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

‘The Sisters Brothers’: Not your typical Western

One of the more interesting Westerns to play Spokane in a while is Jacques Adiard's film "The Sisters Brothers." Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

If you grew up on John Ford Westerns, Jacques Audiard’s new film “The Sisters Brothers” may feel a bit strange. Of course, anyone who is old enough to have seen any of Ford’s films debut in theaters is likely to think this whole contemporary world is strange, so …

And, look, it’s not as if I’m talking about quality here. Audiard, the French-born director who gave us the superb 2009 French-immigrant mob study “A Prophet,” knows how to make a movie. His adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel is well-crafted, from its ability to make Romanian and Spanish countrysides look like 1851 Oregon to the horrifically beautiful sequences featuring shootouts in the dark.

It’s the storyline, taken apparently from DeWitt’s novel, that is different. Though titled “The Sisters Brothers,” said brothers Charlies Sisters (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (played by John C. Reilly) are only half the story. Or maybe three-fifths of it, anyway. The other part involves the characters of John Morris (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and Herman Warm (played by Riz Ahmed).

Charlie and Eli are hired killers who work for a mysterious land baron out of Oregon City known only as The Commodore. They run down The Commodore’s enemies, usually killing them, and not always in the most efficient manner – unless you consider a pile of bodies, burned barns and incinerated horses a sign of efficiency.

Morris and Warm, the other parts of the equation, are being hunted by the Sisters’ Brothers – and, yes, the unlikely contrast of those two words set next to one another plays into the film’s overall tone, which melds humor with moments of unbridled brutality.

Warm is a scientist who has devised a formula for finding gold (to use a Hitchcockian term, this is the McGuffin). Morris is a private investigator who has been hired, also by The Commodore, to find Warm and hold him until Charlie and Eli catch up to them. But then Morris, a man with a conscience, is talked by Warm into partnering up with him – and so they go on the run, with Charlie and Eli on their tail.

That’s pretty much the whole plot of Audiard’s film, and it leads to a series of sequences that feel less like the resolution of a complete narrative arc than just the end of one plotline and the beginning of something new. Which is to say that the whole of “The Sisters Brothers” feels like a movie in search of a point.

Again, though, this isn’t necessarily a lacking of quality. It’s just a different kind of moviegoing experience. Audiard – and maybe novelist deWitt – are using the tropes of the traditional Western and adjusting it to contemporary tastes. So the film’s characters – well played by all its principals, but especially Phoenix and Reilly – express humor, frustration, the occasional venting of rage and, at times, a longing for something better in ways that would not seem strange in, say, a Quentin Tarantino script.

So, at that junction where John Wayne meets Jules Winnfield? That’s where you’re likely to stumble over the Sisters Brothers.

Get ‘Spirited Away’ beginning on Sunday

Of all the Studio Ghibli films, Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning 2001 animated study "Spirited Away" is my favorite.

Not only does the film tell a great story (a young girl must brave a mysterious world to save her parents) but Miyazaki's trademark animation has never been surpassed. Not by anyone.

And here's the good news. "Spirited Away" will screen three times over the coming week in this part of the Inland Northwest. Dubbed version of the film will show Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at the Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and at Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

The times: Sunday's dubbed version will show at 12:55 p.m., Monday's original language (subtitled) version will show at 7, and Tuesday's dubbed version will screen also at 7.

Don't miss this chance to see what may be the greatest animated movie ever made.

Fridays openings redux: Youth will be served

Time for a movie-release update. Aside from what's already been announced, here are some other of Friday's movie openings:

"Mid90s": Actor Jonah Hill wrote and directed this look at the youth culture of 1990s Los Angeles. Skateboards galore.

"Silencio": A stone from space has the power to turn back time, and some people will kill to achieve that power. Sounds like a Cher song.

"London Fields": Amber Heard plays a psychic who has seen that one of three men she is involved with … is going to murder her. Good time for a space stone.

Look for a few re-releases, too, among them "Hocus Pocus" (celebrating its 25th anniversary), "Hell Fest" and "Fahrenheit 11/9." 

That's the lot so far. So now go, see a movie. And enjoy.

Expect to be inspired Wednesday at Auntie’s Bookstore

Above: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy (front row, third and fourth from left, respectively) meet with President Lyndon Johnson, other members of his cabinet and other civil rights leaders on June 22, 1963, at the White House. Photo by from the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

Claire Rudolph Murphy is a familiar name among area writers, especially to those who read fiction and nonfiction aimed primarily at young-adult readers.

Murphy's latest book fits precisely in the nonfiction category: "Martin and Bobby: A Journey Toward Justice" (Chicago Review Press, $17.95). The title refers, of course, to the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the late U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Murphy will give a preview of her book beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Auntie's Bookstore. She will be accompanied by a panel of students from local high schools and universities, all of whom will discuss the ideas regarding leadership that Murphy's book addresses.

Here's what Kirkus Reviews has to say about Murphy's book: "This book brings to life the high stakes involved in principled leadership and highlights the fact that effective leaders do not act in a vacuum but take on challenges because they are passionate about their causes."

As Murphy told Stephanie Hammett of The Spokesman-Review, "Both men evolved in their understanding, they evolved in their commitment, and they made mistakes. They made a huge impact and those words will live on. Words matter and words can inspire.”

Expect to hear a few of those inspiring words Wednesday night at Auntie's.

Have ‘Tea With the Dames’ at the Magic Lantern

The Magic Lantern, Spokane's traditional screener of art movies, has announced its coming lineup. Opening on Friday are:

"Tea With the Dames": The "Dames" in question — Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins — discuss their long and distinguished careers in this documentary directed by Roger Michell ("Notting Hill").

"Colette": Though having opened last week at AMC's River Park Square, this second-run screening should still attract a crowd that prefers to see such historical dramas played on on the Lantern's screen. Keira Knightley stars as the French writer, whose early works were credited to her husband (evilly played by Dominic West).

Changes to the overall schedule are still coming. So stay tuned.

Friday’s openings: Two faces of modern war

Coming off a big week of releases, the openings for Friday seem a bit sparse with just three films listed on the national-release schedule:

"Hunter Killer": Gerard Butler stars as the captain of a U.S. submarine that is ordered to help save … the Russian president from a rogue general who has taken him hostage? I … can't … even …

"Indivisible": Remember that word from the Pledge of Allegiance? It's applied here to an American family on the verge of being torn apart by the never-ending war.

"Johnny English Strikes Again": Rowan Atkinson strikes again as the worst British secret agent since … well, ever. Think Inspector Clouseau without the cute accent.

As always, I'll update when the area theaters finalize their bookings.

‘First Man’ explores the inner life of a public hero

Though it wasn't the week's top film in terms of how much money it made, "First Man" is bound to be remembered fairly well in February when the 2018 Oscar nominations are announced. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Everyone should be familiar with the name Neil Armstrong.

After all, in July 1969 Armstrong became the first human to step onto the surface of the moon. He did so as commander of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, and his achievement – which was broadcast across the Earth – was witnessed by millions.

With the likes of news anchor Walter Cronkite describing the scene, those viewers watched as Armstrong manually flew the lunar module in an effort to avoid rocks as big as cars and to find a safe landing spot. Then, a few hours later, they heard his famous garbled pronouncement: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It was a thrilling moment, one that director Damien Chazelle captures in “First Man,” his latest film since his celebrated 2016 musical “La La Land.” But Chazelle’s newest film strives to do more than merely re-create that famous event. It attempts to delve into the life of a man whom few knew intimately.

Armstrong’s pre-NASA credentials were clearly impressive. Years before, he had earned a degree in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University. He’d served as a Navy fighter pilot during the Korean War, flying 78 missions. Following the war, he’d worked as a test pilot, evaluating some 200 different aircraft including the supersonic X-15, in which he climbed to a height of 207,000 feet – or just over 39 miles.

The next time he would fly that high would be during the Gemini 8 mission, the first of his two trips into space. On his second trip, three years later, he took his first historic step onto the moon’s surface.

Though he documents much of Armstrong’s past, Chazelle has another, bigger intent: He wants us to know the man behind the mission. In doing so, “First Man” attempts to differentiate itself from the other two, arguably best known, astronaut movies: Philip Kaufman’s 1983 “The Right Stuff” and Ron Howard’s 1995 “Apollo 13,” both of which were more male-centric andmission-oriented.

Working from a screenplay by Josh Singer, who wrote scripts both for last year’s “The Post” and for 2015’s Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” Chazelle focuses on the inner Armstrong – the one who is no-nonsense in public interviews (declaring the one thing he would take to the moon is “more fuel”), terse with his family (he has to be forced by his wife Janet, played well by Claire Foy, to talk to his two sons before the moon mission) and determinedly workaholic, partly as a way to avoid the grief over the death of his daughter and a few close friends.

Capturing anyone’s inner battle on film can be a difficult task, and to do so Chazelle takes a few unfortunate shortcuts – inventing a sequence involving a child’s medical bracelet, for one. Also, Ryan Gosling – Chazelle’s “La La Land” lead whom he cast as Armstrong – isn’t always adept at portraying a complex inner struggle.

Even so, much of “First Man” works splendidly, giving a sense of authenticity, not to mention uncertainty and excitement, to a story that feels as old as the moon itself.

Catch Goldfarb’s tome about beavers at Auntie’s

Beavers have a long and storied history in North America. At one time, they were targets of mountain men intent of taking advantage of European fashion, beaver pelts proving the perfect material for making a certain kind of top hat.

Beaver dams traditionally have been ecologically beneficial, too, particularly to the life forms that flourished in the resulting pools.

The whole range of what beavers provide, not to mention their intrinsic value beyond their pelts, can be found in "Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter" (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, $24.95 hardback), a nonfiction book written by Ben Goldfarb. Described on his own website as "an independent environmental journalist, editor, and fiction writer," Goldfarb writes on any number of science and wildlife conservation issues.

Here's one review of Goldfarb's book "Eager" by the Washington Post: "Goldfarb has built a masterpiece of a treatise on the natural world, how that world stands now and how it could be in the future if we protect beaver populations. He gives us abundant reasons to respect environment-restoring beavers and their behaviors, for their own good and for ours."

Goldfarb will read from his book, and then sign copies, at 7 p.m. Saturday at Auntie's Bookstore.

And why not? Eager-beaver readers are always welcome at Auntie's.

Friday’s openings redux: A bit of Buster Keaton

OK, in addition to the films that I've already mentioned, the Magic Lantern is opening a second film. And it's a documentary that movie fans might really enjoy:

"The Great Buster: A Celebration": Peter Bogdanovich tells the story of one of early cinema's great comic filmmakers, Buster Keaton. Including interviews with Mel Brooks, Richard Lewis, Bill Hader and … incredibly, Werner Herzog.

Here are some critical comments: 

Andrea Gronvall, Chicago Reader: "Peter Bogdanovich brings his formidable knowledge of movies to bear in this incisive portrait of Buster Keaton."

Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter: "A wonderful appreciation of a great American comic and filmmaker."

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: "Hard-core Keatonites will be familiar with much of the material, although the clips of his later work in television and commercials are an uncommon delight."

That's the lot. Now go, see a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Cowboys and Halloween creeps

Update: Along with the movies listed below, the following also are scheduled to open in area theaters:

"The Old Man & the Gun": Robert Redford plays an elderly bank robber. Sundance didn't die in Bolivia?

"The Oath": When families gather for Thanksgiving, political discussions often become heated — especially for Mason (Billy Magnussen). Everyone has an annoying in-law.

Posted earlier:

At least two main releases are due out on Friday, according to the national movie-release schedule:

"Halloween": It's that time of trick or treating again, and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is waiting for her longtime nemesis, Michael Myers, to return … so she can kill him once and for all. Yeah, fat chance.

"The Hate U Give": A young woman witnesses the death of her friend and becomes a public symbol of resistance.

And at the Magic Lantern?

"The Sisters Brothers": Jacques Audiard ("Rust and Bone," "A Prophet") cowrote and directed this film about two brothers (Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly) in 1850s Oregon who work as trained assassins.

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

Catch ‘Closing It Up’ before it, uh, closes

Above: L-R, playwright/actress Molly Allen, Mary Starkey, Andrew Biviano

Last week I posted something about an art show, which I rarely do. Now, I'm going to post something about local theater, which I do even less often.

Not that I have anything against live theater. It's just that my motto is, so many movies, so little time.

But my wife and I made an exception on Friday night when we went to see a production — a "world premiere" — of "Closing It Up" at Stage Left Theater. Written by Molly Allen (who was also a principal cast member) and directed by Heather McHenry Kroetch, the play is a family comedy-drama about three siblings coming to grips with the recent death of their parents.

Yes, it is a comedy-drama. Turns out the two sisters and brother (played, by Allen, Mary Starkey and Andrew Biviano) have ambilvalent feelings about their parents. And as the play progresses (it takes place on the day of the parents' funeral and the morning after), those feelings grow darker. Yet still remain touching — and funny.

Special mention should go to Mark Pleasant, who has a show-stopping scene with Starkey (imagine dancing to the music of ABBA), and to Mary Jo Rudolph, whose single scene provides one of the production's funniest moments.

As Carolyn Lamberson wrote in The Spokesman-Review, Allen wrote "Closing It Up" in about three months, though it took some 18 months to get it ready for production. It’s Allen's third produced full-length play, and her first as Stage Left’s resident playwright.

If you haven't been to Stage Left, the space is intimate, meaning there aren't a lot of seats. Yet because they are raked, everyone has a decent view of the stage (our seats were in the next-to-last row and yet we could see just fine).

"Closing It Up" plays nightly at 7:30 through Sunday, with a special added 2 p.m. performance on Saturday. Click here to inquire about tickets and other general information.

And if you go, prepare to laugh. 

‘Blaze’ remembers a bright, doomed talent

The movie "Blaze" is playing at the Magic Lantern. Here is my review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio.

We’ve seen the story before.

A country boy discovers that he can weave a few words together in song. He ends up liking it so much it takes over his life. No time for jobs or mortgages or families. It’s all he can do to find enough time during the day to pen songs and practice his guitar pickin’, and at night to find a suitable place, in front of a suitable audience, in which to practice his art.

Oh, he can make a few bucks. Barely. And he can make time for women, especially if they serve as his muse. But maybe even important is drink. And drugs. Because, as it turns out, the very energy that fuels his music is the same energy that eats at his soul. And all of it – the women, the music and the drugs – is what he uses to ward off the dark emotions that threaten, at times, to overwhelm him.

As ultimately, despite everything, they will do.

Ethan Hawke seems to be obsessed with such stories. And with the men who inhabit them. He starred as the late jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Robert Budreau’s 2015 biopic “Born to Be Blue.” And now he has told the story of the late country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley in a film he both wrote and directed and titled simply “Blaze.”

Born in in 1949 as Michael Fuller, the man who would become known as Blaze Foley was a musician’s musician – meaning that he was well known and appreciated by other performers both for the songs he wrote, which were recorded by the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda Williams, and for the uniqueness of his character. One of Foley’s good-natured trademarks, along with his persistent embrace of poverty, was that he wore duct tape on his boots to lampoon the glitz of pop country stars (earning him the sometimes nickname of "Duct Tape Messiah").

But his style, either because of his similarity to more well-known singers such as John Prine or because of his tendency to perform drunk – and get in fights both with audience members and bar owners – had far less appeal among the general public.

And, then, of course he died relatively young – at age 39 – which ended his playing career but might have been the best for his music. Because his friends kept it alive. And now Hawke, adapting a memoir written by Foley’s former muse Sybil Rosen, has made “Blaze” the movie.

Ben Dickey plays Foley, and his performance is revelatory. If the heavyset Dickey doesn’t resemble the slender Foley exactly, he captures what he might have been like, both in spirit and in his ability to carry a song. And Dickey is well supported by a cast that includes Alia Shawkat as Rosen, Josh Hamilton as the fictional character Zee and Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt, who’s as capable at telling a tall tale as he and Foley are at playing their music.

So, yes, Ethan Hawke seems to be obsessed with such lost souls. But truth be told, in our own dark emotional corners, aren’t we all?

Catch the new ‘Doctor’ on the big screen (again)

So many things to see, so little time. What we all need in this busy era is a TARDIS.

I like to use that term, because it allows me to inform people that it is an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. And that it is the name of the machine-with-a-soul that the Time Lord Doctor Who uses to travel through both time and space.

Or should that be Doctor Whos? Because there have been 13 of them now. And, yes, they are one and the same, having "regenerated" over the years since the original show premiered on the BBC in 1963. But they have been played by 13 different actors.

The 13th, of course, is a twist on tradition, which feels refreshing. This new season of the show, which premiered on Sunday on BBC America, features the first woman Doctor: Jodie Whittaker.

You can experience that premiere on the big screen tonight (the second and final night of the showings, sorry for the late news) at 7 p.m. at two area Regal Cinemas theaters: Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

It's not often you get to see the Doctor on the big screen. It may not happen again.

Unless you're lucky enough to hitch a ride in a TARDIS.

Friday’s openings redux: Famine and a free climb

It'll be a big week for movies. Other than those already announced, here is the final lineup:

"Black '47": An Irish man serving with the British army leaves his post to return home during the Great Irish Famine of 1845-49.

"Colette": Keira Knightley plays the French writer who, at the beginning of her career, wrote books under her husband's name. Guess who wasn't happy when she wanted the credit for herself?

"Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer": A faith-based look at the trial of a Philadelphia abortion doctor.

"Free Solo": A documentary look at Alex Honnold's untethered solo climb of Yosemite's 3,000-foot peak El Capitan.

And at AMC River Park Square, a re-release of 2015's "Cinderella," while the Magic Lantern will open second-run showings of "BlackkKlansman" and "The Wife."

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

Catch the epitome of ‘60s cool: McQueen in ‘Bullitt’

Today's your last chance to see Steve McQueen on the big screen in one of his most iconic performances, in Peter Yates' 1968 film "Bullitt."

McQueen plays a San Francisco police detective who is investigating the death of a man held under police protection. Turns out the murdered man is linked to the prosecution of a mobster and was being used for political ends by an ambitious Congressman (Robert Vaughn).

Typical of its era, "Bullitt" is a street-gritty story that boasts one of the most impressive car chases in cinema history. But the real draw is McQueen himself, the epitome of 1960s-era movie cool.

"Bullitt" is playing at 2 and 7 p.m. at two Regal Cinemas locations: Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.