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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Mendes’ ‘1917’ puts us right into the trenches

One of the great depictions of war, Sam Mendes' "1917" won two Golden Globe awards — Best Picture, Drama, and Best Director (for Mendes). Following is my review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

From Lew Ayers reaching for a butterfly in 1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” to Bradley Cooper peering through the scope of his rifle in 2014’s “American Sniper,” cinema has filled screen after screen with images of war.

Few films, though boast the moment-by-moment intensity of Sam Mendes’ Golden Globe-winning effort titled, simply, “1917.”

You’re likely familiar with Mendes, he having previously directed 1999’s “American Beauty” (for which he won a Best Director Oscar) and the 2012 James Bond feature “Skyfall.”  “1917,” though, has more in common with his 2005 film “Jarhead,” in which Jake Gyllenhaal portrayed a Marine deployed during the Gulf War.

Unlike that film, though – which is more about the psychology of war than any real depiction of actual battle – “1917” is short on philosophy and long on action. Mendes, working from a script that he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, puts us squarely in the mud, blood and furor of trench warfare as it was waged during World War I.

He does that by keying on two main characters: Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (played by George McKay), who are ordered to complete a difficult – maybe impossible – mission. They are to leave the trenches, cross No Man’s Land, pass through what may be the German lines, and find a couple of battalions of British soldiers who are on the verge of an attack.

An attack that, we are told, is a trap. Blake and Schofield are to warn the commanding officer to call off the engagement. Furthermore, they are warned that if they fail, some 1,600 lives will be lost – Blake’s brother’s among them. So they set off, Blake determined, Schofield – nearly as young as Blake yet already a veteran – more cautious.

Mendes’ conceit in depicting all this is to film it in what feels like real time (even though the less-than-two-hour running time does cover several hours) and to do so in what clever editing makes it seem like one single take. Mendes’ camera – overseen by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins – follows our protagonists, perched so close to one or the other that “1917” feels at times more like a first-person-shooter video game than a feature film.

But what Mendes has created here is no game. That becomes ever more clear as Blake and Schofield proceed, at times meeting other characters who either warn them that their efforts aren’t so much foolish as they are suicidal (such as the officer played by Andrew Scott), who give them advice (another officer played by Mark Strong) or who remark about the ultimate futility of the whole war (a final officer played by Benedict Cumberbatch).

The mission itself becomes an exercise in abject endurance, both physically with obstacles to overcome such as snipers, crashing aircraft and corpse-strewn streams, and emotionally with a singular loss that follows, ironically, an act of compassion.

Throughout it all, Mendes makes sure that we can’t look away, that we feel what the characters feel. Which, in the end, is not an energized mood of jingoistic fervor but a far more appropriate sense of somber reverence.

‘MST3K Live’ date postponed to Feb. 6

The news is coming late, but here it is: the "Mystery Science Theater Live" event scheduled for tonight at the First Interstate Center for the Arts has been postponed.

The new date: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6.

The postponement is said to be because of weather. Anyone who has purchased tickets should hold onto them. They will be honored at the new time and date.

As most fans know, MST3K — as the series has come to be known — was created in 1988 by Joel Hodgson. The conceit involves a janitor who has been kidnapped and forced to watch cheesy Sci-Fi B movies aboard the spaceship Satellite of Love.

As the series website explains, "To stave off the boredom of this existence, he creates himself a plethora of robot pals to watch along with him and create new plotlines and scripts as the movie plays."

Writers on the new series include Elliot Kalan, Joel Mchale and Dana Gould.

So the bad news is that the event has been postponed. The good news is MST3K Live contains same snarky and clever, if adolescent, humor.

Kelly dances again in ‘An American in Paris’

Hollywood has produced any number of great dancers. Few, though, have matched the talents of the great Gene Kelly.

In films such as "On the Town" and "Singing' in the Rain," Kelly and his co-stars danced their way into movie history. And one of Kelly's major achievements, which was directed by Vincente Minnelli, will screen at two area theaters on Sunday and the following Wednesday.

"An American in Paris," which won six Academy Awards (including Best Picture), will screen at 1 and 4 p.m. on Sunday at the Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium. Wednesday's screening at both theaters will be at 7 p.m.

The movie's story involves a trio of friends struggling to live and work in Paris. Things get complicated when romance (with Leslie Caron) comes between them.

As the late Roger Ebert once wrote, "The real reasons to see An American in Paris are for the Kelly dance sequences, the closing ballet, the Gershwin songs, the bright locations, and a few moments of the ineffable, always curiously sad charm of Oscar Levant."

And Ebert, while not always right, is seldom wrong.

Lantern a showcase for 2020 Oscar nominees

Above: Scarlett Johansson is a Best Supporting Actress nominee in the multi-nominated film "Jojo Rabbit." 

Turns out the Magic Lantern will open nothing new on Friday. But the theater will continue its lineup of films that are getting Oscar attention.

"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" features Best Actor nominee Tom Hanks as the late Fred Rogers. Hanks is already a two-time Oscar winner.

"Parasite" has attracted a number of nominations, including Best Director (Bong Joon-Ho), Best Editing, Best International Film, Best Set Design, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture.

"Harriet" feature Best Actress nominee Cynthia Erivo and Best Original Song ("Stand Up").

"Jojo Rabbit" features Best Supporting Actress nominee Scarlett Johansson, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Prudction Design, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.

The theater's sole non-Oscar nominee is the documentary "Fantastic Funghi," which continues its weeks-long run. The Oscars broadcast is set for 5 p.m. Feb. 9 on ABC.

Love, climate join forces in ‘Weathering With You’

Anime fans — or, to be fair, anyone who follows Japanese cinema — should be excited about the latest GKIDS release.

That release, Makato Shinkai's "Weathering With You," will play at three area theaters — AMC River Park Square, and Regal Cinemas sites at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium — Wednesday and Thursday nights.

Showtimes both nights will be 7 p.m. for dubbed versions, 8 p.m. for original language with subtitles.

"Weathering With You" tells the story of a runaway boy who comes to Tokyo and meets a girl who seems to be able to manipulate the weather. The film carries overtones of a coming climate disaster, but it is no solely an ecological warning. It is also a film about young love.

As Washington Post critic Mark Lieberman wrote, the film might not reach the heights of Shinkai's previous film — "Your Name" — but "it still achieves something impressive: It tells a story that, without sugarcoating the environmental challenges that lie ahead, manages to end on a hopeful note."

In this era of runaway Australian fires and rising sea levels, hope is something we could all use.

Friday’s openings: Talking animals and ‘Bad Boys’

What with the Academy Awards nominations having come out this morning, and some serious movies getting notice as usual, we can look forward to some simple entertainment when Friday's openings come around.

The two main/mainstream releases are:

"Dolittle": Robert Downey Jr. stars in another adaptation of the children's book series (created by English author Hugh Lofting beginning in 1920) about a physician who can speak to animals. Downey Jr.? What, Johnny Depp wasn't available?

"Bad Boys for Life": Will Smith and Martin Lawrence return to the franchise that brought Michael Bay some of his first huge successes (only Bay isn't directing this time). It's being billed as the characters' "one last ride." Sure.

As usual, I'll update when the area theaters finalize their bookings.

Three critics speak: Their Top 10s of 2019

Above: Martin Scorsese's film "The Irishman" is one of five films that the three co-hosts of "Movies 101" agreed were among the best of 2019.

Every year about this time, the three of us who do the Spokane Public Radio show "Movies 101" come up with the films that we thought were the previous year's best. In that spirit, I'm including our three lists here.

For the record, my co-hosts are Nathan Weinbender and Mary Pat Treuthart.

Quick note: I don't every think of my list actually as the year's "best." This is mainly because I can't possibly see all the films released throughout the year. So I refer to my choices as my favorite films of the year (this is also why I don't feel comfortable ranking them).

My Top 10

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (favorite)

(Rest in no particular order)

The Irishman

Ash Is Purest White


Pain & Glory

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood 

Marriage Story

Little Women


Nathan's Top 10

10. Pain & Glory

9. Ash Is Purest White

8. The Farewell

7. Marriage Story

6. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

5. Her Smell

4. The Lighthouse

3. Parasite

2. The Irishman

1. Uncut Gems

Mary Pat's Top 10

Little Women (favorite)

(Rest in no particular order)

The Irishman

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood


American Factory

Pain & Glory

The Farewell

Marriage Story


Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

‘Hidden Life’ style doesn’t fit Malick narrative

Anyone who loves film looks forward to a new release from Terrence Malick. And Malick's film "A Hidden Life" opened last week, which led me to review it for Spokane Public Radio:

In 2011, Terrence Malick released “The Tree of Life,” only his fifth feature film since his moviemaking career had begun some four decades prior with 1973’s “Badlands.”

Considering that a full 20 years had passed between Malick’s second film, 1978’s “Days of Heaven,” and his third effort, 1998’s “The Thin Red Line,” any project of his was bound the draw critical attention.

And “The Tree of Life” lived up to every expectation. I wrote at the time that this film was one of the most authentic stabs at cinematic art that I had ever seen. And I still hold that opinion.

I wish I could say the same for Malick’s most recent release, “A Hidden Life.” But Malick’s style, which began to gel with “Days of Heaven” and was used to great effect in “The Tree of Life” – even given the much-lampooned dinosaur sequences – doesn’t always fit the narratives he pursues. And it isn’t quite appropriate enough for the story he tries to tell in “A Hidden Life.”

That story, written by Malick, concerns a real-life Austrian farmer named Franz Jaggerstatter who when called up for military service in 1943 refused to fight and was ultimately condemned to death for sedition. Drawing on both on historical accounts and letters written between Jaggerstatter and his wife Franziska, Malick follows his protagonist from a time before World War II when he met and married Franziska to his final days in a German prison.

But like all of Malick’s later work, “A Hidden Life” doesn’t progress in a straightforward manner. Much of the dialogue is overdubbed, portrayed not so much in scenes where characters actually address one another but as meditative attempts to underscore the action to which Malick’s continually roving camera is attending.

So we have scenes of Franziska recalling the time she and Franz first met, his riding a motorcycle on back mountain roads, the moment their eyes first met at a village feast, their dancing with the kind of joyful burst that accompanies first love. And the effect is more of a dreamy reminiscence than anything resembling standard cinematic narration.

This isn’t necessarily bad, especially since Malick’s visual sense – realized through the work of cinematographer Jörg Widmer – is as strong as ever. It’s hard not to be impressed as Malick’s camera weaves between the mountains of northern Italy, over the wheat growing in the area’s farm fields and among the rugged buildings that house people whose lives are defined by the very work they put into those fields.

But Malik’s fascination with the visuals, beautiful though they are, tends to grow repetitive and gradually – over the film’s near-three-hour running time – gets in the way of his exploration of Jaggerstatter’s personal story and the very real emotions – of sacrifice, of conscience and of courage – that underscore it.

As always, Malick cast his film well. Like the countryside around them, actors such as August Diehl (who plays Franz) and Valerie Pachner (Franziska), have faces the camera loves.

If only they’d had the chance to play actual living, breathing characters instead of being used more as mere visual representations.

‘Just Mercy’ tells a real-life story of justice

What with the Golden Globe-winner "1917" opening, and that 'Star Wars" movie still hogging so many screens, a movie that's bound to get overlooked when it opens on Friday is Dustin Daniel Cretton's "Just Mercy."

A biopic that tells a story revolving around real-life civil-rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, "Just Mercy" boasts an all-star cast, including Michael B. Jordan, 2005 Best Actor Oscar winner Jamie Foxx and 2016 Best Actress Oscar winner Brie Larson.

The film tells the story of Stevenson's defense of a black man named Walter McMillian who in 1988 was convicted of killing a white woman. The jury, according to news reports, ignored a number of witnesses who claimed that McMillian was at a fish fry at the time of the murder.

The reviews of the film are mostly positive (83 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes). A sampling:

Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly: "What continually floats the film is the commitment of its excellent cast, and the intrinsic truth at its core: that justice shouldn't be divided by black and white, even if the message that delivers it sometimes is."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: ""Just Mercy" is saved from being an earnest, inert courtroom drama when it spends time on death row, where it is opened up and given depth by two strong, subtle performances, from Foxx and Rob Morgan."

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "From its smooth visuals and warm, swinging sounds to its magnificent performances, 'Just Mercy' is masterfully constructed to keep us inside a story that otherwise would be too brutal to bear."

 Seeing "Just Mercy" might be a nice break from watching droids and those strong with The Force for, say, the fifth time.

The Met: Live’s ‘Wozzeck’ is a timely work of art

Opera fans can look forward to the latest "The Met: Live" production, "Wozzeck," which will be screened at 9:55 a.m. Saturday at two area Regal Cinemas theaters, Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

Written between the years 1914 and 1922, a period that included composer Alban Berg's service in the Austro-Hungarian army, "Wozzeck" is a dark reflection of the human experience. The work is an adaptation of German playwright Georg Büchner's uncompleted play, and — as described by New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini — "One of the least cheerful pieces in the repertory, it tells the story of an impoverished and increasingly delusional soldier, driven to murder and suicide."

Yet, Tommasini added, "The issues that drive this wrenching, profound opera are especially timely: the impact of economic inequality on struggling families; the looming threats of war and environmental destruction; the rigid stratification — almost the militarization — of every element of society."

Baritone Peter Mattei takes on the title role, paired with soprano Elza van den Heever as the woman he desires. Yannick Nézet-Séguin serves as music director, while visual artist and director William Kentridge — according to the program notes — "unveils a bold new staging set in an apocalyptic wasteland."

The opera will screen an encore at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 15. 

ML still playing Golden Globe winner ‘Parasite’

So, the Magic Lantern will be adding nothing new this week. That's the bad news. The good news is that the theater's lineup is among the best in the area, especially considering that one of the films it is screening just won a Golden Globe.

That film is "Parasite," the latest offering from the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. "Parasite" became the first Korean film ever to win a Golden Globe, and it is in line to nab Bong his first Academy Award (nominations will be announced Jan. 13 with the awards ceremony itself scheduled for Feb. 9).

"Parasite" is getting rave reviews, scoring a 96 among 48 critics on Metacritic, 99 among some 348 commentators on Rotten Tomatoes.

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal: "Imagine a high-wire act where the acrobat suddenly leaps to a higher wire, then to another that’s higher still. It’s the best way I can think of to describe the giddy thrill of watching 'Parasite,' a masterpiece of serial surprises from the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho."

Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly: "If the movie is a Rorschach of who you identify as parasite and host, it's a test you're just as likely to fail; a filmgoing experience that refuses to fit into any box, and forces viewers to breathe the dangerous air outside of it, too."

Jessica Kiang, Variety: "Bong is back and on brilliant form, but he is unmistakably, roaringly furious, and it registers because the target is so deserving, so enormous, so 2019: 'Parasite' is a tick fat with the bitter blood of class rage."

Wow. Can't remember the last time I ever read of a film being described as "a tick fat with the bitter blood of class rage."

Wish I'd thought of that.

Friday’ openings: War, Mercy and the deep blue

Two of the last big films from 2019 — one of which won big at Sunday's Golden Globes — are set to open on Friday, according to the national movie-release schedule. Friday's movie menu should look something like this:

"1917": Not only did this film win the Golden Globe for Best Picture — Drama, but Sam Mendes won Best Director. Mendes co-wrote the script, which tells the World War I story of two British soldiers who are sent on a mission to stop a battalion of soldiers from walking into a trap.

"Just Mercy": Based on the true-life experiences of civil-rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, director and co-writer Deston Daniel Cretton tells the story of Stevenson's efforts to free a wrongly convicted death-row prisoner. Starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

"Like a Boss": Rose Byrne and Tiffany Haddish play the owners of a beauty business who sell out to an entrepreneur (Salma Hayek) and live to regret the decision. Working 9 to 5 …

"Underwater": A group of scientists living deep in the ocean encounter strange beings. Oh, and they're dangerous, too (the beings, I mean, not Kristen Stewart).

As usual, I'll update when local theaters finalize their bookings.

Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ a touching update

One of the best films to open around here as 2019 closed was Greta Gerwig's adaptation of "Little Women." Following is my review, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

As with many novels of enduring success, Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 collection “Little Women” has been adapted for the stage (including musical theater and opera), for television and, most notably, for the movies.

Indeed, the several movie versions produced over the years have attracted the top actresses of their day. George Cukor’s 1933 film starred the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Joan Bennett, while Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 production featured June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor. Meanwhile, Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 offering gave us Winona Ryder and Claire Danes.

Each of these adaptations is more or less faithful to what Alcott put on the page a century and a half ago, though each abides, too, by the mores of its own era. And the latest version of “Little Women” – written and directed by Greta Gerwig – shows just how far we’ve progressed in the last eight decades in terms of movie narration, theme and tone.

Alcott’s basic plot involves the March family, mainly the four sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. With their father off fighting the Civil War, the sisters and their mother must make their own way, dependent on what little money Jo can bring in with her writing and on the kindness provided by extended family and their kind-hearted wealthy neighbor. Each sister is of a different temperament, and part of what “Little Women” portrays is how those disparate personalities strive to be independent while attempting – at the same time – to maintain a close, familial intimacy.

In terms of theme and tone, Gerwig, reflecting the quirkily energized characters she herself has portrayed in films such as 2012’s “Frances Ha” and 2015’s “Mistress America,” emphasizes the desire for self-reliance most exhibited by Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan).

At the same time, each of the sisters makes her own individual mark, Meg (Emma Watson) who marries and raises children, Amy (Florence Pugh) who pursues her art even while also marrying, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) whose devotion to those less privileged leads to Alcott’s singular exploration of loss and grief – discounting, of course, the loss and grief felt by “Laurie” Lawrence (Timothy Chalamet) when Jo turns down his offer of marriage.

It’s how she narrates her film that most reveals Gerwig’s fresh take on Alcott’s basic plot. Instead of proceeding chronologically, she begins in the middle – with Jo marching into a publisher’s office, presenting a story she has written and negotiating what she considers to be a fair price – and then moves back and forth in time.

The effect is sometimes confusing, especially over the first half hour of the film’s two-hour-and-15 minute length. But when the movie finds its rhythm, it blossoms into an authentic and moving portrayal of Alcott’s world, smoothly melding traditional themes with contemporary attitudes. (It’s been a while since I’ve seen any of the other adaptations, but I don’t remember Hepburn or Allyson, in particular, raving against the unfairness of women being mere chattel.)

That, though, is the world in which we live as we dive into the third decade of the 21st century. And Gerwig explores it as well as anyone. 

Malick’s ‘Hidden Life’ splits the critics again

Looks as if there's at least one addition to the week's openings. In addition to the horror reboot "The Grudge," which opened on Wednesday, Friday's schedule includes:

"A Hidden Life": Terence Malick ("The Tree of Life") returns to the theaters with this study of an Austrian man who resisted the call of Adolf Hitler's fascism during World War II. History does tend to repeat itself.

Here are some critical comments:

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: " 'A Hidden Life' is indisputably the finest work Malick has produced in eight years, as an examination of faith, conviction and sacrifice, but also as proof of concept for his own idiosyncratic style."

Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine: "We shouldn't be so smug as to assume that we would always know the right thing to do, or even be brave enough to do it, Malick seems to say. A true act of resistance should crack our universe open."

And then there's the iconoclast Richard Brody, of The New Yorker: "When a giant stumbles, the thud is colossal."

Whatever. That's the week's offerings. So go, see a movie. And enjoy.

Enjoy the great outdoors Tuesday at The Bing

The only thing people enjoy nearly as much as outdoor activities are movies about outdoor activities. And for some of us, the movies are even more enjoyable.

Take, for instance, fly fishing. It's been a long time since I stood in a stream and cast a fly rod. And, to be honest, I never did get a real feel for it.

Yet I'd go to see a movie about fly fishing. And at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, I'll get the chance. We all will. Because that's when the International Fly Fishing Film Festival will screen at the Bing Crosby Theater.

The two-hour festival boasts film from all over the world, including tales — and this comes from the Seattle International Film Festival website — "from fishing guide fairytales, to serial steelhead semantics, canyon conservation in Colorado, mountain biking for marlin, jumping jaguars and jungle fish in whitewater rapids and the audacious Aussies who explore the largest coastline in the world."

Click here for tickets. The embed below is from the 2019 festival.