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SpIFF 2015: The jury has its say

Above: A still shot from Anna and Nicholas Hudak's award-winning documentary feature "Where God Likes to Be."

And just that fast, the 2015 Spokane International Film Festival is over. Those who attended (and many did) had the opportunity to see 50-some films — shorts, features and documentaries — from more than 20 countries, giving new meaning to the annual event's international aura.

Everyone who did attend has, presumably, a favorite among the entries. And the SpIFF jury, made up from the board of directors (on which I serve), the programmers and various area film educators and professionals, is no different. Only difference? The jury's choices carry the weight of authority (and is something the filmmakers can pin on their pajamas).

The jury winners of SpIFF 2015 are as follows:

Best of the NW Feature: Gold SpIFFy: "Where God Likes to Be" (Anna Hudak, Nicolas Hudak, Germany/USA); Silver SpIFFy: "Wildlike" (Frank Hall Green, USA)

Best of the NW Short: Gold SpIFFy: "The Package" (Dave Kotlan, USA); Silver SpIFFy: "Serenade" (Kendra Ann Sherrill, USA)

Best Documentary: Gold SpIFFy: "Evaporating Borders" (Iva Radivojevic, USA/Cyprus); Silver SpIFFy: "Where God Likes to Be" (Anna Hudak, Nicolas Hudak, Germany/USA)

Best Mid-Length: Gold SpIFFy: "From the Sky" (Ian Ebright, USA); Silver SpIFFy: "People in the Trees" (Jonah Vigil, USA)

Best Short Film: "Still" (Jeff Rutherford, USA)

Best Animated Short: "A Single Life" (Job, Joris & Marieke, Netherlands)

Most Promising Filmmaker: Ian Ebright ("From the Sky")

Personally, I would have given an extra award: Geena Pietromonaco, who was the sole actor in Jeff Rutherford's award-winning short "Still," is my choice as Best Actress. Unfortunately, SpIFF does not give out acting awards. But if anyone in SpIFF 2015 deserves it, Pietromonaco definitely does.

Just as soon as the balloting is done, we'll announce the Audience Award winners. And then it's on to SpIFF 2016.

SpIFF 2015: Walkabouts and vampires

And so we approach the penultimate day of the Spokane International Film Festival. And we move from the Magic Lantern, where tickets were hard to come by, back to the Bing Crosby Theater — where tickets are almost always easy to score.

Oh, and a late-night screening at the Garland, where seats are almost as available.

Finally, don't forget the Closing-Night Party and Awards Announcement, which will be held at the Bing following the second feature.

Tonight's SpIFF schedule is as follows:

5:30, "Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter" (1:14): Martha Hill was an early proponent of dance, an influential instructor who helped shape dance for the 20th century. Hosted by Marianna di Lorenzo of Simply Dance Studio.

8 p.m., "Charlie's Country" (1:48): Dutch filmmaker Rolf de Heer directed this look at an Aborigine fella who, chafing against Australian law, heads to the Outback to live life as he wants. Lessons will be learned. Hosted by SpIFF programmer Vaughn Overlie.

11:55 p.m., "Girl Walks Alone at Night" (1:39), preceded by the short film "People in the Trees": Shot in black and white, Iran-American filmmaker Lily Amirpour's film is a haunting look at a village preyed upon by a lonely vampire. Hosted by Adam Boyd, a SpIFF programmer and lecturer at Eastern Washington University. "People in the Trees" director Jonah Vigil is expected to attend.

One day to go. Click here for ticket information.

Two days, one night, a master class in acting

After a short run at AMC River Park Square, the Dardenne brothers film "Two Days, One Night" has moved to the Magic Lantern. It's well worth a watch, even if just to enjoy a super performance by one of the Oscar-nominated actresses, Marion Cotillard. Following is a transcription of the film review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Imagine you’ve been ill. Maybe it’s been a physical illness. Maybe emotional. Either way, you’ve had to take time off from work. Then one Friday afternoon you receive a phone call from a coworker, a friend, telling you that the owner of the company you work for has given her and the other 15 employees an option: to vote for a thousand-dollar bonus OR to retain your position.

And just that fast, you discover you’re out of a job.

Or are you? Your friend wants you to fight, to come to the office, talk to the boss and request that he hold another vote Monday morning. And when you ask “What would be the point?” your friend hatches a plan: Over the weekend, you’ll visit as many of your coworkers as you can. If you can convince nine of them to vote in your favor, your job is saved.

And so you face a choice: Stay in bed, down another pill – Xanax, maybe – and sleep away your disappointment. Or get up – and fight.

This, then, is the plot of the Dardenne brothers film “Two Days, One Night.” The Belgian-born brothers – Luc and Jean-Pierre – specialize in making films that explore the struggles associated with European working-class life. 1996’s “La Promesse,” for example, involves a father and son profiting from the exploitation of immigrant workers. 2005’s “L’enfant” introduces us to a barely-making-it couple who are desperate to find a new means of income, even if that involves using their newborn son as a cash cow.

What sets the Dardennes apart is that they focus their movie plots on matters of conscience. In “La Promesse,” the son must confront his own sense of morality. Same with the father in “L’enfant.”

In “Two Days, One Night,” Marion Cotillard, 2008 Oscar winner for “La Vie en Rose” – and an Oscar nominee again this year – portrays Sandra, a wife and mother of two who is barely getting by. With her husband working as a kitchen helper, it’s only been because of her job at a solar-panel business that they’ve been able to get off the dole and out of public housing. Losing her job will mean a big step back.

But as she – and we – discover, Sandra and her family live and work alongside people who have similar problems. People to whom a thousand euros, or just over $1,100, might pay their rent for a year. Or help put their child through school. Or pay medical bills. All of which makes Sandra’s quest – to convince a majority to support her return to work – that much harder.

It isn’t so much Sandra’s conscience that the Dardennes examine; they merely require her to fight through a kind of depression that would drop Buddha to his knees. No, the sense of doing what’s right involves mostly her coworkers, each of whom – either because of necessity or mere greed – must figure out the right path to take.

And deciding what’s right is often not easy. In or out of the movies.

SpIFF 2015: Mariachis y una bruja

Three programs to go before we say goodbye to the Spokane International Film Festival for 2015. Tonight's shows, both of which screen at the Magic Lantern, are as follows:

"Que caramba es la vida" (1:28, 100-seat hours): The Mexican music genre of Mariachi is typically performed by men. But this documentary by filmmaker Doris Dorrie follows the careers of several women who both perform their own variations and try to maintain personal lives. Hosted by Barbara Loste and Natalie Ruiz-Rubio of Eastern Washington University's Department of Modern Languages. In Spanish with English Subtitles. 6:30 p.m.

"The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga" (1:13, 33-seat house): This is a repeat showing of one of the festival's most fascinating documentaries. Using a "Hansel and Gretel"-type folk tale as a basis, filmmaker Jessica Oreck fills the screen with hauntingly beautiful images of Eastern Europe. Hosted by SpIFF programmer Isaac Joslin. In English, Russian and Polish with English Subtitles. 6:45 p.m.

Click here for ticket information.

Win tickets to “In The Mood”

Take an up-tempo trip to the past with “In The Mood,” a 1940s Big Band musical tribute to Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, The Andrews Sisters and more. Complete with period costumes and choreography, “In The Mood” is a throwback to USO shows that boosted morale for the troops during World War II.

We’re giving away a pair of tickets to see “In The Mood” at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Sunday, Mar. 8, 3 p.m. Visit spokane7.com/contests to enter to win! Contest closes Mar. 4. Winner will be announced Mar. 5.

Submit info for 2015 Summer Camp directory

Punxsutawney Phil may have seen his shadow last week, but we’re already planning for summer!

The Spokesman-Review is preparing our annual Summer Camp directory for publication on May 6, and we need your info! If you run a day camp, an overnight camp, sports camp, art camp, computer camp—you get the idea—we want to know about it!

Read full post ›

SpIFF 2015: Of war and culture clash

We're halfway through the 2015 Spokane International Film Festival, which has been an unusual experience for some of us long-time fest attendees. Before this year, I can remember only once or twice that I wasn't able to score a seat. But thanks to some valuable sponsorships — particularly to STCU — tickets are a fairly hot item.

So I'm glad that the festival is doing well. But I haven't been able to see all the movies. Bummer. Ah, well. I' get over it. Two more films grace the Magic Lantern's screens tonight. They are:

"Come to My Voice" (1:45, 100-seat theater): This Turkish-French-German production follows a Kurdish woman and her granddaughter as they try to free the man in their lives (one's son, the other's father) who, along with other village men, has been imprisoned by an ambitious army officer. The film will be introduced by Mary Pat Treuthart, a professor of law at Gonzaga Law School and co-host of "Movies 101." In English and Kurdish with subtitles.

"Walking Under Water" (1:16, 33-seat theater): For generations, the Badjao — Malaysian villagers who live near Borneo — have lived off the sea. Documentary filmmaker Eliza Kubarska studies the differences between the lives of two villagers, uncle and nephew, and the modern world that is encroaching on them. Hosted by Sayer Broughton, a SpIFF programmer. In English and Polish with subtitles.

For SpIFF ticket information, click here.

Friday’s openings: 50 shades of bray

Note: A late-received email caused a change in the original information contained in this post:

It appears that the last Oscar-nominated performance — that of Julianne Moore in "Still Alice" — will finally open this week in Spokane. Which is strange, since Moore is winning every Best Actress honor around. Ah, well. Better late than … whatever.

Following are Friday's scheduled openings:

"Still Alice": Moore plays a college professor who, gradually, loses herself to Alzheimer's. Oscar is singing.

"Fifty Shades of Grey": E.L. James' "erotic romance" finally comes to the big screen, courtesy of director Sam Taylor-Johnson. Make way for the soccer moms.

"Kingsman: The Secret Service": When an English street kid runs afoul of the law, he finds himself recruited by a secret intelligence service — which teaches him to drink his martinis shaken, not stirred.

And at the Magic Lantern:

Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts: Part one of two programs comprises two films: "“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” (U.S., :39), which involved counselors talking to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and “Joanna” (Poland, :40), which follows a dying woman experiencing her final days with her family. Bring hankies. Lots of them.

"Two Days, One Night": Picking up this Belgian-made drama, written and directed by the Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc), the Lantern will give us another chance to capture Marion Cotillard's Oscar-nominated performance.

So go. See a movie. Enjoy.

SpIFF 2015: If it’s Tuesday, this must be Africa

Before we get to Monday night's Spokane International Film Festival feature showing, let's go over what's playing tonight (both screenings are at the Magic Lantern Theater):

"Song From the Forest" (6:30, 100-seat house) — German documentary filmmaker Michael Obert tells the story of American ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno, who spent the better part of three decades in Africa's Congo Basin recording the music of the Central African Republic’s Bayaka pygmies. As a reviewer in Variety wrote, the film is "a curious case of a docu shoot in which a trip to New York feels more exotic than the surrounding rainforest-set footage, which is presented as 'life as usual.' ” Presented with English subtitles.

"Animation Showcase" (6:45, 33-seat house) — Nine short films, including three Oscar-nominated entries, express the range of animation talent around the world. Countries represented include the U.S., Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands and Ireland.

For ticket information, click here.

Regarding Monday's feature film: "Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter" is one of this year's strangest offerings. It's based on an urban legend of a Japanese woman who came to Minnesota and, supposedly, died while searching for the buried loot from the Coen Brothers movie "Fargo" that she thought was real. (In reality, a Japanese woman was found dead in 2001 after having visited Minnesota, but it was determined that she'd actually committed suicide.)

Directed by David Zellner, and starring Rinko Kikuchi, "Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter" follows our protagonist as she finds a mysterious copy of a VHS tape (of "Fargo"), becomes convinced the tape is real, that she is like a "Spanish Conquistador" and, with the help of a stolen credit card, heads for Fargo, N.D. She meets a number of people along the way, including a friendly sheriff's deputy (played by the director), but no one can convince her that she's looking for something that doesn't exist.

Zellner is well familiar with "Fargo," to the point where some of his characters speak like those from the Coens' movie, and some of his scenes feel as if they're taken directly from the film (especially one that has Kumiko running across a snowy field). Kikuchi ("Babel," "Pacific Rim") is good as our lonely, inhibited, sadly doomed protagonist. And the "Kumiko" musical score is, throughout, haunting.

But if there's a message to be found here, other than some people are gullible to the extreme, I really can't say what it is.

SpIFF 2015: Japan goes Coen Brothers

Our resident cinematic treasure, the Spokane International Film Festival, had a pretty fair opening weekend. One of the best in its 17-year history. So now we continue the run, through Saturday, and we'll see just how interested Spokane movie fans are about seeing intriguing film.

The festival screens two programs, essentially back to back, at the Magic Lantern tonight. A feature, "Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter," will screen in the Lantern's 100-seat theater at 6:30. A program of International Shorts will screen in the 33-seat theater beginning at 6:45.

The feature, which will be hosted by Chase Ogden, a professor of film at Eastern Washington University, follows a young Japanese woman who is convinced that the loot seen buried in the movie "Fargo" is real. And so she goes off in search of it. David Ehrlich, writing for Film.com, called it "One of the best films to ever premiere at Sundance" — which is fairly high praise.

The shorts program will be hosted by Adam Boyd, a lecturer in film at EWU and a filmmaker himself. Seven films, ranging from four to 23 minutes and hailing from countries as diverse as China, Canada and Brazil, fill out the program.

Bit of advice: Seats at the Lantern are, clearly, limited. Show up early to ensure that you get in.

SPIFF 2015: The Godard, the bad, the ugly

In the years I’ve been attending the Spokane International Film Festival, I can count on the fingers of one hand the screenings I have enjoyed more than the one I sat through tonight.

The movie shown, of course, was Jean-Luc Godard's “Adieu au langage 3D,” which played at AMC River Park Square following the Oscar-nominated animated feature “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.”

Saying that I enjoyed the Godard screening, however, is hardly the same thing as saying that I liked the Godard film. It’s a challenging view, of course, but that’s not the problem; Godard acting the provocateur is, anymore, the whole point of what he does.

No, what bothered me about the film is the attendant bombast, the pretentious absurdity, the half-baked ideas and overheated imagery. Worst of all, “Adieu au langage 3D” feels derivative – a shopworn collage of the same concepts and styles Godard has been foisting on film aesthetes since the mid-1970s.

Oh, the 3D felt fresh enough. But what with its broken narrative, casual nudity, quick-cut editing, shots of dogs, use of Beethoven and Sibelius on what passes for a soundtrack, references to thoughts offered up by everyone from Mary Shelley to Sigmund Freud, endless transitions from nature to urban life, all set up against characters – one sometimes sitting on the toilet, the other standing aside and ignoring the rude sounds being emitted – expounding as if they were undergraduates debating the virtues of, say, Wittgenstein … well, “Adieu au langage 3D” feels more like an exercise in frivolity than a serious statement put on film.

Yeah, frivolity. To me, the film works best as an actual comedy. I know I laughed most of the way through it. Bad comedy, sure, but comedy nonetheless. It’s almost as if the crew at “Saturday Night Live” tried its best to do a satire on the worst (or best, who can tell the difference?) Godard film ever made. It’s as if someone wanted to replicate “De Düva,” a famous short that perfectly satirizes Ingmar Bergman.

No disrespect to film sholars, but Godard – a man Manny Farber once referred to as “the Matisse of modern film” – ran out of ideas four decades ago. What he’s been doing since then, aside from sticking his cinematic finger in the eye of Hollywood (for which he deserves full credit), is providing countless academics with material just obscure enough to meet the requirements of their Ph.D. dissertations.

But I repeat. I enjoyed tonight’s screening. Really. Every film festival needs a little provocation, and SpIFF is no different. My only disappointment is that there weren’t more walkouts (I counted only five).

I suspect Godard himself would have loved to see a dozen or so.

SpIFF 2015: Moviegoing is a good way to mourn

We're entering the first weekend of the 2015 Spokane International Film Festival, and the response so far has been surprisingly good. Nearly a full house showed up for Thursday's opening at AMC River Park Square, and an even bigger crowd showed up Friday night at the Bing Crosby Theater for the Best of the Northwest shorts program and the two documentaries "Queens of the Roleo" and "Dryland."

Today offers a whole new schedule, at both the Magic Lantern and The Bing. Click here for the schedule.

In other news, the Los Angeles Times on Friday noted the passing last week of the screenwriter Stewart Stern. Most known as the author of the screenplay for the James Dean vehicle "Rebel Without a Cause," Stern had been living for the past three decades in Seattle.

The most profound passage from the Times obit, at least to me, involved what Stern learned while serving in the Army during World War II: "I discovered that everyone, no matter how much tough armor he's created around himself, is, fundamentally, a sensitive, responsive person who needs just as much reassurance as the rest of us. And that gave me a great deal of strength and insight, and it also informed my writing of 'Rebel' — especially this whole question of the masks we feel we need to wear in front of others — and what exactly defines a 'man.' "

Take a moment and consider that statement. And then go and mourn Stern's passing in a manner he would most likely appreciate: See a movie.

SpIFF 2015: Shorts and farm stories at The Bing

The 2015 Spokane International Film Festival opened last night at AMC River Park Square, and from all signs it was a success. Close to 200 people nearly filled AMC's house No. 9 to see the opening-night movie, "Vivir es facil con los ojos cerrados," and a couple of dozen hung around after to comment on what they'd seen.

The festival continues tonight at 5:45 at the Bing Crosby with a program of short films, "Best of the Northwest," followed by a pair of longer documentary shorts, "Queens of the Roleo" and "Dryland."

The shorts program comprises 10 films by a collection of Northwest filmmakers, all but one (Canadian director Lyle Pisio) from the U.S. They range in length from

The two longer films screen in a single program beginning at 8. "Queens of the Roleo" (dir. David Jones) follows four young women from Lewiston, Idaho, who over 14 years won a series of national championships. "Dryland" (dir. Sue Arbuthnot, Richard Wilhelm) tells the story of farm life in Lind, Wash., keying on a couple of young men and their annual quest to win the Lind Combine Demolition Derby.

Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.

Note: An earlier version of this post listed the wrong time for the Best of the Northwest Shorts program. According to The Bing website, the doors open at 5:45.

Dryland - Official Trailer from Hare in the Gate Productions on Vimeo.

First Friday Spotlight: “A Traveler’s Eye”

Kay Cullen Richardson’s portraits will be on display tonight and throughout February at Dodson’s Jewelers. According to their website, Richardson began painting while studying abroad in Florence with Gonzaga University. Her portraits continue to reflect her love and travel and an “awareness of her surroundings.”

Meet Richardson at Dodson’s tonight from 5-8 p.m.

Find more First Friday events in today’s The Spokesman-Review, in print and online. Get information about ongoing art exhibits in Spokane7’s Visual Arts calendar.

Image courtesy of Dodson's Jewelers.

HBO should adapt ‘A Most Violent Year’

I'm still amazed at how many filmmakers try to stuff long narratives into standard mainstream-movie running times. Recent examples include "Unbroken," "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory of Everything." All too often the stories feels truncated. And as if to compensate for this, the directors (not to mention screenwriters) focus on particular concepts that may, or may not, authentically capture the story — especially when the stories are based on actual events.

The recent release "A Most Violent Year" is a work of fiction. But in the movie review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I argue that the story that writer-director J.C. Chandor dreamed up might have worked better if he had sold it as a television miniseries. Anyway, following is my review:  

Time was, movies were king. Even when it came along some half century later, television – until the last couple of decades, at least – acted mostly like the idiot pretender to the throne.

As anyone boasting half a feel for quality has noticed, though, that situation has changed. With cable channels such as HBO, Showtime, Starz! and FX – and more recently even Netflix – providing original material, the best of TV has drawn even, maybe even has surpassed, the best theatrical releases.

The latest bit of evidence: writer-director J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year.” Set in the New York of 1981, Chandor’s film tells the story of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a businessman of Hispanic ethnicity who is attempting to force his way into the regional fuel market. From everything we can see, Abel is an honorable man. Yet he lives in a dishonorable world.

Chandor’s movie begins innocently enough, with one of Abel’s fuel-truck drivers working his delivery route. Then, with a suddenness that is as shocking as it is violent, the truck is hijacked. And that single act sets the stage: While Abel dresses as if he has an MBA, and preaches a business philosophy that is part Dr. Phil, part “Glengarry Glenn Ross,” he is clearly swimming among sharks. And the question becomes: Is Abel tough enough to keep from being eaten?

Most everyone he encounters seems to wonder this, including his drivers, especially the hijacked one, Julian, who sees Abel as a mentor. His lawyer (Albert Brooks) does. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), continually does. Only Abel’s competitors, including the seemingly friendly Peter (Alessandro Nivola), do not – mostly because, as they make abundantly clear, they’re certain that tough is one thing Abel isn’t.

Smooth, yes. Even lucky. But tough? No.And so the pressure comes to bear. As Abel tries to close on a deal for an ideal river-side storage facility, his trucks keep getting hit, an ambitious local prosecutor (David Oyelowo) threatens him with criminal charges, his bank suddenly questions Abel’s business plan, and someone even sends a thug to his house with a loaded pistol.

One way to see “A Most Violent Year” is as a blend of, say, “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos.” It’s as if Abel is the early Michael Corleone, the naïve youngest son who wants no part of his father’s world – until forces unite to pull him in. And that’s what Chandor’s film explores: Where is the line between business and criminality, and what would cause an essentially good man to step over it?

In the end, though, that’s where “A Most Violent Year” falls short. Yes, Isaac, so good in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is equally good here. Chastain shows even more pluck than she displayed in “Zero Dark Thirty.” And despite feeling a shade too murky, Bradford Young’s cinematography carries a sense of late-’70s grit. Yet the ending Chandor gives us feels incomplete – as if it were only the pilot of a potential HBO miniseries.

One, I have to add, that’s missing a decent cliff-hangar.

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