7 Blog

Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Jackie’ reminds us of a lost ‘Camelot’

I meant to post this on Friday morning. But the best laid plans … and all that. Anyway, following is the review of the film "Jackie" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

On Valentine’s Day, 1962, some 80 million television viewers were taken on a personal tour of the White House by then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

The event was a public relations triumph, both for the three major networks that partnered to sponsor and broadcast the tour and for the Kennedys, especially the First Lady. Popularly known as Jackie, the woman who just 21 months later would become one of the world’s most famous icons of widowed grief had just overseen a $2 million renovation of the White House.

This, then, was her opportunity both to justify that expense – which was funded largely through volunteer labor and donations – and to give the first televised look inside one of the nation’s most historic buildings. It also gave the world an up-close-and-personal look at Kennedy herself.

It is the life that Kennedy experienced behind that public façade, though, that director Pablo Larraín (pronounced La-Rah-Een) explores in his film “Jackie.” Working from a screenplay by television executive Noah Oppenheim, Larraín focuses on the period on and around Nov. 22, 1963 – the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

What we see is an assembage of scenes, set up in a distinctly non-chronological sequence, that captures the events of that tragic day and what occurred in the immediate aftermath. Central to everything is Jackie Kennedy herself – portrayed by Natalie Portman.

We see Kennedy, largely in snippets, caught in the horrific moments before and after her husband’s shooting. We see her attempting to handle her grief – no small miracle under the circumstances – while the ensuing national crisis swirls around her. As political power is fought over by the new president, Lyndon Johnson, and the still-reigning attorney general, Robert Kennedy – the dead president’s brother – Jackie must attend to more personal affairs. Such as breaking the news to their young children, arranging for the presidential funeral – battling the incoming administration over the details – all while attempting to both build and enhance the Kennedy legacy.

Larraín and Oppenheim show all this through a mostly invented interview with a writer identified only as “The journalist” – based on the actual journalist Theodore H. White – who writes the magazine piece that, with Jackie’s help, ended up creating the Kennedy “Camelot” image – an image that Larraín perpetuates by using Richard Burton’s performance of that song as the film’s overarching musical score.

Larraín is an artist, and his skills show throughout, both in his ability to meld so many different sequences into a narrative whole and in how effectively he uses Portman to portray one of the world’s most memorable figures. While at first it is jarring to see the diminutive Portman dressed in the same kind of pink suit the real Jackie wore in Dallas, and to hear her talk in the trademark tones that seem strange coming from a grown woman’s mouth, by film’s end Portman has gradually transformed into the film’s title character.

Meanwhile, the film itself has given us new insight into the fortitude that character displayed in the face of more pain than anyone should ever have the misfortune to bear.

Best of 2016: Better late than never

We're already 11 days into the new years and yet critics have been releasing their Best of 2016 lists for more than a month. I am doing so only today.

Not living in a metropolis, I don't usually get to see many of the films that make, say, the list of The New Yorker critic Richard Brody. Then again, many of the films that show up on Brody's list never get seen by 99 percent of the population anyway. So …

I do have a few films on my list that have yet to screen in Spokane. But one ("Jackie") will open Friday. And another ("Paterson") is bound to play here soon. So, without wasting any more time, following is my list of the films that I liked the best in 2016. Also, I add a few incidental comments at the bottom.

Best films 2016

1. "Moonlight": Barry Jenkins' little movie about coming of age and struggling with love in Miami is powerful, passionate and moving, and the way Jenkins tells his story — which comes in three chapters — is the essence of art.

2. "Manchester By the Sea": This tale of life after tragedy is a life study by Kenneth Longergan that is buoyed by periodic moments of humor and some examples of great acting.

3. "La La Land": A perfect blend of past and present, this Damien Chazelle musical is a bit of performance magic.

4. "Arrival": Rejecting the aliens-are-among-us cliche, director Denis Villeneuve chooses to craft a thoughtful film about the difficulty of communication and the mystery of temporal relativity. Amy Adams has never been better.

5. "Jackie": Keying on the first few days following President John Kennedy's assassination, director Pablo Larrain explores the struggle faced by his widow Jacqueline and her attempts to protect her late husband's legacy.

6. "Loving": Simply told, while avoiding any overwrought action sequences, Jeff Nichols relates the based-on-real-events story of two people attempting to exert their basic right to love and marry.

7. "Fences": Adapting the August Wilson play, director-star Denzel Washington portrays a tough man who gets caught up in his own myth-making. Viola Davis won a Golden Globe for playing his long-suffering wife.

8. "Paterson": So slight it barely makes a wave, this Jim Jarmusch film is a study of a bus driver who, instead of living the expected life of quiet desperation, sees beauty in all around him — and expresses it in poetry.

9. "Love & Friendship": Returning to the screen, Whit Stillman gives us a Jane Austen rendition of a most unforgettable figure, the supremely narcissistic figure of Lady Susan Vernon (superbly played by Kate Beckinsale).

10. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Despite his technical missteps, Ang Lee immerses his film in the story of veterans who are cast as heroes during a professional football halftime show, if only to make everyone else feel better for the sacrifices they don't have to make themselves.

Second 12 (no particular order)

"O.J.: Made in America" (ESPN produced documentary)

"The Night Of" (HBO)


"Green Room"


"Hell or High Water"

"The Handmaiden"


"Hunt for the Wilderpeople"

"The Edge of Seventeen"

"Eye in the Sky"


Most mind-bending films

"The Neon Demon"

"Swiss Army Man"

"The Lobster"

Friday’s openings redux: Oscar contenders

It's going to be a banner week for movie fans. On Friday, the movies I've already announced will open along with a couple that are making best-of lists around the country. The additions to Friday's openings are as follows:

"Elle": French actress Isabelle Huppert is receiving raves for her performance as a woman who tries to track down the man who raped her. In French with English subtitles.

"Jackie": Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) tries to cope both with the death of her husband but also with the struggle to protect her late husband's legacy.

"Patriots Day": An action-packed look at what occurred during the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. Starring the new everyman, Mark Wahlberg.

Two notes:

1, The Magic Lantern had hoped to open "Jackie" also, but instead will pick up a second-run screening of "Lion";

2, "Manchester By the Sea," which just garnered a Golden Globe for best actor in a drama for Casey Affleck, is being dropped by AMC, so today, Wednesday and Thursday may be your last three chances to see Kenneth Lonergan's film on the big screen — at least for a while. I'd suggest taking advantage of the opportunity.

Friday’s openings: Cops, robbers and monsters

If this recent snowfall holds, many of us are going to be too busy shoveling free our driveways to spend much time in movie theaters. Which would be too bad, because so many of the holiday offerings are still playing locally. In addition, you can expect a few new films to open — some of which are among 2016's most critically acclaimed releases.

Anyway, here's an initial look at what Friday's openings could be (based on the national release schedule):

"Live By Night": Ben Affleck adapts (plus directs and stars in) Dennis Lehane's novel about a Boston mobster who, in the 1920s, tries to take over the rum-running business in Tampa, Florida. No Walt Disney, this guy.

"Monster Trucks": When a local kid builds his own monster truck, a strange presence imbues it with more power than he knows how to handle. Think "Transformers" meets "The Love Bug."

"The Bye Bye Man": College students movie into an old house, unleash an unholy presence and then struggle to survive. Never seen that storyline before, am I right?

"Sleepless": Jamie Foxx stars as a Las Vegas undercover cop who, caught up in a web of corruption, searches desperately for his kidnapped son. What happens in Vegas …

I'll update just as soon as the local theaters finalize their lineups.

‘Fences’ keeps the power on the big screen

One movie making some critics' Best of 2016 lists is "Fences," Denzel Washington's adaptation of the late August Wilson's play. Here is the review of the movie that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The power implicit in live theater is obvious. But that power is never more present than when it involves exploring the lives of troubled characters who stalk the stage, often doing as much harm as good. Think of Oedipus. Think of Hedda Gabler. Think of Willy Loman.

Now think of Troy Maxson, the protagonist of the late August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-, and Tony Award-winning stage play “Fences.” Originated on Broadway by the great James Earl Jones, Troy is now the focus of a film directed, and acted in, by two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington.

Washington’s Troy is a powerful man – relatively speaking. Troy is a black man living in Pittsburgh in the late 1950s, and he collects garbage for a living. So he isn’t exactly Gordon Gekko. In his own house, though, he is the undeniable master.

He’s personable enough, especially to his longtime friend, Bono (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson) and to his wife, Rose (played by Viola Davis). And he does love to bandy words – peppering the air with phrases that express a seemingly good-natured provocation, many of those phrases woven into a kind of self-protective fantasy, as if they alone could hold off anything that might threaten him.

Underneath all his talk, though, is a river of rage – much of it well earned, issued from a fear-filled past that includes abuse from his own father, criminal activity that earned him a 15-year prison term, dashed dreams of a baseball career and the kind of on-the-job racism that he fights despite the potential risk it poses to his continued employment.

It is when he deals with his two sons, though, that Troy’s rage overflows: Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is his musician son from a previous relationship, while Cory (Jovan Adepo) is his athletically talented son with Rose.

Troy castigates Lyons for wanting to borrow money to play music instead of working for it on his own, a sentiment that anyone can understand. His scorn for Cory, though, involves the boy’s talent for football, which threatens to exceed his own for baseball – and therefore could quash one of the fantasies that ultimately holds Troy together.

Not to worry, though. Troy has enough self-destructive tendencies that will allow him to wreck his happy life all by himself – hurting everyone around him in the process, especially Rose.

Washington and most of his movie’s cast appeared in a 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences,” and they reprise their roles here. Only Adepo as Cory is new. The script they work from was Wilson’s own adaptation, and the movie’s many long speeches betray the movie’s stage-play source.

But Washington knew was he was doing by hiring actors who had starred with him on Broadway. As with many such family dramas, Davis’ Rose is the foundation – and the scene in which she expresses betrayal may well be the movie’s best. The rest of the cast, including Washington himself, is very nearly her equal.

Together, they make Troy’s tale one of the true sad stories of theater. And now film.

SpIFF 2017 and more are coming up

Movie fans get ready: Two of Spokane's annual film events are nearly upon us.

The Spokane International Film Festival will run from Jan. 27 to Feb. 5. Following one of the festival's founding principles of supporting local film and filmmakers, SpIFF 2017 will open with a showing at the Bing Crosby Theater of the regionally produced 1999 production "The Basket." You can access the full festival lineup here.

Before that, the Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival will run Jan. 19, 21-22 at Gonzaga University's Hemmingson Center. The opening movie will be the French-language production "Once in a Lifetime."

It hardly needs to be said — but I'll go ahead and say it anyway — Spokane is fortunate to have two such quality annual movie events.

Finally, a chance to unveil ‘Hidden Figures’

One addition to the list of movies opening on Friday: "Hidden Figures."

Here are some advance critical comments on the film:

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "This untold story of African-American females who helped NASA conquer the cosmos features three incredible performances. Corny at times, sure, but you'll still want to stand up and cheer."

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "This movie adroitly portrays the sheer waste and inefficiency of racism and misogyny. Just think how much has been lost, the movie suggests, over centuries of depriving ourselves of the brains, talents and leadership of more than half our population?"

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "There is something to be said for a well-told tale with a clear moral and a satisfying emotional payoff."

And here is a look at the historical context of the film: "The True Story of 'Hidden Figures.' "

Friday’s openings: Monsters galore … maybe

Unless some last-minute changes are thrown at us — something that seems to happen with surprising regularity — the movie offerings on Friday will be sparse. The national schedule looks like this:

"A Monster Calls": Dealing with the death of his mother, an adolescent boy calls on an imaginary monster to give him strength. Based on the novel by Patrick Ness. And, yes, that's Liam Neeson doing the voiceover.

"Underworld: Blood Wars": Kate Beckinsale stars in what's being called the last in the "Underworld" series, with her character Selene working hard to end the war between Lycans and Vampires. A little chomp will do ya.

I'll update as the schedule is confirmed. So many good 2016 films yet to see.

Time to take a look back at 2016 in movies

This is the time of year that everybody reflects on the past 365 days, for good and bad. And in terms of movies, it's always interesting to see what shows up on the various best-films-of-the-year lists.

I've been concocting such a list since, well, I was old enough to contemplate such a thing. But I've been doing it professionally in Spokane since 1984, the year I began reviewing films for The Spokesman-Review. That job now falls to Nathan Weinbender, since I left the print edition of the newspaper in 2009 (on, fittingly, April Fools Day).

But I partner with Nathan, and Mary Pat Treuthart, to produce a weekly movie-review show on Spokane Public Radio. And one of our annual features is to come up with our individual best-of lists. Nathan publishes his in the print edition, but Mary Pat and I wait until our show airs to make public our own choices.

And that show will air on Friday, Jan. 13 (6:30 p.m. on KPBX FM 91.1; 1 p.m. on KSFC 91.9 on Saturday, Jan. 14).

The reason we hold off until nearly two full weeks into the new year is because so many of the year's best, or at least those that boast Oscar hopes, don't open wide here. Example: We just managed to see "Fences," Denzel Washington's adaptation of the August Wilson play, on Sunday. And we managed to see "American Honey" at home, courtesy of Amazon Prime.

As I've noted below, so many other top-rated movies haven't yet played here, which means our own lists of personal bests will hardly be complete. So, I've included links to some of the other lists that are already out there — some of which offer up some intriguing opinions.

The A.V. Club.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker.

Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter.

Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott, Stephen Holden, The New York Times.

Film Comment.

Click on them. And let the arguments begin. We'll have our say on Jan. 13.

‘La La Land’ is, simply stated, pure magic

Even if you aren't a fan of movie musicals, you might find yourself charmed by "La La Land," Damien Chazelle's tribute to classic Hollywood. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The movie “La La Land” opens with a scene familiar to anyone who has ever driven in Los Angeles: a freeway traffic jam. Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s camera swoops down, flying over, around and between the cars, giving us and up-close-and-personal look at the drivers and passengers, occupied in various ways as they deal with being in what is now a virtual parking lot.

Then the unusual happens: One of them begins singing. But not just to herself. She begins singing out loud. And soon she emerges from her car and starts dancing. Then everyone around her follows suit, turning into an impromptu flash mob that performs what evolves into an extended dance routine involving dozens of people, all captured in what looks like a single take and that is as carefully choreographed as anything Busby Berkeley ever imagined producing.

And my immediate thought was, “Oh, no! A musical? Seriously?”

Well, yes, seriously. In so many ways, “La La Land” is a throwback to all those classic musicals of the late 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, though it clearly shows the influence of such later productions as Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret.”

It tells the story of two young Angelinos, caught up in L.A.’s eternal lure: the prospect of success in the entertainment industry. Mia (Emma Stone) wants to be an actress, though the closest she has come to snaring a role is working at a coffee shop on the Universal lot while enduring the never-ending, and often demeaning, audition process.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), meanwhile, is a jazz musician who wants to open his own club, though the closest he has come is working as a piano player in a restaurant lounge where his boss requires him to play Christmas carols.

Told in seasonal chapters, beginning in winter – which explains the carols – “La La Land” is, above everything else, a romance. Mia and Sebastian encounter each other by chance, first in the opening-sequence traffic jam, then at the lounge where Sebastian is playing, then at an outdoor party where Sebastian is working with an ’80s-era cover band.

And the attraction isn’t immediate, though we know it will take. This is, after all, Gosling and Stone, two of today’s more charismatic movie stars. So even as they play coy – walking to their cars, singing and dancing to a song called “A Lovely Night,” a tune by the movie’s composer Justin Hurwitz – the ironic twist they give the song’s words are underscored by a clear attraction. Their story is just beginning.

Which the superbly talented writer-director Chazelle – who gave us last year’s intense study “Whiplash” – uses as a format to blend the traditions of the past with the sensibilities of now. In so many ways, “La La Land” is pure fantasy, not just with dancers flying through the air but with alternate realities playing out so as to give us at once a feel both for real life and a satisfying emotional catharsis.

In the end, “La La Land” is one of those rare achievements: a movie dream within a dream.

2016: a wish list of films we have yet to see

Now that it's been confirmed that the inspired-by-real-events movie "Hidden Figures" will NOT be opening tomorrow, maybe it's a good idea to come up with a wish list. In other words, a list some of the movies that are receiving critical acclaim that we hope will open soon in this part of the Inland Northwest.

Besides "Hidden Figures," which stars Taraji P. Henson, Olivia Spencer and Janelle Monae as three of the women who worked for NASA when it was first shooting American astronauts in space, the list of movies we'd like to see includes:

"Live By Night": Ben Affleck directs his own adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel about organized crime during the Prohibition era. The cinematography looks captivating.

"Elle": Isabelle Huppert stalks the masked man who raped her. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, who has been missing in recent years.

"American Honey": Shia LaBeouf and company travel the country selling magazines and partying hearty. As one critic puts it, "This might be the freshest film about young people in America since Larry Clark's 'Kids.' "

"Jackie": Natalie Portman plays the former First Lady, Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, as she deals with the assassination and its aftereffects.

"Paterson": Jim Jarmusch's look at a New Jersey bus driver (Adam Driver) who doubles as a talented poet.

"Silence": Martin Scorsese's study of Jesuit priests who endure torture when they sneak into Japan and attempt to spread belief in Catholicism.

"Things to Come": Isabelle Huppert (again) stars as a teacher dealing with mid/late-life issues.

And those are just a few. In the end, 2016 might just end up being a fine year of film — if we ever get the chance to see all of what it has to offer.

Time to protect the ‘Seed’ of life

Leave it to the Magic Lantern to finalize its schedule first. Spokane's alternative moviehouse offers up a documentary, which begins Friday:

"Seed: The Untold Story": A consortium fights to keep the ownership of seeds from corporate control. And such action is needed now more than ever.

The Lantern continues "Loving," "Moonlight," "The Eagle Huntress" and "A Man Called Ove."

Friday’s openings: Untold story of the space race

Note: "Hidden Figures" will NOT open on Friday. Looks as if we'll have to wait for the new year to see that and the other 2016 openings that are getting attention, both from critics' best-of-the-year lists and from the trailers that area theaters have been playing for the past few weeks.

What with all the craziness of pre-Christmas week, it's doubtful that everyone managed to see all the openings (being with a 5- and 8-year-old, I managed to see only "Sing" — so far). And the issue this coming week regarding openings is equally ambiguous, what with a number of critically acclaimed movies still on the potential horizon.

As of now, the only scheduled national opening is as follows:

"Hidden Figures": Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, this inspired-by-real-events story reveals that a group of black women mathematicians worked alongside the white engineers to put the first Americans in space. The things we never knew.

Other movies that we may not get until early 2017 include "Elle," "Live By Night" and "Paterson." Just have to wait and see. 

Christmas Day offers movies in our stockings

Just in case I didn't make it clear in my previous post, "La La Land" opens in Spokane on Sunday — in other words, on Christmas Day. As does Denzel Washington's adaptation of the August Wilson play "Fences."

As well as a film that I didn't mention before: "Lion." Starring Dev Patel, "Lion" tells the based-on-real-events story of a young boy lost on the streets of Calcutta who, eventually adopted by an Australian couple, as an adult returns to Indian in an attempt to find his birth family.

Of the three, "La La Land" is attracting the most critical acclaim. Here are some comments:

Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times: "That not every note or dance step is perfect isn't the point; it's that the actors find perfection - and magic - in the moment, in that flight."

Dana Stevens, Slate: "For all its borrowing and bricolage, La La Land never feels like a backward-looking or unoriginal work. Even when not every one of its risks pays off the way that first song does, this movie is bold, vital, funny, and alive."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "It doesn't so much look back longingly at past masters like Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Stanley Donen and Jacques Demy (to name a few) as tap into their mojo, insisting on their modernity and its own classicism in the same gesture."

So go. After opening presents. And enjoy.

‘Rogue One’: a story for our time

If you're one of the few who have not yet watched "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," you might be interested in the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In 1977, George Lucas released his first “Star Wars” film – the one that, in time, would rank fourth in the series and be dubbed, somewhat awkwardly, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.” As a consequence, cinema changed.

Forget the product tie-ins that made Lucas a fortune. The very movies themselves made Hollywood realize that its audience was skewing ever younger, was hungry for better-designed special effects, was more willing to see adventure-laced science-fiction and would pay to see an ongoing movie franchise – one, in this case, bearing a specific “Star Wars” brand.

One of the characteristics of that brand was the sense of safety and comfort it imparted. “Star Wars” had its villains: The knight of the Dark Force, Darth Vader, is one of cinema’s great villains. But at heart, Lucas wasn’t all that different in temperament from Walt Disney. Gone was the hard edge of the dystopian study “THX-1138.” The first three “Star Wars” releases in specific were more like “Treasure Island in Space”: the sense of fun and adventure eclipsed the films trio’s slight threat of danger.

Now, though, we live in a different era. And today’s “Star Wars” entry – namely Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” – has a different feel. Yes, the film has most of the standard conceits: the basic look of the alien worlds, the quick-cut filmmaking style, the sweeping musical score. Yet the overall look is grittier, and the special effects – demonstrating the advances that have been made over the past four decades – are nearly flawless.

The big difference, though, is in theme. And, ultimately, in tone. Boasting a familiar beginning, one that apes “A New Hope,” “Rogue One” shows us the character of Jyn Erso being painfully separated from her parents. Then a cut to 15 years later, when Jyn – now played by Felicity Jones – is recruited by the Rebel Alliance to find her father, Galen Erso, who it turns out, is the chief designer of the planet-destroying Death Star. Unbeknownst to Jyn, her erstwhile partner, Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna), has been ordered to assassinate the elder Erso.

To explain more would give too much away. It’s enough to say that “Rogue One,” for all its own collection of personal tales, is essentially a prequel to “A New Hope” – with Galen’s Death Star plans being the McGuffin.

Screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy do live up to franchise standards by adding in a bit of comedy, with the droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) delivering sarcastic asides. Also, the duo of the blind warrior monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and the mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) have their own comic moments.

But Cassian shows his dark sense of situational ethics early on, and Jyn has been twisted by her childhood betrayals. Both only gradually unite in common purpose – a purpose ultimately requiring the kind of sacrifice that definitely is not Disneyesque.

The upshot: Not all “Star Wars” fans will embrace “Rogue One.” In so many ways, though, it does fit the tenor of our time.