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

Auntie’s to host Visiting Writer Bynum on Friday

If you don't have plans for Friday evening, you might consider reading to Auntie's Bookstore for a literary reading. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, who is appearing courtesy of Eastern Washington University's 2016-2017 Visiting Writers Series.

The 7:30 event is free and open to the public.

Bynum, who was profiled in The New Yorker, is the author of two novels: "Ms. Hempel Chronicles" and "Madeleine Is Sleeping." Her short fiction appears in a variety of publications, including — again — The New Yorker.

In its review of "Madeleine Is Sleeping," Publishers Weekly called it a "remarkable debut" and added that "Replete with Kafkaesque metamorphoses, Freudian fantasies, Aesopian justice and religious metaphor, the novel is equal parts fairy tale, fable, romance and bildungsroman."

Nothing better than a good old bildungsroman.

Friday’s openings redux: Memories of James Baldwin

The final bookings are in, and three additional films join the openings already listed below:

"I Am Not Your Negro": Samuel L. Jackson narrates this collection of James Baldwin's writings that strive to explain the history, and significance, of U.S. race relations. Nominated for Best Feature Documentary Oscar.

"The Red Turtle": Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit directed and co-wrote the screenplay for this animated film about a man marooned on a desert island with his only companion the character of the film's title. Nominated for Best Animated Feature.

"Rock Dog": Disney veteran Ash Brannon directed and co-wrote the screenplay for this animated film about a country dog who dreams of becoming a rock star.

Magic Lantern: Doc shorts capture real life

The Magic Lantern has Oscar fever. As a warm-up to Sunday's ceremonies, the theater will be opening both sections of the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts programs. The lineup, each of which screens separately, is as follows:

PROGRAM A (Running Time: 72 minutes)

"Extremis" (dir. Dan Krauss, U.S., 24 minutes): Life and death in an Oakland, Calif., hospital.

"4.1 Miles" (dir. Daphne Matziaraki, U.S., 22 minutes): A Greek Coast Guard captain struggles to save the lives of refugees fleeing the Middle East.

"Joe’s Violin" (dir. Kahane Cooperman, U.S., 24 minutes): A 91-year-old Holocaust survivors donates the violin he has played for 70 years to a young student.

 PROGRAM B (Running Time 82 minutes)

"Watani: My Homeland" (dir. Marcel Mettelsiefen, 39 minutes): Forced from their home, a Syrian family attempts to build a new life in Germany.

"The White Helmets" (dir. Orlando von Einsiedel, 41 minutes): Members of the all-volunteer Syrian Civil Guard fight to save lives in war-torn Aleppo.

Stay tuned for other Magic Lantern news.

Fridays openings: Racing and racial horror

It's early in the new year. We haven't even given out the prizes for 2016, though that event — the Oscars broadcast — will occur on Sunday.

My point is that this is usually a dead time for film, the time when those films for one reason or another deemed not worthy of a late-year release are dumped onto the market. Occasionally, though, you can find a few gems. Maybe this week.

Friday's national release schedule looks like this:

"Collide": An American (Nicholas Hoult) races across Europe in an attempt to save the woman (Felicity Jones) he loves. In his way are a couple of drug-runner kingpins (played by Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley). British acting royalty going for the payday.

 "Get Out": A young black man is taken by his white girlfriend to meet her parents. Horror ensues. Written and directed by Jordan Peele (of the comedy duo Key and Peele, it's bound to have a laugh or two — even if they're discomfiting.

I'll update what the local theaters will be doing when they announce their lineups.

‘LEGO Batman’ toys with our funny bone

If you haven't yet seen "The LEGO Batman Movie," you might wonder if it's as good as its predecessor. I try to answer that question in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Movies have hawked products since before they featured sound. In his 1922 film “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler,” Fritz Lang inserted a card that identified the makers of the gowns his actresses wore. The practice ultimately became so rampant that the very basis of some movies was built on the notion of product placement: Remember 2004’s “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”?

Now, a dozen years later, the adventures of Harold & Kumar seem almost precious by comparison. Products these days aren’t just the basis of movie plots. They embody movie plots, particularly when they focus on toys, such as Barbies, Trolls, G.I. Joes or, since 2014, LEGOs.

That first LEGO movie, simply and frankly titled “The LEGO Movie,” was a surprise hit. Both an action flick and a comic lampoon of every action film Hollywood has ever produced, “The LEGO Movie” features both a sterling cast of voice actors – headed by Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and Will Arnett – and a musical score that includes the infectious song “Everything Is Awesome.”

So the only real question about the spin-off production titled almost as simply “The LEGO Batman Movie,” is can the same formula work twice? And I’m here to say yes. Mostly it does.

First, director Chris McKay and company recognize what everyone else has: that Batman is an enduring character. At the same time, they recognized just how ripe he is for the kind of satire that would both comment on, and yet embrace, the various gestations the character has undergone over his nearly eight decades of existence.

Second, despite being written and directed by a whole new crew – four different screenwriters share script and/or story credits – “The LEGO Batman Movie” boasts the same sense of parody and progression of quick-hit running gags as the original. Those gags fly at us right away, when Arnett – whose deep voice resonates the perfect Batman growl – explains to us that we begin with a black screen because, well, every important movie begins with a black screen.

Third, and maybe most important, “The LEGO Batman Movie” uses a clever plot device similar to what Trey Parker and Matt Stone devised for their 1999 “South Park” movie: Where Parker and Stone set up an ironic scenario in which we’re expected to feel sorry for Satan because he is being emotionally abused by Saddam Hussein, McKay’s writing team wants us to feel sorry for Batman’s foe The Joker because he can’t win Batman’s hatred.

In fact, no one can get close to Batman, friend or foe, because his fear of intimacy has pushed him toward a lonely life of arrogant narcissism. Which, besides establishing the overall tone, sets us up for a couple of great “Jerry Maguire” jokes.

Overall, “The Batman LEGO Movie” may not quite match the quality of the 2014 film, if only because it has a slight feel of been there, done that. But Arnett, joined by Zach Galifanakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes and more, do achieve something special.

They and their LEGO characters manage … to complete us.

Harum shows how ‘Rogue One’ could be ‘Done Better’

One of the joys of filmgoing is jawing about what you see with your friends. Forget politics (if you can these days), some of the best, most intense, arguments I've ever had involve film.

And the more obscure you can make your arguments, the better. For example: Resolved: That Quentin Tarantino hates women. Discuss.

Here's another: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is a boring movie that could have been done far better.

No need to discuss that second one because Adam Harum has already done a pretty good job. You don't even need to agree with him — and many "Star Wars" fans definitely will not — to appreciate the smart, well-reasoned arguments he makes in his most recent "Done Better" YouTube post (see embed below).

You may be familiar with Harum. He's a Spokane filmmaker, one of the crew behind the "Transolar Galactica" series. His short "Lifeline" just won the Best of the Northwest award at the recent Spokane International Film Festival.

And if you take the time to listen to his critique of Gareth Edwards' film (especially his comments about Felicity Jo… zzzzzzzzz), you just might find yourself agreeing. Or, if not, his arguments just might spur you on to reinforce your own differing opinions.

Either way, "Done Better" is what good film appreciation is all about.

‘Lion’ benefits from the world’s cutest 8-year-old

If you still haven't seen "Lion," the based-on-real-events movie that's playing at both the Magic Lantern and AMC River Park Square, you'll still have plenty of chances. The film will continue through next week at least.

"Lion" tells the true story of a 5-year-old Indian boy who, by circumstance, gets separated from his family and, thousands of kilometers from home, can't find his way back. He is forced to survive on the streets of Calcutta and eventually is placed in an orphanage, from which he eventually is adopted by an Australian couple. Some 25 years later, after years of anxiety, he returns to India and attempts to retrace his steps home.

Just for the record, the Garth Davis-directed film has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Two of the awards are for the supporting performances put in by Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. It's worth noting that Patel won the equivalent award at the recent British Academy Awards ceremonies.

But the real treat that "Lion" offers is the performance of a first-time actor. Sunny Pawar is an 8-year-old from Mumbai who was found after the movie's producers sent out a country-wide casting call. One of three finalists, he eventually won the role.

Here are some comments about Pawar's performance:

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: "The first half involves an enchanting 5-year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar, irresistible)."

Stephanie Zacharek, Time magazine: "Saroo (is) played by captivating child actor Sunny Pawar … Part of the reason the movie deflates is that it’s so hard to say goodbye to young Saroo, a bright, self-reliant kid with whose optimism is galvanizing."

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: "Davis is … helped immeasurably by the casting of young Sunny Pawar as the boy Saroo. A neophyte as an actor, this tiny, self-possessed performer is electric, using his expressive eyes to convey emotions that are unmistakable but still restrained."

Yeah, Patel and Kidman are OK. As is David Wenham as the husband of Kidman's character. But "Lion" belongs to Pawar, and it isn't quite the same when he exits the picture.

‘Toni Erdmann’ finally opening locally

So, the final bookings are out, and one of last year's most highly rated foreign films is on the menu. The amended list of Friday's openings includes:

"Toni Erdmann": Playing at AMC River Park Square, this lengthy (two hours, 42 minutes) German-language comedy centers on a father trying to connect with his workaholic daughter by posing as her boss' life coach. A German-made family comedy, imagine that.

I'll post the Magic Lantern openings when they become available.

Update (Wednesday a.m.): The Magic Lantern will continue with its current slate of films: "Moonlight," "The Founder," "Lion," "The Salesman," and the two Oscar-nominated shorts programs (animated, live-action).

Auntie’s to honor Washington Book Award winners

Above: Sharma Shields, author of "The Sasquatch Hunter's Handbook."

For a couple of years in the early '90s, I had the honor of serving on a committee to choose what was then called the Governor's Writers Awards. Now dubbed the Washington State Book Awards, the process retains pretty much the same intent: to honor "outstanding books published by Washington authors the previous year."

Two of the area authors who won awards during my tenure were John Keeble for his nonfiction book "Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound" and Ursula Hegi for her novel "Floating in My Mother's Palm."

The most recent area winner was Sharma Shields for her book "The Sasquatch Hunter's Handbook." The fiction winner in 2015 was Bruce Holbert for "The Hour of Lead," while the the poetry award went to Tod Marshall (now the Washington State Poet Laureate) for his collection "Bugle."

On Friday from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Auntie's Bookstore will recognize all the area winners who have won state book awards over the years. Expected to attend, among others, are Shields, poet Marshall, Mary Cronk Farrell, Gregory Spatz, Nance Van Winckle, Shann Ray, Paul Lindholdt and Bill Youngs.

The event is free and open to the public. And I imagine some books will be for sale. It'd probably be a good idea to buy one. Or three.

Friday’s openings: Punches and more get thrown

What with so many 2016 films still hanging around — mostly because of awards season — it's hard to gauge the full extent of what area theaters might be opening. Other than the big films, that is.

Three films are on the national release list for Friday: They are:

"The Great Wall": Matt Damon plays a European mercenary whose trek to ancient China means fighting monsters who want to feed on humanity. Directed by the great Zhang Yimou, this is a joint China-Hollywood production — for what that's worth.

"Fist Fight": Charlie Day plays the hapless nerd/teacher who gets called out by a fellow tough-guy teacher (Ice Cube). Think "Three O'Clock High," only with teachers.

"A Cure for Wellness": When a young executive (Dane DeHaan) heads to a Swiss resort to retrieve a senior colleague, he finds himself mired in a weird world of supposed health "cures." As one reviewer calls it, Gore Verbinski's new film is a "A Gloriously Demented Dose Of Big-Budget Horror."

I'll have the final bookings when they become available. Stay tuned.

Oscar shorts range in theme and style

Two of the Oscar-nominated shorts programs open in Spokane today. Following is the preview of them that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Sooner or later, the Inland Northwest gets most of the big-name Oscar-nominated films. In recent years, they’ve tended to play here even in the year in which they were released – which wasn’t always the case.

Time was, some of the Oscar nominees – Woody Allen movies, say – would never screen anywhere near the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene corridor. Or if they did, it would usually be at one of the gestations of the old Magic Lantern – versions that sported tiny screens, poor sound, uncomfortable seats and wretched sightlines … even if, perhaps, the best popcorn.

Now, though, it’s different. Ignore the fact that the more enterprising among us can find a way to screen pretty much anything they want over the Internet. Those of us who prefer to see our movies legitimately, not to mention in an actual theater, may have to wait a bit – but, for the most part, the movies do come.

Part of this is due to demand. Yes, most movie fans still clamor to see movies in which superheroes save the day, animals soothe their masters, nerds discover their mega-powered inner-selves – all occurring, preferably, in between things blowing up real good. But theaters need a lot of product, and in recent years enterprising producers have found ingenious ways of providing it.

One way is to package all the Oscar-nominated shorts into individual programs. The five nominated animated shorts, for example. Or the five nominated live-action shorts. Even the documentary shorts, which tend to be longer, are being released in two separate programs.

Beginning this weekend, the Magic Lantern Theater and the AMC River Park Square will screen both the animated shorts and live-action shorts programs, both of which explore a wide range of topics, themes and styles.

The animated shorts, for example, hail mostly from North America, with three U.S. entries and two from Canada. One of those Canadian films, Robert Valley’s “Pear Cider and Cigarettes,” is both a UK co-production and the longest of the bunch at 35 minutes. In most ways, it is the most ambitious, being a graphic-novel-influenced, real-life story of a friend trying to save his self-destructive buddy.

But the competition in this category is tough, what with the program including the Pixar short “Borrowed Time,” the Disney Studio short “Piper,” the father-daughter study “Pearl” and even “Blind Vaysha,” a visual kaleidoscope adaptation of an old folk tale that just screened at the recent Spokane International Film Festival.

In the live-action program, the themes are darker, with arguably the best – the French-made “Ennemis intérieurs” (see embed below) – being a face-off between an Algerian man seeking French citizenship and a French official. The Danish entry “Silent Nights” is another tale of immigration, the Hungarian short “Sing” explores a youth choir’s rebellion against its teacher, while Spain’s “Timecode” and Switzerland’s “La Femme et la TGV” offer wry yet touching looks at intimacy.

So, OK, you won’t find an exploding car in the bunch. And maybe the overall quality doesn’t quite match that of years past. But both shorts programs are well worth a view.

Especially since it’s only these days that we’re afforded one.

Oakland Film Festival to screen at Whitworth

Leonard Oakland is a teaching legend to many Whitworth University students. And even in his emeritus years, he has been the recipient of many accolades and honors.

One of the most public is an annual film event. This year's Leonard Oakland Film Festival will be held Thursday through Sunday, with an additional event scheduled for Feb. 20, on the Whitworth campus. For specifics, clink on the above link.

Festival highlights, no surprise, involve movie screenings. At 7 p.m. Friday, documentary filmmaker Alexandra Hidalgo will attend a showing of her recent documentary "Vanishing Borders." At 7 p.m. Saturday, a panel discussion will following a showing of the Paul Thomas Anderson film "Inherent Vice" (an adaptation of the novel by Thomas Pynchon). And at 3 p.m. Sunday, the Hungarian film "Son of Saul" will screen.

All events will be held in Whitworth's Robinson Teaching Theater. For other information, call (509) 777-1000.

The week’s openings redux: Almodóvar and Oscar shorts

In addition to the films mentioned below, here are a couple of other openings scheduled for Friday:

"Julieta": Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar returns with this tale about a woman who, alienated from her grown daughter, tries to reconnect with her while confronting painful memories of their past. Bring a hanky.

Oscar-nominated shorts: Two separate programs, one for animated films, the other for live-action. Look for Pixar and Disney to duke it out in the animated category. (Screening both in mainstream theaters and the Magic Lantern.)

Added note: "The LEGO Batman Movie" will be available at certain theaters in both standard and 3D formats.

That's the list. So go, see a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Keanu and LEGO Batman

Looking at the coming week's movie schedule early on a Monday morning isn't always the best way to figure out what's actually going to open. Local theaters tend to alter their lineups based on a variety of factors, which means that other than the biggest-name releases little is certain.

But this coming Friday does boast three pretty big openings, so let's mention those and pick up any stragglers — or correct any miscalculations — when the local schedule does get finalized (usually no later than mid-day Wednesday). So, as of now, the national schedule offers the following Friday openings:

"The LEGO Batman Movie": The most popular breakout character from 2014's surprise breakout hit, "The LEGO Movie," returns with a movie all his own. If it's only half as good, it should still be one of the funniest films of the year.

"Fifty Shades Darker": Yes, the sequel to "Fifty Shades of Grey." This time no games, she says. Right.

"John Wick: Chapter 2": Keanu Reeves returns as the retired assassin, forced out of retirement, who now has had a bounty placed on his head. Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K, dude.

That's it for now. I'll post the final listings when they are announced.

SpIFF 19 faces a comic apocalypse

If you've been having trouble scoring tickets for any of the 19th Spokane International Film Festival screenings, your struggle is over — for the night, at least. The festival moves to the Bing Crosby Theater tonight for a pair of events.

2017 Best of the Northwest (5:30): Eight short films exploring a variety of subjects made by filmmakers hailing from all over the Northwest.

"Diani and Devine Meet the Apocalypse" (7:30): An offbeat comedy about two comedians who are faced with an end-of-the-world scenario.

SpIFF 2017 returns on Saturday to the Magic Lantern with a full schedule and culminates with a special screening at the Martin Woldsen Theatre at The Fox of the silent classic "The Phantom of the Opera" accompanied by the Spokane Symphony.

Click here for SpIFF ticket information.