7 Blog

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

Starbucks speaks an international language

Starbucks is taking over the world. I've ordered Starbucks coffee in every city from Athens and Barcelona to Sao Paulo and now Shanghai. And while there are some differences — green tea is big here in China — you're not likely to have problems ordering your favorite. And as the sign above indicates, holiday specials are available, too. For me, I typically settle for a grande americano with extra room. And it invariably comes as advertised.

Modern Shanghai still has ties to its ancient past

Above: One of the many food booths in Shanghai's Qibao neighborhood.

When you're a city the size of Shanghai, which in 2013 was estimated at a whopping 23.9 million, you're bound to have a variety of different looks. (That population, by the way, isn't just China's highest but also the world's, giving it a population density of some 9,700 people per square mile.)

Most of us think of Shanghai as that ultra-contemporary place suggested by the Pudong skyline of towering skyscrapers and neon light shows. Yesterday, though, we saw another side of the city, one that speaks of China's ancient past.

Qibao is the place that Lonely Planet calls a refuge for those tired of “Shanghai's incessant quest for modernity.” Bound by ancient gates, and boasting long alleyways filled with street-food booths and shops selling everything from kitchen utensils to rare spices to clothing, Qibao (pronounced something like Chee-BOW) is a busy-but-always-intriguing picture of the past.

We walked the length and width of the district, sampling everything from fried tofu to grilled octopus and a curious kind of coconut drink, but mostly just indulging in the bustle of Shanghai street life. This included the multicolored lanterns lighting the narrow lanes, the smells of food and the sounds of everything from singers performing for whomever would listen to the ever-present honks of motorbikes and the scuffle of shoes on the hard stone sidewalks.

No short stay can ever give you a complete picture of what a city has to offer. But so far, Shanghai — the air of which, by the way, is far more breathable than that of China's capital, Beijing — is proving to be what many claim: one of the world's great metropolises.

Walking Shanghi: a trip through Oz

It makes sense to feel intimidated by China. Though visiting this country is far easier that it was, say, 20 years ago, China is full of signs that are incomprehensible to those who don't speak Mandarin (even if many include English translations). And unlike many other countries around the world, China has far fewer resident who are fluent in English — though this is gradually changing.

So it helps that we are visiting friends who are on a year-long sabbatical here in Shanghai, one of whom speaks Mandarin. Also, we've connected with some of my wife's former Gonzaga Law School students who are Chinese.

Which is how we found ourselves, late last night, getting foot massages that made me, at least, nearly scream — both in pain and pleasure. Before that, we had spent the day at the Shanghai Museum checking out ancient calligraphy, bronzes and ceramics. We toured the People's Square, rode a tourist tram along E. Nanjing Road and hit the world-famous Bund, which Lonely Planet describes as “a designer retail and dining zone” that includes some of “the city's most exclusive boutiques, restaurants and hotels.”

The highlight: We stood on the banks of the busy Huangpu River, vying with crowds watching as the Oz-like Pudong district came alive with its glow of neon lights and gleaming towers. That's the view in the above photo.

And the foot massages? They were a treat offered by one of the former Chinese students, now a lawyer himself, that we could not turn down. Call it our little attempt to help achieve world detente — and overcome intimidation.

‘Whiplash’ has a tough emotional beat

One of the more affecting films I have seen in some time is “Whiplash,” the first feature by the writer-director Damian Chazelle. Following is a transcription of the “Whiplash” review that I recorded for Spokane Public Radio:

In the spring of 1967, I endured eight weeks of what the U.S. Army calls “basic training.” Along with about 150 other recruits, I spent that time running, learning about weapons, running, making beds and waxing floors, running, polishing brass and spit-shining boots and, of course, running – all under the tutelage of men wearing Smokey-the-Bear hats who treated us, mostly, as if we were scum they wanted to wipe off the heels of their own spotless boots.

Over those eight weeks, I had two drill instructors. One, Sgt. Smith, was a taskmaster whose yelling always had a point, whose encouragement was equal to his wrath and whom, in that curious psychological need of teenagers in duress, we came to admire. The other was SSgt. Bailey, a bully whom, purely and simply, we hated.

The two men and their differences came to mind as I watched “Whiplash,” a first feature by 29-year-old writer-director Damian Chazelle. Though the literal experience the movie’s protagonist Andrew (played by Miles Teller) undergoes is far different than mine, the emotional violence he weathers feels appallingly similar.

Andrew is a first-year student at a prestigious New York music school (think Juilliard). He seems nice enough: genial, excited about learning to drum like his hero – the great jazz drummer Buddy Rich. And he is driven: We first see him, alone at night in a practice room, running through riffs on his drum kit – and attracting the attention of a teacher named Fletcher (played perfectly by J.K. Simmons).

Fletcher says he is looking for players for his jazz troupe and gives Andrew an invite: Show up the next morning at “6 a.m. sharp.” Which is when writer-director Chazelle first ratchets up the tension. Andrew wakes late, runs to the room – only to find it empty. But he waits. And waits. And when, at 9 a.m., the others show up – including Fletcher without a word of explanation – we understand that Andrew’s hazing has just begun. When Fletcher – at first friendly but then slowly but inexorably more and more demanding – nearly decapitates Andrew in a barely controlled rage, we begin to suspect just how far this hazing will go.

“Whiplash” is clearly no easy view. Adapted from his own Sundance award-winning short, Chazelle’s feature is as exquisitely filmed and acted as it is emotionally trying. Teller, so good in last year’s “The Spectacular Now,” is superb as the young, impressionable but single-minded Andrew. And Simmons, familiar from television shows such as “Oz” and, of late, Allstate Auto Insurance ads, is the sublime sociopath as teacher who just may, for both the right and wrong reasons, get the best from his student.

“Whiplash” has its flaws. We’re given only the slimmest of reasons for why Andrew would put up with Fletcher’s humiliation and absolutely none for why Fletcher so freely hands it out. An event leading to the film’s climax, though shattering, feels too convenient. And any final judgement regarding the ethics of Fletcher’s quote-unquote teaching method is largely avoided.

At its essence, though, “Whiplash” is both riveting and daringly original. And, personally, right or wrong, it reminded me that my admiration of Sgt. Smith faded long ago, while my hatred of SSgt. Bailey still smolders.

Shanghai: a city for the 21st century

The view above is what we saw yesterday as our plane prepared to land, just at sunset, at the airport in Shanghai, China. Internet access seems to be spotty here (my Hotmail account is all but dead, and Facebook is equally so), but I will do my best to note our activities over the next few days. Our second trip to China (we visited Beijing in December 2007) promises to be even more interesting, given Shanghai's reputation as a city of the future.

Foo-ey

Foo Fighters have a new album out, “Sonic Highways,” a related HBO series airing now and have announced a gigantic North American tour that will bring them to the Gorge Amphitheatre on Sept. 12. On Saturday, they’re offering a “Beat the Bots” presale, in which fans can actually line up in person to buy their tickets before they go on sale online – allowing actual humans to beat the scalpers and resellers who use advanced software to clog online queues and gobble up as many tickets as possible. And if you want to beat the bots on Saturday, there’s only one place to go: Key Arena, in Seattle.

Which is great if you’re a Foos fan in Seattle. And not so great if you live here. For what it’s worth, the Spokane Arena is technically closer to the amphitheater than Key Arena – sure it’s a difference of 11 miles, but still.

So in the meantime, we can wait until the online presale on Dec. 1, or the general public on-sale Dec. 4, through Ticketmaster. Prices will range from $45 to $75. Visit here or here for details.

Cold days call for a D.Lish burger

It's been an unusual November for Spokane. Mostly warm through the first week, then abysmally cold but with clear, clear skies. And not a touch of snow, though it did ice up for several mornings. We know the snow is coming, but some of us are thankful it's held off this long.

Whatever, the best way I know of to beat the cold is to eat a hot lunch. And lunch, for many of us, often means a burger. That's what my brother Randy and I enjoyed the other day as we drove down Division and stopped by D.Lish's Hamburgers.

That's our order in the photo. A double cheeseburger for my brother, and a regular cheeseburger (with crunchy onions) and fries for me. All that, with drinks, cost a mere $15.10.

And it's true: That price would have bought twice that just a couple of decades ago. But we all know of place in the city where that's what you'll pay for a single burger, fries and a drink. So I'm not complaining.

Our stomachs weren't either, by the way.

Friday’s openings II: No new light at the Lantern

Following up the movie report immediately below, word from the Magic Lantern is that nothing new is opening on Friday. The Lantern plans, however, to open a documentary titled “Pelican Dreams” on Nov. 28. Carrying over next week will be “Elsa & Fred,” “Boyhood,” “Laggies” (which we review on “Movies 101” Friday), “The Skeleton Twins,” “The Trip to Italy” and “My Old Lady.”

Click here for more information.

Friday’s openings: Get your ‘Hunger’ on

Some questions seem to exist just to plague us. Such as, why does dental floss seem to run out just when you have what seems like an entire carrot embedded between your molars? Or why do other drivers (never you) speed up instead of slow down when the light turns yellow? Or why do I always tend to find movie seats that attract people who, 1, love to rattle their bags of popcorn and, 2, delight in chewing with their mouth open?

Along with these unanswerable queries comes one involving movie scheduling: Why is it that some movies open with hardly any competition at all, while other weeks offer so many choices it is virtually impossible to see them all — not and have an actual personal life, anyway.

This coming week offers one of the more sparse schedules in recent weeks as only one huge mainstream opening is scheduled, accompanied by a little movie aimed at devout Christians. Friday's openings are as follows:

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1”: Katniss and her pals continue their fight against the power. A series final that is so big it has to be told in two, count them, two parts. Somebody call Peter Jackson.

“Saving Christmas”: Kirk Cameron feels the need to put some Christian reason back in the season. And a happy holidays to you, too.

I'll pass on the Magic Lantern schedule when it becomes available. 

Giving good service is a no-brainer

Above: I give thanks right back at the Satellite Diner for treating me right. 

One of the things that my former colleague, the food writer Leslie Kelly, used to stress in her restaurant reviews was service. It's all very good if the food is tasty, the decor is stylish and the presentation is original. But if the service is subpar, then that needs to be pointed out.

I'm not a food critic. Movies? I'll offer up an opinion, sure. Same with books. But food? Not my field. That said, I write about restaurants as someone who has an eye for what he likes. And dislikes. I write as a consumer with expectations.

And service ranks at the top of those expectations, no matter what business we're talking about. For example, I'm currently not shopping at Huckleberry's Natural Market because I finally got tired of how they do things — the disorganized manner in which they run both their cafe and check-out stands — and so I'm shopping elsewhere. Same with the cafe The Yards, which is where we tried to eat this afternoon.

I dropped my wife and brother off in front of the The Yards and, after finding a parking spot, rejoined them. They'd been told to take a table and were reading the menus. No water, no silverware. Just two, not three, menus. So we shared menus and discussed what we might order. And then we commenced to wait … and wait … and wait for service. My wife finally attracted the attention of a server walking by, who told us that someone else was supposed to be working our area. That same server eventually returned with our water and cutlery. But the server who was supposed to take our order stayed busy clearing several bills before going on to clear a number of nearby tables. At this point, the restaurant was half empty. Yet not once did he even glance in our direction.

So, finally, we lost patience, got up and walked out. I've worked in restaurants, so I know how hard the job is. And because of that, I may go back to The Yards, just as I may shop at Huckleberry's some day. But the point is, this is Spokane. The new Spokane. And we have choices. Trader Joe's offers much the same kind of product that you can get at Huckleberry's, and it's not difficult to find any number of local eateries that serve a quick late-lunch breakfast. None of us have to sit and stew about poor service, no matter what the reason.

We ended up at the Satellite Diner, which was only one of the choices we faced after leaving The Yards. We saw a booth, sat down, got served right away with drinkable coffee and ice tea, well-cooked eggs and bacon and toast. As well as being hot and plentiful, the food was just what we needed.

So our dining experience today ended up being satisfying. Which is my point: Give me good service or, regardless of your reputation, I'm taking my appetite — and money — elsewhere.

I'm pretty sure Leslie Kelly would agree.

‘Interstellar’ no match for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

“Interstellar” is earning mostly good reviews. But it has its critics, from astrophysicists to mainstream movie viewers. In the following review, which is an edited version of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I explain which side I come down on:

From that first time we look up at the stars, most of us are filled with wonder. And with that wonder come the inevitable questions: How big is space? Is there anyone else out there? What does this all mean? Is the moon really made of cheese?

Just kidding on that last one. Mostly. Though as with that question, along with the others, we all find our own answers. Or at least ways to rationalize our ignorance. Those are our only real options.

Not everyone accepts that spirit of helplessness, of course. The religious among us adhere to faith. Astrophysicists employ science to formulate theories about the very formation of the universe – or, some would say, universes. Artists such as filmmakers use – in many cases abuse – various aspects of both religion and science to imagine scenarios that attempt to probe into such inherent queries.

Take the greatest science-fiction film ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Though “2001” used the special effects overseen by Douglas Trumbull to create an amazing representation of space travel – especially for 1968 – the real strength of Kubrick’s masterpiece rests in its refusal to do anything more than pose questions. What is the significance of the monolith? Where does astronaut Dave Bowman go at the film’s end? What exactly is a “bush baby”? If you search the Internet, you can find answers – or at least working hypotheses – regarding each. But Kubrick’s movie? It remains stolidly silent. And this is one key to the film’s greatness.

Contrast “2001” with Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated sci-fi film “Interstellar.” Divulging too much of the film’s plot will spoil things, so suffice it to say that “Interltellar” is set, in the not-too-distant future, on an Earth that has become a death-trap for humanity. Overpopulation has caused such a strain on the planet’s resources that the end of life appears imminent. Through a series of circumstances that end up being far less coincidental than originally portrayed, a farmer-slash-astronaut named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is convinced to pilot an expedition through a wormhole to another galaxy where new habitable worlds potentially exist.

Nolan’s film, which was co-written by him and his screenwriter brother Jonathan and runs a lengthy two hours and 49 minutes, plays with time and space to, at once, tell the story of Cooper’s expedition, portray what happens on Earth and, ultimately, reveal the alternate and literally uncountable ways the two settings intersect. And it does this in a manner that, in visual terms at least, makes for a scintillating view – from the shots of immense dust clouds threatening farmlands to the image of a wormhole sitting near Saturn.

Unlike Kubrick, though, the Nolans time and again resort to quick fixes for complex plot problems. Different rates of aging a problem? Just blame it on relativity. At loose ends for a romantic subplot when the main male-female connection involves a father and daughter? Just settle for the most obvious-if-implausible resolution. Incapable (or unwilling) to leave the audience grasping for answers involving creation? Just point to some unknowable power.

On top of that, the Nolans work hard to explain more than is necessary. As in one extended McConaughey monologue that has him hanging out in some sort of a galactic library. They also have some of their characters act against their very training and vote to make the right decisions based on the wrong reasons (which is countered when someone else does exactly the opposite). And they simply ignore the fact that the very powers they imagine could have resolved the whole Earth-is-threatened problem from the get-go.

Every single one of these inconsistencies took me right out of “Interstellar.” And like Toto revealing the secret behind Prof. Marvel’s would-be Wizard of Oz, they lessened more than they amplified the mystery.

This won’t bother every viewer. But for me? I’m more intrigued by massive monoliths – and whether they’re made of cheese.

“Too Slim” Langford fighting cancer

Tim “Too Slim” Langford, frontman of the Spokane-born rock band Too Slim and the Taildraggers, will undergo cancer surgery in Nashville next month, and fans are rallying to help.

The band, formed here in 1986, has since relocated to Nashville, but remains a popular draw in the Inland Northwest. The band typically tours year-round, but will take some time off after Langford’s Dec. 4 surgery. A fundraising request has been posted at www.giveforward.com, with the goal of raising $20,000 to help with Langford’s medical expenses as well as band expenses during the down time. As of 10 a.m. this morning, the site has raised $7,361.

The accompanying note indicated the cancer was found during a routine physical and came as a shock. “Tim is very humble and has a very difficult time asking for help, yet he is always the first to play a benefit or give to the needy, help the homeless, raise money for dog rescues, you name it, he is there. Now it is his time and he needs help.”

Click here for more information or to make a donation. And check out below to see the band play on of its most popular songs, “Stoned Again.”

 

Another Friday opening: Elder love

The Magic Lantern finalized its schedule today, which means that it will be opening three films on Friday: two first runs and a pickup second run from AMC River Park Square. I already posted descriptions of the documentary “Awake: The Life of Yogananda” and “Laggies” in previous posts.

“Elsa & Fred,” the other opening feature, tells the story of two elderly people who find a final chance for love. I think it somehow involves a Clapper.

So, go to a movie. And enjoy.

Friday’s openings: Movies both dumb and otherwise

Note: This is an updated post to reflect changes in the Magic Lantern's lineup.

Initial reports suggest that the weekend will be fairly quiet, especially after a week featuring the opening of two of the fall's biggest releases, “Interstellar” and “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”

But that doesn't mean that we won't experience diversity in theme or genre. We have comedy, emotional turmoil, romance and political commentary, sometimes all at once (sometimes even intentionally).

Friday's openings include:

“Dumb and Dumber To”: Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels reprise the roles they played in the 1994 original (but not in the animated series or in the 2003 follow-up “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd”). Note: Entrance requires your taking an IQ test.

“Whiplash”: A student drummer (Miles Teller) wants to be good so badly he's willing to endure the harassment of his teacher (J.K. Simmons). Someone's gonna get — wait for it — a beatdown.

“Beyond the Lights”: A Beyonce wannabe finds that the price of stardom might be a tad high, especially if she is forced to forgo the guy with studly abs. Ah, the price of fame.

“Rosewater”: While covering protests in Iran, a journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal) finds himself detained and tortured. Written and directed by “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. So … this is a comedy?

And at the Magic Lantern (a pickup of “Laggies” and, potentially, a run of the senior romance “Elsa & Fred”):

“The Kill Team”: A one-night special 7 p.m. screening on Tuesday will feature this documentary about a U.S. soldier who gets caught between war crimes and his own sense of personal morality.

 “Awake: The Life of Yogananda”: This documentary tells the story of the author of “Autobiography of a Yogi,” the man who helped popularize Hindu spirituality outside Asia. My ommmmmmmmm my.

Perfect rainy day treat: Nordstrom soup and grilled cheese

Above: The bottle is empty, but our stomachs are full.

I look out there and see nothing but sun this morning. Which is something of a surprise considering how steadily it rained all day Sunday.

But, you know, Sunday's precipitation encouraged me to prepare a perfect stay-at-home dinner — aided by something I purchased at one of our favorite downtown eateries. On occasion, especially after having seen a movie, we drop by the Nordstrom Marketplace Cafe. And late last week, when we arrived, I ordered a Turkey Cranberry Sandwich, my brother opted for Prosciutto Mozzarella Sandwich, while my wife chose one of her favorite soups, Nordstrom's Roma Tomato Basil Soup.

In fact, she liked the soup so much that we ordered an extra bottle and took it home. So for a rainy-day treat, I heated up the soup — adding a bit of heavy cream, some garlic and chopped fresh basil — and served it with a grilled Dave's Killer Bread and Muenster cheese sandwich.

It was the perfect afternoon meal. In some of my more fantastical culinary moments, I entertain thoughts of trying to fix that same soup from scratch. For the time being, though, dropping by Nordstrom and purchasing a ready-made bottle (that I can use as a base) fits my lifestyle just fine.

Subscribe via RSS