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

‘Frantz’: a fresh twist on a familiar story

The Magic Lantern is screening the French-German film "Frantz," which was written and directed by François Ozon. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

For fully half its running time, writer-director François Ozon’s World War I-era film “Frantz” goes in a predictable direction. Based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 anti-war film “Broken Lullaby,” itself an adaptation of a Maurice Rostand stage play, “Frantz” starts out as a simple story of a man trying to make up for something he can’t forgive himself for doing.

But then, just when you expect Ozon to head into familiar territory, he swerves. Not hugely, and not in any fantastical way. He simply does so in a manner that, while it might have surprised audiences of Lubitsch’s era, feels perfectly attuned to 21st-century sensibilities.

The Frantz of the film’s title is a young German soldier who, when the film begins, is revealed to have been killed at the front. In fact, Frantz exists mostly as a McGuffin, seen only in flashbacks, his ghostly presence haunting the other characters. That includes his fiancée, Anna, as well as Frantz’s parents, with whom she lives. All plod through their days, burdened by loss.

Then one afternoon, while heading to Frantz’s grave – a symbolic site because Frantz’s actual body was buried where he fell – Anna, well played by the German actress Paula Beer, spots a stranger laying flowers on the dead man’s headstone. When asked for an explanation, the man – who turns out to be French – explains that he had been Frantz’s friend. That they had shared experiences in Paris before the war.

And so, slowly, the man – who introduces himself as Adrien Rivoire (played by Pierre Niney) – becomes a comfort both to Anna and to Frantz’s parents. Not at first because, one, he is French and resentment toward the enemy is still strong in Germany and, two, because their grief is just too raw. But he wins them over, finally, with tales of his and Frantz’s visiting museums and dancing in Paris nightclubs.

There is, of course, something a little too convenient about Pierre’s stories, and that’s where Ozon changes course. To be more specific would give too much away, but I will say that circumstances ultimately convince Anna that she must go in search of answers to questions she doesn’t even know how to ask.

Anyone who has seen other Ozon films, particularly “Under the Sand” or “Swimming Pool,” knows that he likes mysteries. And that’s how “Frantz” plays out, with our wondering where the story will go next. And Ozon plays with our expectations both thematically and visually, filming most scenes in a soft-focus black and white, while inserting various flashbacks, memories and what might even be fantasies in color.

The acting is good across the board, with Ernst Stötzner a gruff presence as Frantz’s father, Marie Gruber a far more gracious but no less heartbroken mother. Niney has sharp facial feature that give him a naturally screen-classic air, as if he were John Gilbert reincarnated.

It is Beer, though, on whom Ozon most dotes. Her final scene, which is revealed in full color, may be wishful thinking. But she plays it perfectly, a woman courting independence, coming finally into her own.

50 Hour Slam is a short way to success

Above: A shot from the 50 Hour Slam's 2011 competition.

For the past several years — seven by my unofficial count — the 50 Hour Slam has offered area filmmakers a challenge: Take 50 hours to complete a 3- to 6-minute short film, from the writing through the production process and final editing phase. At stake: a number of awards in a variety of categories, from judges' choices to popular vote.

Plus a public screening of the final product.

This year, some 300 contestants filled out the 41 teams that competed for Slam honors And the top 15, as voted on by the judging committee (I was one of the seven members), will be screened at 6 p.m. on May 6th at the Bing Crosby Theater.

Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Click here for ticket information.

Below: The 2016 50 Hour Slam Septi Award Winner, which goes to the short voted best by the judging panel.

Volé from 50 Hour Slam on Vimeo.

Friday’s openings redux: Three more to enjoy

And surprise, surprise, just when it looked as if only one new film might open on Friday, we end up having five. In addition to the films I listed on Monday, the new openings are:

"Colossal": Anne Hathaway plays a woman whose mental breakdown seems to be associated with a number of unnatural disasters. Is there a doctor in the house?

"Their Finest": The setting is London during World War II, and a young woman (Gemma Arterton) joins a movie crew bent.on making a film that will inspire the nation. Hip, hip, hooray!

"Baahubali 2: The Conclusion": A continuation of 2015's Indian-made epic "Baahubalil: The Beginning," which became the highest-grossing Indian film ever, this historical fantasy is built around the story of a man seeking to learn about his heritage. Oh, and there are elephants.

Friday’s openings: Everyone’s watching

Maybe it's because we're only a week away from one of the 2017 summer movie season's most-anticipated films, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" (which opens May 5), nothing much is scheduled for this coming Friday's national release schedule.

But at least one big film will open:

"The Circle": Based on the novel by Dave Eggers (who co-wrote the screenplay), this contemporary horror story — and, yes, that's kind of what it is — by James Ponsoldt ("The Spectacular Now") tells the story of a young woman who is hired by a Silicon Valley social media company that wants everyone to live in the open. Well, virtually anyway.

A second possible opener:

"How to Be a Latin Lover": In limited release, this film revolves around a known womanizer, dumped by his longtime wife, who is humbled before the world. Que lastima.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Gifted": The second-run film stars Chris Evans as a man trying to raise his genius niece the way he thinks his late sister would have wanted. Math time.

‘Fate of the Furious’: Bigger isn’t always better

If you're one of the few moviegoers who has yet to see the newest release in the "Fast and the Furious" franchise, you might want to read the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio. Then again, if you're a fan of big, empty-headed movies, well …

The notion of film as art, something once considered laughable, came into being through the efforts of mid-20th-century critics such as James Agee, Pauline Kael, Manny Farber and a bunch of French guys named Truffaut, Rohmer and Godard. And they succeeded. Mostly

But art alone has never paid the bills. And so with every “Citizen Kane” we’ve also had “Adventures of Captain Marvel,” for every “Godfather” we’ve had “The Poseidon Adventure.” Art may be good for the soul, but popular entertainment is what keeps most moviegoers returning, week after week, for yet another screening of giddy fun.

Not that popular entertainment can’t be done artfully. This past year, “Moonlight” was a critical darling. Yet “La La Land,” a film that is essentially a musical confection, was almost equally as lauded. And it made way more money: to date nearly $151 million to “Moonlight’s” not quite $28 million.

And I can point to a number of recent blockbusters that have proven both thrilling and worthy of critical praise: “Guardians of the Galaxy,” for example. “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Or “The LEGO Movie.”

That, then, is the trick: Can you make a movie that might win awards but could also make money? Or should you just toss out all notions of art and make movies that aim to earn the most money possible? Though producers have always hoped to make a profit, today’s versions seem to be, more and more, aiming for the biggest score possible – any notion of art be damned.

Producer Joel Silver may have said it best: “The core of the movie business remains intact and it's not descending in scope. Studios want movies that are bigger than ever.”

Case in point: “The Fate of the Furious.” No movie I have seen in recent years has strived to be bigger, faster and louder.

I’ve seen all eight of the “Fast and Furious” films and would never have suspected, back in 2001, that an action flick about an undercover cop infiltrating a street-racing gang headed by a charismatic family man would inaugurate one of the most successful film franchises in movie history.

One that, over the past 16 years, has grossed more than $4.4 billion in worldwide box-office earnings, some $3 billion of which has come from outside the U.S.

“The Fate of the Furious,” the first full film in the series since the 2013 death of Paul Walker, marks a change in the franchise’s style: For one, it treads on one of its basic homilies – family first – by having charismatic leader Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) seemingly betray those he professes to love.

More important, along with the obligatory car chases, crashes, wanton bloodletting and supercharged action, Toretto and his crew have evolved into Avenger-type superheroes who fulfill impossible missions while following plots that have become ever more outrageously implausible.

“The Fate of the Furious,” then, is both the title of a movie making millions and a description of those of us who resist buying what it’s trying to sell: the idea that bigger, faster and louder automatically equates to better.

‘Your Name.’ is Japanese animation at its best

Every once in a while a movie sneaks into town mostly unnoticed. That occurred recently, to me at least, with the Japanese animated film "Your Name."

Written and directed by Makato Shinkai, the film owes a great debt to the Studio Ghibli films of the past, particularly to the works of the great Hayao Miyazaki. "Your Name." (and, yes, that period after the title is intentional) is playing at the Regal NorthTown Mall Cinemas.

Here is what I wrote about the film for the Spokane Public Radio show "Movies 101":

By now, we’ve become accustomed to the differences between American animated films and those produced by the Japanese. While most U.S. entries are about self-determination, about discovering some hidden talent or skill that makes the protagonist special and that will help said protagonist complete some mission or solve some problem, Japanese films are more about the mystery of existence.

Sure, the protagonists have missions to fulfill, such as saving their parents from a witch’s curse – as a little girl does in Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning 2001 effort “Spirited Away.” But the basic difference here is that many Japanese films are less about self-determination than they are about determination of self.

That’s the case with this tale of country girl Mitsuha and city boy Taki, two teenagers whose blending of selves involves both a mysterious potion tied to ancient spiritual practices and to the warding off of a danger potentially as bad as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – another traditional Japanese theme.

Boasting the same kind of animation that earned Miyazaki his renown, and blending it with a storyline that tackles modern Japanese life while finding an inventive way to explore notions of romance and true love, “Your Name.” is a treasure that – even if the first half hour felt confusing to my own Western-educated mind – is well worth the investment of a near-two-hour view.

"Your Name." continues at Northtown through next week. (Oh, and the version I saw was dubbed in English, so those of you who hate subtitles will be happy.)

Friday’s openings redux: Something for everyone

Turns out Friday will offer a bonanza of viewing choices for area moviegoers. In addition to the films that I listed yesterday, here are two more scheduled openings:

"The Lost City of Z": Based on a true story, writer-director James Gray tells the story of Col. Percival Fawcett, an English explorer disappeared in 1925 while on an expedition to find a fabled Amazon city.

"Grow House": Looking to get rich quick, two California pals decide to become marijuana growers. Comedy hijinx ensues.

Fridays openings: Promise depends on Fate

The coming week is full of promise, assuming that the local theaters decide to open up some screens and play something besides "The Fate of the Furious" (though with its performance, why would they?).

Anyway, the national release schedule is as follows:

"Free Fire": During an arms deal in a remote warehouse, rival gangs go rogue and indulge in some serious gunplay. Violence in a range of accents.

"Unforgettable": When a divorced woman (Katherine Heigl) finds she has been replaced (by Rosario Dawson, no less), she devises a plan of revenge. The twist: This time it's the blond who's the villain.

"The Promise": Another menage a trois, this one involving an American journalist (Christian Bale), an Armenian medical student (Oscar Isaac) and the obligatory woman who stands between them. Oh, and the Turkish government is committing genocide on all Armenia.

"Born in China": The folks at Disney take us into China's backwoods to study the families of three animal clans: snow leopards, panda bears and golden monkeys. Expect some terminal cute.

"Phoenix Forgotten": The fate of three teenagers, disappeared these two decades, is discovered in some found footage. Think "Blair Witch Project," only with aliens.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Frantz": French filmmaker Francois Ozon ("Swimming Pool") gives us this story about a young German woman grieving the loss of her fiancé who one day meets a mysterious French guy.

I'll post the final listings when the area theaters finalize their bookings. 

Politics aside, ‘Boss Baby’ is a closer

In the politically polarized world in which we live, one thing seems certain: People aren't going to give up their desire for escapism.

That observation becomes clear when you look at what moviegoers are watching. For the second week in a row, the DreamWorks Animation film "The Boss Baby" led the nation's box-office earnings list. And if that weren't enough, the Disney live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast" is nearing a cool $1 billion in world-wide earnings.

"The Boss Baby" has a political edge, too. Though the story is told from the perspective of an older sibling who resents the intrusion of his new baby brother, and is largely imaginary, it features Alec Baldwin as the voice of the title character. And considering the Twitter battle that Baldwin has been having with Donald Trump, exacerbated by the president's ongoing Tweets and Baldwin's impersonation of him on "Saturday Night Live," the movie's high ratings — far higher than the president's — feel a bit ironic.

The movie even feature a couple of lines to the effect of "You're fired!" — the reference being obvious.

Mostly, though, "The Boss Baby" is a funny, clever take on sibling rivalry that should appeal both to children — especially those who, we can be thankful, are removed from politics — and their parents.

Crime writer Zafiro to read tonight at Auntie’s

It's probably a good thing to separate artists from their art. Sometimes it's disappointing to meet someone whose work you admire and to discover that they're nothing like what you expect.

Other times, though, artists are exactly what you hope they will be when you meet them. In my career, I've enjoyed interviews with such celebrities as Bob Newhart, Dick Cavett, Salman Rushdie and even Kurt Vonnegut and was amazed at how humble and gracious they were — even when I asked the stupidest questions.

Thing is, we can't help but want to know more about people whose work we're familiar with. Which is why I'm posting this link to an interview with author Frank Zafiro.

Zafiro is a former Spokane police officer who has written a number of genre novels, mainly detective, mystery or noir. He will be reading from his latest novel (with Lawrence Kelter), "The Last Collar," at 7 tonight at Auntie's Bookstore.

The interview mentioned above is from 2010. Following are a few snippets from it:

"Stephen King has been an inspiration for a long time.  Not just his personal story (and his book, 'On Writing'), but the masterful way that he writes." 

"Dialogue is my strongest suit and I think of ways to work description into those threads, but finding the balance between painting a picture for the reader without losing her in the exposition is always a challenge."

As for advice, Zafiro offered this in a single word: "It comes from Joe Konrath, who told us that there is a word for a writer who never gives up." 

And that word: "Published."

Friday’s openings redux: Search for the savior

So, the two movies that I posted yesterday will open on Friday. And a third one will as well. Friday's additional opening is as follows:

"The Case for Christ": As IMDB describes it, "An investigative journalist and self-proclaimed atheist sets out to disprove the existence of God after his wife becomes a Christian." Wonder how that one turns out.

No word from the Magic Lantern yet about any new openings.

Regarding Friday's biggest opening, here are a few critical comments:

Kristen Yonsoo Kim, The Village Voice: "The biggest show is, naturally, saved for last, when they face off in Russia with icy racing (involving tanks and submarines) that plays like Mario Kart on speed. Nothing in all of the Fast & Furious movies has ever felt bigger or more ridiculous — two things F8 rightfully thrives on. It’s exhilarating. Now how will they top this one?"

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: " Most franchises, after eight films, are feeling a twinge of exhaustion, but this one has achieved a level of success — and perpetual kinetic creative energy — that’s a testament to its commercial/cultural/demographic resonance. So it only makes sense that its characters must now do important things. Breaking the speed limit never looked so responsible."

Gwilym Mumford, The Guardian: "(W)hat kept the franchise afloat during those lean times was its melodrama-soaked character moments and, bar some extended relationship turmoil between Dom and Letty, and a couple of nice nods to the late Walker, they’re relatively thin on the ground. Instead this is a big dumb action movie in its purest, most honourable sense: fast, furious and frequently fun."

Friday’s openings: More fast, fatefully furious

Next week isn't likely to be a big week for movies. Other than "The Fate of the Furious" — the latest and, sadly, not the last in the series that began in 2001 with "The Fast and the Furious" — not much is opening wide. But that's always subject to change.

Anyway, Friday's scheduled national releases are:

"The Fate of the Furious": Charlize Theron stars as a mystery woman who seems to weave a spell that makes Dom (Vin Diesel) betray what he treasures most: family. Right, like there's not a twist in there somewhere.

"Gifted": Chris Evans ("Captain America") stars as a man trying to give his dead sister's brilliant daughter a normal childhood, despite his own mother's desires that the girl be treated as the genius she is. (Note: "Gifted" opened last week but is expanding and may hit area theaters.)

‘Land of Mine’ reveals an untold war story

I love Danish movies, which is why I insisted on seeing "Land of Mine," one of the five films nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

During the waning days of World War II, the Danish government forced some 2,000 German prisoners of war to execute a dangerous mission. Over the previous years, the German High Command had been trying to figure out a way to stave off what they knew was coming: an Allied invasion somewhere along the European coastline.

As it turned out, that invasion would occur in France. But it might have happened in Denmark, or so the German suspected. So they fortified Danish beaches, including burying a million and a half or so land mines under the dunes. When Denmark was finally liberated, the retreating German troops did not take the mines with them.

That left the task of clearance to the unfortunate German POWs, under the direction of the Danes. And it is the story of those unfortunates, many of whom were just in their teens, that writer-director Martin Zandvliet tells in his film “Land of Mine,” which was Denmark’s Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

Set in May, 1945, the film first introduces us to Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (played by Roland Møller), whom we see driving past a file of POWs. When he spots one carrying a Danish flag, he assaults the man, beating him savagely. His actions, and the look of hatred that twists his face, tell us all we need to know about the horrors of war he has witnessed.

It is Rasmussen who is put in charge of a troop of young Germans, all of whom look as if they should be preparing to attend their senior prom rather than fighting a war – and at least one of whom, Sebastian (played by Louis Hoffman), who looks as if he could be king of the prom. Rasmussen, after telling the prisoners he doesn’t care whether they live or die – obligatory foreshadowing here – shows them the stretch of beach they will have to clear.

And here is where the film’s visual irony works best: These wind-swept Danish dunes, set so close to the sapphire-blue sea, are literal killing fields. Where “Land of Mine” – a switch from the Danish title that translates to “Under the Sand” – works worst overall is in its predictable who’s-gonna-die-next scenario. When a character starts talking about what his plans are once he gets home, you know what’s coming.

Then again, overall, Zandvliet’s film succeeds mostly because of Møller, whose performance won him the Danish equivalent of the Oscar. Gradually, Rasmussen regains his lost humanity. And even as he braves the wrath of his immediate superior, not to mention other Allied soldiers, he begins to treat the boys – and soldiers or not, these POWs are just boys – with something close to kindness.

Stories of World War II have been told so many times since 1945 that certain notions have become accepted truths. The most basic is: Axis soldiers bad, Allied soldiers good. But like most versions of any so-called truth, the reality is often more complex.

And that complexity is more than capably demonstrated in what is, finally, a study of one good man’s attempt to right a war wrong.

Catch Robert Wrigley at Auntie’s Friday night

Robert Wrigley is a familiar name to most people who follow contemporary poetry. It's also a familiar name to students who have studied at the University of Idaho. Studied English, that is.

Wrigley, a professor emeritus at the school and a winner of numerous national poetry awards, will read from his most recent collection of poems, "Box," at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Auntie's Bookstore. And the event is bound to be illuminating.

I'd include snippets of some Wrigley poems here as evidence, but his work doesn't seem to condense well. Click here for some examples.

Instead, here are some quotes of Wrigley's taken from an interview that he gave in November 2009. They demonstrate just how seriously he takes his craft:

"If you don't love stories, then what takes the place of that desire?  We live by stories; they are the bedrock of articulate human existence."

"The fact is, everything about existence offers up to us story after story.  Many are incomplete, or false, or unfathomably complex, but that's just part of what it means to be alive."

"There are two reasons, it seems to me, to admire, or even to love, a poem.  There's that pleasure or reward or surprise we take from what it says; and there's that wonderful knocked-out feeling you get at seeing how someone has said what he says."

"I love the music of the lyric and the power of the story, and I try to wield both, in nearly every poem.  You know it when you read it: call it a particular kind of poetic eloquence, when what is said is said in such a way that one understands it simply could not have been said any other way."

And, finally, my favorite: "Syntax is delicious."

Read the whole thing and you'll discover much more. Better yet, read it then show up Friday night at Auntie's.

Friday’s openings redux: Join the Beast in song

Update: The Magic Lantern will open no new movies on Friday. It will continue "My Life as a Zucchini," "A United Kingdom," "Lion," "The Salesman" and "Kedi."

Though two of the movies that I listed yesterday will indeed be opening in this part of the Inland Northwest on Friday, one other — "The Case for Christ" — will not. At least for the moment.

Other Friday openings that will open are as follows:

"Queen Of The Desert": Nicole Kidman portrays Gertrude Bell, a world-explorer and representative of Great Britain in this biopic. Wikipedia alert. Oh, and Werner Herzog directed, which would prove entertaining.

"Beauty And The Beast Sing-Along Event": AMC River Park Square will screen this musical version of Belle and her Beast inviting you to sing as the words flow across the screen. The showings are limited, so consider buying your tickets early. Oh, and bring a tuning fork.

"Your Name": Regal Cinemas' Northtown Mall is listing this Japanese animated film about a pair of strangers sharing a unique experience.

In addition, AMC River Park Square will bring back a second run of "Before I Fall."

Things still appear in flux, so I'll have a final lineup — including the Magic Lantern — when matters settle.