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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ has trademark Coen touch

Along with movies opening every week in area theaters, numerous viewing opportunities exist on the various streaming services — Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix among them. I recently watched a Netflix special, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," and wrote the following review for Spokane Public Radio

It’s difficult to mark the exact moment when the classic Western died. And by classic, I mean the Western films of the 1930s through the early ’50s.

It might have been as early as 1953 with Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur,” which features Jimmy Stewart as a morally conflicted bounty hunter. For me, though, it was Arthur Penn’s 1970 film “Little Big Man,” in which Dustin Hoffman plays a character who over time finds himself on both sides of the Indian Wars.

Whatever the date, though, the classic Western, that of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and many others – including, of course, the iconic heroes played by John Wayne – faded into the sunset long before the Coen Brothers began making movies.

Those brothers, Joel and Ethan, have worked in a number of genres. Their first film, 1984’s “Blood Simple,” was a neo-noir. 1990’s “Miller’s Crossing” was a gangster study. 1996’s “Fargo” was a police procedural. And in 2010, with their adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel “True Grit,” they tackled a Western.

But with that film, as with everything else they’ve co-directed, the Coens gave the Western genre their own trademark tweak, a conceit that often involves dark humor but almost always features something offbeat and unexpected.

Take, for example, their most recent foray into Western storytelling, the six-part, Netflix special titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Having premiered last August at the Venice Film Festival, then opened for a limited theatrical run on Nov. 9, the film began streaming on Netflix a week later – which is how I saw it.

Each of the half-dozen segments tells a different story, featuring casts that include both name actors such as Liam Neeson, James Franco and Tyne Daly and a number of less familiar – but no less talented – actors such as Harry Melling, Bill Heck and Northern Ireland’s Jonjo O’Neill. But though the stories are different, the themes are not, involving the vagaries of chance, the constant specter of death and the pervasive essence of irony.

The title segment represents all of this: Buster Scruggs (played by Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing cowboy, and a wanted man, dressed in white who wanders into town, shoots a couple of men, and charms everyone with his musical talents before being confronted by a younger, faster foe.

Most of the lighthearted tone that the Coens typically meld with trauma is missing from “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which features Heck (known mostly for his TV work) and Zoe Kazan as two members of a westward-bound wagon train who imagine a life together until fate – and a yapping dog – intervene.

Yet that tone of mildly sardonic humor never completely fades. Along with some mostly unspoken, yet clearly subversive commentary – it returns in the segment “Near Algodones,” in which James Franco plays a dimwitted outlaw, but particularly in the final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” in which five characters contemplate the very meaning of death.

Well-acted, sumptuously produced yet always challenging – especially to viewers sensitive to overt images of violence – “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is classic Coen, if not classic Western.

‘The Third Man’: at 1 today at The MAC

Fans of classic film will want to flock to The MAC today at 1. That's when the museum will hold a special screening of the 1949 black-and-white classic "The Third Man."

The screening will be preceded by a brief lecture on the film delivered by Shaun O'L. Higgins, a host of KSPS's Saturday Night Cinema. Cost: $7.

According to Higgins, "Things start at 1 p.m., so people can grab a nosh and glass of wine or whatever at MAC Cafe prior (or they can bring their own eats and soft drinks into MAC's Eric Johnston Theater)."

"The Third Man" was written by Graham Greene (based on his own novel) and was directed by Carol Reed. The film stars Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles as Harry Lime. And it features one of the most memorable musical themes of all time, written and performed by Anton Karas.

"Of all the movies I have seen," wrote the late Roger Ebert, "this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies."

Who can doubt Roger Ebert?

Talent and grace were part of Callas’ mystique

Here's a truism for you: Not all of us are opera fans.

Then again, not all of us are football fans, neither of the American nor the international version. Yet most of us can recognize grace and talent, which are qualities that, say, Russell Wilson has in common with the late, great soprano Maria Callas.

Callas is the subject of a documentary, "Maria by Callas," that opens Friday at the Magic Lantern Theatre. It is getting mostly rave reviews (91 percent fresh rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes).

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "What emerges is a portrait of a woman of extraordinary natural gifts and work ethic, who was pressured to become a superstar by her mother and then her husband, instead of a conventional homemaker and mother."

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: "At the very least, it will send many viewers back to the recordings, some of them superior to the renditions heard here, with a more vivid picture of the extraordinary woman who made them."

Monica Castillo, RogerEbert.com: "An aching compilation of a woman branded as difficult yet adored as one of operas' biggest stars in the 20th century."

For a touch of what to expect, check the embed below.

The week’s openings: marking two anniversaries

We're facing an unusual coming week of movie releases, especially considering we're in the midst of holiday-season openings. Nothing on the national-release schedule is listed as opening wide except for a re-release of "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg's 1993 film that won seven Academy Awards.

There is, however, at least one local premiere:

"Maria by Callas": Maria Callas was one of the great operatic divas of the 20th century. This documentary, directed by Tom Volf, was originally released in 2017 to mark the 40th anniversary of Callas' death. Based on hundreds of hours of interviews, it tells the soprano's story mostly in her own words. The film will screen at the Magic Lantern.

As for "Schindler's List," its re-release marks another anniversary: the 25th year since its premiere. Among the many awards given to Spielberg's film were Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography.

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

Cast provides ‘Green Book’ its dramatic impact

The movie "Green Book," which is based on a real story, is receiving all sorts of good press — both from critics and from regular moviegoers. In the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I try to explain why:

It’s hardly surprising that film fans might make comparisons between the movies “Green Book” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”

The former, just released, is based on the true story of a white man driving a black concert pianist on a concert tour of the American South during the early 1960s. The latter is an award-winning 1989 film, based on an Alfred Uhry stage play, about a black man, beginning in the late 1940s, acting as chauffeur and caretaker of an elderly white woman.

To reference an old saw, these films represent the two sides of the same coin – the denomination of which, in this case, is racism.

Both are, at their respective bases, melodrama: the kind of work that depends more on exaggeration and emotional manipulation than on a project’s essential strengths, whether of narrative, of character or both.

There is, though, often a fine line between mere melodrama and something a bit closer to, say, Shakespeare. The four Academy Awards earned by “Driving Miss Daisy” – including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress (for Jessica Tandy) – and the Oscar-nominated performance of Morgan Freeman, are a clear measure of that film’s quality.

And while the Oscar nominations for 2018 won’t be announced until Jan. 22nd, the two lead actors of “Green Book” – Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen –are already being mentioned in pre-awards prognostications.

Directed by Peter Farrelly – better known for such comedies as “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary” – “Green Book” is based on an original screenplay co-written by Farrelly, screenwriter Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga – the son of the character played by Mortensen.

Vallelonga’s father was also known as Tony “Lip” because, he claimed, he could talk anybody into doing anything. And Tony Lip, who was raised in the Bronx borough of New York in the 1930s and ’40s, was a true man of his time. Meaning that, among other things, he had no use for African-Americans.

Don Shirley, on the other hand, was unique. A talented concert pianist, he lived an isolated and private life, partly because of temperament and partly for reasons – not to give anything away – that the movie makes clear.

Both men, though, began to change in 1962 when Shirley hired Vallelonga to be his driver and protector on a prolonged concert tour through states where segregation laws were firmly enforced. At some of their stops, Vallelonga would have to refer to what was known as the Negro Motorist Green Book, which outline where blacks could legally, and safely, eat and stay overnight – and from which Farrelly’s movie takes its name.

While much of what occurs in “Green Book” seems convenient – Shirley’s helping Vallelonga write letters to his wife, Vallelonga punching a surly Southern police officer, Shirley attending Christmas dinner in the Vallelonga home – screenwriter Nick Vallelonga insists the stories are true.

And regardless, the actors – Ali, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2017 for “Moonlight,” and the twice-nominated Mortensen – make them feel true.

Which is precisely what a film needs to elevate it from mere melodrama to something closer to actual art. 

‘Meow Wolf’: between chaos and order

Every generation seeks to define its own reality. And while older generations might find this fact uncomfortable, it's a necessary part of growth.

Change is part of that growth, and this is especially true in the arts where a blending of tradition and new ideas is what provides the energy for … what? Imagination? Inspiration?

Whatever. From the Sturm und Drang writers to the Impressionist painters, the French New Wave critics to those first rock 'n' rollers, youth has forged its own, often unique path. And that's the idea behind the documentary "Meow Wolf: Origin Story."

Set to screen at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium, "Meow Wolf - Origin Story" tells the story of a band of artists living and working in Santa Fe, N.M. Tired of bucking the established art world, they go rogue and create their own space — a space that attracts the support, and sponsorship, of the writer George R.R. Martin.

As IndieWire film critic Kate Erbland explains, though, the group's trek — which was born out of a balancing act between "chaos and order" —isn't a smooth one.

"The group’s brand of wild creativity helped propel seemingly instant growth and popularity in their hometown, and what will eventually scan as relatively small-scale success casts a long shadow over everything that’s to come," Erbland wrote. "Factions — and fractures — emerge early on, but (co-directors Morgan) Capps and (Jilann) Spitzmiller keep the interest and energy up, even as the group’s cycles become repetitive."

Those kinds of cycles, Erbland contends, are never easily resolved.

"As Meow Wolf grows, first from intimate shows literally built from garbage to massive, traveling immersive experiences," she wrote, "they continue to contend with the same problems. Success cures nothing."

But, to paraphrase an older Frank Sinatra, at least they did it their way. And still do.

AMC to screen Bollywood sci-fi thriller ‘2.0’

It used to be that all a movie theater had to do was show a movie with big-name stars — preferably some sort of action movie with big-name stars — and the audiences would show up.

Oh, and make sure the popcorn had lots of butter on it.

Those days clearly have changed. Now we have reclining seats, Dolby sound, IMAX screens and other inducements, all in service to a variety of films, including those featuring action-oriented plots and big-name stars. And the concession stands act as virtual fast-food joints.

As to how varied the film selections are, just look at one film that is opening — along with the horror feature that I've already announced — on Friday at AMC River Park Square. It's a Bollywood production titled "2.0" and will be offered in three different languages (Hindi, Telugu and Tamil) with, of course, subtitles in English.

"2.0," which is said to be a sequel of the 2010 release "Enthiran," was directed by the Indian director and producer Shankar. It stars Bollywood players Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar and is said (by the Times of India) to be the costliest Indian film ever made.

The CGI-heavy film is part of AMC's efforts to appeal to an international audience, with programs such as AMC Independent and International Films such as Asian-Pacific and Indian Cinema (of which "2.0" and other recent openings at AMC River Park Square are examples).

Seeing a movie and broadening your horizons. What more could you ask for — except, maybe, for more butter on that popcorn.

Lantern documentary is a profile of courage

And at the Magic Lantern? Friday the theater will open two new films, one a premiere and the other a second-run Spokane showing:

"On Her Shoulders": This documentary, told both in English and Arabic, tells the story of 23-year-old Nadia Murad, a genocide and rape survivor who escaped the clutches of ISIS and has become a tireless, if at times exhausted, representative of her people.

"Beautiful Boy": Timothée Chalamet ("Call Me by Your Name") stars as the title character, a young man struggling with drug addiction. Also starring Steve Carell, Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan, this  story — based on not one but two memoirs — is a Lantern pickup.

Here are some critical comments regarding "On Her Shoulders":

Vanessa H. Larson, Washington Post: " 'On Her Shoulders' is a moving, sensitive portrayal of a woman - and a people's - perseverance."

Nell Minow, RogerEbert.com: "We see this movie to learn who the young Nobel Peace Prize winner is, but in the end, it is about her challenging us to learn who we are."

Leah Pickett, Chicago Reader: "Director Alexandria Bombach avoids the details of Murad's brutal captivity, showing instead the intense pressure and responsibility the 23-year-old feels as a spokesperson for her people."

Again, I'll update when the other area theaters finalize their listings.

Friday’s openings: another ‘scary’ possession

Barring last-minute scheduling of some lesser-regarded films — meaning those that didn't receive a wide release — Friday looks to offer a fairly limited movie menu. That, at least, is what the national release schedule indicates:

"The Possession of Hannah Grace": A corpse in a city morgue causes all sorts of problems for the staff when an evil spirit begins to haunt the place. This one might scare even Count Floyd.

I'd include some critical comments but there's not much out there. The film's director, Diederik Van Rooijen, was born in the Netherlands but was raised there, in Greece and the U.S. So at least he has a working knowledge of English.

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

McQueen’s ‘Widows’ makes genre feel fresh

If you haven't yet seen it, you might be interested in the review of the film "Widows" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Veronica Rawlings is in a bad situation. Still grieving the recent death of her husband, that loss compounding the earlier death of her only son, Veronica finds herself the target of a local drug dealer.

Seems that dealer, who has political ambitions, has been robbed of $2 million. And the guy who stole it was none other than Veronica’s late hubby. But though the robbery was thwarted, the money is still missing. And the dealer is holding Veronica responsible.

She has a month, he tells her, to come up with the cash. Or else.

What’s a poor widow to do? Well, if you’re Veronica – a character co-created by director Steve McQueen and novelist Gillian Flynn and played by that awesome force of cinema, Viola Davis – you don’t just roll over. You take action.

Which in the genre-heavy world of the movie “Widows” means, naturally enough, that you do a heist of your own.

The fact that McQueen is making a genre film should come as a surprise. McQueen is well known for having given us dramatic films involving Irish revolutionaries (2008’s “Hunger”), sexual addiction (2011’s “Shame”) and antebellum evil (2013’s “12 Years a Slave”), the latter of which won a Best Picture Oscar.

What shouldn’t prove surprising is that he’s made such a good genre film. Let’s outline the reasons why.

First, we have the cast. Davis, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar last year for “Fences,” is joined by the likes of Colin Firth, Liam Neeson (as her husband) and the great Robert Duvall. And they are supported by such talented, if lesser known, performers as Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya (so effective in Jordan Peele’s 2017 thriller “Get Out”).

Then we have the social/political messaging, which though topical – domestic violence, deadly police methods and the corruption of machine politics – isn’t emphasized so much as brought up as a believable part of the Chicago that serves as these characters’ home.

Finally, we have McQueen’s skills as a filmmaker, which are evident in virtually every scene, from the inventive angles he uses to shoot the action, to the unique sense of pacing and how he ties everything together despite a narrative that plays with chronology as if it were an accordion.

Not that everything he does works. As with pretty much any heist flick – the far more lighthearted “Ocean’s” series, for example – some of the plot devices are too farfetched to believe. Especially when the obligatory twists begin to unfold, not to mention an ending that feels like a cross between wish-fulfillment and something a bit too cleverly elliptical.

But, then, McQueen – and presumably co-screenwriter Flynn – compensate for this lacking by giving each character enough of a back story to make them feel authentic. And authentically desperate enough to embark on such an absurd course of action.

Which makes “Widows” feel less like a departure for McQueen and something that fits right in with his other films. No pure genre director was ever this good at creating a cinema that feel this fresh through every single frame

Catch some more anime magic with ‘Mirai’

Fans of anime have had a fun time over the past year, what with the Studio Ghibli Fest 2018 that has been playing at two area Regal Cinemas theaters, Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

The majority of those films, including "Spirited Away" and "Castle in the Sky," are anime classics. Now, though, a film from 2018 will screen.

"Mirai" was written and directed by Mamoru Hosada. IMDB describes it this way: "A young boy encounters a magical garden which enables him to travel through time and meet his relatives from different eras, with guidance by his younger sister from the future."

And here are some critical comments:

Peter Debruge, Variety: "It's the work of a true auteur (in what feels like his most personal film yet) presented as innocuous family entertainment."

Leslie Helperin, Variety: "A sweet child's-eye view of the world."

"Mirai" will screen at Northtown Mall and Riverstone Stadium on Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. (dubbed) and 8 p.m. (subtitled), on Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. (subtitled) and Dec. 8 at 12:55 p.m. (dubbed).

Studio Ghibli Fest 2018 may be over. But anime is forever.

Toil and trouble dance at the Lantern

And, as usual, the Magic Lantern is the first area theater to finalize its Friday schedule. Aside from a second-run showing of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" the Lantern will open:

"Suspiria": Italian-born director Luca Guadagnino remakes Giallo master Dario Argento's 1977 film about a bunch of witches running a dance academy. Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson star.

Here are some critical comments:

Emily Yoshida, New York Magazine: "Suspiria is a gorgeous, hideous, uncompromising film, and while it seeks to do many things, settling our minds about the brutality of the past and human nature is not one of them."

David Erlich, IndieWire: " 'Suspiria' is a film of rare and unfettered madness, and it leaves behind a scalding message that's written in pain and blood: The future will be a nightmare if we can't take responsibility for the past."

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out: "Traditional horror fans won't be pleased: Almost transgressively, Guadagnino has deprioritized the shocks, even the fear. But in their place, he's pumped up the exotic strangeness and crafted a movie you can get lost in, which is the ultimate tribute."

Then again, there's this:

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: "As the first hour of 'Suspiria' grinds into the second and beyond (the movie runs 152 minutes), it grows ever more distended and yet more hollow."

Hey, you can't please everybody.

The week’s openings: The wrecking crew

Another holiday week, another group of Wednesday movie openings. And a varied lot it is, according to the national release schedule:

"Creed II": Michael B. Jordan returns as the son of Apollo Creed, and this time he has to face the son of the man who killed his father, Ivan Drago. Yo, Rocky, when you gonna retire?

"Ralph Breaks the Internet": The sequel to "Wreck-It Ralph (2012) in which our titular hero does exactly what the title says. What, he goes to work for Facebook?

"Robin Hood": Taron Edgerton stars in this latest version of the old tale of an English thief who steals from the rich and … yeah, yeah, you know the rest. 

"Green Book": Opening wider, this film uses the star power of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen to embellish the true story of an Italian-American hard guy (Mortensen) who was hired in 1962 to drive a concert pianist (Ali) through the Deep South. Kind of a reverse "Driving Miss Daisy."

That's the preliminary list. As always, I'll update when the area theaters finalize their bookings.

New Salander film feels stuck in a ‘Spider’s Web’

One of the films I was most interested in seeing was the new Lisbeth Salander adventure. Turns out I was more than a bit disappointed, as I explain in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

When Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson died in 2005, the world didn’t yet know about the character Lisbeth Salander. Known as much for her body piercings and dragon tattoo as for her incomparable computer-hacking skills, Salander became the principal protagonist in Larsson’s so-called “Millennium” trilogy: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.”

Salander would go on to be portrayed in several films, including Swedish versions of all three books starring Noomi Rapace, and in a 2011 American adaptation of “Dragon Tattoo” directed by David Fincher and starring Rooney Mara.

With “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” the series now heads in a new direction. Based on a continuation of Larsson’s original trilogy written by Swedish writer David Lagercrantz, the film is directed by Uruguayan-born filmmaker Fede Alvarez and stars Claire Foy as Salander.

Yet even if Salander remains as intriguing a creation as ever, this new direction is more about simple-minded action and intrigue than it is about characterization and quality.

Now known as the woman who hurts men who hurt women, Salander has become a well-known symbol of vengeance. The movie opens with her attacking a man who has beaten his wife, transferring away his money – much of it to the very wife he has abused – and leaving him with a dire warning: Don’t try to undo anything or, Salander promises, she will ruin him.

Then she is approached by a man (played by Stephen Merchant) with a problem. He has invented the McGuffin of all movie McGuffins – a computer program that will allow someone, anyone, to take control of any computerized system in the world, including the systems that governments use to control their nuclear arsenals.

Seems the man is having second thoughts about trusting those in power with such a program, including – and maybe even especially – government intelligence agencies. And so he wants Salander to steal it back.

Which, without breaking so much as a slight sweat, she is able to do. But, as these things go, that is only the beginning of Salander’s troubles. Pretty soon, she is pursued by a masked killer and his gang, a U.S. National Security Agency operative (played by Lakeith Stanfield), what seems to be the whole of Sweden’s police force, and she is reconnected with an albino-looking woman who is a spectre from her own past.

And then things play out predictably enough, with Salander reconnecting with her old friend Mikael Blomkvist (played by Sverrir Gudnason), being able to hack into any computer system – or open any door – at will while being able to escape from any predicament, whether it involve racing her motorcycle over icy canals or surviving explosions by immersing herself in, yes, bathwater.

Foy — best known for having portrayed Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflix series "The Crown" — is decent as Salander, though not as good either as Mara or Rapace. But she isn’t the problem. Neither, necessarily, is director Alvarez. The blame rests with Lagercrantz and with the producers who clearly thought that we wouldn’t notice that a script boasting cheap thrills can’t help but result in an even cheaper-feeling film.

Catch Miyazaki’s ‘Castle in the Sky’ beginning Sunday

And now comes "Hayao Miyazaki's1986 animated feature "Castle in the Sky."

GKIDS, the New York-based movie distributor, is continuing its Studio Ghibli Fest 2018 with both original-language and subtitled screenings of Miyazaki's film.

"Castle in the Sky" will play locally in versions dubbed in English at 12:55 Sunday and 7 p.m. Tuesday, in Japanese with English subtitles at 7 p.m. on Monday, at both Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

As usual, Miyazaki's film — which he wrote and directed — offers up a child's view of a world threatened by outside forces. In this case, according to IMDB.com, the plot involves "A young boy and a girl with a magic crystal (who) must race against pirates and foreign agents in a search for a legendary floating castle."

Boasting a 95 percent fresh rating on the critics' website Rotten Tomatoes, "Castle in the Sky" was described as a "a frequently astounding animated feature" by Washington Post critic Richard Harrington.

"Miyazaki's world, so full of color and life, is always just across the borderline of imagination, its acute details softened by clouds and shadows, its principles revealed by actions more than words," Harrington wrote. "It's full of 'Star Wars'-style confrontation, but it's also nice to see it handled on equal terms by male and female protagonists."

"Castle in the Sky" is the last of Studio Ghibli Fest 2018. Can't wait for 2019.