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

‘My Scientology Movie’: Two movies in one

The Magic Lantern specializes in playing interesting documentaries. One such film is "My Scientology Movie," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio:

Nothing inspires an intriguing documentary more than a good mystery. The unknown provides a ready storyline, and all the filmmaker has to do is find the right narrative in which to investigate it. Barbara Kopple knows that. Werner Herzog does, too. And mystery, in one form or another, has been the central feature of every Errol Morris film from “The Thin Blue Line” to “The Unknown Known.”

The mysteries in question, of course, come in a variety of forms. The factor that Kopple, Herzog and Morris have in common is the human experience: What are people, really, and why do they do what they do?

Director John Dower asks similar kinds of questions in his documentary film "My Scientology Movie," which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. The difference comes in the way Dower frames both his questions and his overall investigation.

For one thing, he uses Louis Theroux – filling the role of host, or what the British term a “presenter” – as his surrogate. It is Theroux, the son of writer Paul Theroux and a documentarian in his own right, who meets with various former Scientologists, who treads on – or at least near – private Scientology property and who oversees casting of Dower’s movie within a movie.

Which is the second thing that Dower does differently. He’s not content to copy Alex Gibney, whose 2015 documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” provides a stunning inside look at the religion that the late L. Ron Hubbard founded. No, Dower is more of an entertainer, and he imbues his storytelling style – fronted by the wry, nerdy Theroux – with a somewhat lighter touch.

And so Theroux oversees the hiring of a cast of actors whose job is to play out a number of scenes alleged to have taken place behind closed doors – scenes that in real life featured Scientology leader David Miscavige and, at times, one of his most notable acolytes, actor Tom Cruise. They play out under the direction of a man named Marty Rathbun, formerly one of Miscavige’s chief enforcers of church discipline.

So while we see the real Miscagive and Cruise only in archival footage, we see one of their actorly counterparts – the one playing Miscavige – commit misdeeds, including physical assaults, that stand in dire contrast with the real man’s shining public persona.

Then amid Theroux’s sometimes Monty Python-like bumbling confrontations with various Scientology officials, Dower does a third thing: He has Theroux begin to question Rathbun, the very person who is his main link to the disaffected Scientology community.

It’s a natural thing to do, because why wouldn’t you question the motivations of someone who had been active in the church for more than 20 years but who now is preaching against it? Yet other than Rathbun’s spouting a few profanities, the sequence never really goes anywhere.

Dower’s “My Scientology Movie” is an intriguing view. The part of the mystery that Dower neglects, though, is the very basis of what Gibney’s film explores: What drew these people to this religion in the first place?

Lantern continues to spotlight real cinema

The fact that nothing new is opening this week at the Magic Lantern simply means that you have one more week to see the films that are now playing there. And the range of those films, in both subject and style, is impressive.

The documentary "Kedi" is a study of the street cats of Istanbul. "A United Kingdom" is the based-on-a-true-story of the relationship (later marriage) between Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams of Great Britain. "The Salesman" is Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning film about how a husband and wife react to her being sexually assaulted. "Lion" tells the story of an Indian man's struggle to find the home he barely remembers. And then "My Scientology Movie" is a documentary that uses a unique style in which to look at the religion that L. Ron Hubbard founded.

As for that last one, here are a few critical comments:

Noel Murray, Los Angeles Times: "(Presenter Louis) Theroux raises troubling questions about psychological warfare and how devoutness shades into fanaticism."

John Semley, Globe and Mail: "What the film lacks in the way of harrowing, jaw-dropping revelations, it makes up for with Theroux's charm and breezy charisma."

Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: "At times it plays like an extended skit on 'The Daily Show'; yet its disorder also makes its insights — like how strongly the church's training sessions resemble acting classes - feel refreshingly organic."

The Lantern is scheduled to open the Oscar-nominated animated film "My Life as a Zucchini" on March 31.

Churchill quote on arts funding: fake news

If you're active on social media, you might have noticed an item going around that involves Winston Churchill and arts funding. It goes something like this:

Along with a photograph of the late British prime minister, this statement is prominently displayed: "During World War II, Winston Churchill was asked to cut funding for the arts. He replied, 'Then what are we fighting for.' "

Great sentiment, right? Especially given today's political climate, which is proposing drastic cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities . Only problem is, the quote is false.

That's not to say that Churchill didn't support the arts. After all, he himself was a writer — and, in fact, was awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature.

But let's not continue to spread fake news. There's too much of it out there. Especially on Twitter.

Now Streaming: Is “Mrs. Maisel” Marvelous?

There was no question that I would watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” pilot on Amazon Prime. An hour-long dramedy created by Amy Sherman-Palladino featuring a brassy female protagonist? Sold. Oh, and it’s set in New York in the late 1950s, scratching that “Mad Men” itch I’ve had for two years? Double sold.

But after the ups and downs of Netflix’s revival of “Gilmore Girls” last fall (that musical, the fat jokes, Rory in general, etc.), I did have some reservations. ASP (and her creative partner and husband Daniel Palladino) sometimes mistake quirk for personality, and are rather tone deaf to sensitive identity issues.

The period setting, though, helps alleviate some of Palladinos’ weaknesses. They may try to get by some political incorrectness with the lame excuse that “It’s the 1950s!” And their Achilles’ heel – critical commentary on the developments of modern technology verging on Luddism – is no more advanced than a scene with an electric pencil sharpener and a befuddled secretary.

Plus, those costumes, those hairstyles, those settings … it’s a visual delight for lovers of mid-century modern décor and Spoolie hair rollers.

“Mrs. Maisel” is Midge, an Upper West Side, twenty-something housewife and mother who supports her nine-to-five husband Joel in his late night attempts at stand-up comedy in Greenwich Village. Local viewers are in for a treat(?) when, prior to Joel’s set at the Gaslight Café, a dour Beat poet recites an ode to her hometown (“rumble of lumber trucks … robbers of the indigenous … Spokane … man.”).

Spokane poem
"The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" Pilot (Amazon)

After a (somewhat rushed) series of events leads Midge to a crisis, she ends up on stage herself and discovers that her voice is just what the comedy scene has been missing. Think Joan Rivers, pre-plastic surgery and “Fashion Police.”

Rachel Brosnahan plays the title role with strength and impeccable timing. She has the wit and charisma that Alexis Bledel always seemed to lack as Rory Gilmore.

Rory Gilmore and Midge Maisel
LEFT: "Gilmore Girls" Season 5 Episode 22 (Netflix); RIGHT: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" Pilot (Amazon)

The comparison between the two characters isn’t hard to make, right down to the dual image of the pretty waifs with mussed, brown hair being bailed out of jail in powder blue. But while Rory succumbed to her setbacks, Midge confronts them – with encouragement from ASP mainstay Alex Borstein.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is part of Amazon Prime’s original pilot season, which means viewers must vote for their favorite shows before they’re picked up to series. Given ASP’s legacy and enthusiastic fanbase, I look forward to seeing more of Midge’s misadventures in Manhattan in the future. 

TOP PHOTO: "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" (Amazon)

Friday’s openings redux: Harrelson and MacLaine

In addition to the three movies that I listed below, two more films will be opening on Friday. They are:

"Wilson": Woody Harrelson plays a character with few personal boundaries who seeks out his ex-wife and the girl she gave up for adoption. Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes ("Ghost World"), it is a kind of comedy.

"The Last Word": Shirley MacLaine plays a forceful retired woman who wants to writer her own obituary and ends up befriending the young newspaper reporter (Amanda Seyfried) who is assigned the job.

In addition, if you didn't get the opportunity to see the Oscar-nominated animated film "The Red Turtle," AMC River Park Square is bringing it back for a second run.

Along with reporting no new openings, the Magic Lantern announced that the French-language animated film "My Life as a Zucchini" will open on March 31.

Friday’s openings: Laughs, thrills from the past

So what can we expect from this Friday's movie openings: How about more of the same? Maybe good, maybe bad, but definitely familiar.

The scheduled national openings are as follows:

"Life": A crew on a space station is the first to encounter alien life. Turns out it's hungry. See: "It! The Terror from Beyond Space."

"Power Rangers": A posse of Americans teens suddenly find themselves possessing super powers, which they use to fight an evil power. See "Super Sentai Zyuranger" (which was later adapted for American audiences as "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers").

"CHIPS": A couple of California Highway Patrol officers bumble their way around Los Angeles. See "CHIPs."

There might be more. There usually is. I'll post when the information becomes final.

‘Kong’ is all effects, silly story — duh

It's made a little over $73 million since its March 10 release, which isn't breaking any records. Still, that's a respectable opening for "Kong: Skull Island," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription:

The great ape called Kong first hit the big screen in 1933. IMAX technology has been around since 1970. Now, in 2017, the two have joined forces, and the result almost makes a good movie. Well, half a good movie.

That was the realization I came to as I walked out of a screening of “Kong: Skull Island” and I began to wonder what I had just watched. Up until about halfway through the movie, I had been lulled by the IMAX big screen and 3D projection into enjoying something that was little more than a visual spectacle. But the attendant story all that technology was trying to tell? In that respect, not so much.

Set in 1973, “Kong: Skull Island” is a kind of mashup between the story of Kong, which has been retold at least twice since its debut – in 1976 and 2005 – and another look at that ghastly American debacle known as the Vietnam War. Think “King Kong” meets “Apocalypse Now.”

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, working from a team-written screenplay, gives us a story that begins with an obsessed mystery man with government connections. Actually, it begins during World War II with two enemy pilots duking it out on a beach – but I’ll get back to that.

The mystery man (played by John Goodman) manages to arrange an expedition to a mysterious island. For the final leg, and for added security, he convinces the authorities to let him bring along an American helicopter company. Fresh from duty in Vietnam, the chopper crews are led by a commander – played by Samuel L. Jackson – who makes Marlon’s Brando’s Colonel Kurtz look like a wimp.

Before the jungle dew has settled on the chopper blades, mayhem ensues – which causes Jackson’s character to go on a quest for vengeance. A vain quest, I might add, because … well, the Vietnam analogy isn’t for nothing.

Anyway, the remaining World War II vet (engagingly played by John C. Reilly) meets up with the survivors of the decimated expedition – including an intrepid Brit played by Tom Hiddleston and an American photographer played by Brie Larson – and they all try to make it to the coast. Which is code, you see, for last chopper out. Because again, Vietnam.

It’s clear that the screenwriters strived to find a new story to tell, one that was something more than the traditional tale of it being beauty who kills the beast. But what they came up with instead doesn’t bear close examination.

Because little about their script makes any sense. Not the island masked by a perpetual storm. Not the hole in the Earth from which ancient lizard monsters emerge. Not the story that the atomic tests were a cover-up for an attempt to kill such monsters. Nor the fact that a giant ape lives here. And especially not that the ape in question passes up squishing Larson’s tomboyish character when he gets the chance.

Still, none of this matters. Not really. Not to anyone sitting in front of that big screen and wearing those 3D glasses. Not, at least, until the house lights go up.

Below: Enjoy the trailer in beautiful Italian.

Author examines ‘catastrophic’ Columbia River Treaty

If there's one thing that fuels the work of writer Eileen Delehanty Pearkes, it's love — specifically, she says, "my love for the landscape (and) the people who live here."

The "here" Pearkes is referring to is Columbia River country, an area she wrote about in her most recent book, "A River Captured: The Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change." Pearkes will read from her book at 7 tonight at Auntie's Bookstore.

A native of the United States, educated at Stanford University, Pearkes has lived in Canada since 1985. She is the author of six books, including "A River Captured." In December, she was named the cultural ambassador for Nelson, British Columbia. As she told the Nelson Star newspaper, she found the honor "very honouring and humbling."

Pearkes' book, says BC Booklook, "explores the controversial history of the Columbia River Treaty and its impact on the ecosystems, indigenous peoples, contemporary culture, provincial politics and recent history of southeastern British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest."

As usual, the reading is free and open to the public.

Above: The Arrow Lakes Reservoir, which was created when the Hugh Keenleyside Dam was constructed to bound the original Arrow Lakes and the Columbia River.

‘Sense of an Ending’ joins Friday’s openers

OK, strange things are afoot at the Circle K, Ted. Quick: Name the movie reference.

Yeah, it's an easy one. What's harder is getting a final take on the movies that are scheduled to open on Friday. In contrast to what I wrote below, iooks at this point as if the new Danny Boyle film, "T2 Trainspotting," will NOT open. But along with about a billion-jillion screenings of Disney's live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast," another UK-inspired film apparently will:

"The Sense of an Ending": Based on the novel by Julian Barnes, this film tells the story of an aging man (Jim Broadbent) who is forced to look back at a past he might not be remembering quite as accurately as he has always thought.

Barnes' novel won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. In it, wrote the New York Times reviewer, "Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam."

Let's hope the movie is half as good.

Get ready for a ‘Big Bang Theory’ spinoff

I don't usually write about television on this blog. The exceptions I tend to make are for limited miniseries that I admire, such as ESPN's "O.J.: The Making of America," HBO's "House of Cards" (at least the first season) and the BBC crime miniseries "Happy Valley."

What I don't usually do is write about standard sitcoms. Yet I read something on IMDB this morning that caught my attention. It was a report from Variety that the creators of "The Big Bang Theory" have received permission to produce a spinoff. "Young Sheldon" will go into production and premiere during the 2017-2018 season.

OK, I can't think of a TV show that is both more popular, and more trashed, than "The Big Bang Theory." Having debuted in 2007, the show was the most watched series in 2016 (attracting nearly 20 million viewers). Yet the show consistently attracts critics among the public that lampoon not just its attempts at humor but its basic concept.

Here are just a few comments (courtesy of Reddit):

"I don't know if I speak for everyone, but it gives the impression of being a show for smart people but really it's just sex jokes over and over again. Just because it has smart people in it, doesn't make you an intelligent viewer for watching it."

"(I)t's a 'comedy for smart people' that is filled with dumb jokes. Making a dumb joke about smart things does not make for a smart joke. I don't enjoy most stereotypical U.S. laughtrack sitcoms, why would I enjoy this?"

"It's 'Two and a Half Men' + a thesaurus."

And those are among the milder critiques.

It's been years since I've heard television referred to as "the idiot box." But it's clear that the notion persists: Some people will watch anything. Not that I refrain from watching my own versions of escapism (anyone watch "Star Trek Voyager"?), but it's hard to argue with the great Groucho Marx.

“I find television very educating," Groucho once said. "Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book."

Friday’s openings: Beauty goes beastly live-action

Disney releases its live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast," and that's the main story of the mainstream releases for the coming week. The national schedule offers a couple of other offerings, but those are — as always — iffy for the local scene.

As of now, the potential look of Friday's openings is as follows:

"Beauty and the Beast": Emma Watson stars as Belle in this Bill Condon-directed adaptation of the fairly tale turned book turned movie turned cartoon turned musical turned, again, movie. Or somewhat in that order.

"The Belko Experiment": Put a bunch of people in a building, cut off all the exits and then tell them to kill one another — or they die. There, that's my pitch in 23 words! Whaddaya think?

"T2 Trainspotting": It's 20 years later and Danny Boyle reunites his cast of Scottish druggies (including Ewan McGregor) for another go-around. Choose life. Choose a job, Choose a career. Again.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"My Scientology Movie": Broadcaster/filmmaker Louis Theroux documents his attempts to reveal the workings of the Church of Scientology. And, for the record, L. Ron Hubbard died on Jan. 24, 1986.

The Lantern will also pick up a run of "A United Kingdom."

I'll have the final listings when they become available.

‘Emily’ tells a unique spiritual love story

Ryan Graves and Kelly McCrillis are graduates of Whitworth University. They both now live in Portland, where they are struggling filmmakers. "Emily," which opens today at the Magic Lantern Theater, is their first feature. Graves directed, McCrillis produced, they collaborated on the story that Graves turned into a screenplay. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Emily and Nathan have a problem. She is a committed Christian who faithfully attends her Bible study group. Nathan, her husband, has lost his faith. What’s worse, he may never have believed but had convinced himself that he did as a way to please the woman he loves.

But now Nathan can no longer pretend. And that’s a problem, one that Portland-based filmmaker Ryan Graves explores in his first feature film titled “Emily,” which opens today at the Magic Lantern Theater. Essentially, Graves asks two questions: What can two people who care for each other do when one of the foundations of their relationship crumbles? And, going forward, how can that couple reconcile such a split in basic belief.

This is the fundamental plot for what used to comprise your average Sunday-morning TV melodrama. It’s also a situation that writer-director Graves knows first-hand. A 2011 graduate of Whitworth University, Graves took the plot of “Emily” at least partly from his own life. What’s special about his movie, though, is that it neither resorts to cliché nor wallows in self-involvement.

Most art is based, in one way or another, on personal experience. What’s important in the creation of art is how you explore the meaning behind that experience. And the strength of what Graves does involves not just the quality of his film’s production but how he works out the thematic issues he raises.

Shot in "about 18 days," using mainly two Portland-based actors – Rachael Perrell Fosket as Emily, Michael Draper as Nathan – “Emily” was made on a $20,000 shooting budget, with another $7,000 put toward post-production. Despite these constraints, which included filming in Graves’ own apartment, the film has a tight, professional feel, from its cinematography through camera work, editing and use of music, that many such low-budget projects lack.

And since the story depends so much on its two principal actors, Graves was fortunate to find Fosket and Draper. For her part, Fosket imbues the character of Emily with a quiet determination that becomes the essence of her faith: She will not give up on the man she loves. Draper, in portraying a man who is caught between his love for his wife and his need to forge his own spiritual path, never makes Nathan seem less than human.

And in fact, it is the humanity of Graves’ film that makes it stand out from the recent flurry of mainstream movies that probe Christian issues, many of which are both aimed at audiences already inclined to accept the religious message and ever so condescending to those who do not.

Graves takes us somewhere else, to a place where love is valued more than dogmatic belief. He never says that Emily and Nathan won’t continue to have problems. He doesn’t try to convince us that Nathan will never rediscover the faith that he has lost.

What he does do is pose a far more fundamental proposition: That a more realistic approach to marriage is not one based on rigid adherence to a theological doctrine but one founded on empathy and mutual acceptance.

Catch Megan Kruse at Auntie’s tonight

One of the literary treasures of Spokane — besides Auntie's Bookstore, of course — is the annual Get Lit! literary festival that Eastern Washington University sponsors. In its glory years, that festival helped bring such international stars as Salman Rushdie and Kurt Vonnegut to Spokane.

These days Get Lit! adheres to a more modest, if equally important, role. While many of the names of the 2017 festival aren't as readily known to many in the mainstream audience, those who will be coming (April 17-23) are established and/or rising talents.

One such author who hails from the Northwest will be reading at Auntie's tonight. Megan Kruse, who lives in Olympia, will read from her first novel, "Call Me Home," at 7:30.

In prose that Seattle Times reviewer Wingate Packard calls "vivid, precise and promising," Kruse has written a novel about an abused woman who flees with her children from an abusive man.

"The violence in the subtly efficient language with which Kruse captures the effects of physical abuse is well-tempered by the humor and humanity in minor characters outside this family circle, whose dialogue is pitch-perfect," Packard wrote.

Kruse will be available to sign copies of her book after the reading. 

‘Kong: Skull Island’ won’t monkey around

Expect most Inland Northwest movies screens to be filled with ape antics on Friday, considering "Kong: Skull Island" will be playing pretty much on demand beginning Thursday night.

Don't believe me? AMC River Park Square is losing six films — say again, six — and will be replacing them with prints of "Kong: Skull Island" in standard frame, 3D and 3D IMAX. The other two major chains, Regal Cinemas in Northtown Mall, Spokane Valley and Coeur d'Alene, plus the Village Centre sites at Wandermere and Airway Heights — are likely to follow suit.

What can we expect from "Kong: Skull Island"? Well, it's no great stretch to say that this will another update of what directors Meriam C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack — with the help of a gaggle of screen writers — gave us back in 1933. It's interesting to note that, even though they use the same name for the creature (Kong) and the same basic setup (outsiders invading a remote island and encountering a primitive world ruled over by ancient creatures and a giant ape), they current production team gives no credit to the franchise's originators.

And that's the word for it: franchise. A quick search of IMDB shows a number of King Kong references, led by the major efforts in 1933, the Dino De Laurentiis production in 1976 (the one featuring Jeff Bridges and a briefly topless Jessica Lange), and Peter Jackson's 2005 version.

FYI: The one I want to see is Ishiro Honda's 1962 effort "King Kong vs. Godzilla." 

Anyway, if you wondered whether no-name director Jordan Vogt-Roberts had the required competence to helm such a potential blockbuster, know that the film has attracted an 81 percent positive rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Following are some of the comments:

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly: "We didn't come to Kong: Skull Island for the characters (well-developed or otherwise), we came for the damn dirty ape. And director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Industrial Light and Magic's Kong is a CGI showstopper."

Owen Gleiberman, Variety: "The surprise is that Skull Island isn't just ten times as good as Jurassic World; it's a rousing and smartly crafted primordial-beastie spectacular."

But, of course, there have to be naysayers:

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: "Nothing can supplant the charm of the original Kong, who, thanks to the film’s stop-motion process, bore a touch of the tremulous and the hesitant to go along with his chest-thumping might, and Vogt-Roberts is smart enough not to try. Instead, he turns the trip to Skull Island into precisely that: a trip."

Go and make up your own mind. You'll likely have lots — and lots — of chances.

Friday’s openings: The big ape returns

It's been a while since the great ape known as Kong has played the big screen. But another version is, at this point, Friday's only major mainstream movie opening. The national release schedule looks like this:

"Kong: Skull Island": According to IMDB, "A team of explorers and soldiers travel to an uncharted island in the Pacific, unaware that they are crossing into the domain of monsters, including the mythic Kong." What, did no one see "The Lost World: Jurassic Park"?

For once the Magic Lantern is working ahead. Spokane's alternative theater lists two opening films for Friday:

"Kedi": Fresh off its screening at the Spokane International Film Festival, this documentary takes a look at the feral cats that roam the streets of Istanbul. No litter for these kitties.

"Emily": A young married couple's happiness is threatened when one undergoes a spiritual crisis. Whitworth filmmakers Ryan Graves and Kelly McCrillis will be on hand to intro their film during Friday and Saturday evening screenings.

As always, I'll update when the local information becomes official.