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

VIFF day one: three decent movie experiences

Even though we didn't arrive in Vancouver until early this afrernoon, we managed to connect with the hospitality office of the Vancouver International Film Festival, get our passes, pick up copies of the schedule and even get out to see three movies.

We wanted to take it easy the first day, so we saw all three films at the same venue: the Vancouver Playhouse, which one of the theater employees humbled told us is "the best theater in Vancouver." Really? Seems like an arguable point. But who's quibbling?

Here were the three films:

"Desert Runners": A documentary about people competing in desert ultra-marathons, which are 250-kilometer runs across actual deserts. In fact, the four main people that director Jennifer Steinman follows are attempting something even more difficult: to compete in, and finish, four such race in one calendar year. These include races in Chile, China, Egypt and Antarctica. Steinman manages to find an engaging storyline, focusing mostly on the four athletes' back stories, but also by giving us an inside look at a sporting event that appeals more to the average person than top-of-the-line competitors. Just exactly what's needed for an intriguing and engaging documentary.

"The Armstrong Lie": In 2009, when Lance Armstrong was attempting a comeback by competing in the Tour de France bike race, the seven-time tour winner asked documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney to film his effort. Little did either of them suspect that Armstrong would soon be uncovered as a doper, a liar and a disgrace. But when the charges started flying, Gibney shelved his film — only to pick it up again following Armstrong's public confessions made during a series of interviews, beginning on the Oprah Winfrey show. Gibney's film documents everything, giving a look at Armstrong's beginnings, his tour victories, his unmasking and the long series of lies that he told, often at the expense of people who had once been his friends. Even though Armstrong cooperates with Gibney, and comes almost completely clean, he remains defiant — insisting, actually, that he only did what everyone else in the sport was doing. His gall was, and still is, spectacular.

"New World": As we walked out of this Korean crime film, we heard one person call "New World" the "Korean 'Godfather.' " And that's not a bad way to describe it. Written and directed by Park Hoon-Jung, the film is about undercover police operations trying to take down a brutal Korean crime syndicate. It goes this way and that and, ultimately, feels more like Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" than Coppola's masterpiece. But it's violent and ironic and well made, just the perfect kind of film with which to end a day.

Tomorrow: Let's try for at least three more.