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

‘Jojo Rabbit’: When weakness is strength

Critics across the U.S., including the city of Spokane, are debating the worth of New Zealand-born filmmaker Taika Waititi's offbeat comedy "Jojo Rabbit." In the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I try to explain my own reaction:

It’s not as if we’ve never seen comic depictions of Nazis in movies. Charlie Chaplin satirized the former Supreme Nazi leader of Germany in his 1940 film “The Great Dictator.” Mel Brooks made Nazis the focal point of his 1967 film “The Producers.”

And they drifted in and out of the popular television show “Hogan’s Heroes,” which ended its six-year run in 1971.

There’s something about evil that accentuates reactions, either dramatic – Steven Sielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List,” for example – or comedic, as Chaplin, Brooks and now Taita Waititi’s film “Jojo Rabbit” demonstrate.

Waititi is a New Zealand-born filmmaker, whose 2016 feature “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is a comedy that tackles such topics as racism, mental illness and child abandonment. So to a certain extent, maybe making “Jojo Rabbit” – which tells the story of a 10-year-old Nazi youth whose best friend is an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler – isn’t that much of a stretch.

Maybe. Anyway, “Jojo Rabbit” is set during the final year of World War II. Jojo (played by British actor Roman Griffin Davis) is your typical pre-adolescent boy, enamored by shows of strength and power, and no organization has ever displayed more symbols of ostensible strength than Hitler’s Nazi hordes.

But Jojo is torn. His natural inclinations are those of empathy and compassion. In fact, he gets his nickname, “Jojo Rabbit” – which Waititi, in adapting Christine Leunens’ novel "Caging Skies,” took as his film’s title – following an incident in which, at a Nazi Youth training camp, he is ordered to kill a rabbit … and can’t.

Funny how simple human traits are all too often considered signs of weakness.

In fact, in trying so desperately to fit in with his fellow trainees, Jojo nearly kills himself, ending his quest to become a soldier and relegating him to lowly civilian tasks such as parading around town dressed as a robot and asking for donations of iron.

Waititi’s film really begins when Jojo discovers, to his horror, that his mother – a seemingly typical hausfrau played by Scarlett Johansson – has a secret life. And that she is hiding a Jewish teenager in their attic, which is when Jojo’s real education begins.

Of course, that process – that evolution – doesn’t come easily. His imaginary Adolf – played by Waititi himself – is never far away, cajoling him, berating him, offering him cigarettes (which Jojo refuses) and in each and every way acting not like the Hitler we’ve seen in archival news footage but like a 10-year-old’s exaggerated version of a father figure (Jojo’s own father having disappeared two years before in the war).

And it is this comic intent that seems to have caused so much dissonance among critics, some of whom question not only whether Waititi’s film is making light of the Holocaust but whether such serious subjects can ever be effective comic fodder at all.

All this ignores Chaplin and Brooks, not to mention the fact that Jojo himself is the film’s center. And fueled by 11-year-old Davis’ powerful performance, the film’s message is that simple human kindness is the greatest strength of all.

Magic Lantern to open ‘The Irishman’ Nov. 22

For reasons involving corporate maneuvering, Martin Scorsese's new film "The Irishman" is playing at only a few theaters across the nation. But Netflix is schedule to screen it beginning Nov. 27, so that service's subscribers will be able to see the 209-minute film then.

You could drive to Seattle, of course (where it's playing at the Cinerama and in theaters in Shoreline and Redmond). But if you can wait until Friday, Nov. 22, you'll be able to see the film at the Magic Lantern.

If you haven't heard, "The Irishman" is based on the book "I Heard You Paint Houses" by Charles Brandt. It details the claim that Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran that he was the triggerman who killed Jimmy Hoffa, the former head of the Teamsters Union.

Sheeran's story may, or may not, be true. But in Scorsese's hands, his story — especially with actors such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci on board — should definitely be worth watching.

And if you can see it and support Spokane's art-house, then all the better.

Step, once again, into ‘The Twilight Zone’

When Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" premiered on television (Oct. 2, 1959), I wasn't yet a teenager. My callowness, plus the relatively milksop nature of most TV shows then on the air, caused my jaw to drop in amazement.

I'd never seen anything like it. And I doubt anyone else had either.

Every day in school, someone would mention something that happened in the latest episode. The sadness we felt about the ending of "Time Enough at Last" or the frightening reality of how neighbors turn on one another in "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,"

It's not like we could explain what irony or paranoia were, exactly. But even as children of the 50s, particularly those of us who were aware of the ongoing Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation, we had an intuitive sense of what Serling was saying.

That feeling lasted throughout the series' initial five-year run. And it has continued over the years as individual episodes have been rebroadcast.

Now the series is being featured again. It will be featured in a special three-hour event that will be shown at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Regal Cinemas theater at Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium 14. The event, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of the show, will feature digitally remastered episodes, including the two mentioned above.

If you haven't seen any of the shows, or even if you have, prepare to be amazed. Many subsequent shows and movies have tried to copy what Serling pioneered, but few have matched it in either originality or quality.

Two more chances to see ‘The Godfather, Part II’

Sonny's gone, Fredo's not to be trusted and Hyman Roth is lurking. What is Michael Corleone going to do?

That's the situation that Francis Ford Coppola presents us with in "The Godfather, Part II," the 1974 Oscar-winning film that continues the story initiated two years before with his first Oscar-winning adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel.

But what makes "Part II" arguably an even better film than the original is that along with Michael's struggle it documents father Vito Corleone's rise from just another Sicilian guy trying to survive the mean streets of New York to becoming the don of the Corleone crime family. And along with a powerful performance by Al Pacino, it gives us Robert De Niro as a young Vito (for which he won his first Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor).

In any event, you still have two chances to see "The Godfather, Part II" on a local theater's big screen. The film will play at 7 tonight at the Regal Cinemas sites at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium. It will also play at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

To paraphrase Vito (and later Michael), this is an offer you can't refuse.

Friday’s openings: Big stars and bigger action

Some big-name actors will make appearances in area theaters on Friday, among them at least a couple of Oscar winners. The coming week's movie menu, according to the national-release schedule, is as follows:

"Ford v Ferrari": Matt Damon and Christian Bale play to real-life guys who spearheaded Ford's battle with the Italian car company for race-car dominance. Drivers, start your engines.

"Charlie's Angels": A whole new cast of actresses gives a fresh Me, Too meaning to the age-old team of women special-team operatives. They are women, hear them roar.

"The Good Liar": Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren star in this suspense story about two aging people meeting up and one checking the other's bank account. The key is in the title.

And at the Magic Lantern? Aside from a second-run Spokane screening of "Jojo Rabbit," the theater tentatively will open:

"The Report": Adam Driver stars as a man, tasked with investigating a CIA program, who uncovers some uncomfortable facts. And, no, it doesn't involve impeachment.

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

‘Harriet’ is a dramatized vision of a real-life hero

I went to see "Harriet," the biographical exploration of Harriet Tubman. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

American history, especially as it’s taught to children, is full of myths. George Washington and the proverbial cherry tree. Abraham Lincoln, who actually was a successful attorney, being referred to as a simple country lawyer. Benjamin Franklin suggesting that America’s national bird should be the turkey instead of the bald eagle.

Franklin, folks, was an inveterate jokester.

The reasoning behind these mythical representations is obvious: Real people are complex creatures, and even the great ones typically have as many flaws as they do strengths. But unless we’re talking about comic superheroes – and I’m thinking specifically of Batman – we prefer our real-life heroes to be unflawed.

Take “Harriet,” the bio-pic of Harriet Tubman co-written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, which stars Cynthia Ervio as the famous escaped slave and then-conductor on what came to be known as the Underground Railroad.

Some depictions of Tubman have portrayed her as a grandmotherly figure, a bit dour maybe in photographs, but determined and courageous in her attempts to bring slaves out of the South and north to freedom.

And while this portrayal is true, it is also a bit simplistic. Tubman – born Araminta “Minty” Ross – made her own escape mostly alone, a harrowing 100-mile trek from Maryland to Philadelphia. Since suffering a head injury as a child, she had endured occasional spells, which some historians have speculated were epileptic-type seizures but which Tubman herself considered transmissions from God.

After her own escape, Tubman reportedly made 13 trips back South, freeing some 70 slaves, becoming so much of a nuisance to Southern slave owners that she was dubbed with the bandit name of Moses and ended up carrying a $300 bounty on her head. And, yes, she did carry guns – a small fact that most popular depictions of Tubman skip over. She even participated in the Civil War, both as a spy for the North and as the leader of a military operation that freed an estimated 700 slaves.

This is not to say that writer-director Lemmons adheres to facts alone in telling her story. As with virtually every other historical depiction ever made for the big screen, Lemmons invents characters, adds dramatic tension and changes real events for emphasis.

While Eliza Ann Brodess, the wife of her owner played in the movie by Jennifer Nettles, was real – her son Gideon (played by Joe Alwyn) was not. Another invented character is the free Philadelphia woman, Marie Buchanan played by Janelle Monaé, who befriends Tubman.

And Tubman didn’t adopt her new name to mark her new-found freedom. She’d gone by the name of Tubman since marrying his first husband, John Tubman, and she’d chosen Harriet to honor her mother.

Still, imagine what it must have been like to travel hundreds of miles, much of it at night, dodging armed patrols, shepherding groups of frightened people to freedom. It couldn’t have been easy.

So while, similar to the real-life human being it portrays, the movie “Harriet” might have its flaws, it is an important depiction for our time: at least as important as a future president’s supposed chopping down of a cherry tree.

Friday’s openings redux: It’s time for subtitles

OK, Friday's movie schedule adjusted itself just a bit. The Chinese film "Better Days" won't open, but a couple of other foreign-language films will. They are:

"Pain & Glory": Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodover returns with this roman à clef about a filmmaker looking back at his life and regretting some of the choices that he's made. Starring Antonio Banderas. In Spanish with English subtitles. Viva la cinema con subtítulos.

"Parasite": Korean writer-director Bong Juun-ho, whose film won the Palme d'Or at the most recent Cannes Film Festival, gives us a tale about the linking of two families on different ends of the social scale and how their fragile relationship is threatened by a interloper. In Korean with English subtitles.

"Jojo Rabbit": The New Zealand-born filmmaker Taika Waititi takes on a difficult comic project, that of a young boy in Hitler's youth brigade who discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl.

That's it for the moment. I'll adjust as needed.

The Met: Live revives Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’

When the great Italian composer Giacomo Puccini debuted his opera "Madame Butterfly" on the night of Feb. 17, 1904, the critics weren't too impressed. Puccini made some changes and by the time the opera was restaged the following May the critics had changed their, uh, tune.

It's been more than a century, but Puccini's work is still being staged. And thanks to the The Met: Live series, "Madame Butterfly" will be shown in two area Regal Cinemas theaters, at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium. The performance will play at 9:55 a.m. on Saturday, at Northtown only at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 13 and at both locations at 1 p.m. Nov. 16.

Staged originally by the late film director Anthony Minghella, the opera features soprano Hui He in the title role. Pier Giorgio Morandi conducts a cast that includes Andrea Carè as Pinkerton and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki.

As critic Seth Colter Walls wrote of He's performance in the New York Times, "during more intimate passages, she pulled the night together by delivering a Cio-Cio-San full of subtle yet fascinating changes. Some darkly rich tones provided dramatic dimension for her first-act work before a brighter, brassier sound underlined the character’s hopeful delusions in the second act."

Puccini's work lives on.

Friday’s openings: a little bit of everything

We're looking at another full week of fall movies this Friday, featuring everything from the latest Stephen King thriller to World War II action to a Christmas-themed rom-com. Following is the coming week's movie menu, according to the national-release schedule:

"Doctor Sleep": This sequel to "The Shining" has now-grown Dan Torrance teaming with a young girl to battle a cult that is targeting young children with supernatural powers. Ooooooooooh!

"Better Days": Two young Chinese student make a pact before taking the "gaokao," the two-day national college entrance exam that will determine their futures. The test stars … now!

"Last Christmas": A young woman prone to making bad decisions meets a hunk guy who seems too good to be true. Ah, but is he?

"Midway": Another look at the battle between Japanese and American forces that determined the outcome of the war in the Pacific during World War II. Guess who won?

"Playing With Fire": A group of kids play havoc with an intense group of firefighters. Can you pronounce farce?

And at the Magic Lantern? Well, tentatively …

"Becoming Nobody": Central to this documentary are the teachings of Richard Alpert, better known as the spiritualist Ram Dass. Tune in, turn on, drop out.

"Fantastic Fungi": Everything you ever wanted to know about fungi and their potential for healing the planet. Right after lunch.

And that's just a start. I'll update when the local theaters finalize their bookings.

‘Judy’ is a moving look at Garland’s sad life

If you've ever watched "The Wizard of Oz," you know who Judy Garland is. You may not know how hard the woman's life was, though, which is the theme of the bio-pic "Judy." I reviewed the film for Spokane Public Radio:

Most of us know Judy Garland from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” in which the then-16-year-old starred as Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gale. That’s when Garland sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the tune that would become ever associated with her.

It’s fitting, then, that director Rupert Goold – in adapting Peter Quilter’s stage play “End of the Rainbow” – should begin his film, simply titled “Judy,” on the set of “Oz” with a scene featuring fabled MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer confronting young Garland as a father would a recalcitrant child.

The difference, of course, is that Mayer is not a kindly father but a consummate businessman protecting his investment. And Garland is not so much recalcitrant as she is merely tired and hungry, a case the movie makes – following the popular version of Garland’s real-life story – that she was fed drugs to keep her working long hours and denied food to keep her looking young and slim.

That scene sets the tone for “Judy,” which documents the series of London comeback concerts that Garland – then in financial trouble, separated from her two younger children Lorna and Joey Luft, and accompanied by her scheming fifth husband Mickey Deans – performed in 1969. Concerts, by the way, that at times showed the skilled performer that Garland had once been, but at other times devolved into spectacles where she would show up an hour late, would abuse the audience and would be abused in turn.

In between the London shows, Goold’s film delivers flashbacks – of Garland and the manipulative Mayer, of Garland and her former husband Sid Luft, of the then-44-year-old Garland meeting the 32-year-old Deans at a party held by her daughter Liza Minnelli, of Garland having a late dinner with two gay fans … and so on.

Some of all this is based in fact – Garland was dependent on drugs, she was in her final years deeply in debt and basically homeless, she did perform in London to mixed reviews, and she did marry Deans. But much of it, too, has been changed for dramatic effect, which is to be expected: biopics are all too willing to tell a good story at the expense of truth.

Yet do any of these changes really matter? Unlike some other dramatic retellings, which change history completely, “Judy” adheres to the basic outline – even though a final sequence is a clear, if effective, attempt at causing audience member to reach for a collective hanky.

The biggest surprise of “Judy” is how well both actresses cast as Garland (Darci Shaw plays the young version) pull off a difficult part: Renée Zellweger, best known for starring in such rom-coms as “Jerry Maguire” and the “Bridget Jones” films, is virtually unrecognizable. And as Taron Egerton did in the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” Zellweger even sings, her rendition of the Garland standards being aided by the fact that – in her late 40s – Garland didn’t possess the powerful voice she once had.

The result is a moving study of a talented performer who never found the love she so clearly craved.

Get all spooky tonight with ‘Spirited Away’

It's Halloween eve, and what better way to ease into the spooky day is there than to see a movie about spooks? Or spirits, anyway.

"Spirited Away," Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning animated film from 2001, will show for the final time tonight at 7 at three local theaters: AMC's River Park Square and the Regal theaters at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

The version showing will be dubbed into English with no subtitles.

This showing of "Spirited Away" is part of Studio Ghibli Fest 2019. The next film in the series will be 1997's "Princess Mononoke," which will screen on Nov. 17, 18 and 20.

Of "Spirited Away," perhaps critic Jack Mathews of the New York Daily News summed it up best: "The result is nothing less than magical, a throwback to the very best of early Disney. If I can't remember the last time I was this enchanted by an animated film, it's because I was too young."

Friday’s openings: Cute dogs and more

Animated dogs, runaway slaves, PIs with disabilities and another Terminator flick highlight Friday's movie openings. The slate, according to the national release schedule, is as follows:

"Arctic Dogs": In his effort to become an Arctic courier dog, an Arctic fox discovers a dastardly plot to melt all the ice and take over the world. Can you say ciimate change?

"Harriet": Kasi Lemmons directed and co-wrote this biographical look at the woman whose name, Harriet Tubman, became synonymous with slavery's Underground Railroad. Harriet the hero.

"Motherless Brooklyn": Edward Norton directed himself in this adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's novel about a detective with Tourette's Syndrome who gets involved with a case involving corruption and murder. Insert appropriate invective here.

"Terminator: Dark Fate": Just when you thought the franchise was over, another Terminator from the future faces off against the hope of humankind. This time Sarah Connor is there to help out.

And at the Magic Lantern (along with second-run openings of "Judy" and "The Lighthouse"):

"Where's My Roy Cohn": The late lawyer whose associations with everyone from Joseph McCarthy to Donald Trump is profiled. Not a nice man.

That's the list so far. I'll update when area theaters finalize their bookings.

‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ really is a winner

Once in awhile, movies surprise you by being something different — or something more — from what you expect. For all of its title's obviousness, "Brittany Runs a Marathon" is one of this movies. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

You’re probably familiar with the following movie formula: Troubled character indulges in self-hating behavior, hits a low point, decides to change, gets help, stumbles here and there, but finally makes a determined march toward a new and better life. And, yes, love plays a part in the process.

That’s pretty much what you would expect from a movie bearing the title “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” And, ultimately, it is what you do get.

But the film, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Paul Downs Colaizzo – and inspired by the real-life experience of Colaizzo’s roommate Brittany O’Neill – is far more complicated than any simple formulaic manipulation. And the actress whom Colaizzo hired, Jillian Bell, gives a performance that is at times comedic, at times touching and at all times authentic.

When we first meet her, Brittany is a 28-year-old mess. Waking up in the early afternoon, she is perennially late for work – at least partly due to the fact that, the movie makes clear, she isn’t the kind of woman that anyone would hold a subway door for. Sure, she’s funny – something that comes naturally to Bell – but a lot of her humor is self-deprecating and is clearly a self-protective mask.

The other reason for her lateness is her habit of clubbing with her “influencer” roommate and other hangers-on, playing the clown and settling for the occasional sexual encounter instead of pursuing anything resembling a stable relationship.

Then while attempting to score some Adderall from a doctor, Adderall being a stimulant that can produce euphoric effects, Brittany is given some bad news: Her health, no surprise, is horrible for someone in her 20s. So slowly, and reluctantly, she gives running a try. First a single block, then a few more and, over time, she’s even entering 5K races.

And she even makes friends, including with the woman who lives above her who seems to have everything Brittany does not – from a lithe figure to a healthy bank account.

But here’s where Colaizzo’s film differs from the standard template: Brittany’s evolution never comes easy. And even as she does progress physically, she resists touching those raw, naked emotions that haunt her. And in doing so, Brittany pushes everyone away – especially the ones who want to help support her the most.

Colaizzo clearly produced his film on a small budget, and most of his cast is little known or at least underused in feature-film work – from Michaela Watkins, who starred with Bell in “Sword of Trust,” to Utkarsh Ambudkar, a comedic actor who provides a unique touch to the typical movie love interest.

Colaizzo benefits from his New York City setting, from shooting scenes that include the actual New York City Marathon, but particularly from casting Bell, who lost 40 pounds for the film – 29 before shooting started and 11 more during the actual production.

Most of all, the true value of “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is the trip that Bell’s character makes – a trip that emphasizes how the way one looks is not as important in achieving happiness as is the way one feels.

Happy birthday to ghosts and to Ellen Ripley

We all know it's just a marketing ploy, but I find it clever that movie studios keep breaking out old films and screening them as "anniversary" events.

Hey, anytime you can see something you like on a big screen instead of at home on your TV, I'm not going to complain.

The next one up is the 35th anniversary of the original "Ghostbusters," which is scheduled to play at the Regal Cinemas theater in Coeur d'Alene, the Riverstone Stadium 14. It will screen at 4 p.m. on Sunday and at 7 p.m. the following Thursday.

But the one I'm looking forward to is the 40th-anniversary showing of Ridley Scott's "Alien," which is scheduled to play at the Riverstone Stadium and at Northtown Mall at 1 p.m. on Oct. 13 and at 7 p.m. on Oct. 15 and 16.

"Alien," which stars Signourney Weaver as one of the toughest woman characters in movie history, is basically an update of the 1958 film "It! The Terror from Beyond Space." But the screenplay by Dan O'Bannon (story credit to Ronald Shusett) is a bit more sophisticated — and, of course, has been in succeeding films taken far into the realm of existential speculation.

At heart, though, the film works best as simple sci-fi horror. Because remember — in space, no one can hear you scream.

Ren√©e¬†Zellweger stars as ‘Judy’ Garland

Amid the round-the-clock showings of Todd Phillips' film "Joker," with Joaquin Phoenix creating his version of Batman's arch-nemesis, a biopic of a famous 20th-century entertainer is also scheduled to open:

"Judy": Renée Zellweger portrays the woman who went from being one of the biggest child stars ever to being a multi-married, troubled middle-age entertainer whose fading talents led to one comeback after the next. There was no flying over this rainbow. (At AMC River Park Square and Village Center Wandermere.)

Here are a few critical comments:

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: " 'Judy' is just such a sturdy, dependable vehicle which, in this case, carries the precious cargo of Renée Zellweger in a dazzling portrayal of Judy Garland at the end of her life."

Stephanie Zacharek, Time: "Zellweger paints shadows of nuance into her portrayal of a performer who invites easy caricature. And she sings, too."

Brian Lowry, CNN.com: "Somehow, Zellweger manages to be Judy for a full two hours, delivering an over-the-rainbow performance in a movie that otherwise, on balance, is a bit more Kansas than Oz."

And there's a special Saturday-night showing scheduled at the Regal Cinemas Theatre at Northtown Mall:

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail 50th Anniversary": The schedule shows a 7 p.m. Saturday screenng of this classic British comedy, which celebrates the troupe's first appearance in 1969. What is your favorite color?

That's the lot at this point. So go, see a movie. And enjoy.