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

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.

‘Ex Machina’: The wave of AI future

Just in case you planned to go see "Ex Machina," you might want to check out the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Alex Garland may be best known for rebooting the zombie franchise, transforming what traditionally were shambling, mindless creatures into determined, quick-moving cannibals – a la Danny Boyle’s 2002 creature feature “28 Days Later.”

Now, in his first directorial effort, Garland is putting a new look on the story conceit of artificial intelligence. From Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” to Spike Jonze’s “Her,” moviemakers have explored the consequences of what it means to place human intelligence in mere machines. In the process, they’ve all gone beyond the basic concept to examine a range of cultural topics.

Just as writer-director Garland does in his movie “Ex Machina.” On the surface, Garland’s screenplay presents a simple sci-fi mystery. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder at the world’s most-used search-engine company, wins a lottery. The prize? The opportunity to spend a week with his billionaire boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), working on a secret project.

It’s only when he arrives, by helicopter, at Nathan’s estate – a thoroughly modern house set in a remote forested mountain area (“Ex Machina” was shot in Norway) – that Caleb discovers what the project is: Nathan is constructing a robot with enough human intelligence to, he hopes, be able to pass what’s known as the Turing Test. In other words, he’s pretty sure his creation – dubbed Ava (and played by Swedish newcomer Alicia Vikander) – will be able to pass for human. And Nathan wants Caleb to conduct the test.

This is quite an opportunity for a young man pulled from the ranks of anonymous coders, getting to hang with his manly boss, who seems so down to earth, in between his drinking bouts and lifting weights as a hangover cure. From the beginning, though, Caleb senses something strange about the set-up: The house is built more like a fortress than either a home or, as Nathan insists, a lab. Nathan himself is a bit off, a little too demanding, a little too ingratiating, a little too weird. And then there is Ava, whom Nathan keeps confined in a glass prison.

To Caleb, Ava is an enticing challenge. And soon he finds himself engaging with her in ways that make it seem as if she is testing him. And maybe she is. Which leads exactly to the questions that Garland wants us to ask: What is intelligence, who has the right to enslave it, and what lengths will that intelligence go to determine its own future?

Mixed up in Garland’s brew is the notion of sex. It’s no coincidence that Nathan, who uses and abuses his female servant Kyoko, has designed Ava in a woman’s body. In one sense, a subservient female slave – again, another time-worn sci-fi conceit – serves as the stereotype of all that a man supposedly desires. A man like Nathan, at least.

And this lends Garland’s film a certain gravitas. Yet in the end, for all its atmosphere, “Ex Machina” doesn’t really say anything profound. Garland doesn’t answer any questions. All he does is leave us with possibilities.

The good news is, they all belong to Ava.

Get your fill of shorts Friday at The Bing

One of the most entertaining programs to play any film festival is a collection of shorts. For one thing, it takes far less effort — not to mention production costs — to make a short film. So the promise of quality is higher.

For another, if you don't like a particular short, no problem. It's likely to be over in a matter of mere minutes, with another taking its place.

All that said, the shorts collection The Best of Seattle Shorts Film Festival is scheduled to screen at 8 Friday night at the Bing Crosby Theater. The collection comprises 10 shorts, two of which "The Hero Pose" and "Serenade," will be accompanied by their respective directors (local filmmakers Mischa Jakupcak and Kendra Ann Sherrill).

Tickets are $15 ($10 for students). For more information, click here

Petit Chat Village Bakery: tasty treats at a good price

I wrote a blog post a while ago that described my experience at the local Wisconsinburger outlet. One of the things I stressed was how much I paid ($35.50, which included a 20 percent tip) for two burgers and fries and two drinks.

Now, a comparison. This afternoon my wife and I had lunch at the Petit Chat Village Bakery, which sits a short walk from Whitworth University. I ordered a turkey-cranberry sandwich and a lemonade, my wife a boast beef dip with iced tea. Both sandwiches came with chips. Our total bill: $21.50.

Now, I know, one is a gourmet burger place, the other a sandwich shop/bakery. Two different types of restaurant.

But my sandwich was too large for me to eat at one sitting. And my wife took half her order home, too. So I guess one question is, in what way do you want to spend your money? And another question is, how much are you willing to spend to get it?

I know what my answers are.

R. Ring show canceled, Holy Broke record release still on


R. Ring
, the Ohio-based alt-rock band featuring the Breeders’ Kelley Deal, has had to cancel tonight’s show at the Bartlett due to a family emergency.

But that doesn’t mean the Bartlett has pulled the plug on tonight’s music: Local singer-songwriter Kent Ueland’s solo project the Holy Broke, previously scheduled to open for R. Ring, will now headline the show, celebrating the vinyl release of its debut album “Do It Yourself.”

Tickets for tonight’s show are $7 and can be purchased at the Bartlett’s website or at the door.

Below: Hear “TV” by the Holy Broke, which is featured on “Do It Yourself.”

Friday’s openings: Silly time on the big screen

It's mostly mainstream comedy time this weekend. Of the three films opening generally, two feature name stars acting in roles that seem suited for Melissa McCarthy. Or someone.

Anyway, Friday's movie openings are as follows:

"Hot Pursuit": Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara star as, respectively, a by-the-rule cop and a drug boss' widow who race through Texas with murderers on  their tail. Sounds like a Tea Party recruiting video.

"The D Train": Jack Black stars as a nerdy guy who tries to attract a one-time high-school hotshot to their reunion. Who hasn't been in that position? (Nerd, I mean, not hotshot.)

"The Salt of the Earth": Wem Wenders co-directs this documentary that explores the work of photographer Sebastião Salgado, who's spent the last four decades capturing some of the world's biggest events and who now is attempting to capture the world's beauty. Surprise, surprise he manages to find some. 

And at the Magic Lantern? Preliminary bookings are as follows:

"Dior and I": A fashion-house documentary centering on Raf Simons, since 2012 the creative director at Christian Dior. As David Bowie sings, "Oooh, fashion! We are the goon squad and we're coming to town. Beep-beep, beep-beep."

So go to the movies. Any of the movies. And enjoy.  

Beer mecca hits the South Hill

Not that I want to step into my colleague Rick Bonino's world, but I was visiting the South Hill UPS Store — which is located in the same small mall as the new AAA Cruise & Travel store — and I just happened upon beer heaven.

I mean, it must be heaven because the friendly staffers at The Growler Guys were not only free with their advice but they were free with the samples of their rotating 48 different brews. We opted for a small refillable bottle of pale ale out of the Deschutes Brewery (Bend, Ore.), and finished it over the next hour. Or maybe half.

The site is one of 11 in Washington, Idaho and Oregon. And it's within walking distance of my house.

Didn't know heaven was that easy to access.

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