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

Catch the original ‘King Kong’ on Sunday

It's hard to gauge just how much effect the original version of "King Kong" had on the movie industry. Yet the late Roger Ebert insisted that the film was "the father of 'Jurassic Park,' the 'Alien' movies and countless other stories in which heroes are terrified by skillful special effects."

Directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the 1933 production was groundbreaking production. It featured stop-motion special effects by Willis O'Brien that, though tame by today's efforts, were revolutionary for the time.

If you haven't ever seen the film on the big screen, well, now's your chance. 'King Kong" will screen for one day only, at 1 and 4 p.m. on Sunday, at the Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and at Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

Speaking of Ebert, here is more of his review: "The movie plunders every trick in the book to create its illusions, using live action, back projection, stop-motion animation, miniatures, models, matte paintings and sleight-of-hand," he wrote.

"But," he added, " 'King Kong' is more than a technical achievement. It is also a curiously touching fable in which the beast is seen, not as a monster of destruction, but as a creature that in its own way wants to do the right thing."

Doing the right thing. Strange notion in 2020. Even for a lovesick gorilla.

See ‘Jakob der L├╝gner’ Thursday at the MAC

The story of how the 1975 film "Jacob the Liar" ("Jakob der Lügner") was made  may be even more interesting than the film itself. And since the film is the only East German film to ever get nominated for an Academy Award, that's saying something.

You'll likely get the whole story at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday when the film will screen as part of the Matinee Movie Classics series at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. That's because Shaun O’L. Higgins will be doing the presenting.

Higgins is one of the hosts of Spokane Public Television's Saturday Night Cinema.

In brief, production on the film began in 1966. Due to a number of difficulties, from government censorship to the virtual blackballing of the film's projected director, Frank Beyer, production was stopped. Screenwriter Jurek Becker then turned his screenplay into a novel, which was published in 1969, and production on the film eventually resumed in 1974.

A version of the film was screened on television before it was finally released in theaters in April 1975.

"Jacob the Liar," which is set during the final months of World War II, tells the story of a man — the Jacob of the film's title — who resides in a German-controlled Jewish ghetto in Poland. When he learns by chance that the Soviet army is approaching, he spreads the news — only no one believes him. So he lies and says that he heard the news on a radio that he has hidden. And he begins inventing further news, which his neighbors believe.

In his review in the New York Times, critic A.H. Weiler wrote that "if there is little doubt as to the drama's inevitable, tragic denouement, 'Jacob the Liar' is, in effect, a heartwarming saga and one that illustrates Mark Twain's observation that 'courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, and not the absence of fear.' "

And don't confuse the 1975 film, which is in German with English subtitles, with the 1999 remake starring Robin Williams. That film was described by The Washington Post this way: "But the best thing about 'Jakob the Liar' is that it's not 'Patch Adams at Auschwitz.' "


Friday’s openings redux: Three at the Lantern

As for the Magic Lantern Theater, its week of playing host to the 2020 Spokane International Film Festival is over. And the arthouse plans to open three new films on Friday.

The films are:

"Extra Ordinary": Irish stand-up comic Maeve Higgins stars in this offbeat story about ghosts, exorcisms, music and comedy. Nice bit of blending, eh?

"Portrait of a Lady on Fire": When a woman painter is contracted to paint the portrait of a reclusive woman about the be married, sparks fly all over the place. But who or what gets consumed?

"The Woman Who Loves Giraffes": One of the hits of 2020 SpIFF, this documentary tells the story of Anne Innis Dagg, a Canadian woman whose field work in Africa on giraffes predated Jane Goodall's work on chimpanzees.

That's all for the moment. I'll continue to update as needed.

Friday’s openings: Action, action and same old action

Action — sometimes with intentional comedy, maybe at times with unintentional comedy — seems to be on tap for Friday's movie menu, at least according to the national release schedule. The projected openings are:

"Bloodshot": Vin Diesel plays a soldier — a dead soldier — who has been reanimated and programmed to kill whomever his programmers dictate. Hmmmmm, sounds a bit familiar, eh? 

"The Hunt": A dozen people wake up in a strange place, knowing nothing about where they are or what's happening to them — until the hunt begins. Talk about familiar. Maybe "The Purge" meets "The Naked Prey"?

"My Spy": Dave Bautista plays an undercover CIA operative who becomes the protector of a 9-year-old girl. That's three for three in familiarity, folks.

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

‘Invisible Man’ meets indomitable woman

Leigh Whannell's adaptation of "The Invisible Man" turns out to be an intense blend of sci-fi horror and female empowerment. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

What scares us is as individualistic as what makes us laugh, makes us cry, even what makes us think. Some movie fans, for example, seek out films that tell stories of the paranormal – a genre that is often rigorously religious in the way it explores the nature of what we cannot see.

Can a doll really contain the spirit of an evil entity?  Will a crucifix really stop a vampire from sucking your blood? Is my house haunted? Do exorcisms work?

Some of the greatest horror films ever made have explored such storylines and posed answers to such questions. William Friedkin’s 1973 film “The Exorcist,” for example.

But the best of these films – and I include “The Exorcist” among them – don’t attempt to claim these stories are actually true. Yes, William Peter Blatty took first his novel and then his screenplay from an actual case. But the so-called facts behind that case have always evoked controversy – ridiculed nearly as much as the house at the center of the phony “Amityville Horror” incident.

The trick is in taking something apparently absurd and making it seem real. What Blatty wrote, not to mention what Friedkin filmed, isn’t just some ripped-from-the-headlines study in torture porn. It’s grounded in everyday life, imbued by a cast – from Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair to Jason Miller and Max von Sydow –  skilled at portraying convincing, credible characters.

This feel for the everyday is what makes “The Exorcist” less a commentary on religion than a horrifying step into the vagaries of the unknown.

That sense of the unknown is also at the heart of “The Invisible Man,” the latest twist on a story that dates back to the 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same title. The twist this time is that the protagonist isn’t the man at all – but the woman the man seeks either to possess or to destroy.

Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia, an architect who – when we first encounter her – is attempting to escape a house (more like a compound) and the sociopath who is her husband. She does make it, though just barely. And of course since this is a two-hour movie, Cecilia’s travails are far from over.

Told that her distraught husband has committed suicide, and that he has left her a handsome settlement, Cecilia tries to relax. It helps that she’s staying with an old friend (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter (Storm Reid), but strange things keep happening. A frying pan busts into flame. Important papers disappear. A cell phone goes off in an attic corner.

Cecilia begins suspecting that her ex isn’t dead at all. That he’s found a way to, get this, make himself invisible. And pretty soon everyone – including her friends – begin thinking that she has become mentally unbalanced. Even worse, when it appears that she’s killed someone, the police lock her up. What is poor Cecilia to do?

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, co-creator with James Wan of the first three segments of the “Saw” Franchise, “The Invisible Man” is a good example of what could be called “Me, Too” horror. It explores the fears that many women experience, especially in relationships but also at work.

Yet Whannell unfolds his movie in a classic manner, not so much as a whodunnit but as a how’s-he-doing it. Whannell creates a solid sense of place – whether it be a cliff-side mansion, the kitchen of a working-man’s house or the cramped shower of a mental hospital – and he affects a narrative pacing that punctuates long, slow sequences with sudden stabs of graphic violence.

What doesn’t get lost until the very end is the mystery of the unseen, melded with everyday authenticity, from which the best horror emanates. 

SpIFF 2020: Two encores and ‘China Love’

We're down to the final two days of the 2020 Spokane International Film Festival. Here's tonight's schedule, with all films showing at the Magic Lantern Theater:

"Quiet Explosions: Healing the Brain" (5:30 p.m.): This is an encore showing of this year's opening-night documentary feature.

"U.S. Shorts" (7 p.m.): Another encore showing, nine selected shorts ranging in length from four to 25 minutes.

"China Love" (7:30 p.m.): This fascinating documentary explores the multi-million-dollar Chinese pre-wedding photo industry. Directed by Olivia Martin McGuire, the film contrasts the China of today with the country's Cultural Revolution past.

Note: The Magic Lantern just announced that it will open "The Woman Who Loves Giraffes" on March 13 for a regular theatrical run.

Kon’s ‘Tokyo Godfathers’ returns in a new print

It's impossible to write about the anime "Tokyo Godfathers" without mentioning John Ford.

Ford was the director of the 1948 film "Three Godfathers," which stars John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz and Harry Carey Jr. as three outlaws on the run who try to save a baby whose mother just died.

"Tokyo Godfathers," a 2003 film co-directed by Satoki Kon and Shôgo Furuya, involves a trio of homeless people who, as the late Roger Ebert explained in his review, in "an alcoholic, a drag queen and a girl of about 11 — who find an abandoned baby in the trash on a cold Christmas Eve, and try for a few days to give it a home."

So, the nod to Ford is a bare one. But it's there nonetheless. Not that you have to take my word for it. "Tokyo Godfathers," in totally restored condition, will screen at 7 p.m. Monday (subtitled) and Wednesday (March 11, dubbed) at both Regal Northtown 12 and AMC River Park Square.

Besides Ebert, who hailed the film as "melodrama crossed with pathos, sometimes startling hard-boiled action, and enormous coincidence," other critics had this to say:

Gary Dowell, Dallas Morning News: "One of the most moving, enjoyable and wholly unconventional Christmas stories to come along in a long time."

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal: "In one sense the plot involves returning stolen goods to a thief, but Tokyo Godfathers is really about longing — for family, for children, for parents and for the lost past."

Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News: "An ambitious and impressively inventive undertaking."

Tell them John Ford sent you.

Movie notes: Updates, opera, anime and more

Let's run down a list of movie news:

1. The 2020 Spokane International Film Festival continues tonight at both houses of the Magic Lantern. The Documentary "Burgers, Fries & Family Ties" screens at 6:15. An encore showing of "Animation Showcase" follows at 7, and the evening ends with the documentary "Building the American Dream."

For ticket information, click here.

2. An encore presentation of "The Met Life in HD: Agrippina" will screen twice, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., at Regal Northtown 12.

3. One film that was listed on the national release schedule, "First Cow," does not appear to be among Friday's openings.

4. (Late update): The Magic Lantern is now expected to open "Extra Ordinary" on March 13 (in contrast to what I posted earlier).

That's it for the moment. I'll update even more as needed.

Friday’s openings: Love, basketball and elves

A variety of movies is scheduled to open on Friday, according to the national release list, which should offer a bit of something for everyone. The list:

"Emma": Directer Autumn de Wilde brings a fresh look at Jane Austen's novel about a young woman (played by Anna Taylor-Joy) who wrongheadedly, but humorously, plays matchmaker to a series of would-be couples.

"First Cow": In Oregon Territory of the 1820s, an American cook teams up with a wandering Chinese man and the two struggle to make a living. Directed by Kelly Reichhardt.

"Onward": This animated feature explores the story of two elf brothers who set out to see if magic still exists in the world.

"The Way Back": Ben Affleck plays a high school basketball coach who battles both the bottle and a team of misfits to find some sense of redemption.

And at the Magic Lantern (once the Spokane International Film Festival ends on Friday):

"CatVideoFest": A treat for cat-lovers, this collection of videos features cats in every possible situation.

"Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band": The origins of the group that began as a back-up crew and developed into one of the great bands of all time.

"Extra Ordinary": Irish stand-up comic Maeve Higgins stars in this offbeat story about ghosts, exorcisms, music and comedy.

That's it for the moment. As usual, I'll update when the area theaters finalize their bookings.

‘The Assistant’: What goes on behind closed doors

One of the less-noticed films that played last week in Spokane carries the inauspicious title "The Assistant." Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

One of the oldest Hollywood traditions is that of the casting couch. Even typing those two words – casting couch – brings back visions of old Hollywood where moguls were said to routinely require starlets … Judy Garland comes to mind … to please them in unmentionable ways just to win roles in the movies they produced.

But if the case of Harvey Weinstein proves anything, it’s that some traditions never die. Weinstein, who was found guilty last week of criminal assault in the first degree and rape in the third degree, has been accused of sexual abusing and/or raping dozens of women. And he’s hardly the only one.

The names of high-profile men in the entertainment industry accused of – in Bill Cosby’s case, convicted of – raping or sexually abusing women (and in some cases men) read like a celebrity who’s who: Kevin Spacey, Mario Batalli, Placido Domingo, Ben Affleck, former Pixar producer/director John Lasseter … the list goes on far past the point of deniability.

And in the cases of many of these women who have come forward, one thing is mentioned time and again: Everyone knew what was going on. Some may not have directly witnessed it. And not everyone was directly affected by it. But still, they knew.

So the question then is, how could such a thing happen? And how could it have gone on for so long before, as is the case today, some breaking point was reached?

That’s the question that the movie “The Assistant” explores. Written and directed by Kitty Green, whose best known previous film was the documentary feature “Casting JonBenet,” “The Assistant” stars the actress Julia Garner as Jane, a new-hire at a New York-based film production company.

Equipped with a degree from Northwestern, Jane harbors dreams of becoming a producer. For the moment, though, she is the office go-fer – arriving at the office long before anyone else, turning on the lights and fixing the coffee before getting down to the crux of her work, which involves everything from arranging travel for the company boss to accompanying young ingenues to a Manhattan hotel.

In between, she cleans stains off the boss’ couch, picks up discarded jewelry left presumably by women caught up in late-night – for want of a better word – meetings, tries to placate the head man’s angrily suspicious wife and, when she can’t, has to endure his profanity-laden reactions over the phone.

It is that last point, the phone call, that is one of writer-director Green’s most telling conceits: We never see the company head. We hear only his disembodied voice, over the phone, through closed doors, either laughing or yelling or instructing, but always as the one in charge and free to do what he wants, when he wants and to whomever he wants.

And everybody knows it. And nobody does anything about it. Not Jane’s office mates, who school her in how to craft a letter of apology to the boss. Not the other women who work for the company, few that they are. And certainly not the head of human resources, masterfully played by Matthew Macfayden.

It is that HR manager who lays it all out when Jane – plucking up her nerve – goes in to share her suspicions that the boss may be taking advantage of a clueless young women, from Boise of all places. Nothing, he tells her, will come of her complaint except that Jane herself will surely lose her job – and any chance of achieving her dream.

And besides, he adds, “You have nothing to worry about. You’re not his type.”

As if that is any comfort. Which, of course, it isn’t. What it is, though, is a particularly classic indication of how this dark, demeaning process went on, in real life, for so long.

SpIFF 2020: Take time for ‘Super Frenchie’

One day to go before the opening day of the 2020 Spokane International Film Festival. I've run down the schedule several times, picking out one feature after the next. And today I'm making a special pitch for the festival's closing-night feature documentary, Chase Ogden's "Super Frenchie."

Ogden, the Eastern Washington University film professor who produced, directed and edited the film, took the better part of a decade to follow and collect film on Matthias Giraud, the professional skier/BASE jumper who is at the center of "Super Frenchie."

And the result is a film that could highlight any outdoors-themed film festival, the kind that the late Warren Miller used to produce.

Not only does Ogden show Giraud at his best on the slopes, but he gives us enough background to make the French-born daredevil more than the always smiling, totally engaging performer he strives to be. A bit of troubled family history adds to his story, thought it never overwhelms it.

Nor does the singular dramatic moment, which comes halfway through. Amid all the stomach-dropping moments of Giraud flying off mountains, wearing his skis as he plummets toward the snow-covered rocks below, Ogden includes a number of touching scenes with Giraud's friends, wife and young son — a boy who seems to be following in his dad's shoes.

All in all, "Super Frenchie" — a title that comes from the nickname that Giraud has given himself — is an exciting feature, and one well worthy of carrying the expectations of SpIFF 2020's closing night.

Tickets are going fast. And festival passes have already sold out. Click here for more ticket information.

Personal disclaimer: I serve as a volunteer programmer for the Spokane International Film Festival, and I am an unpaid member of the festival's board of directors. I've attended every festival, as either a reporter or as a fan, since its inception in 1999.

Warning: This ‘Agrippina’ no longer just for elites

Opera isn't for everyone. But opera becomes a bit more interesting when the production notes include a warning such as the following:

"Please be aware that this production of 'Agrippina,' although containing no nudity, includes some suggestive adult content which may not be suitable for young audiences."

Hmmmm. If that attracted your attention, the warning involves "The Met Live in HD Presents Agripinna," which will screen at 9:55 a.m. on Saturday at the Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall and at Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium, with an encore screening set for 1 and 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday (March 4) at Northtown only.

"Agrippina" is a three-act opera that was composed by the German composer George Frideric Handel and performed first in 1709. The opera's plot explores the machinations of Agrippina, the mother of the future Roman emperor Nero, to secure the position for her son. The Metropolitan Opera's production features mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title role.

And under the direction of Sir David McVicar (with Harry Bicket conducting), this version of “Agrippina” has been, according to New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe, "yanked from ancient Rome into a deliciously bleak vision of our time, played with electric vividness, and starring a guns-blazing Joyce DiDonato."

"Bold, snicker-out-loud funny, magnetic and unsettling through its power-struggle convolutions, this production musically and dramatically fills the company’s looming proscenium," Woolfe wrote. "It’s begging to be enjoyed with a bag of popcorn — or with a martini packing some of the work’s frosty heat."

And the reason for that "warning" mentioned above. It might have something to do with mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey's performance as Nero.

As Woolfe wrote, "Ms. Lindsey — groping herself and anyone she can get her hands on, her voice sometimes overwhelmed in fast passages but sly in moments of otherworldly softness — is an indelible caricature as Nero. She practically oozes across the stage, at one point singing an aria verse in a side plank position that made my abs hurt just watching it."

Now, that's opera for more than just the elite among us.

Friday’s openings redux: Seberg and kid superheroes

It looks as if a couple of other movies have been added to Friday's list of openings. One is an arthouse offering while the other is aimed at anime fans. The added films are:

"Seberg": Kristin Stewart stars as the ill-fated actress Jean Seberg who was targeted by the FBI for her political activities. Directed by Benedict Andrews, best known for his updated stage productions of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Click here for more information regarding the real Jean Seberg.

"My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising": This sequel to 2018's "My Hero Academia: Two Heroes" and the Japanese television series "My Hero Academia," all being adaptations of the popular manga, follows the further adventures of high school kids who are superheroes-in-training. Screenings are reported to be in Japanese with English subtitles.

Click here for a preview of the newest film.

And that's it for the moment. Don't forget that the 2020 Spokane International Film Festival kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday at the Garland Theater, with the following week featuring daily screenings at the Magic Lantern.

‘Eagle Boy’ gives an insider’s view of Suicide Race

As I've made it clear in past posts on this blog, the 2020 edition of the Spokane International Film Festival opens on Friday. Following a 6 p.m. social hour at the Garland Theater, SpIFF 2020 will screen a Best of the Northwest shorts program beginning at 7, followed by a 9 p.m. screening of the documentary feature "Quiet Explosions: Healing the Brain."

After opening night, the final six days of the festival will take place at the Magic Lantern Theater. And one of the programs that will take place at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Lantern will includes the near-hour-long documentary feature "Eagle Boy" and three shorts: "Woman Dress," "Urban.Indigenous.Proud: That Old Game La Crosse," and "Ride."

Regarding "Eagle Boy," the film — co-directed by Directed by Ruth Eddy and Samuel Wilson — takes its title from one of the horses that competed in the 2017 Suicide Race, which is a featured part of the annual Omak Stampede.

 Eddy and Wilson show us the race from the perspective of jockey Scott Abrahamson and trainer George Marchand, and along the way give viewers a unique insider's view of the culture that gave birth to the whole event.

Both, though, are quick to give credit to Eagle Boy himself.

 “He’s one of the greatest horses I’ve ever rode,” Abrahamson told the Tribal Tribune. “He wants to win this just as much as I do.”

Tickets for SpIFF 2020 are going fast. And festival passes have already sold out. Click here for more ticket information.

Personal disclaimer: I serve as a volunteer programmer for the Spokane International Film Festival, and I am an unpaid member of the festival's board of directors. I've attended every festival, as either a reporter or as a fan, since its inception in 1999.

Friday’s openings: An ‘Invisible Man’ for today

A number of movies are marked for release on Friday, but only one of them is scheduled to open widely. And that film is:

"The Invisible Man": In this new adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic novel, Elisabeth Moss plays a battered woman whose abusive ex takes his own life (supposedly) and leaves her his fortune. When strange things begin happening, though, she suspects that he never died at all.

It seems strange that Wells is mentioned in the credits for this film, since the only thing that seems anything remotely similar to Wells' 1897 novel — not to mention James Whale's 1933 film, starring Claude Rains — is the title.

Reviews of this new "Invisible Man," which was directed by "Saw" writer Leigh Whannell, have been embargoed, yet one critic has posted his commentary. And his reaction isn't particularly positive. Writing for the National Review, critic Armond White wrote, "This 'Invisible Man' is not entertainment; it’s merely a domestic-violence showcase for masochists." Ouch.

Then again, most movie fans familiar with White take his opinions for what they're worth. As fellow critic Owen Gleiberman once wrote in Entertainment Weekly, White "tosses out provocations like grenades and eats acclaimed films for breakfast."

Here, for example, is what White wrote about "Toy Story 3": "The 'Toy Story' franchise isn’t for children and adults, it’s for non-thinking children and adults. When a movie is this formulaic, it’s no longer a toy because it does all the work for you. It’s a sap’s story."

Double ouch. As usual, I'll update when area theater finalize their bookings.