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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Women get their own in ‘The Dressmaker’

As the father of a young woman — a woman has now has her own children — I am particularly interested in stories that involve women. Particularly stories involving the roles that women have played in history. This, then, is one reason why I am so accepting — despite its obvious flaws — of "The Dressmaker," an Australian film that is playing at AMC River Park Square.

What follows is my review of "The Dressmaker," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I often think about the career of Clint Eastwood. In some respects, the man has been making the same film since he first attracted the attention of Sergio Leone. In Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, as he would do later for crime specialist Don Siegel and other filmmakers – not to mention the filmmaker he himself would become – Eastwood typically starred as a man, cast in some sort of situation where he would seek justice, or more often simple revenge, with a gun.

I thought of Eastwood in particular when I watched the Australian film “The Dressmaker,” which was directed by the long-missed Jocelyn Moorhouse and stars Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Kerry Fox, Hugo Weaving and a number of other cast members who are far better known Down Under than in the U.S.

The winner of numerous Australian movie awards, “The Dressmaker” tells the story of Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (played by Winslet), a woman of obvious high fashion, who returns to her Outback hometown late one night with a simple observation: “I’m back, you …” well, the adjective she uses is not one that I’m allowed to repeat on Public Radio (or even on the website of a family newspaper). You get the idea.

Seems Tilly has returned to clear up something. Some years before, she had been accused of murder – even though she was only 10 years old at the time. But Tilly can’t remember the specifics, so she has come home both to find out the truth and to care for her mother (played by the irrepressible Davis), who has – and this is an understatement – chosen to let herself go.

The town isn’t too keen on any of this, secrets and lies – not to mention resentment and prejudice – being what binds most of its residents into a tight klatch. Yet Tilly intrigues them, especially when she hauls out her sewing machine and demonstrates a talent both for creating fashion and converting the town’s ugly ducklings into something akin to Outback swans.

So far, so good. Yet Moorhouse’s film, her first since 1997’s “A Thousand Acres,” doesn’t go necessarily where expected. Based on a novel by Rosalie Ham, “The Dressmaker” proceeds down a number of subsequent plot paths – some of which are farcically comical, one of which involves a shocking death – rejecting each before transforming into a woman’s version of the Eastwood revenge film “High Plains Drifter.” This blend of storylines, much less emotional turbulence, doesn’t always work.

Yet the film has much to recommend it. The opening is brilliant, the cinematography is pristine, the acting – especially by Davis and Winslet – is good across the board, even if the great Weaving seems mostly to be reviving the fey manner he adopted for the 1994 drag-queen film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

Maybe most important, though, “The Dressmaker” is a woman’s story. For as long as cinema has been around, we’ve been inundated with tales of men – such as Eastwood – exacting revenge. It’s high time for movies to feature women taking names and kicking some, well …

Again, you get the point.

‘Birth of a Nation’ raises old argument

Pretty much anywhere you look you can find stories about the controversy surrounding Nate Parker, the writer-director of the soon-to-be-released film "The Birth of a Nation." And as with all art, critics are finding it difficult to separate the strength of the art from the foibles of the artist.

Still, the movie did attract an 81 percent rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, while it was a it less favored (70 percent) on Metacritic.

Following are some of the comments:

Brian Truitt, USA Today: "Parker creates a fascinating portrait of Nat Turner as neither hero nor villain. In the end, he’s portrayed as a man faced with tough decisions."

Stephanie Zacharek, Time Magazine: " 'The Birth of a Nation' isn't a great movie — it's hardly even a good one. But it's bluntly effective, less a monumental piece of filmmaking than an open door."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "The movie, uneven as it is, has terrific momentum and passages of concentrated visual beauty. The acting is strong even when the script wanders into thickets of rhetoric and mystification."

The movie opens tomorrow in Spokane. The philosophy regarding the separation of artist and artistry is yours to contemplate.

Friday’s openings redux: The hill has ayes

So, other than the three major openings identified below, Spokane will be getting an additional movie on Friday. The amended addition is as follows:

"Apparition Hill": Seven strangers, ranging from a woman with cancer to an English atheist, travel to Bosnia-Herzegovinia to see so-called apparitions of The Virgin Mary. File this one under "documentary," not the latest episode of "South Park."

So the schedule is set. Go. See a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Trains and the plains of history

Movies mentioned on the national release schedule usually affect Spokane, but not always. It sometimes takes a week or two for our fair city to catch up. Sometimes our local theaters simply never do.

Anyway, the national releases scheduled for Friday so far are:

"The Birth of a Nation": Named after D.W. Griffith's famous 1915 celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, but actually a retelling of the story behind William Styron's controversial novel "The Confessions of Nat Turner," this look at U.S. history may raise a few eyebrows — if not a few voices. The man who directed it, Nate Parker, is already embroiled in his own controversy.

"The Girl on the Train": Based on the novel by British author Paula Hawkins, this mystery tells the story of a divorced woman (Emily Blunt) who throws herself into a missing-persons investigation that may — or may not — involve her directly. Notice I avoided writing "troubled" divorced woman, which at least is the trailer's implication.

"Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life": A sixth-grade boy worries about heading into the next school year. Based on the novel by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, which is another sign that James Patterson is the co-author of virtually everything.

Note: As for the Magic Lantern, recent stories in The Spokesman-Review and The Inlander have run down the situation. Now that the lease with Joe Davis has run out, the owner of the Saranac Building will decide what to do with the space. Whatever the future holds, it's clear that, for the moment, the theater will not be running a regular program of movies. Thank you Joe and especially you, manager Jonathan Abramson, for your years of service.

Fuqua’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ is less than

It's not often anymore that we get to see Westerns on the big screen, whether they're classics or new releases. So it's understandable that some Western fans would get excited about Antoine Fuqua's "The Magnificent Seven." Following is my review of that film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio: 

Last August, the British publication The Telegraph published a story under the headline “25 films set for reboot or remake.” Among the films listed were “An American Werewolf in London,” “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”

The article mentioned nothing about Antoine Fuqua’s remake of the 1960 film “The Magnificent Seven.” It may have been because Fuqua’s film, by then, was already in the can. Or it may have been because the 1960 film – directed by American filmmaker John Sturges – was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film “Seven Samurai.”

Whatever the reason, the fact that Fuqua is not the only one working from past material makes it clear that Hollywood is less interested in pursuing fresh material than in retreading what has worked in the past. No wonder so many of the best filmmakers – David Fincher, for example, and Steven Zaillian – are stepping away from the big screen, if only temporarily, and working on projects for company’s such as HBO and Netflix.

Still, this review is not about the ongoing failures of Hollywood. It’s about Fuqua’s take on a classic movie story. Though, to be honest, the two may be much the same thing.

Fuqua’s film centers on a gunman, a “sworn” law officer named Chisolm (played by Denzel Washington). After hunting down a wanted man, Chisolm is asked to help free a mining town from the clutches of a despicable bad man named Barholomew Bogue (played by Peter Sarsgaard). To do so, he recruits a ragged band of six men, ranging from a quip-savvy cynic (Chris Pratt) and a one-time dead shot (Ethan Hawke) to a couple of guys whose native language isn’t even English (Mexico’s Manual Garcia-Rulfo and South Korea’s Byung-hun Lee).

The odds are heavily against them, of course, but the seven have justice on their side. Or, as is made all too clear, the righteousness of revenge. Either, as Chisolm says, works.

Fuqua, who is best known for his 2001 film “Training Day” – the film that won Washington his Best Actor Oscar – deserves credit for pulling together a technically proficient production. And, too, reflecting the times in which we live, Fuqua can be lauded for opting to cast his film with a sense of diversity – including a woman character no less, played by Haley Bennett – that would never have occurred either to Kurosawa or Sturges.

But … even though Fuqua clearly is making his own kind of movie, the question persists: How does it compare to the others? And the answer here is – even given its qualities – Fuqua’s movie is the lesser version.

It lacks the grandeur of Kurosawa’s three-hour plus effort. It lacks the old-school sense of honor that Sturges emphasized. Most of all, though, Fuqua’s movie lacks the character development that gives us actual reasons to care about each of the seven individual characters – and to mourn their obligatory passing.

In the end, Fuqua has made less a magnificent seven than, at best, a slightly better than average one.

VIFF 35: See movies in a scenic city

Above: Adam Driver stars in Jim Jarmusch's "Paterson," which will play at the 35th Vancouver International Film Festival.

Tomorrow begins one of the Northwest's best film festivals: the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Why is it one of the best? For starters, it's held in Vancouver, British Columbia, which just happens to be my favorite West Coast city (yes, even above San Francisco, Seattle or San Diego).

Second, it screens hundreds of feature, documentaries and shorts over 16 days (through Oct. 14).

Third, many of those films are screened in theaters set within walking distance of one another (easily accessible, at least, by those who have the ability to hoof it several blocks at a time).

You can get all of the information about the festival, lodgings, transportation and anything else you need by clicking here. And if you want some information about maybe some films to check out, click here.

Vancouver is a delight to visit in and of itself. Seeing movies at the 35th edition of VIFF only adds to the experience.

Below: Chan-wook Park's film "The Handmaiden" will also screen at VIFF 35.

Friday’s openings redux: Chess and dress

So, the final bookings for AMC River Park Square came through, which should complete next week's movie schedule. Friday's undated openings are as follows:

"Queen of Katwe": After opening nationally last week, this little biopic finally opens in Spokane. It's a based-in-fact film about a young Ugandan girl's success at the game of chess. Check and mate. 

"The Dressmaker": Kate Winslet stars as the title character, a woman of high style who returns to her Australian home to transform the way her neighbors dress — and exact revenge. And then they all put some shrimp on the barbie.

That's the lot. So go. See a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Kids, idiots and Marky Mark

Kids and crises, with a few laughs in between, make up the movie menu for the coming week. As of this morning, the scheduled movie openings are as follows:

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children": Based on the novel by Ransom Riggs, this movie follows the story of a young boy who encounters a strange school full of peculiarly skilled children — just like himself. No, it's not Hogwarts. 

"Deepwater Horizon": Mark Wahlberg (who else?) stars as one of the workers who endured the disaster that occurred during the BP Oil Disaster in the summer of 2010 — the effects of which are still devastating life along the Gulf Coast. No jokes, please.

"Masterminds": Ironic title for a movie about trio of idiots who try to rob an armored car. Starring Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudekis as the idiots plus one.

I'll update as needed. With better jokes, let's hope.

For binge-watchers, try HBO’s ‘The Night Of’

Most people I know, when they talk about viewing experiences, like to share what they've most recently binge-watched. You know, as in, "Hey, have you seen 'Stranger Things'? We watched the whole of season one this weekend! It's great!"

Actually, I have not watched "Stranger Things." That's because what with Hulu, and Netflix and Comcast On Demand and everything else that's available through my smart TV, I just have too many choices. "Stranger Things," though, is on the list.

My wife and I did make time recently to watch the HBO miniseries "The Night Of," and that's what I decided to review this week for Spokane Public Radio. Following is an edited transcript of that review:

One of the basic problems with cinema is its continued reliance on a limited notion of running time. Only a handful of films extend past two hours, the standard length of a mainstream feature.

Why? As video editor and producer Matthew Belinke wrote online, “Hollywood (is) … convinced that two hours is the point of diminishing returns. Longer than that, production costs go up, theaters can squeeze in fewer showings, and audiences start to shy away.”

Some moviegoers aren’t likely to complain, especially those whose aging bones begin to ache after even a 90-minute sit. Yet the result of this so often leads to screen adaptations of stories that beg to be done in a longer format. Take the many movie versions of the Charles Dickens novel “Great Expectations.” Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 version, for example, runs for 111 minutes – some nine minutes less than two hours.

Just so you know, the first edition of Dickens’ 1861 novel was 544 pages long. Even a master such as Cuarón can’t hope to capture all of Dickens’ magic in a mere two-hour time frame.

So it’s a good thing that television – especially cable television – has perfected what’s known as the limited miniseries. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences defines such a miniseries as a “category of limited series (composed of) two or more episodes with a total running time of at least 150 minutes. The program must tell a complete, non-recurring story, and not have an ongoing storyline or main characters in subsequent seasons.”

The Academy awarded its 2015-2016 Emmy to FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” an honor richly deserved. Equally deserving for the coming year, though, should be HBO’s eight-part production “The Night Of.”

Created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, directed by Zaillian (except for one episode, which was directed by James Marsh) and starring, with one notable exception, a cast of not overly familiar actors, “The Night Of” tells a compelling story of what happens when a young college student of Pakistani ethnicity (Riz Ahmed) makes a series of stupid decisions that ends up with his being accused of murder.

John Turturro, the afore-mentioned notable exception, plays the ambulance-chasing attorney who attaches himself to the case, at first seeing it as a chance for a big payday but slowly becoming the series’ closest version of an actual hero. Price and Zaillian fill out the rest of the cast with veteran actors such as Bill Camp and Jeannie Berlin, with foreign stars such as Peyman Moaadi (of the 2011 Iranian film “A Separation”), and they save a special role for the always-dependable Michael K. Williams (Omar on HBO’s acclaimed series “The Wire”).

Cast aside, though, what makes “The Night Of” so special is how Price and Zaillian weave contemporary issues – everything from racism to prosecutorial rush to judgment – into a coherent collection of eight one-hour chapters that works as a commentary on U.S. culture and yet serves as a satisfying, dramatic experience.

Watching it just might satisfy your own – wait for it – great expectations.

Friday’s openings redux: ‘Hollars’ but no ‘Queen’

OK, change to the posed movie schedule. Though "Queen of Katwe" will be opening across the country, it is NOT opening in Spokane next week. Not, at least, at AMC River Park Square — which is usually the only mainstream local theater that bothers with other than mainstream movie fare.

Instead, another film will join "The Magnificent Seven" and "Storks" for a Friday opening:

"The Hollars": John Krasniki ("The Office") both directs and stars in this film about a disaffected New York guy who, called home because of his mother's surgery, is forced to confront both his dysfunctional past and his questionable future.

Note: This is Krasniki's second stint behind the camera. He also directed the 2009 feature "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men," which was based on a story collection by the late David Foster Wallace.

So go, see a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: chess, storks, presumed magnificence

The weeks pass, the summer wanes, the nights grow colder … and yet the movies continue to flow in and out of area movie theaters. The same holds for this coming weekend. A tentative list of Friday's openings:

"The Magnificent Seven": Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "Southpaw") bypasses the 1960 John Sturges film and reimagines Akira Kurosawa's 1954 original story. No doubt Fuqua will imbue his film with today's penchant for CGI and ultra-violence. Question is, will he pursue the codes of honor that made the first two films so … well, magnificent?

"Storks": Taking up the old myth, writer-director Nicholas Stoller tells the animated story of what happens when a stork is given a rush job on a baby delivery. The good news: Stoller directed "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." The bad: He directed "Neighbors."

"Queen of Katwe": Another inspired-by-real-events drama, this one an adaptation of an ESPN story (and book) about a Ugandan girl from an impoverished background who displays a talent for playing chess. Check and mate.

That's all for now. I'll update as needed.

Finally, negotiations are still in process at the Magic Lantern. Expect to hear more in the coming weeks.

‘Sully’ adds a bit of drama to a hero’s tale

It's a truism that Hollywood prefers drama over authenticity. Which means that no matter what the historical facts are, some director is going to change something to make the movie play better. And all the best directors have done it.

I usually don't complain about the practice. What would be the point? But I always try to point out when it happens and whether it affects my moviegoing experience. And that is the basis for the criticism that I throw at Clint Eastwood's movie "Sully." Following is an edited version of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio

Clint Eastwood is a most improbable movie director. Whoever thought the guy who starred in the TV show “Rawhide,” who played the serape-wearing wanderer in Sergio Leone’s westerns or who personified the character of Dirty Harry would end up being an Oscar-winning filmmaker?

But it happened. And when he is on, as in such films as “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Eastwood proves to be as good a director as anyone working today.

And so he would seem to be the perfect choice to direct the film “Sully,” which tells the story of what came to be known as the Miracle on the Hudson – namely, that day in January 2009 when US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his Airbus A320 in New York’s Hudson River.

You know the story, right? Some 90 seconds after taking off from La Guardia airport, Sullenberger’s jet hit a flock of birds, which caused both engines to sputter and stop. Taking control, Sullenberger – a pilot with four decades of flying experience – decided that his best option was to ditch in the Hudson. Which he did. Expertly. And then he oversaw the plane’s evacuation. And all 155 on board survived.

So why is Eastwood the perfect person to helm this project? Because the character of Sullenberger, both as demonstrated in the numerous media appearances he made after the incident and as portrayed by actor Tom Hanks in Eastwood’s movie, fits one of the director’s favorite types: the man who, under pressure, coolly makes a firm, non-nonsense decision that others might not have but that ends up being the right thing to do. And who, afterward, is humble about his achievement.

When asked by Katie Couric how many other pilots could have done what he did, Sullenberger had a simple answer: “Thousands.” It was only chance, he said, that put him in the pilot’s seat.

From a technical perspective, “Sully” captures the full drama of that day. Based on a screenplay by Todd Komarnicki – a dramatized version of Sullenberger’s memoir “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters” – the film does a good job of playing with chronology, flowing from past to present and showing the actual water landing from a number of perspectives. And the computer graphics put us, the audience, right there with the water with passengers and crew.

The acting across the board is spot-on, too. Hanks gives the straight-arrow Sullenberger an added dimension, and Aaron Eckhart is stalwart as his copilot Skiles (who was at the controls when the birds hit). Only the actors playing the National Transportation Safety Board investigators seem a little too dastardly to be real.

Which leads to the thematic problem with “Sully.” Komarnicki, presumably with Eastwood’s blessing, concocts a narrative that makes Sullenberger into a potential victim. In the days following the water landing, the movie has the pilot being grilled by NTSB investigators who point to computer simulations that show the plane could have made it back to the airport.

The truth was, though, that the after-incident investigation took some 15 months, during which all the standard questions were asked.And as the investigators themselves readily – not grudgingly – admitted, the computer simulations didn’t exactly replicate the situation that Sullenberger and his copilot, Jeffrey Skiles, were facing.

Final verdict: “Sully” is an inspiring story that didn’t need any added drama. Dirty Harry in particular should have realized that.

Hey, Kubrick Fans: The ‘Dr.’ is in - again

One of the undisputed masters of 20th-century cinema was Stanley Kubrick. In such films as "Spartacus," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Shining," "A Clockwork Orange" and Full Metal Jacket," he not only refined the art of moviemaking, he helped define it.

And perhaps his wildest offering? His 1964 adaptation of the novel "Red Alert," which made what is a world-ending tragedy into the darkest of offbeat comedies, "Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

Starring Peter Sellers in three different roles — including the title character — plus supporting roles by the likes of George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn and Slim Pickens, the film tells the story of a rogue U.S. Air Force officer (Hayden) who authorizes a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. The main part of the film involves the subsequent efforts that are made to stop the attack and ward off World War III.

Rotten Tomatoes gives "Dr. Strangelove" a 99 percent rating among critics. Here are some comments:

Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune: "This landmark movie's madcap humor and terrifying suspense remain undiminished by time."

Geoff Andrew, Time Out: "Perhaps Kubrick's most perfectly realised film, simply because his cynical vision of the progress of technology and human stupidity is wedded with comedy."

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader: "Like most of his work, Stanley Kubrick's deadly black satirical comedy-thriller on cold war madness and its possible effects has aged well."

If you have a yen to see the film again, and on the big screen, your chance is coming. Fathom Events is screening the film four times, Sunday and Wednesday at 2 and 7 p.m., at both Regal's Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium Cinemas.

And remember, if you're looking for a perfect example of irony, just remember the words of President Mervin Muffley (Sellers), who exclaims, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room."

One Heart Festival will feature Sherman Alexie

In January of 1998, I attended my first Sundance Film Festival. I ended up seeing a number of good movies, mingling with the Park City crowds and seeing the occasional star, but my best experience was the very reason I was there in the first place: to see "Smoke Signals."

You know the movie, right? Directed by Chris Eyre, it was written by Sherman Alexie, who adapted the screenplay from a story in his collection "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."

Certainly, you know Alexie. The Seatle-based poet/novelist/ranconteur was born and raised in Wellpinit, attended and graduated from Reardan High School, attended both Gonzaga and Washington State Universities, earned early fame as a poet, then as a stage presence (his readings were always entertaining and surprising), then as a novelist and, in 2007, winner of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

If you don't know of "Smoke Signals" or of Alexie, you'll have a chance to get acquainted with both on Sept. 30 when the film will screen at The Bing Crosby Theater as part of the One Heart Native Arts and Film Festival.

Sponsored by a consortium of groups, from the Kalispell Tribe of Indians and Northern Quest Casino to the Spokane International Film Festival, the two-day One Heart Festival aims "to share and showcase innovative, compelling, and empowering stories from Native perspectives through film, art, and music, celebrating the diversity and vitality of contemporary Native culture in our community today."

And along with the two days of film, which will be held Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, the event will feature a 7:30 p.m. screening of "Smoke Signals" and a panel discussion with some of the cast and crew, including Alexie himself. For ticket information, click here.

If you go, remember: Thomas Builds-the-Fire says hello.

Friday’s openings: A little something for everyone

A full slate of movies opens on Friday, more movies than have opened at once all summer long. Chances are, at least some of them are worth viewing because the themes — from Christian bands to trains filled with zombies — are all over the place.

The week's movie openings are as follows:

"Blair Witch": A guy and his friends go into the woods to see if he can find out what happened to his sister. To their horror, they discover the answer. (To be specific, a sequel to 1999's "The Blair Witch Project.")

"Bridget Jones's Baby": Renee Zellweger returns yet again as the character who, this time, dallies with a billionaire (Patrick Dempsey) and one of her former flames (Colin Firth) and ends up … well, you read the title, right?

"Hillsong: Let Hope Rise": Let IMDB describe it: "A documentary on the Australia-based band Hillsong and their rise to prominence as an international church." Hallelujah, mate.

"Mr. Church": Eddie Murphy stars as a cook who develops a long-term relationship with a little girl whose mother is dying. Sounds like "Driving Miss Daisy" in the kitchen.

"Saturday's Warrior": Based on a 1973 college project, later released on video, this Mormon-themed musical tells the story of a group of kids who experience the whole realm of LDS life. Except for the seagulls.

"Snowden": Call him a traitor or hero, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) surely makes the perfect protagonist for an Olive Stone movie.

"Train to Busan": Korean filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho places his characters on a zombie-filled train and lets them fight for survival. Call it "The Riding Dead."