7 Blog

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

Mirren gives gloss to ‘Woman in Gold’

Some actors are almost always fun to watch, no matter what the film. Helen Mirren is one. The Oscar-winning performer ("The Queen") spices up the bio-pic "Woman in Gold," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription of my review:

I distrust inspired-by-real-life movie adaptations, especially those that attempt to reflect history. All too often they feature splashy casting, boast production values that seem drawn directly from the Masterpiece Theater library, and smooth out rough edges – in character, in plot and most of all in complexity – in an effort to make the final product fit the mold of palatable mainstream product.

“Woman in Gold,” which tells the story of an Austrian woman’s fight to reclaim art stolen six decades before by Nazi authorities, does all the above. Our protagonist, Maria Altmann, is played by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren. Production designer Jim Clay filled the same position on the 2012 BBC production of “Great Expectations.” And the script that Alexi Kaye Campbell wrote makes the legal issues addressed by your average “L.A. Law” episode look like a Supreme Court brief.

All that said, “Woman in Gold” is a surprisingly moving film. Director Simon Curtis, the same filmmaker who besides enjoying his own share of BBC-associated credits gave us 2011’s “My Week With Marilyn,” has crafted a slick, skillful and – yes, palatably mainstream – study of pain and angst, courage and long-delayed justice.

The film’s title refers to the 1907 painting by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer – who was Maria Altmann’s aunt. Bloch-Bauer died in 1925, and her widower husband fled Austria when German annexed Austria in 1938 – leading to all his possessions, including Woman in Gold, being seized by the Nazis.

Campbell’s screenplay tells two stories at once: We follow the young Altmann, played in part by “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany, from her childhood memories of her aunt to her breathless escape from Austria. And we follow the elder Altmann, now played by Mirren, as she consults with a young lawyer, Randol Schoenberg – played by Ryan Reynolds – about getting the paintings back.

The problem: They’re hanging in Vienna’s national art gallery. And a document, written by Bloch-Bauer, indicates that her intent was for them – especially “Woman in Gold” – to stay there. And so the film’s natural sense of tension is two-fold: How daring will Altmann’s escape be, and can the law ever give her rightful recompense?

Question is, how much of all this is real? Well, the basic facts, at least. Turns out there was a legal basis for Altmann’s suit, which Schoenberg argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court – though the case was ultimately resolved through independent arbitration. But as with all Hollywood versions of real-life stories, facts have been both stretched and invented – from a farfetched escape through gunfire to the casting of Reynolds to play the smallish, balding Schoenberg. Invention, though, is what we expect from Hollywood.

The question is, can some sense of authentic drama shine through all the gloss? Mirren, who can make the most absurd dialogue seem believable, does her best to make sure that it does. As does Reynolds who, though cast against type, is surprisingly good.

Credit director Curtis, too. It’s not easy to make mainstream melodrama look this good.

“The Force Awakens” with another teaser

Lucasfilm released the second official teaser trailer for "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" today at Star Wars Celebration 2015.

What do you think of the preview? Are you excited—or nervous—for the film's release in December?

Get Lit! 2015: 17 years of literary appreciation

Above: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. before his 2004 Get Lit! appearance. Note the cigarette.

Since its inception in 1998, Get Lit! — Spokane's annual literary festival, founded and annually hosted primarily by Eastern Washington University — has attracted an amazing array of talent. From Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to Salman Rushdie, Jane Smiley to Richard Russo. Too many, really, to comfortably list here.

But the celebration, which is what Get Lit! truly is, has never been about individual writers. It's been about the discipline of writing itself, an art that is practiced by everyone from best-selling authors such as Vonnegut, acclaimed Northwest writers such as Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter to students in area schools learning the difference between a comma and a semicolon.

That celebration will continue next week when the 17th-annual version of Get Lit! begins on Monday, April 20, with three different sessions. While the 2015 version of the festival doesn't feature the literary firepower of years past, attendees will have the opportunity to meet, greet and listen to such writers as Alexie, Walter and a number of other notable visiting writers. For a full schedule, click here.

A personal note: In 2004, before Vonnegut's Get Lit! performance at what is now the Bing Crosby Theater (then the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center), I met with the then-81-year-old writer backstage. As a Spokesman-Review staff writer, I had interviewed Vonnegut by phone the week before. And I jumped at the chance to meet him in person.

We met in a small room off the theater's balcony level. A small group of students stood nearby as Vonnegut pulled a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes from his suit coat pocket. "Ya think I can smoke here?" he asked. Feeling friskily familiar — I mean, really, was this Kurt Vonnegut asking me if he could smoke? — I said, "Hey, you're Kurt Vonnegut! You can smoke wherever you want."

And so he lit up. I snapped the photo above. And I got a memory of a lifetime.

2015-16 Best of Broadway series announced

West Coast Entertainment's Best of Broadway 2015-26 will kick off with the 20th anniversary of "Riverdance," feature a return engagement of "The Book of Mormon," and include the classic "42nd Street."

"Riverdance" will return to the INB Performing Arts Center from Oct. 22-25. And before you can say, "You'll shoot your eye out," the musical version of "A Christmas Story" will hit town Dec. 3-6.

"The Book of Mormon," which opened the 2014-15 season, will return in 2016 for run from Jan. 26-31. Then from March 24-27, the venerable Broadway musical "42nd Street" lands, followed May 3-8 with the hits show "Disney's Newsies."
Season tickets are available now, with a renewal deadline of May 31.

West Coast Entertainment also is binging 10 additional special engagements. They are: "All Hands on Deck" (Sept. 13), "I Love Lucy Live on Stage" (Oct. 2), "Shaping Sound: Dance Reimagined" (Oct. 30), Hall Hollbrook in "Mark Twain Tonight!" (Nov. 14), the R&B/fusion group Snarky Puppy (Nov. 20), "A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas" (Nov. 22),  "Mythbusters: Jamie and Adam Unleashed" (Dec. 11), the New Shanghai Circus (Feb. 7, 2016), the Illusionists (Feb. 13-14) and the musical "Beauty and the Beast" (April 5-6).

Finally, the National Geographic Live series also will return with Kevin Hand's "The Search for Life Beyond Earth" (Nov. 3), Steve Winter's "On the Trail of Big Cats" (Feb. 9, 2016), "Where the Wild Things Live" with Vincent J. Musi (March 8), and Cedar Wright's "Sufferfest" (April 19).

For details, click here.

Friday’s openings: Lots to choose from - even James Franco

What with seven movies opening on Friday, you're bound to find something you like. For once. Friday's openings are as follows:

"Monkey Kingdom": A Disney nature documentary follows the daily life of a toque macaque monkey female and her young son. Narrated by Tina Fey, but that doesn't make it a comedy.

"Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2": More of Kevin James as a dimwitted mall security guard. Maybe Tina Fey should have narrated. 

"Unfriended": A group of online friends gets haunted by someone, or something, using the account of their dead buddy. #thatsux.

"Child 44": An investigator in Stalin's Soviet Union goes after a child-killer. Wonder if he heads for Gorky Park?

"While We're Young": Noah Baumbach's latest study of contemporary life involves a middle-age couple (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) who befriend a couple of 20-somethings (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried). #lovethatfedora.

"True Story": Jonah Hill and James Franco play characters based on real people, Hill a fired New York Times Magazine writer, Franco the convicted murderer who befriended him. What, Seth Rogen wasn't available?

And at the Magic Lantern:

"About Elly": A group of Iranians gather for a weekend outing and have to deal with a series of unexpected, and unpleasant, surprises. #nonotdrones.

What a lineup, eh? Go and see a movie. And enjoy.

‘’71’: a unique blend of action and thought

Movies tend to come and go at the Magic Lantern. Occasionally, however, the theater holds worthy films over. And that certainly applies to "'71," Yann Demange's study of a young British soldier running for his life in 1971 Belfast, Northern Ireland. Following is a transcription of the review I wrote of Demange's movie for Spokane Public Radio:

Though each conflict carries its own personal stamp, all wars bear a few unspeakably sad similarities – brutality, torture, terror and death chiefly among them.

The struggle over Northern Ireland, commonly referred to as “The Troubles,” is a particular example. With underpinnings based firmly on the tortuous several-hundred-year history between Ireland and Great Britain, The Troubles generally apply to the three-decade span between October 1968 and April 1998. Throughout that complicated, internecine struggle – fueled by both religious and secular causes – military and paramilitary groups representing a number of competing factions hounded, hunted and often murdered each other. And civilians typically got caught in the crossfire. Some 3,500 people died in the process.

A number of films have tackled the war, from 1993’s “In the Name of the Father” to 2008’s “Hunger.” Some even deserve the tag of greatness: Paul Greengrass’ 2002 release “Bloody Sunday” comes to mind. Each offers its own take on the conflict. And now director Yann Demange’s succinctly titled “’71,” which is playing at the Magic Lantern, gives us something new: a thrilling, if sobering, thinking-person’s anti-war/action flick.

Demange, a British television director working from a script by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke, focuses on a young British soldier named Hook, played by “Unbroken” and “Starred Up” actor Jack O’Connell. A raw recruit, Hook finds himself sent to Belfast to work crowd control in support of the forces – official and unofficial – behind the city’s Protestant-backed majority. It’s during his first operation, led by a well-meaning but seriously naïve and inexperienced officer, that Hook and another soldier get separated from their regiment. And, after a series of savage events, Hook finds himself on the run, dodging those who want him dead and those who want to use him as a bargaining tool, dependent on either those who see him as a curiosity or those who, unable to reject their humanity, want to help him even as they desperately try figure out some way to get him out of their lives.

If Burke’s screenplay has a point, it’s that war – but in particular war as fought during The Troubles – is typically confusing, efficient only in its viciousness, and marked by psychopathic behavior in support of shifting interests brokered in the name of some larger cause. And in this struggle, the foot soldiers are treated – as Hook is told – as little more than meat.

Keying on the riveting presence of O’Connell, whose performance is an exercise in artistic restraint, director Demange tells several stories at once. As Hook runs blindly down back alleys, we are introduced to a range of secondary characters, from the British officer whose undercover activities follow secret priorities only he can fathom to the boy whose inherent sense of command intimidates those far older. By cross-cutting between these subplots – a skill credited to editor Chris Wyatt – and maintaining an action-flick pace, Demange manages to create a film that is both involving and informative.

What’s sad is that the information, old as time itself, needs to be shared yet again: War leads to nothing good.

Enjoy these ‘Wild Tales’ of mad revenge

And this just in: an addition to Friday's movie openings.

"Wild Tales" ("Relatos salvajes"): This Argentine nominee for Best Foreign Language Film features six different stories that, as Village Voice critic Stephanie Zacharek describes as the kind of "humanist movie" that "leaves us with no reassuring answers beyond a wink and a good-natured shrug." Written and directed by Damián Szifrón; in Spanish with English subtitles. 

One last, rueful look at our ‘Last Days in Vietnam’

It was on April 30, 1975, when the last U.S. troops left Saigon. Shots of those last helicopters lifting off from the U.S. embassy have become part of an indelible historical image. And, to be truthful, it wasn't our country's most honorable moment — despite individual instances of sacrifice and heroism.

Rory Kennedy's film "Last Days in Vietnam" takes us back to that moment. The documentary, which will screen on Spokane's Public Television at 8 p.m. April 28, is receiving near-universal acclaim. Some of the reviews make this clear:

Alan Scherstuhl, The Village Voice: "Vital, illuminating, and terrifying, Rory Kennedy's 'Last Days in Vietnam' probes with clarity and thoroughness one moment of recent American history that has too long gone unreckoned with… (T)his film is stellar, a dead-on stare at the moments this country tries not to remember."

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: "These stranger-than-fiction tales, piled one on top of the other in the most gripping way, not only mesmerize us, they also point up another of (the film's) provocative points, that the chaos surrounding the evacuation was, in effect, the entire war in microcosm."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "The story is full of emotion and danger, heroism and treachery, but it is told in a mood of rueful retrospect rather than simmering partisan rage."

KSPS is offering a free preview of the film, 6:30 p.m. Monday, at the Bing Crosby Theater. The doors open at 6. So get there early.

Get the VIP treatment from WSU and R’nR RV Center

Don’t miss out on your chance for the VIP treatment at the upcoming WSU Crimson and Gray Football Game on April 25, 2 p.m. at Joe Albi Stadium!

One lucky winner in our WSU Spring Game Sweepstakes will receive two pre-game field passes and meet Head Coach Mike Leach for a photo. The winner will also get two WSU football jerseys and hats, two VIP seats at the game and a $100 gasoline gift card.

You must enter in person at R'nR RV Center in Airway Heights (13915 W. Sunset Highway) or Liberty Lake (23203 E. Knox Avenue), open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Make your entry by April 18 for a chance to win!

See Contest Rules for eligibility requirements and details.

The week’s openings: Pacino and Sparks

And now we have a better idea of what mainstream movies are opening on Friday. The week's other openings look like this:

"Freetown" (on Wednesday): This "inspired by a true story" film tells the tale of Mormon missionaries, caught up in the Liberian civil war, trying to escape to nearby Sierra Leone. Gives new meaning to the term road trip.

"The Longest Ride": The recollections of an older man help a young couple weather their marital problems. Two words: Nicholas Sparks.

"Danny Collins": Al Pacino stars as a big-time music sell-out who, after learning that John Lennon once thought he had talent, is energized to reconstruct his musical career.

"Woman In Gold": Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds star in this "inspired by a true story" effort — the second one this week — about a woman suing the government of Austria for return of her family's painting (done by Gustav Klimt).

So go out. See a movie. Buy some popcorn. And enjoy.

Below: Enjoy the "Danny Collins" trailer in Russian.

Hank Jr., Jackson Browne, Weird Al on tap at Northern Quest

There are a lot of legends heading to Northern Quest Resort and Casino this summer, including those from the worlds of rock, country and comedy. The casino this morning announced its 2015 Pepsi Outdoor Summer Concert lineup. Here it is:

Tickets will go on sale for individual concerts beginning April 10 online at www.northernquest.com or through the casino box office at (509) 481-6700 (toll-free 1-877-871-6772).  Box Office hours are Wednesday thru Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

 

Friday opening: Getting a divorce in Israel isn’t easy

This early in the week, we know only of a single film that will be opening locally on Friday. It's at the Magic Lantern.

"Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem": Having left her husband, an Israeli woman of Moroccan descent sues for divorce but must obtain a "Gett" — a document of permission for the divorce — from her obstinate husband. And he refuses. Remember the Oscar-winning 2011 Iranian film "A Separation"? This is the Israeli version, with all the twisted — and sexist — religious law inextricably intertwined.

Friday's mainstream offerings should be announced later today.

James shines in live-action ‘Cinderella’

After finally getting around to seeing the new mostly live-action "Cinderella," I had a mixed reaction. Following is a transcription of the review that i wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Beginning in 1937, when the animated feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” opened on theatrical screens four days before Christmas, The Walt Disney Studios showed they understood what it takes to make cartoons palatable to all audiences.

Just add in some cute creatures for kids, some action and romance for teens and a sense of classical drama – and a few adult jokes – for the grown-ups. The main differences these days from classic Disney involve the animated visuals, which depend mostly on Computer Graphics, and the comic asides: obvious fart jokes for younger viewers and more off-color jokes for their elders – the latter usually told fast enough that the kids don’t notice. We hope.

Oh, and sometimes the themes. As both a tacit recognition of our post-modern world and as a means of recycling ready-made material, Disney films have begun to deconstruct its take on old folktales. In last year’s “Maleficent,” for example, the QUOTE-evil-UNQUOTE fairy from “Sleeping Beauty” is portrayed as a rage-filled entity whose negative qualities were caused by a lover’s betrayal. Yep, just as it was man who killed Bambi’s mom, it was man who – in the case of “Maleficent” – literally carved up romantic trust.

Similarly, Disney’s 2010 update of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” puts far less stress on the novel’s whimsical word-play and deliberate nonsense to craft a more easily accessible tale of friendship, loyalty and female empowerment.

While both movies proved profitable, neither achieved much critical acceptance.

So now we have a new “Cinderella” – live-action, or mostly so – and anyone would be forgiven for expecting something different. Something better. But as so many Grimm’s folktales show, hope often leads to disappointment.

This new “Cinderella” IS different, in that it tends to avoid any post-“Seinfeld” ironic sensibilities. The tale is told fairly straight, if we’re using Disney’s 1950 animated version as a model. Lovely Ella is born to a loving couple and enjoys a dreamy life, and the early love she feels gives her the strength to weather her mother’s death, dad’s remarriage to the haughty trio of stepmom and stepsisters, then dad’s death and her own gradual descent into servitude.

True love will prove the ultimate salvation, though the path to that resolution is powered more by the tagline uttered by our young heroine’s doomed mommy: “Have courage and be kind.” And, yeah, this feels familiar, if only somewhat satisfying, especially to someone who thinks a modern version of the musical “Camelot” would be much more interesting were it to be told from the evil Mordred’s point of view.

This new “Cinderella” IS likely to prove popular to the very young, even if the CGI effects do little more than provide comic relief, and the off-key performances of such trained actors as Cate Blanchett and Stellan Skarsgaard feel as if they belong more to a production of “Macbeth.”

If nothing else, Lily James – the “Downton Abbey” actress who plays the adult Ella – proves a bright spark of innocent spunk. No amount of cinder ash – or clownish CGI – can spoil her appeal.

Anthony Quinn is ‘Barabbas’ Saturday night

Religious movies aren't my favorite genre. But I've enjoyed a number of them, especially those starring Charlton Heston. Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," for example, or William Wyler's "Ben-Hur."

One religious movie I never have seen is Richard Fleischer's 1961 offering "Barabbas," which stars Anthony Quinn and a host of international stars such as Silvana Mangano, Katy Jurado, Vittorio Gassman and Valentina Cortese, not to mention such American stars as Jack Palance, Arthur Kennedy and Ernest Borgnine. But I'm looking forward to it.

My chance to see "Barabbas" will come at 8 p.m. Saturday on KSPS, channel 7, Spokane's Public Television station, as the feature presentation of the station's "Saturday Night Cinema." And if you want to know more, you should listen to what Shaun Higgins — one of the show's revolving three hosts, including Jackie Brown and Ryan Tucker — has to say about the film.

Click here to access Shaun's intro. And then, like me, check out the movie.

April’s Big Night Out with Cirque du Soleil

Congratulations to the winner of March’s Big Night Out giveaway, Dane Rounsville! Enjoy Saturday's Spokane Shock game and gift certificate to Knockaderry Irish Pub, Dane!

We have another great giveaway lined up for April! You can win two tickets to “Varekai,” presented by Cirque du Soleil at the Spokane Arena on April 29, along with a $50 gift certificate to Ruins.

“Varekai” tells the story of a young man who takes an adventure through a captivating forest populated with fantastical characters. The show, which plays at the Spokane Arena April 29-May 3, celebrates the soul of the nomad, the spirit and art of the circus tradition and the passion of those who quest.

Ruins, located at 825 N. Monroe St., is a newish eclectic eatery known for its rotating menu to cocktails, small plates and desserts, and the perfect place to start a Big Night Out. Learn more with At Ruins, a fresh start.

To enter this month’s contest, visit Big Night Out: Cirque du Soleil. Contest ends April 26. Check out all our current contests at spokane7.com/contests.

Subscribe via RSS