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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

Lantern set to screen social justice film fest

I'll post more about this later, but right now I want to give notice to an upcoming film festival. It's the three-day Best of the Fest Social Justice Film Festival, which will be held March 1-3 at the Magic Lantern Theatre.

The festival, which is sponsored by a consortium of agencies, comprises 12 films. All were culled from the 2018 “Hope & Democracy” Social Justice Film Festival, which was held in October in Seattle.

Among the topics explored: health-care workers battling the opioid crisis, children adopted from Korea, the Native Americans who protested at Standing Rock against a controversial pipeline.

The festival is free and open to the public.

‘Io’: a Netlix look at the end of the world

Looking around for interesting films to review, I checked out a just-released Netflix original titled "Io." And then I wrote a review for Spokane Public Radio:

At last count – and this comes directly from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree (that) climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”

Yet no matter how many scientists speak out, recent polls indicate that maybe as much as 40 percent of the American public isn’t going to believe them. Such willful ignorance can and does affect public policy, especially when the leader of the so-called Free World is commander in chief of the skeptics. That’s the bad news.

The good news? Any such sad state of affairs merely fuels the imagination of science-fiction writers and filmmakers.

Take, for example, the Netflix original film “Io.” Set some time in the not-too-distant future, “Io” – directed by the French-born filmmaker Jonathan Helpert – tells the story of an Earth whose atmosphere is gradually becoming too poisonous for humans to breath.

In fact, most humans have left Earth, forsaking their ruined home planet for life on Io, presumably the most habitable of Jupiter’s 67 moons. Those few who remain include Sam (played by Margaret Qualley, last seen in Maggie Betts’ 2017 film “Novitiate”). Sam is the daughter of Henry Walden (played by Danny Huston), a renowned scientist who is convinced that the Earth can still be saved.

The research that he and Sam conduct takes place at a site set at an altitude where the air is still breathable. And their research involves bees, the hope being that they can somehow make the bees immune to the toxic air. And if the bees can survive, then why not humans?

Yet time is running out: Storms are battering the Earth, breathable air is dissipating and the last few rockets heading off-planet are leaving soon.

Sam, though, isn’t easily thwarted. She stays on task even when a storm ransacks her bee hives, when her off-world boyfriend tells her he is joining a deep-space expedition, and even when a helium-powered balloon floats into her yard and Micah (played by Anthony Mackie) emerges, looking for her father. Throughout it all, Sam remains convinced that some solution can be found.

And why not? Turns out Sam is harboring secrets, few of which are particularly hard for anyone paying attention to figure out. One involves the sores on her midriff. Another involves the fact that her father seems to be taking an overly long time to return from his latest research trek.

Dystopian studies have been in fashion since the days of H.G. Wells, whose 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds” was the source of Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast. They became particularly popular following World War II, when the biggest threat seemed to be posed by nuclear war. In recent years, the major menaces have included zombie plagues, humankind’s continuing penchant for violence and the revenge of Mother Nature.

“Io” focuses on that latter-most concern. And even if the manner in which it unfolds is, in the end, fairly pedestrian, the message it strives to make definitely is not.

Lantern to play Oscar doc ‘Hale County’ on Monday

A documentary film titled "Hale County This Morning, This Evening" has been added to the Magic Lantern's schedule. The film will screen at 7 p.m. Monday.

Directed by RaMell Ross, "Hale County This Morning, This Evening" is a study filmed over several years of a rural section of Hale County, Alabama. Besides directing, Ross co-wrote the script, acted as both cinematographer and editor. The film has been nominated for a 2019 Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

Here are some critical comments:

Glenn Kenny, New York Times: "The filmmaker’s poetic logic is inextricable from his consciousness of race and community, and of his function and potential as an artist grappling with his own circumstances and those of the people he’s depicting. 'Hale County This Morning, This Evening' is not a long film, but it contains whole worlds."

Bilge Biri, Village Voice: "By sticking to his impressionistic perspective, by fracturing his narrative, Ross achieves something genuinely poetic — a film whose very lightness is the key to its depth."

Andrew Crump, The Playlist: "Like life itself, 'Hale County This Morning, This Evening' doesn’t lend itself to immediate comprehension. It’s to Ross’ credit that his work remains so thoroughly accessible and engrossing regardless."

The screening is part of the Lantern's Monday Movies series, which is sponsored by The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture. 

‘Cold War’ captures a desperate stab at love

I recently saw the Polish movie "Cold War," the critically acclaimed feature film that is up for three Academy Awards. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Anyone who remembers the 1950s knows about the Cold War. While most of us in the U.S. enjoyed the prosperity of the post-World War II economic boom, much of the rest of the world struggled to recover from the worst armed conflict the world had experienced.

The problems were particularly dire in Eastern Europe. Not only did the people there have to deal with a battered landscape and lack of essential goods, they also had to cope with the repressive atmosphere of the Communist Soviet Union. And nowhere was the situation more dire than it was in Poland.

That’s where Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski sets his film “Cold War,” which has been nominated for three Oscars and which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theatre.

The year is 1949 and we are introduced to Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot), a music director who is driving around rural Poland with two others. Their task is to find singers and dancers talented enough to join a troupe dedicated to preserving Polish folk traditions.

Among the many candidates is Zula (played by Joanna Kulig), a pretty blond whose good looks are matched by enough talent to win her Wiktor’s attention. And as the troupe finds its bearing, the two become a couple – though, for obvious reasons, they keep their mutual affection as secret as they can.

This occurs over years, though it seems to happen right away. Pawlikowski tells his story in a truncated fashion, in chapters marked by on-screen notations that note the passage of time. This is clearly intentional, though some viewers – this one among them – may find themselves wanting just a bit more context.

Because the story that Pawlikowski is telling, which he co-wrote, is no ordinary romance. While it may be unfair to say that the relationship between Wiktor and Zula is doomed, it certainly is one born of desperation – and in that sense, at least, it serves as a symbol of what many East Europeans faced in the 1950s and ’60s.

Tired of a government that is forcing him to direct performances that are growing more and more political – not completely forsaking Polish tradition but augmenting it with glorification of the Soviet leadership – Wiktor dreams of defecting to Paris. There, he figures, he will be free to pursue his music the way he wants.

But Zula isn’t as sure. And when he leaves, she stays behind – and so begins their decades-long affair, he in Paris but never completely French, she part of the troupe that tours internationally, but never completely fulfilled, both of them getting involved with others but just as unable to commit fully to anyone else as they are to break completely from each another.

Pawlikowski renders all this in the same kind of gorgeous black and white that he used in his 2013 film “Ida,” which won a Best Foreign Language Oscar. “Cold War” is a leading candidate to win him his second gold statuette.

Pawlikowski’s relationship with Oscar seems to be every bit as unbreakable as Wiktor’s is with Zula. Just maybe not as desperate. Or as sad.

The week’s openings: It’s ‘me, too’ time

It's a "me, too" week at the movies as all three openings feature women protagonists. The openings are as follows:

Today

"Happy Death Day 2U": The sequel to 2017's "Happy Death Day" takes us down the same road, with our heroine (Jessica Rothe) dying again and again as she investigates who is trying to kill her for good. Familiarity breeds … well, sometimes danger it seems.

"Isn't It Romantic": Rebel Wilson plays a woman who finds herself trapped inside a PG-rated romantic comedy. It's the PG part that gives her the big problem.

Thursday

"Alita: Battle Angel": A cyborg is revived, but she can't remember her past, and her quest to find out puts her and everyone around her in danger. Two words: big eyes.

And at the Magic Lantern:

Friday

"If Beale Street Could Talk": Barry Jenkins ("Moonlight") returns with this adaptation of the James Baldwin novel. Note: The film landed on many critics' Top 10 list for films released in 2018.

"Stan & Ollie": Steve Coogan plays Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly plays Oliver Hardy in this look at the comedy pair's finally performance tour. Another fine mess they got themselves into.

SPIFF 209: The night ends in mystery

And, finally, the last day of the 2019 Spokane International Film Festival has arrived. The evening, which will take place at the Magic Lantern, comprises two feature films:

7 p.m. — "You Go to My Head": A young woman survives a car accident in the desert, but she's lost all memory of who she is. Then the man who rescues her tells her that she's his wife. The problem comes when she begins to remember who she really is. Shot in Morocco, the film is in French, Flemish, English and various Berber languages with subtitles.

7:30 p.m. — "Jupiter's Moon": A young Syrian man and his father try to sneak into Hungary, are met with force and during the resulting struggle the young man discovers a mysterious power. An unscrupulous doctor then tries to take advantage of the situation, which is rife with corruption. In Hungarian with English subtitles.

Note: Online tickets to both features are sold out. Tickets will be available at the door pending pass-holder demand.

SpIFF 2019: Stories from around the world

We've reached the penultimate day of the 2019 Spokane International Film Festival, and tonight's program offers a purely international flavor. Both screenings are at the Magic Lantern Theatre.

7 p.m. — World Shorts: Seven short films from China, Germany (set in Turkey), Armenia, Israel, Greece and the United Kingdom offer a range of worldly experiences.

7:30 p.m. — "Ulysses and Mona": A young art student confronts a reclusive older artist and the experience forces each of them to take a closer look at their lives. In French with English subtitles.

Note: As always, the theaters at the Lantern are small (99 seats in the larger house, 33 in the smaller) and so tickets are limited.

SpIFF 2019: a ‘Shadow’ and six shorts

More than halfway through the 2019 Spokane International Film Festival, and we have three full evenings of screenings left. What's on for tonight at the Magic Lantern?

7 p.m.: U.S. Shorts: Six films, including one documentary, from all over the country explore a range of subjects. This program first screened on Saturday, so this is a second chance for those festival fans who missed out.

7:30 p.m.: "Shadow": Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou's latest effort is a both a martial-arts epic and a study of the desire for power involving a military commander, his wife, his "shadow" and his quest for revenge. Only things seldom turn out the way they expect.

Here's what Variety's Jessica King has to say about "Shadow": "Every supremely controlled stylistic element of Zhang Yimou's breathtakingly beautiful 'Shadow' is an echo of another, a motif repeated, a pattern recurring in a fractionally different way each time."

 A reminder: The Magic Lantern bigger theater holds only 99 (or so) seats.

‘Hud’ to screen Wednesday at The Mac

On Wednesday at 1 p.m., the MAC will present a showing of the 1963 Martin Ritt film "Hud." Starring Paul Newman, Patricia Neal, Melvyn Douglas and Brandon De Wilde, the film won three Academy Awards, both Best Supporting roles (Neal and Douglas) and cinematography (James Wong Howe).

The film will introduced by Shaun O'l Higgins, and is the first in a series MAC Matinees that O'l Higgins says explore "American values amid social and cultural change in the last half of the 20th Century." In March, the film will be Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975), and in April Richard Linklater's "Slacker" (1990).

Cost to the screenings is a "small donation." Refreshments will be available at the MAC Cafe, though you can bring your own.

For further information, click here.

SpIFF 2019: Animation and real life

Above: A frame from the Oscar-nominated animated short "Late Afternoon."

SpIFF 21 — or, more specifically, the 2019 Spokane International Film Festival — continues tonight with a pair of 7:30 screenings at the Magic Lantern Theatre.

"93Queen": A group of Hasidic woman in Brooklyn, New York, struggles to form its own voluntary ambulance service. Says Ben Kenigsberg of the New York Times, "Without denying that these women face discrimination in reaching their goal, the movie shows how its subjects are able to find ways to combine strict observance and progress."

Animation Showcase: Nine animated films from countries as diverse as Ireland, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium and the U.S. explore a range of narrative topics. Two have been nominated for Academy Awards.

Note: Tickets to both programs are limited and will be sold on a first-come-first-serve basis.

The week’s openings: Legos, desperate love, SpIFF

Above: A scene from the Oscar-nominated Polish film "Cold War."

A full schedule of movies is headed for theaters on Friday. That, at least, is the news from the national release schedule. The movies include:

"The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part": Legos from outer space threaten the peaceful existence of the Lego characters whom we have come to know. It's kind of a toy story 2.

"What Men Want": When a woman (Taraji P. Henson) bangs her head, she develops the ability to hear what men are thinking — which gives her an edge in the battle with her sexist colleagues. She is woman, hear her roar.

"Cold Pursuit": Liam Neeson stars in another revenge flick, this time playing a snowplow driver who targets the men he considers responsible for his son's death. He has a set of special skills.

"The Prodigy": Something is bothering Miles, and mommy thinks it's something paranormal. Because … of course.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Cold War": Finally, Polish-born filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski's critically acclaimed film, which has been nominated for three Academy Awards, comes to Spokane. A music director tries to convince the singer he loves to flee with him to France.

And don't forget, the 2019 Spokane International Film Festival continues this week, with movies playing every night through Friday at the Magic Lantern. Tonight's shows: 7 p.m., a World Shorts program; 7:30 p.m., the documentary "Enormous: The Gorge Story."

I'll update when area theaters finalize their bookings.

‘Shoplifters’: Love is more than mere biology

The 2019 Spokane International Film Festival opens tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater and will run for the next full week at the Magic Lantern. But a movie that is playing tonight at the Lantern, and might even continue playing there when SpIFF 2019 is over, is the Japanese-made "Shoplifters."

Following is the review that I wrote of the film for Spokane Public Radio: 

Most moviegoers tend to hold certain expectations of the films they see. In crime films, justice should prevail. The same for Westerns. Comedies should make us laugh, and romance films should end with a kiss. And so on.

You will, of course, find exceptions. And it is in those divergences from the norm that greatness can, and often does, reside. Justice, for example, is a debatable point in 1981’s “Body Heat.” Same for 1992’s “Unforgiven.” 1997’s “Life is Beautiful” is as full of tears as it is laughter. And 2007’s “Atonement,” though involving such larger concepts as betrayal and the horror of war, is at heart a romance that ends at the opposite extreme of a kiss.

Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeada has been working in his country’s television and film industry since the late 1980s. And though I have seen only two of his previous features – 1999’s “After Life” and 2004’s “Nobody Knows” – I’ve seen and read enough to know that his artistic intent is to explore the full range of human experience.

It’s equally clear that his ability to tell a rich, complex story has only improved over the decades. His latest film, “Shoplifters,” is evidence of that, its patient revelation of an unusually complex family situation as beguiling as it is heartbreaking.

The family is question is an atypical group, one that exists outside of regular Japanese society – the adults working when they can and getting by, when they can’t, through means suggested by the film’s title. As one character rationalizes, as long as you don’t drive the owners into bankruptcy, it’s OK to steal from a store because no one yet owns the merchandise.

Father figure Osamu is a day laborer who takes pride in showing the pre-teen Shota how to steal. Osamu’s mate is Nobuyo, a strong-willed but compassionate woman who works in a laundry but who is no more tied to mainstream mores than Osamu. Then there’s Aki, a young woman who works in a sex-shop – where all that is allowed is a lot of watching and, maybe, the occasional cuddle.

All live in a tiny house with Hatsue, the dowager grandmother who dispenses folk wisdom along with traditional cures. Which comes in handy when, one cold night, Osamu and Shota encounter 5-year-old Juri shivering on an apartment terrace. Soon Juri is huddling with Hatsue and the others. And there she stays, Nobuyo and Osamu’s only attempt to return her home ending when they hear the unmistakable sounds of domestic violence. 

Juri stays on even when, after a two-month lapse, television stations report on the girl’s disappearance, even broadcasting suspicions that she may be dead. From there, Koreeda builds to a climax that feels natural, even if it doesn’t follow the narrative you’re apt to find in a mainstream American film.

That’s because Koreeda is less interested in mere entertainment than he is intent on exploring a definition of family that is based more on acceptance and compassion than on biology. That the compassion comes from characters who exist on the fringes of accepted society only emphasizes the heartbreaking irony of Koreeda’s message.

SpIFF 2019: Friday’s opening night is ‘Proof of Life’

Above: Brad Thiessen is the subject of Spokane filmmaker Adam Harum's documentary "Proof of Life," which will play Friday as part of SpIFF's opening-night program of short films. Photo by Adam Harum

On Friday, the 2019 Spokane International Film Festival will begin its 8-day run, beginning at the Bing Crosby Theater and continuing for the next seven days at the Magic Lantern.

The festival has played at various venues since its 1999 start, when it was called the Spokane Northwest Film Festival. Dreamed up by the Contemporary Arts Alliance, with Bob Glatzer serving as its first artistic director, the festival mainly used the Bing (then still called The State Theater), but spread for a time to AMC River Park Square, held the occasional screening at The Garland, and these days remains at The Bing (for opening night only) and the Magic Lantern.

 This is well within the festival's limited budget, which depends on grants, donations and ticket sales. That latter-most category is limited because of the Lantern's size, its two houses holding about 99 and 33 seats, respectively.

Anyway, Friday's night's opening program should attract a good crowd, devoted as it is to Northwest shorts and mid-length films (including Adam Harum's documentary "Proof of Life"). Filmmakers and their crews are always excited to see their efforts put up on a big screen before an appreciative audience.

And tickets to the rest of the festival are going fast. No surprise there, considering the quality of the movies — from such foreign sites as Hungary, Kosovo, France, China, etc. — and the relatively limited number of seats.

So if you're interested in attending, you should consider getting your tickets in advance. While you still can.

Note: As always, I want to stress that I serve on the festival's board of directors. And I'm one of the senior programmers. But it's purely a volunteer position. Besides, since I began writing about the festival since its inception, back when I was still a features writer at The Spokesman-Review, I may be one of the few people who has attended every single annual event. Not bragging, but that's what you call a film fan.

‘A Silent Voice’: an anime study of bullying

Not everyone was bullied in school. But one way or the other, most of us felt its impact — either as as victims, as bystanders. Or as participants.

A study of bullying, and its aftereffects, is at the heart of "A Silent Voice," a 2016 animated film from Japan directed by Naoko Yamada (based on the original work of Kiyoshi Shigematsu).

The story involves a young boy, bullied in school by a popular student, who years later is approached by that same student who wants to make amends. Yamada's film will screen in a dubbed version at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Regal Cinemas' theaters at Northtown Mall and at Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

Here are some critical comments about the film:

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: "An unflinching depiction of the cruelty children inflict on each other."

James Berardinelli, ReelViews: "Naoko Yamada is regarded as one of the 'up and coming' animated filmmakers seeking to fill the void created by the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki. Considering the artwork in 'A Silent Voice,' it's easy to see why."

Considering the remarks of Berardinelli, "A Silent Voice" could be referred to as a kind of contemporary "Beauty and the Beast."

SpIFF 2019: Saturday is the first full day

Above: A scene from the French film "Rosalie."

As mentioned below, Friday marks the opening day of the 2019 Spokane International Film Festival. The day will feature two programs of regional movies, mostly shorts and mid-length films screened at the Bing Crosby Theater, and the Opening Party, which will be held (beginning around 9:30 p.m.) at the Montvale Event Center.

Click here to access to full festival schedule.

Saturday will continue with feature films and shorts programs screening at both screens of the Magic Lantern Theatre, the features being "Rosalie" (noon, France), the animated "Big Bad Fox" (noon, France), "Cold November" (3:30 p.m., Kosovo) and "Promise at Dawn" (5:30 p.m., France).

The shorts programs consist of "World Shorts" (3 p.m., China, Germany, Armenia, Israel, Greece, United Kingdom), "The Magnificent Cake and Wildebeest" (5 p.m., Belgium/France), "U.S. Shorts" (7 p.m.) and two mid-length films "Adios Amor" and "The Other Walla" (8 p.m., U.S.).

Some of Saturday's programs are already sold out, but tickets may be made available at the door pending pass-holder demand.

Note: For full disclosure, I want to stress that I serve as a volunteer member of SpIFF's board of directors, which means I make no profit from the festival. I am also a senior programmer, and I will introduce the film from Kosovo, "Cold November."