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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Friday’s openings: All hail Tarantino’s 9th

One of the most anticipated movies of the summer — and actually of the year — opens on Friday. No surprise, it's being billed simply as Quentin Tarantino's 9th film:

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood": Harking back both to the time of Spaghetti Westerns and the end of Hollywood's Golden Era, Tarantino tells a story of the film industry as it entered the late 1960s through the lens of a fading box-office star named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and several others … including the doomed actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Yay though I walk through the shadow of Laurel Canyon …

And at the Magic Lantern? Well, this is what is tentatively scheduled:

"Diamantino": Ostensibly a movie about a one-time soccer star trying to regain what once made him great, this Portuguese-language film is wild concoction of themes and tones. As IndieWire critic David Erlich wrote, "Part B-movie spoof, part handcrafted satire, and always driven by a genuine vision for a better tomorrow, 'Diamantino' is like looking at today’s Europe through a funhouse mirror, and somehow seeing it more clearly as a result."

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

Sandler’s ‘Murder Mystery’ no ‘Happy Gilmore’

Among the several Netflix Originals that have been released recently, the Adam Sandler comedy "Murder Mystery" has been attracting a bit of critical attention. So I decided to review it for Spokane Public Radio, and following is a transcription:

So many film stars have experienced wind-shear careers. One minute they’re riding a box-office – maybe even a critical – high. And the next they find themselves relegated to a bargain DVD bin set up at their local grocery story.

And let’s face it, in this era of streaming services, DVDs are long out of fashion.

Speaking of streaming services, it once was commonly accepted that having a movie originate anywhere other than an actual theater meant your career was headed for that dreaded grocery bargain bin. As they tend to do, though, times have changed.

Take Adam Sandler. For years – roughly comprising a decade beginning in the mid-90s – Sandler had one comedy hit after the next. I still see guys on occasion trying to imitate his “Happy Gilmore” golf swing, though never on an actual golf course.

More recently, though, Sandler has been a presence on Netflix. In fact, since 2015 Sandler has produced a half-dozen Netflix projects, the latest being the comedy “Murder Mystery.”

Not that being a Netflix regular has hurt his career any. In 2017, the service extended its deal with him, and “Murder Mystery” – which was directed by veteran TV and music-video-maker Kyle Newacheck, from a script by writer-producer James Vanderbilt – came out of that extension.

In the film, Sandler plays a New York cop named Nick who – though he can’t quite find the focus he needs to pass the detective’s test – still has managed to figure out how to stay married to Audrey, a hairdresser played by Jennifer Aniston.

And, yes, you heard that right: the one-time “Friends” star plays a hairdresser – though she may be the least believable hairdresser since Edward Scissorhands.

Tricked into paying for a long-promised European vacation – one that was supposed to have been their honeymoon some 15 years before – Nick finds himself becoming jealous on the flight over when Audrey connects with a sophisticated fellow named Charles (played by Luke Evans). Not surprisingly, Nick refuses Charles’ offer for both of them to join him on his family’s yacht and attend a birthday party for his uncle.

Pretty soon, though, for reasons that fit perfectly with this kind of comedy, Nick changes his mind, and the two working-class New Yorkers find themselves mingling with an elite crowd that might put some familiar Mar-a-Lago residents to shame.

Soon after that, they become the chief suspects when the uncle ends up mysteriously murdered. The rest of the film involves Nick and Audrey struggling – often Inspector Clouseau-like – both to prove their innocence and to find the real murderer.

Kudos to you if you figure things out before they do. I wasn’t able to. Then again, that might have been because I’d begun playing Solitaire on my iPad.

Not that “Murder Mystery” is particularly bad. It has a few funny moments, even if I never once bought Aniston as a character more appropriately played by, say, one of the Amys – Poehler or Schumer.

It’s just that if you’re familiar with Sandler’s work, you know what to expect – even if, this time, it has nothing to do with golf.

Friday’s openings redux: Karate and Quebecois crime

Along with the week's big opener, "The Lion King," movie fans will have a few other choices to pick from. They include:

"The Art of Self-Defense": Straight from the film-festival circuit, this offbeat film stars Jesse Eisenberg as a young man who responds to an attack by street toughs by signing up for karate lessons. And, no, his teacher is not Chuck Norris. (Note: The film played twice at the recent Seattle International Film Festival.)

"The Fall of the American Empire": French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand ("The Barbarian Invasions") tells the story of a shy young man who happens upon a crime scene, picks up a couple of bags of cash and then has to evade both the cops and the gang leader who wants his money back. Classify this under the heading "crime comedy (ou peut-être "comédie policière"). In French with English subtitles.

That appears to be the lot. So go, see a movie — maybe even the Disney flick, which is playing everywhere and around the clock — and enjoy.

Did the 13th Amendment end slavery? Find out on Sunday

You probably never have read the text of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Aside from Constitutional lawyers and a few lawmakers, few of us have.

Here is the complete text of Section 1 of the Amendment: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

And here is Section 2: "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

Ratified on Dec. 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment put an official end to the practice of slavery, a process that President Abraham Lincoln had initiated in 1863 with his executive order — the Emancipation Proclamation (which had freed only those slaves in the Confederate States).

But don't take just my word for this. On Sunday at 6 p.m. the Magic Lantern, the Meaningful Movies Project — along with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane and the Magic Lantern itself — will present a screening of "13th," Ava DuVernay's 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary feature.

In addition to examining the history of the Amendment itself, DuVernay's film asks a pertinent question: Did the 13th Amendment truly end slavery in America? That's a topic likely to be addressed in a post-screening panel discussion featuring several area civil-rights proponents.

Panelists scheduled to participate include Carmen Pacheco-Jones, chair of the Spokane Regional Law & Justice Racial Equity Committee; Dora "Duaa-Rahemaah" Williams, YWCA Racial & Social Justice Committee; Curtis Hampton, Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR); Kurtis Robinson, Spokane NAACP President; and Kiantha Duncan, Empire Health Foundation, Spokane NAACP.

Regarding the film itself, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis hailed it this way: "Powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming, Ava DuVernay’s documentary '13th' will get your blood boiling and tear ducts leaking."

Admission to the screening is free (though a donation is suggested).

‘Pieces’ of Toni Morrison go on display Friday

So, finally, the Magic Lantern Theater will open the documentary film "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am" on Friday.

I say "finally" because when I read a press release last month about the film's upcoming opening, I misread the date. I thought the film was going to be featured in a special Lantern event scheduled for June 25th. And I wrote a blog post to that effect.

Actually, though, the event is scheduled for Thursday, July 25th. Totally my bad.

Anyway, "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am" indeed will open at the Lantern on Friday. And the special event, which will be hosted by two Gonzaga University professors — Jessica Maucione and Inga Laurent — indeed will take place on the 25th.

Anyway, here are some critical comments about the documentary itself, which was directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders:

Monica Castillo, RogerEbert.com: "Morrison's legacy is more than just the titles on a reading list, and this documentary will likely help many viewers see just how monumental her accomplishments remain."

Melissa Vincent, Globe and Mail: "As with Morrison's books, 'The Pieces I Am' invites multiple, maybe even piecemeal, encores, because few writers wield the capacity to leave their readers with an evolving parting message with each subsequent reread."

Alan Zilberman, Washington Post: "It doesn't matter whether you've have read all - or any - of Morrison books. Either way, you may leave the theater wanting to pick one up on the way home."

I'll post a reminder about the special screening sometime next week.

Friday’s openings: Disney remakes a classic

It wasn't enough for Disney to retell classic stories in animated form. They had to go and remake those retellings in live-action format.

The version of "Aladdin" starring Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and a CGI-enhanced Will Smith as the Genie, which was released in May, is based on the 1992 animated version. And on Friday, a whole new version of another popular animated Disney film — this one released in 1994 — is scheduled to open:

"The Lion King": Jon Favreau directed and everyone from Donald Glover to Alfre Woodard, John Oliver to Beyonce add their voices to the classic story of a young lion cub who, having lost his father, must find a way to achieve his own path to greatness.

The Disney film is the only mainstream opening listed on the national movie-release schedule. As always, I'll update when the area theaters finalize their bookings.

‘Last Black Man’ is one of the year’s best films

If you haven't yet seen "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," then you're denying yourself the opportunity to see one of the year's best movies. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Some movies tell evocative stories. Others pull you into the lives of intriguing characters. Still others create fantasy worlds that can feel more real than reality itself. And then you’ll find films that do all this at once. Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is that latter-most kind of film.

Conjured by first-time-feature filmmaker Talbot and his longtime friend Jimmie Fails – written by Talbot and screenwriter Rob Richert – “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is both a study of frustrated hopes and a love letter to the city that San Francisco was before it became a haven for the 1 percent.

The frustration involves the film’s title character – played by Fails as a version of his real self, also called Jimmie Fails – who lives with his friend Mont (played by Jonathan Majors) and Mont’s Grandfather Allen (played by Danny Glover).

Grandfather Allen’s house sits in a downtrodden section of the city, on the Bay near a former military installation where – we are told – radioactive waste has polluted the water. Not only told, though: The movie opens with a young black girl watching as workers in hazmat suits attempt to clean up the area while a street preacher excoriates them in bible speech worthy of seven Billy Grahams.

Yet Jimmie’s heart is elsewhere. While we see him occasionally working as a geriatric care specialist, his vocation of choice is as caretaker of a house in a more upscale neighborhood. He dotes on the place, painting window trim and bemoaning the overgrown garden, to the chagrin – and irritation – of its current white owners.

I say current because, as Jimmie tells anyone who will listen, the house used to be his family home. His grandfather built it, he explains, not in the 1850s but in 1946, after taking over an empty plot of land from a Japanese family that had been interned during World War II.

Jimmie may be correct, or he may be spinning a fantasy he desperately wants to believe. Talbot ultimately reveals the truth, though what that truth actually is may be the least of his film’s many qualities.

Winner of a directing award at Sundance, Talbot affects a style that has much in common with what Barry Jenkins realized with his 2017 Best Picture Oscar winner “Moonlight.” And not just in his stunning use of cinematography but in the mood he achieves.

Whether Jimmie is skateboarding up and over San Francisco’s hilly streets, confronting the toughs who hang out in front of Grandfather Allen’s house (and who act as a kind of Greek chorus) or merely staring at the house he craves, he does so in a manner that feels mournfully meditative.

Much of the mourning revolves around race and the profound sense of dispossession that many Bay Area residents must feel over their changing hometown. Yet “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is no mere ode to sadness. It is, in the end, a powerful tribute to emotional growth and self-awareness.

It is also, without a doubt, one of 2019’s very best films.

Things ‘Rumble’ musically Monday at The Garland

Music is as old a humankind itself. No one knows exactly how it started, but cultural anthropologists suggest it might have initiated as human attempts to copy the sounds of nature — of the wind, of flowing water, of animal cries.

Whatever, it gradually became ritualized by prehistoric cultures. And as time progressed, it evolved into what (for better or worse) it's become today.

And that's true even for the native people of North America, a fact made evident by the documentary "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World." Co-directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, the film will screen at 7 p.m. Monday at the Garland Theater.

The screening, which is part of the Garland's Monday Movies series, will include a live performance by Silent Hill and Tiny Louie.

"Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World" features interviews with a number of notable musicians, a short list of which includes Iggy Pop, Buddy Guy, Stevie Van Zandt, Taj Mahal, Steve Tyler and Jackson Browne, along with performances by such Native American talents as Buffy Saint-Marie.

Writing after the documentary's screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Justin Lowe of The Hollywood Reporter wrote, "As the film engagingly lifts the veil on Native Americans’ role in several generations of pop music, it traces their involvement from the Delta blues and jazz eras up to present-day hip hop. Brimming with revealing first-person interviews, tantalizing audio clips and dynamic concert footage, Rumble evinces the enviable potential to appeal to a broad range of audiences in a variety of formats."

Admission to the event is $8. Meanwhile, enjoy the embed below: the hit from 1974, "Come and Get Your Love," by the Native American band Redbone. It should brighten your day.

Opera fans, your ‘Barber of Seville’ is calling

Opera fans still have a chance to catch a 1 p.m. screening of "The Barber of Seville" (Il Barbiere di Siviglia") today at the Regal Cinemas theater at Northtown Mall. If that isn't convenient, the production will play at again at 7 p.m. at both Northtown and at Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium 14.

"The Barber of Seville" production comes courtesy of "The Met: Live in HD" series. Directed by Bartlett Sher, it features mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, tenor Juan Diego Flórez, and baritone Peter Mattei. Composed by Gianchino Rossini, the work was first performed in 1816 in Rome — to, it should be pointed out, to disastrous reviews.

But the work has endured. "The Met: Live in HD" production was first presented in 2007. Here are some critical comments concerning the production, which had previously opened in New York:

Anthony Tommasini, New York Times: "For the inventive, breezy new production of 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia' at the Metropolitan Opera, which opened on Friday night and boasts a winning cast, the director Bartlett Sher, making his Met debut, has embraced the opera’s atmosphere of intrigue and subterfuge."

Matthew Westphal, Playbill: "Taking the role of Rosina this time around is mezzo Joyce DiDonato, who thrilled all London when she sang the part at Covent Garden last season, carrying off the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for best singer in the process. (The jury caller her performance 'a revelatory celebration of Rossini's style and spirit.')"

So go, see some opera. But don't hum along to the familiar tunes. The people sitting near you aren't likely to appreciate it.

50th anniversary of ‘Easy Rider,’ same old ending

On the night that I saw "Easy Rider," way back in early 1970, I nearly ran my car into a telephone pole.

I was with my brother, which is why I only "nearly" hit the pole. If he hadn't been there, I might have taken out a whole row of poles, used-car lots and apartment complexes. I was that angry.

I'll give Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper this much: Their movie caused me to coin a phrase. Anytime a movie ends in violence, I call it "an  Easy Rider ending." I don't mean it as a compliment.

This isn't to say that "Easy Rider" doesn't have its qualities. It was revolutionary for its time. It turned Jack Nicholson into a star. It's grossed more than $60 million from a $360,000 production budget.

But … there's that ending.

You'll be able to judge for yourself, again if you've already seen it, when it celebrates it 50th anniversary by screening three times: at 4 p.m. on Sunday at 4 and 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 17th, at the Regal Cinemas theater at Northtown Mall.

 If you're questioning whether you ought to go, here are some critical comments to help you decide:

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: "It plays today more as a period piece than as living cinema, but it captures so surely the tone and look of that moment in time."

Vincent Canby, New York Times: "Hopper, Fonda and their friends went out into America looking for a movie and found instead a small, pious statement (upper case) about our society (upper case), which is sick (upper case). It's pretty but lower case cinema."

Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader: "The film may be a relic now, but it is a fascinating souvenir — particularly in its narcissism and fatalism — of how the hippie movement thought of itself."

(Quick note about Vincent Canby: He was a conservative critic, one who sometimes had a difficult time handling how radically cinema changed in the 1970s. But that doesn't mean that he was always wrong.)

Just be careful how you drive when leaving the theater.

Friday’s openings: humor and horror

Laughs and shivers will be on tap when Friday comes around, according to the national movie-release schedule. The main openings will be:

"Crawl": When a Category 5 hurricane approaches Florida, a woman (Kaya Scodelario) trying to save her father has to deal with more than high winds and rising waters. Beware the bite.

"Stuber": When an Uber driver named Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) gives a ride to a cop (Dave Bautista) in pursuit of a killer, he faces a night of comic adventure. The experience gives his humdrum life a … wait for it … lift.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Indian Horse": A native boy forced by his teachers to ignore his Ojibway heritage finds solace in that traditional Canadian sport, ice hockey. But his past never stops haunting him.

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

‘Midsommar’: a new feel for familiar horror

Some of us are still reeling from the film "Hereditary," the 2018 disturbing family-horror study written and directed by Ari Aster. So we stepped gingerly into the theater screening "Midsommar," Aster's follow-up. Following is my review of that film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio

If you want a theme for your new movie, try this: Collect a group of characters – preferably young characters – and kill them, one by one. It’s a tried and true format, after all, one that’s been used by such diverse artists as novelist Agatha Christie (in her 1939 novel “And Then There Were None”) and filmmaker James Cameron (most notably in his 1986 movie “Aliens”).

Truth is, the basis of every film from “The Evil Dead” to “Halloween,” “Hostel” to “Scream” to “Turistas” has followed the same familiar plotline. The differences have been in tone (the “Scream” series in particular is marked by humor) and in how graphic the violence is portrayed. Oh, and in how stylistically inventive the respective directors are. 

Which brings us to “Midsommar,” the latest film by writer-director Ari Aster. Having impressed critics with his last film, 2018’s “Hereditary” – which was his first feature outing – Aster has returned with a project that boasts a similar plot to every film mentioned above.

Which is this: Four young university friends are invited by Pelle, a fellow student from Sweden, to accompany him home to experience his family’s Midsommar festival – Midsommar being the Swedish term for the few days leading up to the summer solstice.

The four carry an ample amount of emotional baggage, particularly our central characters Dani (played by Florence Pugh) and Christian (played by Jack Reynor). The two are a couple, though barely. Dani is grieving the loss of her family – whose death we see played out and which sets the tone for the rest of Aster’s film. Christian, meanwhile, lump that he is, is having serious doubts about their relationship.

Almost immediately upon arriving at Pelle’s home – which is a four-hour drive from Stockholm – they drop an hallucinogen. And things get only weirder from there. Pretty soon, the American quartet and two other outsiders from the UK become involved in the festivities, which in short order include ritual suicide, gruesome death, some overt nudity – featuring full-frontal, male and female – plus ceremonial sex … not to mention the progressive disappearance of most every guest.

Emphasis on “most.” Aster isn’t interested in remaking, say, “The Wicker Man,” Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror film (which Neil LaBute remade disastrously in 2006). As in “Hereditary,” he is more interested in notions of family, even if his concerns play out in a twisted manner.

Twisted or not, Aster has talent. By framing each shot just so, with his camera swerving up, around and even upside down, at times focusing so closely on faces that every pore is visible, Aster propels us through a storyline that, ultimately, will cause some in the audience to shrug their shoulders in confusion.

Certainly his cast, particularly lead actress Pugh – so good in the 2016 film “Lady Macbeth” – proves capable … even if Reynor does at one point deliver a line that earned unintended laughs at the screening I attended.

And prepare yourself for Pugh’s final expression, which feels more mysterious, and far more disturbing, than anything conveyed by – speaking of familiarity – that most famous of enigmatic smilers: da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

‘Sherlock’ Cumberbatch takes on Shakespeare

By now, most everyone knows the name Benedict Cumberbatch. Having gained fame by reinventing the character of Sherlock Holmes (in the "Masterpiece Theatre" series "Sherlock"), Cumberbatch has gone on to make a number of big-screen appearances — even as the superhero Doctor Strange.

He has never lost his taste for the stage, though, which is how he came to be cast in a National Theatre Live's production of "Hamlet," which will screen at 7 p.m. Monday at two area Regal Cinemas locations, Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

This is a re-broadcast of an event originally shown on March 8.

Reviewing the New York stage production of "Hamlet," New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote, "In the big dialogue scenes, you’re conscious of Mr. Cumberbatch riding Shakespeare’s rushing words like a surfboard, as if saving his interior energy for the monologues. In those, he is superb, meticulously tracing lines of thought into revelations that stun, elate, exasperate and sadden him. There’s not a single soliloquy that doesn’t shed fresh insight into how Hamlet thinks."

From Sherlock to Shakespeare. What a journey for a talented actor.

Sundance award winner comes to Spokane

Not every Sundance Film Festival winner makes it into the mainstream. Some don't get widespread release at all.

But that's not true for writer-director Joe Talbot's dramatic feature "The Last Black Man in San Francisco." Winner of two Sundance prizes, director and a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award, the film opens in Spokane this week at both the Magic Lantern Theater and AMC River Park Square.

As with most Sundance winners, Talbot's film is a critical darling:

Adam Graham, Detroit News: " 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco' is poignant filmmaking with an invigorating spirit."

Mark Feeney, Boston Globe; "In many ways it's a parable: clear yet opaque, simple yet weighty."

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "Even when Talbot and (star Jimmie) Fails risk unraveling the film's most cherished verities, they do so with the mesmerizing grace of a skateboard gliding down Lombard Street."

From Sundance to you. Enjoy the experience … without having to navigate your way through those Park City crowds.

Better beware, Aster’s ‘Midsommar’ is coming

One of the creepiest films to open in recent years was "Hereditary," writer-director Ari Aster's 2018 look at family dysfunction and emotional instability — with a few supernatural twists to make things even more grotesquely complex.

Now, Aster is back. His new film "Midsommar," which can be seen in select area theaters beginning tonight, is arousing all sorts of critical reactions. Again acting as both writer and director, Aster tells the story of a group of young Americans attending a summer festival in Sweden that turns out to be just a bit more strange than they expected.

Following are just a few critical comments:

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times: "Aster's control is startling: With diabolical suggestiveness he keeps widening the chasm between Dani and Christian, placing visual and emotional space between two people whose souls have long since drifted apart."

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: "In place of plot surprises, Aster tries surprising you with repulsive sights, hitting you unexpectedly with some new revolting close-up at regular intervals."

Tomris Laffly, RogerEbert.com: "A terrifically juicy, apocalyptic cinematic sacrament that dances around a fruitless relationship in dizzying circles."

Richard Brody, The New Yorker: "The movie revels in sadistic gore and lurid sex, and its main ideas — anti-ethnographic skepticism and American cultural self-sufficiency — are petty and narrow."

Quite a mix of opinions. If you're up for it, go and make up your own mind.