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

‘Marnie’ has the trademark Studio Ghibli look

When the Magic Lantern reopens, as it is supposed to do today, not only will it feature a new digital but it will also screen the latest — perhaps the last — animated effort from Japan's acclaimed Studio Ghibli. My review of the film, "When Marnie Was There," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, follows:

In the realm of movie animation, several names rise above the rest. Walt Disney, obviously. Chuck Jones, too. And any list, by necessity, has to include the name Hayao Miyazaki.

None of these individual animators worked alone. They may have been more innovators, leaders of their respective teams – Disney Studios, say, or Warner Bros.’ animation arm – but in the end the influence each had on the genre of animation may have been as important as any goal each may have personally achieved.

Take Miyazaki. The Studio Ghibli productions he directed are among the greatest animated films ever made: “Castle in the Sky,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Princess Mononoke” and the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away.”

Yet the studio is responsible for a number of other notable animated exercises. Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s “The Secret World of Arriety,” for example, or “From Up on Poppy Hill,” which was directed by Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki. Or arguably the greatest of the bunch, Isao Takahata’s masterful study of war, “Grave of the Fireflies.”

That’s all in the past. A year ago, news reports broke that – along with the announcement of the elder Miyazaki’s retirement – the studio itself was closing. Almost as quickly, reports broke that the studio was merely “taking a break.” Whatever Studio Ghibli’s long-term status is, the short term has brought us a new film, “When Marnie Was There,” which is scheduled to open today at the Magic Lantern Theater.

Based on a 1967 English young-adult novel of the same name, “When Marnie Was There” tells the story of a 12-year-old girl named Anna who doesn’t have the most positive self image. In fact, she hates herself. As the film progresses, we gradually learn the reasons for this. But at first, she just seems troubled – and a tad ungrateful to her foster mother, whom she refers to merely as her “auntie.”

Concerned over her foster daughter’s asthma, and her dark moods, Anna’s auntie sends her from the city of Sapporo to a small, ocean-side village to live with friends, the remarkably upbeat Oiwas. Content only when she is sketching, and following an abortive attempt by Mrs. Oiwa to connect her with some local children, Anna remains alone – but fascinated by a battered mansion that stands on the marshy coastline.

It is at this ghostly mansion, which at turns is dark and deserted and then full of light and life, that Anna meets the mysterious Marnie – who, as it turns out, becomes not just her occasional BFF but also the key to everything Anna was and is.

The themes that director Yonebayashi explores in “When Marnie Was There” aren’t as clearly defined, or resolved, as his previous film, 2010’s “The Secret World of Arriety” – much less anything by Miyazaki. Feeling both overfull and underwritten, even while delving into such serious subjects as child abandonment and abuse, “Marnie” also bears a certain sense of the predictable.

Yet the animation that Yonebayashi utilizes, from shots of moonlight reflected off the sea to a storm hitting a seemingly haunted silo, represent classic Studio Ghibli: the cartoon as actual art.

Punk Poet tackles Lewis and Clark trek tonight

Many of us, at one time or another, have fantasized about the explorers Lewis and Clark. My own fantasies have largely been confined to driving along sections of I-90 and thinking, "Wonder what it would have been like to come along here on horses, carrying everything you need to live, never knowing what was over the next ridge?"

And that would be about the time I'd reach out to turn up my car's air conditioning.

John Burgess has done some of the same kind of fantasizing. For years the Seattle poet has been writing poems about the two explorers, about Sacajawea and other aspects of their expedition. And he's been visiting many of the sites cited in the expedition records. Now he's collected a variety of mixed media, from poems to cartoons, drawings and personal reflections, into a book titled "by Land…"

Burgess will read from his book at 7 tonight at Auntie's Bookstore.

As he told Big Sky State Buzz, Burgess didn't organize the book to be read strictly front to back.

“It’s like finding your own way,” he said. “You can open the book and go through it in any way you want to. Mine is arbitrary and is the order I intersected with the trail, but you may have a different order you may want to read it in. I just didn’t want to restrict it to just how I did it.”

The week’s openings: Fashion, family and fun

I've already posted that "Terminator Genysis" and "Magic Mike XXL" will open Wednesday, and that the animated feature "When Marnie Was There" will open Friday at the Magic Lantern. But I have not posted the following:

Also opening Wednesday:

"The Overnight": A new-to-L.A. family's "playdate" turns into something unexpected. What, they're forced to endure a night at Chuck E. Cheese?

Also opening Friday:

"Saint Laurent": The brilliant, if self-destructive, French designer is profiled in this narrative biopic focusing on the years 1967-76. That's when things were oh-so, mmmmm, vogue.

So go. To a movie. And enjoy.

Lantern returns with Studio Ghibli’s ‘Marnie’

Word finally comes that when the Magic Lantern reopens, on Friday July 3, the theater will screen the Studio Ghibli animated feature "When Marnie Was There."

Called by some the studio's "last planned feature," the movie joins a long list of Studio Ghibli film such as "Princess Mononoke," "My Neighbor Totoro," "Grave of the Fireflies" and, my favorite, "Spirited Away."

From Entertainment Weekly: "(T)though its bulky script (based on a British ghost story) keeps it from the magnificent heights of the studio’s classics, the animation is dazzling."

Danner puts the glow in ‘Dreams’

If you're old enough to remember watching "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," then you're old enough to relate to the characters featured in the movie "I'll See You in My Dreams." And perhaps even sensitive enough to empathize with their feelings.

Whatever, a transcript of my review of "I'll See You in My Dreams" for Spokane Public Radio follows:

Blythe Danner has always been more a part of movie backdrops than anything resembling a featured player. Even in the first movie I ever remember seeing her in, 1979’s “The Great Santini,” she played third fiddle to Robert Duvall and Michael O’Keefe, both of whom earned Oscar nominations.

So now that she’s 72, you’d think that her career would be long over. Yet, thanks to writer director Brett Haley, it isn’t. The woman better known to the world at large as Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom is the star of Haley’s small, yet effective, film “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”

And the wait for Danner’s movie star to glow has been worth the effort.

She plays Carol Petersen, a septuagenarian, widowed for two decades, who lives a disciplined, staid life with her pet dog, her three best pals, a nightly bottle of chardonnay and the sense that anything resembling romance has long passed her by – a sense that is magnified after a horrific night of speed dating.

Then things change. Her dog dies. She’s tormented by a rat that shows up in her otherwise tidy house – a rat, by the way, that the exterminator doubts ever existed. She strikes up a budding friendship with the young guy Lloyd – played by Martin Starr – who cleans her pool. And she meets Bill, a wealthy divorcé played by the ever dependable Sam Elliott.

And just that fast, Carol sees that she might actually enjoy the time she has left.

If that all sounds a bit too pat, well, it would be – if writer-director Haley didn’t have a strict sense for the unpredictable. Just when you think you know where “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is going, Haley takes you in the opposite and – at least in one instance – shocking direction. Along the way, he takes his time, pacing his film patiently and giving us just enough character development to be intriguing while writing the kind of unforced dialogue that, in most cases, feels both artful and authentic.

Haley does insist on casting a trio of actresses – Mary Kay Place, Rhea Perlman and June Squibb – who seem straight out of a Casting 101 audition. And, at least to me, their “Golden Girls”-type moments bear all the stereotypes that the movie otherwise avoids.

“I’ll See You in My Dreams” has several moments that salvage it, though. The scene where Carol sings karaoke – showing that the former cabaret singer still knows how to manipulate a tune – is moving. Her moments with Bill feel as sexy as they do natural. Her tendency to waver around her daughter, well played by Malin Ackerman, might have you begging for more context. But her moments with Lloyd are everything they need to be.

The result is a film that portrays aging and elder emotion in a way that avoids most of the cheap jokes and clichés a less talented filmmaker would have reveled in – a film that Danner waited a lifetime to play but, when the opportunity came, played it as well as anyone could.

Wear your PJs and see ‘Home’ for free

Once, actually it was during my 1993 honeymoon in Maui, I discovered how fun it was to read the local newspaper's crime news listings.

Bear with me here. It's not as if the listings detailed anything remotely like serious crime. No, it was mostly somebody complaining about a chicken attacking their garden, somebody else reporting that their lunch had been stolen, or grousing that a parked car was ruining someone's view of the beach. It made for fascinating reading — in between my other honeymoon activities.

I recalled that newspaper feature this morning as I perused The Spokesman-Review's Community Calendar. Amid the dozens of activities the day offers, from invitations to art shows to museum exhibitions to drop-in sporting events, one particular notice attracted my attention: something called a "Pajama Party at the Movies."

If you click on the above link, you'll discover what I did — that if you show up at noon or at 5 today at the Garland Theater, and you're carrying a pair of pajamas that you want to donate, you'll be granted free admission to see a screening of the DreamWorks animated film "Home." The donations are meant for "a foster child in need."

You're invited to get fully into the spirit of the event and wear PJs yourself, if you want — though it's probably not expected that you'll donate the pair you wear.

The parties begin at noon and 5. Have fun. And keep reading the Community Calendar. I know I will.

Right now I have to go out in the yard. A rafter of wild turkeys is harassing my cat. Somebody call Crime Check.

Lantern reopening set for July 3

Above: Movie coffee is mostly swill, except at the Magic Lantern.

If you've been suffering from a Magic Lantern withdrawal — and what area movie fan hasn't at one time or another over the years? — here's good news: Spokane's stalwart art moviehouse is scheduled to reopen just in time to wish the country a happy 239th birthday.

Yes, the word from theater manager Jonathan Abramson is that the theater will reopen on Friday, July 3rd. No word yet on what the theater will be playing. But stay tuned.

Whatever it does play will be rendered in its all-new digital format. And the best news? The theater's espresso will remain its standard self, the best served — yes, I'll say it again — in any movie theater this side of Seattle.

Friday’s openings: Animals of a different color

With so many people either visiting, or avoiding, downtown Spokane this weekend, mainstream movie fans should have a pretty easy time getting tickets at theaters anywhere but River Park Square. Which may not be that big a thing, considering the only two Friday mainstream openings feature a fake teddy bear and a former service pooch.

The bigger openings follow on Wednesday, July 1. But more on on that shortly. Friday's openings are as follows:

"Ted 2": Seth MacFarlane and Mark Wahlberg return in this sequel to the film that follows the exploits of the grossest character imaginable and his best-buddy. You guess as to which actor plays which character.

"Max": A traumatized service dog, having survived a tour in Afghanistan, returns home and struggles to adapt to life with a civilian family. Just in time for the upcoming July 4th holiday, a family movie draped with dogs and patriotic fervor.

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl": This Sundance darling involves an aimless high school senior, whose specialty is making satirical remakes of popular movies with his buddy Earl, forced to be nice to a classmate who has cancer. Bring hankies. 

Opening July 1:

"Terminator Genisys": The saga of the Connor family continues with more time travel, this plotline involving an older John (Jason Clarke) sending another of his warriors back to protect his mother Sarah in 1984 with terminators both gunning for and protecting them both (also starring an aging Arnold Schwarzenegger). Oh, yeah, he's bock!

"Magic Mike XXL": Matthew McConaughey and director Steven Soderbergh are missing, but Channing Tatum and some of the other posse members return for this sequel to the 2012 original about a bunch of male strippers. Talk about pole dancing.

So the drill (so to speak) remains the same: Go and see a movie. And enjoy.

‘Jurassic World’: Average becomes the new norm

If you haven't yet seen the latest dinosaur thriller, "Jurassic World," you might be interested in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio. Or you might just want to settle for my one-word description: meh.

Anyway, a transcription of my review follows:

Only someone who has never stepped on a film set would think it’s easy to direct a movie. And truth be told, it’s far harder to direct a good movie.

Even in this day and age of advanced computer graphics, one thing hasn’t changed: The interplay of character, dialogue and narrative upon which a movie is based. If even one of these factors fails, the whole production is likely to fail as well.

Steven Spielberg knows this better than most. He took the first shots at three different action-movie franchises: “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Los Ark” and “Jurassic Park.” And it’s not even close: These were each respective franchise’s best episodes, outshining even the sequels directed by Spielberg himself.

I make this point after seeing “Jurassic World,” an attempt to reboot the dinosaurs-live-again series that Spielberg began in 1993 by adapting Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel. Starring the likes of Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Attenborough, “Jurassic Park” remains the gold standard of dinosaur-horror/action flicks. The characters (mostly scientists) are smart, the action in each separate sequence builds to a tension-filled climax, and the computer graphics – even 22 years after the fact – still hold up.

Now, let’s examine what Colin Trevorrow has done with “Jurassic World.” It would be unfair to say that Trevorrow has failed, even if this is only his second theatrical feature, his first being the clever 2012 independent film “Safety Not Guaranteed.” After all, the special effects are state of the art, which in this era of Michael Bay mania is about all an average audience seems to want.

So the fact that the other ingredients – characters, dialogue and narrative – are merely average hasn’t stopped the film from smashing opening-weekend box-office records.

But average they are. The characters either boast little charisma (the obligatory child actors), are portrayed as vacuous (Bryce Dallas Howard’s corporate shill) or as vacuously heroic (Chris Pratt’s sweat-stained velociraptor trainer). The dialogue is barely above the “You can’t ever tell your mother about this” level. And the narrative structure is full-speed-ahead with hardly a moment for reflection before – in the words of Goldblum’s character in the first “Jurassic Park” sequel – “there’s running and, um, screaming.”

This is fine, for what it is. But I’m reminded of the scene in Spielberg’s original of the kids being attacked by a snarling T-Rex where the tension builds inexorably until, when the jeep falls toward them as they and Neill’s character frantically climb down a tree, I almost laughed with delight. I’m also reminded of how good Pratt was as the wisecracking Star Lord in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which begs the question: If you’re going to cast a talented performer only to hamstring him, why cast him in the first place?

So, yes, “Jurassic World” is breaking records. To me, though, that’s just a sign that Hollywood has won. Our expectations are so low we’ll watch anything moderately well made as long as it features scales and sharp teeth. Especially when rendered in 3D.

Below: What would happen if you subbed weiner dogs for dinosaurs?

Longmire author Johnson at Auntie’s tonight

Mystery fans should be interested in an author reading/signing event that will take place at Auntie's Bookstore tonight. Craig Johnson, the Wyoming-based writer of the Sheriff Walt Longmire series, will read from his latest novel, "Dry Bones," at 7.

Johnson's Longmire series revolves around his protagonist, the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyo. As explained by the Christian Science Monitor, "Johnson tells of Longmire’s adventures from the sheriff’s perspective. A tough-talking female deputy and a best friend from the Cheyenne Nation, as well as Walt’s plucky daughter, give the stories texture and balance to go with Johnson’s commanding sense of place."

Longmire is featured in a TV series that ran for three season on the A&E cable network. After cancellation, it was picked up by Netflix.

"Dry Bones," Johnson's 12th Longmire mystery, involves the sheriff investigating a murder that involves dinosaurs — dead dinosaurs, I have to add — and greed. As the publisher explains, "When Jen, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found surfaces in Sherrif Walt Longmire’s jurisdiction, it appears to be a windfall for the High Plains Dinosaur Museum—until Danny Lone Elk, the Cheyenne rancher on whose property the remains were discovered, turns up dead, floating face down in a turtle pond. With millions of dollars at stake, a number of groups step forward to claim her, including Danny’s family, the tribe, and the federal government."

Kirkus Reviews says, "Johnson’s crusty sheriff … remains tough, smart, honest, and capable of entertaining fans with another difficult, dangerous case."

And from the Denver Post: "Johnson, as usual, offers colorful glimpses of Wyoming history and its physical features. Johnson is able to make the landscape itself at least as fascinating as the slightly off-kilter, and sometime murderous, folks that inhabit Walt's universe."

Seats at Auntie's events are sometimes hard to find. It never hurts to arrive early. 

See ‘2001’ on The Bing’s big screen tonight

I can't remember the first time I saw Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi classic "2001: A Space Odyssey." When the film was first released, in April, I was in the army, stationed at Fort Eustis, Va., so I might have ridden a bus into Norfolk to see it at a downtown theater. But somehow I doubt it.

By October, I was in Vietnam, where I would stay for the next 14 months. And I sure as hell didn't see it there.

Most likely, I didn't see it until sometime in 1970. I was living in San Diego then, attending junior college, working to raise my grade point average enough so that I could transfer to the nearby UC campus. But I spent as much free time as I had seeing movies. And "2001: A Space Odyssey," in its various runs, was a film I tried to see every time I had the opportunity.

Movie audiences these days are spoiled. If they want to see something, they can stream it off Netflix, Amazon, YouTube or any number of other online-based sources. They can purchase a DVD, or search around in a back room to find that battered old VHS cassette.

But unless they have a huge television set, and the best surround-sound audio system, they can't begin to capture the experience that a bona-fide theater can provide. Which is the purpose of this post, to publicize the screening of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater.

Sponsored by Spokane Public Radio, the evening will begin at 6 p.m. with a taping of the SPR show "Movies 101."  The movie itself, which has a 2:22 running time and will feature a short intermission, will screen at 7. Doors open at 5 and tickets, which can be purchased at the door, cost $10.

It's not often that you get to see classic film, especially one featuring apes, talking computers and rocket ships, on an actual big screen. And The Bing's sound system is terrific.

We'll keep the pod bay doors open for you.

Here’s how ‘Jurassic World’ could have been ‘Done Better’

The thing about movie criticism is that everybody think's he/she is a critic. Which is only more or less true. Maybe everybody is a movie fan, but a bona-fide critic … not so much.

But even among serious critics, it's always easier to pick out what you like than be able to explain how things could be fixed. That's when you turn to authentic filmmakers for inspiration.

In the embed below, Spokane-based filmmaker Adam Harum offers up his first effort in a web series titled "Done Better." And first up, he suggests a few ways that "Jurassic World" could have been done better.

Watch and learn. I certainly did.

Lantern digital upgrade set for June 22-July 2

So, regarding the Magic Lantern's entry into the 21st century — namely, its upgrade to digital projection — word now is that the theater will close on Wednesday, June 22, and remained shuttered through Thursday, July 2. According to theater manager Jonathan Abramson, the Lantern will be open through this coming weekend and will run a standard lineup.

Go here for the current schedule.

When the theater reopens, I expect the espresso — the best in any theater this side of Seattle — to be every bit as good. Abramson in particular is one of my favorite baristas.

Friday’s mainstream openings: Young and old alike

Animation, teenage anxiety and aging love are on top for mainstream movie audiences this coming week. Friday's openings are as follows:

"Dope": Three high-school kids decide to spice up their lives by attending a real party. Described by IMDB as a "coming-of-age comedy/drama for the post-hip-hop generation." That we're supposedly "post hip hop" will come as a surprise to some.

"Inside Out" (in 3D and regular): A young girl enters a new school and is forced to confront the full range of her emotions — all of which are rendered as actual characters. Casting Lewis Black as "Anger" seems about right. 

"I'll See You in My Dreams": An aging but still vital woman (Blythe Danner) rethinks the possibilities offered in her remaining years. Other than the too-cute "Golden Girls"-like sequences, this was one of the best films I saw at the recent Seattle International Film Festival. 

In addition, the Helen Mirren/Ryan Reynolds feature "Woman in Gold" returns to AMC for a second run.

I'll post news of what's happening at the Magic Lantern when I can. Otherwise, head on out and see a movie. And enjoy.

‘Spy’ big on action, small on actual humor

I wasn't particularly amused by the film "Spy," which is Melissa McCarthy's attempt to work her way into the spy/action genre. I try to explain why in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, a transcription of which follows:

Of all the performing arts, comedy may be the most personal. I once sat through a screening of “Three Amigos” and listened to a guy sitting a few rows behind me nearly bust a gut laughing at every lame gag uttered by Steve Martin, Chevy Chase or Martin Short. For my part, I barely snickered once.

Meanwhile, the late film critic Bob Glatzer hated the Coen Brothers movie “Raising Arizona,” while I consider it comic genius. As I say, comedy – what makes us laugh – can be idiosyncratic to a fault.

Take “Spy,” for example, the latest comedy featuring the talents of Melissa McCarthy. “Spy” would seem to have everything going for it, especially for today’s cultural climate. It has McCarthy, still on a roll after breaking out of TV sitcom status by snaring an Oscar nomination in 2011 for “Bridesmaids.”

She’s backed by an impressive supporting cast, including Jude Law, Rose Byrne, the one and only Jason Statham and a surprisingly good British comic actress, Miranda Hart. And the plot by writer-director Paul Feig – the same guy who gave us “Bridesmaids” and the McCarthy 2013 follow-up with Sandra Bullock “The Heat” – follows a standard comic formula

A formula, by the way, that comic actors from Peter Sellers to Rowan Atkinson to Mike Myers have mined with a wide range of success. The twist here is that although she starts out as the sidekick, sort of a glorified Moneypenny, it’s McCarthy’s CIA character who emerges as the ultimate hero – which is what I meant by “Spy” seemingly being a perfect fit for today’s emerging cultural attitudes.

Feig’s film is another, and welcome, step in what has been a long road for women characters attempting to step into the forefront of movie action.

So what went wrong?

Part of the blame falls on McCarthy. For all her talents, she’s become – especially after roles in such films as “Identity Thief” and “Tammy” – something of a cliché: the overweight loser who ultimately wins the day, and our heart, because she – and we – haven’t dared, or taken the trouble, to look for her inner qualities. Even worse, for all her charm, McCarthy’s comic delivery already feels stale.

Yeah, it’s funny to watch her character crash a fancy, covered motor scooter during a moment of high action. But we’ve seen her do such pratfalls before.

Most of the blame, though, falls on Feig. His script moves fast, yes, but that makes it seems as if he has no faith in his gags. We’ve barely had time to digest a quip delivered by McCarthy, Byrne or – most humorously, Hart – before something, or someone, steps on the laughline. Furthermore, the range of four-letter words Feig employs in his script makes “Spy” sound like Richard Pryor attending a Tourette Syndrome convention.

No one is a fan of the F-word more than I. But the shock value of that word, even used in a variety of clever combinations, coming from Rose Byrne’s pretty mouth no longer has much comic punch.

Same for the movie “Spy” overall.

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