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

Women get their own in ‘The Dressmaker’

As the father of a young woman — a woman has now has her own children — I am particularly interested in stories that involve women. Particularly stories involving the roles that women have played in history. This, then, is one reason why I am so accepting — despite its obvious flaws — of "The Dressmaker," an Australian film that is playing at AMC River Park Square.

What follows is my review of "The Dressmaker," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I often think about the career of Clint Eastwood. In some respects, the man has been making the same film since he first attracted the attention of Sergio Leone. In Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, as he would do later for crime specialist Don Siegel and other filmmakers – not to mention the filmmaker he himself would become – Eastwood typically starred as a man, cast in some sort of situation where he would seek justice, or more often simple revenge, with a gun.

I thought of Eastwood in particular when I watched the Australian film “The Dressmaker,” which was directed by the long-missed Jocelyn Moorhouse and stars Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Kerry Fox, Hugo Weaving and a number of other cast members who are far better known Down Under than in the U.S.

The winner of numerous Australian movie awards, “The Dressmaker” tells the story of Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (played by Winslet), a woman of obvious high fashion, who returns to her Outback hometown late one night with a simple observation: “I’m back, you …” well, the adjective she uses is not one that I’m allowed to repeat on Public Radio (or even on the website of a family newspaper). You get the idea.

Seems Tilly has returned to clear up something. Some years before, she had been accused of murder – even though she was only 10 years old at the time. But Tilly can’t remember the specifics, so she has come home both to find out the truth and to care for her mother (played by the irrepressible Davis), who has – and this is an understatement – chosen to let herself go.

The town isn’t too keen on any of this, secrets and lies – not to mention resentment and prejudice – being what binds most of its residents into a tight klatch. Yet Tilly intrigues them, especially when she hauls out her sewing machine and demonstrates a talent both for creating fashion and converting the town’s ugly ducklings into something akin to Outback swans.

So far, so good. Yet Moorhouse’s film, her first since 1997’s “A Thousand Acres,” doesn’t go necessarily where expected. Based on a novel by Rosalie Ham, “The Dressmaker” proceeds down a number of subsequent plot paths – some of which are farcically comical, one of which involves a shocking death – rejecting each before transforming into a woman’s version of the Eastwood revenge film “High Plains Drifter.” This blend of storylines, much less emotional turbulence, doesn’t always work.

Yet the film has much to recommend it. The opening is brilliant, the cinematography is pristine, the acting – especially by Davis and Winslet – is good across the board, even if the great Weaving seems mostly to be reviving the fey manner he adopted for the 1994 drag-queen film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

Maybe most important, though, “The Dressmaker” is a woman’s story. For as long as cinema has been around, we’ve been inundated with tales of men – such as Eastwood – exacting revenge. It’s high time for movies to feature women taking names and kicking some, well …

Again, you get the point.

‘Birth of a Nation’ raises old argument

Pretty much anywhere you look you can find stories about the controversy surrounding Nate Parker, the writer-director of the soon-to-be-released film "The Birth of a Nation." And as with all art, critics are finding it difficult to separate the strength of the art from the foibles of the artist.

Still, the movie did attract an 81 percent rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, while it was a it less favored (70 percent) on Metacritic.

Following are some of the comments:

Brian Truitt, USA Today: "Parker creates a fascinating portrait of Nat Turner as neither hero nor villain. In the end, he’s portrayed as a man faced with tough decisions."

Stephanie Zacharek, Time Magazine: " 'The Birth of a Nation' isn't a great movie — it's hardly even a good one. But it's bluntly effective, less a monumental piece of filmmaking than an open door."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "The movie, uneven as it is, has terrific momentum and passages of concentrated visual beauty. The acting is strong even when the script wanders into thickets of rhetoric and mystification."

The movie opens tomorrow in Spokane. The philosophy regarding the separation of artist and artistry is yours to contemplate.

Ballet fans: Catch the Bolshoi on Oct. 16

Just because you're interested in one art doesn't require you to be interested in all others. Here's an analogy: Just because I've grown to like grilled asparagus, it doesn't mean I'm ever going to like beets.

Seriously, the very thought of eating beets makes me want to … well, you get the point.

So just because you may like going to the movies, reading a good book, catching the occasional stage play or musical concert, doesn't mean that you have to like, say, modern art, Broadway-type musicals — or ballet.

Especially ballet. Watching men and women dressed in tights and tutus prance around a stage to the sound of piccolos and bassoons simply doesn't appeal to everyone.

And yet … if you do ever catch ballet at its best — watching Mikhail Baryshnikov leap, for example, or Natalia Osipova perform in "Giselle" — you're likely to feel some sort of tug at what could be termed appreciation, if not outright admiration.

So, yeah, even the plebeians among us can see the value in toe-dancing. Which is why it's a good thing that Fathom Events will be presenting a special live screening of Russia's Bolshoi Ballet performing the Shostakovich ballet "The Golden Age," with choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, on movies screens nationwide on Oct. 16.

The performance will be screen in Spokane at Regal's Northtown Mall Cinemas.

You might want to consider attending. You never know. Ballet just might speak to you — even if beets never, ever will.

Friday’s openings redux: The hill has ayes

So, other than the three major openings identified below, Spokane will be getting an additional movie on Friday. The amended addition is as follows:

"Apparition Hill": Seven strangers, ranging from a woman with cancer to an English atheist, travel to Bosnia-Herzegovinia to see so-called apparitions of The Virgin Mary. File this one under "documentary," not the latest episode of "South Park."

So the schedule is set. Go. See a movie. And enjoy.

Author Terrell shares stories of war tonight

Some of the world's best literature has involved stories of war. From "The Iliad" to "War and Peace," "The Killer Angels" to "The Things They Carried," writers have described the horrors of war in both imagined and remembered ways.

Whitney Terrell offers a combination of both. While serving as an embedded reporter for such publications as the Washington Post, Slate and National Public Radio, Terrell twice witnessed U.S. military action in Iraq. His reporting led to his writing "The Good Lieutenant: A Novel."

Here's what the Publisher's Weekly reviewer had to say about "The Good Lieutenant": "(Terrell) critiques the follies of the Iraq War and the adamantine nature of the military mind-set. Terrell ('The King of Kings County') shows us how soldiers think and address one another with a stinging combination of military argot and pop culture references. The book’s last line echoes the title of one of the first novels about modern warfare, Thomas Boyd’s 'Through the Wheat' (1923), to which this novel is an entirely worthy successor."

Terrell, who now teaches at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, will read from his book at 7 tonight at Spark Central, located in Kendall Yards at 1214 W. Summit Parkway (across from Spa Paradiso). The event is part of Gonzaga University's 2016-2017 Visiting Writers Series, and is sponsored by the Gonzaga Center for Public Humanities. Terrell will be joined by a panel of student veterans.

The event is free and open to the public.

Friday’s openings: Trains and the plains of history

Movies mentioned on the national release schedule usually affect Spokane, but not always. It sometimes takes a week or two for our fair city to catch up. Sometimes our local theaters simply never do.

Anyway, the national releases scheduled for Friday so far are:

"The Birth of a Nation": Named after D.W. Griffith's famous 1915 celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, but actually a retelling of the story behind William Styron's controversial novel "The Confessions of Nat Turner," this look at U.S. history may raise a few eyebrows — if not a few voices. The man who directed it, Nate Parker, is already embroiled in his own controversy.

"The Girl on the Train": Based on the novel by British author Paula Hawkins, this mystery tells the story of a divorced woman (Emily Blunt) who throws herself into a missing-persons investigation that may — or may not — involve her directly. Notice I avoided writing "troubled" divorced woman, which at least is the trailer's implication.

"Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life": A sixth-grade boy worries about heading into the next school year. Based on the novel by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, which is another sign that James Patterson is the co-author of virtually everything.

Note: As for the Magic Lantern, recent stories in The Spokesman-Review and The Inlander have run down the situation. Now that the lease with Joe Davis has run out, the owner of the Saranac Building will decide what to do with the space. Whatever the future holds, it's clear that, for the moment, the theater will not be running a regular program of movies. Thank you Joe and especially you, manager Jonathan Abramson, for your years of service.

Fuqua’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ is less than

It's not often anymore that we get to see Westerns on the big screen, whether they're classics or new releases. So it's understandable that some Western fans would get excited about Antoine Fuqua's "The Magnificent Seven." Following is my review of that film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio: 

Last August, the British publication The Telegraph published a story under the headline “25 films set for reboot or remake.” Among the films listed were “An American Werewolf in London,” “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”

The article mentioned nothing about Antoine Fuqua’s remake of the 1960 film “The Magnificent Seven.” It may have been because Fuqua’s film, by then, was already in the can. Or it may have been because the 1960 film – directed by American filmmaker John Sturges – was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film “Seven Samurai.”

Whatever the reason, the fact that Fuqua is not the only one working from past material makes it clear that Hollywood is less interested in pursuing fresh material than in retreading what has worked in the past. No wonder so many of the best filmmakers – David Fincher, for example, and Steven Zaillian – are stepping away from the big screen, if only temporarily, and working on projects for company’s such as HBO and Netflix.

Still, this review is not about the ongoing failures of Hollywood. It’s about Fuqua’s take on a classic movie story. Though, to be honest, the two may be much the same thing.

Fuqua’s film centers on a gunman, a “sworn” law officer named Chisolm (played by Denzel Washington). After hunting down a wanted man, Chisolm is asked to help free a mining town from the clutches of a despicable bad man named Barholomew Bogue (played by Peter Sarsgaard). To do so, he recruits a ragged band of six men, ranging from a quip-savvy cynic (Chris Pratt) and a one-time dead shot (Ethan Hawke) to a couple of guys whose native language isn’t even English (Mexico’s Manual Garcia-Rulfo and South Korea’s Byung-hun Lee).

The odds are heavily against them, of course, but the seven have justice on their side. Or, as is made all too clear, the righteousness of revenge. Either, as Chisolm says, works.

Fuqua, who is best known for his 2001 film “Training Day” – the film that won Washington his Best Actor Oscar – deserves credit for pulling together a technically proficient production. And, too, reflecting the times in which we live, Fuqua can be lauded for opting to cast his film with a sense of diversity – including a woman character no less, played by Haley Bennett – that would never have occurred either to Kurosawa or Sturges.

But … even though Fuqua clearly is making his own kind of movie, the question persists: How does it compare to the others? And the answer here is – even given its qualities – Fuqua’s movie is the lesser version.

It lacks the grandeur of Kurosawa’s three-hour plus effort. It lacks the old-school sense of honor that Sturges emphasized. Most of all, though, Fuqua’s movie lacks the character development that gives us actual reasons to care about each of the seven individual characters – and to mourn their obligatory passing.

In the end, Fuqua has made less a magnificent seven than, at best, a slightly better than average one.

Regional history on tap tonight at Auntie’s

Above: A dramatized (and most likely inaccurate) view of the Battle of Four Lakes. 

When I was a kid, I used to think history was like a map. Just as those static classroom charts that clearly showed where, say, the borders of the United States intersected with those of Canada and Mexico — not to mention all the states in between — I thought history was just as it was laid out in our textbooks.

That was before I learned about the notion of perspective. Napoleon Bonaparte may have put it best (if most cynically) when he supposedly said, "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon."

The shock for me was coming to the understanding that not everyone agreed on any one version of what is happening in the very present, must less the meaning of what happened in the past.

And so it is with George Wright, the U.S. Army officer who most famously led forces against a rough coalition of Inland Northwest Indian tribes (Yakima, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Palouse and others) in two engagements known, respectively, as the Battle of Four Lakes and the Battle of Spokane Plains.

Note, for example, the differences between the reports of the total number of Indians who participated in the battle (a monument claims "5,000," while historians Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown state the number was closer to 500). Or the version of the engagement as portrayed in the illustration above.

Wright, over the course of his long career, participated in many such engagements, from the Mexican-American War to the Civil War. But it was his actions following the Spokane-area conflicts that cemented his legacy. Not only did he oversee the hanging of several Indian braves, including most famously that of Qualchan, but he also ordered the killing of hundreds of horses.

 White settlers at the time cheered Wright. But as the years have passed, the soldier's harsh actions have been discussed and debated to the point where a number of people would like to see Wright's name purged from public property, such as Fort George Wright Drive.

That debate is likely to continue tonight at 7 at Auntie's Bookstore  Author Donald R. Cutler will present his book "Hang Them All": George Wright and the Plateau Indian War, 1858" (University of Oklahoma Press, 392 pages). Besides running down the events behind Wright's actions, "Hang Them All" asks a pertinent question (posed in the book's press material): "Do historically based names honor an undeserving murderer, or prompt a valuable history lesson?"

Show up for the talk and Cutler will likely offer his version of an answer.

VIFF 35: See movies in a scenic city

Above: Adam Driver stars in Jim Jarmusch's "Paterson," which will play at the 35th Vancouver International Film Festival.

Tomorrow begins one of the Northwest's best film festivals: the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Why is it one of the best? For starters, it's held in Vancouver, British Columbia, which just happens to be my favorite West Coast city (yes, even above San Francisco, Seattle or San Diego).

Second, it screens hundreds of feature, documentaries and shorts over 16 days (through Oct. 14).

Third, many of those films are screened in theaters set within walking distance of one another (easily accessible, at least, by those who have the ability to hoof it several blocks at a time).

You can get all of the information about the festival, lodgings, transportation and anything else you need by clicking here. And if you want some information about maybe some films to check out, click here.

Vancouver is a delight to visit in and of itself. Seeing movies at the 35th edition of VIFF only adds to the experience.

Below: Chan-wook Park's film "The Handmaiden" will also screen at VIFF 35.

Friday’s openings redux: Chess and dress

So, the final bookings for AMC River Park Square came through, which should complete next week's movie schedule. Friday's undated openings are as follows:

"Queen of Katwe": After opening nationally last week, this little biopic finally opens in Spokane. It's a based-in-fact film about a young Ugandan girl's success at the game of chess. Check and mate. 

"The Dressmaker": Kate Winslet stars as the title character, a woman of high style who returns to her Australian home to transform the way her neighbors dress — and exact revenge. And then they all put some shrimp on the barbie.

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

Friday’s openings: Kids, idiots and Marky Mark

Kids and crises, with a few laughs in between, make up the movie menu for the coming week. As of this morning, the scheduled movie openings are as follows:

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children": Based on the novel by Ransom Riggs, this movie follows the story of a young boy who encounters a strange school full of peculiarly skilled children — just like himself. No, it's not Hogwarts. 

"Deepwater Horizon": Mark Wahlberg (who else?) stars as one of the workers who endured the disaster that occurred during the BP Oil Disaster in the summer of 2010 — the effects of which are still devastating life along the Gulf Coast. No jokes, please.

"Masterminds": Ironic title for a movie about trio of idiots who try to rob an armored car. Starring Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudekis as the idiots plus one.

I'll update as needed. With better jokes, let's hope.

For binge-watchers, try HBO’s ‘The Night Of’

Most people I know, when they talk about viewing experiences, like to share what they've most recently binge-watched. You know, as in, "Hey, have you seen 'Stranger Things'? We watched the whole of season one this weekend! It's great!"

Actually, I have not watched "Stranger Things." That's because what with Hulu, and Netflix and Comcast On Demand and everything else that's available through my smart TV, I just have too many choices. "Stranger Things," though, is on the list.

My wife and I did make time recently to watch the HBO miniseries "The Night Of," and that's what I decided to review this week for Spokane Public Radio. Following is an edited transcript of that review:

One of the basic problems with cinema is its continued reliance on a limited notion of running time. Only a handful of films extend past two hours, the standard length of a mainstream feature.

Why? As video editor and producer Matthew Belinke wrote online, “Hollywood (is) … convinced that two hours is the point of diminishing returns. Longer than that, production costs go up, theaters can squeeze in fewer showings, and audiences start to shy away.”

Some moviegoers aren’t likely to complain, especially those whose aging bones begin to ache after even a 90-minute sit. Yet the result of this so often leads to screen adaptations of stories that beg to be done in a longer format. Take the many movie versions of the Charles Dickens novel “Great Expectations.” Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 version, for example, runs for 111 minutes – some nine minutes less than two hours.

Just so you know, the first edition of Dickens’ 1861 novel was 544 pages long. Even a master such as Cuarón can’t hope to capture all of Dickens’ magic in a mere two-hour time frame.

So it’s a good thing that television – especially cable television – has perfected what’s known as the limited miniseries. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences defines such a miniseries as a “category of limited series (composed of) two or more episodes with a total running time of at least 150 minutes. The program must tell a complete, non-recurring story, and not have an ongoing storyline or main characters in subsequent seasons.”

The Academy awarded its 2015-2016 Emmy to FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” an honor richly deserved. Equally deserving for the coming year, though, should be HBO’s eight-part production “The Night Of.”

Created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, directed by Zaillian (except for one episode, which was directed by James Marsh) and starring, with one notable exception, a cast of not overly familiar actors, “The Night Of” tells a compelling story of what happens when a young college student of Pakistani ethnicity (Riz Ahmed) makes a series of stupid decisions that ends up with his being accused of murder.

John Turturro, the afore-mentioned notable exception, plays the ambulance-chasing attorney who attaches himself to the case, at first seeing it as a chance for a big payday but slowly becoming the series’ closest version of an actual hero. Price and Zaillian fill out the rest of the cast with veteran actors such as Bill Camp and Jeannie Berlin, with foreign stars such as Peyman Moaadi (of the 2011 Iranian film “A Separation”), and they save a special role for the always-dependable Michael K. Williams (Omar on HBO’s acclaimed series “The Wire”).

Cast aside, though, what makes “The Night Of” so special is how Price and Zaillian weave contemporary issues – everything from racism to prosecutorial rush to judgment – into a coherent collection of eight one-hour chapters that works as a commentary on U.S. culture and yet serves as a satisfying, dramatic experience.

Watching it just might satisfy your own – wait for it – great expectations.

Join the Louise Penny party tonight

Above: Nathaniel Parker starred as Inspector Armand Gamache in a 2013 televised version of Louise Penny's novel "Still Life."

When I worked at The Spokesman-Review, I held a number of positions. One of my favorites was book columnist, which required me to compile the weekly author readings (mostly at Auntie's Bookstore) and to pass on other regional book news.

I had a button posted to my computer terminal that read "So many books, so little time."

I share that bit of miscellany because of what I'm going to type next: Until last fall, I had never heard of Louise Penny. Check that: Maybe I had heard of the name, its being so unique and all. But I had no knowledge of the person behind the name.

But then I listened to an audiobook edition of Penny's novel "The Nature of the Beast" and I was transformed into an instant fan. Penny, as her fans well know, is the Canadian author of the Armand Gamache "Three Pines" mystery series. And the 12th edition of that series, "A Great Reckoning," is now available.

Gamache, for you other Penny newcomers, is head of the homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec, though by the time of "The Nature of the Beast" he has retired (yet is having second thoughts).

In honor of that release, Auntie's is holding a special Louise Penny Mystery Party tonight at 7. Information for pre-registration can be found here. If nothing else, maybe you can pick up a copy of the book.

One further note: No knowledge of French is required.

See an ‘Ordinary’ Eliopoulos at Auntie’s tonight

If you look at the dictionary definition of the word "ordinary," you're likely to find the following: "of no special quality or interest; commonplace; unexceptional."

All of which lends a touch of irony to the titles of artist/cartoonist Chris Eliopoulos' "Ordinary People Change the World" series, written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Eliopoulos. After all, some of the people that Meltzer and Eliopoulos include in the series — Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller and Amelia Earhart, for example — are particularly exceptional.

As Meltzer says on his Facebook page, "Forget politicians. Real heroes still exist in this world. Build strong girls and boys with 'I am Jane Goodall' and 'I am George Washington.' "

The Goodall and Washington books are the latest in the Meltzer/Eliopoulos series and will be the focus of a children's event at 7 tonight at Auntie's Bookstore. Cartoonist Eliopoulos will be at the store in person.

It should be an extraordinary event.

Try this Mes of a Hot Wings burger recipe

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a number of sites in New Zealand. At the time I was working for Bloomberg Government, and one of my Bloomberg colleagues — a New Zealand native — told me about her food-writer sister.

Actually, at the time Delany Mes was working as a lawyer and part-time food blogger, freelance writer. That was her status when we met at an Auckland eatery for what would be a delicious lunch. Some time afterward, Mes gave up her law job and began pursuing food writing full time.

I check out her blog on occasion and am regularly surprised at the recipes she shares. In her most recent post, she talks about hamburgers. But not just any kind of burgers. Her burger is a blend of chicken hot wings and burger.

You can get her recipe by clicking here.

And go ahead and enjoy your burger, Kiwi-style.