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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

‘American Sniper’ hard to critique as mere film

When reactions to a film are all over the place, less attention is typically paid to the film itself than to the issues surrounding it. Such is the case with "American Sniper." Following is my attempt, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, to critique what director Clint Eastwood has put on the screen

Reactions to “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the late Chris Kyle’s 2012 memoir, can be split into two basic political camps: Those who see Kyle – the former Navy SEAL sniper who served four tours in Iraq and is officially credited with 160 kills – as an American hero. On the polar-opposite side, some commentators condemn Kyle as a flag-waving killer. As with pretty much everything else in today’s America, the truth likely rests somewhere in the middle.

Here’s the problem for a movie critic: How do you judge a movie such as “American Sniper” when politics won’t get out of the way?

Well, let’s try. First of all, Eastwood’s film is one of his more technically proficient achievements. Whether we’re following Kyle as a boy being taught to cowboy up by his discipline-minded father, Kyle as a SEAL sniper lining up a target in the streets of Fallujah, or Kyle as a husband and father coping with post-combat stress during a backyard barbecue, “American Sniper” is firmly grounded in place. Each scene, especially the war sequences shot in Morocco, inserts the viewer into a situation that looks and feels authentic.

Then we have the acting. Having added 40 pounds to his frame, Bradley Cooper is no longer the pretty boy of such films as “The Hangover” and “The A-Team.” Having worked with a vocal coach, he manages to effectively impersonate Kyle’s native Texas drawl. Required throughout the film to show a range of emotions, Cooper succeeds, proving believable as a modern American gladiator, as a man torn between duty to country and his own family, and as a man capable both of cuddling his infant daughter and of at least being willing to shoot an Iraqi child who poses a threat to U.S. troops.

I place “being willing to shoot an Iraqi child” in quotes because, in contrast to “American Sniper” the movie, Kyle in his book makes no such claim. Which encapsulates the movie’s biggest flaws. That Eastwood would show Cooper’s Kyle actually gunning down a young boy, and then the boy’s presumed mother, serves no purpose that I can see. In his book, Kyle claims to have shot a grenade-carrying woman alone, “the only time,” he wrote, “I killed anyone other than a male combatant.”

And the movie’s contrivances don’t stop there. Kyle is portrayed as engaging in a mano-a-mano struggle with an enemy sniper, a Syrian and one-time Olympic marksman. Kyle is shown making his longest kill and then being saved during a sudden, and convenient, sandstorm. Ignoring the fact that the only characters who express doubt about the U.S. mission in Iraq end up dead or, as with Kyle’s Marine-Corps brother Jeff, simply disappear, the movie’s outright inventions do tend to emphasize a sense of drama. Yet they feel unnecessary – and they overshadow the movie’s true value.

Which, based on my own political viewpoint at least, involves showing what horrors we require American soldiers to engage in and what lingering nightmares those duties instill in the souls of even the hardiest of today’s warriors.

Friday’s openings: Oscar don’t eat no ‘Cake’

As the weeks progress into the new year, fewer and fewer of the best films of 2014 will open. We may not get some of the best foreign-language films for months, and even then only if the Magic Lantern manages to pick them up. Meanwhile, the dregs of last year, along with the first few films of 2015, continue to open.

Depending on schedule changes, Friday's mainstream openings are as follows:

"The Boy Next Door": A newly divorced single mother (Jennifer Lopez) has a brief affair with the title character and — shocker — comes to regret it. J-Lo needs a new agent. "Enough" with the threatened-women plots, already.

"Cake": Jennifer Aniston plays a woman dealing with chronic pain whose situation worsens when a member of her support group commits suicide. Some observers had predicted Aniston would earn an Oscar nomination, but her friends let her down.

"Mortdecai": Johnny Depp plays the character, created by writer Kyril Bonfiglioli, who is a blend of art dealer and roguish solver of mysteries. Anybody notice that, in the trailers, Depp is impersonating Inspector Clouseau?

"The Principle": This documentary puts forth the theory that four centuries of science are wrong, that the Earth may be far more important to the solar system — not to mention the universe — than previously thought. Cue Galileo eye roll.

"Strange Magic": Based on a George Lucas story, this animated feature pits goblins, elves, fairies and imps in a battle over a powerful potion. It all happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Little Accidents": A boy's disappearance causes problems in a coal community already rocked by a mining disaster. Hmmm, I thought the coal miner had a daughter.

‘Selma” is a bit of hard U.S. history

I've already written about how "Selma" actor David Oyelowo (Oh-yeh-low-woe) got shortchanged by the people who nominate acting performances for Oscars. Following is the full transcription of the "Selma" review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

About a half hour into “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s exploration of a notable chapter in the U.S. civil rights movement, I wanted to get up and leave. Not because of anything that DuVernay had done. It was simply because, having lived through that era, I knew what was coming. And I didn’t want to have to experience it yet again.

It was in March 1965 – the year I graduated from high school – that a consortium of local and national civil-rights groups gathered in Selma, Alabama. Their aim was to win the vote for back citizens, legal rights that were being denied for reasons ranging from literacy tests to outright physical intimidation – even murder.

On March 7, several hundred protesters attempted to march from Selma to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, only to be confronted by state troopers, county sheriffs and a host of deputized local whites wielding clubs and whips. Images from that confrontation, which led to dozens of injuries, were broadcast all over the world – and served as a testament both to the courage of people such as Amelia Boynton and a future Georgia Congressman, John Lewis, and to the determination of Alabama officials such as Gov. George Wallace that such a demonstration would not take place.

Yet two days later another group, this one led by Martin Luther King, started a march. This time, the police stepped aside. But King, not trusting that the way was safe, turned back. Finally, on March 17th, with President Lyndon Johnson having provided U.S. troops as security, some 8,000 marchers took to the road. When the group entered Montgomery on March 24th, more than 20,000 people were present to hear King deliver one of his most famous speeches.

DuVernay captures all this, plus the surrounding drama involving the infighting – or negotiating, if you will – between the various acronym-named groups representing the civil rights movements’ various factions. Her main focus, though, rests naturally on King. And, yes, she alters some timelines, makes judgments regarding motivation – especially involving Johnson, who is viewed as having a contentious relationship with King – and much of the dialogue is no doubt dramatized.

But the essence of what DuVernay gives us feels authentic. She puts her talented cast in positions that, for the most part, avoid big, melodramatic moments. She also avoids making King into anything more than what he was: a courageous, committed man with human frailties the FBI didn’t hesitate to exploit.

If British actors Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth are less effective as Johnson and Wallace, respectively, DuVernay more than makes up for that by exploiting the obvious talents of another Brit, David Oyelowo as King, not to mention Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Stephan James as John Lewis, André Holland as Andrew Young and many others – including Oprah Winfrey. Oyelowo, in particular, captures the quiet power, and occasional hesitance, of a man who would die at an assassin’s hand barely three years later.

Which is another of many sad stories of American history I am loathe to relive.

Oscar nominations once again miss the mark

As time has gone by, I've grown less and less enamored with the Oscars. By which I mean the annual orgy of self-congratulation that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sponsors.

The event used to be my Super Bowl, my Final Four, my Olympics, my … enough with the sports analogies. You get the idea. I used to gather with a small group of friends, make drink-fueled bets and scream and high-five the room based on who won what (and who gave the worst acceptance speeches).

But no more. It may because movies, overall, have become so much … well, less. It may because I have become ever more — hard as this may seem to believe — cynical. And impatient. And disinclined to let myself get carried away by the magic of movies, mainly because there is so much less about them that is capable of carrying me away.

There it is, though. And I doubt anything is going to change for 2015. The Oscar nominations just came out and here are my reactions:

1. Only eight nominees for Best Picture. I was never a big fan of the Academy's expanding the long-held practice of nominating five movies for the top award. But once they expanded it to 10, which they did in 2009, then they should keep it. "Foxcatcher" and "Unbroken" are certainly as deserving of Oscars as, say, "The Imitation Game" or "The Theory of Everything."

2. No Best Actor nomination for David Oyelowo ("Selma"). As much as I like Steve Carell, I would have given that spot to Oyelowo. Carell pulled off a good performance, but it seemed as much about makeup as anything. And I've been open about how shallow the film is about just who any of the "Foxcatcher" characters are and what motivates them. Oyelowo, for his part, virtually channeled Martin Luther King.

3. Mark Ruffalo over Channing Tatum for Best Supporting Actor. I guess the argument here is that Tatum was more a lead actor than supporting, but think back to 1995 and John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, two actors with an equal amount of screen time, yet Travolta was regarded as lead and Jackson supporting. Oscar does what it wants, regardless of logic. Let me just say that Tatum's performance, devoid of makeup, is riveting. And Ruffalo? Meh.

4. No Best Director nomination for Ava DuVernay. As much as I like Wes Anderson, his "Grand Budapest Hotel" is basically the same film he has been directing for the last decade. And it depends on a terrific, nuanced performance by Ralph Fiennes. Even if you think Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken" is the work of a "minimally talented spoiled brat," you can't say the same of DuVernay, whom I would have voted for over Anderson or Morten Tyldum ("The Imitation Game").

5. No Animated Feature nomination for "The Lego Movie." Yes, it was product placement. But that was part of the satire. One of the funniest, cleverest, most biting examples of satire the year had to offer … yet no nomination. Yet "How to Train Your Dragon 2" gets mentioned? This is the Citizens United syndrome in action.

I could go on. No Documentary Feature nomination of "Life Itself"? No Editing nomination for the single-take-imitator "Birdman"? Nothing beyond Adapted Screenplay and Costume Design for "Inherent Vice"? But I've made my point.

Neil Patrick Harris is set to host the Oscars broadcast. I'd prefer Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Better yet, Ricky Gervais.

Magic Lantern to show Oscar shorts Jan. 30

If you're a fan of the Magic Lantern — and most lovers of alternative cinema are — you need to know that Spokane's only movie arthouse won't be opening anything new on Friday. But in the same message, ML manager Jonathan Abramson announced that on Friday, Jan. 30, the theater will open the 2015 Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts.

The 2015 Oscar nominations themselves will be announced this coming Thursday.

Below is a trailer for the 2014 live-action Oscar winner, "Helium." (And that's the animated winner, "Mr. Hublot," up above.)

Friday’s openings: Snipers, wrestlers and bears, oh my

We're already two weeks into the new year, and that means that many of the films that have opened elsewhere — those special seven-day, Oscar-hopeful screenings in New York and L.A. — are finally arriving here in the hinterlands. Two of those films, plus a number of others — as well as a couple of Golden Globe-mentioned second runs — are on Friday's movie release schedule.

Friday's openings are as follows:

American Sniper (IMAX and regular): Clint Eastwood directed this look at Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the man billed as "the most lethal sniper in U.S history." Expect a few flags to be waved.

Foxcatcher: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo star as the Olympic wrestling Schultz brothers (Tatum and Ruffalo) who become involved with the emotionally unstable billionaire heir John du Pont (Carell). Somebody doesn't make it to the third round. 

The Wedding Ringer: Having no one else to turn to, a shy kind of guy (Josh Gad) hires a professional wedding planner (Kevin Hart) to be his best man. Two words: Kevin Hart.

Blackhat: Michael Mann gives us this story of a hacker so devious that the government enlists the services of a genius  Internet criminal (Chris Hemsworth) to battle him. What, Edward Snowden wasn't available?

Paddington: Based on Michael Bond's popular children's-book character, this PG-rated movie follows a talking bear that finds refuge with a London family — and predictable mayhem ensues. Think of what might have happened had the family adopted Babar the elephant.

The second-run Golden Globe winners are Boyhood (Best Dramatic Motion Picture, Best Director Richard Linklater) and Whiplash (Best Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons), while Nightcrawler was a nominee (Best Actor in a Motion Picture Jake Gyllenhaal).

The good movies are still coming. So go see one. And enjoy.

No false notes for ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’

It's rare that I get to preview a film before it opens in Spokane. But this week that rare occurrence indeed did happen. The documentary "Keep On Keepin' On" opens today at the Magic Lantern Theater. Following is a transcription of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I know next to nothing about jazz. Even though my IPod boasts the work of musicians such as Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Chet Baker, I would be lost in any discussion about their respective abilities, their styles or especially what influence each has had. As with most people, I suspect, I just listen to what I like.

So I approached the music documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On” with as open a mind as I could muster. The film, which opens today at the Magic Lantern, is an exploration of the life, the career and that elusive legacy known as influence, of the jazz trumpeter Clark Terry.

A native of St. Louis, Terry rose above a dirt-poor childhood that saw him so obsessed with the trumpet that he built one of his own, connecting a length of scrap tubing to a lead mouthpiece. The sound was so ear-splitting that friends and family collected money to buy the boy a real horn. Fast-forward a few years and, after learning the basics of his instrument, he began playing professionally. By the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Terry was working with such bandleaders as Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

And Terry wasn’t just a journeyman. Even Dizzy Gillespie called Terry “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, trumpet players ever.” But for all his musical abilities, Terry’s greatest contribution may have been as a teacher. And it is that contribution that first-time filmmaker Alan Hicks – a musician himself – concentrates on in “Keep On Keepin’ On.”

Hicks focuses on Terry – now in his 90s – as he battles with the ravages of diabetes: blindness, ongoing pain and the threat of amputation. Hicks pairs Terry’s story with another musician’s struggle: Justin Kauflin, a prodigy jazz pianist in his early 20s, blind since the age of 11. Despite this, through effort and study with a number of music teachers, Kauflin developed his skills to a point where – under Terry’s tutelage – he receives an invitation to a prestigious musical competition. Yet the life of any jazz musician is difficult, and this is the richness that Hicks provides us: a legendary trumpet player facing the end of his life, and a talented young pianist at the cusp of what he hopes will be a career – both approaching whatever comes next with the same mix of stage fright and enduring feel for what Terry himself calls a “plateau of positivity.”

Produced in part by Quincy Jones, who credits Terry for helping him jump-start his own career, “Keep On Keepin’ On” is a tribute documentary. You’ll find nothing critical here, nothing controversial – save maybe for a brief appearance by Bill Cosby, who along with other Terry fans such as Herbie Hancock and Arturo Sandoval, attests to Terry’s talents.

Yet the film’s sentiment never feels forced. As I say, I know next to nothing about jazz. But I know enough to say that, like the music that both Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin create, “Keep On Keepin’ On” stays unerringly on key. 

Look for the BAFTAs nominees on Friday

Above: Alfonso Cuaron, Best Director of "Gravity" as determined both by the 2014 Oscar and BAFTA awards.

I've already pointed to the Producer's Guild of America as a good source for predicting not only who but what will receive an Oscar nomination. Friday, however, will give us another indicator: the nominees for the 2014 awards presented by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

According to the website Gold Derby, though, the BAFTAs might not be the best indicator. Last year, for example, "12 Years a Slave" did double as both Oscar's and BAFTA's Best Picture. But the British went for UK actor Chiwetel Ejiofor over Oscar Best Actor Matthew McConaughey. And while Mexican-born Lupita Nyongo of "12 Years a Slave" won Oscar's Best Supporting Actress, she wasn't even nominated by BAFTA.

"Gravity" seemed to hit with both organizations, doubling in the categories of Director, Cinematography, Sound (twice) and Visual Effects. But in most cases, the BAFTAs are likely to go with their own (or with a foreign choice) over an American nominee — as they did with Best Supporting Actor Barkhad Abdi ("Captain Phillips") over Jared Leto ("Dallas Buyers Club").

Keep that bit of British bias in mind, though, and you just might get the help you need filling out your own Oscar ballot. Again, the Oscar nominees come out on Jan. 15.

‘The Homesman’ is moving to the Magic Lantern

If you haven't yet seen "The Homesman" — Tommy Lee Jones' adaptation of the Glendon Swarthout novel — you'll have another full week at least to catch it. The Western may be leaving AMC River Park Square, but the Magic Lantern is picking it up.

"The Homesman," which Jones co-wrote, directed and stars in (along with Hilary Swank and Meryl Streep), received an 81 percent rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes (just 54 percent for general audiences). Here's what Moira MacDonald wrote in the Seattle Times: "Swank and Streep are big stars with famous faces, and yet disappear into their roles; these characters convey both quiet strength and gentle kindness."

Historical aside: Novelist Swarthout also wrote novels that became the movies "Where the Boys Are," "They Came to Cordura," "Bless the Beasts and Children" and "The Shootist."

That last one is a Don Siegel film that stars John Wayne in his final role.

‘Birdman,’ ‘Boyhood’ among PGA nominations

One of the best indicators of potential Oscar nominations comes less from other awards shows — the Golden Globes, for example — than from actual industry honors. When looking for Best Picture nominations, one good bet is to check out the Producer's Guild preferences. And since the guild made its own nominations public yesterday, we can get an early start on those Oscar ballots.

The full list can be found here. But it's worthy to note that "Birdman," "Boyhood" and "Foxcatcher" — as well as Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" — made the grade. And if nothing else, lists such as this make good viewing suggestions to anyone who didn't catch the films first time around during their theatrical runs.

It's never too late to see a good movie. The Oscar nominations will be announced on Jan. 15.   

Friday’s openings: From SoCal to Selma

Since he broke into the public consciousness with his second full feature, 1997's "Boogie Nights," director Paul Thomas Anderson has been a cinephile favorite. Whether examining biblical plagues visiting the contemporary world ("Magnolia") or exploring the excesses of personal mania as couched in American history "There Will Be Blood"), Anderson exhibits a command of film narrative that is rare for any age.

Which is why those of us who call ourselves Anderson fans are excited at the prospect of "Inherent Vice" opening Friday. Based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon, "Inherent Vice" is a private-eye film set in the Southern California of the pot-sodden 1970s. Can't wait.

Excepting last-second schedule changes, Friday's opening are as follows:

"Inherent Vice": Joaquin Phoenix plays a perpetually stoned PI who is gets mixed up in a complicated case that involves kidnapping, extortion and murder. Imagine Philip Marlowe on the pipe.

"Taken 3": Liam Neeson returns as the former government operative so skilled he can outwit both the FBI and, seemingly, the whole Russian mob. Just remember: He will find you.

"Selma": Based on the real-life freedom march that was planned, and led, by Martin Luther King. Unlike other historical studies, this one is scoring a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Director Ava DuVernay obviously had a dream …

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Keep On Keeping' On": This documentary tells the story of legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, coming to the end of his life, just as one of his students — blind pianist Justin Kauflin — is beginning his own career. Talk about the blind leading the blind.

So, as always, go to a movie. And enjoy.

‘The Interview’ opening in Hayden

Heads up, Seth Rogan and James Franco fans. Your chance to see the much-talked about film “The Interview” on the big screen has arrived. You’ll need to go to Hayden to see it, however.

Hayden Discount Cinemas, 300 W. Centa Ave. (off Highway 95 at the Prairie Avenue Shopping Center) will be screening the film beginning Friday. Admission? A cool $3.

The film, about a television interviewer tasked by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is at the center of a massive computer hack of Sony Pictures. The film originally was set to open on Christmas Day, but after the hackers threatened violence against moviegoers, the big theater chains backed away from screening the film. A few independent houses showed the movie, and Sony released it for home viewing through various on-demand services.

For more information, visit Hayden Discount Cinemas’ Facebook page.

Friday’s openings: a woman in black, a continent in white

No matter what time of year you can name, one genre of movie plays equally well — in cold, in heat, in rain, in … sleet? That genre is horror. Only one mainstream film is opening on Friday, and it — predictably — is an exercise in horror. Friday's openings are as follows:

"The Woman in Black: Angel of Death": Last time we saw that title character, she was haunting Daniel Radcliffe in the 2012 remake (of the 1989 original). Now it's World War II and a group of children have awakened her and … oh, please, not children.

And at the Magic Lantern?

"Antarctica: A Year on Ice": The title explains pretty much what to expect from this nature documentary. Expect to see images of what it means to spend a year on the bottom of the world. Here's a hint: It's dark. And cold.

By the way, news from AMC is that the film "American Sniper" is supposed to open on Jan. 16.

Anyway, go see a movie. And enjoy.

See a Coen Brothers double feature Jan. 11

Those of us who remember what Spokane film-going was like in the 1980s know what it means to wait, and sometimes never see, anything other than the latest big-budget Hollywood offering. Then, even following the grand openings of such now-closed theaters as the Newport Highway and Lyons Ave. Cinemas, nothing that was remotely alternative — much less foreign — ever opened locally.

Unless such a film played at the Magic Lantern, in between its occasional closing. Even then, it typically opened months after having been screened elsewhere.

Which is why I used to spend a lot of time driving to Seattle. That didn't always work, though, because often I couldn't score tickets before they sold out. I still remember being disappointed at the line for "Raising Arizona" when it opened in April 1987. It stretched down an entire city block. Months later, I finally saw it when it played Spokane (I forget where) to, I have to add, far sparser crowds.

But the wait was worth it. To this day, "Raising Arizona" remains one of my favorite Coen Brothers films. Which is why I'm happy that, in conjunction with Spokane Public Radio, I and my "Movies 101" partners Mary Pat Treuthart and Nathan Weinbender will be hosting a doubled screening — and live "Movies 101" taping — of not one but two Coen Brothers films: "Raising Arizona" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 11.

The program, "SPR Goes to the Movies With the Coen Brothers," will begin with a live taping of "Movies 101," followed by back-to-back screenings of the two films. For ticket-ordering and other information, click here.

And let's all heave a collective sigh that Spokane moviegoing '80s-style has gone the way of the mullet.  

The Bing to screen Glenn Campbell doc Jan. 17-18

One of the difficult tasks for a film festival programmer involves not just finding good movies but holding on to them. Such is the case with the documentary "Glen Campbell — I'll Be Me," which is scheduled to play the Bing Crosby Theater on Jan. 17 and 18. The Spokane International Film Festival had planned on including the film in its 2015 lineup (SpIFF is scheduled to run from Feb.5 through Feb. 14).

Instead, the film will be screened at The Bing (at 7 p.m. on Jan. 17, 3 p.m. Jan. 18), sponsored by the Riverview Retirement Community. This is a natural pairing as the film documents Campbell's battle with Alzheimer's while embarking on a 2011 concert tour. As The Bing's website explains, "The film documents this amazing journey as he and his family attempt to navigate the wildly unpredictable nature of Glen’s progressing disease using love, laughter and music as their medicine of choice."

As Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday wrote, "As difficult as it is to witness Campbell's struggles, especially when he forgets the names of his wife and children, 'I'll Be Me' is an elevating experience, inviting the audience to bear witness to Campbell's courage, humor and spiritual strength"

SpIFF may have lost out, but Spokane hasn't. You can obtain ticket information to the screening by clicking here.

Note: This post has been edited to indicate the film's second showing.

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