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

‘Tel Aviv on Fire’: a bit of satire never hurts

Of the movies opening today in Spokane, one is a joint Israeli-French-Belgian film titled "Tel Aviv on Fire," which as I explained in my review for Spokane Public Radio is a far different production in tone than the title would suggest:

As they sing – or at least used to sing – on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other. Let’s begin with this quartet: a car, a bus, a truck and a bicycle. Now this one: a pizza, a hamburger, a hotdog and a salad. And finally: a cat, a dog, a hamster and a Velociraptor.

You see what I’m getting at, right?

For argument’s sake, apply this model to contemporary social issues. What stands out in this grouping: Israel, Palestine, conflict and comedy?

Hint: Middle Eastern relations are about as funny as bird droppings in a hummus bowl.

Yet comedy is precisely what sits at the center of “Tel Aviv on Fire,” a movie co-written by Palestinian filmmaker Sameh Zorabi and American film professor Dan Kleinman that opens today at the Magic Lantern Theater.

Directed by Zorabi, “Tel Aviv on Fire” tells the story of a slacker named Salam (played by Kais Nashef), a nebbish version of a Palestinian who has just scored a job – thanks to his uncle – as an assistant on a television serial titled, yes, “Tel Aviv on Fire.”

A potboiler of a show, “Tel Aviv on Fire” – which is popular with both Palestinian and Israeli audiences – involves a Palestinian spy named Manal who poses as an Israeli in order to seduce an Israeli army general. Her mission is to gather as much information as she can, even if it means sacrificing herself. As I said, potboiler.

Yet Salam’s life is about to get even more complicated than the show. While on the way to work one day, as he passes through one of Israel’s infamous checkpoints, he is stopped and questioned. And when he identifies himself as the show’s writer, which is a blatant lie, he attracts the attention of the checkpoint’s overly assertive officer, Assi (played by Yaniv Biton), who – it turns out – develops some fairly strong reasons for wanting to shape the show’s plotline. 

Assi gets his chance when, through chance, Salam actually is promoted to writer. Salam, no surprise, doesn’t know the slightest thing about writing, so he turns to Assi for advice – trading Palestinian-made hummus for Assi’s technical and thematic direction.

Oh, and not only does Salam become interested in holding down the only real job he’s ever had, but he wants desperately to impress the woman he’s long desired, the lovely Mariam (played by Maisa Abd Elhadi). Trouble is, the producer of the show, his uncle, wants to please his sponsors and end things in a way that conflicts with Assi’s plans. What to do.

As Salam, Nashef is a real find. He hits the right balance between a clueless loser and someone who could conceivably change the course of his life and achieve the success he’d always dreamed of. Among the several awards “Tel Aviv on Fire” has won, including Best Film at the most recent Seattle International Film Festival, Nashef snared Best Actor honors at the 2018 Venice Film Festival.

Which is fitting. If only peace in the Middle East were as easy to achieve as the laughs in Zorabi’s satire.

The week’s opening redux (2): More screen riches

Seems like it's going to be a big movie week after all, what with the openings — both new and old — that are scheduled for Friday. The list includes:

"Bennet's War": A wounded veteran trains to become a motocross racer. Family first.

"Killerman": A guy suffering from amnesia, but carrying a load of drugs and stolen loot, tries to stay ahead of his enemies — including crooked cops. No time for fast food.

"After the Wedding": Michelle Williams plays the manager of a Kolkata orphanage who travels to New York to accept a generous donation. Only the donor (Julianne Moore) has ulterior motives. 

"The Matrix: 20th Anniversary": The Wachowskis' masterpiece of perception returns for its anniversary run. Which pill will you take: the blue or the red?

That's the list. A special screening of "Lawrence of Arabia" is scheduled to play at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Regal Cinemas outlets at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Cinemas. I'll post more on that later.

Now go, see a movie. And enjoy.

Catch ‘Grease’ tonight and come out humming

Earworms are all around us. You walk into a grocery story in search of, say, some eggs — and you walk out humming some song by Tommy Tutone.

Remember "867-530-ni-yah-ni-yun"?

And nothing contains more earworms than a rock musical. "Grease," for example. If you don't believe me — or have been trying desperately to forget — you can see for yourself at 7:15 tonight at the Garland Theater when the 1978 movie adaptation of the 1971 stage musical will screen as the finale of the theater's Summer Camp series.

Directed by Randal Kleiser, the film stars Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway and others (including Didi Conn). Set in the summer of 1958, the film presents a fantasy version of the greaser era, keying on how a "good girl" character (Newton-John) gets acclimated into the greaser realm by her summer boyfriend Danny (Travolta).

And you likely know the rest.

Admission to the show is $2.50. The cheap price covers all the earworms — including the one below.

The week’s openings redux: A Middle-Eastern comedy

And we have our first update to Friday's movie-opening schedule. In addition to what I've already announced, the Magic Lantern will open a second movie:

"Tel Aviv on Fire": Believe it or not, this Israeli-made film is a satirical comedy about Jewish-Palestinian relations. Yes, a comedy. Written and directed by Israeli-born Palestinian filmmaker Sameh Zoabi, the film follows a wannabe television writer who gets hired to work on a Palestinian television soap opera. Only he finds himself in a quandary: Since he knows nothing about script writing, he is forced to work with an Israeli soldier to come up with ideas.

Washington Post critic Vanessa H. Larson wrote, "In offering a comedic take on not just the hostility between Israelis and Palestinians, but also the shared history and culture that bind them, 'Tel Aviv on Fire' is an enjoyable respite from the bleakness that is far more typical of their stories."

Now, if only someone could update "Bulworth" or "Bob Roberts" to reflect today's Washington, D.C.

Fridays openings: Time to fix those mistakes

Suspense, some violence and even a bit of time travel (?) are on the movie docket this coming week. Friday's top mainstream movie opening, according to the national release schedule is:

"Don't Let Go": David Oyelowo plays a police detective who gets the opportunity to save his brother's family from being murdered — even though the killings have already happened. Time is relative, Einstein.

Hollywood Reporter critic John DeFore wrote, "Grounded in realism thanks to a lead performance by David Oyelowo, whose character (for once in this sort of adventure) never seems to fully accept the reality of what's happening to him, the pic should be welcomed by genre fans who aren't yet burned out on time-travel variants."

And at the Magic Lantern?

"The Nightingale": A woman (Aisling Franciosi) pursues a personal sense of justice in the Tasmanian outback in this Australian film set at the turn of the 19th century.

Entertainment Weekly critic Leah Greenblatt wrote, "(I)n its finest moments — particularly the raw, remarkable performances of Franciosi and (Baykali) Ganambarr — 'The Nightingale' sings." Insert here the obligatory joke about shrimps and barbies.

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

Souvenir’ is an acquired cinematic taste

One of the movies that we reviewed on "Movies 101" is a confounding example of alternative cinema titled "The Souvenir." What follows is the attempt that I made to make some sense of it for Spokane Public Radio:

Judging art is an individual exercise. After all, our reactions to pretty much anything, from opera to football games to ice cream, depend primarily on the attitudes – tempered by ever-developing degrees of knowledge and overall life experience – that shape our personal tastes.

And, yes, crafting the best ice cream – specifically gelato – indeed is an art.

I’m not saying that universal standards don’t exist. Michelangelo’s David is so jaw-droppingly impressive that no reasonable person could deny its genius. On the other hand, debates over the quality of other artworks are ongoing: People have gotten into fistfights over disagreements about Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.

And the same is even more pronounced with cinema, that great popular art form. Some of us consider “Citizen Kane” the greatest film ever made. Others would rather sit through an Adam Sandler marathon twice than be forced to endure the first five minutes of Welles’ masterpiece.

I say all that as a way of leading up to a discussion of “The Souvenir,” a film by British filmmaker Joanna Hogg that premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and is available on demand through your favorite streaming service  (Amazon Prime, for example).

Let me add here, too, that “The Souvenir” is getting reviews that border on the absurd. It carries a 90 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes, the aggregate site that, in this instance, compiled the opinions of 115 film critics from across the country.

So imagine my discomfort after I finished watching the film when I felt curiously perplexed. Instead of finding “The Souvenir” to be “rich and quiet and sneakily affecting” – as one critic put it – I thought the film superficial, banal and overtly pretentious.

What kind of Kool-Aid, I thought, is everyone drinking?

“The Souvenir” – which takes its title from a late 18th-century painting by the French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard – tells the story of a young film student named Julie (played by Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of actress Tilda Swinton).

Immersed in a student-film project, the fever-dream visions of which become a clumsily diverting device that Hogg returns to repeatedly, Julie falls into an at-first casual relationship with the older Anthony (played by Tom Burke). Pretty soon, Anthony – by dint of some quality of attraction that I failed to recognize – enchants Julie. And the two embark on a love affair that feels as unlikely as it is obligatorily doomed.

It’s not just that Anthony is already married, not just that he steals from Julie, not just that he lies to her and is always borrowing money. It’s that he’s overbearing and self-absorbed. And not particularly attractive. Oh, and he’s a heroin addict to boot.

In other words, Hogg’s whole movie is based on a weak premise. And instead of giving us any reason to accept that premise – say, a back story outlining why Julie is so acceptingly naïve – she merely indulges in a kind of artistic fancy that might make even Jackson Pollock smirk.

Of course, you may feel differently. Certainly the majority of critics do. No problem. Just don’t try to argue with me about ice cream.

Especially about gelato.

‘My Neighbor Totoro’ to screen on Sunday

Of all the Studio Ghibli films that have been produced over the years, some stand out. My favorite would have to be "Spirited Away," Hayao Miyazaki's 2001 Oscar-winning film about a young girl saving her parents.

Close behind, though, would be "My Neighbor Totoro," Miyazaki's 1988 film that is as gentle and kid-friendly as anything I have ever seen. The Internet Movie Database sums up the film's simple plot this way: "When two girls move to the country to be near their ailing mother, they have adventures with the wondrous forest spirits who live nearby."

Written and directed by Miyazaki, "My Neighbor Totoro" was only his fourth feature film. His first was 1979's "The Castle of Cagliostro," followed by a short film and two television series. And it fit right in with his obsession for the aspects of life that lie beyond our normal senses, exploring that realm with a tone that speaks both to adults and children.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the film is part of the Studio Ghibli Fest 2019. "My Neighbor Totoro" will screen locally three times, beginning at 12:55 p.m. Sunday at three area theaters: AMC River Park Square, and Regal Cinemas location at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium. Following screenings will be held at 7 p.m. at all three sites on Monday and Wednesday.

Sunday and Wednesday's screenings will be dubbed into English. Monday's screening will be in Japanese with English subtitles.

Critic Trevor Johnstone, writing in 2007 for Time Out, offered what may be the film's best description: "The lack of sentimentality will be utterly refreshing to those raised on a diet of Disney." But let's leave the last word to the late Roger Ebert: "Here is a children's film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy."

LaBeouf provides the soul of ‘Peanut Butter Falcon’

In past years, sometimes weeks have passed without anything truly interesting opening in mainstream theaters. But that seldom happens anymore in this part of the Inland Northwest.

For example, one of the movie scheduled to open on Friday stars Shia LaBeouf, which always seems to pose a challenge. The film is:

"The Peanut Butter Falcon": Reworking the basic plot line for "Huckleberry Finn," this film explores the story of a young guy with Down syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) who convinces a wanderer (LaBeouf) to help him fulfill his quest to become a professional wrestler. Also starring Dakota Johnson.

The film, which was co-written and directed by by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, is receiving a 94 percent approval (98 percent audience)rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Following are some critical comments:

 Samantha Incorvaia, Arizona Republic: "The film is a sweet, funny and heartfelt look at friendship and strength."

Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times: "LaBeouf brings the soul to 'The Peanut Butter Falcon,' while Gottsagen brings the spirit. He has an undeniably charming screen presence, and the actor takes to this starring role with gusto."

Peter Debruge, Variety: "A feel-good niche indie with its priorities in the right place."

As with all of life, DeBruge's final words are worth considering.

Lantern to screen Wildfire Film Fest on Saturday

Fires have always posed a threat to those who live in the West. Especially during times of prolonged drought.

And in recent seasons, the threat has involved more than the flames and heat. The smoke from wildfires has permeated the air, darkening the skies and making the very act of breathing a dangerous exercise.

Fire and the problems it causes will be the focus of a film festival that will screen beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Magic Lantern Theater. Sponsored by the nonprofit Community Building Foundation, the festival will feature three feature films:

"Prince Avalanche" (3 p.m.): Written and directed by David Gordon Green, this 2013 comedy stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as (according to Rotten Tomatoes) "two men painting traffic lines on a desolate country highway that's been ravaged by wildfire."

"Only the Brave" (4:45 p.m.): Josh Brolin, Miles Teller and Jeff Bridges star in this 2017 film focusing on the true story of the ill-fated firefighting crew Granite Mountain Hotshots.

"Wilder Than Wild: Fire, Forests and the Future" (7:15 p.m.): This hour-long documentary explores the vicious cycle of how fires cause the very conditions that lead to climate change and further environmental damage.

Admission to the films is free, though donations are welcomed. All profits will go to local communities affected by wildfire.

Magic Lantern openers solid as usual

And what about Spokane's vaunted arthouse movie theater, the Magic Lantern? What will open there on Friday?

Nothing new, as it turns out, though still a trio of interesting selections. The Lantern will bring in "Midsommar," the horror film from Ari Aster — the guy who gave us last year's creepy thriller "Hereditary." Aster's film, which is a revenge-flick, domestic-squabble study (one that the writer-director himself described as a "breakup movie") and which played earlier this summer at AMC River Park Square.

And two recent successes are also returning: Joe Talbot's meditative "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" and the Timothy Greenfield-Sanders documentary "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am."

In reference to the Morrison movie, it's important to note that the Novel Prize-winning author died on Aug. 5 at the age of 88. As another great American writer, Kurt Vonnegut, would say, "So it goes."

The Lantern is scheduled to open the Australian film "The Nightingale" on Aug. 30.

The week’s openings: The president needs help

The president is in trouble. In Hollywood, at least. There, though, Gerard Butler is around to play the rescuer — as he does in one of Friday's opening movies.

The week's list, as defined by the national-release schedule:

Wednesday

"Ready or Not": A new bride discovers that her husband's family has a curious way of initiating her into their company — a game of run, hide or die. Beats getting a new set of steak knives.

Friday

"Angel Has Fallen": In his third outing as Mike Banning, the all-everything government agent, Gerard Butler stars as the man who — accused of assassinating the president (Morgan Freeman) — must find a way to clear his name. His word is his pledge.

"Overcomer": A high school coach facing personal problems helps a young girl become a skilled cross-country runner. From the Bible quote "Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?"

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

‘Sword of Trust’: small but effective comedy

Lynn Shelton's film "Sword of Trust" opened a week ago at the Magic Lantern Theater. Following is a review of that film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Some movies depend on intricate plots. Other opt for imaginative plot concepts. Still others make plot fully secondary to action.

It’s clear what kind of filmmaker Lynn Shelton is. The Seattle-based writer-director of such films as “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” typically follows a simple outline: She comes up with a novel concept and then depends on dialogue delivered by talented actors to create a satisfying mood.

“Humpday,” which was released in 2009, is a case in point. Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard play longtime buddies, straight guys who – on a mutual dare – decide to make a gay porn film … starring themselves.

Shelton’s new film "Sword of Trust," which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater, is only mildly less offbeat: It involves a sword that, some people actually believe, proves that the South won the Civil War.

The sword in question belonged to the late 98-year-old grandfather of Cynthia (played by Jillian Bell) and is the only thing, upon his passing, that he left her to inherit. Along with her life partner Mary (played by Michaela Watkins), Cynthia discovers the sword’s alleged back story and attempts to find a way to profit from it.

Which is how she ends up in a pawn shop owned by Mel (played by Marc Maron), who lowballs Cynthia – as some pawn-shop owners are wont to do – until his slacker assistant Nathaniel (played by Jon Bass) convinces him to change his mind. Nathaniel, you see, likes exploring Internet conspiracy sites, and he knows that some people think such artifacts as Cynthia’s sword are genuine – and will pay a lot of money to purchase them.

Which is how the four become a reluctant team, agreeing to share a potential 40-thousand-dollar payday – and how, to collect, they end up riding for hours, in the back of a windowless truck driven by a suspicious character, to an unknown destination. You know, as ordinary people are wont to do.

Ridiculous, right? And in the wrong hands, such a concept would end up being merely a simple farce.

But Shelton, as all her work has shown, has a sensitive side. Her characters are both well and insightfully drawn, from the loving way that Cynthia and Mary communicate to Mel’s back story involving his long, drawn-out and frustrated love affair with a damaged woman named Deirdre (played by Shelton herself).

In fact, one of Shelton’s main strengths is her ability to find the right cast. Both Maron and Watkins boast stand-up-comedy chops, Maron being the host of the popular podcast “WTF with Marc Maron” and Watkins being a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member.

Maron, in particular, is so natural as Mel that it’s hard to believe he’s acting. In arguably the movie’s best scene, Maron delivers a long dialogue – addressing the other three in the back of the moving truck, no less – that explains how he ended up evolving from a would-be New York City musician to a Birmingham, Alabama, pawn broker.

The scene is an especially poignant moment in a typical Lynn Shelton film: one of small but mostly effective comic proportions. 

Yes, India sent a successful probe to Mars

Add one more movie to Friday's opening schedule. And it's one of a series of Hindi-language that have played at AMC River Park Square recently:

"Mission Mangal": Translated as "Mission Mars," this Indian-made drama tells the story of the engineers who helped launch that country's Mars orbiter in 2013.

From the Times of India: "Moments of heightened drama in the screenplay are tailor-made to please the audience, especially those who don't have a knack for theories, equations and numbers."

We've had several space-flight stories featuring U.S. successes in recent years. It's time to share the glory with other countries.

‘Ancestral Waters’ highlights new fight for Indian rights

The Magic Lantern's Meaningful Movies Project will continue on Sunday with a 6 p.m. screening of "Ancestral Waters," a documentary exploring the three-year fight of the Puyallup Tribe to stop construction of a natural gas plant on ancestral land.

The film was directed by Darren Moore and was co-written by Moore and his wife, Benita Moore, who is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Writing in Indian Country Today, reviewer Frank Hopper wrote that the "moving emotional center to the film" involves the moment "the fight becomes personal for one young tribal member … a young Puyallup warrior named Dakota Case."

The screening will be followed by a discussion led by three activists: community organizer Jacob Johns, photographer Jeff Ferguson and retired minister George Taylor.

Meaningful Movies is cosponsored by the Magic Lantern and the Social Justice Coordinating Council of the UU Church of Spokane. The series screens on the third Sunday of every month beginning at 6 p.m. Admission is free, though donations are enouraged.

The week’s openings: Of women and the sea

It's a cliche to start a story detailing someone's having a dream. Yet sometimes that's the only way to begin, as is the case with the movie that will open at the Magic Lantern on Friday. It's titled:

"Maiden": Tracy Edwards is the focus of this documentary film about the first all-woman crew to compete in the daunting Whitbread Round the World yacht race. At the tender age of 24, Edwards, who had crewed but not captained on previous races, had to find a suitable boat, raise both the renovations funds and the million British pounds entry fee, and find a serviceable crew. Director Alex Holmes tells Edwards' story — and details her dream.

Some critical comments:

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service: "With stunning archival footage and interviews with the amazing Maiden crew, Holmes captures that high in this stirring documentary that recounts not just the feminist achievement, but triumph of the human spirit."

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: "Using archival and newly shot material, Holmes tells the story of this unruly daughter who left home when she was young, fell in love with sailing and — on deciding that she wanted to navigate the world — found her cause and herself, a discovery that made her a feminist exemplar."

Rafer Guzman, Newsday: " 'Maiden' concludes so movingly, with such perfect symbolism, that it rivals any scripted sports drama."

More changes may be coming. I'll update as needed.