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

‘Girl on the Train’ has a Blunt appeal

I'm a fan of Emily Blunt. I try to explain why in the review of "The Girl on the Train" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I remember first seeing Emily Blunt in the 2006 comedy “The Devil Wears Prada,” which cast her – at least in the beginning scenes – as a thoroughly unsympathetic character who wields her English accent like a verbal light saber.

In the 10 intervening years, Blunt has blossomed, her roles growing ever larger even as the movies she appeared in grew ever more diverse: romantic comedies such as “The Five-Year Engagement,” dramas such as “Your Sister’s Sister,” sci-fi films such as “The Adjustment Bureau” and “The Edge of Tomorrow” and hard-core dramatic action efforts such as “Sicario.”

Now we have “The Girl on the Train,” a psychological thriller based on the best-selling novel by British author Paula Hawkins. And if her other movies have given Blunt the opportunity to stretch her skills, “The Girl on the Train” goes even further.

Blunt plays Rachel, a divorced woman who is obsessed. And troubled. When we first see her, she is riding a train – thus the film’s title – back and forth from her home to New York City. En route, twice daily she passes the neighborhood where she once lived. And as she rides past, she can’t help but fantasize about both the house in which she once lived and the couple that lives nearby.

Played out in a distinctly non-chronological order, “The Girl on the Train” is several things at once. It’s a character portrayal of Rachel, a woman stumbling through life with a blurred history that only gradually becomes clear. It’s a mystery that involves the disappearance of a woman and the subsequent investigation that Rachel is driven to be part of. It’s a look at the real life that lies beneath the thin veneer of suburban normality, a life that – as John Cheever once documented – is all too often is marked by lust, lies and the most basic kinds of betrayal.

Ultimately, though, “The Girl on the Train” is about revenge. It’s about the control that men – some men, anyway – levy over their wives and lovers and how those same men can, and do, abuse that control for their own pleasure. And, when they wake up, how powerful women can be in their efforts to set things right.

Director Tate Taylor, whose previous films include the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” and the melodrama “The Help,” weaves author Hawkins’ whipsaw plot toward a relatively satisfying – if somewhat predictable – climax. More important, though, he gets decent performances out of his cast, both the men – including Luke Evans and Justin Theroux – and the women, especially the Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett (seen most recently in “The Magnificent Seven” remake), and Allison Janney as a tough police detective.

It is Blunt, though, on whom the movie depends most. Playing the troubled Rachel, whose trek toward the truth is agonizingly slow, could not have been easy. It certainly doesn’t make her look glamorous. But it does show what it takes to become an A-level movie star.

Beauty and drive, tenacity and timing – not to mention a ton of talent.

Schott’s poetry explores nature, baseball and more

Poetry is the topic tonight at Auntie's Bookstore, where Lynn Rigney Schott will read from her new chapbook, "Light Years."

This might not seem like too special of an event. But fans of baseball might disagree.

Schott, who lives on a farm near Kettle Falls, is the daughter of the late baseball manager Bill Rigney. In fact, a poem that Schott wrote about her father, "Spring Training," was published in the March 26, 1984, edition of The New Yorker magazine. A New York Times article about Schott and how her poem came to be published can be accessed here.

But Schott, who has an uncanny way with words, writes about other things as well. For example: the natural world she observes from her home near Mingo Mountain. You can also access three of Schott's poems by clicking here. I'll just include a stanza from one of my favorites, a poem titled "The Butcher Bird:

I don’t know which is worse, you said,
Catholicism or Science.
Better to be a marveller like Muir
who admired the world in a wild-ass storm
from the top of a reeling Douglas fir.
“I clung with muscles firm
braced, like a bobolink on a reed.”

Schott's reading will begin at 7. As is typical at Auntie's, the event is free and open to the public.

See a bit of Mozart at The Met on Saturday

It's been nearly 230 years to the day that Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni" premiered in Prague. The opera historians out there may be thinking of that anniversary when they step into either the Regal Cinemas movie houses at NorthTown Mall or Coeur d'Alene Riverstone Stadium to see a special live broadcast of The Met's version of Mozart's classic work.

"Don Giovanni" opened on Oct. 29, 1787, in Prague under its full original title "Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni" and was, according to Wikipedia, "rapturously received." Mozart reworked the opera before it played in Vienna and elsewhere. It remains one of the most-produced operas in history.

Tickets to the special live broadcast cost $25 and change for adults. For ordering information, go here. Or here.

And if you go, make sure not to leave before the fat lady sings. What? You say that's some other opera? Well, then, never mind.

Friday’s openings redux: No point in denying changes

OK, the official movie lineups have been announced, and that means a few changes from what I listed below. Seems as if neither Rob Zombie's "31" nor the inspiration-themed "I'm Not Ashamed" will be opening on Friday.

Instead, in addition to the films already announced, here are the additional official openings:

"Miss Hokusai": Japanese animator Keiichi Hara adapts the anime "Sarusuberi," and in the process explores the life and works of artist Katsushika Hokusai. Expect a trek to Mount Fuji.

"Denial": Rachel Weisz portrays the real-life historian Deborah E. Lipstadt who fought in court the Holocaust-denier David Long (Timothy Spall). Law and order, history-style.

"In a Valley of Violence": Ethan Hawke plays a lonesome cowboy who wanders into the wrong town … and the town ends up regretting it. Would that make this "The Magnificent One"?

That's the revised list. So now go. Enjoy the movies.

Indigo Girls know how to carry a show

Above: The Indigo Girls performed Saturday night with the Spokane Symphony.

Showmanship is a skill that separates the best musicians from the crowd. Even a talented crowd.

As an example, I attended a New Year's Eve show sometime in the 1980s that featured Johnny Rivers. A musician who had several hit songs in the 1960s — songs such as "Mountain of Love" and "Secret Agent Man" — Rivers performed that night with a curious lack of energy. He seemed to talk more to his band than address the audience, even if he played and sang competently enough.

Then on Saturday night I experienced the opposite. Watching the duo The Indigo Girls — Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — perform with the Spokane Symphony, I watched a couple of talented musicians play great music, blend their musical skills seamlessly with the symphony and interact with a crowd that might have alienated someone with less patience.

Over the years, Ray and Saliers have amassed a large selection of songs that their fervid fans know by heart. And throughout the evening, some of those fans would shout out a title. Ray, at one point, explained that they were working from a set program. It was necessary to do so, she said, because she didn't think they had enough musical talent to improvise with the symphony.

She made the crowd laugh when she suggested that doing so might make for an interesting experiment. But she'd made her point. They were going to play the songs on the program and that was that.

Fans being fans, though, some kept shouting out their requests. And Ray and Saliers responded graciously, at times simply ignoring the shouts, at times laughing along with them, but overall taking them in stride. As those who know what good showmanship is tend to do.

 The Indigo Girls proved something that Johnny Rivers forgot all this years ago: that good performance is more than merely playing good music.

Friday’s openings: Cruising through the fall slate

As we progress through the fall movie season, the usual mix of films continues to flow in (and out) of the nation's theaters. This week, a full five films are scheduled for country-wide release, most of which no doubt will make it to the Inland Northwest.

Friday's scheduled openings are as follows:

"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back": Tom Cruise returns as the free-willed protagonist of Lee Child's mystery series, this time involving his attempt to uncover a government conspiracy. Looks as if he, too, wants to make American great … uh, again?

"Ouija: Origin of Evil": A family of paranormal scammers get what's coming to them when the real dark spirits possess one of their number. They should have stuck to Monopoly.

"Keeping Up With the Joneses": An typical suburban couple (Zach Galifanakis, Isla Fisher) grow suspicious when their new neighbors (Gal Gadot, Jon Hamm) prove to be anything but typical. Key word there: "typical."

"Boo! A Madea Halloween": Tyler Perry returns with his favorite character to spoof pretty much every Halloween/horror cliche ever devised for movie entertainment. Turns out his trick is supposed to be the treat.

"I'm Not Ashamed": Based on the journals of a girl killed during the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, this inspirational film — I'm not ashamed to say — isn't something I'm remotely interested in joking about.

"31": The latest from Rob Zombie, this pre-Halloween offering follows the misfortunes of five carnival workers forced to play a sadistic game. Hmmmm, sounds familiar. Can you say "Saw"?

That's the list of potentials. I'll narrow the slate when the local theaters finalize their individual lineups.

‘Happy Valley’: The title as irony

More and more, movies are giving way in terms of quality to television. Especially to television miniseries, limited and otherwise. Not that long ago, I reviewed the HBO limited miniseries "The Night Of." This week: the Netflix series "Happy Valley," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio:

As a place name, Happy Valley is an exercise in irony. And this is true whether we’re talking about the home of Penn State University, which was wracked in 2011 by the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, or the BBC series of the same name that began streaming in August on the media service provider Netflix.

The Sandusky scandal, which involved a member of the school’s football staff sexually abusing teenage boys – and school officials ignoring the problem for over a decade – is self-explanatory. The BBC series takes a bit more explaining.

Debuting on British television in 2014, the first season of “Happy Valley” is told over six hour-long episodes. It centers on Catherine Cawood – played sublimely by Sarah Lancashire – a police sergeant working in a small town in northern England (it’s filmed in Calder Valley, Yorkshire). Seemingly bucolic, surrounded by lush green hills, the town is afflicted by deep-rooted problems – unemployment, prostitution, drugs and all the normal foibles that accompany human interaction: adultery, divorce, alcoholism, violent incidents and, yes, the occasional murder.

Catherine, we gradually discover, has an intriguing past that includes a mental breakdown following the suicide of her daughter. That breakdown resulted not only in the loss of her career as a police detective, but it ended her marriage, estranged her from her only other child – her son – and ended up with her becoming the custodian of her daughter’s son, who is the product of rape.

When the series opens, Catherine discovers that her daughter’s rapist, Tommy Royce (played by James Norton), has been released from prison. While Catherine is digesting this news, we see what she does not: that Royce has gone to work for a low-level drug operator. And we watch as that operator is approached by a revenge-seeking accountant who has dreamed up a kidnapping scheme that, he promises, will enrich them all.

Naturally, such schemes seldom go as planned when the principals – at least one of whom is a sociopath – bumble around as much as these murderous clowns do. And “Happy Valley” follows suit, especially when Catherine’s attempts to keep track of Royce involve her in the larger caper.

And did I mention that Catherine lives with her recovering alcoholic/heroin-addict sister? And that she, Catherine, is having an affair with her former husband? And that Catherine’s grandson has his own emotional problems, which grow ever more apparent when his father – the rapist – discovers his existence?

This may all seem just a bit much. But creator and head writer Sally Wainwright manages to reveal it all realistically. And this sense of authenticity – that these characters feel like real people instead of American-made TV crime-show clichés – is one reason why “Happy Valley” is such a riveting view.

The other reason is the performances, particularly of Lancashire and Norton (known to Public Television viewers from the “Grantchester” mystery series).

Netflix is screening both season one and two of “Happy Valley.” That a quality program centers on such dark human quandaries may seem like the ultimate irony. I prefer to see it as a happy coincidence.

Saturday night was for Beach Boy Brian

Above: Photo by Mary Pat Treuthart

On this blog, I typically write about things that are upcoming. Particularly things such as movie openings and literary readings.

Today, however, I want to write about something that occurred last Saturday, when my wife and I attended the Brian Wilson "Pet Sounds" concert in Seattle. At the same time, I'll share news of a future event.

First, I didn't have high hopes for the show. Wilson is 74, and his much-publicized emotional and medical issues have left him more or less a shadow of the guy who, in 1962, spearheaded the Beach Boys and basically the whole surf-music movement. Things weren't helped when the show, which took place at the sold-out, 3,000-seat Paramount Theatre, began with Wilson shuffling onstage holding onto the arm of longtime friend and bandmate Al Jardine.

And during the show, which Wilson orchestrated by introducing each song, he sat in the middle of the stage, behind a piano that he occasionally played. He occasionally sang, too, his one-pristine falsetto/tenor far from the perfect instrument it once was.

But the show wasn't so much about Wilson as it was a celebration of him. Quickly paced, featuring a blend of Beach Boy hits (from "Little Deuce Coup" to "Surfer Girl" to "Help Me Rhonda") and the entirety of the "Pet Sounds" LP, the show rocked. Buoyed by the presences of Jardine, with his son Matt Jardine providing the vocals that Wilson himself used to perform, and aided by the presence of Blondie Chaplin (especially on the song "Sail Away"), that old Beach Boys energy was alive and well.

The high point for me? The band's rousing performance of "Good Vibrations." I may have been the only person in the Paramount who sat during the song, closing my eyes and letting the music wash over me the way it did when I listened to it in my bedroom way back in 1966.

At the end, I did stand up and — along with everyone else — sang and clapped and moved to the music that filled the room with such energy and joy. It made me, and this is a Brian Wilson pun, "Smile."

And the news? Wilson will be returning for a Seattle encore. Tickets go on sale tomorrow via Ticketmaster.

I'd suggest you buy some. Wilson won't be around forever, and the chance to celebrate him may soon be merely a memory.

Poet Laureate Marshall explains it all tonight in Otis Orchards

Above: Photo by Amy Sinisterra

Poetry can be a tricky discipline. A quick online search (thank you Google) gave me two illustrative quotes:

This one is from Robert Frost: "Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words."

This one is from Marianne Moore: "Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads."

Quite a difference in tone, eh? But not necessarily meaning. The key to understanding poetry is in finding the right teacher. And few teachers I know are better qualified to explain the rhyme (or non-rhymes) and reason of poetry than Tod Marshall.

Marshall, of course, is the reigning Washington State Poet Laureate (through 2018). But he is better known locally as a professor of English at Gonzaga University, where he is Director of Writing Concentration. He is the author of five poetry collections, the latest of which is "Bugle."

So if you want to get a feel for what Marshall thinks of poetry, then you might want to show up at 6:30 tonight at the Otis Orchards Library to experience an event titled "Exploring Poetry With Tod Marshall." The "atmosphere" promises to be "casual."

And you never know. You just might learn how to separate the gardens from the toads.

Friday’s openings redux: Add Steel to the menu

The announcements are in regarding Friday's movie openings. In addition to those listed below, here's one more:

"Max Steel": Following in the tradition of G.I. Joe, this superhero/action flick is based in a Mattel action figure that spawned a series of comic books, a television series and movies. This latest variation, directed by Stewart Handler ("Sorority Row"), follows 16-yar-old Max McGrath (Ben Winchell), who teams up with an exterrestrial named Steel can become the superpowered Max Steel.

No critics reviews are available, which is never a good sign. So buyer beware.

Koehler to talk expressly about Darjeeling tonight at GU

Jeff Koehler describes himself fairly succinctly: "writer, photographer, cook, traveler."

And just to prove that he's not overstating the case, Koehler — a 1991 graduate of Gonzaga University — will present his latest book, "Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea," at 7:30 tonight at GU's Cataldo Hall Globe Room.

The book, the intent of which is summed up pretty well in its title, is receiving not only awards but also rave reviews. It won the International Association of Culinary Professionals award for Literary Food Writing. And the Chicago Tribune reviewer had this to say:

"When he writes about the tea itself … how the pickers skillfully pluck the leaves and toss them into a basket, how the tea smells as it's being dried, the daily taste tests at each estate — his prose is both sensory and balletic."

Here's an example of that prose (describing an expert's tea-tasting process): "He loudly slurps a generous mouthful of liquid off the spoon. Holding it for a moment, he takes two or three quick and sharp aerating sucks that flood the (tea) around the palate and send it up into the olfactory organ in the nose in the manner of an animated wine taster. The tip of the tongue gauges sweetnesses and saltiness, the middle tartness, the back bitterness, and the back edges sourness. But he is also feeling the tea: the inside of the gums, cheeks, and the back of the tongue catch the astringency or pungency by sensation rather than taste."

Here's a link to another good review in The Guardian.

Koehler's appearance is part of Gonzaga's 2016-2017 Visiting Writers Series. The event is free and open to the public. 

Friday’s openings: You gotta have … Hart?

Fall doesn't have a long tradition of offering a great variety of films. And the reactions to them don't tend to stoke the box-office fires, especially this year. Case in point: The takes of last week's openings were 8.7 percent less than the same week of 2015.

Still, the weeks progress and the movies keep on coming. Following at the projected national releases for Friday:

"The Accountant": Ben Affleck plays a guy who, while working at "uncooking the books" of notorious figures, has trouble connecting with normal humans. That includes both the humans who get to know him (such as Anna Kendrick) and those who want to kill him (such as Jon Bernthal).

"Kevin Hart: What Now?": The latest comedy concert film from the diminutive comic. The word comedy, for some of us, could be rendered here in quotes. 

"Priceless": A guy grieving the loss of his family takes on a job that, when he stumbles onto its secret nature, has the potential of turning his life upside down. As IMDB asks, "Can love, strength, and faith redefine his past and change the course of his future?" Hmmmmm, I wonder.

As always, I'll fine tune as the information becomes available.

Urban hikes combine scenery and history

Above: Photo by John Nelson

When we think of hikes, typically we think of nature. As in something that Rich Landers might suggest, taking you over hill and dale in some rural landscape where bears frolic and antelope play. (And, yes, I know antelope technically are not found in North America, though the term is often used.)

My friend John Nelson, though, thinks of hikes in a more general sense. Oh, Nelson has done his share of back-country hiking, all over the Northwest and elsewhere. But recently, in his role as a blogger and freelance writer for publications such as The Spokesman-Review, he has added another dimension to the definition of hike: the urban hike.

Take his latest blog post, which he writes under the pen name of SkiZer. Nelson and his wife, the former Spokesman-Review food writer Leslie Kelly (referred to in the post as "Mrs. SkiZer"), did a trek through Seattle recently, visiting a number of known spots as well as a few relatively unknown spots as well.

I could add comments about the language that some of the hike's demands evoked in Mrs. SkiZer, as well as the appetite the whole venture whetted in both of them. By why not just let Nelson, a talented writer, explain things for himself.

Women get their own in ‘The Dressmaker’

As the father of a young woman — a woman has now has her own children — I am particularly interested in stories that involve women. Particularly stories involving the roles that women have played in history. This, then, is one reason why I am so accepting — despite its obvious flaws — of "The Dressmaker," an Australian film that is playing at AMC River Park Square.

What follows is my review of "The Dressmaker," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

I often think about the career of Clint Eastwood. In some respects, the man has been making the same film since he first attracted the attention of Sergio Leone. In Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, as he would do later for crime specialist Don Siegel and other filmmakers – not to mention the filmmaker he himself would become – Eastwood typically starred as a man, cast in some sort of situation where he would seek justice, or more often simple revenge, with a gun.

I thought of Eastwood in particular when I watched the Australian film “The Dressmaker,” which was directed by the long-missed Jocelyn Moorhouse and stars Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Kerry Fox, Hugo Weaving and a number of other cast members who are far better known Down Under than in the U.S.

The winner of numerous Australian movie awards, “The Dressmaker” tells the story of Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (played by Winslet), a woman of obvious high fashion, who returns to her Outback hometown late one night with a simple observation: “I’m back, you …” well, the adjective she uses is not one that I’m allowed to repeat on Public Radio (or even on the website of a family newspaper). You get the idea.

Seems Tilly has returned to clear up something. Some years before, she had been accused of murder – even though she was only 10 years old at the time. But Tilly can’t remember the specifics, so she has come home both to find out the truth and to care for her mother (played by the irrepressible Davis), who has – and this is an understatement – chosen to let herself go.

The town isn’t too keen on any of this, secrets and lies – not to mention resentment and prejudice – being what binds most of its residents into a tight klatch. Yet Tilly intrigues them, especially when she hauls out her sewing machine and demonstrates a talent both for creating fashion and converting the town’s ugly ducklings into something akin to Outback swans.

So far, so good. Yet Moorhouse’s film, her first since 1997’s “A Thousand Acres,” doesn’t go necessarily where expected. Based on a novel by Rosalie Ham, “The Dressmaker” proceeds down a number of subsequent plot paths – some of which are farcically comical, one of which involves a shocking death – rejecting each before transforming into a woman’s version of the Eastwood revenge film “High Plains Drifter.” This blend of storylines, much less emotional turbulence, doesn’t always work.

Yet the film has much to recommend it. The opening is brilliant, the cinematography is pristine, the acting – especially by Davis and Winslet – is good across the board, even if the great Weaving seems mostly to be reviving the fey manner he adopted for the 1994 drag-queen film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

Maybe most important, though, “The Dressmaker” is a woman’s story. For as long as cinema has been around, we’ve been inundated with tales of men – such as Eastwood – exacting revenge. It’s high time for movies to feature women taking names and kicking some, well …

Again, you get the point.

‘Birth of a Nation’ raises old argument

Pretty much anywhere you look you can find stories about the controversy surrounding Nate Parker, the writer-director of the soon-to-be-released film "The Birth of a Nation." And as with all art, critics are finding it difficult to separate the strength of the art from the foibles of the artist.

Still, the movie did attract an 81 percent rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, while it was a it less favored (70 percent) on Metacritic.

Following are some of the comments:

Brian Truitt, USA Today: "Parker creates a fascinating portrait of Nat Turner as neither hero nor villain. In the end, he’s portrayed as a man faced with tough decisions."

Stephanie Zacharek, Time Magazine: " 'The Birth of a Nation' isn't a great movie — it's hardly even a good one. But it's bluntly effective, less a monumental piece of filmmaking than an open door."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "The movie, uneven as it is, has terrific momentum and passages of concentrated visual beauty. The acting is strong even when the script wanders into thickets of rhetoric and mystification."

The movie opens tomorrow in Spokane. The philosophy regarding the separation of artist and artistry is yours to contemplate.