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

Baldwin documentary one of the year’s best

When the Oscars were handed out a week ago, the Best Documentary Feature award went to the ESPN production "O.J.: Made in America." But though worthy, it had stiff competition. Below is my review of one of the other nominees, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Of the five 2016 films nominated for Best Documentary Feature, three deal with American race relations. And one of those films, Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” serves a valuable dual purpose: It both refreshes our collective memory of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and it introduces a great American writer to a new generation of readers.

James Baldwin isn’t exactly a forgotten man. But whenever lists of influential writers of the 20th century are made public, his name is seldom included. Yet as Peck’s film shows, Baldwin was an important voice during one of this country’s most turbulent eras.

Born in 1924, Baldwin was a precocious New York City kid who grew up facing prejudice both because of his race and, later, because of his sexual orientation. In fact, Baldwin was writing about the lives of gay men long before the birth of any kind of gay movement.

Having made connections in the New York literary scene, writing for such publications as The Nation and Partisan Review, Baldwin – to escape what to him was a stultifying atmosphere – moved to Paris. Then in his mid-20s, Baldwin blossomed, over the years churning out novels such as 1953’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” as well as essays, criticism and even stage plays.

Peck mentions some of this in “I Am Not Your Negro” – which is a line that Baldwin himself delivered – but his focus is on a period encompassed by the deaths of three major voices in the civil rights movement: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In the years before his own death in 1987, Baldwin worked on a book about the three martyred leaders – a book he never finished.

Using Baldwin’s own words, spoken with an understated sense of power by the actor Samuel L. Jackson, Peck shapes a narrative that both captures the strength of Baldwin’s intelligence and convictions while portraying the racial struggles that confronted each of the slain men – all of whom were Baldwin’s friends. Peck augments Jackson’s spoken narrative, which is drawn from a number of Baldwin’s written works, with visuals collected from a variety of sources: newsreels, television shows (such as those hosted by Dick Cavett) and – as visual footnotes – movies such as “The Defiant Ones,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “In the Heat of the Night.”

But even when our protagonist is put up against the charismatic screen presences of Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, or even King or Malcolm X, director Peck makes sure that it is Baldwin who stands out. And Baldwin makes the director’s job easy. For whether responding to Cavett, contradicting a pompous (and white) professor of philosophy, or in 1965 debating the noted conservative William F. Buckley in front of an audience of Cambridge University students, Baldwin commands our attention.

“The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country,” the prescient Baldwin says. How bright that future is, given recent events, is more questionable now than ever.

Oscar winner ‘The Salesman’ worth a second view

Other than host Jimmy Kimmel's numerous pokes at Donald Trump, Sunday's Oscars telecast was relatively muted in terms of political speeches given — unlike the Golden Globes, for example.

But one of the most focused comments came during the presentation of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, which went to "The Salesman," which was written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi.

Farhadi, if you'll recall, declined to attend the ceremonies. It's arguable that he might not have been able to, considering Trump's controversial executive order barring immigrants from seven countries, one of which is Iran. But Farhadi said he would not come as a way of protesting the order.

That didn't stop Anousheh Ansari, the woman who accepted the Oscar on Farhadi's behalf, from commenting. Reading from a statement written by Farhadi, Ansari said, “Dividing the world into categories of ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ creates fear.”

By the way, this is Farhadi's second Oscar. His first came for his 2011 film "A Separation." The irony is that his two Oscars haven't won him fans among all Iranians.

If you haven't yet seen "The Salesman," the Magic Lantern Theater is bringing the film back for a second run. It opens on Friday. Following are some of the critical comments:

David Sims, The Atlantic: "A typically wrenching film for Farhadi, one that morphs from a quiet family drama to a tale of revenge, and is all the more impressive for how seamlessly it executes that shift."

Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail: "It is a work entirely worthy of any prize anyone chooses to bestow on it, a compassionate and intelligent thing that should linger long after the 24-hour news cycle is over or the political flavour of the month goes stale."

Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal: "Tightly focused, rather than broad-gauge brilliant, and another instance of this superb filmmaker turning elusive motivations and the mysteries of personality into gripping drama."

For a variety of reasons, "The Salesman" is worth a view. Even a second one.

Friday’s openings redux: Members of the wedding

Along with the movie openings listed below, we can expect a couple of Oscar second runs and two movies not previously mentioned. The additional mainstream movie openings are as follows:

"A United Kingdom": David Oyelowo and Rosamond Pike portray the real-life king of Botswana and the British woman whom he married, which caused problems both at home and internationally. Think King George VIII and Wallis Simpson — if, of course, Simpson were black.

"Table 19": The "losers" at a wedding, all of whom sit at the same table, include the former maid of honor (Anna Kendrick). Wonder if a hangover is part of the plot?

Still a chance to see Oscar faves on the big screen

Despite the confusion that occurred during the closing moments of Sunday's Oscar broadcast — when the Best Picture Oscar was first announced as "La La Land" then correctly awarded to "Moonlight" — the show was one of the best in years.

Jimmy Kimmel proved to be a capable host, his mostly deadpan delivery keeping the attention on the show itself instead of on him (and when it did focus on him — and Matt Damon — it was funny). The musical numbers, for once, were worked into the fabric of the show — beginning with Justin Timberlake's opening and continuing to John Legend singing both "La La Land" nominations (including the winner "City of Stars").

And most of the speeches where short, heartfelt and avoided the big dramatic political diatribe that was really unneeded. Kimmel provided a running commentary that fulfilled that function, and besides, Meryl Streep said it all — and said it better than anyone else could have — during her Golden Globes moment.

Few people are going to remember how entertaining the show was, however. It will always be remembered for that final, huge screwup. Which is too bad.

Anyway, life goes on. And local movie fans have plenty of chances to still see some of the Oscar nominees and winners on the big screen over the next few days (movie schedules changed on Friday) and maybe weeks.

River Park Square, for example, is still showing "Moonlight" (Best Picture), "Hidden Figures" (Best Picture nominee), "Lion" (Best Picture Nominee), "I Am Not Your Negro" (Best Documentary nominee), "The Red Turtle" (Best Animated Feature nominee) and "Toni Erdmann" (Best Foreign Language Picture nominee).

Regal Cinemas NorthTown Mall is showing "Hidden Figures." Regal's Spokane Valley 12 is showing both "Hidden Figures" and "La La Land." Regal's Coeur d'Alene Riverstone Stadium 14 is showing "Hidden Figures," "La La Land" and "Lion."

Village Centre Cinemas Wandermere is showing "Hidden Figures," "La La Land" and "Lion," while Village Centre Cinemas Airway Heights is showing both "Hidden Figures" and "La La Land."

The Magic Lantern is showing an Oscar extravaganza: "Moonlight," "Lion," the Oscar-nominated animated shorts, live-action shorts and both programs of the documentary shorts. And it is already announced that it will bring back the winning Best Foreign Language film, Iran's "The Salesman," on Friday.

So go. See one of the Oscar-worthy films. It may be your last chance to do so anywhere else except on your home television screen.

Below: Disney's "Piper" won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

Friday’s openings: X-Men and second lives

Another week, another set of movies that aren't likely to win Academy Awards. But we might find some hidden gems in there somewhere. The scheduled slate of national openings is as follows:

"Logan": Based on the comic book "Old Man Logan," this X-Men variation tells the story of an aging Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and the young mutant girl he is convinced to help — a girl who has powers similar to those he possesses. X-Girl forever.

 "The Shack": A grieving father (Sam Worthington) finds his way to a place in the woods where he encounters the emotional healing he so desperately needs. Bring a hanky.

"Before I Fall": Based on the novel by Lauren Oliver, this teen saga follows a high school senior who finds herself living the same day — a day she seemingly dies — over and over. Think "Groundhog Day" meets "Mean Girls."

As always, I'll have the final listings when they become available.

‘Toni Erdmann’ is slightly comic, slightly mad

One of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film is Germany's "Toni Erdmann." If you haven't yet seen it (it's playing at AMC River Park Square), you might want to check out the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Love him or hate him, Syd Field wrote the textbook upon which many movies have been made. The late Field, who taught for a while at USC’s film school, formulated a series of rules regarding screenplays that include a three-act structure, 120-page script length and conflict necessarily propelling the narrative.

The problem with rules, of course, is that so many people are loathe to break them. And when you combine that reluctance with a lack of understanding about cinematic essentials, you end up with the many cookie-cutter film projects that open every single week.

Traditionally, this has been an American problem. By contrast, European cinema from Eisenstein to Bergman, Antonioni to Kieslowski, while conforming to some of Field’s basic principles, has tended – until recent years – to go its own way. As the market for cinema grows exponentially international, some European filmmakers are adopting more Hollywood-type conventions. But not all.

Take Germany’s Maren Ade. Her film “Toni Erdmann,” which is one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Oscar, follows some of Field’s rules. She does give us a pair of protagonists, both of whom have goals to achieve, and each faces a fair amount of conflict. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

“Toni Erdmann” tells the story of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an elderly music teacher who, when we first meet him, seems to be at a crossroads: Near the end of his career, and facing a couple of personal losses, he embarks on a mission to engage with his middle-age daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). I say “engage” purposefully because Winfried, an inveterate joker, doesn’t do much that anyone would consider normal.

For example, when greeting a delivery man at his front door, he might pretend to be someone else. He carries a set of fake teeth that he’ll wear at a moment’s notice. Same with a wig that makes him look like James Brolin playing an aging hippie.

So, knowing that his daughter – a workaholic executive for a consulting company – is working in Bucharest, he visits her unannounced. And he commences to haunt her, becoming the bewigged, invented character Toni Erdmann – both to the delight and chagrin of his daughter’s business acquaintances, but mostly to the horror of his daughter herself.

Ade unveils all this in a rambling, 2-hour-and-42-minute narrative that would run more than twice screenplay teacher Field’s suggested length. Worse, from a Field perspective, over the course of the rambling storyline, neither Winfried’s motivations nor the causes of his daughter’s alienation are ever made clear.

Writer-director Ade does give us clues. A product of divorce, Ines feels like a lost soul who may once have been a willing foil for her father’s antics. His actions, then, may be simply his awkward way of trying to rekindle their father-daughter bond. Or to help Ines rediscover some sense of joy in her life. Or both.

But all that’s just a guess. Whatever Ade’s intentions, her “Toni Erdmann” does achieve this: Syd Field or no, it offers American moviegoers a reminder of the many different ways that cinema can express itself.

Auntie’s to host Visiting Writer Bynum on Friday

If you don't have plans for Friday evening, you might consider reading to Auntie's Bookstore for a literary reading. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, who is appearing courtesy of Eastern Washington University's 2016-2017 Visiting Writers Series.

The 7:30 event is free and open to the public.

Bynum, who was profiled in The New Yorker, is the author of two novels: "Ms. Hempel Chronicles" and "Madeleine Is Sleeping." Her short fiction appears in a variety of publications, including — again — The New Yorker.

In its review of "Madeleine Is Sleeping," Publishers Weekly called it a "remarkable debut" and added that "Replete with Kafkaesque metamorphoses, Freudian fantasies, Aesopian justice and religious metaphor, the novel is equal parts fairy tale, fable, romance and bildungsroman."

Nothing better than a good old bildungsroman.

Friday’s openings redux: Memories of James Baldwin

The final bookings are in, and three additional films join the openings already listed below:

"I Am Not Your Negro": Samuel L. Jackson narrates this collection of James Baldwin's writings that strive to explain the history, and significance, of U.S. race relations. Nominated for Best Feature Documentary Oscar.

"The Red Turtle": Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit directed and co-wrote the screenplay for this animated film about a man marooned on a desert island with his only companion the character of the film's title. Nominated for Best Animated Feature.

"Rock Dog": Disney veteran Ash Brannon directed and co-wrote the screenplay for this animated film about a country dog who dreams of becoming a rock star.

Magic Lantern: Doc shorts capture real life

The Magic Lantern has Oscar fever. As a warm-up to Sunday's ceremonies, the theater will be opening both sections of the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts programs. The lineup, each of which screens separately, is as follows:

PROGRAM A (Running Time: 72 minutes)

"Extremis" (dir. Dan Krauss, U.S., 24 minutes): Life and death in an Oakland, Calif., hospital.

"4.1 Miles" (dir. Daphne Matziaraki, U.S., 22 minutes): A Greek Coast Guard captain struggles to save the lives of refugees fleeing the Middle East.

"Joe’s Violin" (dir. Kahane Cooperman, U.S., 24 minutes): A 91-year-old Holocaust survivors donates the violin he has played for 70 years to a young student.

 PROGRAM B (Running Time 82 minutes)

"Watani: My Homeland" (dir. Marcel Mettelsiefen, 39 minutes): Forced from their home, a Syrian family attempts to build a new life in Germany.

"The White Helmets" (dir. Orlando von Einsiedel, 41 minutes): Members of the all-volunteer Syrian Civil Guard fight to save lives in war-torn Aleppo.

Stay tuned for other Magic Lantern news.

Fridays openings: Racing and racial horror

It's early in the new year. We haven't even given out the prizes for 2016, though that event — the Oscars broadcast — will occur on Sunday.

My point is that this is usually a dead time for film, the time when those films for one reason or another deemed not worthy of a late-year release are dumped onto the market. Occasionally, though, you can find a few gems. Maybe this week.

Friday's national release schedule looks like this:

"Collide": An American (Nicholas Hoult) races across Europe in an attempt to save the woman (Felicity Jones) he loves. In his way are a couple of drug-runner kingpins (played by Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley). British acting royalty going for the payday.

 "Get Out": A young black man is taken by his white girlfriend to meet her parents. Horror ensues. Written and directed by Jordan Peele (of the comedy duo Key and Peele, it's bound to have a laugh or two — even if they're discomfiting.

I'll update what the local theaters will be doing when they announce their lineups.

‘LEGO Batman’ toys with our funny bone

If you haven't yet seen "The LEGO Batman Movie," you might wonder if it's as good as its predecessor. I try to answer that question in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Movies have hawked products since before they featured sound. In his 1922 film “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler,” Fritz Lang inserted a card that identified the makers of the gowns his actresses wore. The practice ultimately became so rampant that the very basis of some movies was built on the notion of product placement: Remember 2004’s “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”?

Now, a dozen years later, the adventures of Harold & Kumar seem almost precious by comparison. Products these days aren’t just the basis of movie plots. They embody movie plots, particularly when they focus on toys, such as Barbies, Trolls, G.I. Joes or, since 2014, LEGOs.

That first LEGO movie, simply and frankly titled “The LEGO Movie,” was a surprise hit. Both an action flick and a comic lampoon of every action film Hollywood has ever produced, “The LEGO Movie” features both a sterling cast of voice actors – headed by Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and Will Arnett – and a musical score that includes the infectious song “Everything Is Awesome.”

So the only real question about the spin-off production titled almost as simply “The LEGO Batman Movie,” is can the same formula work twice? And I’m here to say yes. Mostly it does.

First, director Chris McKay and company recognize what everyone else has: that Batman is an enduring character. At the same time, they recognized just how ripe he is for the kind of satire that would both comment on, and yet embrace, the various gestations the character has undergone over his nearly eight decades of existence.

Second, despite being written and directed by a whole new crew – four different screenwriters share script and/or story credits – “The LEGO Batman Movie” boasts the same sense of parody and progression of quick-hit running gags as the original. Those gags fly at us right away, when Arnett – whose deep voice resonates the perfect Batman growl – explains to us that we begin with a black screen because, well, every important movie begins with a black screen.

Third, and maybe most important, “The LEGO Batman Movie” uses a clever plot device similar to what Trey Parker and Matt Stone devised for their 1999 “South Park” movie: Where Parker and Stone set up an ironic scenario in which we’re expected to feel sorry for Satan because he is being emotionally abused by Saddam Hussein, McKay’s writing team wants us to feel sorry for Batman’s foe The Joker because he can’t win Batman’s hatred.

In fact, no one can get close to Batman, friend or foe, because his fear of intimacy has pushed him toward a lonely life of arrogant narcissism. Which, besides establishing the overall tone, sets us up for a couple of great “Jerry Maguire” jokes.

Overall, “The Batman LEGO Movie” may not quite match the quality of the 2014 film, if only because it has a slight feel of been there, done that. But Arnett, joined by Zach Galifanakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes and more, do achieve something special.

They and their LEGO characters manage … to complete us.

Harum shows how ‘Rogue One’ could be ‘Done Better’

One of the joys of filmgoing is jawing about what you see with your friends. Forget politics (if you can these days), some of the best, most intense, arguments I've ever had involve film.

And the more obscure you can make your arguments, the better. For example: Resolved: That Quentin Tarantino hates women. Discuss.

Here's another: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is a boring movie that could have been done far better.

No need to discuss that second one because Adam Harum has already done a pretty good job. You don't even need to agree with him — and many "Star Wars" fans definitely will not — to appreciate the smart, well-reasoned arguments he makes in his most recent "Done Better" YouTube post (see embed below).

You may be familiar with Harum. He's a Spokane filmmaker, one of the crew behind the "Transolar Galactica" series. His short "Lifeline" just won the Best of the Northwest award at the recent Spokane International Film Festival.

And if you take the time to listen to his critique of Gareth Edwards' film (especially his comments about Felicity Jo… zzzzzzzzz), you just might find yourself agreeing. Or, if not, his arguments just might spur you on to reinforce your own differing opinions.

Either way, "Done Better" is what good film appreciation is all about.

‘Lion’ benefits from the world’s cutest 8-year-old

If you still haven't seen "Lion," the based-on-real-events movie that's playing at both the Magic Lantern and AMC River Park Square, you'll still have plenty of chances. The film will continue through next week at least.

"Lion" tells the true story of a 5-year-old Indian boy who, by circumstance, gets separated from his family and, thousands of kilometers from home, can't find his way back. He is forced to survive on the streets of Calcutta and eventually is placed in an orphanage, from which he eventually is adopted by an Australian couple. Some 25 years later, after years of anxiety, he returns to India and attempts to retrace his steps home.

Just for the record, the Garth Davis-directed film has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Two of the awards are for the supporting performances put in by Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. It's worth noting that Patel won the equivalent award at the recent British Academy Awards ceremonies.

But the real treat that "Lion" offers is the performance of a first-time actor. Sunny Pawar is an 8-year-old from Mumbai who was found after the movie's producers sent out a country-wide casting call. One of three finalists, he eventually won the role.

Here are some comments about Pawar's performance:

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: "The first half involves an enchanting 5-year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar, irresistible)."

Stephanie Zacharek, Time magazine: "Saroo (is) played by captivating child actor Sunny Pawar … Part of the reason the movie deflates is that it’s so hard to say goodbye to young Saroo, a bright, self-reliant kid with whose optimism is galvanizing."

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: "Davis is … helped immeasurably by the casting of young Sunny Pawar as the boy Saroo. A neophyte as an actor, this tiny, self-possessed performer is electric, using his expressive eyes to convey emotions that are unmistakable but still restrained."

Yeah, Patel and Kidman are OK. As is David Wenham as the husband of Kidman's character. But "Lion" belongs to Pawar, and it isn't quite the same when he exits the picture.

‘Toni Erdmann’ finally opening locally

So, the final bookings are out, and one of last year's most highly rated foreign films is on the menu. The amended list of Friday's openings includes:

"Toni Erdmann": Playing at AMC River Park Square, this lengthy (two hours, 42 minutes) German-language comedy centers on a father trying to connect with his workaholic daughter by posing as her boss' life coach. A German-made family comedy, imagine that.

I'll post the Magic Lantern openings when they become available.

Update (Wednesday a.m.): The Magic Lantern will continue with its current slate of films: "Moonlight," "The Founder," "Lion," "The Salesman," and the two Oscar-nominated shorts programs (animated, live-action).

Auntie’s to honor Washington Book Award winners

Above: Sharma Shields, author of "The Sasquatch Hunter's Handbook."

For a couple of years in the early '90s, I had the honor of serving on a committee to choose what was then called the Governor's Writers Awards. Now dubbed the Washington State Book Awards, the process retains pretty much the same intent: to honor "outstanding books published by Washington authors the previous year."

Two of the area authors who won awards during my tenure were John Keeble for his nonfiction book "Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound" and Ursula Hegi for her novel "Floating in My Mother's Palm."

The most recent area winner was Sharma Shields for her book "The Sasquatch Hunter's Handbook." The fiction winner in 2015 was Bruce Holbert for "The Hour of Lead," while the the poetry award went to Tod Marshall (now the Washington State Poet Laureate) for his collection "Bugle."

On Friday from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Auntie's Bookstore will recognize all the area winners who have won state book awards over the years. Expected to attend, among others, are Shields, poet Marshall, Mary Cronk Farrell, Gregory Spatz, Nance Van Winckle, Shann Ray, Paul Lindholdt and Bill Youngs.

The event is free and open to the public. And I imagine some books will be for sale. It'd probably be a good idea to buy one. Or three.