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

Friday’s openings: animated in Afghanistan

It's likely to be pretty much a dead week for film openings. Most of the major releases are opening in limited runs to qualify for Oscar contention, which likely doesn't benefit Spokane — though we'll know more by tomorrow.

The one fairly certain release will be at the Magic Lantern:

"The Breadwinner": An Afghani girl disguises herself as a boy in an effort to support her family. This animated film directed by Norma Twomey (and produced by Angelina Jolie) is based on a 2000 children's novel by Canadian author Deborah Ellis (and bears a striking resemblance in theme to the 2003 live-action film "Osama").

I'll update as the local theaters finalize their listings.

Don’t reject ‘Wonder Wheel’ too quickly

Some people I know refuse to see a film by Woody Allen. Any film he has directed. And the reason why should be obvious. Nevertheless, I argue that his latest film "Wonder Wheel" is better than you might think.

Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Take a bit of Tennessee Williams, throw in a couple of Eugene O’Neill references, make the setting 1950 Coney Island, New York, and you have “Wonder Wheel,” Woody Allen’s 757th film.

That last part is an exaggeration. But Allen has been putting out movies pretty much once a year since the late 1960s so you do the math.

“Wonder Wheel” is, in some ways, standard Allen. It features a narrator – a young lifeguard played by Justin Timberlake – who falls for an older, troubled woman named Ginny, played by Kate Winslet. Naturally, there’s a narrator, not to mention a troubled woman.

Ginny is caught married, unhappily, to Humpty – that’s right, his name is Humpty – a carousel operator played by Jim Belushi. She’s a waitress in a beach-side crab shack, and they co-parent a son whose fascination with fire is likely tied to his mother’s emotional turmoil.

Allen hasn’t spent some four decades in Freudian psychoanalysis for nothing.

Things don’t improve when Carolina (played by Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter from his previous marriage, comes calling, bag in hand. Seems she’s fled her husband, a mobster, and is afraid he’ll come for her. After all, as she says, she does know where all the bodies are buried.

And that’s the cinematic stew that Allen has concocted, a brew that begins to heat up past the boiling point when the lifeguard – a rather unreliable narrator – shifts his gaze from Ginny … to her stepdaughter.

It’s long been a debate: Can we ever separate the art from the artist? Should we even try? Those questions are particularly appropriate for Allen because he made some of the most affecting films of the late 20th century. And because many of those films reflect his own real-life experiences – from his love of jazz to his love of New York to his love of young women.

In his real life, Allen famously had an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the 21-year-old adopted daughter of his then-lover, Mia Farrow, and who for 20 years now has been his wife.

Allen also was accused of sexually abusing another of his and Farrow’s adopted daughter’s, Dylan, when she was just 7. Those charges, put forth both by the girl and by Farrow, were never proven in court. But they’ve never gone away either.

Which to this day affects how people judge Allen and his work. Many reviews of “Wonder Wheel,” for example, are more about Allen himself than they are about the movie.

Yet “Wonder Wheel” has a lot about it worth admiring. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro expertly uses the shifting lights of Coney Island’s attractions to mirror each scene’s shifting moods. Allen’s camera movement around Humpty and Ginny’s cramped apartment is especially skillful.

And Allen’s cast, mainly Winslet, Belushi and Temple, acquits itself well, which comes as no surprise. Even in the current atmosphere – which has seen the careers of Hollywood power-men such as Harvey Weinstein go up in virtual flames because of sexual assault charges – good actors keep signing up for Allen’s movies.

Even Tennessee Williams couldn’t have made that into a believable story.

‘All the Money in the World’ has a whole new look

Earlier in the year, when trailers for movie destined for year-end screenings were first being shown, one drew particular interest.

The trailer for "All the Money in the World" had a distinguished feel, which was strange since it featured Mark Wahlberg who is many things but … distinguished? Hardly.

But the trailer also featured Michelle Williams. And as it quickly made clear, the film — buoyed by the effective use of the song "Time of the Season" — was both a family and crime drama, one revolving around the real-life story of the kidnapped grandson of the world's richest man.

Check that. Not just the world's richest man. But as the trailer claimed, the richest man "in the history of the world." Or something like that.

And the biggest surprise came at the end when we discovered just who was playing that man, the late oil magnate J. Paul Getty. None other than Kevin Spacey, hidden under a heavy layer of makeup and prosthetics.

Fast forward a few weeks. And suddenly a new trailer for the movie begins screening. And suddenly Spacey is nowhere to be seen. Now Getty is being played by Christopher Plummer, who at 88 needed hardly any makeup at all to play the role.

And backed by a generic, pulsing soundtrack, the feel of the trailer is much closer to a simple action flick. Mark Wahlberg, just that fast, seems far more appropriate.

What happened? Well, the Harvey Weinstein scandal happened. And fairly quickly other Hollywood heavyweights were affected by similar accusations, and one of those was Spacey.

So Ridley Scott, director and producer of the film, acted — deciding to replace Spacey, recast with Plummer and remake the film in an incredibly short time so as to make its opening date (which in Spokane will be Christmas Day).

You can find versions of the whole story in various online locations. Click here to get the New York Times article.

Also, watch the video embedded below, which shows the contrast between the two trailers — and see how different they are. Especially how different the whole feel is.

Then decide which you prefer.

The week’s movies redux: Money, money, money

Updated: A couple of additions have been made to the local movie-release schedule. They are:

Friday

"Tiger Zinda Hai": Two special agents, one Indian and the other Pakistani, attempt to save 25 Indian nurses who have been kidnapped by Muslim extremists in Iraq. In Hindi with English subtitles.

"Darkest Hour": Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in the latest look at the former British prime minister's struggle to handle UK affairs on the eve of World War II.

Christmas day

"All the Money in the World": Based on the true story of kidnapped J. Paul Getty III, whose mother (Michelle Williams) struggled to convince the boy's grandfather, multi-billionaire J. Paul Getty, to pay for his release.

The Magic Lantern is picking up the already-released "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

That's the lot. So go. Enjoy the holidays and see a movie.

The week’s releases: Little people, circuses and the jungle

Now that "Star Wars" fever is dying down … just kidding. People, even most critics, are still buzzing over the newest addition to the George Lucas-created franchise. But a new week brings new offerings to the theaters. Including what the national release schedule says will open this week:

Wednesday

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle": This updated version of the 1995 Robin Williams film features four teenagers being drawn into a video game and becoming their adult avatars. Cue Guns N' Roses.

"The Greatest Showman": Hugh Jackman plays P.T. Barnum in this imaginative musical abut the birth of the circus. Send in the clowns. 

Friday

"Downsizing": Alexander Payne ("The Descendants") brings his wry touch to a story about a world that promises shrinking yourself down to five inches will solve all your problems. Cue Randy Newman.

"Father Figures": Owen Wilson and Ed Helms stars as brothers who go off in search of their real father. Does father really know best?

"Pitch Perfect 3": The Belles have gone their separate ways, but circumstances cause them to unite a final time to compete for a spot on a USO tour. Sometimes, life is a real pitch.

As always, I'll update when the local theaters update their final schedules.

Pixar’s ‘Coco’ is for the whole family

It's likely that most moviegoers will be fighting lines to see "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" this weekend. But those who are still looking for a good family film to see, one that doesn't involve lasers, you might want to try "Coco."

Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Founded in 1979, Pixar Animation Studios became a subsidiary of Disney in 2006. Over the decades, Pixar has released 19 feature films, including the “Toy Story” trilogy, “Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E” and “Monsters, Inc.,” earned in the process eight Best Animation Oscars (and a grand total of 16 Oscars overall).

So the studio’s latest release, “Coco,” has some pretty big shoes to fill. Or maybe a more appropriate word would be “zapatos,” which is Spanish for shoes.

That’s because “Coco,” though an English-language film, tells the story of a 12-year-old Mexican boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who, during the annual festivities of Dia de Muertos – or Day of the Dead – discovers both a secret involving his past and what appears to be an unlikely path for his future.

I say “unlikely” mainly because that path is tied to music, something that Miguel’s family has forbid ever since his great-great-great grandfather ran off to follow his musical dreams. Spurning music, Miguel’s great-great-great grandmother founded a shoemaking business, which has become the family legacy.

I say “unlikely” also because despite his family’s wishes for him to also become a shoemaker –  a special desire of his grandmother Elena – Miguel is obsessed by music. He is particularly taken by the music of Ernesto de la Cruz, a famous Mexican singer/songwriter/movie star who died in a freak onstage accident and whose guitar sits in a tomb set in Miguel’s village.

So when Elena, learning that Miguel is about to enter a local talent contest, smashes his guitar in a rage, he breaks into the tomb and steals de la Cruz’s instrument. That act, though, brings with it a curse that casts Miguel into a netherworld where he is invisible to those still alive yet where he can see, and talk to, the dead – all of whom are portrayed as, prepare the youngest audience members here, embodied skeletons.

From this point on, the plot of “Coco” gets a little complicated. What’s pertinent is that Miguel faces a deadline: It he doesn’t return to the land of the living before sunrise, he will be forced to stay among the dead. But to return he must seek a blessing. His great-great-great grandmother agrees to bless him, though she insists – true to the family tradition she herself instituted – that he give up music.

Refusing to do so, Miguel seeks out de la Cruz. And to find him, he befriends a character named Hector who claims to have once performed with the musical legend. And so proceeds the story, which ends somewhat predictably but, true to form, happily.

Predictability aside, the biggest flaw with “Coco” is the main song, “I Remember.” Unlike the tunes in such films as “Toy Story 2” or in Disney’s “Frozen,” “I Remember” is immensely forgettable.

Yet the vocal talents – especially Gonzalez as Miguel and Gael García Bernal as Hector – are perfectly appropriate. And the animation itself is superb, its renderings of the land of the dead even more vibrant than that of the living.

That’s ironic. Pero también es interesante, no?

Enjoy Christmas early by watching ‘Elf’

Christmas movies come in many forms, from traditional ("A Christmas Carol") to satiric ("Scrooged"), from touchingly poignant ("It's a Wonderful Life") to touchingly comic ("A Christmas Story"). And then you have the farces.

"Elf," a 2003 comedy directed by Jon Favreau and starring Will Ferrell, belongs to the latter-most category. The plot involves one of Santa's helpers named Buddy who, for reasons that ultimately become clear, was raised at the North Pole. Learning that his real father (played by James Caan) doesn't know of his existence — and who, by the way, is on Santa's "naughty" list — Buddy decides to seek him out.

That thin plotline, then, gives Ferrell — the one-time "Saturday Night Live" cast member — an opportunity to pull off some of his more classic routines. Which is the whole point.

Other than celebrating Christmas, of course.

You'll get a chance to see "Elf" on the big screen at noon on Saturday at Regal's Northtown Mall and Riverstone Stadium cinemas.

Tell them Santa sent you.

Last chance to ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’

One of the most controversial films to come out of 1967 was Stanley Kramer's meditation on race relations "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

Starring the great Sidney Poitier and the dynamic duo of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, the film was one of the. first — if not the most publicized — looks at inter-racial marriage. And it came during an era when cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit were being torn by  race riots.

Hepburn and Tracy plays an older couple who react with surprise, and some hesitation, when their daughter (Katharine Houghton) returns from vacation with news that she has fallen in love — with a black man (Poitier). Both he and his parents have been invited to dinner, and that's when the speechifying begins.

Let's just say that the character of Poitier's father (Roy E. Glenn Sr.) has his own doubts about the wisdom of the relationship, too.

In his original review of the film, the late Roger Ebert pointed to "serious faults" in Kramer's film. But he also described it as "a magnificent piece of entertainment" that "will make you laugh and may even make you cry." The film was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, and won two: Best Actress for Hepburn and Best Original Screenplay for William Rose.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is being screened as a special feature by Fathom Events. Its second and final screenings take place today, at 2 and 7 p.m., at both the Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium cinemas.

As Ebert suggested, bring hankies.

Friday’s openings redux: ‘Wonder Wheel’

One addition to make to Friday's movie schedule:

"Wonder Wheel": Woody Allen's new film is set in 1950s Coney Island and explores the world of a carousel operator (Jim Belushi) and his aggrieved wife (Kate Winslet) as told by a young lifeguard (Justin Timberlake).

Also, AMC River Park Square has announced that it will hold a special, seven-hour-30-minute "Pitch Perfect Treble Feature Marathon" on Dec. 21, capped by the premiere of "Pitch Perfect 3."

Click here for tickets.

Friday’s openings: One more Jedi story

Note: The original version of this post said that the new "Ferdinand" movie was a Disney production. It is not. The management regrets the error.

And then it was Jedi time. Looking ahead to Friday's movie openings, we anticipate the latest "Star Wars" offering.

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi": Rey (Daisy Ridley) joins Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as the Resistance takes on the First Order. Hmmm, where have we heard the kind of plot before? Rebels? Empire?

"Ferdinand": Based on the 1936 children's story about a bull that would rather smell flowers than fight, Blue Sky Studios ("Rio," "Ice Age") and Fox adapt the book into a complete feature film. It's kiddie time.

I'll update further when the local theaters finalize their respective schedules.

‘The Square’: a fable for the 21st century

Magic Lantern fans will have the chance to see "The Square," the latest film by Swedish director Ruben Östlund, when it opens today. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

One of the more interesting films to come out of 2014 was a Swedish gem titled “Force Majeure” – a dark tale, written and directed by Ruben Östlund, that explores what happens when a man lies not just to his wife and children but, maybe worst of all, to himself.

Östlund’s new project – which opens today at the Magic Lantern Theatre – is equally fascinating. Darkly comic and anxiety-inducing, to be sure, but fascinating.

Titled “The Square,” Östlund’s film focuses on Christian (Claes Bang), the Nordically urbane curator of a Stockholm modern art museum. Well-versed in talking to crowds, a number of whom are likely wealthy potential patrons, Christian can say all the right things – even while addressing the vagaries of artistic double-speak – in support of the kind of art that would beg the indulgence of Jackson Pollock.

Christian, then, makes the perfect agent for Östlund as the filmmaker satirizes not only art, artists and those whose job it is to market it, but the faux sanctimony of Swedish society – though we in the U.S. shouldn’t begin to celebrate our superiority anytime soon. What Östlund focuses on is society’s claim to value humanity even as that society looks down on individual humans.

The very concept trumpeted by the work of art from which the movie takes its title comes across as less naïve than wantonly ignorant. The installation, which is basically a square-shaped lit tube placed in the middle of a brick courtyard, comes with an inscription that reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

Right. Yet throughout Östlund’s movie, people walk past those in need. And even when they do stop to help, bad things tend to happen. Ingratitude at the least. Robbery at the worst. Both happen to Christian, though the latter is more important because it’s what propels the movie’s narrative.

After being tricked into acting as any good citizen might, Christian finds that he has lost both his phone and wallet. In an attempt to get his possessions back, he posts a threatening letter to every resident of a dodgy apartment complex. And his scheme works. But his actions also attract the attention of someone he has inadvertently wrongly accused, a young boy who promises to bring “chaos” on Christian if he doesn’t apologize.

Meanwhile, the museum is amping up its marketing campaign for the new exhibit, one recommendation being so ludicrous that two characters – playing the chorus to our greater conscience – actually snicker during its presentation. But Christian, involved in dealing with the chaos that is slowly taking over his life – including the robbery, the actions of the unjustly accused kid, and the woman (played by Elizabeth Moss) with whom he performs perhaps the most discomfiting sex scene in film history – offhandedly OKs the campaign. And in doing so, he seals his fate.

Östlund fills his film with uncomfortable moments – off-screen noises, crying babies, and one confounding sequence involving an artiste impersonating an ape – but it’s all in service of an idea: Hypocrisy, thy name is the 21st century.

Catch ‘Lampoon Christmas Vacation’ on Saturday

We've been hearing Christmas carols since before Thanksgiving, so you know people are getting into the spirit of the season. Certainly businesses are.

Especially movie theaters. Take Regal Cinemas' locations at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium. Both will be showing "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" at noon on Saturday.

A 1989 addition to the Lampoon series, the best of which was the first — 1983's "National Lampoon's Vacation" — the Christmas version was written by none other than the late John Hughes. And it was directed by the estimable Jeremiah Chechik, best known to Spokane movie fans as the man who directed "Benny & Joon."

It stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo, who reprise their roles as the married Clark and Ellen, with Juliette Lewis and a virtually unrecognizable Johnny Galecki taking over the roles of their children, Audrey and Rusty.

And if that isn't enough holiday fun for you, the two Regal theaters will screen "Elf." on Dec. 16.

Fa-la-La-la-La, la-La-La-La.

Auntie’s event: ‘Compassionate Foster Care’

Above: (L to R) Molly Kretchmar-Hendricks, Janet C. Mann (Spokesman-Review photo by Jesse Tinsley)

Fiction is full of tales involving orphans (read "Oliver Twist"). But real-life stories involving foster children can be even more harsh.

The problems around foster parenting are what co-authors Janet C. Mann and Molly Kretchmar-Hendricks will address at 7 p.m. Thursday at Auntie's Bookstore. The two co-wrote the book "Creating Compassionate Foster Care: Lessons of Hope from Children and Families in Crisis."

A former foster parent, Mann is founder of Spokane's The Children's Ark foster home. Kretchmar-Hendricks is a professor of developmental psychology at Gonzaga University.

The book's foreword was written by Glenn Cooper, one of the co-founders of The Circle of Security.

One of the quotes from the book is telling: "Every child's way of being can open doors to wisdom, compassion, and human connection. We need only to listen."

Listening certainly isn't the only path to raising healthy children. But it's certainly a good start.

Friday’s openings redux: Supernatural Norway

A couple of additions have been made to the list of Friday's movie openings, which are listed below, including a second run of the Idris Elba-Kate Winslet film "The Mountain Between Us."

The other opening is:

"Thelma": The latest by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, which will play at AMC River Park Square, "Thelma" tells the story of a young woman whose passion brings about mysterious supernatural occurrences. Call it "Carrie Revisited."

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

Lantern to screen provocative ‘The Square’

Word from the Magic Lantern is that — no surprise — the theater is continuing its practice of screening provocative, intriguing cinema. The latest film by "Force Majeure" director Ruben Ostund is on the Lantern's Friday docket.

"The Square": A museum known for supporting challenging works finds a bit of trouble when both its director and the publicity campaign for its latest installation go a bit off script — and off balance. Hey, my kid could draw that!

I'll update the mainstream theaters when they finalize their listings.