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

Get ready for a wild ride: SpIFF 2019

The 2019 version of Spokane's premier movie event, the annual Spokane International Film Festival, is just a few weeks away. And the schedule is ready to go.

Click here to access the lineup.

The festival will kick off Friday, Feb. 1, with a purely local flavor. The two programs, which will screen at the Bing Crosby Theater, will include a Best of the Northwest shorts program (eight short films beginning at 5:30 p.m.) followed by a mid-length program (three films). A single ticket earns access to both programs.

The opening-night event will conclude with the Opening Party to be held at 9:30 p.m. at the Montvale Event Center.

SpIFF 2019 will continue through the week, with films screened at the Magic Lantern Theater. The festival will close on Friday, Feb. 8, with a 7:30 p.m. screening of the Hungarian film "Jupiter's Moon."

Get your tickets now as the Magic Lantern seats barely 100 in its larger house, about 33 in the smaller space.

(Full disclosure: I serve on the board of the festival. It is a volunteer position only, and SpIFF is a nonprofit enterprise.)

Check out Season 2 premiere of ‘Mob Psycho 100’

If you're into Japanese animation, you've likely been attending the special events that play periodically at the Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

Well, more of those events are coming, beginning with the "Mob Psycho 100" season 2 premiere, which will screen in a subtitled version at 12:55 p.m. Saturday at Northtown only.

"Mob Psycho 100" is an anime series based on a manga series originally published between 2012 and 2017. It was adapted for Japanese television in 2016, and the second season will air in Japan on Jan. 7.

So, this special Fathom Events presentation is being billed as a predate to the Japanese broadcast. It will include a recap of season one.

Other anime offerings are coming. As time goes by, I'll detail as many as I can.

Friday’s openings: 2019 starting off slowly

It's not surprising that the coming week of moviegoing will likely be quiet. Though a number of films have yet to open locally, the national-release schedule has only one film listed for Friday:

"Escape Room": Six people are locked in a room and given the challenge to find a way out. Wow, never heard that plot before.

Among those films that might still open here: "Destroyer," "If Beale Street Could Talk," "Stan & Ollie," "On the Basis of Sex."

So stay tuned.

‘The Favourite’: a study of caprice

One of Yorgos Lanthimos' more approachable films is the recent release "The Favourite," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription of that review:

If movies about royalty have taught us anything, it’s that monarchs can be fickle. Think of Henry the 8th and his half-dozen wives.

In the face of such capriciousness, members of the royal court who seek favor must do so with care. So, over the millennia, smart hangers-on have resorted to the age-old strategy of flattery.

Britain’s Queen Anne ruled from 1702 to 1714. And among those who surrounded her were two such smart women, cousins as it turns out, who vied with each other for the queen’s affections. The competition they waged is the basis for Greek-born filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest film “The Favourite.”

Lanthimos isn’t exactly a household name for American filmgoers. His cinematic stock in trade, best exemplified in his previous two films “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” is a study of existence that strays from dark humor to a kind of studied existential horror.

In “The Favourite,” Lanthimos – for the most part – sidles up closer to his own personal brand of humor, even if, ultimately, the laughs fade before the images of our three principal characters do.

Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, who carries the title of Duchess of Marlborough (her husband is one of the queen’s trusted military heroes). A friend of Anne’s since childhood, Sarah wields immense power – all subject to the queen’s whims, forcing Sarah to be both kind and – when she feels the need – to be cruel.

Because Anne, as played by Olivia Colman, is overweight, afflicted by gout, and introverted, causing her to defer to Sarah – but also, at times, to erupt in infantile fits of pique.

Then enters Abigail Hill (played by Emma Stone), a woman of reduced circumstances, who is hired by her cousin Sarah – and who, over time, ingratiates herself to the queen. And who, again over time, replaces Sarah as the focus of the queen’s affections.

This story – the basis of it true, the specifics as director Lanthimos details them wrapped up in speculation and fantasy – would be interesting all on its own. But Lanthimos has a visual style that would enhance even the best screenplays.

First there’s the cinematography, by Robbie Ryan, which gives “The Favourite” a ringing sense of authenticity, many scenes lit seemingly only by candlelight. Then there’s the camera-work, typically artful of Lanthimos, in which a variety of lenses, at times, enhances the surreal emotional feel the film is striving to achieve.

And yet many more contribute to that feel, including the wardrobe and makeup crews, who capture the spirit – if not actual fact – of the early 18th-century English court with its wigs and powders and beauty spots. But also the music supervisors and, finally, the editing crew – led by longtime Lanthimos colleague Yorgos Mavropsaridis.

Still, our main focus, naturally, is on the three principal actresses (though Nicholas Hoult, as the MP Robert Harley, deserves mention). Weisz is splendidly imperious and Stone more than holds her own among the British cast, though the lesser-known Colman is what truly binds “The Favourite” to history. 

Her Queen Anne is to fickle what Lanthimos himself is to offbeat cinema.  

Christmas 2018: a time to give thanks for what we have

And so it's Christmas. In the year 2018, a time I once thought was so far off it might as well have been a million years in the future.

But it's here, nonetheless. And considering everything that's happening in the world — and in the currently insane political atmosphere affecting this country — those of us who have things to be thankful for should take advantage of that fact.

Because not everyone has the ability to do that. I drove around Spokane yesterday and saw intersection after intersection filled with people carrying signs asking for money. I saw people sleeping on sidewalks and under bridges. I saw others seeking out whatever source of light and warmth that they could find.

And I felt thankful that my own family was intact. That my daughter and her family were safe and warm and enjoying the prospect that Christmas morning — this morning — would dawn and they would be able to enjoy the sharing of presents and good food and loving fellowship.

Of course, in my house, that usually means watching movies. So, amid all of today's good cheer, and giving thanks, we'll take a couple of hours and make sure to watch something from the range of our favorite Christmas movies. Maybe "It's a Wonderful Life." Or the 1951 version of "A Christmas Carol" (starring Alistair Sim). Or our all-time family favorite, "A Christmas Story" ("Bumpuses!!!").

But whatever we do, we'll hope that our good lives continue. And that those whose lives are nowhere near as secure find at least a degree of comfort on this of all mornings.

It’s a perfect morning for a bit of Cuban soul

As an aside, I was lax in posting on this site for a couple of weeks. Mea culpa.

But I had a good reason: I was traveling in Cuba and Internet access was a bit spotty.

My wife and I were part of a Road Scholar tour, which took us from Miami on an eight-day excursion of the island. Among the cities we visited were Santa Clara, Trinidad and Havana, with an afternoon stop at the infamous Bahia de Cochines — better known as the Bay of Pigs (more on that at another time).

One of our principal stops, though, was in the port city of Cienfuegos. And, luck has it, one of my fellow travelers found a YouTube video featuring both the city and the music of the late Cuban musician Beny Moré.

I've posted the video below. Enjoy.

The week’s openings: Portraits of legends

And it's Christmas Eve. Three reasons to celebrate:

1. Santa comes tomorrow.

2. The days are getting longer.

3. According to the national movie-release schedule, two movies are opening this week. They are:

"Holmes & Watson": Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly portray, respectively, the legendary fictional British detective Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart physician sidekick John Watson. This is the fourth comedy the two have starred in together.

"Vice": Christian Bale stars as former Vice President Dick Cheney in this fictional look at the life and times of not only him but also of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) and Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).

Both films are scheduled to open on Christmas Day. Other films are listed as potential openings, and — as always — I'll update when the area theaters finalize their bookings.

‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ has trademark Coen touch

Along with movies opening every week in area theaters, numerous viewing opportunities exist on the various streaming services — Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix among them. I recently watched a Netflix special, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," and wrote the following review for Spokane Public Radio

It’s difficult to mark the exact moment when the classic Western died. And by classic, I mean the Western films of the 1930s through the early ’50s.

It might have been as early as 1953 with Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur,” which features Jimmy Stewart as a morally conflicted bounty hunter. For me, though, it was Arthur Penn’s 1970 film “Little Big Man,” in which Dustin Hoffman plays a character who over time finds himself on both sides of the Indian Wars.

Whatever the date, though, the classic Western, that of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and many others – including, of course, the iconic heroes played by John Wayne – faded into the sunset long before the Coen Brothers began making movies.

Those brothers, Joel and Ethan, have worked in a number of genres. Their first film, 1984’s “Blood Simple,” was a neo-noir. 1990’s “Miller’s Crossing” was a gangster study. 1996’s “Fargo” was a police procedural. And in 2010, with their adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel “True Grit,” they tackled a Western.

But with that film, as with everything else they’ve co-directed, the Coens gave the Western genre their own trademark tweak, a conceit that often involves dark humor but almost always features something offbeat and unexpected.

Take, for example, their most recent foray into Western storytelling, the six-part, Netflix special titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Having premiered last August at the Venice Film Festival, then opened for a limited theatrical run on Nov. 9, the film began streaming on Netflix a week later – which is how I saw it.

Each of the half-dozen segments tells a different story, featuring casts that include both name actors such as Liam Neeson, James Franco and Tyne Daly and a number of less familiar – but no less talented – actors such as Harry Melling, Bill Heck and Northern Ireland’s Jonjo O’Neill. But though the stories are different, the themes are not, involving the vagaries of chance, the constant specter of death and the pervasive essence of irony.

The title segment represents all of this: Buster Scruggs (played by Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing cowboy, and a wanted man, dressed in white who wanders into town, shoots a couple of men, and charms everyone with his musical talents before being confronted by a younger, faster foe.

Most of the lighthearted tone that the Coens typically meld with trauma is missing from “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which features Heck (known mostly for his TV work) and Zoe Kazan as two members of a westward-bound wagon train who imagine a life together until fate – and a yapping dog – intervene.

Yet that tone of mildly sardonic humor never completely fades. Along with some mostly unspoken, yet clearly subversive commentary – it returns in the segment “Near Algodones,” in which James Franco plays a dimwitted outlaw, but particularly in the final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” in which five characters contemplate the very meaning of death.

Well-acted, sumptuously produced yet always challenging – especially to viewers sensitive to overt images of violence – “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is classic Coen, if not classic Western.

‘The Third Man’: at 1 today at The MAC

Fans of classic film will want to flock to The MAC today at 1. That's when the museum will hold a special screening of the 1949 black-and-white classic "The Third Man."

The screening will be preceded by a brief lecture on the film delivered by Shaun O'L. Higgins, a host of KSPS's Saturday Night Cinema. Cost: $7.

According to Higgins, "Things start at 1 p.m., so people can grab a nosh and glass of wine or whatever at MAC Cafe prior (or they can bring their own eats and soft drinks into MAC's Eric Johnston Theater)."

"The Third Man" was written by Graham Greene (based on his own novel) and was directed by Carol Reed. The film stars Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles as Harry Lime. And it features one of the most memorable musical themes of all time, written and performed by Anton Karas.

"Of all the movies I have seen," wrote the late Roger Ebert, "this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies."

Who can doubt Roger Ebert?

Talent and grace were part of Callas’ mystique

Here's a truism for you: Not all of us are opera fans.

Then again, not all of us are football fans, neither of the American nor the international version. Yet most of us can recognize grace and talent, which are qualities that, say, Russell Wilson has in common with the late, great soprano Maria Callas.

Callas is the subject of a documentary, "Maria by Callas," that opens Friday at the Magic Lantern Theatre. It is getting mostly rave reviews (91 percent fresh rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes).

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "What emerges is a portrait of a woman of extraordinary natural gifts and work ethic, who was pressured to become a superstar by her mother and then her husband, instead of a conventional homemaker and mother."

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: "At the very least, it will send many viewers back to the recordings, some of them superior to the renditions heard here, with a more vivid picture of the extraordinary woman who made them."

Monica Castillo, RogerEbert.com: "An aching compilation of a woman branded as difficult yet adored as one of operas' biggest stars in the 20th century."

For a touch of what to expect, check the embed below.

The week’s openings: marking two anniversaries

We're facing an unusual coming week of movie releases, especially considering we're in the midst of holiday-season openings. Nothing on the national-release schedule is listed as opening wide except for a re-release of "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg's 1993 film that won seven Academy Awards.

There is, however, at least one local premiere:

"Maria by Callas": Maria Callas was one of the great operatic divas of the 20th century. This documentary, directed by Tom Volf, was originally released in 2017 to mark the 40th anniversary of Callas' death. Based on hundreds of hours of interviews, it tells the soprano's story mostly in her own words. The film will screen at the Magic Lantern.

As for "Schindler's List," its re-release marks another anniversary: the 25th year since its premiere. Among the many awards given to Spielberg's film were Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography.

As usual, I'll update when the local theaters finalize their bookings.

Cast provides ‘Green Book’ its dramatic impact

The movie "Green Book," which is based on a real story, is receiving all sorts of good press — both from critics and from regular moviegoers. In the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I try to explain why:

It’s hardly surprising that film fans might make comparisons between the movies “Green Book” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”

The former, just released, is based on the true story of a white man driving a black concert pianist on a concert tour of the American South during the early 1960s. The latter is an award-winning 1989 film, based on an Alfred Uhry stage play, about a black man, beginning in the late 1940s, acting as chauffeur and caretaker of an elderly white woman.

To reference an old saw, these films represent the two sides of the same coin – the denomination of which, in this case, is racism.

Both are, at their respective bases, melodrama: the kind of work that depends more on exaggeration and emotional manipulation than on a project’s essential strengths, whether of narrative, of character or both.

There is, though, often a fine line between mere melodrama and something a bit closer to, say, Shakespeare. The four Academy Awards earned by “Driving Miss Daisy” – including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress (for Jessica Tandy) – and the Oscar-nominated performance of Morgan Freeman, are a clear measure of that film’s quality.

And while the Oscar nominations for 2018 won’t be announced until Jan. 22nd, the two lead actors of “Green Book” – Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen –are already being mentioned in pre-awards prognostications.

Directed by Peter Farrelly – better known for such comedies as “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary” – “Green Book” is based on an original screenplay co-written by Farrelly, screenwriter Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga – the son of the character played by Mortensen.

Vallelonga’s father was also known as Tony “Lip” because, he claimed, he could talk anybody into doing anything. And Tony Lip, who was raised in the Bronx borough of New York in the 1930s and ’40s, was a true man of his time. Meaning that, among other things, he had no use for African-Americans.

Don Shirley, on the other hand, was unique. A talented concert pianist, he lived an isolated and private life, partly because of temperament and partly for reasons – not to give anything away – that the movie makes clear.

Both men, though, began to change in 1962 when Shirley hired Vallelonga to be his driver and protector on a prolonged concert tour through states where segregation laws were firmly enforced. At some of their stops, Vallelonga would have to refer to what was known as the Negro Motorist Green Book, which outline where blacks could legally, and safely, eat and stay overnight – and from which Farrelly’s movie takes its name.

While much of what occurs in “Green Book” seems convenient – Shirley’s helping Vallelonga write letters to his wife, Vallelonga punching a surly Southern police officer, Shirley attending Christmas dinner in the Vallelonga home – screenwriter Nick Vallelonga insists the stories are true.

And regardless, the actors – Ali, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2017 for “Moonlight,” and the twice-nominated Mortensen – make them feel true.

Which is precisely what a film needs to elevate it from mere melodrama to something closer to actual art. 

‘Meow Wolf’: between chaos and order

Every generation seeks to define its own reality. And while older generations might find this fact uncomfortable, it's a necessary part of growth.

Change is part of that growth, and this is especially true in the arts where a blending of tradition and new ideas is what provides the energy for … what? Imagination? Inspiration?

Whatever. From the Sturm und Drang writers to the Impressionist painters, the French New Wave critics to those first rock 'n' rollers, youth has forged its own, often unique path. And that's the idea behind the documentary "Meow Wolf: Origin Story."

Set to screen at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium, "Meow Wolf - Origin Story" tells the story of a band of artists living and working in Santa Fe, N.M. Tired of bucking the established art world, they go rogue and create their own space — a space that attracts the support, and sponsorship, of the writer George R.R. Martin.

As IndieWire film critic Kate Erbland explains, though, the group's trek — which was born out of a balancing act between "chaos and order" —isn't a smooth one.

"The group’s brand of wild creativity helped propel seemingly instant growth and popularity in their hometown, and what will eventually scan as relatively small-scale success casts a long shadow over everything that’s to come," Erbland wrote. "Factions — and fractures — emerge early on, but (co-directors Morgan) Capps and (Jilann) Spitzmiller keep the interest and energy up, even as the group’s cycles become repetitive."

Those kinds of cycles, Erbland contends, are never easily resolved.

"As Meow Wolf grows, first from intimate shows literally built from garbage to massive, traveling immersive experiences," she wrote, "they continue to contend with the same problems. Success cures nothing."

But, to paraphrase an older Frank Sinatra, at least they did it their way. And still do.

AMC to screen Bollywood sci-fi thriller ‘2.0’

It used to be that all a movie theater had to do was show a movie with big-name stars — preferably some sort of action movie with big-name stars — and the audiences would show up.

Oh, and make sure the popcorn had lots of butter on it.

Those days clearly have changed. Now we have reclining seats, Dolby sound, IMAX screens and other inducements, all in service to a variety of films, including those featuring action-oriented plots and big-name stars. And the concession stands act as virtual fast-food joints.

As to how varied the film selections are, just look at one film that is opening — along with the horror feature that I've already announced — on Friday at AMC River Park Square. It's a Bollywood production titled "2.0" and will be offered in three different languages (Hindi, Telugu and Tamil) with, of course, subtitles in English.

"2.0," which is said to be a sequel of the 2010 release "Enthiran," was directed by the Indian director and producer Shankar. It stars Bollywood players Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar and is said (by the Times of India) to be the costliest Indian film ever made.

The CGI-heavy film is part of AMC's efforts to appeal to an international audience, with programs such as AMC Independent and International Films such as Asian-Pacific and Indian Cinema (of which "2.0" and other recent openings at AMC River Park Square are examples).

Seeing a movie and broadening your horizons. What more could you ask for — except, maybe, for more butter on that popcorn.

Lantern documentary is a profile of courage

And at the Magic Lantern? Friday the theater will open two new films, one a premiere and the other a second-run Spokane showing:

"On Her Shoulders": This documentary, told both in English and Arabic, tells the story of 23-year-old Nadia Murad, a genocide and rape survivor who escaped the clutches of ISIS and has become a tireless, if at times exhausted, representative of her people.

"Beautiful Boy": Timothée Chalamet ("Call Me by Your Name") stars as the title character, a young man struggling with drug addiction. Also starring Steve Carell, Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan, this  story — based on not one but two memoirs — is a Lantern pickup.

Here are some critical comments regarding "On Her Shoulders":

Vanessa H. Larson, Washington Post: " 'On Her Shoulders' is a moving, sensitive portrayal of a woman - and a people's - perseverance."

Nell Minow, RogerEbert.com: "We see this movie to learn who the young Nobel Peace Prize winner is, but in the end, it is about her challenging us to learn who we are."

Leah Pickett, Chicago Reader: "Director Alexandria Bombach avoids the details of Murad's brutal captivity, showing instead the intense pressure and responsibility the 23-year-old feels as a spokesperson for her people."

Again, I'll update when the other area theaters finalize their listings.