See the real ‘Boys in the Boat’ Monday at The Garland

One of the best books I've read in recent years was Daniel James Brown's nonfiction history "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics." Never was a true-life book written that seemed to better fit a movie scenario.

And, of course, Hollywood is jumping all over the project. Some reports even list the potential cast.

But long before that fictional re-enactment of the book is released, Inland Northwest audiences will have a chance to see a documentary about the story. In fact, thanks to a recommendation by the Spokane International Film Festival, word is out that a public screening of the Public Television series "American Experience" will be held free of charge.

"American Experience: The Boys of '36" will screen Monday night at The Garland Theater (doors will open at 6:45). The screening is sponsored by the Spokane River Rowing Association.

Not only will movie fans get to enjoy the movie, but they'll have the opportunity to meet members of the SRRA and be in line to pick up a number of door prizes (t-shirts, copies of Brown's book, a gift basket and more).

The event should be blast. The book sure is.

Friday’s opening redux: Time to get fabulous

Word from the source is that three movies are being added to Friday's release schedule. The additions are as follows:

"Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie": Edina and Patsy move their shenanigans to the big screen, this time getting in real trouble — all while having a fabulous time. Pop a cork, darling.

"Equals": What good are emotions in an emotionless society? A young couple finds out when an illness gives them back their … feelings. Calling Dr. Phil.

"Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party": Just in time for the GOP presidential convention, conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza dishes dirt on the other party and its own presidential contender. Bring a dictionary.

Nothing new is opening at the Magic Lantern. But go anyway. See a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: To infinity and ‘Beyond’

Get ready to go where no human (man, woman or other) has gone before on Friday when the new "Star Trek" offering opens. The week's scheduled national releases are as follows:

"Star Trek Beyond": The crew of the Enterprise finds itself stranded on a distant world and has to band together to defeat a force that threatens to destroy them all. In other words, pretty much the same plot of every "Star Trek" episode ever made. Expect loads of CGI.

"Ice Age: Collision Course": Engaged in their respective middle-age crises, the familiar characters in this fifth entry in the "Ice Age" series face an even bigger challenge — how to avoid extinction coming in the form of a giant asteroid. Fiction, meet reality.

"Lights Out": Turns out something is lurking in the dark, and a young mother must struggle to discover the source of its power. One question: Where are the Warrens?

This is a tentative list. I'll update as needed.

O.J. truly was ‘Made in America’

One of the best long-form, true-crime documentaries I've ever seen was produced by ESPN. My review, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, follows:

I don’t remember everything about June 17, 1994. What I do remember is this: I was just leaving a gym on the North Side of Spokane, looking forward to enjoying a cold beer, when I noticed people in the lobby crowded around a TV.

Naturally curious, I joined them. And I began to watch one of the most bizarre would-be getaways in American crime history. A white Ford Bronco was creeping along a Los Angeles freeway, pursued by a convoy of police black-and-white cruisers. It became immediately clear – the news announcers were just as intrigued as the rest of us – that this Bronco carried the former football player and movie star O.J. Simpson.

These 22 years later, long after his subsequent murder trial, its controversial verdict and the turbulent aftermath, Simpson is again in the news. His story is simply something that we as a nation can’t let go of. The FX Network covered it in the dramatic production “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and now the sports channel ESPN – as part of its critically acclaimed “30 on 30” documentary series – has produced “O.J.: Made in America.”

Available by streaming on ESPN.go.com, “O.J.: Made in America” is far more than a mere sports documentary. It is nothing less than a sociological, historical and cultural-anthropological look at race relations as they have developed over the past several decades in the United States.

Told in five parts, each in excess of 90 minutes, it comprehensively covers all things Simpson: his football years – both for USC and later for the NFL Buffalo Bills; his post-football jobs as a pitchman for Hertz Rent a Car and star of the “Naked Gun” movies; his love affair with future wife Nicole Brown; the murder of Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman; Simpson’s flight in the Bronco, and his subsequent arrest, trial and all the attendant drama; and, finally, Simpson’s post-acquittal life, which slowly unraveled in Miami and then Las Vegas, where he committed the crime that would, this time, earn him a long prison sentence.

Directed by Ezra Edelman, whose works include co-producing the documentary “Cutie and the Boxer,” “O.J.: Made in America” uses hours of impressive archival news footage to provide the backdrop for how and why Simpson’s not-guilty verdict came down, despite the LAPD having amassed a virtual mountain of evidence. As lead prosecutor Marcia Clark said, “I’ve never seen so much evidence, even on the first day, as I did in that case.”

Clark is just one of dozens of interviewees, all of whom had much to say about Simpson and more. The cast includes some of Simpson’s lifelong friends, some of the detectives who investigated the case – including Mark Fuhrman – members of Simpson’s defense team, the so-called Dream Team; journalists, civil-rights activists, and even a couple of jurors, at least one of whom makes it clear that she voted to acquit Simpson because of the LAPD’s history of brutalizing the city’s African-American community.

The overall result is a fascinating look at today’s America – and how we got this way.

The week’s openings: Ghosts and drugbusters

No official word yet from the local theaters, but the week's major mainstream releases are as follows:

"Ghostbusters": Newly revised, with the likes of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig taking over for Bill Murray and co., this adaptation of the original story about scientists using technology to oust troublesome spirits looks to be another in a long line of CGI-enhanced comedies. Turns out Saturday Night Live alumni still do have post-SNL careers.

"The Infiltrator" (Wednesday): The ubiquitous Bryan Cranston stars as one of the U.S. government agents whose undercover work helped bring down Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Que pena.

I'll update as more information becomes available.

Friday’s openings: Lantern heads for New Zealand

So, for movie openings this week we'll begin with the Magic Lantern — Spokane's alternative theater that, in one variation or another, has been serving area movie fans for the last four-plus decades.

Opening Friday will be:

"Hunt for the Wilderpeople": Sam Neil and New Zealand newcomer Julian Dennison star in this comedy drama about a problem boy and his adopted family and what happens when, following a sudden plot turn, the boy takes off into the New Zealand wilds and Neil's character takes off in pursuit. Then, in short order, the whole of the nation goes in search of both of them.

Some critical comments: 

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi blends sharply cynical humour with huge heart in arguably his best film to date."

Soren Andrson, Seattle Times: "Laugh-out-loud funny one minute, achingly sad the next, 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' takes the audience on a rollicking yet poignant journey through the New Zealand backcountry in the company of a pair of engagingly eccentric characters."

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: " 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' takes a troika of familiar story types - the plucky kid, the crusty geezer, the nurturing bosom - and strips them of cliché."