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

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ an old-school romance

Despite its title, "Crazy Rich Asians" is likely not what you expect. Read the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

One of the nicest experiences you can have in the movies involves surprise. You go in expecting one thing only to find something completely different.

And, of course, I mean different in a good way.

That’s exactly what happened when I went to see “Crazy Rich Asians.” All I knew about the film going in was that one of its cast members was Ken Jeong, the Korean-American comic actor who plays a particularly wild character in all three “Hangover” movies.

Jeong’s presence, plus the film’s title, led me to think that “Crazy Rich Asians” was going to be a blend of “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids” with every Asian stereotype that Hollywood could possibly come up with.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. “Crazy Rich Asians,” it turns out, is the kind of romantic comedy that Hollywood has been making since the days of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. The only real difference is the complexion of the cast.

Constance Wu plays Rachel Chu, an economics professor at New York University. For the past year, Rachel has been dating Nick Young (played by Henry Golding). Nick is a hunk of a guy who – for good reason – thinks Rachel is the cat’s meow. Yet she is surprised, pleased but surprised, when he asks her to accompany him to his best friend’s wedding.

A wedding that will take place in his home country of Singapore. Where Rachel will, for the first time, meet Nick’s family.

And the parade of Rachel’s surprises is just beginning. They fly not just in first class but in the kind of comfort fit for royalty. That’s when Rachel discovers that Nick is not the unassuming young urban professional she thought but, instead, is the heir to one of Singapore’s biggest fortunes.

Finally, Rachel learns that Nick’s family – especially his mother (played by Michelle Yeoh) – is both protective of Nick and convinced that she isn’t right for the man who is expected to take over the family business.

So the scene is set: Does Rachel have what it takes to win the man she loves? Does Nick have the nerve to oppose his family and pursue a future with the woman he loves? Will the back-biting friends and family ever allow this affair to bloom? Good questions, though the answers aren’t all that hard to figure out.

So, no, “Crazy Rich Asians” doesn’t boast a particularly original plot, even if it is based on Kevin Kwan’s semi-autobiographical novel. Instead, the quality resides both in the cast – all of whom indeed have Asian roots – and in the skill director Jon M. Chu displays in handling a tried-and-true movie formula.

Wu and Golding are totally convincing as our protagonist lovers, but also solid are the performances by Yeoh, by Gemma Chan as Nick’s beautiful cousin Astrid and rap artist Awkwafina as Rachel’s college friend.

Yes, director Chu does employ a number of Asian stereotypes. But amid the jokes and exaggerated postures, he also captures a sense of Asian authenticity.

And in the process he gives this decades-old Hollywood blueprint a welcome, refreshing makeover. 

Friday’ openings: Ways to face the afterlife

Horror, thrills and drama are on tap for Friday, if the national movie-release schedule is any indication — which it usually is. Friday's openings should look something like this:

"The Nun": Another segment in "The Conjuring" series, this horror flick is set in 1952 and involves a priest and nun investigating a suicide at a convent. Cue to what Fathers Merrin and Karras chant in "The Exorcist."

"Peppermint": Jennifer Garner plays a woman planning revenge on the drug-cartel members who killed her husband and daughter. She's pretty far from OK.

"God Bless the Broken Road": Inspired by a song by Rascal Flatts (originally the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), writer-director Harold Cronk adapted a novel by Jennifer Dornbush about a grieving widow who meets a race-car driver. For more information, see Cronk's resumé.

As always, I'll update when the local theaters finalizes their bookings.

‘The Sound of Music’ evokes memories — yet again

The first time I saw "The Sound of Music," I went with my then-girlfriend Terry Cornett to a downtown Norfolk, Va., movie house. This was either in late 1965 or early 1966 (the film premiered in New York in March 1965).

It was a special event. We'd had to buy reserved seats, which at that time was common only for concerts, not for movies. And though I was just a college freshman, I felt very grown up.

Movie memories such as these tend to rise whenever revivals occur, such as the one that will take place on two nights, Sept. 9 and 12, when "The Sound of Music" will again play locally, specifically at Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

The movie will screen at 2 and 7 p.m. on both days.

As most movie fans know, "The Sound of Music" was adapted from the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical. Directed by Robert Wise, and written for the screen by Ernest Lehman, the film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Julie Andrews was nominated as Best Actress but lost out to Julie Christie for "Darling."

My late "Movies 101" partner Bob Glatzer never liked the film, which I can respect. Our different opinions always led to some spirited discussions. But as an example of a certain kind of Hollywood product, one that offers up a simple and satisfying fantasy, "The Sound of Music" has always made me smile.

Some memories tend to do that. They are, after all, some of my favorite things.

The week’s openings redux: Lost kids and found ghosts

And so some adjustments to Friday's movie-release schedule are in order. The additions to the openings I've already noted are as follows:

"Searching": John Cho stars as a worried father trying to find his missing daughter. Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg.

"The Little Stranger": In the midst of a crumbling manor house, a doctor (Domnhal Gleeson) tries to figure out what appears to be a paranormal mystery. Ooooohhh, kids, scary.

That's the lot. If any changes crop up, I'll note them. Until then, go see a movie. And enjoy.

Magic Lantern to pick up the movie ‘Puzzle’

And what about the Magic Lantern? On Friday, Spokane's only arts movie house will pick up a little film titled "Puzzle," which opened last week at AMC River Park Square.

Directed by Marc Turtletaub, better known as a producer ("Little Miss Sunshine," "Loving"), "Puzzle" stars Kelly Macdonald as a suburban housewife whose life changes when she discovers a talent for solving jigsaw puzzles. Adapted from the 2009 Argentine film "Rompecabezas," "Puzzle" earned an 82 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Here are some of the critical comments, most of which focus on the talented Macdonald, whom movie fans should remember from such movies as "Trainspotting," "No Country for Old Men" and the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire":

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: "In truth, there is barely enough story here to make a film. Yet the play of emotions on Macdonald's face tells of worries and wounds much deeper than anything that can be accounted for in the script."

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "In "Puzzle," Macdonald has finally found a movie that she doesn't need to steal, because it belongs to her completely."

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: "Macdonald is so good, on her own or with a scene partner, director Marc Turtletaub's movie refuses to fall apart."

The week’s openings: Aliens and abductions

The two sides of cinema, fantasy and reality, make up the basis of the week's movie openings, at least according to the national release schedule. The listed openings are:

Wednesday

"Operation Finale": Oscar Isaac stars as one of the Israeli agents who abducted Adolph Eichman (Ben Kingsley) from Argentina and took him to Israel where he was tried for the crimes he committed in World War II. Nothing polite about genocide.

Friday

"Kin": When a pair of brothers find a mysterious weapon, they find themselves the targets of a gang of other-worldly soldiers. Guns go sci-fi

As always, I'll update when the local theaters finalize their bookings.

‘Leave No Trace’ carries a huge emotional impact

Two intriguing films open today at the Magic Lantern. Here is a review of one, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The opening scene of “Leave No Trace,” Debra Granik’s newest film, presents us with what looks like a natural paradise: tall trees, dense green undergrowth, hills and ravines, all contributing to the kind of solitude and quiet that some people crave.

We quickly meet two of those people: a man named Will (played by Ben Foster) and his mid-teenage daughter Tom (played by Thomasin McKenzie). They appear to be camping, comfortable in their abilities to live and seemingly thrive in an outdoors setting. But mostly they appear to be comfortable living with each other.

Much of that perception changes, though, when we learn that the two are hiding. It changes even further when they are apprehended by the authorities, not just police but by social workers who, when Will and Tom are officially processed, arrange for them to no longer be “unhoused” – which is the euphemism of choice – but to live indoors.

And gradually we learn what we need to know: Will is a former Marine, a combat veteran whose suffers from bad dreams, a broken man who can’t stand – or at least can’t stand for long – any existence that forces him to live in what most of us would consider to be normal society.

In other words, they aren’t hiding because they’re running from the law. They’re running from societal expectations that Will won’t, or can’t, face.

His only real connection to the larger world, in fact, is Tom, his daughter by a woman who is long gone, a budding adult who is as fiercely protective of him as he is of her. Yet as both come to realize, what’s broken in Will is not broken in Tom. And ultimately she is going to have to make a choice: staying with dad or pursuing a life of her own.

Granik, who co-wrote her screenplay with Anne Rosellini, adapted “Leave No Trace” from a novel titled “My Abandonment” by Portland writer Peter Rock. Granik and Rosellini have teamed up on a number of projects, most notably the 2010 feature “Winter’s Bone” – a movie that helped introduce audiences to the actress Jennifer Lawrence.

Like “Winter’s Bone,” “Leave No Trace” doesn’t unfold with a typical Hollywood-type narrative. Instead of the dramatic highs and lows, it proceeds in a stately, evenly paced manner that smacks of authentic life. And the casting, from veteran Foster – familiar from such shows as HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and feature films such as “Hell or High Water” – to newcomer McKenzie, not to mention a number of secondary performers, only adds to the film’s low-key, realistic feel.

Which clearly is Granik’s intent. She’s far more interested in understanding her characters, in showing how they interact, both with each other and with their environments, than in coming to any larger judgments either of them or of the decisions they make.

Not that her characters refuse to act. In the end, Tom does make a decision – and that decision, hard as it proves to be, gives us some confidence that, in the long run, she’s going to be just fine.

As for Will, that's a whole other question.

Have fun at the expense of ‘Krull’ tonight, Saturday

Most directors have at least one — or maybe two — movies on their resume that they'd rather forget. Alfred Hitchcock had "Family Plot." Stanley Kubrick had "Eyes Wide Shut." Steven Spielberg has "Hook."

Peter Yates doesn't belong in the ranks of top-tier directors. Still, he made a few good films. "Bullit" (1968), for example. Also, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1973) and "Breaking Away" (1979).

But in 1983, Yates gave us the sci-fi clunker "Krull," a film that Janet Maslin of The New York Times called "a gentle, pensive sci-fi adventure film that winds up a little too moody and melancholy for the 'Star Wars' set, though that must be the audience at which it is aimed."

And that was Maslin being kind. David Ansen of Newsweek was more brutal: "Under the tone-deaf direction of Peter Yates, Krull manages to be both lavishly overdone and bizarrely half-baked."

A far more entertaining assessment of "Krull" will be on display at 8 p.m. tonight and at 12:55 p.m. Saturday at two Regal Cinemas locations, Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium. The event: RiffTrax Live! "Krull."

If you aren't familiar with the RiffTrax events, they feature a film screening with three comedians making snarky comments.

Director Yates died in 2011 at age 81. But even he might have appreciated how funny RiffTrax can be.

Friday’s openings redux: Five more great escapes

With area theaters having finalized their bookings, Friday's amended movie-release schedule boasts a number of changes:

"McQueen": The life of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen is profiled in this probing documentary. Time to dress up.

"Beautifully Broken": The lives of three families are intertwined by war. Bring a conscience.  

"Papillon": Charlie Hunnam stars as the protagonist, Henri "Papillon" Charrière, in this retold story of the man who escaped from a French penal colony. Remember Steve McQueen.

"Puzzle": A suburban woman's life takes a new turn when she discovers a talent for solving jigsaw puzzles. Start with the corners.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (2D experience in IMAX): Stanley Kubrick's classic 1968 sci-fi film will screen for the first time in IMAX format (at AMC River Park Square). HAL? HAL? Do you read me, HAL?

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

‘Eighth Grade’ to open Friday at Magic Lantern

It's hard to think that a 28-year-old guy (his birthday is today) would be the best person to make a film about a girl facing her final week of eighth grade. But Bo Burnham is no ordinary guy.

A YouTube sensation as a teen, a recording artist before he was 20 and a standup comic of some renown, Burnham chose to write and direct a movie — his first feature film — about the trials and challenges of social media. And to use said girl (played by the preciously charming newcomer Elsie Fisher) as his protagonist.

The result, titled simply enough "Eighth Grade," just finished its first run in Spokane at AMC River Park Square. It now opens on Friday at the Magic Lantern, which is a far better fit, playing alongside such alt-moviehouse fare as the documentaries "Won't You Be My Neighbor," "RBG" and "Three Identical Strangers" plus the narrative features "Leave No Trace" and "Sorry About That."

Boasting a 98 percent fresh rating on the critical website Rotten Tomatoes (87 percent among audiences), "Eighth Grade" is one of those films that is bound to receive some Oscar recognition at the end of the year. (If not, it will be a crime against art.)

Whatever happens, though, "Eighth Grade" remains one of the most intelligent, illuminating and touching films ever made about adolescence. See if it you can.

Friday’s openings: Robot dogs and dead puppets

Dogs have been big in the movies of late. On Friday, the film "Alpha" — which imagines the beginning of the love affair between dogs and humans some 20,000 years ago in Europe — opened. And this coming Friday, a new generation of dog-like creatures will be at the center of yet another release.

According to the national movie-release schedule, Friday's releases are:

"A.X.L.": Alex Neustaedter stars as a teenager who befriends a robotic dog. Open the dog bay doors, Arf!

"The Happytime Murders": Melissa McCarthy and her former partner (the first puppet to get hired as a cop, voice by Bill Barretta) track down the perpetrator who is targeting the stars of a one-time television show, "The Happytime Gang." They want to discover who's, uh, pulling the strings.

As always, I'll update when the local theaters finalize their bookings.

‘Whitney’ reveals the down side of celebrity fame

The documentary "Whitney," which played locally at the Magic Lantern Theater, is screening on the streaming service Netflix. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

We all want success. In whatever occupation we choose, we want to enjoy the rewards that come from doing a good job and being recognized for it.

But fame? The idea of fame sounds great, especially if you’re a Kardashian whose only talent is a penchant for self-absorption. But the reality of fame is that it cuts both ways: For everything it provides, it demands a price.

The list of celebrities who have endured rather than enjoyed fame is long. And those for whom fame proved to be a fatal trap is depressing indeed. Take the 27 Club, those celebrities who died at that tender age, a group that includes Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix and several others.

All were done in by drugs or alcohol, or drugs andalcohol. And fame, in one way or another, affected all their lives negatively.

By contrast, Whitney Houston lived far past the age of 27. She was 48 when she died in February, 2012. But according to Kevin Macdonald’s documentary “Whitney,” her life ended up being as afflicted as any celebrity’s life ever has. And fame, in the end, did her more harm than good.

Born to Cissy Houston, a singer in her own right, and John Houston, an entertainment executive and sometimes political hustler, Whitney and her two brothers grew up mostly on their own, traded from one family member’s house to the next.

At some point during their teens, the Houston siblings began dabbling in drugs. And earlier, according to one of the brothers, during one of these home-stays both he and his sister were sexually molested by an older cousin.

When Whitney was in church, however, nothing seemed amiss. Even in her early teens, her singing displayed a talent that far surpassed her mother’s. And as she grew, her natural beauty not only earned her jobs as a model but it – and her voice – attracted the attention of recording executives such as Clive Davis

As Macdonald demonstrates, both through archival footage and through a number of interviews with Houston family members, friends, former employees and outside observers, Houston’s rise from that point was meteoric, boasting a peak that rivaled any singer’s in history, with seven consecutive No. 1 songs and more than 200 million records sold worldwide.

But as Macdonald shows also, Houston faced challenges that continually inflamed her inner emotional demons. Throughout the hit songs and concert tours, the various movie appearances – especially 1992’s “The Bodyguard” with Kevin Costner – she struggled: with the expectations of black audiences who saw her as too white, with members of her own family who wanted a cut of her fortune (her father sued her at one point for $100 million), with the separation from her longtime friend Robin Crawford and during her difficult 14-year marriage to the singer Bobby Brown.

The result was several years of isolation, aborted comebacks and intermittent drug relapses, culminating with a sad end in a Beverly Hills hotel bathroom – all portrayed through lurid stories printed in supermarket tabloids.

Fame may not have killed Whitney Houston, but it didn’t save her either.

Take a ‘Walk on’ the wild animated side

Fans of Japanese animation have another treat coming on next Tuesday and Wednesday. At 7 p.m., the Regal Cinemas theater at Northtown Mall will screen the 2017 film "The Night is Short, Walk on Girl."

Directed by Masaaki Yuasa, and adapted from a novel by Tomihiko Morimi, the film follows a young woman as she accompanies a group of teens on a night out in Kyoto and becomes the target of attention by an infatuated fellow student.

Here are some reactions by critics:

Richard James Havis, South China Morning Post: "The whole thing is a postmodern trip, with animation styles varying greatly to fit the mood: bright pop art colours, dark Rembrandt tones and everything in between."

Tara Brady, Irish Times: "By the final act in this film, the randomness coalesces into something philosophical."

Allan Hunter, Daily Express: "A restless mixture of inventive animation and over-elaborate storytelling set over a single long night in Kyoto."

Note: Both screenings are in original language with English subtitles.

Outdoor ‘Grease’ screening moved to Sept. 6

If you were planning on attending the Inlander Sounds & Cinema showing of "Grease," which was scheduled to show at 6:30 Thursday night in Kendall Yards, better change your plans.

The outdoor screening was postponed, the paper reports, "due to unhealthy air conditions." The event has been moved to Sept. 6.

Unless you've been asleep for the past several days, smoke from regional fires have permeated the Inland Northwest. As of this afternoon, the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency reported Spokane County's air quality index at 172. Any reading above 150 is considered "unhealthy."

The screening of "Grease," part of The Pacific Northwest Inlander's summer-movie series — Suds & Cinema — celebrates the 40th anniversary of the 1978 film, which was directed by Randal Kleiser and stars John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Stockard Channing.

The series is held in Olmsted Park, which is located at 2335 W. Summit Parkway. Click here to access the Inlander's events Facebook page.

The week’s openings redux: Live-action ‘Little Mermaid’

AMC River Park Square just posted its final movie bookings, and there is an adjustment to make to Friday's opening schedule:

"The Little Mermaid": No, it's not the Disney animated version. This is a live-action film starring William Moseley and Poppy Drayton. Moseley plays a reporter who, along with his niece, discovers a mysterious woman who they come to believe is the real little mermaid.

The film is the first release from a new production company, MVP Studios.