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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Once Were Brothers’ tells of The Band’s beginning and end

Some members of the Facebook community like to pose challenges. Name your 10 favorite movies is a big one.

One that I read not that long ago invited people to talk about their very first rock concert. And it got me to thinking, back to a night in early 1966 when I attended what was my own first rock show. Or at least half of one.

It was on Feb. 12 of that year, in fact, when I and my date Terry Cornett drove from our homes in Virginia Beach, Va., and into the city of Norfolk. It was the night that we took our seats on the floor of the Norfolk Municipal Auditorium.

The night we saw Bob Dylan perform. And in the second half of the show, he came out with an electric guitar — accompanied by the group that became known simply as The Band.

Feel free to be impressed.

It's timely that I should think of The Band, since the documentary "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band" is screening through a Vimeo-powered link in conjunction with the Magic Lantern.

Much has been written about The Band over the years, how the quintet emerged out of a group fronted by the singer Ronnie Hawkins, how they got the gig backing Dylan and the horrors of that tour in which fans were upset over Dylans embrace of electric instruments. (I don't remember anyone yelling at the concert I attended; I certainly didn't.)

Then how they became their own band, put out a number of great songs, saw three of the quintet get seduced by drugs and drink, how after a 16-year career they had a final tour culminating in the great Martin Scorsese documentary "The Last Waltz" and how it all ended.

Except, of course, for the aftermath, which included recriminations, enmity between guitarist and main songwriter Robertson and drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, the deaths of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel and, ultimately, of Helm.

It was the enmity that has endured, involved as it does Robertson being credited as writer or co-writer of so many of the group's songs — a situation contradicted by Helm in particular who claimed that the songs were developed as collaborative efforts.

All of that story is told in "Once Were Brothers," thought it's all told from Robertson's point of view. It begins with his growing up in Canada, picking up a guitar and teaching himself how to play, getting a chance to perform with Hawkins and being invited to go South with him.

An invite he accepted. At age 16.

The documentary, directed by Daniel Rohrer, is narrated mostly by Robertson, and though Rohrer is credited as screenwriter, the film uses Robertson's memoir "Testimony" as a basis. And while filling his film with lots of archival footage, Rohrer augments it with talking-head interviews with the liked of Hawkins, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, David Geffen — not to mention taped talks with the late Danko, Manuel, Helm and even George Harrison.

Rohrer doesn't avoid the Helm-Robertson controversy, though he lets Robertson explain it. And that, of course, is an arguable position. Some fans will never forgive Robertson for what they consider taking credit for the work of others.

Whatever, no one can deny the greatness of those songs. And Rohrer does give us the best of that, a full performance of "The Weight," in which Helm's voice is the featured part.

The argument over who was most responsible for the music The Band created may never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. But at least that music remains.

I think it's time to go and listen to it all again.

Magic Lantern is screening its movies online

Those of us who spend much of our free time haunting movie theaters have been missing actually going to the movies.

Yes, some of us are fortunate enough to have access to a number of screening sources through our various streaming services. But sitting in our living room and watching movies, even if you have a 60-plus-inch TV screen, just isn't the same.

Still, in this time of quarantine — and though it is upending life as we know it — staying at home is one way we can all fight COVID-19. So watching movies at home, even for inveterate theatergoers, is what we have to do.

And theaters recognize this necessity. That's why the whole industry is adjusting, shifting major releases until later in the year and making some films available through streaming.

Our local cinematic treasure, the Magic Lantern, is doing the same. Working through Vimeo, the Lantern is offering three movies right now for home viewing: "The Whistlers," "Slay the Dragon" and "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band."

And the theater just announced that it will offer five more films online this coming Friday: "Sorry We Missed You," "The Woman Who Loves Giraffes," "Incitement," "The Times of Bill Cunningham" and "Saint Frances."

I've already watched The Band documentary and "The Whistlers." Each cost $12 to screen and was available for 48 hours.

Not exactly the same thing as going to an actual theater. Not nearly, in fact. But it may be the next best option. 

In ‘Honey Boy,’ Shia LaBeouf tells his own story

And so we push on, weathering this scourge of a plague as it changes the world we know. Yet as we wait to see how this all turns out, we need, at least on occasion, to turn away from the headlines and feelings of doom to seek out art — in my case cinema — to pass the time. Which is why I am still watching, and reviewing movies.

This is my latest review, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The actor Shia LaBeouf has been performing in one way or another since he was 10 years old. He was just that age, in fact, when he began performing in comedy clubs and tricked a talent agent into taking him on as a client by pretending to be his own adult manager.

LaBeouf was already a veteran of both television and movies when I first became aware of him, when he starred in the 2003 movie “Holes,” an adaptation of Louis Sachar’s acclaimed young-adult novel. He then went on to be a featured part of several blockbuster movies, including Michael Bay’s “Transformers” series and the 2008 film “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” directed by Steven Spielberg.

In recent years, LaBeouf has taken a more diverse career route. Besides appearing in such popular films as 2014’s “Fury” and 2017’s “Borg vs. McEnroe” (in which he played, fittingly, the belligerent John McEnroe), he has both become associated with more artistic films, such as Lars Von Trier’s two “Nymphomaniac” films (both released in 2013) and become the focus of tabloid news.

Arrests for public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, disruptive behavior on the set of “Fury” and a stint in rehab, all cast LaBeouf – now, at age 37 – as a troublesome, if talented, character. And to some of us, he appeared to be just another Hollywood creation – a former child star who couldn’t navigate the road to maturity.

Then came his film “Honey Boy” and, at least for me, that view changed. If anything, the fact that he’s still alive at all – much less still making movies – seems nothing short of a miracle.

“Honey Boy” – a 2019 film that I saw last week courtesy of the streaming site Amazon Prime – is based on LaBeouf’s own life. He wrote the script, which he handed off to director Alma Har’el, and then he appeared in the film opposite Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges.

LaBeouf plays James Lort, a veteran of the Vietnam War, a recovering alcoholic and a difficult, demanding father to his young son Otis – played at age 12 by Jupe, at age 22 by Hedges. Already a TV star, the younger Otis lives with his father in a motel, travels to and from the set on the back of his father’s motorcycle and is the constant focus of his father’s attention, which is at times helpful and instructive but more often disdainful and dismissive.

The film then cuts to the older Otis, by then a movie star whose own reckless attitude toward drink and drugs lands him in rehab – in lieu of jail – where he, at least at first, resists any attempts to help him find some sort of mental and emotional equilibrium.

Throughout its 94-minute running time, “Honey Boy” is a virtual exercise in skillful screen acting, not just by Jupe (so good in last year’s “Ford v Ferrari”) and Hedges (who played opposite Oscar-winning actor Casey Affleck in 2016’s “Manchester by the Sea”), but by LaBeouf himself – who clearly is working out his inner demons.

As a version of his own father, LaBeouf comes across as a truly complex man, one so torn by his own inner conflicts that he can’t help but damage the very boy he professes to love. A kind of damage that two scenes in particular display visually – “Honey Boy’s” opening when the older Otis plays a movie scene in which his character gets blown backward, and the scene in which the younger Otis gets smacked in the face with a cream pie.

“Honey Boy” is not an easy film to watch, especially for those among us whose own childhoods involved emotional abuse. Then again, few films have better explored the specifics of such abuse – and how its effects can linger throughout life. 

But those reasons, plus the quality of the acting, make “Honey Boy” a worthy view. And, all together, it gives us a better understanding of – and perhaps more compassion for – the person who inspired those lurid tabloid headlines.

To see movies legally for free, try Kanopy

Until now, I've been writing about movies that — because of the COVID-19 quarantine — I've been watching at home through the various streaming services to which I subscribe.

The choices are numerous, but between my wife and I we subscribe to Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Which, under most circumstances, is more than enough — and the price, even for all three, isn't prohibitive.

Yet there are ways to see movies for free. And one legal way is through Kanopy, a service that's available through the Spokane Public Library. All you need is a library card and you can see up to eight movies a month — at no charge.

And if you want to watch programming through Kanopy Kids or The Great Courses, you can enjoy "unlimited plays."

One of the movies that's on the newly added list is "Midsommar," the horror film written and directed by Ari Aster and starring Florence Pugh. Another is the film that I chose as my favorite of 2019, "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."

And that's just for starters. Documentaries, classics, fiction and non-fiction, dramas, comedies, romances and more.

I've always considered the Magic Lantern one of Spokane's cinematic treasures. Kanopy is another.

Final ‘Criminal’ episodes have a French feel

Today's post is basically an update of yesterday's. That's because my wife and I watched the final three episodes of the Netflix Original series "Criminal." Specifically, we watched "Criminal: France."

All 12 episodes, which were created by George Kay and Jim Field Smith, were filmed on the same Madrid, Spain, production set. My wife and I had previously watched the episodes from the U.K, Spain and Germany — each of which is rendered in its original-country language (with subtitles in English, where appropriate).

The French episodes come last in the series. And each of the three stories is unique, though they follow the same basic format of the others: someone has been called into the police station, and the team of investigators question them about their involvement in a crime.

The French suspects include a woman who may (or may not) have been at a nightclub that was the target of a terrorist attack, a woman who is overseeing a building project at which someone fell (or was thrown) from a great height, and a guy who may have been witness to a hate crime.

Similar to the other episodes, each storyline progresses with a give-and-take that leads to — in some cases, at least — an unexpected resolution. And while I can't seem to get the Netflix subtitles to work well enough (they sometimes don't translate long passages and at other times disappear before I can read them), I appreciate the acting, done as it is by a cast that I'm totally unfamiliar with.

Crime shows don't appeal to everyone. But they play well in my house. Especially when they're done so well.

Below: For those who speak French.

Netflix has an international feel for crime

Being married to someone who teaches criminal procedure has a number of benefits. One is that I get to ask questions from a professional about what's legal and — more often — what's not.

And recently, what with our being confined at home, a lot of what we've been watching is crime-oriented. From the Oxygen cable channel series "Snapped" to the recent Netflix Original release "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," I've earned several virtual credits toward a law degree.

Right. I'll be here all week, folks.

Over the last week, we've been watching the Netflix series "Criminal." I already wrote about the first episode in the 12-part series, which is split between four different countries. The first three are "Criminal UK," with the others (each of which is rendered in original language with English subtitles) following in order: Spain, Germany and France.

As of last night, we'd finished the rest of the U.K. section, plus all of Spain and Germany. Tonight we start the final three: France.

The series may be of limited interest to some viewers. Each one focuses on a single interrogation, with a team of police investigators facing off against someone they strongly suspect either committed a crime — or at least abetted in one.

The cases involve everything from murder and attempted murder to sexual assault, the selling of illicit drugs and more. As each episode progresses, each of which is only about 45 minutes long, we get familiar with the interrogation teams — some of whom don't get along with each other.

And while the main attraction is the acting, which is universally superb, the stories offer enough surprises to be intriguing even when the specifics feels slightly farfetched. This is, after all, drama and not real life.

At least that's what I keep being told by my personal, in-house attorney. 

Entertaining ‘Tiger King’ couldn’t get any stranger

So … "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness." I've been reading about this Netflix Original series since it premiered on March 20. But my wife and I got around to watching it only this past weekend, when we screened all seven episodes over two days.

And our reaction? Surprised, amazed, disbelieving and definitely entertained.

If you haven't yet watched it (or if you don't have a Netflix account), here's the basic outline: Joe Exotic (born Joseph Schreibvogel but also known as Joseph Maldonado-Passage) is a guy who runs an exotic animal park in Oklahoma. Over the course of the seven episodes, we get to know Joe, his two (and then three) husbands, his enemies — along with a lot of information about the range of exotic animals being kept (legally and illegally) in private parks across the country.

Mostly, though, we get to meet a whole range of people who make up the most diverse and outlandish reality-based series ever produced. "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness" feels like a cross between "Jersey Shore," "Duck Dynasty" and "Queer Eye"-meets-"Real Housewives of Tulsa."

Oh, and don't forget a bit of "Unsolved Mysteries"-meets-"Snapped."

 Every time you think things can't get any stranger, something happens that ups the ante. If it isn't the gun-toting Joe Exotic, it's his arch-nemesis Carole Baskin (whose own past involves her husband who mysteriously disappeared), Bhagavan "Doc" Antle (the South Carolina animal trainer whose own animal park is run like some sort of cult) or any of the shady characters Joe hires or, in desperation, reaches out to for help.

Co-directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness" succeeds because of the many interviews that Good and Chaiklin amassed of all the principal characters. Most especially, there's Joe Exotic himself, the mulleted, self-styled animal-park owner who writes and sings country songs, runs for political office (governor and president) and who threatens Baskin every chance he gets.

Eventually, his actions catch up to him. But what a trip it is watching it all unfold.

‘Emma’ brings Jane Austen into the 21st century

A woman I once was in love with used to remind me regularly that not everyone enjoys the kind of privilege that we're accustomed to seeing on television, in the pages of most magazines and even in newspaper advertisements.

That sentiment extends, of course, to the access that many of us have even to something as basic as Internet access — much less the kinds of streaming services that Internet providers carry. Such as Netflix.

 That said, those who do enjoy such access are likely taking advantage — if advantage is the correct term — of this era of COVID-19 self-quarantine to screen movies that were supposed to have been released in theaters. Movies such as the latest adaptation of the Jane Austen novel "Emma," which I was fortunate enough to be able to watch this week.

And which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio:

The English novelist Jane Austen died more than two centuries ago. Yet her novels remain in print, her literary reputation if anything grows ever stronger as time passes. and film producers simply can’t get over their fascination for both the characters she created and the stories whose landscapes they tread.

Considering the the various adaptations include such acclaimed films as Ang Lee’s 1995 “Sense and Sensibility” and both Robert Z. Leonard’s 1940 and Joe Wright’s 2005 versions of “Pride and Prejudice,” they have a point.

The latest adaptation of Austen’s works is “Emma,” which – because the theaters are now closed – is available instead through the streaming service Amazon Prime. Directed by Autumn de Wilde, the film is based on a script written by Eleanor Catton – though it’s taken largely from the pages of Austen’s fourth novel, also titled “Emma,” which was first published in 1815. 

Emma the title character is Emma Woodhouse (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a somewhat spoiled woman of the landed gentry whose youth and attitude toward the importance of social class give her a sense that she knows what’s best for everyone around her – which, of course, makes her ripe for a lesson in humility (one of Austen’s main themes).

The need for such a lesson become obvious fairly early when she harpoons the potential happiness of her new companion, Harriet (played by Mia Goth), a girl Emma believes is also a scion of gentility. Proposed to by a good man, who just happens to be a local tenant farmer – thus someone Emma looks upon disapprovingly – Harriet is persuaded to decline the offer.

See, Emma has had past success as a matchmaker, and she’s confident that she can do the same for Harriet. And so she tries to set her young friend up with the local vicar, Mr. Elton (played by Josh O’Connor). Elton, though, has eyes for Emma herself – and so the matchmaking plan fails, leaving Eton crushed and Harriet even more bereft.

But is Emma through? No, because Austen has filled her novel with a number of characters, including at least one – and maybe two – other potential matches for Harriet. And Emma isn’t one to give up easily, though it’s only a matter of time – and a number of hurt feelings involving even more doomed matchmaking attempts – before Emma both sees how impulsively wrong she has been and ultimately falls prey to the pangs of love herself.

Speaking of those others characters, the most notable ones include Emma’s father (played by the incomparable Bill Nighy), the flippity Miss Bates (played by the actress and stand-up comic Miranda Hart), Mr. Elton’s pretentious new wife (Tanya Reynolds) and the Woodhouse’s hunky neighbor, Mr. Knightley (played by the equally hunky Johnny Flynn).

Like the 1996 adaptation of “Emma,” directed by Douglas McGrath and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, de Wilde’s film both streamlines Austen’s novel and makes it far more palatable for a modern audiences. Unfortunately, de Wilde adds in a musical score that, at least in the film’s first half, feels as intrusive as it does – at times – sitcomish.

Yet Taylor-Joy, who first found fame in Robert Eggers’ 2015 Puritan shocker “The Witch,” is not only a good actress but she has a face – particularly a set of eyes – that the camera adores. Which is a plus. And regardless, the basis of “Emma” is Austen, and there’s enough of her here to please pretty much everyone except the crankiest of Austen scholars.

My biggest complaint about de Wilde’s film is that I wish she had found more for Nighy to do because every movie would be improved by having more of Bill Nighy – even a movie based on the work of the great Jane Austen.

Netflix’s ‘Criminal: UK’ shows Tennant at his best

In between doing laundry and fixing meals yesterday, I watched most of the "Ong Bak" trilogy, the three films starring — and co-written and directed by — the Thai action star Tony Jaa.

In any list of martial-arts stars, Jaa has to rank at or near the top. Some of the stunts that he pulls off, especially in the first film, are incredible. My favorite: While running down the street, he jumps — at a full gallop — through a ring of barb (or is that barbed?) wire.

The second and third films have their moments, too. The fight Jaa's character has with dozens of enemies while dodging between and through the legs of a massive elephant is impressive, too.

But the "Ong Bak" trilogy is something that I pulled from my personal library. What I want to write about today is something that I saw recently while streaming Netflix: the first episode of a three-episode series titled "Criminal: UK."

Actually, the series I'm referring to is part of a larger 12-episode series titled just "Criminal" and featuring police procedure (involving interrogation, mostly) set in four different countries: the U.K., France, Germany and Spain. And we're going to watch them all.

And that's because the first one was so good. It stars David Tennant, the former "Doctor Who" (he was the 10th incarnation, preceding Matt Smith), as a doctor accused of raping and then murdering his 14-year-old stepdaughter.

Grilled by investigators, the doctor responds to their questions with a continual refrain of "no comment." But as the police team shifts its methods, so does the doctor — and pretty soon we viewers are tossed back and forth, not sure who to believe. Until the very end.

Every performance is top notch, as you would expect from a British cast. But Tennant proves, as he did in "Broadchurch," that he is as talented as actors come.

Can't wait to watch the others. And now I have the time — if I can just break away from my Asian martial-arts collection. And the laundry.

‘Blow the Man Down’: a little film steeped in irony

My local grocery store has, like most others, reduced its hours of business. Moreover, it's reserved the time between 7 and 9 a.m. for seniors.

So, since I fall into that category, I went out this morning at 7:45 just to see what was different. And what I found was … not much. It was basically the same foot traffic as two days ago at 3 p.m. And not everyone I saw was a senior.

Whatever, like everyone else, I've been spending a lot more time inside. And besides reconnecting with friends on social media (some of whom I haven't talked to in months), studying a little Spanish and Italian, and reading (I'm tackling Jill Lepore's American history tome "These Truths: a History of the United States"), I'm watching a lot of new stuff on television.

One of the movies I watched recently carries an interesting title: "Blow the Man Down," which I saw courtesy of Amazon Prime.

The plot is simple enough. Sisters Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) have just overseen their mother's funeral when they discover that not only did the woman not leave them anything but that they won't even have ownership of their house.

In her anger, the younger Mary Beth runs out, heads for a bar, meets a guy and … well, things don't go well. And quickly enough, she heads back home to seek Priscilla's help. Which involves both in a serious crime.

Meanwhile, the village mothers — who have long endured the presence of a house of prostitution in the town — set out to tell proprietor Enid (Margo Martindale) that she will have to close down. Seems Enid's sole protector was the deceased woman, and the village mothers are tired of the problems the business causes.

The two main subplots combine when the sisters stumble upon a pile of cash that belongs to Enid, and Enid — fighting both the impending shutdown and one of her own disgruntled employees — threatens to expose them if they don't return the ill-gotten gains.

And all the while, a couple of Barney Fife cops are investigating the death of a woman whose body washed up on a local shoreline.

One thing that makes "Blow the Man Down" worth watching is its shifting tone. The acting is good enough, not just by Lowe and Sayjor but by the veteran Martindale. The tone, though, is even more interesting, weaving as it does between a slight sense of comedy and then delving into the more serious (one scene of violence is particularly graphic).

That tone-based sleight-of-hand combined with the story's emphasis on telling the story of women makes this little film part of a larger social movement. And the conceit of having a chorus of grizzled fishermen singing throughout the film is a particularly clever, ironic device.

And who doesn't appreciate a little irony now and then.

‘Homecoming’ makes for an intriguing binge-watch

Funny all the stuff you can find to do during a self-isolating quarantine. And what you can discover while doing it.

Example: I was sorting out the cupboards yesterday and found cans of stuff dated 2012. Seems I need to keep better tabs on our pantry items.

But then that might cut into the time I spend watching movies and other streaming material. One of our latest binge-watches: the Amazon Prime limited series "Homecoming," which premiered in the fall of 2018.

Starring Julia Roberts (who did double duty as one of the executive producers), Bobby Cannavale, Stephan James and Shea Whigham, the 10-part limited series uses a blend of soft sci-fi and hard mystery to explore a range of contemporary issues. Those issues range from how we treat veterans to the ways those in power can badger their underlings — especially when those in power are men and the underlings are women.

Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a managing counselor at Homecoming, a privately contracted company that is providing help to veterans having trouble readjusting to civilian life. Cannavale is Colin Belfast, Heidi's boss, while James is Walter Cruz, Heidi's client. And Whigham is Thomas Carrasco, a low-level Department of Defense functionary who is investigating a complaint leveled against Homecoming.

Told in short bursts — each episode, directed by Sam Esmail,  is barely longer than a half hour — "Homecoming" ends up being a fairly simple storyline (which I won't give away), marked by a fairly open ending (a second season is in the works), good acting and impressive production values.

The acting is particularly good, from Roberts, whose character gradually recovers a suppressed memory about her actions at Homecoming, to Cannavale, an actor with a likable quality who explores his dark side here. James, so good in the 2018 film "If Beale Street Could Talk," is refreshing as Heidi's chief client. And Whigham, who played a violent thug in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," is effective as a bumbling but doggedly conscientious investigator.

And the production values, from a framing conceit involving past and present storylines, to the use of music — some of which seems almost (but not quite) to work against the seriousness of what's occurring onscreen — are uniquely well done.

Word is that Julia Roberts won't be returning for Season Two but that James will. And that Janelle Monáe and Chris Cooper will be joining in. I'll surely be joining in, too.

But for now, I'm just glad I watched Season One. And that it kept me from checking out the rest of my pantry.

Who knows what I might find next? Judge Crater?

Netflix’s ‘The Valhalla Murders’: a review

As I, along with most everyone else, have been stuck at home trying to avoid the Coronavirus, I've missed going to the movies. So I've had to feed my film addiction by watching TV. Here is my latest review of a television limited series that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In recent years, some of the most popular mystery novels have come from Scandinavian countries. From the Martin Beck novels of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall and the Kurt Wallander novels of Henning Mankell – all of whom hailed from Sweden – to the Harry Hole novels of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, we’ve been entertained with all the intricacies of Scandinavian murder and police procedure.

Naturally, some of this has been adapted for movies and television. In 1973, Wahlöö and Sjöwall’s 1968 novel “The Laughing Policeman” was adapted for U.S. movie audiences, set in San Francisco of all places and starring Walter Matthau. More recently, Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo” novels have been adapted both for Swedish and U.S. distribution.

And television, especially the more popular streaming services, haven’t been far behind. Even if you don’t subscribe to the services that specialize in mystery fare – BritBox, for example, or MHz Choice – you can find any number of crime series on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes and more.

One of my personal favorites is the four seasons of the original Swedish-Danish production “The Bridge,” which dates back to 2011 and involves a Swedish woman detective (played by Sofia Helin) who partners, over time, with two different Danish counterparts to solve a number of gruesome murders.

Since I’ve been more or less holed up at home over the past week – thank you, COVID-19 – I’ve been looking for other mysteries to watch. And that led me to the Netflix Original series “The Valhalla Murders.”

Originally commissioned by RUV – the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service – “The Valhalla Murders” aired in Iceland in 2019 and was released by Netflix this past March 13.

The series, which comprises eight episodes, is set in and around Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik. It involves a police investigator named Kata (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir) who is assigned a murder case that quickly becomes a serial-murder case. Assigned to assist her is Arnar (Björn Thors), an investigator who, though called in from Oslo, is a native Icelander.

As with all such programming, the storyline involves far more than merely a who-dunnit. As the police work diligently, mostly a step or two behind the murderer, they eventually discover not only who the perpetrator is but the source of why the crimes have been committed – which leads, gradually, to a far larger web of corruption in the country’s upper circles.

And all of it revolves around a long-ago-closed juvenile detention center called Valhalla.

Meanwhile, each of our protagonists faces personal challenges. The divorced and work-obsessed Kata has to deal with her officious Ex (and his much younger new wife) in their shared dealings with Kata’s 16-year-old son – dealings that become complicated after the boy attends a teen party in which a crime takes place.

For his part, Arnar still has family in Reykjavik. But he’s estranged from them, even from his sister who keeps calling him, telling him that their father is dying. And that estrangement is due to his family’s conservatively religious concerns and to his own troubled past, both of which are clearly connected.

Other than some essential plot points and basic character defects that “The Valhalla Murders” shares with other police-procedural series, though, I have only one real criticism: the subtitling. In some cases, the subtitles disappeared before we could read them; in other cases, there was no translation at all of what was likely important dialogue – leaving us to guess what was being said.

And, hey, I can’t even pronounce Icelandic, much less read it.

All that said, “The Valhalla Murders” – each episode of which runs a little more than 45 minutes – is definitely worth a binge-watch. A few years ago, my wife and I drove the entirety of Iceland’s Ring Road (scroll through the pages of The Spokesman-Review's now-defunct special section Platinum and you'll find my travel piece). It’s a breathtakingly beautiful country, in sunny weather or when covered in snow.

Even when accompanying a storyline involving a particularly ugly series of crimes, that natural beauty shines though.

Below: If you can't understand the language in the embed below, at least you can appreciate the visuals.

COVID-19 causes SIFF 2020 to pull the plug

And the bad news just keeps coming. Now comes word that the Seattle International Film Festival is canceling its 2020 event.

SIFF, which would have been celebrating its 46th anniversary, was scheduled to run from May 14 to June 7. But because of concerns about COVID-19, otherwise known as the Coronavirus, festival organizers decided to pull the plug.

"The looming uncertainty of this crisis, and the huge amount of work that would have to be done now, makes it impossible to continue as scheduled," the festival announced on its website. "In addition to not being able to bring on nearly 100 seasonal workers, as well as previously announced cinema staff furloughs, we are placed in the untenable position of furloughing the majority of our staff."

If you've already purchased tickets to this year's event, SIFF has a request: Consider not seeking a refund and let the money you've spent act as a donation. Those who want to "consider other options," though, are invited to submit their request via this form or email boxoffice@siff.net.

Now the festival is left with the problem of how to recover.  "When the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, we won't be able to flip a switch and start back up with business as usual," reads the SIFF announcement. "We must pivot our current circumstances into an opportunity to innovate and reimagine a stronger, more sustainable and exciting future for SIFF and activate the philanthropic community to help us."

The hope? "The day will come when we gather again to share great films, community, and experiences."

It's certainly a nice thought. Since SIFF is one of the country's best attended film festivals, we'll have to console ourselves with that.

Below: The trailer for SIFF 2019.

Stay home, wash hands, stay safe, watch TV

There are, of course, many ways to respond to a crisis. Even a health crisis such as the one that's being caused by COVID-19, better known as the Coronavirus.

And as one popular meme being shared across social media says, our ancestors were called to war to save lives, while we're being called to sit on the couch to save theirs. Surely we can do that.

Such a meme is an example of one way that I tend to respond to life in general, much less a crisis. I resort to "M*A*S*H" humor.

Which is what I'm inclined to do now that so many resources that we all take for granted have been shuttered, at least temporarily. Restaurants, concert venues and — hardest for me, personally — movie theaters.

Of course, the fact that I can't see a movie in a theater is far worse for the theater, and the employees who work there, than it is for me. I can, and will, opt for watching movies at home courtesy of whatever streaming service I can afford.

Not that I'll be able to see all of the most recent movies, some of which — the Bond film "No Time to Die" comes to mind — have been postponed until the fall. Still, some of the movies just released will be made available for streaming, so there's that.

So, until the movie theaters reopen, and assuming life returns to some semblance of normal, I will join much of the rest of humanity and wait for whatever comes next.

And in between washing my hands, and making the occasional trip to the grocery store, I'll watch what I can on my big-screen TV.

My latest viewing experience: "The Valhalla Murders" on Netflix. It's a limited series about Icelandic revenge killings.

Just the thing for fans of dark humor.

Menemsha Films offers discounted viewing

I just saw this Facebook posting by the Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival. It comes from Ben Saari, the marketing director of Menemsha Films:

From Menemsha Films:

"Dear Friends,

"We hope that all of you are staying healthy and safe during these uncertain times. A number of festivals reached out to us, asking how we can work together to bring our films to their festival audiences to enjoy at home while public events are being postponed or cancelled. Of course, we want to help however we can.

"For starters, we have discounted ALL of our titles available digitally on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video (for rental or purchase) for a limited time, to allow audiences to enjoy these quality Jewish films from the comfort of their homes.

Saari attached a graphic that highlighted the 34 Menemsha films now on sale at both sites. "Each of these titles are available now for a .99 cent rental or $4.99 purchase," Saari continued. "More information about each of these titles can be found on our website."

I would add that some of the best films that I see every year play at both the SJCFF and the Spokane International Film Festival, one being the movie previewed below. So this is great news, and not just because the theaters are (temporarily?) closed.