7 Blog

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

‘Hidden Figures’ reveals our hidden past

"Hidden Figures" has, to date, grossed some $66 million in the U.S. alone. That's not bad for a film that had an estimated $25 million production budget. Following is the review of that film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Most of us think we have a fairly good sense of history. After all, it is a subject that’s taught as early as kindergarten.

Traditionally, though, school lessons don’t cover the whole story. When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, the world was going through any number of societal upheavals: the civil rights movement, the Cold War, the growing conflict in a far-away place called Vietnam.

Yet my teachers kept us busy learning about the Mayflower Compact and the American Revolution, offering sanitized lessons on Westward expansion and the Civil War, memorizing dates and the names of men who did great things – mostly men anyway, and, yes, mostly white men. What got largely ignored were the people who implemented those great men’s plans, people seldom if ever mentioned in the history books we lugged around.

Today’s historians, though, are delving into the more obscure parts of history and, as in the case of author Margot Lee Shetterly, are sharing stories that until now have been hiding more or less in plain sight.

Shetterly wrote a nonfiction book, the subject of which is summed up succinctly in its subtitle: “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.” Fond of brevity, the movie producers who optioned Shetterly’s book deleted everything but the first two words. And they gave the job of adapting the story to screenwriter Allison Schroeder and writer-director Theodore Melfi.

What resulted from the collaboration is a version of Shetterly’s story, one that was well known to those who worked for the U.S. space agency NASA during its first years – dating from the summer of 1958 on – but virtually unknown to the general public.

Keying on the lives of three specific women – played by Taraji P. Henson, Olivia Spencer and Janelle Monáe – “Hidden Figures” explains how that trio – and dozens of other African-American women – played an important role in helping to develop the Mercury 7 project, which was the U.S.’s response to Russia’s own space program. Its immediate goal? To launch an American astronaut into orbit.

Katherine Goble (later Johnson), the woman portrayed by Henson, was a math whiz employed as a so-called “computer.” Her work was especially important in the days before electronic computers took over such tasks. Spencer and Monáe also portray real-life figures, one of whom sued to win the right to study engineering at a formerly all-white school.

Typical of Hollywood, “Hidden Figures” can’t escape Big-Moment melodrama. This is especially obvious in scenes where characters played by white actors such as Kevin Costner experience a sense of awakening racial consciousness. Thankfully, those scenes are balanced with others that depict a better feel for emotional authenticity, whether portraying shameful sequences of segregation (such as Johnson’s character not being able to use a whites-only restroom) or smaller personal studies of family intimacy.

Whatever its problems, though, the story that “Hidden Figures” unveils is one that needs to be told. It wasn’t only great men who built America.

It was all of us.

Check that, ‘Silence’ is opening locally

As it turns out, Martin Scorsese's film "Silence" will open in this part of the Inland Northwest on Friday.

Normally, such films — not particularly in the mainstream, near-three-hour running time, dealing with arcane subjects such as Jesuit evangelism — don't play in all theaters. And "Silence" fits all three criteria: a two-hour, 41-minute running time, a plot dealing with Jesuit priests attempting to introduce their version of Christianity to Japan.

Scorsese's film, however, is opening at various times in most area theaters.

It's on the schedule of all three Regal Cinemas locations (NorthTown, Spokane Valley and Coeur d'Alene), at both Village Center sites (Wandermere and Airway Heights) and downtown at AMC River Park Square.

Here are some critical comments about the film:

Bruce Kirkland, Toronto Star: " 'Silence' requires a leap of faith in its own right. The film is both repetitive and thrilling; it is boring and exhilarating; it will test your patience and expand your mind. 'Silence' is loud, in an astonishingly quiet way."
 
Dana Stevens, Slate: "Though it contains many scenes of prolonged suffering and a few shocking moments of graphic violence, 'Silence' bears a contemplative stillness at its heart.
 
Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times: "This anguished, contemplative new movie, which [Scorsese] spent nearly three decades coaxing into celluloid reality, carries the weight of a career summation."
 
So now the week's schedule should be complete. Fingers crossed.
 

Jewish film festival kicks off Thursday

One of Spokane's best annual movie treats kicks off Thursday night at Gonzaga University's Hemmingson Center. The Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival 2017 will screen three films, beginning Thursday and continuing on Saturday and Sunday.

The films are as follows:

"Once in a Lifetime" (7 p.m. Thursday): A teacher at an inner-city French high school has trouble reaching her students until she assigns them to study the Holocaust. (In French with English subtitles)

"Transit" (7 p.m. Saturday): Filipino migrant workers in Israel struggle to live under the threat of deportation laws. (In Hebrew, Tagalog with English subtitles)

"The Kind Words" (2 p.m. Sunday): Following their mother's death, a trio of siblings discover who their parents really were. (In Hebrew, French with English subtitles.

The Hemmingson Center is located on the GU campus, 702 E. Desmet Ave. (a block and a half west of Hamilton). Tickets to the screenings are $10 and can be purchased at the door (a festival pass costs $28).

Friday’s openings: Action, horror and more

Friday's mainstream movie offerings are out, and it's a mixed bag. For starters, Martin Scorsese's "Silence" isn't among them. As for the others, they are:

"xXx: Return of Xander Cage": Vin Diesel returns as the title character, a long-thought-dead secret agent bent on capturing something called the Pandora's Box. Sequel city. 

"20th Century Women": Annette Bening stars as a woman trying to raise her 14-year-old son as he and the women around him struggle to adjust to life in 1979 California. Not everybody, it appears, went surfing now.

"Split": James McAvoy stars as a mental case with 23-going-on-24 different personalities who kidnaps young women. For what reason, we can only imagine.

"The Founder": Michael Keaton stars as McDonald's franchise founder Ray Kroc. I'll have fries with that.

"The Resurrection of Gavin Stone": A man pretends to be a Christian but then finds that his role in a Passion Play is more profound than he imagined. Talk about method acting.

That's the lot. So go. See a movie. And enjoy.

Friday at the Magic Lantern: Pure poetry

Let's begin with the Magic Lantern this week. There's a lot of variety with the mainstream openings, so I'll post them when they become finalized. Anyway, Friday's Lantern opening is as follows:

"Neruda": Chilean director Pablo Larraín ("Jackie") explores, in fantasy and fact, the attempt by the Chilean government to pursue and arrest the Communist sympathizer Pablo Neruda — one of the world's great poets. Starring Luis Gnecco and Gael García Bernal.

The Lantern also will pick up a run of "Jackie" beginning on Friday. So if you haven't yet seen it, here's your chance to experience a Larraín double feature.

Howard St. businesses need your support

What with all the snow and cold and construction going on, it's been a hard time on downtown Spokane business. And with Howard Street being closed, as indicated in the photo above, the pain is particularly acute for the businesses situated there.

So make sure to do what the posted sign advises: Though the street is closed, the sidewalk on the east side is open — as are the businesses. Support them. They include some of the city's finest establishments, such as:

Boo Radley's

Salon Nouveau

Atticus Coffee and Gifts

Steelhead Bar & Grille

Mizuna Restaurant and Wine Bar

Indaba Coffee Roasters

Carhartt

‘Jackie’ reminds us of a lost ‘Camelot’

I meant to post this on Friday morning. But the best laid plans … and all that. Anyway, following is the review of the film "Jackie" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

On Valentine’s Day, 1962, some 80 million television viewers were taken on a personal tour of the White House by then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

The event was a public relations triumph, both for the three major networks that partnered to sponsor and broadcast the tour and for the Kennedys, especially the First Lady. Popularly known as Jackie, the woman who just 21 months later would become one of the world’s most famous icons of widowed grief had just overseen a $2 million renovation of the White House.

This, then, was her opportunity both to justify that expense – which was funded largely through volunteer labor and donations – and to give the first televised look inside one of the nation’s most historic buildings. It also gave the world an up-close-and-personal look at Kennedy herself.

It is the life that Kennedy experienced behind that public façade, though, that director Pablo Larraín (pronounced La-Rah-Een) explores in his film “Jackie.” Working from a screenplay by television executive Noah Oppenheim, Larraín focuses on the period on and around Nov. 22, 1963 – the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

What we see is an assembage of scenes, set up in a distinctly non-chronological sequence, that captures the events of that tragic day and what occurred in the immediate aftermath. Central to everything is Jackie Kennedy herself – portrayed by Natalie Portman.

We see Kennedy, largely in snippets, caught in the horrific moments before and after her husband’s shooting. We see her attempting to handle her grief – no small miracle under the circumstances – while the ensuing national crisis swirls around her. As political power is fought over by the new president, Lyndon Johnson, and the still-reigning attorney general, Robert Kennedy – the dead president’s brother – Jackie must attend to more personal affairs. Such as breaking the news to their young children, arranging for the presidential funeral – battling the incoming administration over the details – all while attempting to both build and enhance the Kennedy legacy.

Larraín and Oppenheim show all this through a mostly invented interview with a writer identified only as “The journalist” – based on the actual journalist Theodore H. White – who writes the magazine piece that, with Jackie’s help, ended up creating the Kennedy “Camelot” image – an image that Larraín perpetuates by using Richard Burton’s performance of that song as the film’s overarching musical score.

Larraín is an artist, and his skills show throughout, both in his ability to meld so many different sequences into a narrative whole and in how effectively he uses Portman to portray one of the world’s most memorable figures. While at first it is jarring to see the diminutive Portman dressed in the same kind of pink suit the real Jackie wore in Dallas, and to hear her talk in the trademark tones that seem strange coming from a grown woman’s mouth, by film’s end Portman has gradually transformed into the film’s title character.

Meanwhile, the film itself has given us new insight into the fortitude that character displayed in the face of more pain than anyone should ever have the misfortune to bear.

Best of 2016: Better late than never

We're already 11 days into the new years and yet critics have been releasing their Best of 2016 lists for more than a month. I am doing so only today.

Not living in a metropolis, I don't usually get to see many of the films that make, say, the list of The New Yorker critic Richard Brody. Then again, many of the films that show up on Brody's list never get seen by 99 percent of the population anyway. So …

I do have a few films on my list that have yet to screen in Spokane. But one ("Jackie") will open Friday. And another ("Paterson") is bound to play here soon. So, without wasting any more time, following is my list of the films that I liked the best in 2016. Also, I add a few incidental comments at the bottom.

Best films 2016

1. "Moonlight": Barry Jenkins' little movie about coming of age and struggling with love in Miami is powerful, passionate and moving, and the way Jenkins tells his story — which comes in three chapters — is the essence of art.

2. "Manchester By the Sea": This tale of life after tragedy is a life study by Kenneth Longergan that is buoyed by periodic moments of humor and some examples of great acting.

3. "La La Land": A perfect blend of past and present, this Damien Chazelle musical is a bit of performance magic.

4. "Arrival": Rejecting the aliens-are-among-us cliche, director Denis Villeneuve chooses to craft a thoughtful film about the difficulty of communication and the mystery of temporal relativity. Amy Adams has never been better.

5. "Jackie": Keying on the first few days following President John Kennedy's assassination, director Pablo Larrain explores the struggle faced by his widow Jacqueline and her attempts to protect her late husband's legacy.

6. "Loving": Simply told, while avoiding any overwrought action sequences, Jeff Nichols relates the based-on-real-events story of two people attempting to exert their basic right to love and marry.

7. "Fences": Adapting the August Wilson play, director-star Denzel Washington portrays a tough man who gets caught up in his own myth-making. Viola Davis won a Golden Globe for playing his long-suffering wife.

8. "Paterson": So slight it barely makes a wave, this Jim Jarmusch film is a study of a bus driver who, instead of living the expected life of quiet desperation, sees beauty in all around him — and expresses it in poetry.

9. "Love & Friendship": Returning to the screen, Whit Stillman gives us a Jane Austen rendition of a most unforgettable figure, the supremely narcissistic figure of Lady Susan Vernon (superbly played by Kate Beckinsale).

10. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Despite his technical missteps, Ang Lee immerses his film in the story of veterans who are cast as heroes during a professional football halftime show, if only to make everyone else feel better for the sacrifices they don't have to make themselves.

Second 12 (no particular order)

"O.J.: Made in America" (ESPN produced documentary)

"The Night Of" (HBO)

"Gleason"

"Green Room"

"Zootopia"

"Hell or High Water"

"The Handmaiden"

"Weiner"

"Hunt for the Wilderpeople"

"The Edge of Seventeen"

"Eye in the Sky"

"13th"

Most mind-bending films

"The Neon Demon"

"Swiss Army Man"

"The Lobster"

Friday’s openings redux: Oscar contenders

It's going to be a banner week for movie fans. On Friday, the movies I've already announced will open along with a couple that are making best-of lists around the country. The additions to Friday's openings are as follows:

"Elle": French actress Isabelle Huppert is receiving raves for her performance as a woman who tries to track down the man who raped her. In French with English subtitles.

"Jackie": Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) tries to cope both with the death of her husband but also with the struggle to protect her late husband's legacy.

"Patriots Day": An action-packed look at what occurred during the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. Starring the new everyman, Mark Wahlberg.

Two notes:

1, The Magic Lantern had hoped to open "Jackie" also, but instead will pick up a second-run screening of "Lion";

2, "Manchester By the Sea," which just garnered a Golden Globe for best actor in a drama for Casey Affleck, is being dropped by AMC, so today, Wednesday and Thursday may be your last three chances to see Kenneth Lonergan's film on the big screen — at least for a while. I'd suggest taking advantage of the opportunity.

Friday’s openings: Cops, robbers and monsters

If this recent snowfall holds, many of us are going to be too busy shoveling free our driveways to spend much time in movie theaters. Which would be too bad, because so many of the holiday offerings are still playing locally. In addition, you can expect a few new films to open — some of which are among 2016's most critically acclaimed releases.

Anyway, here's an initial look at what Friday's openings could be (based on the national release schedule):

"Live By Night": Ben Affleck adapts (plus directs and stars in) Dennis Lehane's novel about a Boston mobster who, in the 1920s, tries to take over the rum-running business in Tampa, Florida. No Walt Disney, this guy.

"Monster Trucks": When a local kid builds his own monster truck, a strange presence imbues it with more power than he knows how to handle. Think "Transformers" meets "The Love Bug."

"The Bye Bye Man": College students movie into an old house, unleash an unholy presence and then struggle to survive. Never seen that storyline before, am I right?

"Sleepless": Jamie Foxx stars as a Las Vegas undercover cop who, caught up in a web of corruption, searches desperately for his kidnapped son. What happens in Vegas …

I'll update just as soon as the local theaters finalize their lineups.

‘Fences’ keeps the power on the big screen

One movie making some critics' Best of 2016 lists is "Fences," Denzel Washington's adaptation of the late August Wilson's play. Here is the review of the movie that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The power implicit in live theater is obvious. But that power is never more present than when it involves exploring the lives of troubled characters who stalk the stage, often doing as much harm as good. Think of Oedipus. Think of Hedda Gabler. Think of Willy Loman.

Now think of Troy Maxson, the protagonist of the late August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-, and Tony Award-winning stage play “Fences.” Originated on Broadway by the great James Earl Jones, Troy is now the focus of a film directed, and acted in, by two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington.

Washington’s Troy is a powerful man – relatively speaking. Troy is a black man living in Pittsburgh in the late 1950s, and he collects garbage for a living. So he isn’t exactly Gordon Gekko. In his own house, though, he is the undeniable master.

He’s personable enough, especially to his longtime friend, Bono (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson) and to his wife, Rose (played by Viola Davis). And he does love to bandy words – peppering the air with phrases that express a seemingly good-natured provocation, many of those phrases woven into a kind of self-protective fantasy, as if they alone could hold off anything that might threaten him.

Underneath all his talk, though, is a river of rage – much of it well earned, issued from a fear-filled past that includes abuse from his own father, criminal activity that earned him a 15-year prison term, dashed dreams of a baseball career and the kind of on-the-job racism that he fights despite the potential risk it poses to his continued employment.

It is when he deals with his two sons, though, that Troy’s rage overflows: Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is his musician son from a previous relationship, while Cory (Jovan Adepo) is his athletically talented son with Rose.

Troy castigates Lyons for wanting to borrow money to play music instead of working for it on his own, a sentiment that anyone can understand. His scorn for Cory, though, involves the boy’s talent for football, which threatens to exceed his own for baseball – and therefore could quash one of the fantasies that ultimately holds Troy together.

Not to worry, though. Troy has enough self-destructive tendencies that will allow him to wreck his happy life all by himself – hurting everyone around him in the process, especially Rose.

Washington and most of his movie’s cast appeared in a 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences,” and they reprise their roles here. Only Adepo as Cory is new. The script they work from was Wilson’s own adaptation, and the movie’s many long speeches betray the movie’s stage-play source.

But Washington knew was he was doing by hiring actors who had starred with him on Broadway. As with many such family dramas, Davis’ Rose is the foundation – and the scene in which she expresses betrayal may well be the movie’s best. The rest of the cast, including Washington himself, is very nearly her equal.

Together, they make Troy’s tale one of the true sad stories of theater. And now film.

SpIFF 2017 and more are coming up

Movie fans get ready: Two of Spokane's annual film events are nearly upon us.

The Spokane International Film Festival will run from Jan. 27 to Feb. 5. Following one of the festival's founding principles of supporting local film and filmmakers, SpIFF 2017 will open with a showing at the Bing Crosby Theater of the regionally produced 1999 production "The Basket." You can access the full festival lineup here.

Before that, the Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival will run Jan. 19, 21-22 at Gonzaga University's Hemmingson Center. The opening movie will be the French-language production "Once in a Lifetime."

It hardly needs to be said — but I'll go ahead and say it anyway — Spokane is fortunate to have two such quality annual movie events.

Food and movies beat the San Francisco rain

Above: Kokarri's zucchini cakes may be small, but they sure are tasty.

It may be Arctic conditions in Spokane, but San Francisco on this early-January day felt more like Seattle, the Bay Area winter rain and chill permeating my jacket like an hungry relative looking for a loan.

And the weather wasn't our only problem. Our short stay in the City by the Bay started rough: a six-hour flight delay in SeaTac causing us to delay our hotel bedtime until nearly 4 a.m.

Ah, but once we awoke, San Francisco — even despite the rain and mid-50s weather — proved to be a delight, both gastronomic and cinematic. Which is the point of this blog post: If you're in the mood for a mid-winter break, San Francisco is a worthy choice.

Our first stop was at Kokorri, a Greek restaurant, where we had lunch. We shared appetizers — spanakotiropita (spinach tarts), zucchini cakes (see the photo above), grilled octopus and grilled lamb riblets — and a chopped salad (romaine lettuce, roasted pine nuts, Kalamata olives, fresh dill all mixed with a perfectly sparse amount of creamy feta dressing).

The online reviews of Kokorri make the place sound like a bit of Greek heaven. And our experience, from decor to service to the food itself, proved the point.

Then because we are, more than anything else, movie fans, we hit the Embarcadero Center Cinema, where we did a two-fer: "Jackie," a study of the late Jacqueline Kennedy (before she became Onassis), and "Lion," the based-on-real-events story of a lost Indian boy who ends up searching for his birth family. We'll address both on the show we do for Spokane Public Radio.

On our way back to our hotel, we stopped by Aquitaine, a French bistro and wine bar. We shared the house special, pork shanks, and a couple of glasses of red wine. I can't remember the last time I felt so welcomed in a restaurant, and the warm little corner we sat in was the perfect place to share what was a delicious meal.

For a nightcap, we dropped by the Clock Bar at the Westin for a couple of post-meal cocktails. Sitting off to ourselves, we clinked glasses in a toast to a good food, good movies and good times.

Yeah, it rained all day in San Francisco. Does that a lot in January. But the weather did not spoil our day in the slightest.

Finally, a chance to unveil ‘Hidden Figures’

One addition to the list of movies opening on Friday: "Hidden Figures."

Here are some advance critical comments on the film:

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "This untold story of African-American females who helped NASA conquer the cosmos features three incredible performances. Corny at times, sure, but you'll still want to stand up and cheer."

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "This movie adroitly portrays the sheer waste and inefficiency of racism and misogyny. Just think how much has been lost, the movie suggests, over centuries of depriving ourselves of the brains, talents and leadership of more than half our population?"

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "There is something to be said for a well-told tale with a clear moral and a satisfying emotional payoff."

And here is a look at the historical context of the film: "The True Story of 'Hidden Figures.' "

Friday’s openings: Monsters galore … maybe

Unless some last-minute changes are thrown at us — something that seems to happen with surprising regularity — the movie offerings on Friday will be sparse. The national schedule looks like this:

"A Monster Calls": Dealing with the death of his mother, an adolescent boy calls on an imaginary monster to give him strength. Based on the novel by Patrick Ness. And, yes, that's Liam Neeson doing the voiceover.

"Underworld: Blood Wars": Kate Beckinsale stars in what's being called the last in the "Underworld" series, with her character Selene working hard to end the war between Lycans and Vampires. A little chomp will do ya.

I'll update as the schedule is confirmed. So many good 2016 films yet to see.