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

Prison author on virtual tap at Auntie’s tonight

Book readings typically follow the same routine. Someone introduces an author, who then reads from his/her work. After a brief question-and-answer period, the real objective occurs: the author signs copies of the work purchased by audience members.

Tonight's author event at Auntie's Bookstore at 7 p.m. will be a bit different. The work being highlighted is "Zek: An American Prison Story," the first long narrative — fiction inspired by real experience — by the writer Arthur Longworth.

Don't know the name? Pretty much everything you need to know about Longworth can be found in this Seattle Times story by reporter Jonathan Martin. But the quick view is that Longworth, in 1985 at the age of 21, murdered a 25-year-old woman named Cynthia Nelson. Longworth, who was on probation at the time, was sentenced to life without parole. Around the age of 40 he began writing, and his tales of prison life have won him a number of literary awards.

Longworth's book follows the character of Jonny, whose whole life is changed when he picks up a book. For obvious reasons, Longworth won't be at the reading. Instead, the event will feature guest readers Layne Pavey and Jeff Coats, plus Pacific Northwest Inlander reporter Mitch Ryals.

Here is a review of "Zek: An American Prison Story," written by Paul Constant for the Seattle Review of Books. And here is an excerpt from that review:

"You’ll be repeatedly stunned by the barbarism of 'Zek,' at the way the whole prison system works to crush the individual spirit. But if, in the middle of the story, you find Jonny’s experience too much to handle, I suggest turning back to the front of the book and reading the prologue again. It’s right there in plain English: one book can make a difference."

Auntie's readings tend to fill up quickly. Good to get there early.

Friday’s openings redux: Scots, Danes and Germans

In addition to the movies listed below, two other films are scheduled to open on Friday. The added listings are as follows:

"The Land of Mine": This joint Danish-German production, which is set near the end of World War II, tells the story of a tough Danish sergeant whose job is to use a group of young German POWs to clear mines off a beach.

"T2 Trainspotting": Twenty years later, the protagonist of Danny Boyle's original film about a bunch of Scottish drug addicts returns home. And perhaps mayhem ensues. Again.

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

‘Ghost in the Shell’ originator likes Johansson casting

In a blog post on Monday, I wrote about the new live-action version of the Japanese manga/anime "The Ghost in the Shell." I mentioned the fact that the casting of Scarlett Johansson has caused many to question Hollywood's practice of "whitewashing," that is using white actors in roles originally designed for non-white actors.

The controversy, which involves a number of Hollywood films, was covered pretty well in this 2016 Hollywood Reporter story.

What I did not do is include comments from anyone personally involved. Here, for example is Johansson herself, on "Good Morning America"

"I think this character is living a very unique experience, in that she is human brain in an entirely machinate body," Johansson said. "She's essentially identityless." And, she added, "I thought to myself … I can play this character. I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously."

Here's what the new version's director, Rupert Sanders, had to say to The Evening Standard: "We’re not making a small Japanese version of the film," he said. "We’re making a global version of the film, you need a figurehead movie star. The world basically cast Scarlett Johansson, she’s the person people want to see in this role.”

And, finally, the director of the original, 1995 animated version told the New York Times that he had no problems with the new version. In fact, Mamoru Oshii defended the casting of Johansson, and he gave a pretty good reason why.

“The Major (Johansson's character) has a Japanese name, but she’s a cyborg,” he said. “Her age and background are unknown, just as much as her nationality. In Japan, the characters in manga and anime are normally ‘stateless,’ so I have nothing against Scarlett playing the Major. In fact, I personally think she fits the image of the movie, and couldn’t have imagined a better casting.”

The criticisms aren't likely to stop anytime soon, but that at least is an added perspective from someone personally involved with the original production. In any event, Johansson had what is likely the best last word — for now.

"Any question of my casting will hopefully be answered by, you know, by audiences when they see the film," she told "Good Morning America."

Below: The YouTube video below compares scenes from the 1995 anime version of "The Ghost in the Shell" with scenes from the trailer for the new live-action version. 

Fridays openings: Manga and a baby boss

Amid the various controversies that hit Hollywood on a regular basis, one of the most recent involves what some people call whitewashing. That is, the casting of white actors in roles originally designed as non-white characters.

Think of Emma Stone, whose skin is nearly translucent, playing the character of Allison Ng — supposedly one-quarter Chinese, one quarter Hawaiian — in Cameron Crowe's "Aloha."

Now think of Scarlett Johansson playing the character of Major in "Ghost in the Shell," the live-action adaptation of the manga series (dating back to 1989) that went on to become a 1995 animated film, a couple of television series and even a second animated film (2015). Major's full name, actually, is Motoko Kusanagi who, though a cyborg, is clearly Japanese.

Johansson, just as clearly, is neither Japanese nor a cyborg.

The fact of this may, or may not, bother you. Regardless, you'll soon have the chance to judge for yourself just how effective Johansson is in the film as "Ghost in the Shell" is among those included in the coming week's national schedule. Which is as follows:

"Ghost in the Shell": Johansson's character is a cybernetic police officer whose special section investigates the work of a master criminal.

"The Boss Baby": Alec Baldwin lends his voice to the title character, a suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying baby who teams up with his 7-year-old brother to … save the world? Very loosely based on the children's novel by Marla Frazee.

"The Zookeeper's Wife": Jessica Chastain stars as Antonia Zabinski, a Polish zookeeper who managed to save hundreds of people from the Germans during World War II. Based on real events.

And at the Magic Lantern?

"My Life As a Zucchini": Based on a novel by Gilles Paris, this French-made animated film follows the touching story of a young boy who must adapt to life in an orphanage.

That's the list so far. I'll update as the local theaters finalize their bookings.

‘My Scientology Movie’: Two movies in one

The Magic Lantern specializes in playing interesting documentaries. One such film is "My Scientology Movie," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio:

Nothing inspires an intriguing documentary more than a good mystery. The unknown provides a ready storyline, and all the filmmaker has to do is find the right narrative in which to investigate it. Barbara Kopple knows that. Werner Herzog does, too. And mystery, in one form or another, has been the central feature of every Errol Morris film from “The Thin Blue Line” to “The Unknown Known.”

The mysteries in question, of course, come in a variety of forms. The factor that Kopple, Herzog and Morris have in common is the human experience: What are people, really, and why do they do what they do?

Director John Dower asks similar kinds of questions in his documentary film "My Scientology Movie," which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. The difference comes in the way Dower frames both his questions and his overall investigation.

For one thing, he uses Louis Theroux – filling the role of host, or what the British term a “presenter” – as his surrogate. It is Theroux, the son of writer Paul Theroux and a documentarian in his own right, who meets with various former Scientologists, who treads on – or at least near – private Scientology property and who oversees casting of Dower’s movie within a movie.

Which is the second thing that Dower does differently. He’s not content to copy Alex Gibney, whose 2015 documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” provides a stunning inside look at the religion that the late L. Ron Hubbard founded. No, Dower is more of an entertainer, and he imbues his storytelling style – fronted by the wry, nerdy Theroux – with a somewhat lighter touch.

And so Theroux oversees the hiring of a cast of actors whose job is to play out a number of scenes alleged to have taken place behind closed doors – scenes that in real life featured Scientology leader David Miscavige and, at times, one of his most notable acolytes, actor Tom Cruise. They play out under the direction of a man named Marty Rathbun, formerly one of Miscavige’s chief enforcers of church discipline.

So while we see the real Miscagive and Cruise only in archival footage, we see one of their actorly counterparts – the one playing Miscavige – commit misdeeds, including physical assaults, that stand in dire contrast with the real man’s shining public persona.

Then amid Theroux’s sometimes Monty Python-like bumbling confrontations with various Scientology officials, Dower does a third thing: He has Theroux begin to question Rathbun, the very person who is his main link to the disaffected Scientology community.

It’s a natural thing to do, because why wouldn’t you question the motivations of someone who had been active in the church for more than 20 years but who now is preaching against it? Yet other than Rathbun’s spouting a few profanities, the sequence never really goes anywhere.

Dower’s “My Scientology Movie” is an intriguing view. The part of the mystery that Dower neglects, though, is the very basis of what Gibney’s film explores: What drew these people to this religion in the first place?

Lantern continues to spotlight real cinema

The fact that nothing new is opening this week at the Magic Lantern simply means that you have one more week to see the films that are now playing there. And the range of those films, in both subject and style, is impressive.

The documentary "Kedi" is a study of the street cats of Istanbul. "A United Kingdom" is the based-on-a-true-story of the relationship (later marriage) between Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams of Great Britain. "The Salesman" is Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning film about how a husband and wife react to her being sexually assaulted. "Lion" tells the story of an Indian man's struggle to find the home he barely remembers. And then "My Scientology Movie" is a documentary that uses a unique style in which to look at the religion that L. Ron Hubbard founded.

As for that last one, here are a few critical comments:

Noel Murray, Los Angeles Times: "(Presenter Louis) Theroux raises troubling questions about psychological warfare and how devoutness shades into fanaticism."

John Semley, Globe and Mail: "What the film lacks in the way of harrowing, jaw-dropping revelations, it makes up for with Theroux's charm and breezy charisma."

Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: "At times it plays like an extended skit on 'The Daily Show'; yet its disorder also makes its insights — like how strongly the church's training sessions resemble acting classes - feel refreshingly organic."

The Lantern is scheduled to open the Oscar-nominated animated film "My Life as a Zucchini" on March 31.

Churchill quote on arts funding: fake news

If you're active on social media, you might have noticed an item going around that involves Winston Churchill and arts funding. It goes something like this:

Along with a photograph of the late British prime minister, this statement is prominently displayed: "During World War II, Winston Churchill was asked to cut funding for the arts. He replied, 'Then what are we fighting for.' "

Great sentiment, right? Especially given today's political climate, which is proposing drastic cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities . Only problem is, the quote is false.

That's not to say that Churchill didn't support the arts. After all, he himself was a writer — and, in fact, was awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature.

But let's not continue to spread fake news. There's too much of it out there. Especially on Twitter.

Now Streaming: Is “Mrs. Maisel” Marvelous?

There was no question that I would watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” pilot on Amazon Prime. An hour-long dramedy created by Amy Sherman-Palladino featuring a brassy female protagonist? Sold. Oh, and it’s set in New York in the late 1950s, scratching that “Mad Men” itch I’ve had for two years? Double sold.

But after the ups and downs of Netflix’s revival of “Gilmore Girls” last fall (that musical, the fat jokes, Rory in general, etc.), I did have some reservations. ASP (and her creative partner and husband Daniel Palladino) sometimes mistake quirk for personality, and are rather tone deaf to sensitive identity issues.

The period setting, though, helps alleviate some of Palladinos’ weaknesses. They may try to get by some political incorrectness with the lame excuse that “It’s the 1950s!” And their Achilles’ heel – critical commentary on the developments of modern technology verging on Luddism – is no more advanced than a scene with an electric pencil sharpener and a befuddled secretary.

Plus, those costumes, those hairstyles, those settings … it’s a visual delight for lovers of mid-century modern décor and Spoolie hair rollers.

“Mrs. Maisel” is Midge, an Upper West Side, twenty-something housewife and mother who supports her nine-to-five husband Joel in his late night attempts at stand-up comedy in Greenwich Village. Local viewers are in for a treat(?) when, prior to Joel’s set at the Gaslight Café, a dour Beat poet recites an ode to her hometown (“rumble of lumber trucks … robbers of the indigenous … Spokane … man.”).

Spokane poem
"The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" Pilot (Amazon)

After a (somewhat rushed) series of events leads Midge to a crisis, she ends up on stage herself and discovers that her voice is just what the comedy scene has been missing. Think Joan Rivers, pre-plastic surgery and “Fashion Police.”

Rachel Brosnahan plays the title role with strength and impeccable timing. She has the wit and charisma that Alexis Bledel always seemed to lack as Rory Gilmore.

Rory Gilmore and Midge Maisel
LEFT: "Gilmore Girls" Season 5 Episode 22 (Netflix); RIGHT: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" Pilot (Amazon)

The comparison between the two characters isn’t hard to make, right down to the dual image of the pretty waifs with mussed, brown hair being bailed out of jail in powder blue. But while Rory succumbed to her setbacks, Midge confronts them – with encouragement from ASP mainstay Alex Borstein.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is part of Amazon Prime’s original pilot season, which means viewers must vote for their favorite shows before they’re picked up to series. Given ASP’s legacy and enthusiastic fanbase, I look forward to seeing more of Midge’s misadventures in Manhattan in the future. 

TOP PHOTO: "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" (Amazon)

Friday’s openings redux: Harrelson and MacLaine

In addition to the three movies that I listed below, two more films will be opening on Friday. They are:

"Wilson": Woody Harrelson plays a character with few personal boundaries who seeks out his ex-wife and the girl she gave up for adoption. Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes ("Ghost World"), it is a kind of comedy.

"The Last Word": Shirley MacLaine plays a forceful retired woman who wants to writer her own obituary and ends up befriending the young newspaper reporter (Amanda Seyfried) who is assigned the job.

In addition, if you didn't get the opportunity to see the Oscar-nominated animated film "The Red Turtle," AMC River Park Square is bringing it back for a second run.

Along with reporting no new openings, the Magic Lantern announced that the French-language animated film "My Life as a Zucchini" will open on March 31.

Friday’s openings: Laughs, thrills from the past

So what can we expect from this Friday's movie openings: How about more of the same? Maybe good, maybe bad, but definitely familiar.

The scheduled national openings are as follows:

"Life": A crew on a space station is the first to encounter alien life. Turns out it's hungry. See: "It! The Terror from Beyond Space."

"Power Rangers": A posse of Americans teens suddenly find themselves possessing super powers, which they use to fight an evil power. See "Super Sentai Zyuranger" (which was later adapted for American audiences as "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers").

"CHIPS": A couple of California Highway Patrol officers bumble their way around Los Angeles. See "CHIPs."

There might be more. There usually is. I'll post when the information becomes final.

‘Kong’ is all effects, silly story — duh

It's made a little over $73 million since its March 10 release, which isn't breaking any records. Still, that's a respectable opening for "Kong: Skull Island," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription:

The great ape called Kong first hit the big screen in 1933. IMAX technology has been around since 1970. Now, in 2017, the two have joined forces, and the result almost makes a good movie. Well, half a good movie.

That was the realization I came to as I walked out of a screening of “Kong: Skull Island” and I began to wonder what I had just watched. Up until about halfway through the movie, I had been lulled by the IMAX big screen and 3D projection into enjoying something that was little more than a visual spectacle. But the attendant story all that technology was trying to tell? In that respect, not so much.

Set in 1973, “Kong: Skull Island” is a kind of mashup between the story of Kong, which has been retold at least twice since its debut – in 1976 and 2005 – and another look at that ghastly American debacle known as the Vietnam War. Think “King Kong” meets “Apocalypse Now.”

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, working from a team-written screenplay, gives us a story that begins with an obsessed mystery man with government connections. Actually, it begins during World War II with two enemy pilots duking it out on a beach – but I’ll get back to that.

The mystery man (played by John Goodman) manages to arrange an expedition to a mysterious island. For the final leg, and for added security, he convinces the authorities to let him bring along an American helicopter company. Fresh from duty in Vietnam, the chopper crews are led by a commander – played by Samuel L. Jackson – who makes Marlon’s Brando’s Colonel Kurtz look like a wimp.

Before the jungle dew has settled on the chopper blades, mayhem ensues – which causes Jackson’s character to go on a quest for vengeance. A vain quest, I might add, because … well, the Vietnam analogy isn’t for nothing.

Anyway, the remaining World War II vet (engagingly played by John C. Reilly) meets up with the survivors of the decimated expedition – including an intrepid Brit played by Tom Hiddleston and an American photographer played by Brie Larson – and they all try to make it to the coast. Which is code, you see, for last chopper out. Because again, Vietnam.

It’s clear that the screenwriters strived to find a new story to tell, one that was something more than the traditional tale of it being beauty who kills the beast. But what they came up with instead doesn’t bear close examination.

Because little about their script makes any sense. Not the island masked by a perpetual storm. Not the hole in the Earth from which ancient lizard monsters emerge. Not the story that the atomic tests were a cover-up for an attempt to kill such monsters. Nor the fact that a giant ape lives here. And especially not that the ape in question passes up squishing Larson’s tomboyish character when he gets the chance.

Still, none of this matters. Not really. Not to anyone sitting in front of that big screen and wearing those 3D glasses. Not, at least, until the house lights go up.

Below: Enjoy the trailer in beautiful Italian.

Author examines ‘catastrophic’ Columbia River Treaty

If there's one thing that fuels the work of writer Eileen Delehanty Pearkes, it's love — specifically, she says, "my love for the landscape (and) the people who live here."

The "here" Pearkes is referring to is Columbia River country, an area she wrote about in her most recent book, "A River Captured: The Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change." Pearkes will read from her book at 7 tonight at Auntie's Bookstore.

A native of the United States, educated at Stanford University, Pearkes has lived in Canada since 1985. She is the author of six books, including "A River Captured." In December, she was named the cultural ambassador for Nelson, British Columbia. As she told the Nelson Star newspaper, she found the honor "very honouring and humbling."

Pearkes' book, says BC Booklook, "explores the controversial history of the Columbia River Treaty and its impact on the ecosystems, indigenous peoples, contemporary culture, provincial politics and recent history of southeastern British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest."

As usual, the reading is free and open to the public.

Above: The Arrow Lakes Reservoir, which was created when the Hugh Keenleyside Dam was constructed to bound the original Arrow Lakes and the Columbia River.

‘Sense of an Ending’ joins Friday’s openers

OK, strange things are afoot at the Circle K, Ted. Quick: Name the movie reference.

Yeah, it's an easy one. What's harder is getting a final take on the movies that are scheduled to open on Friday. In contrast to what I wrote below, iooks at this point as if the new Danny Boyle film, "T2 Trainspotting," will NOT open. But along with about a billion-jillion screenings of Disney's live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast," another UK-inspired film apparently will:

"The Sense of an Ending": Based on the novel by Julian Barnes, this film tells the story of an aging man (Jim Broadbent) who is forced to look back at a past he might not be remembering quite as accurately as he has always thought.

Barnes' novel won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. In it, wrote the New York Times reviewer, "Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam."

Let's hope the movie is half as good.

Get ready for a ‘Big Bang Theory’ spinoff

I don't usually write about television on this blog. The exceptions I tend to make are for limited miniseries that I admire, such as ESPN's "O.J.: The Making of America," HBO's "House of Cards" (at least the first season) and the BBC crime miniseries "Happy Valley."

What I don't usually do is write about standard sitcoms. Yet I read something on IMDB this morning that caught my attention. It was a report from Variety that the creators of "The Big Bang Theory" have received permission to produce a spinoff. "Young Sheldon" will go into production and premiere during the 2017-2018 season.

OK, I can't think of a TV show that is both more popular, and more trashed, than "The Big Bang Theory." Having debuted in 2007, the show was the most watched series in 2016 (attracting nearly 20 million viewers). Yet the show consistently attracts critics among the public that lampoon not just its attempts at humor but its basic concept.

Here are just a few comments (courtesy of Reddit):

"I don't know if I speak for everyone, but it gives the impression of being a show for smart people but really it's just sex jokes over and over again. Just because it has smart people in it, doesn't make you an intelligent viewer for watching it."

"(I)t's a 'comedy for smart people' that is filled with dumb jokes. Making a dumb joke about smart things does not make for a smart joke. I don't enjoy most stereotypical U.S. laughtrack sitcoms, why would I enjoy this?"

"It's 'Two and a Half Men' + a thesaurus."

And those are among the milder critiques.

It's been years since I've heard television referred to as "the idiot box." But it's clear that the notion persists: Some people will watch anything. Not that I refrain from watching my own versions of escapism (anyone watch "Star Trek Voyager"?), but it's hard to argue with the great Groucho Marx.

“I find television very educating," Groucho once said. "Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book."

Friday’s openings: Beauty goes beastly live-action

Disney releases its live-action version of "Beauty and the Beast," and that's the main story of the mainstream releases for the coming week. The national schedule offers a couple of other offerings, but those are — as always — iffy for the local scene.

As of now, the potential look of Friday's openings is as follows:

"Beauty and the Beast": Emma Watson stars as Belle in this Bill Condon-directed adaptation of the fairly tale turned book turned movie turned cartoon turned musical turned, again, movie. Or somewhat in that order.

"The Belko Experiment": Put a bunch of people in a building, cut off all the exits and then tell them to kill one another — or they die. There, that's my pitch in 23 words! Whaddaya think?

"T2 Trainspotting": It's 20 years later and Danny Boyle reunites his cast of Scottish druggies (including Ewan McGregor) for another go-around. Choose life. Choose a job, Choose a career. Again.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"My Scientology Movie": Broadcaster/filmmaker Louis Theroux documents his attempts to reveal the workings of the Church of Scientology. And, for the record, L. Ron Hubbard died on Jan. 24, 1986.

The Lantern will also pick up a run of "A United Kingdom."

I'll have the final listings when they become available.