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

Check the Stranger guide to SIFF 2017

Above: A scene from the documentary film "The Reagan Show."

Life continues to be full of good news/bad news situations.

The good news: I am spending a couple of weeks in Florence, Italy. The bad news: I won't be attending this year's Seattle International Film Festival.

Whatever the joys of Italy, and the country has many, I do regret that latter situation. I've attended SIFF more or less regularly since 1993. Some of the top moments I've enjoyed have included watching Kevin Smith talk about a little film he was hawking called "Clerks," sitting in a packed Egyptian Theater to see Danny Boyle's "Trainspotting," feeling as confounded as anyone else following the screening of Michael Haneke's original production (the German-language one) of "Funny Games," watching Sean Penn skulk and sulk onstage while being peppered with questions by critics. And so on.

I'm thankful, though, that The Stranger — Seattle's alternative newspaper — is there to report what those lucky enough to attend this year's festival should see. Click here to see their "don't miss list."

The film I most regret not being able to see: The documentary "The Reagan Show." As The Stranger says, ""There is no narrator in this documentary, no talking heads, no experts, no direct analysis. The entire thing consists of archival footage from network news and the machinery that manufactured the images of America’s 40th president. Ronald Reagan and his team changed the whole game of American politics by transforming the White House into a movie studio."

Guess I'lll have to wait for its June 30 theatrical release. Or its July 4 video on demand availability. Or even its eventual screening on CNN.

Until then, I'll continue to enjoy la dolce vita.

Brunelleschi’s Duomo tells a tale of Florence

Above: No matter where you walk in Florence's city center, you're usually only a few steps from a sight of Filippo Brunelleschi's famous Duomo, which sits atop the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore.

Nothing beats rising early on a Saturday morning in Florence, Italy, and getting your first glimpse of the famous Duomo. It's nice to see the masterpiece of architecture anytime during the day, but its especially nice when the streets have yet to fill with tourists, who come in the thousands.

The Duomo, of course, sits atop one of the world's most famous buildings — the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore — which has been standing in the center of Florence since the early 14th century. The city's leaders wanted the cathedral to be a sign of Florence's magnificence, and they hoped the cathedral's Duomo (or dome) would be the world's largest.

Only problem was, no one at the time knew exactly how to build something so big. Thus the cathedral sat for decades open to the elements.

Then came the announcement: A competition would be held to see who could come up with a workable plan. One prize was 200 florins, which was a lot of money considering, from one source, staff at the Medici bank made between 14 and 50 florin per year. The other prize was enduring fame.

Both prizes went, ultimately, to "a short, homely, and hot-tempered goldsmith named Filippo Brunelleschi." Though not without controversy, mainly because Brunelleschi was a somewhat unknown quantity and because he refused to share specifics of his plans. Even so, the leaders eventually decided to award Brunelleschi the job.

This being Italy, intrigue occurred from the start, involving personal and professional jealousies. But the project, and Brunelleschi, endured, and the Duomo was completed on March 25, 1436. Brunelleschi died a decade later.

But his crowning achievement lives on — to the delight of everyone who has the pleasure of seeing it.

‘Norman’ is Gere’s time to shine

Another movie opening on Friday is titled "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer." It stars Richard Gere is the title character. The film scored an 87 percent positive rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

Following are a few of the critical comments:

Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times: "Gere, who somehow seems to make himself physically smaller here, creates a character both infuriating and endearing."

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "Is Norman a macher, a schnorrer or a mensch? Thanks to the filmmaker's sensitive touch and Gere's sympathetic performance, he gets to be all three. And that calls for mazel tovs all around."

Christy Lemire, RogerEbert.com: "In Richard Gere's deft, veteran hands, Norman Oppenheimer is consistently, completely fascinating. You may not be able to root for him, but you can't help but feel for him."

Clearly, some people are Gere heads.

They taste even better than they look

Further notes on our trek through southern Italy:

It occurred to me that a photo of pizza might be more tantalizing to American tastes than one of pasta, no matter how delicious. So I decided to post a photo of the pizzette from Trieste, the sea-side Pescara pizza place that I wrote about in the post immediately below. Included in this bunch were two margheritas, one gran formaggio and one with potatoes and olives.

Part of the Trieste secret, of course, is the size of the slices — each of which is barely more than a single slice of your typical American pizza. That smaller size allows each slice to be toasted perfectly, holding it's shape even when you fold it over and hold it between sheets of parchment-like paper (as we watched other diners do).

And since we paid less than $20 for four slices, a Coke zero, a Nastro Azzuro beer and a large bottle of carbonated mineral water, we felt as if we got a real deal. Call it dining, Italian-style.

In Italy, the real story is always about food

Above: Rigatoni with eggplant and ricotta di pecora, as served at Ristorante Taverna 58 in Pescara, Italy.

Several years ago, I read a book titled “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.” Written by the late Joe McGinniss, it details a season in the life of a soccer team from a tiny village in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

For reasons I can’t remember, I was able to score a phone interview with McGinniss shortly after its publication. As someone who had just been to Italy, I was intrigued by McGinniss’ book, by his passion for soccer – and by Abruzzo. I recall McGinniss’ being a generous, interesting interview subject.

In the intervening years (the book came out in 1999), I’ve visited Italy several more times, but I’ve never had the occasion to visit Abruzzo. Until now.

As I write this, I’ve been in Italy for a week. I landed in Rome, spent the night, then trained with my wife to the city of Lecce, which sits in the southern region of Puglia. Accompanied by friends who live in Lake Como, we spent the next couple of days driving around such towns as Ostuni, Alberobello (site of the famous Trulli houses), Villanova and Locorotondo.

Then yesterday, we trained to the coastal Abruzzo city of Pescara. Abruzzo is known mostly for its mountainous interior, which is rated as one of the greenest spots in  Europe. But we have only one full day to spend here, and we’re without a car, so Pescara is our only stop.

And while it’s no mountain retreat, it does offer a refreshing view of the sea (especially from the terrace of our room in the Hotel Maja). And we’ve spent most of the day walking from one part of the city to the next.

This is Italy, though, so instead of talking about museums or churches, I need to talk food. Last night we had some of the best pizza I’ve enjoyed outside of Naples. Trieste Pizza offers small, individuals pizzas in a variety of tasty combinations. We ordered four, from mushroom to artichoke to potato and sausage to cheese and pesto, and we finished every crumb.

And today we walked (and walked and walked) and ended up eating lunch at Ristorante Taverna 58, an eatery built on an ancient Roman site and sitting down the street from the birthplace of the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. We opted for the set (three-course) lunch menu of the day, which was … well, the word scrumptious comes to mind.

More important, the service was superb, the servers solicitous to our every need – and they even endured our poor Italian with an abiding courtesy.

We leave Pescara tomorrow on our way to Florence. But a bit of the Abruzzo will no doubt stick with us.

Thanks to a book about soccer and its author, Joe McGinniss.

Step into the weird world of David Lynch

Watching a David Lynch film is bound to mark you.

Notice I didn’t say harm you. It might do that. In fact, I imagine many moviegoers with tender sensibilities have felt harmed by certain scenes in such films as “Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet” or “Mulholland Drive” among many others.

But even if you were immune to such harm, some sort of mark likely remains. Some sort of lingering attitude, or feeling that the world has shifted just the slightest bit.

That’s the effect that Lynch can have. He’s one of those filmmakers about whom one can safely say that there’s life before seeing his work, and then there’s life after.

A life that may be worse (harm) or better (film appreciation) but is certainly different. With or without Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Lynch and his films are the subject of a documentary that will open Friday at the Magic Lantern. That documentary, “David Lynch: The Art Life,” was directed by Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes and delves deeply into the man and his views on art by letting the man explain everything himself. Following are some critical comments:

Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times: “No one else weighs in on Lynch here - it's all him, all the time. And, although chatty, he's not the warmest or most engaging presence. Still, Lynch devotees should dig this respectful, offbeat portrait.”

Christina Newland, RogerEbert.com: “This cockeyed, oblique attempt to get closer to the worldview of David Lynch – one of American cinema's finest oddities – is a compelling slice of cinephile inquiry.”

Scott Marks, San Diego Reader: “Is there a more rewarding way of spending 90 minutes than watching Lynch putter, reminisce, and work on a sculpture? Maybe, but you'd need to give Lynch the budget to produce another feature to find out.”

Lynch talking is the next best thing to Lynch directing. Either way, he’s a filmmaer who certainly has – wait for it – made his mark.

Friday’s openings: Aliens and alienation

It was way back in 1979 when Ridley Scott saw the release of his first "Alien" feature. Though the story was somewhat familiar, Scott – a filmmaker with a particular talent for creating visuals – gave it new life.

Since then, several other filmmakers have taken their turns working the “Alien” storyline, which always tends to end the same way – with a standoff between humans and one of the most fearsome extraterrestrials even conceived.

Those other filmmakers, by the way, include such notable names as James Cameron and David Fincher.

Then Scott got back into the series, extending it with 2012’s “Prometheus,” taking the original idea and expanding it. Now comes another along the new line, “Alien: Covenant,” with Scott again directing.

“Alien: Covenant” is the top national release set for Friday. The week’s major releases are as follows:

“Alien: Convenant”: A band of space colonists discover what seems to be a perfect planet home, only to discover … well, this is an “Alien” movie, so you can guess what happens.

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul”: The Heffley family does a family vacation, and things go predictably awry. The Griswolds they are not.

“Everything, Everything”: A girl allergic to the world at large finds love with the boy next door. Life in a bubble?

That’s the list so far. I’ll update when I can.

‘A Quiet Passion’: moments of pure visual poetry

Of the films opening in Spokane today, only one is aimed at a truly arts-oriented audience. And that film, "A Quiet Passion," is opening — no surprise — at the Magic Lantern. Following is the review of "A Quiet Passion" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Capturing a writer’s life isn’t the easiest task for a filmmaker. Make a movie about an artist, and you can just show paintings. Or sculptures. Whatever. With musicians, you can rely on the magic of sound. Boom-shakalaka. Boom.

But writing? Most movies about writers tend to be filled with scenes of characters scribbling with a pen or pounding a keyboard, squinting as they struggle to find the right turns of phrase.

Of course, good films have been made about writers, even if most are as different from one another as a sonnet is from a limerick. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman gave us “Adaptation,” Bennett Miller “Capote,” the Coen Brothers “Barton Fink.” And no three films on the same topic are more dissimilar.

Clearly, then, British filmmaker Terence Davies took on a difficult task when he decided to write and direct “A Quiet Passion,” which concerns the poet Emily Dickinson. It’s one thing to delve into the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter, as Jonze, Kaufman and the Coens did, or even the world of literary gossip as Miller did. It’s quite another to dissect the life of a poet whose best works radiate with meanings that go far deeper than the words used to convey them.

Davies follows the basic chronology of Dickinson’s life, beginning several years after her birth in 1830 through her death in 1886. We first see Dickinson (played by Emma Bell) as a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, refusing to identify herself as a Christian. This nonconformist attitude toward religion, as well as her anger and frustration at the limitations placed on women of her day, is a big part of what comprises “A Quiet Passion.”

After leaving school, Dickinson returns home to Amherst, Mass., to live with her father, a lawyer (played by Keith Carradine), her mother, older brother and younger sister. The house is a strict patriarchy, if a somewhat compassionate one. Dickinson’s father does grant her request to stay up at night to write, even though he thinks Dickinson an unbecoming young woman in other ways.

As the film goes on – and older actors take over the roles of Dickinson (now played by Cynthia Nixon) and her siblings – the pressure of living under such constraints begins to show, especially on the women. One early scene is especially telling: a 360-degree pan of a candle- and firelit room, capturing first Dickinson, her father and brother all reading, her sister crocheting, her mother staring silently, then returning to Dickinson who wears an expression of what might be horror, suggesting that she sees her future. Bleak. And lonely.

Such scenes are the best of what Davies’ film has to offer. Some of his other artistic choices are more problematic. Much of the dialogue feels stilted, and the obligatory voiceovers are likely to make sense more to Dickinson scholars than the general public.

If nothing else, “A Quiet Passion” does succeed in portraying the ultimate irony: that a woman whose life was filled with so much anguish could leave behind such a rich legacy of literary beauty.

Friday’s openings redux: a small game of sniping

Turns out, other than a couple of "Surfs: The Lost Village" second-run screenings, only one other national release is coming to the area on Friday. The additional screening is as follows:

"The Wall": Doug Liman directed this films about two U.S. soldiers (John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) getting pinned down by an unseen sniper and struggling to survive. Not a video game (though someone is probably working on a version for gamers to play on their phones).

Some critical comments:

David Erlich, IndieWire: "Smaller than the sum of its stones, this taut psychological thriller is still sturdy enough, and every bit as compelling as some studio fare 10 times its size."

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice: "Liman, for all his action acuity, struggles to make lying behind a wall exciting."

Peter Debruge, Variety: "Taylor-Johnson … gives a terrific performance under extreme conditions, totally convincing as a man alternating between panic and trust in the practical discipline of his training."

That's it for Friday. For the moment, at least.

Friday’s openings: Round tables and R-rated jokes

Of the several possible national movie openings set for Friday, only two are guaranteed a wide-spread release. Those two films are:

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”: Charlie Hunnam stars as the title character, a man whose eventual gang was a sort of Middle Ages equivalent of the “Sons of Anarchy.”

“Snatched”: Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn star as a daughter-mother couple who get kidnapped while on vacation and have to use their basic skills to get free. As the MPAA advertises, “Rated R for crude sexual content, brief nudity, and language throughout.”

And at the Magic Lantern? In addition to picking up “The Zookeeper’s Wife” for a second-run screening, the Lantern will open one first-run feature:

“A Quiet Passion”: British filmmaker Terence Davies tackles the life and works of the reclusive 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson. She had no use for Longfellow.

That’s it for now. I’ll update when the final local bookings become available.

Two unique documentaries deal with death

As part of our ongoing efforts on the Spokane Public Radio show "Movies 101," my partner Nathan Weinbender and I reviewed a couple of unique documentary films that we saw online. Following is the review that I wrote of both films:

Who among us hasn’t, at one time or another, gaped at some catastrophic event with – what? – fascination? A feeling of guilt? Thankfulness that whatever was going on didn’t involve us?

Maybe all we did was stare through the flashing lights beaming from a road-side car accident as we drove slowly past. Or paid closer attention to some TV reporter standing in front of a burning house. Certainly we all paid as much attention as we could 17 years ago to the news clips that were broadcast ad nauseam of planes flying into the towers of the World Trade Center.

How could we not? In this experience we call the human condition, bad things do happen. And like wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti, we watch as the lions pick off the unlucky, maybe cross ourselves, then get on with our own lives.

That basic human quality is what two recent documentaries, both of which can be found online, use to explore stories that made national headlines. And in both cases, that quality is both examined – and exploited.

The first documentary is the Netflix offering “Casting JonBenet,” which tells the sad story of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty pageant queen who on the day after Christmas, 1996, was found murdered in her Boulder, Colorado, home. As the 20-year anniversary of the crime passed with no break in the case – even though over the years suspicion has fallen on the girl’s father, mother, brother and even all three at once – TV news reports again trotted out all the principals, and even offered new suggestions as to what really happened.

But this strange documentary, written and directed by Australian-born filmmaker Kitty Green, takes a different tack. Using actual Boulder residents, Green constructs her film as an ongoing casting process – with multiple actors up for various roles, from family members to police officers and even, believe it or not, Santa Claus.

Many of the actors do offer their opinions on what happened, though their views are far less interesting than they are themselves – one of whom flails a whip while describing himself as a professional quote-unquote sex educator.

In similar fashion, the 2016 documentary “Kate Plays Christine” – which I watched courtesy of iTunes –  revolves around Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota, Florida, television reporter who committed suicide onscreen in 1974.

Written and directed by Robert Greene – no relation to Kitty Green – “Kate Plays Christine” follows New York actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she auditions for Greene’s movie, is hired and then begin the long process of figuring out who Chubbuck was. Her intent, she explains, is to immerse herself into Chubbuck’s character so that she can give a believable portrayal.

Both these documentaries prove to be fascinating projects, delving as they do not just on the central topics – incidents involving pain and anguish familiar to us all – but on our ongoing fascination with them. They are exploitation, something that both films suggest, if not actually state, is largely their underlying point.

Whether that point manages to be anything more than mere voyeurism, though, is a question viewers will have to answer all on their own.

SIFF 2017: paradise for movie lovers

One of the best times of year for Northwest moviegoers comes sometime in the middle of May through the first several days of June. This is when the Seattle International Film Festival is held.

This year's SIFF, the 43rd edition, begins on May 18 and runs through June 11. It annually screen more than 400 films from 80-odd countries and attracts some 155,000 attendees.

You can — and should — be among their number. Tickets to SIFF 2017 are now on sale.

I've been attending SIFF on and offer since the early '90s. No festival in the. country offers a better viewing experience.

Below: SIFF 2017's opening-night movie is "The Big Sick."

Come and color with Christopher Paolini

At age 15, Christopher Paolini began what would eventually become a publishing sensation.

Paolini, who will appear in person at 6:30 tonight at Auntie's Bookstore, is the author of what is known as the Inheritance Cycle, which comprises the four novels "Eragon," "Eldest," "Brisingr" and "Inheritance." The four books have, to date, sold some 35 million copies. "Inheritance" alone has been published in 53 countries.

In many ways, Paolini's own story is just as interesting as his books. Home-schooled, he graduated from high school just at the time he began writing his first novel. That novel was self-published, and Paolini traveled dressed in costume to publicize it. Eventually it was picked up by a major publisher, movie deals were made — and the rest is history.

Paolini's appearance at Auntie's will be in support of an ancillary project: "The Official Eragon Coloring Book" (see embed below). 

Friday’s openings redux: Time for ‘Dinner’

And so what is the only movie willing to go up against one of the year's most anticipated blockbusters? A taut little mystery-drama, of course. And that's the only kind of film that is opening locally against "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." The title:

"The Dinner": Two couples meet to discuss what to do about their not-so-saintly children. Written and directed by Oren Moverman, based on the novel by the Dutch writer Herman Koch. Probably not about food.

Note: For fans of Dutch cinema, director Menno Meyjes did his own adaptation of Koch's novel in 2013. Fans of Italian cinema might want to know that director Ivano De Matteo did his own adaptation in 2014.

I'll update if needed.

Friday’s openings: Save the Galaxy - again

So, any number of movies might be opening on Friday. That's the game that both distributors and exhibitors play each week, often not announcing their weekly lineups until the last moment.

One thing is sure about this coming Friday, though. "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2" is opening. And no other blockbuster wannabes are going to want to compete with it. So far, the single announced opening going wide is:

"Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2": The principals from the first film (2014) return, one as a baby, to keep fighting for galactic justice. And Star-Lord meets his Daddy.

And at the Magic Lantern?

"Colossal": Though the Lantern is picking up this quirky film as a second run, it's where it should have opened in the first place. The story involves a self-destructive woman who, returning home, discovers that — for some strange reason — her actions in a playground play out as a monster threatening the citizens of Seoul, Korea. Yeah, seriously.

The official listings from the area chain theaters should be available in a day or two. I'll update then.