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

Friday’s openings: Lowriders at the Lantern

Looks as if the Magic Lantern will be opening not just one but two movies on Friday. One, "Norman," is a pickup from AMC River Park Square. The other is a film that is enjoying a theatrical release after premiering at last year's Los Angeles Film Festival.

"Lowriders": Demián Bichir (who also is among the cast of "Alien: Covenant") plays the father of a young man who doesn't share his obsession with their community's car culture. Los carros, sí!

Some critical comments:

Christy Lemire, RogerEbert.com: "There's an earnestness and a fundamental truth to this familial saga-as well as an appealing, low-budget scrappiness-that consistently make it hum."

Neil Genzlinger, New York Times: "A mix of strong scenes and shopworn ones punctuated by clichés."

Andrew Barker, Variety: "A peek under the hood reveals a rather shopworn story that doesn't completely sell its more melodramatic narrative strands, but [also] to a trio of finely calibrated performances, an authentic sense of place and one gorgeously designed red '36 Chevy."

Friday’s openings: The Woman is a Wonder

By now we should know not to expect too much, but advance word on the new DC superhero flick "Wonder Woman" is pretty good. That movie, which stars the stunning Gal Gadot, is one of two releases on Friday's national schedule. The menu is:

"Wonder Woman": Gadot stars as the Amazon princess who decides to intervene in the affairs of men, which — as usual — involve war. Only to paraphrase the line from "Pulp Fiction," "That's how you're gonna beat 'em, Diana. They keep underestimating you."

"Captain Underpants: The Firs Epic Movie": Based on the kids' novels by Dav Pilkey, this animated venture revolves around two pals who hypnotize their school principal into thinking he is the superhero Captain Underpants. Insert laugh track here.

I'll update as the schedule settles.

SIFF 2017: Still time to see some cinema

Because I am unable to attend this year's Seattle International Film Festival

… because I think that, other than the Spokane International Film Festival, SIFF is the greatest thing for Northwest movie fans since the invention of cinema itself …

… and because I trust no one else's opinion more than I do my "Movies 101" partner Nathan Weinbender …

… I wanted to link to a blog post that Nathan wrote concerning his recent weekend sojourn to SIFF 2017.

SIFF runs through June 11, so you have plenty of time yet to score tickets and see some great shows. Click here for box office information.

Below: "Beatriz at Dinner" is scheduled for a Jun 9 theatrical release.

‘Alien: Covenant’: Morons in space

Update on the Magic Lantern: The theater will continue running its current lineup — "A Quiet Passion," "David Lynch: The Art of Life," "The Zookeeper's Wife," "The Lost City of Z" — and will add the second-run pickup "Their Finest" on Friday.

That's today's news. Now for something somewhat different: a commentary on "Alien: Covenant." (Attention: spoilers ahead.)

First, I watched it at The Odeon, a classic, art-deco theater in the heart of Florence, Italy. Though the floor isn’t raked, the seats are old-school plush and they offer a good view of the raised screen.

And nothing quite beats watching a film in Italy, which typically feature an Intervallo, or intermission, which comes roughly in the middle of the film and gives you time to hit the restroom or purchase a refreshing beverage. At The Odeon, that includes what my wife calls the most delicious gin and tonic served in the city.

Oh, and did I say the screening allows you to practice your Italian, since the original-language production carries Italian subtitles?

I admit, those last two traits of the Odeon don’t much aid your efforts at film appreciation. But in the case of “Alien: Covenant,” I’m not sure it mattered all that much.

Not that I didn’t like the film. I just didn’t like everything about it.

First, let’s make this clear: “Alien: Covenant” is an improvement on its immediate predecessor “Prometheus,” which posed so many questions that I left the theater more confused than disappointed.

In fact, “Alien: Covenant” – which, again, was directed by Ridley Scott, this time from a script by John Logan (“Gladiator”) and Dante Harper – goes a way toward answering some of the questions posed by “Prometheus,” especially when paired with the "prologue" (see embed below). Then, though, it poses more that, presumably, we’ll have to wait for the proposed sequel (or sequels) to answer.

And those further additions to the series are, apparently, coming. Scott – who directed the first (and arguably best) film in the series, 1979’s “Alien” – reportedly told The Sydney Morning Herald, “If you really want a franchise, I can keep cranking it for another six. I'm not going to close it down again. No way."

Second, the special effects of “Alien: Covenant” are astounding. From capturing the interior of the spaceship in which our hardy crew is traveling, to portraying both space walks and the obligatory births of the murderous alien creatures, Scott’s crews of computer-graphic nerds have created effects that feel more real than actual reality.

And, third, the acting is uniformly good, whether we’re talking about Katherine Waterston, who is this film’s pale version of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, Billy Crudup as a rather weak-kneed substitute captain, or Danny McBride doing a rare serious turn.

The film overall, though, belongs to Michael Fassbender, who plays a dual role as twin androids, Walter and David. Fassbender is one of those actors who could make reading the dictionary seem interesting, and he makes his two characters – different versions of the same AI system – feel as different as an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy 7: one being all business and the other prone to catching fire (if only virtually).

All that said, most of the human characters – especially those mentioned – make some of the most moronic decisions in the history of film. From falling for the same trap that lured Ripley and crew to a strange world, to exploring that seemingly friendly world without the safety of space suits, to splitting up so that they can get picked off one by one, to risking everything (and everyone) to save a couple of already-doomed souls … well, the fatal mistakes seem endless.

And by fatal, I mean the same old alien versus human finale in which humans, for the most part, fail miserably.

OK, so I know everyone has an opinion. The Internet is full of suggestions, etc. But it looks as if we’re going to have to wait at least a couple of years to get the final answers to the overall questions, which include: Who is behind all this? What part did the Weyland corporation play in what happens? Are David and Walter modern Frankenstein monsters who will, one day, kill their creators?

And so on. As for that last question, it looks as if the answer is yes. And considering just how stupid this particular crew acts, who can blame them?

As for me, I'm waiting for Adam Harum to come up with a Done Better sequence. Harum at least makes me laugh.

Below: The "prologue" to "Alien: Covenant" was released some three weeks before the full film's release. It acts as a bridge between that film and its prequel, "Prometheus."

Friday’s openings redux: Love strikes the long-married

Looks as if at least one film is being added to the Friday movie openings menu. It should appeal to the art crowd:

"The Lovers": Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play a disaffected couple who step away from their respective affairs to once again enjoy a passionate tussle. Does Letts look like an officer and a gentleman?

Following are some critical comments:

Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune: "It's the kind of thinking person's relationship comedy that you don't exactly laugh at but admire for its brutal honesty."

Moira MacDonald, Sattle Times: "Letts has some fine moments, but it's Winger who really brings the color to this movie, creating a woman filled with disappointment and passion and wit, taking a small-scale comedy of manners to a darker, richer place."

Melissa Anderson, Village Voice: "(Director Azazel) Jacobs lets casually observed details and offhand humor advance the story. There are no grand pronouncements in The Lovers, which smartly communicates its ideas about relationships during its long stretches of silence."

And just for contrast:

Richard Brody, The New Yorker: "The movie exhausts itself in its conception and sits inert on the screen like an undigested mass of script pages."

Friday’s openings: Dead pirates and buff lifeguards

This is blockbuster week, apparently, with two major openings scheduled for Friday (or Thursday night in some cases). The national release list is as follows:

"Baywatch": Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron star as dueling members of the lifeguard team who attempt to foil the actions of a local crime boss. Question: Do they do it in slo-mo?

"Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales": Johnny Depp returns as Captain Jack Sparrow, with a band of dead pirates (led by Javier Bardem) bent on doing him harm. Has this series jumped the shark yet?

The Magic Lantern has no scheduled openings as of yet. I'll update as needed.

Check the Stranger guide to SIFF 2017

Above: A scene from the documentary film "The Reagan Show."

Life continues to be full of good news/bad news situations.

The good news: I am spending a couple of weeks in Florence, Italy. The bad news: I won't be attending this year's Seattle International Film Festival.

Whatever the joys of Italy, and the country has many, I do regret that latter situation. I've attended SIFF more or less regularly since 1993. Some of the top moments I've enjoyed have included watching Kevin Smith talk about a little film he was hawking called "Clerks," sitting in a packed Egyptian Theater to see Danny Boyle's "Trainspotting," feeling as confounded as anyone else following the screening of Michael Haneke's original production (the German-language one) of "Funny Games," watching Sean Penn skulk and sulk onstage while being peppered with questions by critics. And so on.

I'm thankful, though, that The Stranger — Seattle's alternative newspaper — is there to report what those lucky enough to attend this year's festival should see. Click here to see their "don't miss list."

The film I most regret not being able to see: The documentary "The Reagan Show." As The Stranger says, ""There is no narrator in this documentary, no talking heads, no experts, no direct analysis. The entire thing consists of archival footage from network news and the machinery that manufactured the images of America’s 40th president. Ronald Reagan and his team changed the whole game of American politics by transforming the White House into a movie studio."

Guess I'lll have to wait for its June 30 theatrical release. Or its July 4 video on demand availability. Or even its eventual screening on CNN.

Until then, I'll continue to enjoy la dolce vita.

Brunelleschi’s Duomo tells a tale of Florence

Above: No matter where you walk in Florence's city center, you're usually only a few steps from a sight of Filippo Brunelleschi's famous Duomo, which sits atop the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore.

Nothing beats rising early on a Saturday morning in Florence, Italy, and getting your first glimpse of the famous Duomo. It's nice to see the masterpiece of architecture anytime during the day, but its especially nice when the streets have yet to fill with tourists, who come in the thousands.

The Duomo, of course, sits atop one of the world's most famous buildings — the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore — which has been standing in the center of Florence since the early 14th century. The city's leaders wanted the cathedral to be a sign of Florence's magnificence, and they hoped the cathedral's Duomo (or dome) would be the world's largest.

Only problem was, no one at the time knew exactly how to build something so big. Thus the cathedral sat for decades open to the elements.

Then came the announcement: A competition would be held to see who could come up with a workable plan. One prize was 200 florins, which was a lot of money considering, from one source, staff at the Medici bank made between 14 and 50 florin per year. The other prize was enduring fame.

Both prizes went, ultimately, to "a short, homely, and hot-tempered goldsmith named Filippo Brunelleschi." Though not without controversy, mainly because Brunelleschi was a somewhat unknown quantity and because he refused to share specifics of his plans. Even so, the leaders eventually decided to award Brunelleschi the job.

This being Italy, intrigue occurred from the start, involving personal and professional jealousies. But the project, and Brunelleschi, endured, and the Duomo was completed on March 25, 1436. Brunelleschi died a decade later.

But his crowning achievement lives on — to the delight of everyone who has the pleasure of seeing it.

‘Norman’ is Gere’s time to shine

Another movie opening on Friday is titled "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer." It stars Richard Gere is the title character. The film scored an 87 percent positive rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

Following are a few of the critical comments:

Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times: "Gere, who somehow seems to make himself physically smaller here, creates a character both infuriating and endearing."

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "Is Norman a macher, a schnorrer or a mensch? Thanks to the filmmaker's sensitive touch and Gere's sympathetic performance, he gets to be all three. And that calls for mazel tovs all around."

Christy Lemire, RogerEbert.com: "In Richard Gere's deft, veteran hands, Norman Oppenheimer is consistently, completely fascinating. You may not be able to root for him, but you can't help but feel for him."

Clearly, some people are Gere heads.

They taste even better than they look

Further notes on our trek through southern Italy:

It occurred to me that a photo of pizza might be more tantalizing to American tastes than one of pasta, no matter how delicious. So I decided to post a photo of the pizzette from Trieste, the sea-side Pescara pizza place that I wrote about in the post immediately below. Included in this bunch were two margheritas, one gran formaggio and one with potatoes and olives.

Part of the Trieste secret, of course, is the size of the slices — each of which is barely more than a single slice of your typical American pizza. That smaller size allows each slice to be toasted perfectly, holding it's shape even when you fold it over and hold it between sheets of parchment-like paper (as we watched other diners do).

And since we paid less than $20 for four slices, a Coke zero, a Nastro Azzuro beer and a large bottle of carbonated mineral water, we felt as if we got a real deal. Call it dining, Italian-style.

In Italy, the real story is always about food

Above: Rigatoni with eggplant and ricotta di pecora, as served at Ristorante Taverna 58 in Pescara, Italy.

Several years ago, I read a book titled “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.” Written by the late Joe McGinniss, it details a season in the life of a soccer team from a tiny village in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

For reasons I can’t remember, I was able to score a phone interview with McGinniss shortly after its publication. As someone who had just been to Italy, I was intrigued by McGinniss’ book, by his passion for soccer – and by Abruzzo. I recall McGinniss’ being a generous, interesting interview subject.

In the intervening years (the book came out in 1999), I’ve visited Italy several more times, but I’ve never had the occasion to visit Abruzzo. Until now.

As I write this, I’ve been in Italy for a week. I landed in Rome, spent the night, then trained with my wife to the city of Lecce, which sits in the southern region of Puglia. Accompanied by friends who live in Lake Como, we spent the next couple of days driving around such towns as Ostuni, Alberobello (site of the famous Trulli houses), Villanova and Locorotondo.

Then yesterday, we trained to the coastal Abruzzo city of Pescara. Abruzzo is known mostly for its mountainous interior, which is rated as one of the greenest spots in  Europe. But we have only one full day to spend here, and we’re without a car, so Pescara is our only stop.

And while it’s no mountain retreat, it does offer a refreshing view of the sea (especially from the terrace of our room in the Hotel Maja). And we’ve spent most of the day walking from one part of the city to the next.

This is Italy, though, so instead of talking about museums or churches, I need to talk food. Last night we had some of the best pizza I’ve enjoyed outside of Naples. Trieste Pizza offers small, individuals pizzas in a variety of tasty combinations. We ordered four, from mushroom to artichoke to potato and sausage to cheese and pesto, and we finished every crumb.

And today we walked (and walked and walked) and ended up eating lunch at Ristorante Taverna 58, an eatery built on an ancient Roman site and sitting down the street from the birthplace of the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. We opted for the set (three-course) lunch menu of the day, which was … well, the word scrumptious comes to mind.

More important, the service was superb, the servers solicitous to our every need – and they even endured our poor Italian with an abiding courtesy.

We leave Pescara tomorrow on our way to Florence. But a bit of the Abruzzo will no doubt stick with us.

Thanks to a book about soccer and its author, Joe McGinniss.

Step into the weird world of David Lynch

Watching a David Lynch film is bound to mark you.

Notice I didn’t say harm you. It might do that. In fact, I imagine many moviegoers with tender sensibilities have felt harmed by certain scenes in such films as “Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet” or “Mulholland Drive” among many others.

But even if you were immune to such harm, some sort of mark likely remains. Some sort of lingering attitude, or feeling that the world has shifted just the slightest bit.

That’s the effect that Lynch can have. He’s one of those filmmakers about whom one can safely say that there’s life before seeing his work, and then there’s life after.

A life that may be worse (harm) or better (film appreciation) but is certainly different. With or without Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Lynch and his films are the subject of a documentary that will open Friday at the Magic Lantern. That documentary, “David Lynch: The Art Life,” was directed by Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes and delves deeply into the man and his views on art by letting the man explain everything himself. Following are some critical comments:

Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times: “No one else weighs in on Lynch here - it's all him, all the time. And, although chatty, he's not the warmest or most engaging presence. Still, Lynch devotees should dig this respectful, offbeat portrait.”

Christina Newland, RogerEbert.com: “This cockeyed, oblique attempt to get closer to the worldview of David Lynch – one of American cinema's finest oddities – is a compelling slice of cinephile inquiry.”

Scott Marks, San Diego Reader: “Is there a more rewarding way of spending 90 minutes than watching Lynch putter, reminisce, and work on a sculpture? Maybe, but you'd need to give Lynch the budget to produce another feature to find out.”

Lynch talking is the next best thing to Lynch directing. Either way, he’s a filmmaer who certainly has – wait for it – made his mark.

Friday’s openings: Aliens and alienation

It was way back in 1979 when Ridley Scott saw the release of his first "Alien" feature. Though the story was somewhat familiar, Scott – a filmmaker with a particular talent for creating visuals – gave it new life.

Since then, several other filmmakers have taken their turns working the “Alien” storyline, which always tends to end the same way – with a standoff between humans and one of the most fearsome extraterrestrials even conceived.

Those other filmmakers, by the way, include such notable names as James Cameron and David Fincher.

Then Scott got back into the series, extending it with 2012’s “Prometheus,” taking the original idea and expanding it. Now comes another along the new line, “Alien: Covenant,” with Scott again directing.

“Alien: Covenant” is the top national release set for Friday. The week’s major releases are as follows:

“Alien: Convenant”: A band of space colonists discover what seems to be a perfect planet home, only to discover … well, this is an “Alien” movie, so you can guess what happens.

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul”: The Heffley family does a family vacation, and things go predictably awry. The Griswolds they are not.

“Everything, Everything”: A girl allergic to the world at large finds love with the boy next door. Life in a bubble?

That’s the list so far. I’ll update when I can.

‘A Quiet Passion’: moments of pure visual poetry

Of the films opening in Spokane today, only one is aimed at a truly arts-oriented audience. And that film, "A Quiet Passion," is opening — no surprise — at the Magic Lantern. Following is the review of "A Quiet Passion" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Capturing a writer’s life isn’t the easiest task for a filmmaker. Make a movie about an artist, and you can just show paintings. Or sculptures. Whatever. With musicians, you can rely on the magic of sound. Boom-shakalaka. Boom.

But writing? Most movies about writers tend to be filled with scenes of characters scribbling with a pen or pounding a keyboard, squinting as they struggle to find the right turns of phrase.

Of course, good films have been made about writers, even if most are as different from one another as a sonnet is from a limerick. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman gave us “Adaptation,” Bennett Miller “Capote,” the Coen Brothers “Barton Fink.” And no three films on the same topic are more dissimilar.

Clearly, then, British filmmaker Terence Davies took on a difficult task when he decided to write and direct “A Quiet Passion,” which concerns the poet Emily Dickinson. It’s one thing to delve into the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter, as Jonze, Kaufman and the Coens did, or even the world of literary gossip as Miller did. It’s quite another to dissect the life of a poet whose best works radiate with meanings that go far deeper than the words used to convey them.

Davies follows the basic chronology of Dickinson’s life, beginning several years after her birth in 1830 through her death in 1886. We first see Dickinson (played by Emma Bell) as a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, refusing to identify herself as a Christian. This nonconformist attitude toward religion, as well as her anger and frustration at the limitations placed on women of her day, is a big part of what comprises “A Quiet Passion.”

After leaving school, Dickinson returns home to Amherst, Mass., to live with her father, a lawyer (played by Keith Carradine), her mother, older brother and younger sister. The house is a strict patriarchy, if a somewhat compassionate one. Dickinson’s father does grant her request to stay up at night to write, even though he thinks Dickinson an unbecoming young woman in other ways.

As the film goes on – and older actors take over the roles of Dickinson (now played by Cynthia Nixon) and her siblings – the pressure of living under such constraints begins to show, especially on the women. One early scene is especially telling: a 360-degree pan of a candle- and firelit room, capturing first Dickinson, her father and brother all reading, her sister crocheting, her mother staring silently, then returning to Dickinson who wears an expression of what might be horror, suggesting that she sees her future. Bleak. And lonely.

Such scenes are the best of what Davies’ film has to offer. Some of his other artistic choices are more problematic. Much of the dialogue feels stilted, and the obligatory voiceovers are likely to make sense more to Dickinson scholars than the general public.

If nothing else, “A Quiet Passion” does succeed in portraying the ultimate irony: that a woman whose life was filled with so much anguish could leave behind such a rich legacy of literary beauty.

Friday’s openings redux: a small game of sniping

Turns out, other than a couple of "Surfs: The Lost Village" second-run screenings, only one other national release is coming to the area on Friday. The additional screening is as follows:

"The Wall": Doug Liman directed this films about two U.S. soldiers (John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) getting pinned down by an unseen sniper and struggling to survive. Not a video game (though someone is probably working on a version for gamers to play on their phones).

Some critical comments:

David Erlich, IndieWire: "Smaller than the sum of its stones, this taut psychological thriller is still sturdy enough, and every bit as compelling as some studio fare 10 times its size."

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice: "Liman, for all his action acuity, struggles to make lying behind a wall exciting."

Peter Debruge, Variety: "Taylor-Johnson … gives a terrific performance under extreme conditions, totally convincing as a man alternating between panic and trust in the practical discipline of his training."

That's it for Friday. For the moment, at least.