7 Blog

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

HBO’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’: Language-lesson-plus

Language has always fascinated me. It's why I decided to study literature in college. (The fact that I'm poor at science and math was also a factor, but that's a whole other story.)

I've spent years trying to learn Spanish, Italian and French — with only moderate success. I've never progressed much past the I-can-order-food level (well, basic food such as pizza and beer, at least).

And as an aid to my learning, I watch as many foreign-language programs as I can. One that my wife and I are watching at the moment is "My Brilliant Friend," HBO's adaptation of the novels by Italian writer Elena Ferrante.

Told over two seasons, with a third now in production, the critically acclaimed program follows two young girls who grow up in a suburb of Naples in the decades immediately following World War II. Born to parents who struggle both to make a living and to maintain some level of respectability, the girls find themselves treated more as commodities than actual emotional beings.

Our narrator, Lenù (played by various actresses), is friends with Lila (again, various actresses), a natural-born … well genius might be a bit of an exaggeration. But she's definitely, as the title suggest, brilliant. And irrepressibly independent in both thought and deed.

We've watched all but the final two episodes of the 8-episode first season. And just as soon as we finish, we'll start on season 2. I'm anxious to see how the two girls fare in their lives.

And I just love hearing the Italian, both the proper form and the Neapolitan dialect. It's almost like studying.

But a lot more fun.

‘McMillions’: HBO’s intriguing look at a scam

No matter what you think of it, the Netflix Original series "Tiger King" brought attention to the one viewing experience that is becoming the basis of what many viewers binge-watch: the limited miniseries.

In a single season of anywhere from four to 10 episodes, such miniseries tell a story that a single documentary would have trouble covering. Imagine ESPN's 10-part "The Last Dance" as a single 90-minute show. It wouldn't have been half as informative — or entertaining.

Not that all limited miniseries need to be as long as "The Last Dance," which itself could have been a couple of episodes shorter. But some feel just right.

That, at least, was the feeling that I had after watching the six-episode HBO miniseries "MicMillions." Co-directed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, "McMillions" — which debuted on HBO in February and can be found now as part of the premium channel's library — focuses on the ongoing cheating that affected the McDonald's infamous Monopoly game between the years 1989 and 2001.

In the hands of Hernandez and Lazarte, who managed to get unbelievable access not only to FBI agents and federal prosecutors but also to several of the scam insiders as well, "McMillions" works as a slow reveal. From an insider's tip to the eventual arrest and conviction of most everyone involves, "McMillions" is a true-crime story that feels like a scintillating work of fiction.

And, yes, while at the half way point I began to think the filmmakers were padding things, with their habit of melding re-enacted scenes involving actors with talking-head interviews featuring the real-life principals, I quickly realized that I wanted even more than what they were giving me. More of the quick-smiling FBI agent Doug Mathews, more of the colorful Robin Colombo and unapologetic A.J. Glomb.

I came late to "McMillions," having been unaware of the previous podcast. But that's the great thing about having access to streaming libraries such as HBO's. The material is there when you want it.

And during these days of quarantine, we need it more than ever.

James Acaster on Netflix: smart comic interlude

One of my favorite quotes from the movie "Raising Arizona" — maybe my favorite Coen Brothers film — is uttered by John Goodman.

One of the Snoats brothers — he's Gale, William Forsythe plays the younger Evelle — he's eating breakfast in the home of his former prison pal H.I. "Hi" McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and feeling the contempt of Hi's wife Ed (Holly Hunter).

When Ed won't let Hi out of a planned date with his supervisor and wife (San McMurray and Frances McDormand), Gale — with Goodman showing perfect comic timing — delivers the classic line, "So many social engagements, so little time."

I feel that way about what's available for home streaming. My wife and I watch something different every night. Sometime two or three things.

Speaking of comedy, one thing we watched over the weekend was the Netflix comedy collection "Repertoire" by British standup comic James Acaster. I say collection because "Repertoire" is a mix of four different shows, of which we watched on the first.

Acaster's comedy — in fact much of British comedy — is an acquired taste, both because his accent is sometimes hard to understand and because some of the references aren't all that familiar, especially when they start talking about any politicians aside from Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn. (The same holds true for other Brit comics, even the controversial ones such as Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle.)

But in the first segment of "Repertoire," Acaster has at least three classic routines: one involves language (the use of "he or she"), one involves politics (likening Brexit to brewing a cup of peppermint tea) and one involves colonialism (the British Empire's theft of so many countries' cultural treasures).

At his best, Acaster is brilliant. And just the antidote for this depressing time of quarantine.

‘Zombi Child’: Things could always get worse

I've been spending a lot of evenings watching movies, which should come as no surprise to anyone. For one thing, I've been reviewing movies professionally for going on four decades now. For another, we're in the middle of an international health crisis, which I refer to in the review of the film "Zombi Child" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Some would say a pandemic is no time to watch challenging cinema. Yet I disagree.

For one thing, I think any time is a good time to watch challenging cinema. For another, especially during a pandemic, it's comforting to know that things could always get worse.

That's one reason why I watched “Zombi Child” over the weekend. The other reason, of course, is that by doing so I was helping to support the Magic Lantern Theater, through which I streamed the movie.

But I was intrigued by the basic idea behind the movie anyway. Written and directed by French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello, “Zombi Child” plays on the conventions of the standard zombie flick as they've developed over the years – from 1943’s “I Walked With a Zombie” to 2019’s “Zombieland: Double Tap.”

And Bonello plays with other themes, too, most prominently that of teen lust, of voodoo culture and of the tortured legacy left by the fact of colonial oppression – each conveyed with an equal mix of attention and a curious lack of the same.

Bonello’s screenplay follows two major storylines. One begins in 1962, in Haiti, with a man named Clairvius falling under the spell of a voodoo curse. He collapses, seems to be dead, at any rate is buried, yet later dug up and – stumbling along in a classic zombie fugue state – is taken into the fields where he and a number of fellow sleepwalking captives are put to work.

Then we are transported to modern-day Paris where our attention is centered on a quintet of girls attending an elite boarding school. Two of the girls are featured. One is Fanny, a solitary type whose own kind of dream state revolves, naturally enough for a girl in her mid-teens, around a boy. The other is Mélissa, a Haitian refugee who came to Paris with her aunt following the devastating 2010 earthquake.

The two bond, again naturally enough, over – among other things – a shared love of Stephen King novels. But each keeps her inner life a secret – Fanny her longing for the teen hunk Pablo, Mélissa her connection to the dark religious forces of her native country.

The two stories slowly merge, with Fanny seeking out Mélissa’s aunt – a self-proclaimed “mambo,” or Haitian voodoo priestess – as a way of reclaiming her lost love. Meanwhile, back in Haiti itself, Clairvius by chance eats part of a chicken leg, which is enough to break the zombie spell, sending him on a quest to reclaim his former life.

Neither Fanny nor Clairvius – nor Mélissa, for that matter – has an easy path to tread. But at least some of what filmmaker Bonello intends, seemingly, is to show that persistence and faith can lead to better things while cultural appropriation – at least when used by the over-privileged for what are little more than frivolous purposes – can lead to nothing good.

I say “seemingly” because that’s just my guess. Bonello doesn’t wrap up his film with an easy ending, one that shows a clear delineation between forces good and bad – not in any way that fits in with the classic zombie genre.

Overall, though, his “Zombi Child” is a haunting watch, with long sequences of girls lounging, tortured – so to speak – by boredom … similar to the girls in Peter Weir’s 1975 mystery classic “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”

The contrast between the Parisian girls’ experience and that of the Haitian man Clairvius tells you all that’s needed about the disparity between master and slave that, sad to say, has shaped so much of the world’s history.

Kino Lorber releases aim to brighten our day

There's not much good that can be said about the COVID-19 pandemic. It's caused something like five million deaths around the world, devastated the economy, ruined careers and darkened the future for what might be the next few generations.

Yet this is hardly the first time the world has faced an International crisis. Humankind has weathered pandemics, world wars, autocratic political regimes and a number of natural disasters. And it has — we have — endured.

So whatever the circumstances, and however dire, we seek out whatever comfort and solace where we can find it. Far down the list — following family connection, community service and whatever spiritual process you follow — comes entertainment. And, no surprise, my entertainment of choice involves movies.

Since the current quarantine has forced theaters to close, most movie fans — those lucky enough to have internet access — have indulged their habits through the various streaming services. Day by day, however, movie companies are finding ways to provide content.

Take Kino Lorber, for instance. The company, which was founded just over a decade ago, specializes in distributing what it terms as the "finest Art-house and International films" — a number of which can be accessed through the Magic Lantern Theater.

And now, through its streaming arm Kino Now, the company is opening up even more of its library of some 1,000 titles.

The intent? To make money, of course. But, too, the company wants to improve the country’s emotional state. “(R)ight now,” announced a company press release, “we’re in the mood for something a little more cheerful, and we’re guessing you are, too! So for this week’s feature, we’ve put together a collection of upbeat and offbeat films to brighten your day.”

Some of the released titles: “Boy” (2010), Oscar-winning Taika Waititi’s second film, which focuses on an 11-year-old (and Michael Jackson fan) who reunites with his long-absent father; “Computer Chess” (2013), a period-piece comedy drama about a chess tournament set in the 1980s; and “Seven Beauties” (1975), Italian director Lina Wertmuller’s masterpiece about one man (Giancarlo Giannini) coming of age before, during and after World War II.

So, yes, the pandemic is upon us. And it might feel as if we’re merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But even on the Titanic, the orchestra continued to play.

And so many movies are out there still to watch.  

Two more chances to see some virtual comedy

We're all going to have two more chances to stream comedy through the Spokane Comedy Club before the club resumes its live performances "soon."

This coming weekend, the club will stream routines by Andrew Rivers and Cory Michaelis (Friday beginning at 8:30 p.m.) followed by Collin Moulton and Jay Hollingsworth (Saturday at 7 p.m.).

According to an email press release, the club will reopen — perhaps as early as June — with the following social-distancing protocols:

Live Shows will soon take place, with the following social-distancing measures:

  1. Club capacity reduced to 35 percent.
  2. 6-feet distances between all tables.
  3. Staff will wear masks
  4. Temperature checks will be done of all guest and customers.
  5. No one will be seated with guests not in their own party (Unless both parties are 100 percent comfortable with it).
  6. If the show ends up cancelled, we will refund your tickets in full.

Looking ahead, comics Samuel J. Comroe is scheduled to perform June 11-13, Chris Porter on June 18-20 and Brendan Schaub is expected to appear as part of his "50 Shades of Brown Tour" June 25-27.

Regardless of what your health concerns are, one thing we can all agree on: We need a few more laughs in our lives.

Below: Andrew Rivers in concert.

Lantern’s latest: foodies and fans of melodrama

The Magic Lantern Theater just keeps on churning out streaming choices. What with another chance to see "RBG," the 2018 Oscar-nominated documentary feature that played earlier in the theater proper, the Lantern will be offering streaming access on Friday to two new films.

One is for foodies, the other for fans of melodrama:

"Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy": This documentary focuses on the environmental activist and author who has spent her life developing her skills at preparing Mexican cuisine. Never too late to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

"Life Itself": Writer-director Dan Fogelman, creator of the network television show "This Is Us," tells a multi-generational story of people who over the years endure all the challenges that their lives have to offer. Make sure you have a hanky handy.

Remember, although you may be able to see these movies by other means ("Life Itself" is an Amazon Prime production), streaming through the links provided by the Lantern ensures that the theater gets half the fee.

That's an easy way to help support Spokane's treasure trove of alternative cinema and help it endure through these troubled times.

‘Deadly Cults’: Choose your own viewing horror

In our house, a nightly movie viewing is more than mere ritual. Beside writing this blog, I — along with my wife, Mary Pat Treuthart and our partner Nathan Weinbender — produce a weekly movies-themed show for Spokane Public Radio.

Yes, the show was on hiatus for a few weeks, courtesy of the COVID-19 quarantine. But a couple of weeks ago we started recording new episodes, which are now being broadcast at a new time: noon on Thursdays. We've been assured that, some time in the future, the show will move back to its regular time slot of 6:30 p.m. Fridays.

In any event, the world moves on. And those of us fortunate enough to have places in which to live, some kind of internet access and the tools with which to get online, are still watching movies — not just by sorting through our DVD collections but by streaming through our various services.

One type of series that is popular in my house is Scandinavian noir, which can be accessed through a number of services. One we've watched the first season of is titled "Murder by the Lake," which is available through MHz Choice and about which I've already written.

But if you're into even more offbeat material, then you might want to check out the series "Deadly Cults." Broadcast on the cable channel Oxygen, and available through the Oxygen app or through iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and VUDU, the series — now in its second season — documents the genesis and ultimate demise of various cults.

The latest episode, which we watched Sunday night, involves the so-called Heaven's Gate religious group that committed ritual suicide — all 39 active members — in an upscale San Diego County home in 1997.

Yeah, I admit. This is barely above trash journalism. And sometimes I have to seek out Disney films to cleanse my mental palate after watching. That said, I've seen actual horror movies that proved to be less frightening.

And besides, finding something essentially harmless to be afraid of is a welcome relief from thinking about what potential horrors this pandemic holds — horrors that include the coronavirus itself but even more so some of the headline-making reactions to it.

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ celebrates the female gaze

For this week's Spokane Public Radio movie review, I wrote about Céline Sciamma's film "Portrait of a Lady on Fire." Following is my review:

In “These Truths: a History of the United States,” author Jill Lepore attempts to address all those aspects of American history that, until now, have been paid little attention to by historians.

As Lepore pointed out in an interview with Newsweek magazine, one of the most glaring topics lacking in most American history books involves women.

“There’s some twee nonsense about Abigail Adams, and then Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem make a cameo appearance,” Lepore said. “That's the end of our story! It's a complete dismissal of women as political actors and historical actors.”

Not that the U.S. owns a monopoly on such attitudes. Though there are exceptions, the general rule of most societies over time has been that men act and woman support them as they do so. Or not, depending on the situation, of course. Either way, as the historian Lepore contends, the story of history centers mostly on men.

Which is largely why the last few years have been so illuminating, in society at large but especially notable to those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time watching movies. Not only have more and more women found their voice in film, with filmmakers such as Kelly Reichardt, Greta Gerwig and Patty Jenkins joining the likes of such veterans as Jane Campion and Agnes Varda, the subjects they have explored have demonstrated a distinct woman’s touch.

Take “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” written and directed by French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, which is available to stream through Hulu. In one sense, it’s a story that focuses on what long has been considered a forbidden kind of love. Yet in another, it’s a searing study of the difficulties faced by women who, throughout the centuries, have longed to pursue lives on their own terms.

Set in the late 18th century, Sciamma’s film focuses on two women of vastly different means. Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant) is a painter, an independent woman attempting to make her way in an art world unsurprisingly dominated by men. Héloise (played by Adèle Haenel) is a woman of higher social standing who has been torn away from a convent and, because of the mysterious death of her sister, been promised in marriage to a nobleman from Milan.

Héloise’s betrothal has been arranged by her mother (played by Valeria Golino), and she rebels against the plan by refusing to pose for her portrait – which her mother has promised to send to the would-be groom. Seems the nobleman, no fool he, wants to have at least some idea of what he is, in all but name, purchasing.

So the mother comes up with a plan: Hire Marianne under the guise of her being Héloise’s companion, have her join Héloise on walks along the same cliffs from which her sister fell – or, perhaps, from which she leaped. In her down time, Marianne would then construct the portrait from memory.

Not all goes as planned, though, as the two young women fall in love, or lust, however you want to describe it. And as they engage in mutually satisfying bouts of passion, Marianne’s attempts to capture her newfound lover on canvas change accordingly.

That there can be no traditional happy ending is clear from the start, as Sciamma tells her film in flashback, years after the fact, from Marianne’s point of view. In one interview, Sciamma made it clear that she purposely didn’t want a finale that was either frozen-in-time happy or tragic. “Our great loves are a condition of our future love,” she said. “The film is the memory of a love story; it’s sad but also full of hope.”

Yet that break from pop filmmaking doesn’t make what Sciamma has created any less poignant. On the contrary, it enhances the feeling. From the soulful gazes of her film’s two protagonists, to the repeated references to women bemoaning the powerlessness of their positions, Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a testament to the depths of feminine desire.

The kind of desire that, applied not just to notions of love but to everything that life has to offer, can no longer be ignored.

Seattles Pike Place Market slowly reawakening

One of the more popular of Seattles tourist draws is the Pike Place Market. But as with most every other public site in the state, the market has been severely affected by the COVID-19 quarantine.

That's coming to an end, reports food and travel writer Leslie Kelly.

In her regular column for Forbes.com, Kelly — a former colleague of mine at The Spokesman-Review — writes that the market, famous for throwing fish among other activities, is slowly reopening.

"Shoppers now have wide open access to produce stalls, some restaurants doing take-out, and a few bakeries," she write. "Soon, when restrictions ease up, there will be more businesses open and likely more people. But, right now, there’s no better time to shop at this historic market, where more than 30 businesses are operating."

When you're again up for a drive across the state, maybe a market visit would be a nice diversion. If nothing else, the fish should be fresh.

Click here to access Kelly's  entire column.

Below: One view of Seattle during the COVID-19 quarantine.

MHz Choice to feature new ‘Montalbano’ episodes

I've had the great, good fortune to be able to visit Italy a few times. Pre-COVID-19, of course.

In fact, if it weren't for the current health crisis, I'd would probably be there right now, walking the streets of Florence, drinking the world's best coffee and enjoying the occasional plate of pasta all'olio.

Which is one reason why I'm willing to pay for a subscription to the streaming service MHz Choice. For a mere $7.99 a month (following a 30-day free trial), I get access to a range of international programming.

One recent series my wife and I have been enjoying is a joint German-Austrian production titled "Murder by the Lake" (which is also available through Amazon Prime). Set over two seasons, it follows a team of homicide investigators living and working on the shore of Lake Constance, which is where Germany, Switzerland and Austria adjoin.

But the series I'm most excited about is the addition to "Detective Montalbano" (also called "Inspector Montalbano"). The series, of which friends of ours own the complete collection of DVDs, is set in Sicily and stars Luca Zingaretti as the gruff Comissario Salvo Montalbano — who investigates crimes on Sicily's southern coast.

Episodes 35 and 36, which as with all the others are based on the novels of the late Andrea Camilleri, are supposed to be released on May 19.

To which I can only say, che fortuna per noi.

For another take on reality, watch Lantern foreign films

Growing up, I never had much opportunity to see foreign films. Few of them ever played at the drive-in theaters my family would go to, and even if they had my parents' film tastes ran mostly to Westerns, musicals and comedies.

I made up for that after getting out of the army. In fact, I spent much of the early years of the 1970s watching every kind of foreign film I could find. I haunted La Jolla's Unicorn Theatre, watching films from Japan and Italy, Spain and France made by the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel and Francois Truffaut.

Which is one reason why I love Spokane's Magic Lantern Theater. Though pre-quarantine, you could catch the occasional foreign-language film at AMC River Park Square, those kinds of movies are the Lantern's stock in trade. And even under quarantine conditions, which has all theaters padlocked, the Lantern continues to provide an international movie menu.

Of the 24 films that you can stream through the Lantern, 14 are foreign-made and hail from (or are produced by) the following countries: Brazil, China, France, Georgia, Germany, Iceland, Israel, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia. In the mix you can hear a blur of other languages, including Swedish, Haitian, Spanish, Italian, Palestinian and — in the case of "The Whistlers" — a strange kind of whistling language.

That final film, which is a kind of neo-noir, is particularly intriguing because of the imaginative leaps it asks viewers to make. Some are just a tad too much. But then that's typical of a noir — even one that feature people talking by putting their fingers in their mouths.

Foreign languages, just like the films in which they are conveyed, come in all forms. That, plus a look into how the rest of the world lives, is the joy of watching them.

And if you can experience that kind of joy, while supporting the Lantern, so much the better.

Not every movie challenge is worth accepting

I try to avoid running negative movie reviews on this blog for a number of reasons. The main one is that even though I work as a "critic," I would rather point out what is worth watching than wasting time describing movies that should be avoided.

Yet I've already written below how at least two of the movies that are available for streaming through the Magic Lantern website offer difficult viewing experiences, especially during this time of pandemic quarantine. To be frank, "Deerskin" and "Bacurau" could both be included in what I would call a WTF? film series.

Let's add a third: the French-made "Liberté."

Now, let me up front admit that I didn't finish the film. In all my years as a movie-watcher, I can count the fingers of one hand the number of movies I've walked out on. The last one I can even recall was a special preview screening of 2004's "Christmas With the Kranks." (I left when they started smashing a Christmas tree, which didn't amuse me one bit.)

My wife and I made it though exactly 40 minutes and 29 seconds of "Liberté." And, yes, something could have happened in the remaining 90-odd minutes that might have salvaged things. But what we'd seen up to then was so slow, so seemingly pointless, not to mention perverse, that we just couldn't continue.

I wanted to screen "Toy Story" for the umpteenth time just to reclaim my sense of normality.

Which isn't what other critics feel the need to do. Carson Lund, writing for Slant.com, had this to say: "Though betraying the markings of its original form in its small revolving ensemble, single location, and frequent tableau staging, 'Liberté' conjures a sustained ambiance and eroticism that’s unique to the language of cinema."

And there is this from Erik Kohn, writing for IndieWire: "The movie is a visual investigation into the roots of sexual liberation in societies steeped in repression. Watching it from start to finish is a means of engaging with the inquiry at its center."

So, as I thought the other night when I heard two friends saying how much they loathed Alfonso Cuaron's masterful 2018 film "Roma," an opinion I find confounding:

I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.

HBO’s ‘Bad Education’: the full review

Movie theaters remain closed, at least for the time being, and so we movie fans continue to do what we can both to see movies and support our favorite theaters. For me, that largely means streaming movies that provide the Magic Lantern with some needed revenue.

But I watch movie through other streaming services, too. Here's my latest review of an HBO film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Some actors are born to play certain roles. John Wayne, for example, was the perfect choice to play Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers.” No one but Julie Andrews could have played Maria in “The Sound of Music.” Same for Heath Ledger as The Joker in “The Dark Knight.”

And, seriously, what other actor could have pulled off the “Ezekiel 25:17” speech in “Pulp Fiction” better than Samuel L. Jackson?

The thought of certain actors perfectly cast in certain roles came to me last week as I caught an afternoon showing of “Logan,” starring Hugh Jackman, the 2017 film directed and co-written by James Mangold – and the final installment in the so-called “Wolverine” trilogy, which includes 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and 2013’s “The Wolverine.”

Jackman, I realized, was born to play The Wolverine – and especially the elderly version of the mutant character featured in “Logan.”

That’s saying something, actually, considering how varied the Australian actor’s skills are. Not only does he look good without a shirt – something my late brother used to refer to as the Captain Kirk Clause – but as “Les Miserables” and “The Greatest Showman” prove, he can sing and dance.

Moreover, he can play light comedy, be convincing in both romantic and action leads and, as films such as “The Prestige” and “Prisoners” show, he can do straight drama.

Unfortunately, his range hasn’t always worked in his favor because, at times, the film industry hasn’t known what to do with him. And he, or at least his agency, hasn’t made the best choices. Remember “Kate & Leopold”? Or “Australia”?

I do, though I wish I could forget both of them.

And so when I learned that Jackman was cast in the lead role in “Bad Education,” an HBO film directed by Cory Finley and based on the true story of a New York school superintendent who embezzled millions of dollar from his district, I wondered if he could pull it off.

Jackman plays Frank Tassone, a guy who has everything. Or seemingly so. Always impeccably dressed, someone who can recall a parent’s name at will, able both to charm an auditorium full of adoring fans and to win over the most needy of soccer moms, Tassone is everybody’s best friend.

He maintains this façade – and, yes, it is a façade – because he is able to use his innate charm to improve the district’s ranking, both bettering its students’ chances of getting into elite universities and, in the process, upgrading the property values of those same students’ parents.

At the same time, however, he is stealing the district blind – maintaining both a swanky Manhattan apartment and a house in Las Vegas, taking expensive vacations and using district funds to pay for anything he wants, including cosmetic surgery.

And he isn’t the only one. His financial officer, Pam Gluckin (played by Allison Janney), is stealing, too, paying for a beach house and other amenities.

Yet when a nosy high-school reporter begins investigating, and things start to fall apart, Tassone blames the whole mess on Gluckin, massages the egos of the school board – especially the board president (played by Ray Romano) – and manages to stave off his own ruin. For the moment.

Eventually, though, Tassone’s scheme falls apart. And the question remains: How is it possible for good people to fall prey to the wiles of someone who lies to their faces while stealing everything he can?

Finley, working from a screenplay that Mike Makowsky constructed largely from a New York Magazine article, never does find a satisfactory answer, other than the age-old cliché that people seldom see beyond their own personal wants and needs. And, to my mind at least, he ends up being a bit too forgiving of Tassone. 

Still, he gets great work from Jackman, who captures the perfect nuances typical of a born con-man with a talent for self-preservation. And if Frank Tassone isn’t exactly a role he was born to play, it’s certainly one that he does as well as anyone could.

‘Deerskin’ a study of obsession … but by whom?

You have to wonder sometimes how movies get produced. I don't mean just released by distributors, or edited, acted and directed, or even written. I mean, how do some movie ideas even get hatched in the brains of screenwriters?

That thought struck me last night when I finished watching "Deerskin," a 77-minute exercise in exactly what I really can't say. Written (so to speak) and directed (competently, I'll give it that much) by French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux, "Deerskin" tells the story of a man's obsession with a deerskin jacket.

At least that's how it begins. The man, Georges (played by Jean Dujardin), drives what appears to be a great distance, and spends some $7,500 euros on the kind of fringed leather jacket that Dennis Hopper wore in "Easy Rider."

He doesn't seem to have any connection to anyone, except a just-severed relationship with a woman he talks to over the phone (his wife?). And he has no more money. But he makes a deal to stay in a remote-area hotel (the movie was shot in the scenic Pyrenees of southwestern France), preens in front of a mirror in his new jacket, begins to play around with his new digital camcorder … and slowly goes mad.

Or perhaps madder. It's hard to say whether he was ever truly sane. In any event, he begins to call himself a filmmaker, starts filming indiscriminately (always coming back to himself), "hires" a young woman (Adele Haenel of "Portrait of a Lady on Fire") to "edit" his work (and give him money) and continues to buy more deerskin clothing (boots, pants, gloves).

Somewhere along the way, he begins talking to his jacket … I know, right? … and agrees to fulfill their common dream: to rid the world of all jackets except for the one he now owns. Which is the point where the film enters the realm that critic Owen Glieberman describes as a cross between "Barton Fink" and "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer."

Dujardin, probably known best to U.S. audiences as the star of the 2011 Oscar-winning film "The Artist" (for which he won a Best Actor Oscar), is fine as Georges. Haenel, too, is worth watching. And the scenery is, at times, stunning.

Dupieux, who also is a musician who performs under the stage name Mr. Oiso, is obviously a fan of absurdity. At what point, though, does absurdity become merely its own kind of self-referencing obsession?

Also, where can I get one of those stylin' jackets?

"Deerskin" is streaming through the Magic Lantern Theater.