7 Blog

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

Friday’s openings: Marvel us with vengeance

After a couple of weeks with ample choices, the local movie scene has slowed a bit. But you still should be able to find something worth seeing, no matter your viewing tastes.

Friday's openings are as follows:

"Avengers: Age of Ultron": Our team of heroes faces its most fearsome foe, the remnants of a peacekeeping program that Tony Stark unwittingly powers up. Perhaps the year's biggest blockbuster to date (sorry "Furious 7"). Simply Marvel-ous.

"The Water Diviner": Mourning the reported deaths of his three sons at the World War I Battle of Gallipoli, an Australian man goes to Turkey to retrieve their bodies — and receives surprising news. Starring and directed by Russell Crowe.

"Clouds of Sils Maria": Juliette Binoche stars as an actress asked to take a role in a revival of stage play that, adapted as a film 20 years earlier, had sparked her career. This new casting forces her to face up to some unpleasant truths. What, that Russell Crowe is directing?

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Seymour: An Introduction": Ethan Hawke directed this documentary look at the octogenarian pianist and inspirational teacher Seymour Bernstein.

That's it. Find something. Go see it. And enjoy.

Save your lunch money before visiting Wisconsinburger

After receiving several recommendations, I took my brother to eat hamburgers at the Wisconsinburger joint sitting on a residential corner at 910 S. Hatch. The visit met a number of our burger needs, though hardly all.

Since we were going to a movie at 7, we showed up at what I thought would be early enough: 5:45 or so. The place was already packed, so we opted to sit at the bar. No problem, though clearly this wouldn't have met everyone's needs.

The young woman who seated us was pleasant enough, and after a short wait our server showed up wearing a similar smile and polite attitude. Both asked us if we had visited previously, and both thanked us for coming.

Since I was driving, I didn't have a beer, and I was disappointed that they couldn't give me my usual non-alcohol standby (club soda with a lime). So I settled for a Diet Coke. My brother asked for, and received, iced tea. The menu is somewhat limited (at least to those who are accustomed to ornate menu listing offered by Red Robin or other popular spots), but it does give you the options to shape your own burgers.

I ordered the Beloit Blue, which features "fresh ground beef, Wisconsin blue cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato and grilled onions." My brother chose the regular Wisconsinburger, though he added bacon (for an extra $2). We both switched to fries (another $2) over the standard chips as a side.

 The burgers took longer than you might expect (again, the place was packed), but I've had to wait far longer at other Spokane eateries just to get a server's attention. Seriously.

And our food when it came was … not disappointing. After all, we are talking about hamburgers here. The patty (both of us ordered singles; doubles cost $2.50 more) was tasty, the bleu cheese on mine added just the right amount of tartness. The size wasn't inordinately big, but then the buns (which weren't toasted, something I prefer) weren't oversized monsters, so I'm not complaining. The fries, though crispy enough, quickly lost their heat and ended up being far less tasty than I've had elsewhere — so I wish I'd stuck with the chips.

My brother downed his burger quickly enough and appeared to enjoy it (though he later said he prefers the burgers served by D.Lish's). Then again, he wasn't paying.

Paying was my responsibility. And the damage to my bankbook? After tip (I habitually give 20 percent), the bill was $35.50. Mind you, that was for two hamburgers, fries, a Diet Coke and an iced tea.

I may go back to Wisconsinburger, just to give my wife a chance to check things out. But I might consult with my financial advisor first.

Oh, and we made the movie with plenty of time to spare. That, though, is a whole other blog post.

Kirn and Vestal heat up Get Lit! tonight

I'm on page 157 (the beginning of chapter 11) of Walter Kirn's 252-page nonfiction book titled "Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade." I purchased the book long before I knew that Kirn was coming to this year's Get Lit! celebration, and obviously before I knew that he was going to participate in a literary conversation with Spokane-based author/columnist Shawn Vestal.

That conversation, by the way, will take place at 7 tonight at Riverside Place (formerly the Spokane Masonic Temple), 1110 W. Riverside Ave. Tickets are $15.

So far, "Murder Will Out" is fascinating, not just as a look at a murderous imposter but as an example of confessional writing. What's important to Kirn, who lives — according to his book — in Livingston, Mont., is not just his subject but his own experience leading up to his meeting, his getting to know, his gradual distrust of and eventual feelings of betrayal by his subject.

One of my favorite passages, though, has nothing to do with murder. It involves moment that, Kirn concludes, "sent a tremor through my life." It occurs when Kirn believes that he has run over his 1-year-old son, Charlie. Kirn had been sitting in his pickup, talking to a friend, unaware that Charlie had crawled in front of the vehicle. And he became aware of that fact only when his friend called out the boy's name, by which time Kirn had already driven over where the boy had been sitting.

"The truck rolled on, a good ten feet — momentum. I stopped it as time elongated and yawned and I became a speck or cinder drifting in a nauseating gray void. I shifted into Park. I climbed down from the cab. Life had just ended for me, so I was calm. I hurried, because one must, but I was calm. With forty more years to absorb the ghastly image already taking shape in my mind's eye, adrenaline and panic were irrelevant."

I'm tempted to leave things there, and tell you to go pick up a copy to see what happens. But that would be mean. Kirn continues:

"He was sitting upright under the license plate, halfway between the rear tires. My perfect boy. The pickup's jacked-up, four-wheel-drive suspension had allowed the chassis to pass right over him. It made no sense. The overlay of horror — the scene that should have been — persisted in my vision as I reached for him. Angels. Providence. Only they made sense. In the realm of logic and causality, I'd killed my child, but love had vanquished physics and here he was in my arms, against my chest, with nothing but a pink patch on his forehead where the truck's differential had scraped the skin."

The discussion between Kirn and Vestal, no slouch of a writer himself, should be fascinating. It will follow each writer's reading from his own respective work. Click here for ticket information.

‘While We’re Young’ may make you feel old

I always look forward to Noah Baumbach's movies, even if I don't always like them. In any event, they always have an effect on me, a point I tried to make in the review of Baumbach's new movie, "While We're Young," that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription:

Noah Baumbach is one of those auteur writer-directors who insists on taking you someplace personal. It might not be a place of your liking – for me, it often is NOT – but it’s almost always going to be someplace squeamishly memorable.

And it usually involves families. His 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale” explores the effects of divorce on a pair of brothers. 2007’s “Margot at the Wedding” features a woman ripping apart any vestige of intimacy with her sister. In 2010, Baumbach gave us “Greenberg,” which features a uniquely self-absorbed character – played by Ben Stiller – who, while house-sitting for his brother, trashes every relationship he encounters.

And now we have “While We’re Young,” Baumbach’s newest offering – again starring Stiller – and watching it left me more squeamish than ever. In short, “While We’re Young” explores the life of 40-something couple Josh and Cornelia – Stiller and Naomi Watts – whose staid, childless, middle-class existence in Brooklyn has become a bit predictable. Maybe even boring.

Certainly, Josh has regrets. Years of work on a documentary film has resulted in a six-and-a-half-hour cut that he doesn’t know how to finish. And he won’t accept help, especially from his father-in-law (played by Charles Grodin), an internationally renowned documentary filmmaker whose success Josh clearly envies. Cornelia and Josh – well, maybe Cornelia but certainly Josh, in more ways than one – feel stuck.

Then they meet Jamie and Darby, a 20-something couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, and things begin to look up. Cornelia and Josh, but especially Josh, feel rejuvenated. And instead of hanging out with their old friends, who have recently become first-time parents and are occupied with all the mess that baby-raising entails, they gradually slip into the hipster life: roller-blading, listening to music on vinyl, wearing a porkpie hat, taking a hip-hop dance class, etc.

Jamie, of course, is a filmmaker, too, though he has a much more youthful – read: clueless – style that is virtually devoid of substance. Until, that is, he gets advice from Josh and – maybe more important – producing help from Cornelia … and her dad.

When it comes, the film’s obligatory crisis involves mostly Josh. And this might make sense, and I might have cared, if I felt anything for him. But while nowhere near the jerk that, say, Stiller’s “Greenberg” character is, his Josh does little to warrant sympathy. He’s blind to his own faults, lashes out at those who want to help him, is desperate in his attempts to be something he isn’t and insists that just by doing what he thinks is right he deserves success. In other words, while Jamie might be clueless about style, Josh is clueless about life.

Baumbach deserves credit for putting talented actors to good use. Watts, Grodin and Driver – so good on the HBO show “Girls” – stand out here. And some critics are hailing “While We’re Young” as Baumbach’s break-through effort.

For me, though, viewing it was like enduring two hours of painted nails scraping a retro-hipster’s blackboard.

Get Lit! treat: Bigfoot’s biographer and friend

As Get Lit! 2015 proceeds, one event after the next continues to offer quality literary content. Of today's events, the 7 p.m. reading/book signing by writers Benjamin Percy and home-grown Sharma Shields should prove satisfying.

Especially for Bigfoot fans.

Little joke there. Spokane-resident Shields is the author of the novel "The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac," as well as the story collection "Favorite Monster." Percy, an Oregon native and resident of Eugene, is the author of the novels "The Dead Lands," "Red Moon" and "The Wilding."

The two will read at Riverside Place (formerly known as the Spokane Masonic Temple), 1110 W. Riverside Ave. Admission is free and open to the public.

For the entire Get Lit! schedule, click here.

New nickname for air travelers: sardines

As someone who travels a fair amount, I'm sensitive to news involving the airline industry. And so I was intrigued by the title of a Time magazine come-on that announced "Why Air Travel Is About to Get Much Worse."

In short, the story says that aircraft manufacturers — no doubt responding to ongoing airline demands to pack more people in each flight — are doing exactly that. At a recent news conference, Airbus showed off the floor plan of its new A380 superjumbo jet, which features a 3-5-3 seat configuration that rouses all my claustrophobe anxieties just thinking about being forced to sit in the middle of that 5-seat row.

On an Air France flight from Atlanta to Vienna a few years ago, I had to sit in one of the interior seats in a 3-4-3 seat configuration. The guy between me and the aisle must have weighed 250 pounds. And not only did he merge over into my space, but he fell asleep almost immediately and left me feeling trapped in place for some six and a half hours.

According to Time, the A380 will boast 544 seats, up from 525.

That may be good news for the airlines that use the plane — reportedly Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and Qantas, so far. But it's not particularly good for those of us who travel long distances at Economy Class rates.

Good thing I've already seen much of the world. I'll keep buying those lottery tickets because that's the only way I'll ever be able to afford the non-claustrophobe's fantasy.

I believe it's referred to as Business Class.

Get Lit! tonight with Alexie and Walter

Spokane is justifiably proud of its home-grown literary talent. Writers such as Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter both have roots in the immediate area, Alexie having grown up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit (and attending Reardan High School, Gonzaga University and then Washington State University), Walter having grown up mostly in the Spokane Valley (and attending East Valley High School and Eastern Washington University).

And both have earned national literary fame. Alexie was awarded the 2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for his book "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," while Walter won the 2006 Edgar Award for his novel "Citizen Vince," his novel "The Zero" was a 2006 National Book Award finalist and his novel "Beautiful Ruins" made the New York Times bestseller list.

Area readers will have a rare opportunity to see Alexie and Walter record an edition of their regular podcast, "A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment," at 7 tonight in the Lair Auditorium of Spokane Community College.

The event, which is part of the 2015 Get Lit! literary festival, is free and open to the public. Seating is limited, so get there early.

Friday’s openings: Who’s fooling whom about what?

Time to run down the weekend's movie openings, which is similar to last week in that several films are being released at once. This, of course, is mostly good — mostly because it gives us a better chance to see something actually good. Anyway, Friday's openings are as follows:

"Desert Dancer": Based on the life of Iranian-born dancer Afshin Ghaffarian, we learn all about his struggle to form a dance company in a country where dancing is outlawed. So, no "Flashdance," eh?

"Merchants of Doubt": Robert Kenner's documentary explores the world of so-called "experts" who speak authoritatively about such topics as climate change. In other words, well-paid Pinocchios.

"Little Boy": Religious tale of a boy who believes he can ensure his father's return from World War II. And he can move mountains.

"Ex Machina": Recruited to participate in an AI experiment, a young researcher finds himself involved in something much larger, and spookier: an outrageously expensive electric bill.

"The Age of Adaline": Blake Lively plays a woman who never ages … until she meets the man who may make her change her mind. Time, uh, will tell.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"White God": When a 13-year-old girl's father abandons her dog, she struggles to find him — and vice versa. Turns out, it is a dog's world.

"An Honest Liar": Another documentary about deception, this one explores the life and times of James "The Amazing Randi," an illusionist who devotes his professional life to exposing fakery — but then whose own life gets entwined with deception. Ah, but can he move mountains?

So that's the lineup. Something there has to grab your interest. Go out. See a movie. Enjoy yourself.

Congrats to WSU Spring Game Sweepstakes winner

Congratulations, Lucille Reese, winner of of the 2015 WSU Spring Game Sweepstakes!

Reese and a guest will receive two pre-game field passes to Saturday's WSU Crimson and Gray Game at Spokane's Joe Albi Stadium. They will also meet and get a photo with Cougar Head Coach Mike Leach, and receive two Washington State University football jerseys and hats, two VIP seats at the game and a $100 gasoline gift card.

Thanks to R'nR RV Centers and WSU for their participation in this sweepstakes. Go Cougs!

‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2’ earns a 0 percent rating

The reviews for "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" are out, and the critical one-liners — which add up to a cumulative 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — are flying fast and loose, besides being vicious.

A few samples:

Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News: "The cinematic equivalent of biting into an old brown banana."

Christopher Lawrence, Las Vegas Review-Journal: "During Blart's awkward convention speech, a fellow security guard is so inspired, she yells out, 'You go Paul Blart!' Yes, Paul Blart. You go. And take everybody involved with this mess with you."

Dave White, Movies.com: "Kevin James and Nick Bakay are credited as screenwriters, but that's only because 'Taking Naps' and 'I Went Out To Get A Sandwich' are not Writer's Guild credits yet."

Blake Goble, Consequence of Sound: "There was a point where I was considering writing a will because this film made me want to leave this Earth."

Sunny weather brightens our Vancouver day

Day two in sunny Vancouver, British Columbia (see post immediate below), started out with the necessities as offered by our East Vancouver neighborhood: coffee at Turk's Coffee (double-shot americano) and then breakfast at Havana (everything from chicken and waffles to Eggs Benedict sans Hollandaise sauce).

Then we drove to Queen Elizabeth Park, which offers both a bit of nature and a great view of the city skyline. Following something of a theme, we drove to the University of British Columbia and checked out the Museum of Anthropology (MOA), which offers enough of a collection of native art and artifacts to please a pride of anthropologists.

Afterward, we drove along Marine Drive, stopped and walked along the beach at Jericho Beach Park.

And tonight: dinner at East Is East, an eatery owned by a couple of siblings of Afghan descent who lived in India and whose intent in Vancouver is — according to the website — to offer "fusion approaches to food, ambiance, music and art (that) all contribute to creating a sense of universality while retaining the essence of the Eastern heritage that the owners have brought with them to this land."

Our meal included chicken kabobs, spinach paneer, tabouli, salmon in coconut sauce and dahl — in other words, a whole assortment of eastern dishes. And during our meal, we were serenaded by a group of flamenco dancers, singers and musicians. All in all, it was a great experience — especially when one of our servers dropped an entire tray of food, dealt with the situation calmly and did her best to ease everyone's embarrassment. And then made sure the replacement food came faster than we expected.

Tomorrow we head home. But we'll take a bit of Vancouver with us. And we'll no doubt be back.

Time to enjoy the sights - and foods - of Vancouver, B.C.

I used to think that Seattle was the most beautiful city on the West Coast. Then I started spending time in San Francisco, and Seattle was relegated to No. 2. That lasted until I had the opportunity to first visit Vancouver, British Columbia.

Seattle, as fine a place as it is, then and forever more, ranked No. 3.

I've spent the last couple of days in the pearl of B.C., touring an international city that not only has access to water but is ringed by mountains. We met friends from Vermont who found an apartment rental in East Vancouver, just off Commercial Drive, and we've been hitting some tourist spots (the Capilano Suspension Bridge, for one), seeing movies (Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young") and eating.

Our first night, Thursday, we ate at a place just down the street for which our landlord had provided us a gift certificate. Biercraft Tap and Tapas Bar specializes in Belgian beers and fairly basic bar food (burgers seafood specials such as mussels and salads), all of which was tasty enough and came fairly quickly.

Last night we ate at the Addis Cafe, an Ethiopian eatery a half dozen blocks down Commercial. We ate from a huge platter of various meats and veggies, which we scooped up with ample servings of injera (the bread that comes in place of utensils). I only wish I could have washed it all down with a cold beer, I was forced to settle for Perrier. No matter.

Today we'll continue looking around. Maybe drive through some of the city's parks. Maybe drive out to the University of British Columbia. And, of course, we'll find more diverse and delicious places to eat. No doubt we'd have as good a time in San Francisco. Maybe in Seattle, too.

But, as I say, Vancouver, B.C., is my favorite West Coast city. And it's just an eight-hour (or so) drive from home.

Mirren gives gloss to ‘Woman in Gold’

Some actors are almost always fun to watch, no matter what the film. Helen Mirren is one. The Oscar-winning performer ("The Queen") spices up the bio-pic "Woman in Gold," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription of my review:

I distrust inspired-by-real-life movie adaptations, especially those that attempt to reflect history. All too often they feature splashy casting, boast production values that seem drawn directly from the Masterpiece Theater library, and smooth out rough edges – in character, in plot and most of all in complexity – in an effort to make the final product fit the mold of palatable mainstream product.

“Woman in Gold,” which tells the story of an Austrian woman’s fight to reclaim art stolen six decades before by Nazi authorities, does all the above. Our protagonist, Maria Altmann, is played by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren. Production designer Jim Clay filled the same position on the 2012 BBC production of “Great Expectations.” And the script that Alexi Kaye Campbell wrote makes the legal issues addressed by your average “L.A. Law” episode look like a Supreme Court brief.

All that said, “Woman in Gold” is a surprisingly moving film. Director Simon Curtis, the same filmmaker who besides enjoying his own share of BBC-associated credits gave us 2011’s “My Week With Marilyn,” has crafted a slick, skillful and – yes, palatably mainstream – study of pain and angst, courage and long-delayed justice.

The film’s title refers to the 1907 painting by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer – who was Maria Altmann’s aunt. Bloch-Bauer died in 1925, and her widower husband fled Austria when German annexed Austria in 1938 – leading to all his possessions, including Woman in Gold, being seized by the Nazis.

Campbell’s screenplay tells two stories at once: We follow the young Altmann, played in part by “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany, from her childhood memories of her aunt to her breathless escape from Austria. And we follow the elder Altmann, now played by Mirren, as she consults with a young lawyer, Randol Schoenberg – played by Ryan Reynolds – about getting the paintings back.

The problem: They’re hanging in Vienna’s national art gallery. And a document, written by Bloch-Bauer, indicates that her intent was for them – especially “Woman in Gold” – to stay there. And so the film’s natural sense of tension is two-fold: How daring will Altmann’s escape be, and can the law ever give her rightful recompense?

Question is, how much of all this is real? Well, the basic facts, at least. Turns out there was a legal basis for Altmann’s suit, which Schoenberg argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court – though the case was ultimately resolved through independent arbitration. But as with all Hollywood versions of real-life stories, facts have been both stretched and invented – from a farfetched escape through gunfire to the casting of Reynolds to play the smallish, balding Schoenberg. Invention, though, is what we expect from Hollywood.

The question is, can some sense of authentic drama shine through all the gloss? Mirren, who can make the most absurd dialogue seem believable, does her best to make sure that it does. As does Reynolds who, though cast against type, is surprisingly good.

Credit director Curtis, too. It’s not easy to make mainstream melodrama look this good.

‘The Force Awakens’ with another teaser

Lucasfilm released the second official teaser trailer for "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" today at Star Wars Celebration 2015.

What do you think of the preview? Are you excited—or nervous—for the film's release in December?

Get Lit! 2015: 17 years of literary appreciation

Above: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. before his 2004 Get Lit! appearance. Note the cigarette.

Since its inception in 1998, Get Lit! — Spokane's annual literary festival, founded and annually hosted primarily by Eastern Washington University — has attracted an amazing array of talent. From Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to Salman Rushdie, Jane Smiley to Richard Russo. Too many, really, to comfortably list here.

But the celebration, which is what Get Lit! truly is, has never been about individual writers. It's been about the discipline of writing itself, an art that is practiced by everyone from best-selling authors such as Vonnegut, acclaimed Northwest writers such as Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter to students in area schools learning the difference between a comma and a semicolon.

That celebration will continue next week when the 17th-annual version of Get Lit! begins on Monday, April 20, with three different sessions. While the 2015 version of the festival doesn't feature the literary firepower of years past, attendees will have the opportunity to meet, greet and listen to such writers as Alexie, Walter and a number of other notable visiting writers. For a full schedule, click here.

A personal note: In 2004, before Vonnegut's Get Lit! performance at what is now the Bing Crosby Theater (then the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center), I met with the then-81-year-old writer backstage. As a Spokesman-Review staff writer, I had interviewed Vonnegut by phone the week before. And I jumped at the chance to meet him in person.

We met in a small room off the theater's balcony level. A small group of students stood nearby as Vonnegut pulled a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes from his suit coat pocket. "Ya think I can smoke here?" he asked. Feeling friskily familiar — I mean, really, was this Kurt Vonnegut asking me if he could smoke? — I said, "Hey, you're Kurt Vonnegut! You can smoke wherever you want."

And so he lit up. I snapped the photo above. And I got a memory of a lifetime.

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