7 Blog

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

Friday’ openings: War, Mercy and the deep blue

Two of the last big films from 2019 — one of which won big at Sunday's Golden Globes — are set to open on Friday, according to the national movie-release schedule. Friday's movie menu should look something like this:

"1917": Not only did this film win the Golden Globe for Best Picture — Drama, but Sam Mendes won Best Director. Mendes co-wrote the script, which tells the World War I story of two British soldiers who are sent on a mission to stop a battalion of soldiers from walking into a trap.

"Just Mercy": Based on the true-life experiences of civil-rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, director and co-writer Deston Daniel Cretton tells the story of Stevenson's efforts to free a wrongly convicted death-row prisoner. Starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

"Like a Boss": Rose Byrne and Tiffany Haddish play the owners of a beauty business who sell out to an entrepreneur (Salma Hayek) and live to regret the decision. Working 9 to 5 …

"Underwater": A group of scientists living deep in the ocean encounter strange beings. Oh, and they're dangerous, too (the beings, I mean, not Kristen Stewart).

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

Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ a touching update

One of the best films to open around here as 2019 closed was Greta Gerwig's adaptation of "Little Women." Following is my review, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

As with many novels of enduring success, Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 collection “Little Women” has been adapted for the stage (including musical theater and opera), for television and, most notably, for the movies.

Indeed, the several movie versions produced over the years have attracted the top actresses of their day. George Cukor’s 1933 film starred the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Joan Bennett, while Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 production featured June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor. Meanwhile, Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 offering gave us Winona Ryder and Claire Danes.

Each of these adaptations is more or less faithful to what Alcott put on the page a century and a half ago, though each abides, too, by the mores of its own era. And the latest version of “Little Women” – written and directed by Greta Gerwig – shows just how far we’ve progressed in the last eight decades in terms of movie narration, theme and tone.

Alcott’s basic plot involves the March family, mainly the four sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. With their father off fighting the Civil War, the sisters and their mother must make their own way, dependent on what little money Jo can bring in with her writing and on the kindness provided by extended family and their kind-hearted wealthy neighbor. Each sister is of a different temperament, and part of what “Little Women” portrays is how those disparate personalities strive to be independent while attempting – at the same time – to maintain a close, familial intimacy.

In terms of theme and tone, Gerwig, reflecting the quirkily energized characters she herself has portrayed in films such as 2012’s “Frances Ha” and 2015’s “Mistress America,” emphasizes the desire for self-reliance most exhibited by Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan).

At the same time, each of the sisters makes her own individual mark, Meg (Emma Watson) who marries and raises children, Amy (Florence Pugh) who pursues her art even while also marrying, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) whose devotion to those less privileged leads to Alcott’s singular exploration of loss and grief – discounting, of course, the loss and grief felt by “Laurie” Lawrence (Timothy Chalamet) when Jo turns down his offer of marriage.

It’s how she narrates her film that most reveals Gerwig’s fresh take on Alcott’s basic plot. Instead of proceeding chronologically, she begins in the middle – with Jo marching into a publisher’s office, presenting a story she has written and negotiating what she considers to be a fair price – and then moves back and forth in time.

The effect is sometimes confusing, especially over the first half hour of the film’s two-hour-and-15 minute length. But when the movie finds its rhythm, it blossoms into an authentic and moving portrayal of Alcott’s world, smoothly melding traditional themes with contemporary attitudes. (It’s been a while since I’ve seen any of the other adaptations, but I don’t remember Hepburn or Allyson, in particular, raving against the unfairness of women being mere chattel.)

That, though, is the world in which we live as we dive into the third decade of the 21st century. And Gerwig explores it as well as anyone. 

Malick’s ‘Hidden Life’ splits the critics again

Looks as if there's at least one addition to the week's openings. In addition to the horror reboot "The Grudge," which opened on Wednesday, Friday's schedule includes:

"A Hidden Life": Terence Malick ("The Tree of Life") returns to the theaters with this study of an Austrian man who resisted the call of Adolf Hitler's fascism during World War II. History does tend to repeat itself.

Here are some critical comments:

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: " 'A Hidden Life' is indisputably the finest work Malick has produced in eight years, as an examination of faith, conviction and sacrifice, but also as proof of concept for his own idiosyncratic style."

Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine: "We shouldn't be so smug as to assume that we would always know the right thing to do, or even be brave enough to do it, Malick seems to say. A true act of resistance should crack our universe open."

And then there's the iconoclast Richard Brody, of The New Yorker: "When a giant stumbles, the thud is colossal."

Whatever. That's the week's offerings. So go, see a movie. And enjoy.

Enjoy the great outdoors Tuesday at The Bing

The only thing people enjoy nearly as much as outdoor activities are movies about outdoor activities. And for some of us, the movies are even more enjoyable.

Take, for instance, fly fishing. It's been a long time since I stood in a stream and cast a fly rod. And, to be honest, I never did get a real feel for it.

Yet I'd go to see a movie about fly fishing. And at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, I'll get the chance. We all will. Because that's when the International Fly Fishing Film Festival will screen at the Bing Crosby Theater.

The two-hour festival boasts film from all over the world, including tales — and this comes from the Seattle International Film Festival website — "from fishing guide fairytales, to serial steelhead semantics, canyon conservation in Colorado, mountain biking for marlin, jumping jaguars and jungle fish in whitewater rapids and the audacious Aussies who explore the largest coastline in the world."

Click here for tickets. The embed below is from the 2019 festival.

Friday’s openings: Don’t go into the house

It'll be a week before we start getting a full schedule of films for the new year. But at least one new mainstream film will open on Friday against the "Star Wars" horde:

"The Grudge": So, you think only people — and maybe a few animals — can feel resentment? And nourish a feeling for revenge? This film argues that a house can. Shades of "The Amityville Horror." (Actually, this is a reboot of the 2002 Japanese original, which was made into a 2004 U.S. horror film and spawned a couple of sequels.)

As for the Magic Lantern, one movie is tentatively listed:

"Queen & Slim": A couple's first date goes way wrong. (This is a pick up from the mainstream circuit.)

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

‘Rise of Skywalker’ offers ho-hum end to ‘Star Wars’ saga

Some movies are critic-proof. But then, criticism isn't meant to sway people to thinking one way or another. It's merely meant as a means to get people thinking, period. Which is what I tried to do with the review of  “Star Wars: Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker” that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

When George Lucas debuted his film “Star Wars” in 1977, no one could have predicted just how much of a sensation it would ultimately become – spawning three trilogy compilations that cover an equal number of generations, stand-alone spinoffs such as “Rogue One” and “Solo” (each tagged as a “Star Wars” story), animated television series and an accountant’s dream of merchandise-generated income.

Now with “Star Wars: Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker,” that original story line, beginning with Anakin Skywalker, proceeding with Luke Skywalker and culminating with a third and final Skywalker – not to mention the various characters surrounding this trio so strong with The Force – has seemingly come to an end.

I say “seemingly” because, as with those superheroes populating the Marvel universe, no story ever really ends, and no character every really dies.

It was left to J.J. Abrams, the aging wunderkind behind the “Star Trek” reboot, to produce the final three films – referred to as the “sequel trilogy,” following the “original trilogy” and then the “prequel trilogy.” In addition to executive-producing Rian Johnson’s 2017 “Star Wars: Episode VIII, The Last Jedi,” Abrams co-wrote and directed both 2015’s “Star Wars: Episode VII, The Force Awakens” and now “The Rise of Skywalker.”

Much has been written about how Johnson’s movie departed, at least a bit, from the franchise’s standard tropes – and how much furor that caused among die-hard fans. Few are likely to make similar complaints about what Abrams offers as the finale.

Without divulging any spoilers, it’s enough to say that “Episode IX” continues the quest embarked upon by Rey (again played by Daisy Ridley). As part of the so-called Resistance, she – along with friends Finn (John Boyega), Po (Oscar Isaacs) and a number of others – spends the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time searching for the source of the new tyranny threatening the galaxy. At the same time, she keeps trying (mostly in vain) to avoid her arch foe, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), with whom she has a powerful connection that neither fully understands – but, also, that neither has the power to ignore.

If you’ve seen the previous films, you can predict how things end. Maybe you won’t be able to foresee all the specifics. But it’s safe to say that “The Rise of Skywalker” doesn’t offer any real surprises – other than the deaths of some familiar characters and the resurrection of notable others.

What’s more noteworthy is how Abrams has updated Lucas’ storyline to abide by 2019 mores. How women can now fill the role of hero, how characters of races traditionally seen as tertiary can now step into the spotlight and even how the very term gender – and the notion of sexual orientation itself – can be seen as naturally fluid.

There is value to this, of course. The problem is that it all feels a bit too calculated, as if Abrams were merely ticking off boxes instead of portraying a “Star Wars” world in which such attitudes are intrinsic. 

Not that fans of action are likely to care. As Jedi Master Yoda might say, the greatest feeling, sensation is.

A bit of Noel Coward, live on a movie screen: Sunday

Though they have traits in common, live theater and movies offer obviously different artistic experiences. But those differences merge into one when live theater is presented on a movie screen.

Which is what happens during those National Theatre Live productions that come on occasion to this part of the Inland Northwest. Example? The National Theatre Live production of Noel Coward's play "Present Laughter," which will be screened at The Bing Crosby Theater at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Presented live from London's The Old Vic, a theater that has been operating in one guise or another since 1818, "Present Laughter" stars Andrew Scott as a troubled actor about to embark on a national tour.

Scott is "storming one of the West End’s biggest stages in Noel Coward’s 1942 comedy about an overwrought and over-sexed thespian," wrote critic Patrick Marmion in the London Daily Mail. "And the brown-eyed Irishman gives a positively cyclonic performance."

Scott "plays Garry Essendine, a spoilt, petulant actor who gluts himself on the sex and intimacy his fans offer, then sits soggily in the mess he’s created," wrote Time Out London critic Alice Saville. "And he’s frighteningly good at it. Coward’s comedy lets Scott show off both his endless proficiency for delivering a well-timed quip, and his physical virtuosity."

Think about it: Live theater on a movie screen. What a mind meld.

Click here for Bing ticket information.

Get your TARDIS ready for ‘Doctor Who’ event

After Peter Capaldi gave up his TARDIS at the end of the 2017 "Doctor Who" season, the BBC spent a lot of time and money advertising its new star.

And they had good reason. For the first time, the Doctor was going to be a woman. Namely, the actress Jodie Whittaker was named the 13th Doctor, and the airwaves in both Great Britain and the U.S. (mostly on BBC America) were filled with teasers featuring her.

It seems strange, though, that all that initial hoopla faded, despite Whittaker receiving mostly good reviews. Commenting halfway through Whittaker's first season, IndieWire critic Liz Shannon Miller wrote that her only qualm was that this first female doctor wasn't being allowed to be enough of a badass.

"There’s no denying that Whittaker has found her grasp on an incredibly challenging role," Miller wrote. "In her hands, the Doctor is smart, intuitive, and compassionate. But the scripts still need to give her the moment that her predecessors have had before: the moment which makes us realize that the Doctor’s face may change, but she is always the boss of us."

Season two is about to begin, and the PR campaign is just restarting. A big part of that campaign will be a one-night special event, titled the "Doctor Who Live Q&A and Screening," which will screen at 11 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 5 at two Regal Cinemas theaters: Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

The night will include the series 12 premiere episode, a live Q&A with Whittaker and "companions" Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill and "an exclusive early unveiling of the new season’s second episode."

Sorry. No Daleks allowed.

You’ll have to wait for ‘1917’ and ‘Just Mercy’

Updating the week's movie releases: It looks as if two of the films listed on the national schedule will NOT open this week in this part of the Inland Northwest.

Neither "1917" nor "Just Mercy" is showing up on any of the local theaters menus.

"1917" is Sam Mendes' look at World War I, specifically at the mission of two young soldiers to warn some 1,600 of their compatriots that they are heading into a trap.

"Just Mercy" tells the true-life story of civil-rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Rights Initiative, and one of his first big cases. It stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson.

Look for both to show up either next week or soon after. At the moment, the schedules are still too full of "Star Wars" fans.

‘The Report’: snatched from the headlines

Headline news has always made for good movie fodder. But this seems to be true now more than ever. Which is what a film titled "The Report" does, as I try to explain in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In the early 1970s,  the nation was shocked by a succession of news reports. The first came in 1971 with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret government-funded study that indicated not only that the Vietnam War could not be won but that government officials had repeatedly lied about how well the war was going.

Then in 1972 came the Watergate burglary, the subsequent investigation of which led ultimately to more than a few prison sentences for some 48 government officials and, on Aug. 8, 1974, the resignation of then-president Richard Nixon.

How times have changed. Earlier this month, the Washington Post – again citing government documents – reported that senior officials from three presidential administrations had done much the same regarding the Afghanistan War as President Lyndon Johnson’s administration had done with Vietnam: by "making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable."

Yet unlike the political climate of five decades ago, this latest news wasn’t greeted with massive outcries. The overall reaction has been more of a massive shrug of the shoulders.

And it wasn’t the first recent shrug. In 2014, a U.S. Senate Select Committee headed by Sen. Diane Feinstein released a portion of a much larger report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, which lasted from 2001 to 2009. That report, led by investigator Daniel J. Jones, concluded both that the CIA’s program – particularly regarding its brutal “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs – was ineffective and that the agency had repeatedly lied in an effort to fend off oversight.

The massive work that went into the writing of that report is now the subject of a film titled, simply, “The Report,” written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, and now streaming on Amazon Prime.

As with all such “this-really-happened” movie reconstructions of history, especially contemporary history, writer-director Burns has compressed time, amalgamated some characters and eliminated others. For example, 19 staffers worked with Jones on the report, far more than the three lonely investigators Burns shows laboring long hours in a windowless office.

Yet much of the film holds up to inspection. At least some of the dialogue – specifically that of former CIA chief John Brennan (played by Ted Levine) – was taken directly from official records. And the actual internal debates over the legality of the EITs – or, let’s be honest, torture – have long been public knowledge.

Burns was smart enough to cast Adam Driver – the actor of the moment – as Jones. It’s Driver’s very uniqueness, his odd leading man’s physicality, not to mention his skill at conveying a range of emotions – much of it with just a slight change of expression – that fuels the film’s narration. Annette Bening’s ability to nail Sen. Feinstein also is key.

Yet “The Report,” despite it earnestness, has a feel of been there/done that. Nothing Burns does matches, much less surpasses, what Alan J. Pakula did in 1976 with “All the President’s Men.”

Again, though, that was a different, less jaded era. Maybe the problem isn’t Burns’ movie. Maybe the problem is us.

GU-UNC basketball game lights up Riverfront Park

As of this writing, the Gonzaga men's basketball team is ranked second in the nation — a status they cemented with Wednesday night's 94-81 victory over North Carolina. Yet as impressive as that win was, almost as impressive was the Hooptown USA-sposored Watch Party that was held at Riverfront Park.

Hundreds of basketball fans — Jared Brown of The Spokesman-Review estimated at least 1,000, event organizers closer to 1,500 — stood in freezing weather, eating and drinking but mostly watching the game on big-screen TVs set up under the brightly lit, revamped pavilion.

Few felt the chill, at least not during the second half with GU began to pull away from the injury-depleted Tar Heels. It might have been the second-best spot to watch the game, ranking just below having snared a ticket to the McCarthy Center.

And it showed the potential, not only of Hooptown — the nonprofit that, along with The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club, hosted the event — but the new version of the park itself.

It'll be fun watching the future unfold for both.

Not everyone is a fan of ‘Bombshell’

One big omission from my previous postings of this week's movie openings involves a film drawn directly (if a bit dramatically) from real life (I had it opening last week, my bad):

"Bombshell": Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie and a virtually unrecognizable John Lithgow portray the essential personalities involved in the Fox News controversies over sexual harassment, etc.

Some critical comments (some of which are somewhat negative):

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "For its part, 'Bombshell' tells a crucial chapter of that larger tale with coolheaded style and heated indignation. Its aim might be narrow, but it hits the target."

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: "Ultimately, the film's unwillingness to go deeper makes it fall flat."

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: "A ferociously entertaining dramatization of how an unlikely group of women exposed and deposed media titan Roger Ailes, it is as harrowing as it is triumphant in its depiction of the way it all came to pass."

That seems to be the lot. So go, see a movie. And enjoy.

Tonight: “Princess Kaguya” closes out Studio Ghibli Fest 2019

It's been a long season for Studio Ghibli Fest 2019, but the final offering in the year's nine-film series will screen for the second and last time tonight.

That film, "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya," will screen at 7 p.m. at two Regal Cinemas theaters (Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium) and at AMC River Park Square. Tonight's film will be in the original Japanese with English subtitles (a dubbed version was screened on Monday).

Released in 2013, "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" was directed by Isao Takahata from a script co-written by Takahata and Riko Sagaguchi. The screenplay was adapted from a 10th-century Japanese folktale titled "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter." The tale involves a miniature girl who is found inside a bamboo shoot, groomed to become a princess, courted by a series of men but who ultimately has to resolve her own fate.

Among the film's many good reviews, here are a few sample comments:

Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Mary Houlihan: "It's the beautiful and breathtaking animation that gives 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya' a luster that is both simple and sophisticated."

Charlotte O'Sullivan, London Evening Standard: "As you'd expect from the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Takahata has created a ravishing, technically perfect product and the hand-drawn, watercolour images explode with tender, humorous details."

Nicolas Rapold, New York Times: "Exquisitely drawn with both watercolor delicacy and a brisk sense of line, the film finds a peculiarly moving undertow of feeling in a venerable Japanese folk tale about a foundling country girl who can't shake a sense of being out of place."

Can't wait to see what Studio Ghibli Fest will offer for 2020.

Friday’s openings: Long ago and far, far away

If you have a "Star Wars" story, you pretty much own the movie schedule. And that should be the case on Friday when the latest entry in the popular franchise opens across the country. It faces only a single mainstream competitor, according to the national release listing:

"Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker": J.J. Abrams takes over the reins of this final chapter in the Skywalker saga, which explores — and finishes — the trials of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the Resistance fighting the forces led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

"Cats": The long-running Broadway show comes to the big screen, with an all-star cast (Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson) hidden under some of the most imaginative makeup in movie history. Imaginative, at least, is one word for it.

As for Christmas Day, several popular openings will clog the movie menu:

"Little Women": Greta Gerwig directs her own updated version of the popular Louisa May Alcott 1868 novel, starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson and Timothy Chalamet. They are women, hear them roar.

"Spies in Disguise": When a top spy (voiced by Will Smith) gets turned into a pigeon, a nerdy underling (voiced by Tom Holland) has to help him save the day. Birds of a feather, as they say.

"1917": Two British soldiers are ordered to penetrate deep into enemy territory and stop 1,600 of their countrymen from walking into a German trap. Harking to a time when Brittania indeed did rule the waves.

"Just Mercy": Defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) fights to save the life of a condemned criminal (Jamie Foxx), beginning a career that saw him develop into a lifelong battler for the rights of the underprivileged. Overcome he shall.

And at the Magic Lantern? Besides second-run openings of "Jojo Rabbit" and "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," the Lantern expects a single opening on Christmas Day:

"Uncut Gems": Adam Sandler plays a jeweler who gets caught in a variety of get-rich-quick schemes.

That's the lot. So far. I'll do my best to update when area theaters finalize their bookings.

See ‘The Nutcracker’ on a big screen Saturday

Though some of us had to be dragged into the realization, we have now entered the Christmas holiday season. And what spells Christmas better than "The Nutcracker"?

An encore presentation of Tchaikovsky's famous ballet, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet, will screen at 12:55 on Saturday at the Regal Cinemas theater at Northtown Mall.

The production features Margarita Shrainer as the innocent Marie while Semyon Chudin performs as The Nutcracker his own self.

It's not exactly "A Christmas Story," but this version of Tchaikovsky's music should get your seasonal juices flowing. In return, that should fuel your desire to send off those letters to Santa.

Maybe ask for some dance shoes?