7 Blog

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

‘Documentary Storm’ weathers well

In running down the ways that people could access “The Staircase,” the crime miniseries that I reviewed below, I found a website that offers free documentaries of all types. It's called Documentary Storm, and it gives you free access — say again, free access — to hundreds of documentaries in 24 different categories from Art to War.

It doesn't have everything (my first search, for “Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows,” was fruitless). But the overall selection does look interesting. I'm going to check it out this very afternoon.

New ‘Mad Max’ will be a Hardy adventure

I'd heard that George Miller was updating — or, you prefer, “revisiting” — his “Mad Max” series. But it wasn't until I saw the first trailer, which screened at the recent San Diego Comic-Con, that I could be sure. Enjoy the trailer, which I've embedded below.

‘The Staircase’ examines U.S. justice

Being a movie fan means that you seek film out wherever you can find it. It used to be that if nothing worthwhile was playing in the theater, you were out of luck. Then in 1961, recently released movies — instead of just oldies — started playing on television. A couple of decades later, home-video was born. And now, with Netflix, Hulu, various On Demand services and more, you can watch pretty much any movie any time you want.

That's what led me to “The Staircase,” an eight-part, six-hour 2004 miniseries that I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. My review follows:

Being married to a law professor makes me no more of a legal expert than does my obsessive watching of the television show “Law & Order.” What those two pursuits illustrate, though, is my long-held interest in American jurisprudence – especially in how that system is interpreted though television and film.

While mainstream movie theaters have opened little of interest throughout most of July – except, of course, for fans of Michael Bay, Melissa McCarthy and talking apes – I found myself looking for something a bit more mentally stimulating. And that’s how I stumbled upon “The Staircase.”

Actually, one of my wife’s Gonzaga Law School colleagues – Professor Ann Murphy – recommended “The Staircase,” which was released in the U.S. as a 2004 miniseries. And she lent us her copy of the two-DVD set, which comprises eight 45-minute chapters.

French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade – best known for having won an Oscar in 2002 for the Documentary Feature “Murder on a Sunday Morning” – focuses “The Staircase” on a 2001 murder in Durham, North Carolina. Novelist Michael Peterson was accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, whose blood-spattered body was found at the base of a staircase in their home.

While Peterson claimed his wife’s death was an accident, Durham police suspected otherwise. And in short order, they arrested Peterson and tried him for murder. With his cameras haunting Peterson, his family and defense team – led by the charismatic attorney David Rudolf – de Lestrade gives us as much access to the inner workings of the legal process as any fictional narrative. The difference, being, of course that “The Staircase” presents real-life people.

Yet I doubt any credible novelist’s twists, subplots and dramatic discoveries could compete with what de Lestrade gives us. You have the crime itself, which devastates a seemingly happy blended family that includes five children. You have the conflicting expert opinions on whether Kathleen’s death was the result of murder or an accidental fall facilitated by wine and valium. You have questions about Michael’s past, including his connection years earlier with a woman whose manner of death eerily resembled Kathleen’s. You have questions about Michael himself that the prosecution uses as a bludgeon against the defense’s picture of a perfect Peterson marriage. And you have the last-second appearance of an important piece of possibly exculpatory evidence.

All aspects of the case and the movie – which is freely available online – are well documented. And the controversies surrounding both are still being argued, with all parties claiming to reflect the literal truth. De Lestrade has even followed up with a 2013 sequel, “The Staircase II: The Last Chance,” which I haven’t yet seen, that apparently centers on questionable forensics used by the prosecution.

But regardless of the court decision, that search for a so-called truth is what makes “The Staircase” so fascinating. Does such a truth exist? De Lestrade’s movie would seem to answer no. It holds a mirror up to the legal system, and those of us who look tend to see whatever fits our own view of the world.

Auntie’s presents Jance tonight at The Bing

You may have heard of J.A. Jance. If you're a mystery fan, you probably have. If you're a fan of Pacific Northwest mysteries, you almost certainly have. Whatever, you might be interested to know that Jance will appear at 7 tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater to preview her latest novel “Remains of Innocence” (Morrow, 405 pages, $26.99).

Jance, who splits time between Seattle and Arizona, is the author of three different mystery series featuring the protagonists J.P. Beaumont, Joanna Brady and Ali Reynolds. “Remains of Innocence” is her 17th Brady book (she's written 22 Beaumont books and nine Reynolds novels), and it involves two cases — a death in New York, a murder in Arizona — that fall in Sheriff Brady's lap.

Tickets to the event, which are $3, are available at Auntie's Bookstore and at the door. Click here for more information.

Friday’s openings: ‘Hercules’ comes on strong

As the slow days of midsummer pass, and we all recover from our Michael Bay mugging, a number of films open in local theaters bearing themes as diverse as Greek mythology, 30-something angst and contemporary spies.

Friday's opening are as follows:

“Hercules” (IMAX 3D, regular 3D and standard format): Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as the Greek demigod. Still not ready for Shakespeare, Johnson takes on watered-down Aeschylus.

“And So It Goes”: Rob Reiner (“When Harry Met Sally”) returns with this senior-centered look at what happens when a working man (Michael Douglas), one, discovers that he is a grandfather and, two, is forced to take care of his preteen granddaughter (Sterling Jerins).

“Wish I Was Here”: Zach Graff (“Garden State”) continues to explore contemporary life, this time documenting the problems of a guy in his mid-30s who is having troubles reconciling his career, family and personal ambitions.

“Lucy”: Scarlett Johansson stars as a woman, used as transport for a valuable chemical, who evolves into a brainiac capable of doing marvelously nasty things to the men who had taken advantage of her. 

“A Most Wanted Man”: The late Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in this adaptation of the John le Carré novel about spies fighting international terrorism.

“The Fluffy Movie”: The comic Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias performs in concert.

And at the Magic Lantern: Nothing new is opening, though it will continue running “Life Itself,” “Belle,” “Ida,” “Snowpiercer” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Special note: AMC Riverpark Square is scheduled to open Richard Linklater's film “Boyhood” on Aug. 15. That's one to definitely put on your personal movie calendar.

‘Tammy’ is an extended series of fat jokes

Thanks to the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Margaret Cho and George Carlin, not to mention the late, great Bill Hicks (NSFW), it's possible to enjoy off-color jokes — otherwise known as politically incorrect humor — because a larger point is being made. In other words, fat jokes — as just one example — aren't just opportunities to laugh at the overweight. They are an opportunity to, maybe, laugh at our overall cultural obsession with looks. Or maybe they're the holding up of a cultural mirror inviting us to reflect on why such nasty humor is appealing. And so on.

Except in Melissa McCarthy movies. I've never watched her sitcom, “Mike and Molly,” so I can't comment on what happens there. But her movies? “Bridesmaids,” which won McCarthy — incredible as it was — an Oscar nomination, shows just how comedically talented the woman is. It uses her stature directly, forcing us to accept her as someone who doesn't fit standard norms of beauty but who still insists on blazing her own original path. And it is hilarious.

But in her succeeding films, “Identity Thief,” “The Heat” and now “Tammy,” the point has been less about the directness of McCarthy's character as it has been about using McCarthy's talents to repeat the same comic schtick over and over. Until, in “Tammy,” it's as if another lame “Saturday Night Live” routine has been adapted to the big screen.

“Tammy” is so stupid a character that she doesn't known who Mark Twain is. She doesn't know the meaning of the word “pattern.” She works at a hamburger joint and she literally has no idea what the Affordable Care Act does. In fact, the movie is so full of stupid and pathetic moments that I can't begin to list them all. The problem is that “Tammy” never actually melds McCarthy's talents (even those mired in her now tired mannerisms) with the overall story, which tries to offer up some sort of life lesson.

As in, apply yourself, get an education, find a job and work hard — no one says anything about not eating Doritos for lunch — and you give yourself a better chance to enjoying a happy life. Duh.

Without ever doing any of those, though, McCarthy's character still manages to attract the attentions of the obligatory love interest (Mark Duplass).All because he sees her inner beauty, don't you know.

The best thing I can say about “Tammy”? It isn't the worst film I've seen this year.

But it's close.

Spielberg’s shark is cousin to these ‘Apes’

I've already commented on “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which is leading the week's box-office. But I thought I'd post the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, if for no other reason than to emphasize how surprised I was at how good it is. A transcript of the review follows:

Summer hasn’t always been a hot season for cinema. In fact, until the July 4th weekend of 1975 – when Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” made it unsafe to visit the beach – summer was considered a bad time to release movies.

These days, other than the Christmas holidays – when Oscar hopefuls vie for attention – summer is the province of blockbuster wannabes. Just ask Michael Bay, who has never seen a summer-movie season he won’t mug with a handycam – which actually emphasizes something: Summer movies don’t usually rank very high on a critic’s quality list.

But Matt Reeves has changed all that. And he’s done it by making a movie about – well, talking apes. And it’s hardly the first one. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a sequel to the franchise reboot of a series dating back to 1968. That’s when the original adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel hit the big screen. Four sequels came in quick succession, followed by Tim Burton’s 2001 “reimagining” and this reboot’s 2011 prequel, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

That places Reeves, the talented director both of the alien-invasion flick “Cloverfield” and the vampire variation “Let Me In,” eight films along the storyline progression Boulle envisioned. Despite that late start, though, Reeves has given us one of the best “Apes” films since that moment Charlton Heston roared the memorable line: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”

What director Franklin J. Schaffner's 1968 film boasted in originality was offset by cheesy special effects. Nearly a half century later the kinds of effects Reeves has access to not only allow him to digitally depict individual talking apes with incredible authenticity but also to create an entire Apes culture.

“Dawn” picks up a decade after “Rise,” when a human-created flu – which scientists brewed up using Apes as breathing petri dishes – has decimated the human population. A band of survivors lives in what is left of San Francisco and is running out of fuel, which has caused their leaders to eye a dam that sits in Apes-controlled territory. Caesar, the genetically evolved ape from “Rise” (played by digitally enhanced Andy Serkis) is the Apes leader – and it is he, with his mixed feelings about humans, who stands between them and members of his own troop who would exterminate anything non-ape.

Like any good summer blockbuster, things in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” blow up real good. Cars, trucks, buildings, downtown San Francisco. But thanks to his screenwriters, especially Mark Bomback, director Reeves has plenty of opportunity to explore intimate moments – between humans, between apes and even inter-species. Sure some of those moments stretch credulity: My three-year-old iPad has trouble firing up in minutes, but a decade-old one in this film powers up in seconds. Right.

Still, no matter. The summer-movie season isn’t about literal truth. It’s about virtual believability. And “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is about as believable, and poignant, as a movie about talking apes could possibly be.

Enjoy the weather - and ‘The Goonies’

Tonight, of course, would be a good time to go and listen to Mozart in Manito Park. But if you prefer movies and you still want to enjoy this fine summer weather while it's here, then I'd suggest taking your family to Riverfront Park. Because that's where Richard Donner's 1985 film “The Goonies” is playing tonight at 7.

“The Goonies” is one of the mid-'80s young-adult films that, unlike John Hughes' work, is pure fun. Shot in and around Astoria and Cannon Beach, Ore., the film tells the tale of a bunch of outsiders — Goonies, if you will — who, in danger of losing their home, stumble onto a treasure map that leads them to an actual pirate ship. Oh, and they have to battle a gang of murderous counterfeiters to get the gold and jewels.

Donner, who is also known for “The Omen,” the original Christopher Reeves “Superman” and “Lethal Weapon,” employed a style that is pure Steven Spielberg in making “The Goonies.” Which is only natural since Spielberg dreamed up the story, which Chris Columbus fleshed out into a full screen play (Spielberg also served as executive producer and, apparently, is developing a sequel).

But maybe the most memorable aspect to the film is its cast, which is full of actors who went on to extended careers. Among the kids, we have Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman and Martha Plimpton. Among the adults, Joe Pantoliano, Robert Davi and the late NFL player John Matuszak. (Here are some other interesting notes about the movie.)

Like most Spielberg-influenced kids films, “The Goonies” strikes a tone that tries to appeal both to adults and children. As a result, it may be a bit intense for some young movie fans. During a recent at-tome screening, my then-5-year-old granddaughter started crying — though her 3-year-old brother wasn't troubled at all. So use your best judgment.

And enjoy the summer night.

Friday’s openings: Sex in the Cloud(s)

What would a summer be without a movie that melded Internet ignorance with the anxiety over fading sexual attraction? Hmmmm, refreshing? Sorry, it's just that I have felt under assault by all the trailers for the “romantic comedy” that opens on Friday. “Sex Tape,” which stars Cameron Diaz and Jason Segal, is just one of five openings — which makes you wonder what those who schedule summer films were thinking.

Friday's movie schedule is as follows:

“Sex Tape”: It's a plot as old as videotape (which no one ever uses anymore, so what's with that title?): A couple, trying to rekindle their former sexual fervor, decides to film their exploits. Then, stupidly, they somehow mistakenly download the results onto the Internet. Whoops. Yeah, stupid people are supposed to be funny. “Neighbors,” anyone?

“The Purge: Anarchy”: A sequel to the 2013 original, this one continues the theme of an America in which for one 12-hour period, held annually, no crime is deemed illegal. Naturally, instead of anyone trying to rip off big banks and get rich, people opt for … murder. Oooooh, kids, scary.

“Planes: Fire & Rescue” (in 3D and standard): A sequel to “Planes” in which our hero (voice by Dane Cook) responds to a damaged engine by giving up racing and joining a fire and rescue crew. Sounds a little like Steven Spielberg's 1989 movie “Always.”

“Persecuted”: This from IMDB: “An evangelist finds himself framed for murder and on the run after he refuses to back a senator's proposition calling for sweeping religious reform.” Right, happens every day.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Life Itself”: Documentary filmmaker Steve James follows film critic Roger Ebert during the final months of his life, revealing Ebert's life story and his ever-evolving take on both movies and life. I reviewed the film here.

That's the week. Enjoy.

‘Planet of the Apes’ still has the bananas

You'd think that a movie franchise that was born in 1968, had four sequels and a television series, a 2001 reimagining and in 2011 a whole new reboot (featuring JAMES FRANCO, no less), would have run out of energy by now. Or bananas. Or something.

But I have to say, the latest movie version of French writer Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel “La planète des singes” — or, as we have come to know it, “Planet of the Apes” — just may the the best of all.

I'll defer the top spot to Franklin J. Schaffner's 1968 original, which worked off a screenplay crafted by Michael Wilson and the great Rod Serling. Yeah, the movie is cheesy, but it has at least two striking moments of originality: when we first see the gorilla on horseback bursting from the thicket, and that finale with Charlton Heston on the beach.

As time went on, the sequels got progressively more cheesy. And Burton's reimagining was just plain silly (Mark Wahlberg, really?). But Reeves, who helmed the J.J. Abrams-produced “Cloverfield,” and “Let Me In,” the better-than-decent remake of the Swedish vampire flick “Let the Right One In,” has taken a script written by the pair who gave us the 2011 film (Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) — with additional work by Mark Bomback and Reeves himself — and has given us something unusual: a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic study that is CG heavy but still character-driven enough to achieve a sense of poignancy.

And while in the original, even in Burton's effort, the “good” apes were few, here they're mostly all good. It's only those scarred by their contact with humans who are understandably twisted and murderous. The trek to what we know is going to happen, then, is that much more sad, even if predictable. As far as back stories go, Reeves and his screenwriters have given us a pretty good one.

I, for one, am going to be a lot nicer to any and all animals I come across. Starting with my cats. They have a far better chance of surviving an apocalypse than I do.

Below: The embed is a clever take on the “original ending.” It is definitely NSFW.

Roger Ebert was larger than ‘Life Itself’

Note: An earlier version of this post reported that “Life Itself” was opening at the Magic Lantern on Aug. 18. The film is actually opening on July 18.

Steve James' new documentary, “Life Itself,” will open at the Magic Lantern on July 18th. I took advantage of my On Demand services to see the film just so I could post a review on Spokane Public Radio. My review follows:

On two occasions, I almost met Roger Ebert.

One year at Sundance, I saw him crossing the street but was just too shy to open my mouth. A decade earlier, in 1989, I was in Los Angeles to attend a press junket for Steven Spielberg’s film “Always.” Walking into the press reception room, I had to squeeze past a couple of short guys who were engaged in an intense conversation. Only gradually did I realize those two guys were Ebert and the filmmaker Spike Lee.

I was starstruck. And for good reason. In the late ’70s, I was living in Eugene, Oregon, working at my first newspaper job. I considered pursuing an MFA in film studies, but journalism seemed a safer career bet. So I contented myself by taking a few graduate film courses, by seeing as many movies as I could and by watching a Public Television show called “Sneak Previews.”

Remember that show? It featured Ebert and fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel engaging in the kinds of arguments that reminded me of my undergraduate years, when my friends and I would spend hours arguing about the movies of every filmmaker from Akira Kurosawa to Don Siegel. I would find myself yelling at Siskel and Ebert even more than I yelled at my more ignorant movie-going friends.

And, yes, I loved every minute of it. Almost as much as I enjoyed watching “Life Itself,” the documentary made by Steve James that takes its title from Ebert’s own 2011 memoir. James, best known for his films “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters,” does more, though, than give a mere look back at who and what Ebert was: He gives us a primer on how to face death with both courage and an enduring sense of self.

A few months after production began, Ebert – who’d already lost most of his lower jaw to cancer – returned to the hospital. A cracked femur would eventually lead to the discovery that his cancer had returned, and just that quickly it became clear: Ebert wasn’t long for this world.

Until Ebert did die, in 2013 at age 70, James’s cameras rolled, cutting from past to present while documenting those final months. We learn that Ebert was an only child of working-class parents, that he spent more time writing for and editing his university newspaper than in attending class, who at age 24 became the Sun-Times’ film critic, who in 1975 became the first critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism and who, that same year, began broadcasting his TV show with Siskel.

Through testimonials by Martin Scorsese and others, James gives Ebert full credit for his support of cinema. But we also learn of Ebert’s fierce competitiveness, his alcoholism, and – with the help of his wife – his eventual maturing. It’s the view James provides of the man Ebert became – the loving husband and adored stepdad – and how gracefully that man endured the end of his life, that left me even more star-struck than I already was.

The Bartlett plans fall music fest

The Bartlett has been open for less than a year, but already the all-ages venue is leaving its stamp on the local music scene. Last week, the venue announced via its Facebook page its own music festival, called Bartfest, which will occur Sept. 5 to 7.

The goal of the festival is, according to the event website, to showcase “local, regional and national talent,” and the lineup currently boasts Spokane acts Marshall McLean, Dead Serious Lovers and Water Monster. Headliners (not local) include Hundred Waters, Robert DeLong and Seattle’s Pickwick.

The three-day festival will take place at two separate venues – the Bartlett, 228 W. Sprague Ave., which is all ages, and its their next-door neighbors nYne Bar and Bistro, which is 21 and older.

Full festival passes are currently on sale for $90; single day tickets are not yet available. Click here to purchase tickets and to view a partial festival lineup.

Here's a video of Pickwick performing their song “Window Sill” during a Bartlett fundraiser concert last February.


Billboard project goes live

Friday morning, people wandering in downtown will have the chance to watch some art in action.

Jesse Pierpoint, and artist and creative director for Seven2 in Spokane, will be live-painting a billboard at 301 W. Main on Friday (today) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The project, by Boom Creative and Global Credit Union, is part of the CU’s Global Citizen campaign; Pierpoint will be painting his interpretation of “legacy” on the 10-by-23-foot billboard, while perched atop a three-story scissor lift.

Down below, meanwhile, there’ll be a bit of a party. Local DJs Twin Towers will provide the music, and food will be available for sale from the Bistro Box food truck.

No lawyer jokes in ‘The Case Against 8’

Above: The two lawyers, David Boies and Theodore Olson, show a sense of compassion in “The Case Against 8.”

On “Movies 101,” the weekly Spokane Public Radio show that I host with Mary Pat Treuthart and Nathan Weinbender, we decided to bypass any of the films that opened last week in theaters. Seems we mirrored the U.S. public at large, which also decided to spend the weekend in any place but movie theaters.

That left us in a bit of a quandary as to what we actually would review. Then we decided to turn to our television sets and our respective On Demand services. And that led us to the three documentary films that we will review (to be broadcast Friday at 6:30 p.m. on KPBX, 1:30 p.m. Saturday on KSFC): “Life Itself,”Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” and “The Case Against 8.”

“Life Itself” is Steve James' study of the late film critic Roger Ebert. It is a must-see for wannabe critics but is an even more riveting exploration of end-of-life issues. “Whitey” is Joe Berlinger's look at the Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger and his complex relationship with law enforcement. And, finally, “The Case Against 8” is a look at the battle to overturn the anti-same-sex marriage statute in California.

In reading the reviews of that latter film, I found myself nodding in agreement with the point made by Hollywood Reporter critic David Rooney, who commented on the fact that the lawyers in the case come across as empathetic, compassionate, open-minded individuals.

As Rooney wrote, “There might actually be more humanization of the legal profession in less than two hours here than there is in multiple seasons of 'The Good Wife.' ”

I'm married to a lawyer (one who happens to be a fan of “The Good Wife”), so I'm in a perfect position to say he's correct. But check out the film and see for yourself.

Miss South Perry Summer Theater? Inconceivable

Thanks to my friend and former colleague Kevin Taylor, I was reminded once again that in addition to having an actual summer, Spokane of 2014 is enjoying another FREE outdoor-movie season at the South Perry Summer Theater. We're well into the season, what with screenings of “Big” and “Despicable Me 2” already having occurred.

Next up? “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” which — as with all the screenings — will screen at dusk. Saturday's show, which is sponsored by South Perry Pizza, will benefit T.E.A.M. Grant. As the organizers say, the FREE screening is open to all, so “Show up early, bring your lawn chair, and join us at the Summer Movies!”

The event takes place in the lot in front of The Shop at 924 S. Perry. And did I mention the shows are FREE?

The rest of the summer schedule is as follows:

July 19 — “The Princess Bride”: My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to … enjoy this movie.

July 26 — “The Lego Movie”: Everything about this animated movie is awesome!

Aug. 2 — “The Raiders of the Lost Ark”: I hate snakes! I hate 'em!

Aug. 9 — “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug“: Precious redux.

Aug. 16 — “Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure”: Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K … er, The Shop.

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