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

Netflix’s ‘Miss Simone’ explains what happened

While you might want to catch the penultimate night of the Spokane International Film Festival, you can always put the Oscar-nominated documentary feature "What Happened, Miss Simone" on your Netflix queue. To catch your interest, I reviewed the film for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription of my review:

While the name Nina Simone may sound familiar, it’s doubtful that anyone other than a few die-hard fans of Simone’s singular blend of jazz, blues and soul could name a single tune performed by the late singer-songwriter.

That may change as Liz Garbus’  Oscar-nominated documentary feature “What Happened, Miss Simone” receives more attention. And it may occur even if the film doesn’t beat out the other four Academy Award documentary contenders. It is, after all, available to anyone who subscribes to Netflix.

If this happens, it would bring a bit of justice back to the world – the kind of justice that, for a variety of reasons, was denied to Simone during her lifetime.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, the sixth offspring of a North Carolina handyman, the woman who would take the stage name Nina Simone was a child prodigy. She began playing the piano at age 3, and her early interest – after learning to accompany her local church services – was in becoming a classical pianist.

That path changed when, after being turned down by a prestigious musical conservatory, she ended up playing piano for $90 a week in an Atlantic City nightclub. Required also to sing, which she had never done, Simone – who adopted the pseudonym so that her mother would not know she was performing “the Devil’s music” – gradually developed the unique style that would lead to her one day being dubbed the “High Priestess of Soul.”

By the late 1950s, and into the mid-’60s, Simone would achieve popularity both through her recordings – which included her Billboard Chart-topping version of the Gershwin tune “I Love You, Porgy” – and appearances on stage and on television. By then, Simone was showing the strain caused both by the pressures of her busy career and by the abusive relationship she had with her second husband, a former New York police detective – abuse that the artist’s own daughter, one of the documentary’s producers, confirms.

Simone’s popularity waned, even as she was personally energized in the late ’60s by the civil rights movement. Her political stance led her to create some powerful music, but it stalled her appeal to a wider audience. By 1970, exhausted and perhaps even then showing signs of what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, Simone left the U.S., her marriage and, for a time, her career. She lived abroad for much of the next two decades, for a time in Liberia, before finally settling in France where she resumed performing. Simone died, following a bout with breast cancer, in 2003.

Garbus portrays much of this through an effective use of stock footage and by including selections from Simone’s personal diary. And though critic Tanya Steele for one has criticized Garbus for focusing on Simone’s emotional problems, instead of keying solely on the genius that made her music unique, “What Happened, Miss Simone” does serve a necessary purpose. Much as “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-nominated documentary does for Amy Winehouse, it ensures that Simone’s legacy, both as a woman and an artist, won’t be soon forgotten.

SpIFF 2016: Canadian diversity and Japanese whales

Way back at the turn of the century, when Bob Glatzer ran what he called the Spokane Northwest International Film Festival, SNIFF (as we smilingly called it) used to play a lot of Canadian films. Now that the contemporary version of the festival is in being held, and is in its last three days, it's worthwhile noting that a Canadian influence still exists.

Tonight's two screenings at the 2016 Spokane International Film Festival (SpIFF), both of which are playing at the Magic Lantern Theater, are:

"My Internship in Canada" (6:30 p.m.): In the spirit of international diversity, this French-Canadian political comedy explores what happens when an astute Haitian political science student accepts an internship with an independent member of parliament in Northern Quebec and finds himself in the middle of a governmental firestorm. In French with English subtitles.

"The Name of the Whale" (7 p.m.): A Japanese film focusing on a young boy's summer in which great changes occur involving a sick grandfather, his mother's new partner, the departure of a friend and a school project involving looking for whale fossils. In Japanese with English subtitles.

For more information, click here.

Now accepting info for 2016 summer camps

Spokane is still in the midst of winter, but the Spokesman-Review is getting ready for summer!

We are now accepting submissions for our 2016 Summer Camp Directory, which publishes in May.

The section details many of the summer camps and youth activities throughout the Inland Northwest, and is available online at spokesman.com throughout spring and summer.

Organizations can submit their listing for free by emailing the info to summercamps@spokesman.com or completing our online form at http://www.spokesman.com/summercamps-form/.

Each entry should include details such as camp name, location, dates, cost, age range, and a short description (50 words or less). Please include contact information that will be published, such as a phone number, email or web site. 

The deadline for the print edition is Friday, March 11, 2016 at 5 p.m. Any entries received after this date will be considered for the online version only.  

Questions? Leave a comment or contact us at summercamps@spokesman.com.

SpIFF 2016: Teens in trouble

And now, with four days to go, I present tonight's lineup for the 2016 Spokane International Film Festival. Both film porgrams are screening at the Magic Lantern Theater:

"Bridgend" (6:30 p.m.): Based on real events, this film — shot in Wales — follows a young woman and her father who come to live in a small village that has been rocked by a succession of teen suicides. A first effort by Danish filmmaker Jeppe Rønde, it won three awards at the Tribeca Film Festival.

A program of U.S. and Canadian short films (7 p.m.): Five shorts, including the zombie flick "Love Is Dead." NOTE: This showing is sold out.

For more information, click here.

Spiff 2016: Cats and (not in) shorts

The 2016 Spokane International Film Festival continues tonight with a pair of screenings. They are as follows:

"Frank the Wondercat" (6:30 p.m.): This U.S. documentary explores the life of Frank Furko, an 80-year-old Pittsburgh man, and his 20-pound performing cat, Pudgie Wudgie.

World Shorts Program (7 p.m.): A collection of international shorts from Australia, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany and Switzerland. NOTE: This program is sold out.

For further festival information, click here.

Friday’s opening: Coens, Sparks and zombies

And now for the non-festival movie openings. We can wrap up the expectations in one word: Coen. Friday's openings are as follows:

"Hail, Caesar!": When a mysterious group kidnaps a studio's big star, stalling production on their latest blockbuster, the studio head has to find a way to fix the problem. The newest by the Coen brothers, so expect a bit of satire.

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies": When Elizabeth Bennet does her dance with Mr. Darcy, a band of zombies interrupt the sophisticated proceedings. One of the restless undead is no doubt Jane Austen.

"The Choice": Young love is interrupted by a serious car accident. Two words: Nicholas Sparks.

And at the Magic Lantern:

The Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts: Five nominees, including the obligatory Pixar effort, plus four other animated shorts.

That's the lot. So go. See a movie. And enjoy. 

SpIFF 2016: A road trip in 1835

Before we get to what's opening in mainstream movie theaters this week, let's check out tonight's schedule for the 2016 Spokane International Film Festival. Both screenings will be at the Magic Lantern Theater.

"Aferim!" (6:30 p.m.): The year is 1835, and two riders in search of a a run-away slave encounter a variety of contrasting cultures that make up Eastern Europe. In Romanian, Turkish, and Romany with English subtitles

"Animation Showcase" (7 p.m.): Films from Canada, Finland, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, Russia and Spain, all with English subtitles. NOTE: This screening has been sold out.

SpIFF 2016 continues through Saturday. Get your tickets now.

‘Cartel Land’: Scarier than ‘Sicario’

Though recent events have proven the Academy Awards to be as much a political statement as they are a popularity contest, they remain both the literal and symbolic gold standard of the U.S. film industry. As such, they can't be ignored. Which is one reason why I reviewed a film, the Oscar-nominated documentary feature "Cartel Land," that isn't playing in any local theater but instead is available through various streaming services (I saw it courtesy of Netflix).

Another reason for me to review it? "Cartel Land" scared the veritable wit out of me. Following is a transcription of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Denis Villeneuve’s film “Sicario” delivers a stunningly scary portrayal of the drug war being waged on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border – a war that, according to official reports, has caused some 164,000 Mexican deaths since 2007. “Sicario,” justifiably, has been rewarded with three Academy Award nominations – though, sadly, Benicio del Toro’s acting was overlooked.

Yet “Sicario” isn’t the only Oscar-nominated study of the Mexican Drug war. Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land” is one of five nominees up for Best Documentary Feature. And if anything, Heineman’s film is even scarier than “Sicario.”

The why of this involves a couple of things. One, Heineman’s documentary takes us directly into the true-life murderous conflict; it introduces us to real people on both sides of the border and puts actual faces to the growing vigilante movements both deep in Mexico and, north of the Rio Grande. Two, though “Cartel Land” starts out seemingly as a simple study of good versus bad, it gradually evolves into something far more complex. It becomes an examination of whether vigilante justice – no matter how well-intentioned at the start – is doomed, ultimately, to become just another example of would-be good guys falling prey to the lure of egotism and/or big money.

Overall, Heineman takes a broad view of the drug war, even as he avoids following the typical protagonists. The only government representatives here are held firmly in the background, referred to in news reports or dismissed as ineffectual – or worse – by citizen self-defense groups in both the U.S. and Mexico. Instead, Heineman takes us to the Arizona border, where he introduces us to Tim Foley, leader of the self-proclaimed Arizona Border Recon, a volunteer group that patrols the state’s frontier scrublands in search both of illegal immigrants and cartel drug mules.

He contrasts the efforts of Foley’s group with those of Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, leader of the Mexican self-defense organization known as the Autodefensas. The charismatic, mustachioed Mireles spearheads the efforts to unite the towns of the Mexican state of Michoacan. His target? The Knights Templar cartel, the group that through murder and extortion – and, some charge, aided by factions within the Mexican government – had become the region’s ruling power.

And we meet others, too, from those who have seen family members slain by cartel assassins to the assassins themselves – most strikingly in scenes where Heineman and his cameraman Matt Porwoll film cartel members brewing meth by firelight.

But what makes “Cartel Land” special, and particularly frightening, is that – unlike most mainstream movies and TV shows – it reflects the more ambiguous state of human affairs. While Mireles plays the classic hero, he proves to have feet of adobe. Meanwhile, his American counterpart Foley ends up making a strange kind of sense: If you felt as if your government were failing at one of its basic functions, protecting the general welfare, you might feel free to pick up a gun, too.

Problem is, as has been proven time and again, few of us in the real world can handle a Glock as well as Benicio del Toro.

SpIFF 2016 update: Becker ‘unlikely’

Update to my post regarding Friday's "Vision Quest" screening at the 2016 Spokane International Film Festival: As noted below, news has come that the 1985 film's director, Harold Becker, is — according to festival co-director Pete Porter — "unlikely" to attend the show. However, both star Matthew Modine and author Terry Davis (author of the book on which the movie was based) are scheduled to be there.

For a full SpIFF schedule, click here.

SpIFF 2016: Go on a ‘Vision Quest’

Note: The following post has been updated to reflect a change in "Vision Quest" director Harold Becker's status.

For the second time, the Spokane International Film Festival — or SpIFF, as we like to call it — is going on a vision quest. Or, rather, a "Vision Quest."

Four years ago, SpIFF presented a special showing of Harold Becker's 1985 film, which was adapted from Terry Davis' novel and — as with the novel — was set in Spokane. The film played at The Garland Theater and attracted a full house.

On Friday, the 2016 version of SpIFF will kick off at 7:30 p.m. at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox with a second screening of "Vision Quest." Friday's program, which will be hosted by Spokane author Jess Walter, will include personal appearances by author Davis and star Matthew Modine; director Becker, though originally scheduled to appear, is doubtful.

But that's just a small portion of what SpIFF 2016 has to offer. Festgoers will have access to shorts and features from all over the world, plus special filmmaker visits and opening and closing parties. For a full schedule lineup, click here.

This year, most films will screen at the Magic Lantern (the two houses boasting 100 and 33 seats respectively). So be sure to buy your tickets or passes as soon as you can (click here). You don't want to get left out.

What kind of a vision quest would that be?

Nelson’s blog is a Norse God’s daydream

The weather is getting warmer, slowly, which some of us appreciate. Many others of us dream longingly of snow-covered slopes. John Nelson is one of those who loves to strap sticks on his feet and fly down icy hillsides.

And sometimes, the feeling that such activity gives him goes right to his head. And his ego.

That much is clear from his latest blog post, which you can access by clicking here.

Seattle-based John, who once worked with me at The Spokesman-Review (and who is married to food writer Leslie Kelly), writes in a knowing but easy-to-access manner. His stuff is worth checking out even if you're like me …

… someone who thinks snow is the one thing keeping me from hitting golf balls off the underlying grass.

Friday’s openings: Two to add to the list

And so we have two additions to Friday's opening movies (to see the original list, click here):

"Jane Got a Gun": It's 1864, and when a rancher (Natalie Portman) is threatened by outlaws, she reaches out to a former flame (Joel Edgerton). Can you spell S-H-A-N-E?

"Caged No More": When a woman's two granddaughters are kidnapped, she seeks help to battle a band of human traffickers. Beware an angry granny.

That's it so far. Enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Pandas and satire and shorts, oh my

Animation, high-seas adventure, satire and shorts are on the movie menu for Friday's openings. The scheduled openings are as follows:

"Kung Fu Panda 3": Our stout title character (Jack Black) and friends return to face new challenges, a number of them food-related.

"The Finest Hours": Based on a true story, a Coast Guard crew seeks to save sailors battling a big storm and sinking ships. Don't look for George Clooney.

"Fifty Shades of Black": A satire of the film that many people consider satire all by itself.

And at the Magic Lantern:

The Oscar-nominated Live-Action short films: Short films from all over the world, including the first Oscar-nominated film ever from Kosovo.

I'll update if anything changes. Until then, go. See a film. Have fun.

Aldean, Church, Urban headline Watershed

Jason Aldean, Eric Church and Keith Urban are on the bill as the annual Watershed country music festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre expands to two weekends for 2016, July 29-31 and Aug. 5-7.

Best things? Fans won't have to choose to see one act over another, or pay to see both weekends. Aldean, Church and Urban will be at both. As will music legend Merle Haggard, not to mention Travis Tritt, Neal McCoy and Kacey Musgraves.

Passes go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday through watershedfest.com, where you can go for additional information on performers and the experience. Weekend passes are $199. This show typically sells out in minutes, so if you want to go, don't delay.

Friday’s openings: Bad Grandpa and troubled teens

The big news involving Friday's movie openings is that the Oscar-nominated film "Mustang" is opening at the Magic Lantern. The larger list of scheduled openings is as follows:

"The Boy": The new nanny is confused when her family treats a boy doll as if he were real. Ooooooooooh.

"Dirty Grandpa": Robert DeNiro is the lead character, an elderly man intent on teaching his button-downed grandson (Zac Efron) a few things before he settles down to get married. Guess what happens next?

"The 5th Wave": Alien have attacked Earth in four waves. A young girl (Chloe Grace Moritz) tries to save her younger brother as the fifth attack commences. Where's Will Smith when we need him?

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Mustang": A posse of Turkish teen girls face the consequences when their bid for independence is countered by their conservative parents. France's Oscar-nominated entry for Best Foreign Language Film.

I'll update/amend as more information becomes available.