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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Harum shows how ‘Rogue One’ could be ‘Done Better’

One of the joys of filmgoing is jawing about what you see with your friends. Forget politics (if you can these days), some of the best, most intense, arguments I've ever had involve film.

And the more obscure you can make your arguments, the better. For example: Resolved: That Quentin Tarantino hates women. Discuss.

Here's another: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is a boring movie that could have been done far better.

No need to discuss that second one because Adam Harum has already done a pretty good job. You don't even need to agree with him — and many "Star Wars" fans definitely will not — to appreciate the smart, well-reasoned arguments he makes in his most recent "Done Better" YouTube post (see embed below).

You may be familiar with Harum. He's a Spokane filmmaker, one of the crew behind the "Transolar Galactica" series. His short "Lifeline" just won the Best of the Northwest award at the recent Spokane International Film Festival.

And if you take the time to listen to his critique of Gareth Edwards' film (especially his comments about Felicity Jo… zzzzzzzzz), you just might find yourself agreeing. Or, if not, his arguments just might spur you on to reinforce your own differing opinions.

Either way, "Done Better" what good film appreciation is all about.

‘Lion’ benefits from the world’s cutest 8-year-old

If you still haven't seen "Lion," the based-on-real-events movie that's playing at both the Magic Lantern and AMC River Park Square, you'll still have plenty of chances. The film will continue through next week at least.

"Lion" tells the true story of a 5-year-old Indian boy who, by circumstance, gets separated from his family and, thousands of kilometers from home, can't find his way back. He is forced to survive on the streets of Calcutta and eventually is placed in an orphanage, from which he eventually is adopted by an Australian couple. Some 25 years later, after years of anxiety, he returns to India and attempts to retrace his steps home.

Just for the record, the Garth Davis-directed film has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Two of the awards are for the supporting performances put in by Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. It's worth noting that Patel won the equivalent award at the recent British Academy Awards ceremonies.

But the real treat that "Lion" offers is the performance of a first-time actor. Sunny Pawar is an 8-year-old from Mumbai who was found after the movie's producers sent out a country-wide casting call. One of three finalists, he eventually won the role.

Here are some comments about Pawar's performance:

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: "The first half involves an enchanting 5-year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar, irresistible)."

Stephanie Zacharek, Time magazine: "Saroo (is) played by captivating child actor Sunny Pawar … Part of the reason the movie deflates is that it’s so hard to say goodbye to young Saroo, a bright, self-reliant kid with whose optimism is galvanizing."

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: "Davis is … helped immeasurably by the casting of young Sunny Pawar as the boy Saroo. A neophyte as an actor, this tiny, self-possessed performer is electric, using his expressive eyes to convey emotions that are unmistakable but still restrained."

Yeah, Patel and Kidman are OK. As is David Wenham as the husband of Kidman's character. But "Lion" belongs to Pawar, and it isn't quite the same when he exits the picture.

‘Toni Erdmann’ finally opening locally

So, the final bookings are out, and one of last year's most highly rated foreign films is on the menu. The amended list of Friday's openings includes:

"Toni Erdmann": Playing at AMC River Park Square, this lengthy (two hours, 42 minutes) German-language comedy centers on a father trying to connect with his workaholic daughter by posing as her boss' life coach. A German-made family comedy, imagine that.

I'll post the Magic Lantern openings when they become available.

Update (Wednesday a.m.): The Magic Lantern will continue with its current slate of films: "Moonlight," "The Founder," "Lion," "The Salesman," and the two Oscar-nominated shorts programs (animated, live-action).

Auntie’s to honor Washington Book Award winners

Above: Sharma Shields, author of "The Sasquatch Hunter's Handbook."

For a couple of years in the early '90s, I had the honor of serving on a committee to choose what was then called the Governor's Writers Awards. Now dubbed the Washington State Book Awards, the process retains pretty much the same intent: to honor "outstanding books published by Washington authors the previous year."

Two of the area authors who won awards during my tenure were John Keeble for his nonfiction book "Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound" and Ursula Hegi for her novel "Floating in My Mother's Palm."

The most recent area winner was Sharma Shields for her book "The Sasquatch Hunter's Handbook." The fiction winner in 2015 was Bruce Holbert for "The Hour of Lead," while the the poetry award went to Tod Marshall (now the Washington State Poet Laureate) for his collection "Bugle."

On Friday from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Auntie's Bookstore will recognize all the area winners who have won state book awards over the years. Expected to attend, among others, are Shields, poet Marshall, Mary Cronk Farrell, Gregory Spatz, Nance Van Winckle, Shann Ray, Paul Lindholdt and Bill Youngs.

The event is free and open to the public. And I imagine some books will be for sale. It'd probably be a good idea to buy one. Or three.

Friday’s openings: Punches and more get thrown

What with so many 2016 films still hanging around — mostly because of awards season — it's hard to gauge the full extent of what area theaters might be opening. Other than the big films, that is.

Three films are on the national release list for Friday: They are:

"The Great Wall": Matt Damon plays a European mercenary whose trek to ancient China means fighting monsters who want to feed on humanity. Directed by the great Zhang Yimou, this is a joint China-Hollywood production — for what that's worth.

"Fist Fight": Charlie Day plays the hapless nerd/teacher who gets called out by a fellow tough-guy teacher (Ice Cube). Think "Three O'Clock High," only with teachers.

"A Cure for Wellness": When a young executive (Dane DeHaan) heads to a Swiss resort to retrieve a senior colleague, he finds himself mired in a weird world of supposed health "cures." As one reviewer calls it, Gore Verbinski's new film is a "A Gloriously Demented Dose Of Big-Budget Horror."

I'll have the final bookings when they become available. Stay tuned.

Oscar shorts range in theme and style

Two of the Oscar-nominated shorts programs open in Spokane today. Following is the preview of them that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Sooner or later, the Inland Northwest gets most of the big-name Oscar-nominated films. In recent years, they’ve tended to play here even in the year in which they were released – which wasn’t always the case.

Time was, some of the Oscar nominees – Woody Allen movies, say – would never screen anywhere near the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene corridor. Or if they did, it would usually be at one of the gestations of the old Magic Lantern – versions that sported tiny screens, poor sound, uncomfortable seats and wretched sightlines … even if, perhaps, the best popcorn.

Now, though, it’s different. Ignore the fact that the more enterprising among us can find a way to screen pretty much anything they want over the Internet. Those of us who prefer to see our movies legitimately, not to mention in an actual theater, may have to wait a bit – but, for the most part, the movies do come.

Part of this is due to demand. Yes, most movie fans still clamor to see movies in which superheroes save the day, animals soothe their masters, nerds discover their mega-powered inner-selves – all occurring, preferably, in between things blowing up real good. But theaters need a lot of product, and in recent years enterprising producers have found ingenious ways of providing it.

One way is to package all the Oscar-nominated shorts into individual programs. The five nominated animated shorts, for example. Or the five nominated live-action shorts. Even the documentary shorts, which tend to be longer, are being released in two separate programs.

Beginning this weekend, the Magic Lantern Theater and the AMC River Park Square will screen both the animated shorts and live-action shorts programs, both of which explore a wide range of topics, themes and styles.

The animated shorts, for example, hail mostly from North America, with three U.S. entries and two from Canada. One of those Canadian films, Robert Valley’s “Pear Cider and Cigarettes,” is both a UK co-production and the longest of the bunch at 35 minutes. In most ways, it is the most ambitious, being a graphic-novel-influenced, real-life story of a friend trying to save his self-destructive buddy.

But the competition in this category is tough, what with the program including the Pixar short “Borrowed Time,” the Disney Studio short “Piper,” the father-daughter study “Pearl” and even “Blind Vaysha,” a visual kaleidoscope adaptation of an old folk tale that just screened at the recent Spokane International Film Festival.

In the live-action program, the themes are darker, with arguably the best – the French-made “Ennemis intérieurs” (see embed below) – being a face-off between an Algerian man seeking French citizenship and a French official. The Danish entry “Silent Nights” is another tale of immigration, the Hungarian short “Sing” explores a youth choir’s rebellion against its teacher, while Spain’s “Timecode” and Switzerland’s “La Femme et la TGV” offer wry yet touching looks at intimacy.

So, OK, you won’t find an exploding car in the bunch. And maybe the overall quality doesn’t quite match that of years past. But both shorts programs are well worth a view.

Especially since it’s only these days that we’re afforded one.

Oakland Film Festival to screen at Whitworth

Leonard Oakland is a teaching legend to many Whitworth University students. And even in his emeritus years, he has been the recipient of many accolades and honors.

One of the most public is an annual film event. This year's Leonard Oakland Film Festival will be held Thursday through Sunday, with an additional event scheduled for Feb. 20, on the Whitworth campus. For specifics, clink on the above link.

Festival highlights, no surprise, involve movie screenings. At 7 p.m. Friday, documentary filmmaker Alexandra Hidalgo will attend a showing of her recent documentary "Vanishing Borders." At 7 p.m. Saturday, a panel discussion will following a showing of the Paul Thomas Anderson film "Inherent Vice" (an adaptation of the novel by Thomas Pynchon). And at 3 p.m. Sunday, the Hungarian film "Son of Saul" will screen.

All events will be held in Whitworth's Robinson Teaching Theater. For other information, call (509) 777-1000.

The week’s openings redux: Almodóvar and Oscar shorts

In addition to the films mentioned below, here are a couple of other openings scheduled for Friday:

"Julieta": Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar returns with this tale about a woman who, alienated from her grown daughter, tries to reconnect with her while confronting painful memories of their past. Bring a hanky.

Oscar-nominated shorts: Two separate programs, one for animated films, the other for live-action. Look for Pixar and Disney to duke it out in the animated category. (Screening both in mainstream theaters and the Magic Lantern.)

Added note: "The LEGO Batman Movie" will be available at certain theaters in both standard and 3D formats.

That's the list. So go, see a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Keanu and LEGO Batman

Looking at the coming week's movie schedule early on a Monday morning isn't always the best way to figure out what's actually going to open. Local theaters tend to alter their lineups based on a variety of factors, which means that other than the biggest-name releases little is certain.

But this coming Friday does boast three pretty big openings, so let's mention those and pick up any stragglers — or correct any miscalculations — when the local schedule does get finalized (usually no later than mid-day Wednesday). So, as of now, the national schedule offers the following Friday openings:

"The LEGO Batman Movie": The most popular breakout character from 2014's surprise breakout hit, "The LEGO Movie," returns with a movie all his own. If it's only half as good, it should still be one of the funniest films of the year.

"Fifty Shades Darker": Yes, the sequel to "Fifty Shades of Grey." This time no games, she says. Right.

"John Wick: Chapter 2": Keanu Reeves returns as the retired assassin, forced out of retirement, who now has had a bounty placed on his head. Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K, dude.

That's it for now. I'll post the final listings when they are announced.

SpIFF 19 faces a comic apocalypse

If you've been having trouble scoring tickets for any of the 19th Spokane International Film Festival screenings, your struggle is over — for the night, at least. The festival moves to the Bing Crosby Theater tonight for a pair of events.

2017 Best of the Northwest (5:30): Eight short films exploring a variety of subjects made by filmmakers hailing from all over the Northwest.

"Diani and Devine Meet the Apocalypse" (7:30): An offbeat comedy about two comedians who are faced with an end-of-the-world scenario.

SpIFF 2017 returns on Saturday to the Magic Lantern with a full schedule and culminates with a special screening at the Martin Woldsen Theatre at The Fox of the silent classic "The Phantom of the Opera" accompanied by the Spokane Symphony.

Click here for SpIFF ticket information.

SpIFF 19 explores the power of art, nature

The 19th Spokane International Film Festival continues tonight at the Magic Lantern with two completely different offerings, one a narrative feature based on a true story, the other a documentary study of life in a garden.

"Nise — The Heart of Madness" (6:30): Based on a segment in the life of Brazilian psychiatrist Nise da Silveira, director Roberto Berliner's film focuses on da Silveira's tenure at a mental hospital where — to the disdain of her colleagues — she pioneered the use of art and other therapies to help her patients. In Portuguese with English Subtitles.

"Portrait of a Garden" (6:45): Dutch director Rosie Stapel guides us through a year in the life of and estate garden, exploring not only the plants but those who care for them. The Village Voice calls it "a balm for the soul." In Dutch with English subtitles.

Films have been selling out, so you might want to purchase your tickets early.

SpIFF continues through Saturday. Like the Magic Lantern itself, it's a Spokane cinematic treasure, well worth attending — and supporting.

Magic Lantern to screen Iranian film on Friday

Even art isn't immune to political maneuvering. Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose 2011 film "A Separation" won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, won't be allowed to attend the Feb. 26 2017 Oscar ceremonies.

The reason? The recent presidential executive order that prevents residents of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the United States.

This isn't the best place to get into the politics of all this. I will say, though, that I'm just thankful the ban doesn't apply to Farhadi's films, the latest of which — "The Salesman" — opens at the Magic Lantern on Friday.

Having garnered at 98 percent approval rating on the film-review site Rotten Tomatoes, in addition to an Oscar nomination of its own, Farhadi's film is attracting rave reviews. Here are just a few:

David Edelstein, New York Magazine: "It's another of the director's analytical but deeply empathetic films about modern Iranian society and what separates men from women and the government from its people."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "With exquisite patience and attention to detail, Asghar Farhadi, the writer and director, builds a solid and suspenseful plot out of ordinary incidents, and packs it with rich and resonant ideas."

Dana Stevens, Slate: "The two storylines interweave seamlessly and subtly, the couple's real-life problems not so much repeating as refracting the experiences of their fictional counterparts."

Art is art. Supporting it is the obligation of us all.

The week’s openings redux: SpIFF goes international

Along with the two mainstream openings listed below, a third film is scheduled to open Friday in area theaters. And the 19th Spokane International Film Festival continues tonight with a pair of showings.

Friday's additional opening:

"The Comedian": Robert De Niro — yes, the Robert De Niro — plays an aging insult comic who is seeking another shot at fame. You looking at me?

And tonight's SpIFF schedule (both screenings are at the Magic Lantern):

"Lost in Paris" (6:30): A Canadian woman heads to the City of Lights to find her elderly aunt who has gone missing. Comic disasters ensue. In French and English (with English subtitles).

"District Zero" (6:45): A man living in a Jordanian refugee camp amid thousands of displaced Syrians goes about life fixing mobile phones. A meditation on the meaning of existence. In Arabic with English subtitles.

Note: Screenings have been selling out, so get your tickets early.

The week’s openings: SpIFF is feline great

On Friday, the mainstream theaters look to be opening only a pair of first-run releases. But the Spokane International Film Festival will be operating all week long. So … make sure to take in a movie. Or three.

Friday's mainstream openings according to the national schedule:

"The Space Between Us": A teenager born and raised on Mars falls in love with an Earth girl. Will their different physiologies, Mars versus Earth, keep them apart?

"Rings": How many times can we remake the 1998 Japanese horror film "Ringu"? You know, the one about a videotape that, once you see it, dooms you to death within seven days? It's an endless process, apparently.

As for tonight's offerings from SpIFF, which is screening films at the Magic Lantern:

6:30: "Kedi" is a documentary about feral cats in the city of Istanbul. Screening in the Lantern's larger auditorium, the film (mostly in Turkish with English subtitles) gives a good feel for Istanbul street life.

6:45: A collection of U.S. and Canadian shorts will screen in the Lantern's smaller theater.

SpIFF movies tend to sell out. So better show up early.

‘Split’ may signify a Shyamalan comeback

Tonight marks the opening of the 19th Spokane International Film Festival. But if you have the time, you might be interested in catching a screening of M. Night Shyamalan's new film "Split." Here is my review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

When the psychological/paranormal thriller “The Sixth Sense” hit theaters in 1999, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan was immediately dubbed a wunderkind.

Barely 29 at the time, the Indian-born Shyamalan – who grew up in suburban Philadelphia – watched as “The Sixth Sense” not only made boatloads of money (it grossed nearly $294 million in 1999 alone) but it went on to earn six Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture.

Though the film got shut out at the Oscars, it trademarked the signs of a born auteur, not just in visual style but style of story. Subsequent Shyamalan films “Unbreakable,” “Signs” and “The Village” all feature, in one way or another, the familiar Shyamalan plot twist. But by 2008, following the release of “Lady in the Water,” the familiar had become cliché. And with “The Happening,” released two years later, even Shyamalan’s formerly impeccable visual style had devolved.

Four films later, after a series of critical disasters – not to mention declining revenues – Shyamalan is experiencing something of a comeback. Last year’s “The Visit” again wowed some critics, and his most recent release, “Split,” is already the fourth-best January opening film of all time.

“Split” begins with a kidnapping of three young women. Having been drugged, the women wake up to strange and horrifying circumstances: The first three people they encounter – a man named Dennis, a woman named Patricia and a 9-year-old boy named Hedwig – are all the same person (played by James McAvoy).

As we come to learn, that person – whose name is Kevin – suffers from multiple personality disorder, the result of abuse he suffered as a child. Shyamalan explains all this as “Split” progresses, and we see at least one of Kevin’s personalities – a man who identifies as Barry – in therapy sessions with a psychologist (played by Betty Buckley). We also come to know one of the kidnapped women, Casey (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who herself has a troubled past.

The three plot lines – the young women trying to figure out how to escape, the therapist suspecting that her patient is hiding something and Casey reliving her own childhood nightmare – all slowly merge. And while Shyamalan plays fast and loose with the principles of psychology as he builds to a particularly fanciful ending, he keeps the plot moving well enough so that “Split” remains an entertaining view.

To manage this, he owes a debt to his cast. Buckley, a veteran actress whose film debut was in Brian De Palma’s 1976 version of “Carrie,” is a solid presence. Taylor-Joy is on a roll, having played a central part in the 2015 film “Witch” and the title role in last year’s thriller “Morgan”; Shyamalan’s camera obviously loves her.

But the ultimate success of “Split,” no surprise, depends on McAvoy, who is able to make each of Kevin’s characters feel both authentically unique and yet part of the same overall individual.

In the end, “Split” isn’t close to being the best film that Shyamalan has ever directed. But it does show that his career may be again headed in the right direction.