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

‘San Andreas’: Nine essential questions

Based on NPR film critic Chris Klimek's review of the mega-disaster movie "San Andreas," which opens all over the known universe in various formats and pretty much on demand, here are the nine essential questions the movie will require you to answer:

1. How does a 6-feet-5, 260-pound man (played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) fit into a helicopter pilot's seat?

2. How does The Rock's character, a pilot for the L.A. Fire Department, avoid being charged for dereliction of duty for ignoring his job and using government equipment to save his family?

3. Where is San Francisco's Asian population?

4. Is Paul Giamatti in every movie ever made?

5. When did Casting 101 require that everyone look so pretty? Yeah, this is California, but still …

6. Hey, isn't that Hoover Da … oops, never mind.

7. How many people die in this movie, anyway?

8. Is it loud enough for you?

9. What?

Two more SpIFF winners grab awards

As a member of the Spokane International Film Festival board of directors, I'm not above giving the annual Spokane-based movie-going orgy the attention I think it deserves. But sometimes I don't have to work hard to do it.

Sometimes the accolades just come naturally.

This is one of those times. I've already written about the several awards that have been won by "Wildlike," Frank Hall Green's feature that won the Silver SpIFFY for Best of the NW Feature and SpIFF's Audience Award in the same category.

And I've also written about Canadian filmmaker Corbin Saleken, whose short in the 2013 edition of SpIFF won the Gold SpIFFY for Best of the NW Short. Saleken also took home that festival's crown for Most Promising Filmmaker.

And the two have struck again, this time at the 10th Annual Big Island Film Festival, which was held over the Memorial Day Weekend on the big island of Hawaii. "Wild" won the top prize for feature films, while Saleken's first feature, "Patterson's Wager," won for best foreign feature.

SpIFF has a number of smart and knowledgeable film programmers, young and old(er). They've proven their worth yet again.

By the way, when SpIFF director Pete Porter congratulated Saleken in an email for, in his words, "redeeming SpIFF’s Most Promising Filmmaker Award," the filmmaker posted a nice response.

"Thanks, Pete," Saleken wrote. "It is an honour (spelled the Canadian way, because I can't help myself). Thanks for seeing something in me back in 2013.  As I've said many times before, your award really did give me some much-needed encouragement."

Friday’s openings: The Rock has no time for faults

OK, seems as if I was left off somebody's email list. But then, there's no real surprise about Friday's mainstream movie openings. They include an earthquake movie and a rom-com set in Hawaii. Friday's movie openings are as follows:

"San Andreas": Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson struggles to save his family when a massive earthquake levels most of California. Check out The Rock doing his best Charlton Heston impression.

"Aloha": Bradley Cooper is a pilot who gets caught between two attractive women, played by Rachel McAdams and Emma Stone. We all should have such problems. Fun fact: Both female leads have starred in Woody Allen films that begin with the letter "M."

So, you know the drill. Go. See a movie. Enjoy.

Friday’s ML openings: Go west, young movie fan

I'm still waiting to hear from the mainstream theaters about what movies they're opening on Friday. (Other than, of course, the mega-disaster flick "San Andreas," which is opening everywhere.) But at least I have the Magic Lantern's lineup. Friday's Lantern openings are as follows:

"Clouds of Sils Maris": Juliet Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz star in this intriguing tale of two actresses, a personal assistant, meteorology, metaphysics and professional rivalry. This second-run (it already played at AMC), multi-language (English, French, German) film poses a singular question: Who knew that "Twilight" actress could act?

"Slow West": A teenage boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) teams up with a guide (Michael Fassbender) to search through the Old West for his one true love (Caren Pistorius). It, too, poses a question: Do you smell gunsmoke?

We’re in a race: Avoiding extinction is the prize

As an alternative to "Tomorrowland," which I commented on below, one of the films playing at the 41st Seattle International Film Festival is the call-to-action documentary "Racing Extinction." Directed by Louie Psihoyos, the man who gave us "The Cove," the documentary is an attempt to call attention to the devastating effects humans are having on the Earth — specifically on the numerous other species with which we share the planet.

What with the various presidential campaigns getting under way, and at least some of the candidates making some outrageously obtuse statements, movies such as "Racing Extinction" — and even "Tomorrowland" — are more important than ever. It'd be nice, though, if such calls to action included some basic, direct suggestions for how to fix the problem.

Voting your conscience is always a good thing. But when has it ever been enough?

SIFF will screen "Racing Extinction" at 7:15 p.m. Friday at the SIFF Cinema Uptown. Director Psihoyos and coproducer Gina Papabeis are scheduled to attend. Click here for information on how to score tickets. 

‘Tomorrowland’: Disney’s newest sales pitch

It was long weekend, but for various reasons I saw only one film — "Tomorrowland" — and despite the film's earning a cool $33 million, I had mixed reactions. My two main problems are:

1, It feels like a commercial for Disney, specifically for Disney theme parks. As a West Coast kid, I always felt a closer tie to the original park, Anaheim's Disneyland. And Tomorrowland was my favorite spot, even before Space Mountain, what with the Rocket to the Moon E-ticket ride (which, for a kid in the 1950s, seemed like pure fantasy). So "Tomorrowland" is a natural invitation for fans to come out of the movie and to then check out the theme-park spot to see what's new. And, yes, other movies are marketing ploys, too ("The Lego Movie," for example), but the best are satirically self-referential. Not much satire here, even though the movie was co-written and directed by Brad Bird.

2, It offers a naive, kid's-eye view of today's problems. When the Hugh Laurie character explains what he sees as today's reality, the best retort that George Clooney's character (and the film itself) can come up with is to fill the world with "dreamers" who haven't lost hope. No specifics such as eliminating oil and coal production while seeking out cleaner fuel sources, which makes the movie even less relevant to real-world solutions than are offered in your average middle-school science class. If this is the best we can do, then our messaging is becoming an even bigger part of the problem — kind of like kids collecting coins to help end world hunger: It makes us feel good without doing much to solve the basic problem.

Not that I disliked the movie. The special effects Bird comes up with are clever enough. He and his screenwriting team (which includes Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen) keep the action moving throughout the complex, multi-character plotline. And even though she ends up not having much effect on the film's climactic events, and looks every day of her 25 years, Britt Robertson does a decent job impersonating a high-schooler.

"Tomorrowland" isn't a bad movie. A lot of people, kids especially, will likely enjoy it. I just wish it had been … well, better.

Time for a rant about ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

After seeing George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road," I ended up writing a review for Spokane Public Radio. I've written many such reviews over the years, but this one is a bit different: It's less a review than it is a rant.

Buy, hey, everyone needs to rant on occasion. Following is my, uh, rant-review:

One of the funniest – actually, make that the most hilarious – so-called controversies about a Hollywood film I’ve ever heard of involves the much-publicized boycott of George Miller’s new film “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Actually, calling Miller’s movie new is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a continuation – or perhaps an extension – of a series the Australian filmmaker began in 1979 with the original film, titled simply “Mad Max.” That was followed two years later by “Mad Max: The Road Warrior” and in 1985 by “Mad Mad: Beyond Thunderdome.”

But then calling “Fury Road” controversial is less of a misnomer than a pure exaggeration. Boycotts by "men’s-rights advocates" are seldom worth noting, even when reason for one exists. And only a bigot – or someone allergic to CGI violence and Tom Hardy’s sensuous lips – could find a reason here. Hardy, by the way, is the actor who has replaced Mel Gibson as the title character.

Let me quote one complainer: “This is the vehicle by which they are guaranteed to force a lecture on feminism down your throat. This is the Trojan Horse feminists and Hollywood leftists will use to (vainly) insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things, including physique, strength, and logic."

The point of view being expressed there is so absurd I’m tempted to think that it was dreamed up by some movie executive worried that – as indeed did happen – “Mad Max: Fury Road” wouldn’t be able to attract as sizeable an audience as “Pitch Perfect 2.” But even if Miller’s new film did make nearly $24 million less than a movie about an all-women glee club – and isn’t THAT ironic? – it still managed to gross more than $45 million, which isn’t a bad total at all.

The truly operative questions are, 1, how good is “Mad Max: Fury Road” and, 2, is it worth paying the extra three and a half bucks to see it in 3D? And the respective answers are: over the top and why not?

Despite three screenwriters getting credit (including Miller), you won’t find much of a story. Max gets taken prisoner early on by the forces of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who starred as Toecutter in the original “Mad Max”) and is used as a blood bag for Warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult).

It’s only when Imperator Furiosa (a butch looking Charlize Theron), attempts to save the members of Immortan Joe’s harem from sexual servitude that Max is pressed into service – at first reluctantly – in what becomes one extended road race. Unlike the first film, which resembled a Roger Corman exploitation biker flick, “Fury Road” plays like a graphic novel come to life, complete with big bangs, motorcycle jumps too daring even for Steve McQueen and – spoiler alert – a flame-throwing guitar player.

Yes, Hardy’s Max is nearly peripheral to the main plotline. But the fact that “Mad Max: Fury Road” features a female character who could teach Rocky Balboa something about toughness is definitely a plus. To claim otherwise, well, that’s truly worth a giggle.

Maybe even two.

SIFF 2015: The weekend is filled with good film

If you're a film fan and you're headed for Seattle this weekend, remember this: The 41st Seattle International Film Festival is in its second weekend. Movies will be showing at six different venues, five in Seattle itself and one in Renton (the Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center).

A single suggestion: The French film "Our Summer in Provence," directed by Rose Bosch, starring the great Jean Reno. Information is in the cutline below.

For schedule and box-office information, click here.

Below: "Our Summer in Provence" plays at 7:15 Saturday and 1:30 p.m. May 31 at Seattle's SIFF Cinema Egyptian, and 5:30 p.m. June 7 at the Kirkland Performance Center.

This remake not such ‘Magnificent’ news

I just read something that, in terms of cinema, I consider to be blasphemy. Someone green-lit a remake of "The Magnificent Seven."

OK, I know. John Sturges' 1960 western is itself a remake. It's an American version of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film "The Seven Samurai" (itself subject to a remake), which he directed from an original screenplay he co-wrote with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Despite being transplanted from Japan to Mexico, Sturges' movie carries but a single screenwriter: William Roberts.

And, yes, Sturges' film inspired at least three sequels and a television show as well. None, though, could touch the 1960 film. Certainly not for star power, what with the likes of Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and the great Steve McQueen in the cast. But not in quality either.

The problem is that, like many classic films, Sturges' "The Magnificent Seven" is a film of its time. Today's mores won't allow the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants to play a Mexican, the way Eli Wallach plays the bandit chief Calvera. And little made today won't at least attempt to capture diversity, which is why Denzel Washington is listed as central to the new production (set for a 2017 release).

Not that I begrudge Washington's casting. As he proved most in the 2012 film "Flight," where he played a drunken airline pilot, he's still as good an actor as is working today. And of course he can play a gunfighter, every bit as fittingly as Danny Glover played a trail hand in "Lonesome Dove."

It's just this: I have a short list of films that are I consider to be nearly perfect. "Casablanca" is one. And "The Magnificent Seven" is another. And just as I would hate to think of, say, Zack Snyder doing a "Casablanca" remake with, say, Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Lawrence — and don't laugh; some agent somewhere has definitely tried to sell that idea or something even more ridiculous — I can't stand the thought of Antoine Fuqua remaking Sturges' western masterpiece.

So I'm not looking forward to this new "Magnificent Seven." Not at all.

Or maybe I would be — but only if Quentin Tarantino were directing.

Friday’s openings: Drones, bones, fashion and Disney

Note: This blog post originally misidentified the actor starring in "Good Kill." Duh. Since corrected.

If you decide to stay in Spokane this weekend — that is, instead of heading to Seattle to take in the 41st Seattle International Film Festival — you should have a couple of decent movie selection to choose from. Friday's openings are as follows:

"Far From the Madding Crowd": Thomas Vinterberg adapts Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel about an independent woman land-owner and her passionate relationships with three different men. Question: Is Carey Mulligan a suitable substitute for Julie Christie?

"Tomorrowland": Director and a team of screenwriters dream up a plot involving a teen actress, George Clooney and a Disney theme-park destination as backdrop for a summer release. Hope it's worth the price of an E-ticket.

"Poltergeist": Sam Rockwell plays the head of a family living in a haunted house. Second remake this week.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Iris": Fashion designer Iris Apfel is the subject of this documentary by Albert Maysles. Oooh, fashion! Beep-beep Beep-beep.

"Good Kill": Ethan Hawke stars as a military drone pilot who begins to question the morality of what he's doing. So he decides to quit and become a professional gamer.

That's it. You know the drill. Go see a movie. And enjoy.

SIFF 2015: Plenty of time left to see good film

I just returned home after spending much of the weekend in Seattle, attending the 41st Seattle International Film Festival. Unlike the old days, when I had the energy — not to mention desire — to see 20-odd movies in a weekend, I managed only five. But I saw at least a couple of winners. My moviegoing choices were, in order:

"Gemma Bovery" (Saturday at The Egyptian): The conceit here is interesting: When an English couple moves to rural Normandy, seeking a life in the French countryside, their neighbor (Fabrice Luchini) falls in lust with the wife (Gemma Arterton). Because her name is so close to Flaubert's titular character in "Madam Bovary," he fantasizes that she is living the same kind of life that Flaubert imagined — and will suffer the same kind of fate. Based on a graphic novel, and billed as as "a sexy, lighthearted take" on Flaubert's story, the film to me was anything but. Sexy, for sure, but lighthearted? Not to me. 

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" (Saturday at the Pacific Place): Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's second feature, which writer Jesse Andrews adapted from his own novel, won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Drama at January's Sundance International Film Festival. And Gomez-Rejon's film should do well when it gets a wide release on June 12. Much of the film, though, feels cutely made — as if Gomez-Rejon couldn't decide what to do with his camera and decided to throw it around like an obstreperous 2-year-old. When the movie does settle down, it evokes a fair amount of real emotion.

 "The New Girlfriend" (Sunday at the Uptown): Francoise Ozon ("Swimming Pool") constructs a meditation on human relations that bends genders as much as anything I've ever seen. Two young French girls swear lifelong fealty, and when one dies the other, Claire, switches her feelings to her friend's widower and his baby girl. So far, so good. But then Claire discovers the widower's secret that, ultimately, gives her the opportunity to continue enjoying her friend's presence — even if only virtually — while exploring new heights of intimacy and sexual exploration. Not just gender- but mind-bending.

 "Those People" (Sunday at the Uptown): A group of young, privileged New Yorkers see their lives take a turn for the worse when the central figure of their quintet finds himself involved in an investment scandal. Meanwhile, his best friend must figure out what loves means when he is seduced by an older classical pianist. A well-made study of people whose juvenile narcissism I grew tired of very quickly.

"I'll See You in My Dreams" (Sunday at the Uptown): Seventy-two-year-old Blythe Danner stars as a women, widowed for 20 years, who questions what to do with herself, especially after meeting a smart-if-underachieving pool cleaner (Martin Starr of "Silicon Valley") and a dreamy retired guy (Sam Elliott). If you can get past the "Golden Girls" sequences, which become quickly tiresome, you'll discover a sense of authenticity that makes this one special movie. You'll likely get to see soon, as the film earned a general release on May 15.

I may not make it over to enjoy this version of SIFF again until the final weekend. But as the festival lasts through June 7, you'll have lots of opportunities to see movies between now and then. So get in your car. And go.

All the information you'll need can be found at SIFF.net.

‘Felix et Meira’: mood, setting and visual metaphor

One of the films opening today at the Magic Lantern is a French-Canadian study in culture clash. I reviewed the film for Spokane Public Radio, and a transcription of that review follows:

The best cinema takes us places we’ve never been. Sometimes that means literally a place. In some cases, it means a time. In many instances, it may mean a mere emotion.

In his film “Felix and Meira,” French-Canadian filmmaker Maxime Giroux doesn’t plow any new ground in terms of plot. We’ve all seen movies that attempt to examine the clash of two very different cultures, especially when the clash involves two disaffected characters who risk everything to seek out solace in each other’s presence.

In Giroux’s case though, the quality of his work isn’t so much about where he takes us as how he arranges the virtual trek.

Giroux sets his film between two cultures that – though both are situated in Montreal – couldn’t be much more different. In one, Meira – married into an Orthodox Jewish community and the mother of a baby girl – is feeling isolated and suffocated by the strict rules under which she is forced to live – rules that dictate when and how electricity can be used, that forbid the playing of music that doesn’t fit her community’s mores and that demand, whatever her own wishes, she deliver her husband as many children as she can bear.

In the other, Felix is a 40-something Quebecois who, when we first meet him, greets the father he hasn’t seen in 10 years. A father who, on his deathbed, can’t even recognize his own son. Which explains a lot about Felix, about why he seems so footloose, dependent on his sister and uninterested in doing anything specific with the inheritance she promises to share with him.

The two meet, somewhat cute, and gradually – and not particularly plausibly – develop a relationship that threatens both her marriage and community identity. Yet Giroux isn’t interested in remaking Romeo and Juliet, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time and effort constructing that kind of doomed romance. What he does spend time and effort on is developing mood, setting and visual metaphor. And that makes all the difference.

Scenes develop patiently, whether we’re talking about Giroux’s camera moving down a dinner table or following Felix through an open doorway. Lighting is natural, underscoring the story’s somber tone. Sound is important, whether it involves Meira’s playing with a mousetrap or Leonard Cohen crooning his song “Famous Blue Raincoat,” but so are silences, whether they are used as backdrop to a hotel-room scene where Felix removes Meira’s wig or the two sharing a gondola ride in a Venetian canal with Meira’s baby.

Patience is Giroux’s key and his chief stylistic tool. He may throw in scenes that for whatever reason throw us off-balance – an African-American spiritual, for example, or a pair of secondary characters complaining that Felix “dances like a vacuum cleaner” – and he’s not above using irony: Felix is given his father’s last, moving message by the least likely character possible.

But, again, patience. Giroux doesn’t tie up all his story’s loose ends. And he doesn’t promise anything remotely mainstream as eternal happiness. All he does is suggest the possibility. And that’s more than enough.

SpIFF entry ‘Wildlike’ continues its award-winning run

When the 17th version of the Spokane International Film Festival ran, last Feb. 5-14, a number of good films were screened. Some were even award-winners elsewhere. Among them was Frank Hall Green's narrative film "Wildlike."

Shot in various Alaska locations, from the Inland Passage to Denali National Park, Green's film tells the story of a young runaway — a victim of sexual abuse — who latches onto a stranger for comfort and safety. Newcomer Ella Purnell, a British 15-year-old, plays the runaway, veteran Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood the stranger.

One bit of "Wildlike" trivia, courtesy of IMDB: "Purnell spoke in her American English accent from the moment she got off the plane in Alaska, all during production, 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, until she got back on the plane to London 6 weeks later." And you'd never know she wasn't a typical U.S. teen.

Besides SpIFF, “Wildlike” has played in more than 85 festivals and has collected some 50 awards, among them the Silver SpIFFY for Best of the NW Feature and SpIFF's Audience Award in the same category.

“Wildlike” is scheduled to play May 29 in Los Angeles, June 4 and 6 in Greenwich, Conn., and June 7 in Brooklyn. A commercial release is said to be “in the works.”

Once again, SpIFF proves that it does screen quality cinema.

Below: Purnell and Greenwood are interviewed, and you can hear her actual accent.

Friday’s openings: Get furious with ‘Mad Max’

It's been 36 years since George Miller presented us his original trilogy version of a world gone mad. As in "Mad Max" (1979), which was followed by "Mad Max: The Road Warrior" (1981) and "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" (1985). Now we have a new version, which headlines this week's movie openings.

Friday's openings are as follows:

"Mad Max: Fury Road": Miller returns with a remake (reimagining? reinvention? reconstruction?) of his classic "Mad Max" tale. Starring Tom Hardy and his sensuous lips. One question: Where's Mel Gibson?

"Pitch Perfect 2": One of the surprisingly funny comedies of 2012 was "Pitch Perfect," which follows the misadventures of a competitive, all-women college glee group. One question answered: Yes, Rebel Wilson returns.

"Where Hope Grows": A washed-up baseball player is rejuvenated by a "gregarious supermarket employee with Down Syndrome." Bring hankies.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Felix et Meira": Set in Montreal, this Canadian entry explores the burgeoning relationship between a young atheist with few family ties and a young Hasidic woman burdened by the exact opposite circumstance. A whole variety of languages, including French and Yiddish, with English subtitles.

"Welcome to Me": Talented Kristen Wiig plays an emotionally disturbed woman who, after winning a lottery, starts her own television talk show. Hey, is this the female Conan O'Brien story?

So you know the drill by now. Go. See a movie, Enjoy.

For some tasty reporting, check out Tastemade

In this second decade of the 21st century, we've all become critics. Of course, "critic" these days usually means either "fanboy" or "troll," as the range of informed and intelligent reviews of pretty much anything is limited.

Which is why I always read as many reviews as I can. Of movies, for sure, but even more so of restaurants. I want to make sure that I'm not reading the overly complimentary notes of an eatery's employee or, worse, the negative news being delivered by a competing eatery's front office.

Or I can do this: search out for voices that I know and trust. One such voice in Seattle is Leslie Kelly, a restaurant and food writer whom I have known for more than three decades. Whom I worked with at The Spokesman-Review. And whose work I still follow, especially whenever I want to know the latest places to hit in that city we all know and love 280 miles west.

Leslie writes these days for Zagat, and she also does video reviews for Tastemade, which is available both online and as a phone app. Her Tastemade reviews provide a look at what you can expect from variety of places, and I can't think of a better site to start looking for a decent place to eat. (That's a photo of her up above, sampling a tasty beverage from one of the spots she's visited.) 

You can follow Leslie by going on the Tastemade site and signing up. And who knows? Maybe even you can become a Tastemade critic yourself. It's clear that Spokane's growing foodie scene needs a few good ones.

And if you do? Try to avoid being either a generic fanboy or a raving troll. The world's already got too many of them.

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