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

‘Valerian’: A question of casting

Another one of the summer blockbusters opened last week, Luc Besson's "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets." I reviewed the film for Spokane Public Radio

It’s impossible to imagine some movies with a different cast of actors. Think of “Gone With the Wind” without Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Or “Star Wars” without Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Or any of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” offerings, as tiring as they’ve become, without Johnny Depp doing his Keith Richards impersonation as Captain Jack Sparrow.

The same holds true for miscasting choices. Forget the ethnic-challenged cases posed by John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” or Mickey Rooney playing a stereotypical Japanese landlord – complete with buck teeth – in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I’m talking about actors who were completely unsuitable for the roles they were hired to play. Tony Curtis as an English knight in “The Black Shield of Falworth,” for example. Or 5-feet-8-inch Tom Cruise (and I’m being generous here) as 6-feet-5-inch Jack Reacher.

You get the point. Now, consider Luc Besson, the fabulously successful French movie director whose films have more in common with Hollywood kitsch than anything vaguely European. Films such as “La Femme Nikita” and “The Fifth Element.” You’d think that Besson could get pretty much any actor he wanted to play in his films, particularly one that is – in certain respects, at least – as groundbreaking as is his adaptation of the graphic-novel series “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”

Why, then, did he decide to cast the moody, offbeat American actor Dane DeHaan as the title character in his film? It’s fairly clear why he cast Cara Delevingne as Valerian’s partner, Laureline. Models who evolve into actresses, as Delevingne is apparently in the process of doing, at least look good in closeups. But DeHaan? Not only should he avoid closeups, but he should avoid all roles that call for a young Harrison Ford. For all his Gen Y surliness, which made him perfect for Gore Verbinski’s “A Cure for Wellness,” a muscle-toned pretty boy DeHaan is not.

Not that he is the only thing wrong with Besson’s film. The director, who also wrote the screenplay and produced this mess, bears most the blame. His screenplay has DeHaan and Delevingne playing a pair of space cops tasked with recovering a mysterious object. In the process, they blunder into a plot that is tied to the genocide of a planet and most of its residents – emphasis on most.

But while much of the storyline is rendered in CGI effects that are amazing – and are likely even more amazing in 3D, if you decide to spend the extra money – those effects can’t cover up a couple of facts: one, that the story is derivative; and, two, it’s told in a manner that interrupts a series of near-indecipherable action sequences with ongoing, overtly clumsy attempts at making us believe that some sort of sexual tension exists between DeHaan and Delevingne.

Which even in a sci-fi movie, based on a French graphic-novel series that plays with both time and space, is too farfetched to believe. Having Captain Jack Sparrow step onto the scene would have been far more believable.

The test: ‘A Ghost Story’ — art or pretense?

Yeah, it's likely that most people will flock to "The Emoji Movie" when it opens on Friday. But the more interesting choice probably would be "A Ghost Story," which opens at AMC River Park Square and is attracting the kinds of positive reviews reserved for most films that premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and get purchased for wider release.

Written and directed by David Lowery, the film stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck.

Here is a sampling:

Dave McGinn, The Globe and Mail: "If you’ve ever loved anyone or anything, 'A Ghost Story' is going to break your heart. It is devastating – and devastatingly good."

A.O. Scott, The New York Times: "Starting with a quote from Virginia Woolf, it wears its literary pedigree on its sleeve, yet it manages to feel fresh and inventive rather than stale or studied. It’s like an old tale by Saki or Henry James read for the first time: hair-raising and clever, a tour de force of sensation and a triumph of craft."

Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post: "Lowery pushes the tropes of the haunted house film past the breaking point, creating something that is entirely original — and oddly, if not profoundly unsettling."

Considering mainstream tastes, though, one critic in particular puts the film in its proper perspective with an age-old observation:

Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic: " 'A Ghost Story' may be the ultimate litmus test of where you fall on the line between artistic merit and laughable pretension." (To be fair, Goodykoontz goes on to argue in the film's favor.)

Can't wait to find out for myself.

Friday’s openings: Spies, spooks and talking emojis

Looks like blonds, emoticons and ghostly spirits are on the movie menu for Friday. Here's what we expect to open in local theaters:

"Atomic Blonde": Charlize Theron brings the graphic-novel character to life in a scenario that has her battling to discover who is killing her fellow MI6 spies. #notjamesbond (And maybe that's a good thing.)

"The Emoji Movie": Here's the IMDB description: "Gene, a multi-expressional emoji, sets out on a journey to become a normal emoji." Well, they've made a couple of hit movies about Legos, so …

"A Ghost Story": This Sundance favorite features Rooney as a woman haunted by the specter of grief. Literally.

And at the Magic Lantern (along with a second-run opening of "Paris Can Wait"):

"Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All": Never has a title better described what the documentary film is about: a look at the life of Indian Swami Srila Prabhupada

Hawkins is what makes ‘Maudie’ special

The film "Maudie" opens today at the Magic Lantern. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Biographical films, almost by definition, fudge with reality. And it’s easy enough to understand why. Most of life is, let’s be honest, boring. Who really wants to see, say, Winston Churchill slurping down a bowl of soup as the residue stains his shirtfront? Wouldn’t we far rather see Churchill standing on the cliffs of Dover, shaking his fist at the German troops threatening British soldiers stranded on the beach at Dunkirk?

The fact is, though, mundane moments are far more prevalent in real life than the melodramatic ones. Which is one of the things I most appreciate about “Maudie,” Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh’s look at the life of folk artist Maud Lewis. Based on a screenplay by Canadian screenwriter Sherry White, “Maudie” manages to navigate a delicate balance between a sense of hope and the harsh reality likely experienced by Lewis, who died in 1970 at the relatively tender age of 67.

I say “likely” because, as Charlie Rich sang, no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors. What Walsh portrays in her film is that Lewis – born Maud Dowley – was afflicted with a body, twisted and shrunken by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Cared for as a girl by her parents, Dowley was basically cheated, upon their deaths, by her brother of any inheritance. Worse, he handed her over to their less-than-sympathetic aunt for caretaking.

Wanting a life of her own, Dowley answered the ad of an itinerant fish peddler named Everett Lewis, a gruff loner who lived in a small, two-room house. “Maud” the movie consists of the slow, at times tenuous and seldom comfortable, coming together of these two damaged people.

More to the point, it explores the development of Lewis’ lone means of escape: painting. Beginning with the house itself, then with cards and portraits rendered on planks of wood, Lewis began to attract attention. And over the years, as her reputation grew, her art became the main means of support for her and her husband.

The reality of their life, as documented by biographer Lance Woolaver, was hardly a fairy tale. And while Walsh’s film doesn’t deny that, it does smooth out most of the story’s harder edges. And like all bio-pics, it invents plot points for dramatic effect.

Still, what Walsh gives us in the end is about as close to reality as we might want, outside of straight documentary. Her film progresses at a patient pace, setting the scene with numerous picturesque shots of the stark Canadian coastline (though, it turns out, with Newfoundland standing in for Nova Scotia).

Most of all, Walsh lets the British actress Sally Hawkins imbue Lewis’ character with both an elfin sense of humor and a deep-seated, if understated, spine of iron – something that explains how anyone could survive, much less thrive, in such a situation.

It is the supremely talented Hawkins, working opposite the adequate Ethan Hawke as Everett, who ultimately makes “Maudie” into a work of cinematic art – one that may not capture life exactly as it is but as we might choose to watch it unfold.

Check out Louise Penny, Aug. 30 at Auntie’s

I've been reviewing audiobooks for the past 15 years, helping choose those that deserve annual awards. And every time I receive a collection of nominees, I discover something — or someone — new.

As the saying goes, so many (audio)books, so little time.

That's my only excuse for never having heard of Louise Penny before I listened to "The Nature of the Beast," Penny's 2016 addition to her Inspector Gamache series. It was the first audiobook narrated by Robert Bathurst, who took over for her longtime narrator Ralph Cosham (Cosham had died in 2014).

I liked the book so much that I vowed to check out the previous novels in the series, all 11 of them. And it excites me to think that Penny will be appearing at Auntie's Bookstore on Aug. 30. The 7 p.m. reading will be in support of her new Inspector Gamache novel, the 13th, "Glass Houses" (Minotaur Books, 400 pages).

Here's what Kirkus Reviews has to say about the book: "A meticulously built mystery that follows a careful ascent toward a breaking point that will leave you breathless. It’s Three Pines as you have never seen it before."

Here's what Publishers Weekly has to say: "The familiar, sometimes eccentric, denizens of Three Pines and Gamache’s loyal investigative team help propel the plot to an exciting, high-stakes climax."

Sounds good. Can't wait.

‘Dunkirk’ may be Nolan’s best film yet

Amid all the superhero films, which — after all — are a summer movie staple, one stands out: Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk."

For those who don't know World War II history, the German advance through Europe in late 1939 and early 1940 had pretty much decimated Allied forces. In May of 1940, German forces had cut off the British Expeditionary Force, stranding hundreds of thousands of British troops.

As the German dithered — historians still debate why — some 800 private boats crossed the English Channel and brought an estimated 338,000 troops home. It, along with the subsequent Battle of Britain, constituted the only real positive Allied storylines during that first year of the war.

Nolan, who has made his name making such action-printed films as "Inception," "Interstellar" and the "Dark Knight" trilogy, is finally applying his talents to an actual fact-based drama. And the critics are overwhelmingly in favor.

Stephen Whitty, New York Daily News: "Let other directors play with toy soldiers and computer effects. This is big-time, old-school filmmaking. Dunkirk isn't overdone. It's simply done epically."

Lindsay Bahr, Associated Press: "Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is a stone cold masterpiece. It's a stunningly immersive survival film told in 106 thrillingly realized minutes."

Bilge Ebiri, Village Voice: "The nerve-racking war thriller Dunkirk is the movie Christopher Nolan's entire career has been building up to, in ways that even he may not have realized."

"Dunkirk" opens Friday. 

Friday’s openings: History, flirting and fantasy

Friday will offer a case of the opposites in terms of movie openings. Following are the top offerings on the national release schedule:

"Dunkirk": Christopher Nolan takes his blockbuster stylings and puts them toward a bit of World War II history. Shakespeare in a boat.

"Girls Trip": Four longtime girlfriends take time to have a fun time in New Orleans. What happens in the Big Easy, stays there.

"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets": Luc Besson ("The Fifth Element") returns with another space saga. It's colossal.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Maudie": Sally Hawkins portrays the real-life Nova Scotian artist Maud Lewis.

I'll outline the final schedule when it becomes available.

Elliott bowls us over in ‘The Hero’

Sam Elliott is the star of "The Hero," which continues at the Magic Lantern. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

It’s not easy for an actor to portray a character and comment on that character at the same time. Not without looking ridiculous, that is – which sometimes is the point. Think of pretty much any character the comic actor Mike Myers has ever played.

But in a drama? That’s a different story. You have to be true both to the essence of the character while continually reminding the audience that you, the actor, are in this artistic exercise with them. And, as I say, this is no easy task to pull off.

Yet it is a task that Sam Elliott has proved adept at from the beginning. After appearing in a number of TV and minor movie roles, Elliott in 1976 took the lead in a little star-making movie titled “Lifeguard” and has never looked back. He may never have been a serious Oscar threat, but he’s always proved to be a solid, dependable presence.

Take “The Big Lebowski.” The Coen Brothers cast Elliott in the role of The Stranger, a cowboy type who provides the narrated overview – such as it is – for Jeff Bridges’ character, aka The Dude, in their 1998 film. As The Stranger, Elliott intones in his classic baritone, “The Dude abides. I don't know about you but I take comfort in that. It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners.”

Elliott plays the lead in Brett Haley’s film “The Hero,” which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a one-time huge Western movie star who, now in his early 70s, is finally beginning to feel the need to resolve a number of issues that are hanging over his head – the main one being a desire to repair his relationship with his daughter.

Haley wrote and directed the 2015 film “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which starred Blythe Danner as a woman also facing the challenges of 70-something life. Elliott had a small role in that film, which no doubt inspired Haley to write “The Hero.” And just as he immersed we the viewers in the life of Danner’s character, allowing us to learn as we go instead of providing a mass of up-front exposition, he does the same with Elliott’s Hayden.

So we see scenes of Hayden drinking, smoking dope and – his career long past its prime – doing voiceovers for barbeque sauce ads. We see him getting some unwanted health news, which spurs his efforts to reconcile with his daughter. And we see him face an emotional crossroads as he attracts the attention of a far-younger woman (Laura Prepon) and suddenly, once again, becomes a hot Hollywood property.

“The Hero” doesn’t pass on many, if any, profound ideas, nor does it answer all the questions it poses. But it does offer up a refreshing alternative to movies about superheroes, animated comedies or studies of millennial angst.

Most of all, it benefits from the presence of Sam Elliott, still abiding after all these years.

Alexie cancels Aug. 5 Bing appearance

It's now official: Sherman Alexie has cancelled his Aug. 5 reading at The Bing.

Alexie has been on a nationwide tour promoting his new book, a memoir titled "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" (464 pages, Little, Brown & Co.). But, as he wrote on his website, the tour has introduced him to a number of "ghosts."

"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time," he wrote on his website. He's seen them in various forms — in handmade quilts, in sudden rays of sunlight and, in one instance, in the card being held at an airport that carried the name of his late mother, Lillian.

The result? Moments of grief so hard that they left him sobbing, both alone in hotel rooms and, on occasion, even onstage.

"I don't believe in the afterlife as a reality," he wrote, "but I believe in the afterlife as metaphor. And my mother, from the afterlife, is metaphorically kicking my ass."

So he has decided to cancel all his August tour dates, including the Aug. 5 event that was being sponsored by Auntie's Bookstore, and "many, but not all, of my events for the rest of the year."

No word yet on when, or if, Alexie will reschedule. But in the meantime, buy a copy of his book. It'll give you some idea of what he's been going through.

Alexie Aug. 5 reading now in question

Note: Soon after I posted the news below, Alexie announced on his website that he was canceling all his August readings. Nothing has changed on the Auntie's Bookstore site, but I'll update when official word does become available. Meanwhile, read his letter of explanation. It's powerful.

Some of us remember Sherman Alexie before he became the celebrity author Sherman Alexie.

We remember the days when he would show up for poetry readings at the previous Auntie's Bookstore location, the one that bridged its genesis in the Flour Mill and its current site in the Liberty Building, in character as Thomas Builds-the-Fire.

These days, Alexie — the kid from Wellpinit, who transferred to Reardan High School — is a nationally known author. He won a National Book Award in 2007 for his novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."

And befitting his growing role as a literary elder, he no longer — in fact, hasn't in quite some time — makes public appearances in small venues. At least not in Spokane.

Which is why Alexie's Auntie's Bookstore-sponsored appearance on Aug. 5, scheduled for 7 p.m., will NOT be at the store but at the Bing Crosby Theater. Alexie will be appearing in support of his new memoir, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me."

Even if you don't need prodding, let me offer the following critical comments regarding Alexie's new book:

Beth Kephart, Chicago Tribune: " 'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me' is a marvel of emotional transparency, a story told with the fewest possible filters by a writer grieving the loss of a complicated mother."

Laura Miller, Slate.com: "For Alexie’s fans, the essence of his appeal is his scouring honesty. He’s not merely willing to tell people what they don’t want to hear; he leaps at the chance. Piety in every guise draws his fire."

Publishers Weekly: "Alexie treats this sometimes bleak material with a graceful touch, never shying away from deep emotions but also sharing wry humor and a warm regard for Native culture and spirituality."

If you buy a copy of the book at Auntie's, you can get into Auntie's Alexie event free. If you don't, admissions is $5 (all ages).

Either way, tell them Thomas Builds-the-Fire sent you.

See Verdi’s ‘Nabucco’ on the big screen

It isn't always possible for opera fans to attend performances at New York's Metropolitan Opera. The airline tickets alone would cost a fortune, never mind scoring tickets.

Here's the good news: You can see select Met Opera performances on a local movie screen. A perfect example: "Nabucco," an opera by the Italian master Giuseppe Verdi, will screen at 7 tonight at Regal Cinemas' Northtown Mall.

James Levine conducts The Met's orchestra, while Placido Domingo fills the role of the title character and soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska plays his willful daughter. The opera, Verdi's first unqualified success, was held its premiere in Milan, Italy, at La Scala in 1842.

Writing in the New York Times about the live performance, critic Zachary Woolfe said of the 76-year-old Spanish baritone Domingo: "His voice still has extraordinary volume and a warm, penetrating presence." As for Monastyrska, Woolfe wrote, "The smoldering, deliciously wild-toned soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska attacks the ferocious music for Abigaille, the Babylonian slave turned queen, as if she’s scaling a rock face with an ice ax."

The opera has a two hour, 35-minute running time, tickets are just $13.13 — and you don't have to drive to the airport.

Critics going ape over latest ‘Apes’ flick

You may not be a fan of the "Planet of the Apes" movies — and as long as you admit that the 1968 original is the best of the lot, then I can understand why you might feel that way.

But the fact is, many critics are bending over backward to write nice things about "War for the Planet of the Apes," third installment in the most recent trilogy, which was directed by Matt Reeves, who also directed 2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (Rupert Wyatt directed the 2011 first in the series reboot, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes.")

Here are some comments on the film, which opens Friday:

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: "Almost as rare as winning the Triple Crown in horse racing is to make a film trilogy that clicks from beginning to end, but Fox has pretty much pulled it off with its refurbished 'Planet of the Apes' trio."

Brian Truitt, USA Today: "The satisfying and heart-wrenching climax is a last reminder that Caesar's new adventure is one of this summer's best."

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press: "Regardless of what happens or doesn't happen next for the 'Planet of the Apes,' this installment is very simply a great time at the movies."

Not bad for a reboot of a series that began as a minor 1963 science fiction novel by the French author Pierre Boulle.

‘The Big Sick’ tells a comic true story

And then there were three. Along with the two mainstream openings, a small, romantic comedy titled — however clumsily — "The Big Sick" is also opening on Friday.

"The Big Sick": Comic actor Kumail Nanjiani ("Silicon Valley") plays a Pakistani-American who feels torn between his feelings for his white girlfriend (Zoe Kazan) and the expectations that his parents have for his marrying a Pakistani woman. Nanjiani and his wife cowrote the screenplay, based on their own experience.

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

Friday’s openings: A bit of monkeying around

What with "Spiderman-Homecoming" doing so well, both in terms of box office and with critics, we better get ready for the next blockbuster wannabe, which involves our simian cousins. Friday's national releases are:

"War for Planets of the Apes": With most humans already dead, one of the remaining groups attempts to stop the apes in a violent manner. Wonder how that works out?

"Wish Upon": When a teenage girl finds a magically powerful box, she quickly discovers that its powers come at a pretty big price. Sounds worse than no date for Homecoming.

At at the Magic Lantern? Spokane's own art moviehouse will pick up two intriguing second runs: "The Hero" and "Beatriz at Dinner."

I'll update as the listings become final. 

Coppola blurs the meaning of ‘Beguiled’

Of the movies that I saw last week, I decided to review the Sofia Coppola film "The Beguiled" for Spokane Public Radio:

As a filmmaker, Sofia Coppola is a curiosity. Yes, she’s the daughter of one of the great filmmakers, Francis Ford Coppola – the man who gave us “The Godfather” trilogy – but that’s hardly her only distinction.

Over the past 18 years she has directed six feature films of her own. And those films – from her first, a 1999 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel “The Virgin Suicides,” to her latest, an adaptation of Thomas Cullanin’s novel “The Beguiled” – have earned Coppola her own measure of acclaim.

Yet if the mark of a filmmaker depends both on style and substance, Sofia Coppola is stronger on the former than she is on the latter. It’s not that her films don’t contain themes, one major one being women attempting to define themselves in a sometimes hyper-masculine world: Think of Scarlett Johansson’s character in 2003’s “Lost in Translation” searching for meaning while roaming the streets of Tokyo. No, it’s more that those themes often are portrayed through as much thematic soft focus as the actual visuals she directs her cinematographers to use.

Soft focus, for example, is a major stylistic highlight of “The Beguiled,” thanks to Philippe Le Sourd, a French cinematographer who received an Oscar nomination for Wong Kar-Wai’s 2013 film “The Grandmaster.” Le Sourd’s camera work – again, at the behest of Coppola – is what gives “The Beguiled” its overpowering sense of gothic Southern sensibilities.

Set in 1864, during height of the Civil War, Coppola’s “The Beguiled” begins innocently enough. A young girl (Oona Lawrence) walks though the lonely woods, pausing here and there to pick mushrooms. The camera haunts her, close enough to feel almost claustrophobic, certainly threatening. And sure enough, she stumbles onto a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell), who hurriedly assures her that he means no harm and, instead, would appreciate any aid she could give him.

Reassured, the trusting girl returns home – with soldier in tow – to the Southern girls’ school she attends. When they arrive, her head mistress (Nicole Kidman) tends to the soldier’s wounds. And then, she, the head teacher (Kirsten Dunst) and the five remaining students – all others having left because of the war – must decide what to do with their enemy guest.

That’s when the beguiling of the film’s title begins. Cullinan’s 1966 novel was adapted once before, in 1971 by director Don Siegel, starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Paige. A noted action director, Siegel – whose best known film is perhaps “Dirty Harry” – couldn’t be more different from Coppola. Yet the question explored in all three versions is who, exactly, ends up beguiling whom.

Farrell’s soldier is clearly afraid of returning to battle, the vestiges of which are all around – in the rolling echoes of cannon fire, wisps of distant smoke and the occasional roving patrol. And so he reaches out, one by one, to each of the two women and five girls. Each, for her own reason, seeks his attention in return.

Do any of them get what they need? Or deserve? Unfortunately, Coppola’s answer to those questions are, like the very ending of her movie itself, lost in soft focus.