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

Last chance to catch these Oscar winners

Now that the Motion Picture Academy has had its say, you might want to take a couple of last chances to see what 2018 films won 2019 Oscars. Several of those films are playing at the Magic Lantern Theater.

"If Beale Street Could Talk": Although Barry Jenkins' follow-up to his 2016 Oscar winner "Moonlight" should have garnered more nominations, it did snare the Best Supporting Actress award for the deserving Regina King.

"The Favourite": Nominated for 10 awards, this Yorgos Lanthimos offering won but a single Oscar — but that one was a stunner, a Best Actress honor for Olivia Colman, who was almost apologetic for taking it from the presumed, uh, favorite in this category, Glenn Close.

"Free Solo": This documentary feature detailing Alex Honnold's untethered climb of Yosemite's El Capitan was awarded the Best Documentary Feature statuette.

"Roma": Also nominated for 10 Oscars, this Alfonso Cuarón film earned three awards — Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography and Best Director (the latter two of which both went to Cuarón personally).

This is the Magic Lantern lineup through Thursday. And a particularly good lineup it is.

Friday’s openings: Horror by any other name

Two kinds of horror mark the films that open on Friday, according the the national film-release schedule. The projected openings are:

"Greta": French actress Isabelle Huppert plays an aging predator who targets Chloe Grace Moretz as her next conquest. Quelle horreur.

"Tyler Perry's A Madea Family Funeral": The title pretty much says it all, as Madea finds herself unexpectedly attending a backwoods burial. Death comes in many forms.

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

And the SpIFF 2019 awards go to …

If you attended the recently completed 2019 Spokane International Film Festival, you might have an opinion about what was the best narrative, documentary or short film that you saw.

Many who attended did, both among the regular festival attendees and among those who determined the SpIFF juried awards (note: As a member of SpIFF's board of directors, I served on the awards jury).

You can access the entire list by clicking here. But the highlights are:

Juried awards: Best Narrative Feature went to the Hungarian film "Jupiter's Moon," while Best Documentary Feature  was awarded to the Northwest-made "Enormous: The Gorge Story."

Audience awards: Best Narrative Feature went to the French-Belgian film "Promise at Dawn," while Best Documentary Feature was awarded to the U.S.-made "Time for Ilhan."

Just goes to show you, yet again, that everyone's a critic.

Soderbergh’s newest an inventive Netflix blend

When you get involved with a movie's plot, sometimes you don't notice the most obvious stuff. That was the case when I watched "High Flying Bird," the newest film by Steven Soderbergh. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I was surprised to learn that the Netflix original film “High Flying Bird,” was shot on an iPhone. The film had been recommended to me by my Movies 101 partner Nathan Weinbender mainly because it was directed by Steven Soderbergh – one of the most inventive filmmakers working today.

I was also interested in the movie’s theme, which involves the world of professional basketball – specifically, the National Basketball Association – and the money machinations that engage the athletes, their representatives, the team owners and the league office.

But when I mentioned to friends that I had seen “High Flying Bird,” one of them said, “Isn’t that the movie that was shot on an iPhone.” And I shrugged, before almost immediately thinking, “Well, that’s hardly a shock.”

This is, after all, Soderbergh.

Since achieving his first success with his 1989 feature “sex, lies & videotape,” the independent-minded Soderbergh has managed to navigate the extremes of contemporary cinema, directing both big-budget projects such as “Erin Brockovich” and the “Ocean’s” trilogy, and smaller, alternative projects such as “Schizopolis” and “Full Frontal.”

In between, and despite his ongoing struggle with the blockbuster-movie industry, he managed to snare a Best Director Oscar for his 2000 film “Traffic.”

Soderbergh also is famous for experimenting with new technology, whether that involved being an early adapter of digital technology, or – as have directors such as Sean Baker and Jay Alvarez – shooting entire features on the same kind of implement that the rest of use to text, explore social media, play games and – on occasion – even make phone calls.

Which brings us to “High Flying Bird,” a movie that is experimental beyond Soderbergh’s choice of filming tool. Yes, it is a project that speaks mostly to the sports-minded, its protagonists being a sports representative named Ray (played by André Holland), his chief client, rookie star-in-the-making Erick (played by Melvin Gregg) and Ray’s on-again/off-again assistant Sam (played by Zazie Beetz).

Based on a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McRaney, who shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar with Barry Jenkins for 2016’s “Moonlight,” “High Flying Bird” opens with Ray and Erick facing a problem: Because of a contract dispute between the player’s union and the league, the players have been locked out – delaying Erick’s initial, and much-needed, payday.

And, actually, Ray needs the money, too, because his credit cards have all been mysteriously canceled.

But things get only more interesting from there. Amid all the talk of contracts and the haggling between the league and the union, not to mention Ray and his supervisor (played by Zachary Quinto), Ray ultimately comes up with a plan that is as forward-thinking as it is subversive to those who control the finances. The only problem: Can he get all the aspects of his plan to work at once?

Soderbergh, though, doesn’t just tell a fictional story. He periodically cuts to interviews with real-life NBA first-round draft picks whose personal experiences add a documentary touch to screenwriter McRaney’s script.

Given everything else, Soderbergh’s use of an iPhone may be the least surprising aspect of his whole movie.

Coming soon: ‘Gone With the Wind’ anniversary

Some movies age well. Others, not so much. And in a world that seems to be changing daily, if not hourly, reactions to the 1939 epic "Gone With the Wind" have changed precipitously.

At least in some minds. 

In its review of the film's premiere (Dec. 19, 1939), New York Times reviewer Frank S. Nugent had this reaction: "It is pure narrative, as the novel was, rather than great drama, as the novel was not. By that we would imply you will leave it, not with the feeling you have undergone a profound emotional experience, but with the warm and grateful remembrance of an interesting story beautifully told."

The reviewer went on to add, "Is it the greatest motion picture ever made? Probably not, although it is the greatest motion mural we have seen and the most ambitious film-making venture in Hollywood's spectacular history."

Compare that to this 2015 review by New York Post reviewer Lou Lumenick: "The more subtle racism of 'Gone with the Wind' is in some ways more insidious, going to great lengths to enshrine the myth that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery — an institution the film unabashedly romanticizes."

Quite a difference, though not one that everyone agrees with. And now, on the film's 80th anniversary, you'll another chance — indeed, several chances — to see the film and judge for yourself.

Beginning Feb. 28 at 1 and 6 p.m., the film will play at two area Regal Cinemas theaters: Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium. It will play again at 1 and 6 on Sunday, March 3; at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 17; and at 6 p.m. Monday, March 18.

"Gone With the Wind" has a near four-hour running time. The screenings will feature a short — and it's probably safe to say much needed — intermission break.

Catch ‘My Fair Lady’ twice on Wednesday

If you missed Sunday's retrospective screening of "My Fair Lady," don't worry. The movie will screen twice more on Wednesday.

The 1964 film, which stars Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, will screen at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. at two Regal Cinemas locations: Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

Directed by George Cukor, and adapted from the 1913 stage play "Pygmalion" by George Bernard Shaw, "My Fair Lady" is based on the 1956 Broadway musical created by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, the film won eight, including Best Actor (Harrison), Best Director (Cukor) and Best Picture.

Interestingly enough, Hepburn — who took over the lead role of Eliza Doolittle from Julie Andrews — was not nominated as Best Actress. (Hepburn didn't even sing; her songs, instead, were dubbed by Marni Nixon.) Andrews, though, was nominated for "Mary Poppins" — and won.

As the late Roger Ebert wrote in 2006, " 'My Fair Lady' is the best and most unlikely of musicals, during which I cannot decide if I am happier when the characters are talking or when they are singing. The songs are literate and beloved; some romantic, some comic, some nonsense, some surprisingly philosophical, every single one wonderful."

And as Harrison sang-spoke, "The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plains …"

The week’s openings: Two types of fantasy

Fantasies of two different types are likely to highlight the weekend's movie openings. According to the national release schedule, here's what to expect:

"How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World": This third film in the series sees our hero, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), and his Night Fury partner Toothless seeking out a secret dragon lair before the villains pounce. Which way will the scales of justice fall?

"Fighting With My Family": Dwayne Johnson plays a former professional wrestler who makes a living working a small-city circuit, while his children dream of the big time. Does father really know best?

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

Lantern set to screen social justice film fest

I'll post more about this later, but right now I want to give notice to an upcoming film festival. It's the three-day Best of the Fest Social Justice Film Festival, which will be held March 1-3 at the Magic Lantern Theatre.

The festival, which is sponsored by a consortium of agencies, comprises 12 films. All were culled from the 2018 “Hope & Democracy” Social Justice Film Festival, which was held in October in Seattle.

Among the topics explored: health-care workers battling the opioid crisis, children adopted from Korea, the Native Americans who protested at Standing Rock against a controversial pipeline.

The festival is free and open to the public.

‘Io’: a Netlix look at the end of the world

Looking around for interesting films to review, I checked out a just-released Netflix original titled "Io." And then I wrote a review for Spokane Public Radio:

At last count – and this comes directly from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree (that) climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”

Yet no matter how many scientists speak out, recent polls indicate that maybe as much as 40 percent of the American public isn’t going to believe them. Such willful ignorance can and does affect public policy, especially when the leader of the so-called Free World is commander in chief of the skeptics. That’s the bad news.

The good news? Any such sad state of affairs merely fuels the imagination of science-fiction writers and filmmakers.

Take, for example, the Netflix original film “Io.” Set some time in the not-too-distant future, “Io” – directed by the French-born filmmaker Jonathan Helpert – tells the story of an Earth whose atmosphere is gradually becoming too poisonous for humans to breath.

In fact, most humans have left Earth, forsaking their ruined home planet for life on Io, presumably the most habitable of Jupiter’s 67 moons. Those few who remain include Sam (played by Margaret Qualley, last seen in Maggie Betts’ 2017 film “Novitiate”). Sam is the daughter of Henry Walden (played by Danny Huston), a renowned scientist who is convinced that the Earth can still be saved.

The research that he and Sam conduct takes place at a site set at an altitude where the air is still breathable. And their research involves bees, the hope being that they can somehow make the bees immune to the toxic air. And if the bees can survive, then why not humans?

Yet time is running out: Storms are battering the Earth, breathable air is dissipating and the last few rockets heading off-planet are leaving soon.

Sam, though, isn’t easily thwarted. She stays on task even when a storm ransacks her bee hives, when her off-world boyfriend tells her he is joining a deep-space expedition, and even when a helium-powered balloon floats into her yard and Micah (played by Anthony Mackie) emerges, looking for her father. Throughout it all, Sam remains convinced that some solution can be found.

And why not? Turns out Sam is harboring secrets, few of which are particularly hard for anyone paying attention to figure out. One involves the sores on her midriff. Another involves the fact that her father seems to be taking an overly long time to return from his latest research trek.

Dystopian studies have been in fashion since the days of H.G. Wells, whose 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds” was the source of Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast. They became particularly popular following World War II, when the biggest threat seemed to be posed by nuclear war. In recent years, the major menaces have included zombie plagues, humankind’s continuing penchant for violence and the revenge of Mother Nature.

“Io” focuses on that latter-most concern. And even if the manner in which it unfolds is, in the end, fairly pedestrian, the message it strives to make definitely is not.

Lantern to play Oscar doc ‘Hale County’ on Monday

A documentary film titled "Hale County This Morning, This Evening" has been added to the Magic Lantern's schedule. The film will screen at 7 p.m. Monday.

Directed by RaMell Ross, "Hale County This Morning, This Evening" is a study filmed over several years of a rural section of Hale County, Alabama. Besides directing, Ross co-wrote the script, acted as both cinematographer and editor. The film has been nominated for a 2019 Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

Here are some critical comments:

Glenn Kenny, New York Times: "The filmmaker’s poetic logic is inextricable from his consciousness of race and community, and of his function and potential as an artist grappling with his own circumstances and those of the people he’s depicting. 'Hale County This Morning, This Evening' is not a long film, but it contains whole worlds."

Bilge Biri, Village Voice: "By sticking to his impressionistic perspective, by fracturing his narrative, Ross achieves something genuinely poetic — a film whose very lightness is the key to its depth."

Andrew Crump, The Playlist: "Like life itself, 'Hale County This Morning, This Evening' doesn’t lend itself to immediate comprehension. It’s to Ross’ credit that his work remains so thoroughly accessible and engrossing regardless."

The screening is part of the Lantern's Monday Movies series, which is sponsored by The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture. 

‘Cold War’ captures a desperate stab at love

I recently saw the Polish movie "Cold War," the critically acclaimed feature film that is up for three Academy Awards. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Anyone who remembers the 1950s knows about the Cold War. While most of us in the U.S. enjoyed the prosperity of the post-World War II economic boom, much of the rest of the world struggled to recover from the worst armed conflict the world had experienced.

The problems were particularly dire in Eastern Europe. Not only did the people there have to deal with a battered landscape and lack of essential goods, they also had to cope with the repressive atmosphere of the Communist Soviet Union. And nowhere was the situation more dire than it was in Poland.

That’s where Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski sets his film “Cold War,” which has been nominated for three Oscars and which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theatre.

The year is 1949 and we are introduced to Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot), a music director who is driving around rural Poland with two others. Their task is to find singers and dancers talented enough to join a troupe dedicated to preserving Polish folk traditions.

Among the many candidates is Zula (played by Joanna Kulig), a pretty blond whose good looks are matched by enough talent to win her Wiktor’s attention. And as the troupe finds its bearing, the two become a couple – though, for obvious reasons, they keep their mutual affection as secret as they can.

This occurs over years, though it seems to happen right away. Pawlikowski tells his story in a truncated fashion, in chapters marked by on-screen notations that note the passage of time. This is clearly intentional, though some viewers – this one among them – may find themselves wanting just a bit more context.

Because the story that Pawlikowski is telling, which he co-wrote, is no ordinary romance. While it may be unfair to say that the relationship between Wiktor and Zula is doomed, it certainly is one born of desperation – and in that sense, at least, it serves as a symbol of what many East Europeans faced in the 1950s and ’60s.

Tired of a government that is forcing him to direct performances that are growing more and more political – not completely forsaking Polish tradition but augmenting it with glorification of the Soviet leadership – Wiktor dreams of defecting to Paris. There, he figures, he will be free to pursue his music the way he wants.

But Zula isn’t as sure. And when he leaves, she stays behind – and so begins their decades-long affair, he in Paris but never completely French, she part of the troupe that tours internationally, but never completely fulfilled, both of them getting involved with others but just as unable to commit fully to anyone else as they are to break completely from each another.

Pawlikowski renders all this in the same kind of gorgeous black and white that he used in his 2013 film “Ida,” which won a Best Foreign Language Oscar. “Cold War” is a leading candidate to win him his second gold statuette.

Pawlikowski’s relationship with Oscar seems to be every bit as unbreakable as Wiktor’s is with Zula. Just maybe not as desperate. Or as sad.

The week’s openings: It’s ‘me, too’ time

It's a "me, too" week at the movies as all three openings feature women protagonists. The openings are as follows:

Today

"Happy Death Day 2U": The sequel to 2017's "Happy Death Day" takes us down the same road, with our heroine (Jessica Rothe) dying again and again as she investigates who is trying to kill her for good. Familiarity breeds … well, sometimes danger it seems.

"Isn't It Romantic": Rebel Wilson plays a woman who finds herself trapped inside a PG-rated romantic comedy. It's the PG part that gives her the big problem.

Thursday

"Alita: Battle Angel": A cyborg is revived, but she can't remember her past, and her quest to find out puts her and everyone around her in danger. Two words: big eyes.

And at the Magic Lantern:

Friday

"If Beale Street Could Talk": Barry Jenkins ("Moonlight") returns with this adaptation of the James Baldwin novel. Note: The film landed on many critics' Top 10 list for films released in 2018.

"Stan & Ollie": Steve Coogan plays Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly plays Oliver Hardy in this look at the comedy pair's finally performance tour. Another fine mess they got themselves into.

SPIFF 209: The night ends in mystery

And, finally, the last day of the 2019 Spokane International Film Festival has arrived. The evening, which will take place at the Magic Lantern, comprises two feature films:

7 p.m. — "You Go to My Head": A young woman survives a car accident in the desert, but she's lost all memory of who she is. Then the man who rescues her tells her that she's his wife. The problem comes when she begins to remember who she really is. Shot in Morocco, the film is in French, Flemish, English and various Berber languages with subtitles.

7:30 p.m. — "Jupiter's Moon": A young Syrian man and his father try to sneak into Hungary, are met with force and during the resulting struggle the young man discovers a mysterious power. An unscrupulous doctor then tries to take advantage of the situation, which is rife with corruption. In Hungarian with English subtitles.

Note: Online tickets to both features are sold out. Tickets will be available at the door pending pass-holder demand.

SpIFF 2019: Stories from around the world

We've reached the penultimate day of the 2019 Spokane International Film Festival, and tonight's program offers a purely international flavor. Both screenings are at the Magic Lantern Theatre.

7 p.m. — World Shorts: Seven short films from China, Germany (set in Turkey), Armenia, Israel, Greece and the United Kingdom offer a range of worldly experiences.

7:30 p.m. — "Ulysses and Mona": A young art student confronts a reclusive older artist and the experience forces each of them to take a closer look at their lives. In French with English subtitles.

Note: As always, the theaters at the Lantern are small (99 seats in the larger house, 33 in the smaller) and so tickets are limited.

SpIFF 2019: a ‘Shadow’ and six shorts

More than halfway through the 2019 Spokane International Film Festival, and we have three full evenings of screenings left. What's on for tonight at the Magic Lantern?

7 p.m.: U.S. Shorts: Six films, including one documentary, from all over the country explore a range of subjects. This program first screened on Saturday, so this is a second chance for those festival fans who missed out.

7:30 p.m.: "Shadow": Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou's latest effort is a both a martial-arts epic and a study of the desire for power involving a military commander, his wife, his "shadow" and his quest for revenge. Only things seldom turn out the way they expect.

Here's what Variety's Jessica King has to say about "Shadow": "Every supremely controlled stylistic element of Zhang Yimou's breathtakingly beautiful 'Shadow' is an echo of another, a motif repeated, a pattern recurring in a fractionally different way each time."

 A reminder: The Magic Lantern bigger theater holds only 99 (or so) seats.