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

Looking down on ‘Blade Runner’ Shanghai

Though we try to hit as many offbeat tourist sites as we can when we travel, we always encounter those places that are a must visit. If you go to Paris, you have to see The Louvre. In Rome, St. Peter's Basilica. New York, the Empire State Building. And so on.

So in Shanghai, that would include the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, which is where we visited on the late afternoon of our final day in Shanghai. It's the highest tower in Asia and the third highest in the world and is part of the city's famous skyline, which at night looks like something out of the film “Blade Runner.” And it sits squarely in the center of a shopping complex that is jaw-droopingly vast, connected largely by a series of elevated walkways that attract visitors from all over the world — but especially the Chinese hinterlands (which explains why, for the first time in our week-long stay, we attracted a number of stares).

The tower, which is 468 meters in height, isn't particularly easy to enter. First, we decided to pay the full price (about $36 apiece) to get full access, including going up to the highest point, which is called the “Space Capsule.” Then we stood in a series of lines that rivaled those at Disneyland for twists and turns, not to mention wait. When we finally were squeezed into an elevator, we headed up — only to transfer to a second lift, which finally deposited us at an enclosed viewing platform that offers a stunning 360-degree view not just of the city but of the entire surrounding area.

By the time we arrived, it was past sunset. And the sky, though clearer than it had been in days, was still hazy. Even so, the sight was impressive (as you can tell from the above photo). We made the circle, snapping photos (including the obligatory selfies), and then headed to another elevator up to the “Space Capsule,” which turned out to be just another, higher but smaller area with another 360-degree view.

The most impressive spot to me sits on a lower level, where you can step out on clear sections that make it seem as if you are ready to fall hundred of meters to the street. I took one step — and that was enough.

Then we began the lengthy stand-in-line exercise of heading down. If you decide to add the Oriental Pearl TV Tower to your list of Shanghai tourist activities, make sure to leave plenty of time. And unless you have a private driver, walk or take the subway away from the area to avoid cabbies who will try to rip you off (two told us that they would take us only if we agreed to pay “at least 300 yuan,” or about $48, which is not only unethical but illegal — but that's supply and demand for you).

I found myself wishing for one of those flying cars that Deckard drove in “Blade Runner.” We'd have been back to our hotel in minutes.

Jackie Chan is alive and well in Shanghai

If you had to list the top Asian martial-arts star of all time, the name most likely to come up would be Bruce Lee. Close behind, though, would be another Hong Kong native, Jackie Chan.

So, of course, we had to make a pilgrimage to the Jackie Chan Film Gallery yesterday. After taking a cab to Chanfeng Park, a picturesque tree-lined area that boasts boating and a variety of water-related activities, we found our way to the two-story warehouse that houses a retrospective of Chan's career and life.

Along with props taken from his many films, the gallery features a series of interactive stations — many of which show scenes from his films, especially those that give examples of his one-time daring stunts (at 58, he's long past doing the really dangerous stuff). It also gives a brief look at his life, from his rough beginnings (his family's sending him off to study Chinese Opera at an early age) and his more recent charity work.

Overall, it's a G-rated look at his life. And at about $25 a pop, the tickets are fairly expensive. But if you've a Chan fan, it's a must stop for the Shanghai traveler. 

Shanghai cabbies give surprisingly good deals

Every city has it own particular taxi culture, each with a specific set of rituals and rules. When we visited Paris several years ago, for example, we could never just hail a cab off the street, the way you can in New York. We had to go to certain intersections and only there would we be able to find a ride.

And we've encountered similar situations in Rome and Florence, Italy, though with the added requirement that we get in the right cab — sometimes the one that had been waiting the longest, other times (or so it seemed) the one being driven by the most senior cabbie.

In Shanghai, both rules seem to apply, though perhaps a bit more randomly. Cabs will congregate at certain spots. But if one drives past and has a green light glowing on top, it's supposed to be free. That's no guarantee, though, as some will drive right past you no matter how hard you try to get their attention. Maybe they've forgotten to turn the light off and are heading toward another fare. Maybe they really don't see you. Or maybe they just don't want to hassle driving around some foreigners whose language they don't begin to understand.

(China travel tip: It's a good idea to have your travel destination written out in Chinese characters, something that most employees at a hotel concierge desk should be willing to help with. Anyone with local phone service can download apps that will help, too.)

Whatever, we had good luck getting cabs yesterday in Shanghai, despite the fact that it was drizzling most of the day and we were hardly the only ones looking for easy transportation. (Shanghai's metro system is both cheap and easy to navigate, but its stops are inconvenient to where we are staying; if you have to walk a half hour to get on the metro, a cab could already have dropped you where you want to go.)

Our first stop was the Jade Buddha Temple, a working Buddhist monastery that was built between 1918 and 1928 (see the above photo). Its highlight, as the title suggests, is a state of Buddha made of jade, one of five that — according to Lonely Planet — had been sent back to China at the turn of the 20th century. I took no photo of the actual jade state because this was the only room where photos were banned (and I watched a guy get chastised when he pulled out his fancy camera and began clicking away). But we toured the whole temple, which took about a half hour, and — embarrassingly enough — found ourselves crashing a couple of Buddhist funerals.

Afterward, we hailed a cab almost immediately and headed across town to a completely different setting: a contemporary arts complex called ShanghART, a collection of several buildings in which serious galleries and shops displayed — for no entrance fee — the works created by a number of art collectives. Our favorite was Islands6, which featured mostly untitled works in neon and video/photo mashups making clever commentary on the clash between traditional and contemporary Chinese life.

And again, when we were through, we were able to grab a cab almost immediately. One final note: As I've noted below, Shanghai is huge. And street traffic is often a snarl of honking cars, trucks, vans and motor scooters. So trips across town can take as much as a half hour or more. One such trip cost three of us a mere 51 Chinese yuan — or about $8.31 U.S. dollars.

For offering that kind of a bargain, Chinese cabbies should be considered even more of a national treasure than any half dozen jade statues.

Wednesday’s openings: A brief history of animated penguin movies

(Pictured above: Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day and Jason Bateman, being held at gunpoint by their agents)

Last week’s cinematic offerings were very nearly nonexistent, what with the newest “Hunger Games” installment scaring off any potential competition. This week isn’t much better – thanks a lot, Thanksgiving! – but AMC’s release schedule includes three new titles opening on Wednesday. The films are as follows:

“Horrible Bosses 2”: Most comedy sequels are exercises in diminishing returns – take a concept that’s proven to work, then copy it over and over again until all invention and spontaneity is beaten out of it. For every winner like “22 Jump Street,” there are a dozen or so duds – some not-so-esteemed examples from this year include “A Haunted House 2,” “Think Like a Man Too” and “Dumb and Dumber To.” Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day reprise their roles from the 2011 hit, and this time they’re embroiled in an O. Henry-ish plot to kidnap the grown son (Chris Pine) of their philandering boss (two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, obviously slumming). Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey also return, promising to be half as funny as they were last time.

“Penguins of Madagascar”: Here’s another sequel – or, to be more specific, a spin-off – this one of a popular animated franchise. The goofy penguin sidekicks from the “Madagascar” films take center stage in this fourth entry in the series, which proves that it’s only a matter of time before the Minions from “Despicable Me” get their own feature. (Edit: I guess I spoke too soon.) The voice cast includes all the kids’ favorites, including John Malkovich, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter and Werner Herzog.

“The Theory of Everything”: Director James Marsh specializes in nonfiction – his 2008 breakthrough “Man on Wire” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature – so he seems a promising choice to helm this biopic of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, based on his wife Jane Hawking’s memoirs. Eddie Redmayne’s work as Hawking is already gaining significant award buzz, and this might prove to be the mainstream launching pad for actress Felicity Jones, an up-and-comer and critics’ favorite for so long. The trailer for “The Theory of Everything” is below.
  

Resort holiday show a family affair

It’s tempting to think of this year’s holiday show at the Coeur d’Alene Resort as “A Travolta Family Christmas.” After all, the show is produced by Ellen Travolta, who also appears, along with her sister, Margaret, and her husband, Jack Bannon.

Ellen Travolta would be quick to correct your assumption. “I Remember Christmas” is an ensemble show, she said.

While there will be some Travolta family memories, there also will be music, readings and an old-time radio show. And for the two non-family members in the cast, the show has become a bit like family.

“It’s my favorite work that I’ve done all year,” said Katharine Strohmaier.

Seattle-based Strohmaier, who has done Rosemary Clooney shows in the past, will do an eight-minute Clooney medley during the show.

“What I love is the sincerity of the show,” she said. “We have a million Christmas things around us and we do some Christmas tunes, but it’s more about family than just regurgitating the old Christmas tunes for no reason.

“Even though I have a couple ballads, we’re trying to keep it light.”

Stohmaier, a Lewiston native who did a few seasons with Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre more than a decade ago, is happy to be back. “I feel like even though it’s been a lot of years, Coeur d’Alene still feels like home, because it’s Idaho.”

Spokane actor Patrick Treadway enjoys doing holiday shows, if only to stay busy during the season, as he doesn’t have family in the area. “This is such a familial situation, and I know these guys so well, so it really is like we’re creating a family moment,” he said. “It’s been very warm and welcoming.”

Treadway will do a little Bing Crosby, some Fibber McGee and Molly (with Bannon), and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. (Before anyone asks, Treadway’s talents do not include ventriloquism. He’ll be moving his lips.)

“I get to do the funny bits, and they get to do all the warm, feel-good bits,” he said.

For Margaret Travolta, who had appeared with her sister in Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre productions since she moved here in 2009, she admits it will be a bit strange not simply being a spectator for the holiday show this year. But she thinks audiences are in for a special evening. “I just know everybody’s going to have a good time.”

She added, “they’re going to hear stories that are very personal, but at the same time we’re going to remind people of their own memories, because some of them are similar.

“We all have memories of not being able to sleep Christmas Eve.”

If you go

‘I Remember Christmas’

What: Holiday musical revue starring Margaret Travolta, Jack Bannon, Patrick Treadway, Katherine Strohmaier and Ellen Travolta

When: Friday through Dec. 21; showtimes at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays

Where: Coeur d’Alene Resort Shore Room, 115 S. Second St., Coeur d’Alene

Cost: $25

Call: (844) 257-9047 or click here for tickets

Yuyuan Gardens: Old China meets the Colonel

Above: Access to the Yuyuan Gardens requires you to brave your way through the crowds, which on weekends can be a formidable task.

It's not that communication is impossible in China. But it's not particularly dependable, even if you purchase high-speed Internet services or even a locally connected smartphone.

The friends we are visiting here in Shanghai are on a year-long stay (Gonzaga Law Prof. Ann Murphy is a distinguished Fulbright chair at the Shanghai University School of Finance and Economics) have their own VPN, which gives them far better access than I do through my hotel's web services. But even they have trouble on occasion accessing Facebook and Youtube and other sites that we take for granted in the U.S.

From my hotel, I can't even access Hotmail, either through my laptop or my phone. Yet my wife can. Go figure.

Ah, but such inconveniences aside, we're trying to make the most of our visit. Yesterday it rained, so we didn't do much other than read novels (I'm splitting time between “Rainbows End” by Vernor Vinge and “Tatiana” by Martin Cruz Smith), nap and try to navigate what websites we could.

On Sunday, though, we took a cab to the Yuyuan Gardens and Bazaar, which is located in what is called Shanghai's Old Town. The cabbie dropped us off just a little over a block away, yet it took us the better part of a half hour to figure out how to get inside. The gardens, which are a maze of ponds and bridges and enclosed passageways, can be accessed only by first negotiating the crowded bazaar, another string of shops, each of which boasts a vendor standing outside attempting to lure you in.

The strange aspect of all this, at least to a westerner, is that along with all the silk and spice and precious stone and jewelery shops, you can find a Starbucks, a KFC and even a Dairy Queen. Welcome to globalization.

We did get out last night, later when the rain had dwindled to a mere drizzle. And we ate at a noodle shop near where our friends live. It was one of this hole-in-the wall spots that features formica table and stools instead of actual chairs, and the menu posted on the wall had not a single word in English. But our Chinese friend, a former student of Prof. Murphy and my wife's, ordered for us — and the food was as good as anything Chinese I've ever eaten.

Take that, Col. Sanders.

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. 

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