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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

The film fan finds a home in Rejkjavik

No matter where I go, I seem to be haunted by film. I write this in a hotel room in Reykjavik, Iceland, where I am on a week-long stay with my wife. This country, which is just slightly smaller than the state of Ohio, claims a population — about 320,000 — that is less than Spokane County. Yet it boasts a film festival that is as varied as it is impressive.

We arrived in Reykjavik at about 6 a.m. Sunday morning. And after busing from Keflavik Airport to the capital, we dropped our bags off at our hotel (the Hotel Holt), and walked around. Reykjavik is relatively small and, not unlike Spokane, has a central area that each to navigate on foot. (The above photo is my attempt to show just how different the Icelandic language is to English.)

In the late afternoon, we headed to the Bio Paradis theater where, with no problem at all, we were able to see three documentary features on the final day of the Reykjavik International Film Festival. “Evaporating Borders,” which explores the immigration problem facing Cyprus (but that has implications for the entire world). “Ballet Boys,” which explores the world of youth ballet in Oslo, Norway. And “Waiting for August,” a study of family life in contemporary Romania.

And that's how we spent our first day in Reykjavik. No film festival today. Guess we'll have to hit a few museums.

Wonder if we can find one devoted to movies?

‘The Equalizer’ is a tad bit … too, too much

I like to say that I sit through movies so that others don't have to. And I've been doing it professionally since 1984. Last week I sat through “The Equalizer,” which I … well, let me explain in the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In 1970, the average price of a U.S. movie ticket was $1.55. Today, that price is closer to $8.15, some five times more expensive.

Of course, ticket prices aren’t the only thing about movies that have grown. Budgets have, also. And while the size of theaters has decreased, and then increased, depending on industry trends, the use of special effects has grown perhaps most of all. Furthermore, the tendency for CGI clutter mirrors the very way movies unfold their plots.

Take “The Equalizer,” Antoine Fuqua’s latest big-screen teaming with two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington. It has its roots in a series that hit American television nearly 30 years ago. Starring Edward Woodward, an actor as British as Earl Grey tea, TV’s “The Equalizer” focused on Robert McCall, a former intelligence – likely CIA – agent. Similar to many retirees, Woodward’s McCall took the odd job here and there, though with a difference: He used his special skills, and a variety of weapons when needed, to “help” out often powerless individuals – abused wives, for example. And he had a quiet kind of force that made bad guys listen.

Boasting Washington in the lead, Fuqua’s version of “The Equalizer” plays like a pilot for a potential series reboot. This new McCall works days at a Home Depot-type business, joking with customers, mentoring a young coworker, and skillfully dodging queries about his past. We see that his sparely furnished apartment is filled with books belonging to the Modern Library and that, often unable to sleep, he spends nights at a diner straight out of a Production Design 101 class, drinking tea and reading, among other novels, Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

It is here, in this diner that resembles an Edward Hopper painting, that McCall meets Teri (real name Alina), a teenage streetwalker played by Chloe Grace Moretz. It is through Teri that McCall gets his first glimpse of the Russian-speaking mobsters who control her. And it is about this time that McCall begins feeling an old pull, one that he apparently had promised his recently deceased wife he would fight. That pull concerns his tendency to draw upon his agency experience to set the world right. Problem is, that pull inevitably results in violence.

For the first half hour of “The Equalizer,” Fuqua – whose 2001 film “Training Day” won Washington his second Oscar – gives us a film that works as a slow, stylistic reveal. Even when that reveal comes, the style continues – slo-mo shots mingled with close-ups, effective use of shadows, dark colors and gimmickry involving McCall’s stopwatch.

But then, unaccountably, McCall transforms into a combination Jason Bourne and Frank Castle – aka “The Punisher” – whose expertise transforms his warehouse workplace into a tool-laden killing field. And unlike Woodward’s McCall, who might have used a corkscrew to open a good claret, Washington’s character wields the implement in ways that would make even Charles Manson blush.

All things considered, Fuqua’s “Equalizer” might not be bigger. But more brutal, more bloody? Mmmmm, about five times as much.

From myth to truth: Native American Film Festival

From almost the beginning of the U.S. film industry, mainstream America has been portraying — in most cases inventing portrayals — of its indigenous population. In recent years, though, artists representing that population — painters, photographers, poets, novelists and filmmakers — have been reworking their images. And, in the process, searching for something much closer to a truth.

That's likely what you can expect to find Oct. 11 at Sandpoint's Panida Theater when the Idaho Mythweaver will present its American Indian Film Festival. The event, which begins at 6 p.m., will include four films written and directed by native filmmakers: ”Injunuity,” “Indian Relay,” “Grab” and the documentary feature “This May Be the Last Time.”

In his review for Variety, film critic Guy Lodge wrote this about “This May Be the Last Time”: “An Oklahoma-based son of the Seminole tribe himself, (filmmaker Sterlin) Harjo begins by matter-of-factly relating the story of his grandfather’s mysterious death in 1962 — a sincere pretext for a probing examination of the singular-sounding spiritual music that nursed his family through their grief.” 

Tickets to the four-film program run $12 and are available in advance online, at various locations around Sandpoint and at the door. 

Friday’s openings: Get Gone (Girl) or be Left Behind

From the religious to the satanic, comic to mysterious, the week's movies offer a range of experiences. Some might even be worth seeing. The week's openings are as follows:

“Left Behind”: Nicolas Cage plays a man who, when his wife and child mysteriously disappear, tries to discover what happened — and why. Based on the religious novels. Warning: Don't text while driving. 

“Annabelle”: A family gets haunted by a vintage doll possessed by … satan? Or is it … Chucky?

“Hector and the Search for Happiness”: Simon Pegg plays a psychiatrist who embarks on a round-the-world trip to see what makes people happy. Hint: It's not a PS4.

“Gone Girl”: David Fincher directed this adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel, which tells the story of a man (Ben Affleck) who is accused of murdering his wife (Rosamund Pike). And, no, he does not play in the NFL.

“Love Is Strange”: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play an aging couple who, when one loses his teaching job, are forced to live with family members until their finances get settled. Remember what they say about friends, family and visits that last longer than three days.

The Magic Lantern is opening nothing new, but “The Trip to Italy,” “Alive Inside,” “A Most Wanted Man” and “Magic in the Moonlight” continue.

‘This Is Where I Leave You’ … meh

Some of the best shows on television revolve around family life. “Modern Family,” for example. And movies have tackled the same topic with originality and skill. “Ordinary People,” for example. Or my wife's favorite, “Home for the Holidays.”

Unfortunately, “This Is Where I Leave You,” which is in theaters now, doesn't quite live up to those standards, despite having a first-rate cast. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

If you were to look the term “family dysfunction” up in a dictionary, you might see a picture of the central characters from “This Is Where I Leave You.” In adapting his own novel, screenwriter Jonathan Tropper places great emphasis on the notion that this is one screwed-up family.

Being screwed-up, of course, is a relative condition. All these characters are troubled. Depressed even. Unable, or unwilling to relate as a family might.  All, then, are definitely unhappy. But only in what we call a first-world fashion.

Yes, middle son Judd (played by Jason Bateman), is having a particularly hard time. We’ve barely opened our Milk Duds before Judd discovers, one, that his wife is having an affair with his boss and, two, that his father has died. But guess what? His siblings are all facing some sort of crisis, too. Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is married to a jerk and still pines for her former lover. Brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is desperately – even grimly, but vainly – trying to impregnate his wife. Baby brother Philip (Adam Driver) may be the happiest of the bunch: manifesting his Peter Pan syndrome by carrying on an affair with a woman a good 15 years his elder.

One thing is clear: Each sibling feels no need to connect with any other family member. Which is why, following dad’s death, Mom Altman (Jane Fonda) calls them all home and expects them to sit Shiva – the traditional Jewish manner of grieving – for seven long days. Her intent is clear: Forced intimacy.

Of course, as Tropper’s screenplay makes clear – as clear as director Shawn Levy can make it make anything – Mom idea of intimacy is part of the problem. She wrote a best-selling book on child-rearing, a tell-all tome centered on her own family, that made her kids – to their ever-lasting shame – mini-celebrities. Not only does she seem to not realize the effect this has had on her family, Mom gushes to anyone willing to listen the juicy details of the great sex she had with her dead hubby – all while displaying the ample charms of her augmented breasts. Fonda, a two-time Oscar winner, eats her dialogue as if they were bites of kugel.

And Fonda is hardly the movie’s only skilled actor. Bateman has become one of the most reliable straight men in TV or movies. Fey’s “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” credentials make clear her comic appeal. And so with the others: Stoll (who played Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”), Driver (best known for the HBO show “Girls”) and various others, from Kathryn Hahn to Rose Byrne, Dax Shepard to Timothy Olyphant.

No, the problem with “This Is Where I Leave You” isn’t due to the cast. Nor does director Levy do much that is noticeably wrong. The movie just plays off-key from the start, with sitcom situations subbing for real emotional entanglements and subsequent resolutions feeling about as deep as – speaking of the First World – a 20-second ad for Geico car insurance.

Friday’s openings: Trolls, comedy and bad Denzel

Another coming Friday and another lineup of movie offerings. And imagine that, we actually have a few choices to work with. The week's openings are as follows:

“The Equalizer” (also IMAX): Denzel Washington stars in Antoine Fuqua's update of the 1980s-era television show about a vigilante loner who seeks justice for the powerless. Question: When did Denzel Washington transform into Wesley Snipes?

“The Skeleton Twins”: Former “Saturday Night Live” cast members Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as estranged twins who try to mend their relationship. Is it just me, or has Wiig been making some fairly great career choices?

“My Old Lady”: An American (Kevin Kline) takes possession of a Parisian apartment — and its unexpected inhabitant (Maggie Smith), who foils his plan of making a quick score.

“The Song”: An aspiring singer-songwriter finds success ain't what he thought it was. Here's a line from one critic's review: “There are many hurdles to overcome here, including headlines, gossip and someone who has lost his way and must find it with religion.”

“The Boxtrolls” (3D/2D): Based on the children's novel “Here Be Monsters,” this animated feature explores the underground world of creatures who come out at night. Between the creatures and their human foes, two guesses as to who the real monsters are.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Tale Me to the River”: When a few recording stars from Memphis team up to record a new album, the whole of American music is examined. Terence Howard narrates the documentary,

“A Most Wanted Man”: Don't miss the second-run showing of this adaptation of John Le Carre's novel, featuring the last great performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And don't forget to enjoy.

Take ‘The Trip to Italy’ this weekend

I've spent a bit of time in Italy. From Trentino-Alto Adige in the north to Sicily in the south, from Sardegna to the west to Le Marche to the east, I've driven the main autostradas and back roads to big cities and mountain villages alike. So two of the last several movies I have seen struck me as something special. The first was “Five Star Life,” which I reviewed last week.”

This week the movie is “The Trip to Italy,” Michael Winterbottom's sequel to his 2010 movie “The Trip,” which stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon engaged in a kind of comic competition as they drive through Italy. The film opens today at the Magic Lantern, and following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Travel documentaries can be deadly dull. My version of hell would be any hour spent listening to some talking head warble on about the joys of visiting Oslo, Norway, lutefisk eateries. Give me Anthony Bourdain, and his knowledge of good food and drink accompanied by those trademark cynical asides.

This shows you why I am such a fan of Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Winterbottom, if you don’t know, is an English director of such films as “24 Hour Party People” and “The Killer Inside Me.” Coogan is an English movie and television performer, known for his “Alan Partridge” character and films such as “Night at the Museum” and “Philomena.” The Welsh-born writer and actor Brydon is less familiar this side of the Atlantic, though he did appear in Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.”

What’s important is that in 2010, the trio – with Winterbottom directing, Coogan and Brydon mostly improvising – released a mockumentary titled “The Trip” (which evolved from a BBC series). The film boasts a simple set-up: Coogan and Brydon play fictional versions of themselves, touring England’s finest dining establishments so that Coogan can write a story for the newspaper The Observer.

At the last moment, Coogan’s girlfriend had backed out, leading him to invite Brydon – with whom he shares a nettlesome friendship based, largely it seems, on their continuing comedy one-up-manship (revolving around, among other things,  their respective abilities to impersonate Michael Caine). What the film becomes, then, is a study of the two characters, engaged in an mostly friendly road-trip competition, with fictional – we assume – details slowly being revealed as the English countryside whizzes by and, gradually, a series of gourmet meals are shown prepared and devoured.

Sounds boring, right? Far from it. Coogan and Brydon are brilliant performers. And Winterbottom is so skilled at keeping their talents at the center of his film, all while surrounding them with natural and gastronomic beauty, that it’s hard to appreciate that beauty when the movie offers up so many ongoing invitations to laugh.

“The Trip to Italy,” which opens this week at the Magic Lantern, is a perfect sequel. This time it is Brydon who has been approached by The Observer, and he calls Coogan – living in Los Angeles and on hiatus from his U.S. television series – and invites him to come along. In the first film, an arrogant, restless Coogan was the more dominant of the two. Here, though, their roles slowly reverse. It becomes clear that Brydon, and not Coogan, had ended up writing the Observer stories. And it is the very-married Brydon who finds himself tempted into bad behavior. A subdued Coogan, meanwhile, attempts to bond with his estranged teenage son while fighting with Brydon over his musical tastes: Alanis Morrisette, anyone? And the impersonation competition now involves Al Pacino.

The result is a deeper, richer comedy, still filled with laughs but underscored by a sense of real life. And this time the background is la bella Italia. Really, now. What’s not to like?

In the world of ‘Frank,’ quirky is as quirky does

When I read album reviews on sites like Pitchfork or NME, I often find myself getting frustrated (and I meant often) when the critic reviews an artist’s persona instead of the talent exhibited on his or her recorded output. (An example I just made up: “This music is unlistenable and pretentious, but they recorded the album in a little girl’s treehouse, and that’s pretty cool. BEST NEW MUSIC.”) Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed the new dark comedy “Frank,” which concerns a (somewhat terrible) band with an off-putting name (don’t even bother pronouncing the Soronprfbs) that becomes a viral hit due to the eccentricities of its frontman. If you missed the film while it was playing at the Magic Lantern, it’s now available on demand and as a digital rental through iTunes, and I think it’s worth a watch. A transcript of my review, which was broadcast on Spokane Public Radio last weekend, is below:

In 1983, a handsome blonde man from Alberta, Canada, walked into an L.A. recording studio looking to lay down some tracks. He simply called himself Lewis, and he came armed with a handful of aching, melancholy songs that sounded like fuzzy transmissions from another planet. His recordings were compiled on an album titled “L’Amour,” and as soon as it was released, Lewis seemingly vanished. After the album was discovered at a Canadian flea market in 2008, it became a minor internet sensation, and an exhaustive search for this strange crooner, whose lilting vocals are faraway and often mumbled, arrived at one dead end after another.

It was a terrific story, one that music journalists rightly salivated over. Who was this man, where did he cultivate his unusual style and, assuming he was still alive, did he know people were looking for him? A second Lewis album was uncovered shortly after “L’Amour” was reissued on CD, and the man himself was tracked down just last month – his real name is Randall Wulff, and he’s living quietly in Canada with no interest in the royalties his music has accrued. It ended up being an anticlimactic finish to a tantalizing mystery, and yet it still lends Lewis’ songs an eerie, unshakable aura.

I bring this up because I thought about Lewis all the way through the new Irish comedy “Frank,” which gets its name from a mysterious musician who always wears a bulbous papier-mâché head with a painted-on expression that could be perceived (depending on how you look at it) as welcoming, inquisitive or perpetually surprised. Frank is the eccentric frontman of an unknown experimental rock band with a deliberately unpronounceable name, and his style exists somewhere between Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. None of his bandmates have seen the face beneath the mask. They know nothing of his background. His fake head has become an appendage they regard as fact rather than affectation.

The very notion of a guy living inside a papier-mâché cocoon seems dubious, but Frank turns out to be inspired by a cult musician named Frank Sidebottom, a satirical creation of the late British comedian Chris Sievey. Michael Fassbender plays the film’s version of Frank – or at least we assume it’s Michael Fassbender under that head – and he’s magnetic, unsettling and yet strangely soothing, and we eventually come to accept the sight of his goofy, googly-eyed façade. Perhaps we succumb to the same form of Stockholm syndrome as his band. Fassbender is one of our best actors, and he brings a serious intensity to a role that could have easily devolved into a cheap gimmick.

Our entry point into the strange world of Frank and his band is an unremarkable corporate drone named Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), who is constantly writing pop hooks in his head based on the mundane things he sees while walking down the street. Jon has a chance encounter with Frank’s band after their keyboard player hurls himself into the ocean, and he offers to step up and perform at their gig that night. Before he knows it, he’s the newest member of the band – which also features erratic manager and songwriter Scoot McNairy and glowering Theremin player Maggie Gyllenhaal – and follows them to a secluded country cabin where they plan to record their first album.

For most of its running time, “Frank” is a rigorously conventional comedy about a deeply unconventional group of people, and sometimes it’s aggressive in its attempts to make us laugh at how weird these wannabe outsider artists are. But the film’s third act transforms into a sly, stinging commentary about the indie music scene, as Frank and company make their way to the South by Southwest music festival and discover a shortsighted culture in which context is valued over content. Frank, like the enigmatic Lewis before him, becomes famous not because of his craft but because of his anonymity, and there’s something quietly tragic about a guy being marginalized as a novelty when he’s trying to be taken seriously.

This is not a great movie, and there are some stretches that are almost violently quirky – it doesn’t help, either, that the score often relies on sitcommy musical cues. But its heart is in the right place – we really come to care about this initially repellent band of misfits – and its very last scene, in which a song we’ve heard several times takes on a new and heartbreaking context, is surprisingly effective. Like its namesake, “Frank” is weirdly charming, occasionally off-putting and probably best when taken in small doses.

Friday’s openings: Some quality in this ‘Maze’ of movies

What's Friday at the movies have to offer us? A bit of sci-fi, some comic domestic disturbance, a tad of neo-noir, two dueling UK comics and Terry Gilliam. There may be even more.

For the moment, though, this is likely what the Friday movie slate looks like:

“The Maze Runner”: Unable to remember how he got there, our young protagonist must vie with a group of boys to escape a dangerous, ever-changing maze. Don't they call that high school?

“This Is Where I Leave You”: When a man dies, members of a dysfunctional family are forced to face the problems that have separated them. Jason Bateman and Tina Fey should find something to laugh about here.

“A Walk Among the Tombstones”: Liam Neeson stars as a former cop who does private security work, for “favors,” and gets hired to investigate a deadly kidnapping team. Be fun to see what accent Neeson uses this time.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“A Trip to Italy”: Adding Al Pacino and more to their impersonation battles, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon continue their trek (begun in 2010 with “The Trip”) through la bella Italia. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

“The Zero Theorem”: Christoph Waltz stars in the former Python cast member Gilliam's look at a computer hacker getting distracted from his quest to figure out the meaning of human existence. The distraction? A woman, naturally.

Anyway, enjoy.

‘Viaggio Sola’: the examined traveler’s life

Anyone who loves international travel, especially those who travel first class, should appreciate “A Five Star Life,” which opens at the Magic Lantern Theater today. I have been around the world during the past couple of decades, though not first class. But I can dream, as I did when I previewed “A Five Star Life.”

Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

To Hollywood’s way of thinking, contemporary adult life is a maze of Seth Rogen romantic comedy, Nicholas Spark melodrama and E.L. James sexual heat.

Throw in a bit of “South Park” sentimentality and I just might consider signing up. Otherwise … mmm, no.

It would seem hard, if not impossible, to make a movie that captures the far more plausible view of life involving trying to find a way to live that speaks to your own personal sensibilities. A way that allows you to connect with other when you need to, and be on your own when that suits you, that provides you enough opportunity to live – simply stated – the way you want

That’s certainly true of Irene, the protagonist of Italian director Maria Sole Tognazzi’s film “A Five Star Life” played by Margherita Buy. That title, by the way, is an unfortunate alteration of the original, a point that I will return to in a moment. But while unfortunate, it’s not incorrect. Irene has, after all, what some people would consider a dream job: As an employee for a hotel-rating service, she travels the world, staying in five-star establishments, enjoying all their luxuries even as she judges their quality.

Does the attendant greet her with eye contact and a smile? Does he address her by name? Does her room come as advertised, the bed’s headboard dust-free, the view heavenly? Is the room-service wine served at the correct temperature? Are directions to the spa easy to follow, and are staff members at the ready to help confused guests, even those who appear not to be among the regular clientele?

Irene has a virtual manual full of such requirements, each of which she handles with a demanding eye that would cow Gordon Ramsay. And in between moments, she lounges in her bathrobe, sneaks a smoke on the veranda, maybe indulges in a flirtation but more typically makes calls to those she depends upon for intimacy.

Which is where the plot to “A Five Star” life could have gone wrong, but never does. Irene’s best friend is Andrea, former boyfriend and now best friend and confidante. In between her visits to Shanghai, Morocco and Berlin, Irene and Andrea eat meals, see movies but mostly just enjoy the comfort of each other’s presence. When she isn’t with Andrea, Irene spends time with her married sister, whose husband and two daughters give Irene a view of the life that she might have had – and, in the movie’s version of a crisis, provide her with a sense – though perhaps only momentarily – of fear and regret.

What “A Five Star Life” addresses is nothing less than an examination of a life, of the choices that woman makes and – more important – why she makes them. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that director Tognazzi, working from a script she co-wrote, finds an ending to Irene’s story that isn’t just happy but both authentic and adult.

As for that title, I prefer the Italian original, “Viaggio Sola” – or, as Irene might say, “I Travel Alone.”

Friday’s openings: Dolphins, abductions and womanly woes

The local movie scene improves somewhat this week, what with the Magic Lantern offering a trio of interesting offerings, while the mainstream theaters will stick with the standard Hollywood pap involving captive mammals, abused women, mob stories and corporate apologia.

Friday's openings are as follows:

“Dolphin Tale 2”: Remember the dolphin with an artificial tail? (Can you spell homonym?) This sequel involves that dolphin, now sad, being paired with a new female. Beware four of the scariest words in the English language: “Inspired by true events.” Starring Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman and some child actors.

“No Good Deed”: When a psychopathic killer escapes captivity, he threatens a lone woman and her young daughter. You can finish the saying suggested by the title on your own, right? Starring Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson.

“The Drop”: When a couple of guys rob a bar that is famous for handling mob money, focus narrows on the bar's owner. I'll take everything you got, pal, plus a Jack Daniels chaser. Starring James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy.

“Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt”: Third in the trilogy version of Ayn Rand's 1,000-plus-page famous fantasy about bad government and good rich guys. Paul Ryan-approved. Starring … never heard of them.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Starred Up”: When a young rebel is sentenced to prison, he rejects every attempt to help him — even when offered by the fellow inmate who happens to be his father. Brits behind bars. Starring Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn.

“A Five Star Life”: A 40-something Italian woman begins to question how happy she is with with her nomadic life as a hotel inspector. La vita non é bella? Vero? Starring Margherita Buy.

“Life of Crime”: Based on Elmore Leonard's 1978 novel “The Switch,” this comic caper follows a couple of bumbling kidnappers who abduct the wife of a man who doesn't want her back. A new twist on marriage counseling. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def, Tim Robbins. Isla Fisher and John Hawkes.

‘Calvary’ explores a dark, marginally comic Ireland

Note: An earlier version of this post misidentified the theater that “Calvary” is playing at. It is playing at the AMC River Park Square.

Love me some Brendan Gleeson. And who isn't awed by the wild Irish coastline? Still, neither was enough to keep me from scratching my head when the curtain rose after a screening of the film “Calvary.”

Following is a review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

It feels strange to criticize a film that, one, boasts good technique; two, features a number of good performances; and, three, follows a dramatic structure that feels both true to its intent and natural in its symmetry.

But what do you say, then, when even given all that, a film just leaves you shrugging your shoulders in dismay? That even as you’re accepting the ending as plausible, even inevitable, you think, “This is the best they could come up with?”

The “they” in this equation is one person, Anglo-Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh, writer-director of a film titled “Calvary.” And it is that film, which is playing at AMC River Park Square, that led to a shoulder shrug so intense I’m still feeling the resulting muscle pull a week later.

Let’s start with the plot: McDonagh’s film begins in a church confessional. Father James (played by the peerless Brendan Gleeson) is taking the confession of a man who starts out by describing the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy by a Catholic priest. “That’s certainly a startling opening line,” Father James says, revealing both screenwriter McDonagh’s proclivity for offbeat humor and what may be Father James’ single flaw: a sense of humor weighed down by irony.

Then something really startling happens: The confessor says that, in one week, he is going to kill the good Father. Not because the priest is bad but precisely because he is good. That, he claims, will make more of an impact.

McDonagh doesn’t identify the would-be killer, and the Father – after consulting his superior – doesn’t sound an alarm. The threat did occur, after all, during confession. And so McDonagh continues his movie, introducing us to a collection of strange characters, any one of whom might have good reason to off a priest. Or two. There’s the butcher with a penchant for hitting his wife, who is having an open affair with the African-born village mechanic. There’s the belligerent pub owner, the aging writer with a death wish, the hustler who talks like Ratso Rizzo, the doctor with the attitude of a morgue attendant and the rich guy who made millions during the recession that crippled the rest of Ireland and who loathes himself only moderately more than he loathes everyone else.

All of the cast is good, though none can quite match the Shakespeare-trained, gleefully shaggy Gleeson, who – as always – tends to steal any film he appears in.

As Father James walks through the village, which is set next to hills more emerald-green than Darby O’Gill’s eyes, we learn that his own past includes a marriage, a dead wife, bouts with alcoholism and a suicidal daughter – who shows up, apparently, to provide McDonagh the means to give us what he seems to think will provide a meaningful postscript to the follow-through promised by his film’s title.

It won’t work for everyone. It certainly didn’t for me. But then I’m not Irish, I’m not Catholic and my own skill at irony may be far less weighty than I’ve always feared.

Friday’s openings: A run through the Forrest

Not for the first time, I have to question the wisdom of those who book movies for Spokane's theaters. In this case, the folks at AMC.

Now, I like the AMC. It's convenient to where I live, and the manager — Rob Holen — is one of the nicest, most gracious guys I've ever met, personally or professionally. But Rob doesn't book his movies. Somebody who works in the corporate office does. Which explains why this week, along with the new releases, AMC is featuring both a screening of the 1994 release “Forrest Gump” (in IMAX, no less) and a second run of “Magic in the Moonlight” — one of Woody Allen's lesser creations since at least the mid-'90s.

Guess they need to find something to fill those 20 screens in the lull between Labor Day weekend and the beginning of the fall season. But “Forrest Gump” and second-rate Woody Allen? Seriously?

“A Hard Day's Night” just showed in a 50th-anniversary special event at The Bing to a full house. Imagine watching that Beatles movie in IMAX with the AMC's sound system. Ah, well. AMC never consults with me.

Anyway, here is the new stuff the week will offer:

“The Identical”: A so-called “faith-based” look at what might have happened had the twin of an Elvis Presley-type singer not died at birth but been raised separately, with one boy becoming The King and the other a gospel preacher. Sounds like the devil in disguise.

“Innocence”: After losing her mom to a surfing accident, a teen girl moves with dad to Manhattan — only to discover that her exclusive prep school is home to a coven of witches. Bubble bubble, baby.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“The One I Love”: With their marriage falling slowly apart, a couple spends a weekend examining their relationship — and the experience becomes surreal. Because … of course. (Also, the Lantern is reopening the Polish feature “Ida” and the Korean-made/English-language feature “Snowpiercer.”)

So go. Enjoy. And … run, Forrest, run!

‘Dog Day’ documentary offers reprieve from dog days of summer

It’s a pretty lousy week for movies. Next week doesn’t look much better. Yes, we’re just hitting the lull that always occurs between the end of summer movie season and the beginning of Oscar season, when Hollywood uses late August and early September as a dumping ground for one bad movie after another. (Consider that the only major release of the week worth seeing is 30 years old.)

So it’s a good thing that we’ve got the Magic Lantern to provide us with some interesting, offbeat indie selections, and tonight it’s hosting a special screening of one of the year’s most entertaining documentaries. It’s called “The Dog,” and it’s a fascinating true crime story, a warts-and-all character study and look at the inspiration behind one of the best American films of the 1970s.

Here’s my review, which I recorded for Spokane Public Radio:

When Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” was released in 1975, it was an instant critical and commercial success, becoming the fourth highest-grossing film of that year and landing an Oscar nomination for Best Picture amongst perhaps the best batch of nominees in Academy Awards history. It’s an offbeat, darkly comic crime thriller that audiences gawked at in morbid fascination: The ad campaigns screamed, “It’s all true,” because how else would anyone have believed the story otherwise?

As “Dog Day Afternoon” garnered universal praise and awards consideration, John Wojtowicz, the inspiration for Al Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik character in the film, was serving a 20-year prison sentence in a Pennsylvania penitentiary. Three years earlier, he’d been all over the news for a failed bank robbery he had orchestrated with two accomplices in New York City, a crime that, had it been successful, would have supposedly funded a sex change operation for Wojtowicz’s male lover. It made for perfect tabloid fodder, lurid and violent and nearly impossible to fathom, but the personalities and motivations behind it turn out to be much more complex.

“The Dog,” a new documentary that steps back and allows Wojtowicz to tell his own story, begins as a quirky stranger-than-fiction crime story and slowly transforms into something more somber, a portrait of a strange man whose overblown mythology was entirely of his own creation. It’s a fascinating character study, one that directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren spent 11 years putting together, as well as a colorful look at post-Vietnam America as viewed from the fringe, when a haze of brutality and paranoia hung over everything and gay Americans struggled to find their place in society.

Wojtowicz, who passed away in 2006, is the kind of guy who the documentary form was created for. He’s intense, direct, overflowing with personality and unbelievably frank about his sexual history. Being anything other than straight in the ’70s was already a taboo, but Wojtowicz was vocal about his attraction to both men and women: He joined a number of gay advocacy groups and later (illegally) married a man named Ernie Aron (John wore his military uniform, Ernie a white wedding gown and a blonde wig), who would become Liz Eden following gender reassignment surgery.

As the film progresses, details of Wojtowicz’s home life come into sharper focus, and we sense that perhaps he lived a sadder existence than he lets on in his interviews. He ended up serving three of his 20 years, and once he was released he would stand outside the Chase Manhattan Bank he’d held up, wearing a shirt that read “I robbed this bank.” He later tells a story about applying for a job as a bank security guard, trying to convince the management that no one could better protect a bank than an honest-to-God bank robber. A TV news report from the time shows him signing autographs and taking pictures with his “fans,” while one of the bank tellers he held hostage looks on in disapproval.

It’s hard to tell if Wojtowicz’s tough guy persona was the product of delusion, posturing or insecurity; that he held up a bank and then ordered pizzas for his captors suggests that he was always operating on his own bizarre wavelength. “The Dog” is an entertaining documentary not just because of its subject matter, but because it simply gets out of Wojtowicz’s way and lets him talk, and his personal yarn grows stranger as it unravels. Wojtowicz attempts to direct the film he’s in – Berg and Karaudren leave in moments in which he yells “action” before he starts to talk and “cut” when he’s finished – just as he directed the events of his own life, and whether or not he’s a reliable source, he knows how to tell a deeply compelling story.

Movies 101: No time for stage fright

That photo above captures a moment during the “A Hard Day's Night” special event that Spokane Public Radio sponsored last week at the Bing Crosby Theater. The evening began with a special taping in front of a live audience of the “Movies 101” show, which featured four of us discussing both Richard Lester's movie and the music of The Beatles.

From left, the participants were Patrick Klausen (“Movies 101” engineer and producer), me (acting as host), Mary Pat Treuthart, Nathan Weinbender and special guest Leah Sottile.

The sold-out event continued with a screening of the movie, which was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its 1964 U.S. release, had been digitally remastered and boasted both a pristine sound track and picture. Most everyone agreed that, even if they'd seen the movie originally in a theater, they'd never experienced it as well as at The Bing.

One woman, who came up to me after the screening, was from a town just a few miles outside of Liverpool. She, too, was glowing.

In everyone's honor, I include an embedded version of my favorite Beatles tune.

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