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

Check out ‘La Boheme’ on Saturday morning

I was taught early on in my journalism career never to use a question lead: As in, “Are you an opera fan?”

The reason? Because anyone who is NOT an opera fan will answer with a curt no and move on. But that's exactly why this lead is so effective for the post I want to write. Because if you are NOT an opera fan, then you're not going to care that a Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini's “La Boheme” will screen at 10 a.m. Saturday at Regal Cinemas' NorthTown Mall.

Click here for ticket information. And enjoy the singers, portly and otherwise.

Friday’s openings: From science to science fiction

Though only three movies are opening locally this weekend, movie fans should find the range of choices interesting if not actually daunting, particularly to those with a bent for science. The openings are:

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”: The only mainstream opening is a continuation of the Steve Rogers/Captain America story that Marvel Comics began in 2011's “Captain America: The First Avanger,” continued in 2012's “The Avengers” and briefly in 2013's “Thor: The Dark World.” Chris Evans, whose superhero duty includes playing Johnny Story/The Human Torch in the “Fantastic 4” series, returns as America's super-soldier. This time he faces the Winter Soldier, an enemy from the Cold War (and no, that's not code for Vladimir Putin). The movie will be screened in 3-D, regular 2-D and IMAX formats.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Particle Fever”: Documentary filmmaker Mark Levinson explores the preparation and follow-through of the the Large Hadron Collider to attempt to find the elusive Higgs boson.  

“Moulin Rouge — The Ballet”: Debuting in 2009, the ballet production of “Moulin Rouge” is performed by Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet troupe. No, this is not Baz Luhrman's 2001 movie version.

Morris on Rumsfeld: The known remains unknown

For weeks, it seems, movie fans were asking about Wes Anderson's “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” When, they wanted to know, was it coming to Spokane? And on Friday, it finally did.

Funny but I haven't noticed anyone asking about Errol Morris' “The Unknown Known.” Following the format of Morris' 2003 Oscar-winning Documentary feature “The Fog of War,” his “The Unknown Known” is based on the 33 hours Morris spent interviewing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The title comes, of course, from Rumsfeld's famous (or should that be infamous?) statement, made in response to a question during a 2002 news briefing: “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.”

First screened in August 2003 at the Telluride Film Festival, “The Unknown Known” has been working the festival circuit and is only now slowly getting a mainstream release. Available through On Demand services this Friday, it's scheduled to screen April 11 at the Magic Lantern.

To read Morris' own recollection about the experience, click here.

Yuri Adler’s ‘Bethlehem’ is likely to haunt you

Thursday saw the opening night of the 2014 Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival, a festival that typically screens some of the most interesting films of the year. The festival continues Saturday night at the Magic Lantern before concluding Sunday. Saturday's film, “Bethlehem,” is still haunting me a full week after having seen it. Following is an edited version of the review that I wrote for Spokane Pubic Radio:

One of the basic precepts of a classic action movie is the clear delineation between good and evil. More sophisticated filmmakers – even those who play to mainstream audiences – tend to blur the lines between heroes and villains. Overall, though, the essential white-hat/black-hat formula still applies.

So let’s make this abundantly clear: “Bethlehem,” which plays Saturday night at the Magic Lantern as part of the Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival, is no action film. Yes, people get shot, bludgeoned by rocks, tortured, and one dies in a grenade blast. The plot revolves around the search for a suicide bomber. One sequences involves an extended race through city streets at night. And a guy gets pushed to his death down a stairwell.

But this is no Jason Bourne adventure. It is, rather, an intense, powerful, even devastating look at the real-world life of spies and terror and the moral dilemmas that confront those who fight on both sides of a conflict where conduct is dictated as much by the survival principle as by simple pragmatism.

Set in the well-known biblical city, identified in the New Testament as the birthplace of Jesus, the film “Bethlehem” takes us to a place that – at least as seen by writer-director Yuval Adler and co-writer Ali Wakad – is a seething, tightly packed desert town, filled with corrupt politicians, gun-toting men, scarf-clad women and disaffected male youth aping the macho actions of their elders.

Adler follows three main characters: Razi is an operative for Shin Bet, Israel’s Security Service; Sanfur, a name that translates as “Smurf,” is a teenage Palestinian struggling to live in the shadow of his famous resistance-fighter older brother; Badawi is a confederate of Sanfur’s brother, a man striving to make his own mark in a world where power comes as much from lineage and connections as it does from the barrel of a gun.

These characters are engaged in realistic situations that we read about every day. But while moviegoers are bound to react to Adler’s film based on their own individual biases – it’s understandably hard to find common ground between any Israeli-Palestinian issue – Adler makes nothing about “Bethlehem” seem simple. Not plot, not character and particularly not character motivation. More so than most filmmakers, Adler and Wakad don’t tend to blur the lines between bad and good as erase them completely.

Razi, both a father and husband, is basically a decent man. He is ruthless, however, in how he recruits informers, and his actions may be as much for personal reasons as for state security. As he races to locate the afore-mentioned suicide bomber, he makes decisions regarding Sanfur that are questionable, even unprofessional. What’s worse, he lies about those decisions to his colleagues, to his wife – and possibly even to himself.

Much easier to figure out are Sanfur and Badawi. The latter’s single-minded struggle to achieve power is complicated by his Bedouin ethnicity, which makes him a rogue outsider to Palestine’s established leaders – and a dangerous rogue element.  Sanfur, on the other hand, is a rootless boy, unable to keep a job, the loser younger sibling of a community hero, a man-child caught up in a world where respect is earned by innate toughness – and Sanfur, for all his teen bluster, is more Smurf than soldier. It’s easy to see, then, how easily Razi could manipulate him, even to the point of betraying his closest blood relatives.

In the end, notions of good and bad in “Bethlehem” seem secondary. Badawi, though he understands family honor, is tied to suicide bombers and capable of cold-blooded murder. Razi tries to protect Sanfur, though it’s never clear why, and his lies put his own people, as well as himself, in dire jeopardy. And while Sanfur, used by all, respected by none, may deserve sympathy, his inherent neediness, fueled by desperation, masks a deadly kind of rage that ultimately, ironically, plays out in what may be the year’s most shattering climax.

Whatever else you may end up thinking about “Bethlehem,” you’re not likely to forget it.

Those ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ get a new look

I'm not sure this constitutes breaking news, but the trailer for the new adaptation of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is out. I've embedded it below. Produced by Michael Bay, it's directed by Jonathan Liebesman and features Megan Fox of Bay's “Transformers” series. You'll likely be seeing a lot of the trailer because the film is still in post-production and isn't scheduled to hit U.S. theaters until August 8.

Jewish Film Festival adds to the week’s movie riches

As if a number of interesting movies weren't already opening on Friday, this coming weekend will see one of my favorite Spokane film events of the year: the annual Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival. And judging from the three movies that the festival organizers have selected this year, the festival should be as good as ever.

The festival, which will be held at the Magic Lantern, begins at 7:30 p.m. Thursday with a screening of “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Benny Toraty. It tells the story of a man, long estranged from friends and family, who is called to form a group of musicians to perform a song for a dying friend. The film is a road movie of sorts, with the protagonist — played by actor Uri Gavriel — experiencing a number of difficulties, both comic and emotion-wrought, trying to find the right musicians for his group. The music, which is played with traditional instruments, is particularly good.

On Saturday, the festival will feature a 7 p.m. screening of “Bethlehem,” directed and co-written by Yuval Adler. More a police procedural with spy overtones, “Bethlehem” tells the story of Israeli intelligence services infiltrating various Palestinian militant groups and the often violent, and ultimately devastating, consequences. It centers on three figures: an operative for Israel's secret service, the teenage Palestinian boy he recruits and the head of a Palestinian rebel group, all of whose fates are intertwined and lead to the film's shattering climax. “Bethlehem” was Israel's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and is a film you're not likely to forget.

Finally, at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, the festival will screen the documentary “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy.” Written and directed by Michael Kantor, the film — which has already been aired on Public Television — tells the story of Jewish composers and lyricists such as Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein and how their work helped shape the modern Broadway musical.

Tickets to the films can be purchased in advance or at the Lantern box office a half hour before each screening. For more information, click here.

It should be a ‘Grand’ weekend for movie fans

Wes Anderson fans can rejoice: AMC River Park Square is planning to open Anderson's new movie, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” on Friday, along with its regular mix of mainstream and art-house films. Here's what's tentatively coming:

“Noah”: Darren Aronofsky's take on the story from Genesis, which he reportedly imbues with even more imagination than the original, will play in regular and IMAX formats (but, it seems, no 3-D).

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”: The trailers fool you into thinking that this film is nearly a carbon copy of “Moonrise Kingdom,” but I have it on good authority (my daughter, who saw the film in New York) that this period-piece fable may be Anderson's best effort yet.

“Sabotage”: Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a DEA agent whose team members, following a successful raid on a Mexican drug cartel, start dying one by one. At age 66, isn't the big Austrian ready for retirement?

“Cesar Chavez”: Michael Peña plays the charismatic labor organizer whose efforts on behalf of farm workers helped change a nation's consciousness.

“Bad Words”: And, finally, another anticipated film, this one a dark comedy about an adult (Jason Bateman, who also directs) who, through a technicality, forces his way into a regional spelling bee. Talk about arrested development.

Over at the Magic Lantern, in addition to hosting the Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival, the theater will open:

“Mistaken for Strangers”: This documentary tells the story of the indie music group The National as told in personal fashion by Tom Berninger, little brother of lead singer Matt Berninger.

“Enemy”: Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) follows a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who sees his double in a movie and obsessively sets out to track him down.

Don’t expect a literal adaptation of the ‘Noah’ story

It's a simple description: “A man is chosen by God to undertake a momentous mission of rescue before an apocalyptic flood destroys the world.” Only thing is, the man is called Noah. And the story that filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is telling comes from the Bible (specifically the Old Testament, Genesis 5:32-10:1).

But let's be clear: Aronofsky isn't telling a literal Bible story. In fact, his movie — which opens wide on Friday — even carries a disclaimer: “The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”

Aronofsky's “artistic license” clearly will prove upsetting to some people, especially those who were so taken with Mel Gibson's 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ.” But it isn't impressing some critics either.

The guy does make interesting movies, from “Pi” to “Requiem” for a Dream” to “The Wrestler” to “Black Swan.” His version of “Noah” should prove no different. Question is, will it be satisfying?

Here's hoping the answer will have us, uh … floating on air?

Enjoy a virtual winter’s trip to 1377 England

Winter is never an easy time. Yeah, yeah, I know people love winter sports. But it's cold and usually snowy and typically dark from the early afternoon until well after most working people throw their ringing alarms across the room.

Think about what it must have been like to be living in England in December of the year 1377. Author Ned Hayes did, and the process drove him to write “Sinful Folk,” a novel that he will read from at 7 tonight at Auntie's Bookstore.

Here's a short synopsis: “In December of 1377, four children were burned to death in a house fire. Villagers traveled hundreds of miles across England to demand justice for their children's deaths. 'Sinful Folk' is the story of this terrible mid-winter journey as seen by Mear, a former nun who has lived for a decade disguised as a mute man, raising her son quietly in this isolated village. For years, she has concealed herself and all her history. But on this journey, she will find the strength to redeem the promise of her past. Mear begins her journey in terror and heartache, and ends in triumph and transcendence.”

To access some reviews, click here. And make sure to bundle up.

Let’s hope they come up with an ‘Incredibles’ story

Among the animated films that have been released over the past several years, “The Incredibles” ranks among my favorites. The blend of family sitcom and superhero flick, all set to a theme of forced retirement and extraordinary people forced to deal with ordinary problems of existence, was handled with humor and a whole lot of wit.

Now comes word that a sequel to “The Incredibles” has been green lighted. Brad Bird, writer-director of the 2004 original film, is reportedly the guy writing the screenplay (Bird directed the forthcoming “Tomorrowland”).

Given the lackluster success of so many other animated sequels (anyone really like “Cars 2,” not to mention all those straight-to-video films?), the announcement of a second “Incredibles” film might not mean much. But one can always hope. After all, the three “Toy Story” movies were pretty good.

And “Toy Story 2” might be my favorite.

Friday’s openings: heaven and other movie tales

According to a Harris Poll conducted in December, some 74 percent of adults in the U.S. believe in the existence of God. Though that percentage is down eight points from previous polls, it still says something about the spiritual energy of a nation that was founded on the notion of a separate church and state.

It also says something about the movies we watch, which this week include among the Spokane-area openings a Christian-sponsored movie titled “God's Not Dead” that, if nothing else, seems to have a “Duck Dynasty” seal of approval.

The week's scheduled openings:

“Divergent”: Based on a series of novels written by Veronica Roth, this sci-fi fantasy centers on a young woman named Tris who learns that she is “Divergent” and, therefore, different from regular society. When she learns that she and others are being targeted for extinction, she joins the resistance. Hmmmm, think anyone has read/seen the “Hunger Games” series?

“Muppets Most Wanted”: The late Jim Henson's favorite characters return in this jewel-heist caper flick, which stars Rick Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell. Bonus feature: not one but TWO Kermit the Frogs.

“Tim's Vermeer”: Directed by Teller (of the magic duo Penn and Teller), this documentary follows the obsession of technology whiz Tim Jenison for re-creating a painting by the noted artist Johannes Vermeer. No, it's not a magic trick.

“God's Not Dead”: A college student and his philosophy professor debate the existence of Father Time. Or something.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Gloria”: A middle-age Chilean woman looks for love in some of the wrong places. Oh, right, that's a different pop song.

“Different Drummers”: The Lantern opens this locally made film in what is a second run, following a short premiere recently at the AMC River Park Square.

“20 Feet From Stardom”: The Oscar-winning documentary feature, which focuses on the back-up singers for a generation of rock stars, returns for a second run.

Galileo: Learn about the man and his legend

I often find academic lectures a bit unappealing, if not actually boring. I had plenty of those kinds of experiences both as an undergraduate and graduate student. But the program titled “What Can We Learn From Galileo?” which will be held at 7 tonight at Gonzaga University's Jepson Center (in the center's Wolff Auditorium), could well prove to be an exception.

Gonzaga faculty members Brian Clayton and Eric Kincanon will be addressing the facts — and trying to differentiate those from the vast amount of fiction — surrounding the Italian astronomer Galileo Galiei. Clayton, an associate professor of philosophy,  will address Galileo's “legend” versus the “reality,” while Kincannon, a professor of physics, will outline the man's many scientific contributions.

Astronomy and the larger world of science are in the news today thanks both to the new “Cosmos” series and the release of the most recent study regarding the Big Bang Theory. And Galileo was one of the men who helped us begin to understand how the universe works, a process that has led humanity gradually away from the dark of superstition.

Tonight's program is free and open to the public.

Nice present for Spokane: a second run for ‘The Past’

Though it's already opened in Spokane, Iranian-born filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's film “The Past” played at AMC River Park Square for only a week. It's a good enough film to warrant a second run, though, which is what the Magic Lantern is giving it beginning today. Following is my review of “The Past,” which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The Chinese philosopher-poet Lao Tzu once wrote, “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” But can we ever really know ourselves, much less anyone else?

If that question intrigues you, then you’ll likely appreciate the films of Asghar Farhadi. The Iranian-born director may not specialize in providing answers, but he shapes his questions in ways designed to lead you to your own conclusions.

Take “A Separation,” which won the 2012 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It tells the story of a middle-class Iranian couple, parents of a teenage girl, whose dueling emotional quandaries are pulling them apart. She wants to leave Iran, as much for her own sake as for the opportunities that living abroad will provide their daughter; he, on the other hand, feels bound to his home country by obligation – mainly to his father, whose mind is descending inexorably into dementia. What’s most striking is that our two protagonists, who presumably once loved each other, have lost the ability to communicate – and, in fact, talk almost obsessively at cross purposes. Each is so busy mustering personal arguments that neither can hear what the other is saying.

Much the same holds true in Farhadi’s new movie, “The Past,” which opens this weekend at the Magic Lantern Theater. Though “The Past” boasts a more involved plot than does “A Separation,” the film’s characters may be even less skilled at simple information-sharing.

Ahmad (Iranian actor Ali Mosaffa) has returned to Paris at the request of his estranged wife, Marie (French actress Bérénice Bejo) so they can finalize their divorce. Marie, who lives with her two daughters from a previous marriage, has taken up with a new man, Samir (French actor Tahir Rahim), who, with his pre-teen son, splits time between Marie’s house and his own apartment. Samir runs his own laundry business and is married, to a woman who happens to be in a coma, plot points that ultimately will prove important.

Ahmad’s arrival causes added tensions in the house, with Marie’s elder daughter acting like a sullen teen, Samir reacting just as petulantly, his son caught in a seemingly perpetual tantrum and Marie matching them all, mood for mood.

Ahmad tries to play peacemaker, even as he fights his own emotions. He’s hardly happy to have been replaced, after all. But Marie, for all her intensity, is only human, too. And she’s clearly harboring unresolved feelings for this man she once loved. Yet after their initial reconnection – an awkward moment in which the two are forced to mime their greetings – they quickly resort to the kind of bickering that was likely why they split up in the first place. Feelings of guilt, need and even desperation combine to prevent all of Farhadi’s characters from seeing what’s really going on – much less how to fix the problem.

That blindness, though – along with technical proficiency, a penchant for finding good actors and an ability to navigate artfully through maze-like narratives – embodies Farhadi’s strength as a filmmaker: He is uniquely skilled at creating complicated characters who are less good or bad than merely representative of how real humans tend to behave.

The good news? Meeting Farhadi’s characters could prove enlightening, a good first step toward understanding not only others – but also ourselves.


IMDb takes us behind the scenes of ‘Need for Speed’

I've been a fan of the Internet Movie Database, better known as IMDb, since its inception. It made my job as The Spokesman-Review's movie critic so much easier; before then, I had to depend on other sources, mainly film bookers and PR types for local theater chains who had little first-hand information. (It was much easier to write a video column, because written sources — such as Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide — could offer most of what I needed.)

Now, of course, film information can be found all over the Internet. Sites as diverse as Variety.com to Indiewire.comFilm School Rejects to Rotten Tomatoes offer everything from reviews to interviews to all the background information you need concerning both your favorite movie or television show and the people who create them.

IMDb, though, remains the go-to source. And recently, the site has initiated a What to Watch Web Series, which provides features and interviews with current movie releases. Take, for example, the action film “Need for Speed,” which opens officially tomorrow (but will have screenings tonight). IMDb taped an interview with star Aaron Paul and director Scott Waugh, which you can access by clicking here.

The interview is definitely worth checking out. If nothing else, it shows the efforts that film producers make to induce positive publicity. And, it turns out, “Need for Speed” could use the help. Most legitimate critics are slamming the film pretty hard.

Everything is awesome: ‘Lego Movie’ sequel coming

If, like almost everyone I know, you enjoyed “The Lego Movie,” then here's some good news: A sequel is in the works.

According to the website Deadline Hollywood, the new movie — which has made some $363 million worldwide (on a reported $60 million production budget) — will be directed by Chris McKay, the guy who served as animation co-director on the first film, which was co-directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Lord and Miller are writing the sequel's treatment.

You may be familiar with McKay's work if, that is, you've ever watched “Robot Chicken” on the Cartoon Network. He's apparently directed more than 40 episodes of that adult-comedy series.

Everything truly is awesome — at least in Legoland.


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