7 Blog

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

Maybe time to get excited about this ‘Arrival’

Not that I place any real credence in trailers or critical previews, but one film that is opening on Friday is receiving high marks for both.

I don't trust trailers because they so often don't end up reflecting what the final film is all about. Too many times they either give the whole film away or they give a mistaken impression of the respective film's tone.

I remember thinking that Joe Wright's 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement" was just another of your average stuffy Masterpiece Theatre productions. How wrong I was. "Atonement" turned out to be as poignant and passionate a study of love and loss as I've ever seen.

And critics? Even the best of them can make some outlandish pronouncements (though hardly among the best, I will plead guilty to having done the same). So, yes, I'm careful.

But "Arrival," the Denis Villeneuve film that is one of three films opening on Friday, is scoring 97 percent among critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Here are some of the comments:

Stephen Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: "Arrival is at once majestic and melancholy. It's a grand endeavor, and (Amy) Adams, at the center of it all, brings pluck and smarts and a deep-seated sorrow to her role. This is her movie, no doubt."

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: "So sure is the stride of the narrative, and so bracing the air of expectation, that you feel yourself, like Louise, beginning to spin, and barely able to catch your breath."

Mara Reinstein, US Weekly: "The sci-fi thriller not only subverts expectations in brilliant ways, it explores deeply felt themes of life, loss and love. In other words, it's light-years away from 'Independence Day 3.' "

Tony Hicks, San Jose Mercury News: "Arrival arrives at a good time, as something of a salve for the ugly discourse going on and a reminder to us that thinking big is really worthwhile."

So I'm excited. Let's hope my enthusiasm isn't, as often happens, misplaced.

No, ‘Billy Lynn’ won’t be walking on Friday

This just in, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" will not be opening locally on Friday. The Ang Lee film version of Ben Fountain's novel will, according to Variety, expand to some 800 theaters on Nov. 18 — which should then include the Inland Northwest.

For a story about the behind-the-scenes struggle involving Lee's film, click here.

As I reported below, three films will open on Friday: "Arrival," "Almost Christmas" and "Shut In."

Get your tickets for the Banff Mountain Film Festival

Once we get past today — assuming we do get past today — we're all going to need a break from the political campaigning that has been thrown at us for the past year or more. And you'll find no better break than the movies.

One annual movie event that attracts crowds to downtown Spokane is the Banff Mountain Film Festival. An array of short films, one that claims to offer "The World's Best Mountain Films," is the traveling version of the festival that is held each year in Banff, Alberta, Canada (this year Oct. 29-Nov. 6).

This year's event will be held over three days (Nov. 18-20) at the Bing Crosby Theater. For ticket information, click here.

To get a taste of the visual treats the 2015-2016 festival had to offer, click on the embed below.

Busy poet laureate Marshall speaks at Shadle

Above: A ballot box sits in front of the Shadle Branch of the Spokane Public Library

Tod Marshall gets around. Washington State's Poet Laureate not only has a day job as a professor of English at Gonzaga University, but he continues to write poetry when he can — that is, in between teaching, grading papers and making public appearances as part of his laureate duties.

Marshall will make another of several regional appearance tonight at 6 at the Shadle Branch of the Spokane Public Library. His topic: "Great Poems That Tell Tales," which is a shorthand way of talking about "poets who use narrative effectively."

In past posts involving Marshall I've included poems of his. This time I'm including a link to an interview that Marshall gave to fellow poet and teacher Yusef Komuntakaa for the Poetry Foundation.

It's called "Every Tool Became a Weapon." Here's an excerpt that seems apt on this day before a presidential election:

"Certain blacks and whites during the 1960s and 1970s went into the streets and forced change here in the United States. We must accept this: numerous oppressive laws wouldn’t have changed in this country if some progressive-thinking people hadn’t put their lives on the line in the name of freedom and change. That’s recent history."

Friday’s openings: The holidays are approaching

It's already November, which means that the holiday movie season is approaching. Which also means that the chances of good movies coming our way are increasing. Finally. And Friday just may be the start.

Friday's scheduled openings are as follows:

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk": Ang Lee directed this adaptation of Ben Fountain's novel about a 19-year-old war veteran who, following a harrowing combat experience, finds himself caught up in a patriotic celebration he finds as strange as it is surreal. Kind of an everyday experience at a Dallas Cowboys game.

"Almost Christmas": Writer-director David E. Talbert explores an extended family's attempts to enjoy the first Thanksgiving following their matriarch's death. Do they eat turkey, or is that just the movie itself?

"Arrival": Amy Adams stars as a linguist whom the army recruits to communicate with extraterrestrials. ET may just want to phone home.

"Shut In": Naomi Watts stars as child psychologist, living a lonely life in New England, who thinks she is being haunted by the ghost of a little boy. No, she doesn't live on Elm Sreet. (Or does she?)

That's the available lineup. I'll update when the local theaters finalize what they plan to screen.

What the ‘Inferno’ is going on here?

Like all art, movies tend to reflect the cultures from which they spring. In theme, at least. In the case of Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's novel "Inferno," though, the very style of the film seems to reflect the turbulence that has afflicted the U.S. for the past year or so.

That, at least, is a point I try to argue in a review of "Inferno" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In the current political sphere, which is mercifully nearing the end of what we’ve comically been referring to as a presidential campaign, a kind of debate strategy has been perfected.

Debate, at least to those of us who learned about the practice in high school, involves taking a specific stand on a given topic. From there you’re obliged to offer logical arguments in support of that stance, to rebut the arguments put forth by the opposition, and then issue a concise summation aimed at convincing those listening that you have constructed the more convincing analysis and conclusion.

Sounds quaint, right? Such polite discourse possesses little, if anything, in common with what goes on in today’s version of political exchange. Instead of traditional debate, what you tend to hear, even from those who are supposed to represent both sides, is denial, obfuscation, misdirection and outright lies.

Now, this is supposed to be a movie review and not a political rant. So, how does all this pertain to the product that Hollywood fills the nation’s movie screens with on a weekly basis? Specifically, how does it apply to “Inferno,” Ron Howard’s adaptation of the Dan Brown bestseller of the same name?

Well, with a third, and more pointed, question: To wit, if you had been hired to tell a tall tale of high implausibility, one filled both with enough red herrings to feed a borough of Beijing and more absurdities than a Samuel Beckett stage play, what style would you adopt? If you were Ron Howard, that style might involve varying blends of, say, denial, obfuscation, misdirection and outright lies.

“Inferno” gives us a familiar Brown protagonist, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious inconography and – better consult your dictionary here – symbology. Playing Langdon for the third time, Tom Hanks gives his standard everyman performance – though this time he is forced mostly to reel from frame to frame, both because of several blows to Langdon’s head and – not to give too much away – other mind-altering means.

The resulting confusion he experiences is only fitting, since this reflects the filmmaking style that Howard has chosen for, I suspect, a couple of reasons.

One, Howard, who is now 62, may think – mistakenly – that a continually moving camera will make him seem more contemporary. Two, he also apparently thinks that the best way to cover up the deficits of a weak storyline is to immerse Langdon in a crazy mystery that Sherlock Holmes would have trouble figuring out.

That mystery involves, among other things, Dante’s vision of Hell, the plague of overpopulation, a crazed billionaire and his shadowy minions, a virus that threatens to decimate the human race and clues to a puzzle situated in some of the world’s great architectural treasures – Florence’s famous Duomo and Istanbul’s grand museum, the Hagia Sophia.

Howard’s decision to show us these majestic sights is the single treat that his “Inferno” offers. Otherwise, as Shakespeare might say, the film feels like an attempt to dazzle the audience with the kind of sound and fury that, ultimately, signifies nothing.

Enjoy bedtime with Kenn Nesbitt on Saturday

One of the tasks of a parent is to make sure the kids get to bed. As any parent can tell you, it's seldom easy.

Which is one reason to applaud the work of writers such as Kenn Nesbitt. A former Children's Poet Laureate, an honor bestowed by the Poetry Foundation, Nesbitt has written several collections of poems aimed at children. He has performed them in front of audiences all over the country.

At 7 p.m. on Saturday, at Auntie's Bookstore, Nesbitt will appear with his new book — "One Minute Till Bedtime: 60-Second Poems to Send You Off to Sleep" — along with several other contributors. Among others scheduled to read with Nesbitt: Chris Cook and Verla Kay.

The reading might be past the bedtime of those youngest readers out there. Then again, it might be just the antidote for those young readers who keep their parents up till all hours.

Note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly listed this event as occurring on Friday.

Poet Laureate Marshall to read on South Hill

Above: The South Hill Public Library is a comfortable place to read.

If you've never heard of Tod Marshall, now's your chance — both to hear of him and from him.

For the record, Marshall is the Poet Laureate of Washington State. He also is a professor of English at Gonzaga University. That's who he is. What he has to offer, besides a body of poetry, is a lecture on "Great Poems That Tell Tales," which he will deliver at 6 tonight at the South Hill Public Library.

Here is a sample of a Marshall poem titled "First World Concerns":

Parking. Carbon. Peak oil. Free Range. What gets hard
and with what frequency, whether to turn off cable
and just stream. The second world is populated by bad habits:
worry, impatience, fill in the blank. The third world
is the body, what is felt in the blood, vulnerable girl or boy.
The fourth world is what the squirrel, the sparrow,
the skunk might do: to squirrel, to sparrow, to spray
smelly scent all over offenders, the many offenders.
The fifth world is everyone’s search engine history,
that stale air. There is no sixth world, only the imperative
to gather six things and keep them safe. Really safe.
See if you can. See if you can hold them and still run
fast enough. See if you can leave the rest at the curb.
Have faith: a seventh worlder will arrive to haul it away.

Tonight's reading is free and open to the public.

Friday’s openings: War, superheroes and trolls

Since today is Halloween, it's only fitting that two of the three mainstream movies scheduled to open this week would feature people in costumes. Of Sorts. The week's nation-wide openings are as follows:

"Doctor Strange": Benedict Cumberbatch joins the Marvel superhero clan as a former surgeon who learns dark arts and uses them to battle bad guys. But does he live at 221 B Baker St.?

"Trolls": Not the first movie inspired by a line of dolls, this one pits peppy Poppy with brashly cautious Branch as their flock flees the nefarious folk who find them fetching. Add the voices of Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake and you have … a sack of singing sweets!

"Hacksaw Ridge": Andrew Garfield stars as the real-life American Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss, who served as a U.S. Army medic during World War II. Whatever the dramatic inventions this Mel Gibson-directed film might take, the actual story is every bit as unbelievable.

That's the lot so far. I'll update when the local information becomes available.

This violent ‘Valley’ is mainly full of idiots

Like many movie fans of my generation, I'm a fan of the Western. Even given how most of the examples of the genre explore myth more than actual history, I like how the greatest examples tell stories that delve into basic human behavior — the good and the bad.

In recent years, contemporary filmmakers have on occasion experimented with the genre, sometimes reinventing the traditional themes to better reflect modern sensibilities. Sometimes, though, they do little more than ape stereotypes for no discernible purpose. In a review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I attempt to explain my reaction to a little neo-Western titled "In a Valley of Violence":

In his 1973 film “High Plains Drifter,” Clint Eastwood plays a lone horseman who rides into a town and, gradually, intentionally, leads it to ruin. Released a dozen years later, the movie “Pale Rider” has Eastwood portraying essentially the same kind of character.

The commonality here involves theme: Both movies tell the story of guys who have been wronged, humiliated and likely even killed, yet who have returned from – what, death? – to wreak revenge. That theme, in fact, is virtually the core of Eastwood’s whole career – especially, though not exclusively, in his Western films. His “Dirty Harry” character, Police Det. Harry Callahan, enjoys several of his own moments of retribution.

Moreover, the theme is central to the very Western genre itself. Think of “Shane.” Of “Winchester ’73.” Think of “The Searchers.”

And now think of “In a Valley of Violence,” a neo-Western that treads a mostly traditional path, both in terms of character and plot. Written and directed by Ti West, an American director known for making horror films, “In a Valley of Violence” might have be drawn directly from the Eastwood film library.

It focuses on Paul, a former soldier (played by Ethan Hawke) who – for reasons that never become clear – is headed for Mexico. Accompanied only by his horse, and trusty dog Abby, Paul finds himself in a dilemma: Out of supplies, yet still 10 days from the border, he is forced to stop in the town of Denton.

Once there, he runs into Gilly (James Ransome), a bully-boy of a deputy sheriff, and is drawn into a fight that – in fairly sudden fashion – he wins. But that is only the beginning of his troubles. Because even after being confronted, and released, by Denton’s marshal, who just happens to be Gilly’s father, Paul is waylaid by Gilly and his posse. They take his pride, his possessions and more – beware, dog lovers – but fail in their attempt to kill him. And that, of course, is their fatal flaw. Because then Paul, having lost everything else, finds himself motivated by only one thing: a desire for revenge.

All of this is familiar enough to Western fans. Here, though, is where “In a Valley of Violence” goes wrong. Contemporary films that ape traditional genres typically do so with a revisionist intention: Quentin Tarantino’s neo-Western “Django Unchained” is a perfect example. Yet even given each individual filmmaker’s quirks – and no director is more quirky than Tarantino – you’re likely to find some overarching purpose, some larger point to make.

It seems that West’s quirkiness involves no point at all, other than to create a familiar setting, throw a bunch of idiots together, and watch them act out their violent tendencies to somewhat predictable ends. I say “somewhat” because only the marshal, well portrayed by John Travolta, breaks type. The film’s closest approximation of an admirable character, he ends up being treated as wrongly as anyone Clint Eastwood has ever played.

Maybe that could make a sequel: The marshal coming back to seek his own measure of revenge.

Marra is what Spokane is Reading today

Anthony Marra boasts a pretty impressive resume. After graduating from USC, he earned an MFA at the esteemed Iowa Writer's Workshop. He won a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, where he now teaches.

Marra is the author of a 2013 novel, the intriguingly named "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," which won both acclaim and awards. But it's his short story collection, “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” that is relevant here: It is the focus of this year's Spokane Is Reading project.

As such, Marra will appear at 7 tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater (at 1 p.m., Marra will appear at the Spokane Valley Event Center). Both events are free and open to the public.

Not yet impressed? Then read some of the critical comments about Marra's work:

First, the New York Times on Marra's novel. Now a rave review from the Washington Post

Now, Times reviewer Sarah Lyall on Marra's story collection: "(Marra) starts this miracle of a book by showing us how a system can erase the past, the truth, even its citizens. He ends by demonstrating, through his courageous, flawed, deeply human characters, how individual people can restore the things that have been taken away."

And from The Guardian: " 'The Tsar of Love and Techno' … shares much with David Mitchell’s expansive 'Cloud Atlas,' and it wears its blend of dry humour and tragedy very well."

From Newsday: "By the time you reach Marra's astonishing final story about Kolya, 'The End' — set, a dateline tells us, in 'Outer Space, Year Unknown' — the book has achieved a heart-rending cumulative power."

That should be enough to intrigue you. It should definitely impress you, if not convince you to catch one of his appearances.

Ben Cartwright cooks up some poetry tonight

Like most every other kind of art in the world, poetry is an acquired taste. This may seem obvious, but is it?

Take cooking, for example. In recent years — one could argue since at least 1963 when Julia Child co-authored "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" — food has become the province of chefs who possess a sense not just of taste but for presentation. As such, cooking has earned the description used in the title of Child's book.

Yet no matter who the chef is, or how beautiful the dish, no one is going to prepare something with cilantro that my wife would consider eating. "It tastes like cat urine smells," she says. When it comes to art, personal preferences always have to be considered.

It's the same with other arts. How many of the general public have read, say, Dostoevsky for mere pleasure? Or watched the movies of Ingmar Bergman with the same sense of enthusiasm. Meditated over the paintings of Jackson Pollock? Listened with pleasure to the music of Miles Davis? And so on.

And you can place poetry at or near the top of the list. On the website of Sage Hill Press, publisher Thom Caraway attempts to define what he looks for in a good poem. In his appreciation of poems "that invite me in, give me work to do, reward that work, and toss me around the universe," he adds a list of poets he loves (among them: Richard Hugo and Nance Van Winkle) and those he does not (among them: John Ashbury and Sylvia Plath).

I'm sure Caraway has had more than one dinner-party debate over the inclusion of Plath in that last grouping.

Anyway, all of this is a long-winded way of announcing a poetry reading tonight at Auntie's Bookstore. Spokane poet Ben Cartwright, who teaches at Gonzaga University and whose poems have appeared in a number of publications, will read from his first book "After Our Departure."

For a taste of what Cartwright has to offer, click here.

The reading is set for 7. As is typical, the event is free and open to the public.

And don't worry. As far as I know, cilantro will not be served.

A single movie opening? No need to despair

Since Friday's movie opening — and, yes, that is a singular usage — is a Dan Brown/Ron Howard extravaganza, let's take a look at some other viewing options. After all, even if you do choose to see "Inferno," what will you do over the rest of the week?

(In terms of movies, I mean. In terms of sports, baseball will offer the World Series, football will boast a whole slate of games on every level, and … well, you know what I mean.)

Television offerings have never been better. Or more varied. In our house, we've been enjoying the ever-growing range of series, from BBC shows such as "Happy Valley," HBO programming such as "Westworld" and — most recently, for us anyway — the FX series "Atlanta."

As for those streaming media services, Netfilx is one of the most dependable. The service tends to rotate its movie menu, though, which results in monthly stories such as "The Best Movies Leaving Netflix in November." Among the film listed, I would second a screening of the following:

"Almost Famous": Cameron Crowe's look at a young guy's love affair with rock 'n' roll.

"E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial": Steven Spielberg at his best. "E.T. phone home."

You can access the whole list here. Take the time to see some. Dan Brown won't miss you as the film of his book is likely to be around for weeks.

The week’s openings: Dante count on it

Four words encapsulate the coming week's movies. The first two are "Dan Brown."

The third is "Inferno." Friday's main scheduled opening is as follows:

"Inferno": Based on a screenplay by David Koepp, Ron Howard continues his exploration of Brown's mythical "Da Vinci Code" series, featuring everyman Tom Hanks again playing Prof. Robert Langdon. This time, Langdon has to decode the works of Dante to uncover a plot to kill half the world. Oh, and that fourth word?

It's "ka-chingggggg!"

As always, I'll update as the local theaters finalize their individual schedules.

‘Girl on the Train’ has a Blunt appeal

I'm a fan of Emily Blunt. I try to explain why in the review of "The Girl on the Train" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I remember first seeing Emily Blunt in the 2006 comedy “The Devil Wears Prada,” which cast her – at least in the beginning scenes – as a thoroughly unsympathetic character who wields her English accent like a verbal light saber.

In the 10 intervening years, Blunt has blossomed, her roles growing ever larger even as the movies she appeared in grew ever more diverse: romantic comedies such as “The Five-Year Engagement,” dramas such as “Your Sister’s Sister,” sci-fi films such as “The Adjustment Bureau” and “The Edge of Tomorrow” and hard-core dramatic action efforts such as “Sicario.”

Now we have “The Girl on the Train,” a psychological thriller based on the best-selling novel by British author Paula Hawkins. And if her other movies have given Blunt the opportunity to stretch her skills, “The Girl on the Train” goes even further.

Blunt plays Rachel, a divorced woman who is obsessed. And troubled. When we first see her, she is riding a train – thus the film’s title – back and forth from her home to New York City. En route, twice daily she passes the neighborhood where she once lived. And as she rides past, she can’t help but fantasize about both the house in which she once lived and the couple that lives nearby.

Played out in a distinctly non-chronological order, “The Girl on the Train” is several things at once. It’s a character portrayal of Rachel, a woman stumbling through life with a blurred history that only gradually becomes clear. It’s a mystery that involves the disappearance of a woman and the subsequent investigation that Rachel is driven to be part of. It’s a look at the real life that lies beneath the thin veneer of suburban normality, a life that – as John Cheever once documented – is all too often is marked by lust, lies and the most basic kinds of betrayal.

Ultimately, though, “The Girl on the Train” is about revenge. It’s about the control that men – some men, anyway – levy over their wives and lovers and how those same men can, and do, abuse that control for their own pleasure. And, when they wake up, how powerful women can be in their efforts to set things right.

Director Tate Taylor, whose previous films include the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” and the melodrama “The Help,” weaves author Hawkins’ whipsaw plot toward a relatively satisfying – if somewhat predictable – climax. More important, though, he gets decent performances out of his cast, both the men – including Luke Evans and Justin Theroux – and the women, especially the Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett (seen most recently in “The Magnificent Seven” remake), and Allison Janney as a tough police detective.

It is Blunt, though, on whom the movie depends most. Playing the troubled Rachel, whose trek toward the truth is agonizingly slow, could not have been easy. It certainly doesn’t make her look glamorous. But it does show what it takes to become an A-level movie star.

Beauty and drive, tenacity and timing – not to mention a ton of talent.