7 Blog

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

LeRoy Bell show canceled

The Sept. 20 concert by LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends at the Bing Crosby Theater has been canceled because of a schedule conflict. Refunds are available through TicketsWest. The show’s promoter, Too Far North Productions, hopes to reschedule the concert in the spring.

‘Dog Day’ documentary offers reprieve from dog days of summer

It’s a pretty lousy week for movies. Next week doesn’t look much better. Yes, we’re just hitting the lull that always occurs between the end of summer movie season and the beginning of Oscar season, when Hollywood uses late August and early September as a dumping ground for one bad movie after another. (Consider that the only major release of the week worth seeing is 30 years old.)

So it’s a good thing that we’ve got the Magic Lantern to provide us with some interesting, offbeat indie selections, and tonight it’s hosting a special screening of one of the year’s most entertaining documentaries. It’s called “The Dog,” and it’s a fascinating true crime story, a warts-and-all character study and look at the inspiration behind one of the best American films of the 1970s.

Here’s my review, which I recorded for Spokane Public Radio:

When Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” was released in 1975, it was an instant critical and commercial success, becoming the fourth highest-grossing film of that year and landing an Oscar nomination for Best Picture amongst perhaps the best batch of nominees in Academy Awards history. It’s an offbeat, darkly comic crime thriller that audiences gawked at in morbid fascination: The ad campaigns screamed, “It’s all true,” because how else would anyone have believed the story otherwise?

As “Dog Day Afternoon” garnered universal praise and awards consideration, John Wojtowicz, the inspiration for Al Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik character in the film, was serving a 20-year prison sentence in a Pennsylvania penitentiary. Three years earlier, he’d been all over the news for a failed bank robbery he had orchestrated with two accomplices in New York City, a crime that, had it been successful, would have supposedly funded a sex change operation for Wojtowicz’s male lover. It made for perfect tabloid fodder, lurid and violent and nearly impossible to fathom, but the personalities and motivations behind it turn out to be much more complex.

“The Dog,” a new documentary that steps back and allows Wojtowicz to tell his own story, begins as a quirky stranger-than-fiction crime story and slowly transforms into something more somber, a portrait of a strange man whose overblown mythology was entirely of his own creation. It’s a fascinating character study, one that directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren spent 11 years putting together, as well as a colorful look at post-Vietnam America as viewed from the fringe, when a haze of brutality and paranoia hung over everything and gay Americans struggled to find their place in society.

Wojtowicz, who passed away in 2006, is the kind of guy who the documentary form was created for. He’s intense, direct, overflowing with personality and unbelievably frank about his sexual history. Being anything other than straight in the ’70s was already a taboo, but Wojtowicz was vocal about his attraction to both men and women: He joined a number of gay advocacy groups and later (illegally) married a man named Ernie Aron (John wore his military uniform, Ernie a white wedding gown and a blonde wig), who would become Liz Eden following gender reassignment surgery.

As the film progresses, details of Wojtowicz’s home life come into sharper focus, and we sense that perhaps he lived a sadder existence than he lets on in his interviews. He ended up serving three of his 20 years, and once he was released he would stand outside the Chase Manhattan Bank he’d held up, wearing a shirt that read “I robbed this bank.” He later tells a story about applying for a job as a bank security guard, trying to convince the management that no one could better protect a bank than an honest-to-God bank robber. A TV news report from the time shows him signing autographs and taking pictures with his “fans,” while one of the bank tellers he held hostage looks on in disapproval.

It’s hard to tell if Wojtowicz’s tough guy persona was the product of delusion, posturing or insecurity; that he held up a bank and then ordered pizzas for his captors suggests that he was always operating on his own bizarre wavelength. “The Dog” is an entertaining documentary not just because of its subject matter, but because it simply gets out of Wojtowicz’s way and lets him talk, and his personal yarn grows stranger as it unravels. Wojtowicz attempts to direct the film he’s in – Berg and Karaudren leave in moments in which he yells “action” before he starts to talk and “cut” when he’s finished – just as he directed the events of his own life, and whether or not he’s a reliable source, he knows how to tell a deeply compelling story.

Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter start podcast

You've likely read and enjoyed the works of Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter. But now you can hear what's on the minds of the two local authors: they just began a weekly podcast called “A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment,” where they plan on talking about a wide range of topics, including their literary projects, basketball, world events and more. They'll also read some of their pieces and bring in the occasional guest.

Give it a listen or subscribe at  http://www.infiniteguest.org/tiny-sense/

Movies 101: No time for stage fright

That photo above captures a moment during the “A Hard Day's Night” special event that Spokane Public Radio sponsored last week at the Bing Crosby Theater. The evening began with a special taping in front of a live audience of the “Movies 101” show, which featured four of us discussing both Richard Lester's movie and the music of The Beatles.

From left, the participants were Patrick Klausen (“Movies 101” engineer and producer), me (acting as host), Mary Pat Treuthart, Nathan Weinbender and special guest Leah Sottile.

The sold-out event continued with a screening of the movie, which was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its 1964 U.S. release, had been digitally remastered and boasted both a pristine sound track and picture. Most everyone agreed that, even if they'd seen the movie originally in a theater, they'd never experienced it as well as at The Bing.

One woman, who came up to me after the screening, was from a town just a few miles outside of Liverpool. She, too, was glowing.

In everyone's honor, I include an embedded version of my favorite Beatles tune.

The week’s openings: The horror, the horror

Bit of a slow weekend for moviegoers, but then the summer season is nearly over. Bring on the fall.

The week's opening are as follows:

“The November Man” (opens tomorrow): Pierce Brosnan plays a retired CIA agent whose duty call-back involves taking on the kid he once mentored. What, Bruce Willis wasn't available?

“As Above, So Below”: When an archaeological team explores the catacombs of Paris, they discover … horror! Another found-footage venture into … ooooh kids, scary!

“Ghostbusters”: AMC brings back the 1984 hit comedy for a special run. “This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.”

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Frank”: Michael Fassbender plays an eccentric leader of a band who insists on wearing a papier-mâché headpiece. (The Lantern will also pick up a second-run screening of Woody Allen's “Magic in the Moonlight.” “The One I Love” has been pushed back to Sept. 5.) 

Spokane arts gets a 50-something boost

If you've noticed some sidewalk arts displays set up around Spokane over the past several months, you may not know what they're about. I'm referring the ones marked as the Spokane 50, an art/photo project, conceived and produced by Marshall Peterson, designed to honor that number of Spokane residents who are arts boosters.

You can find out more about the project by clicking on the above links. Or you can watch the embedded video below, a production by the team behind the Spokane Film Project.

They all deserve a round of applause: the 50, the Spokane Film Project and Marshall himself.

Not so much ‘Magic in the Moonlight’

As a longtime fan of Woody Allen's films, I was particularly disappointed in his latest work, “Magic in the Moonlight.” The following is an edited version of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Once Woody Allen started pursuing film direction with a passion, he commenced making films that – even when uneven in tone, plot or character – always seemed to be made with care. From the stark opening credits, plain white letters against a black backdrop, to the stunning cinematography of such artists as Gordon Willis and Sven Nykvist, Allen’s movies have been, even when all else fails, wonders to watch.

Until “Magic in the Moonlight,” that is. It’s not often that a Woody Allen movie fails on every level. But it happened here.

Take the storyline. Colin Firth plays Stanley, a world-famous magician obsessed with unmasking fake spiritualists. Called in by a friend to debunk a young would-be medium named Sophie (Emma Stone), Stanley accepts with all the alacrity of one who is self-absorbed to a fault. Stanley’s arrogance is so ingrained that he isn’t aware – or perhaps he simply doesn’t care – when he hurts someone’s feelings. We’re never told why he is this way – one of Allen’s plot oversights – and Stanley’s temperament becomes especially annoying when we are introduced to his beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), a kind sort who shows an abiding fondness for her narcissistic nephew.

A hint to what makes Stanley tick comes when, after failing to prove the spiritualist a fake, he does a sudden turn-around. He admits that his obsession with fake crystal-ball-gazers comes from his insistence, reinforced by fear, that nothing exists beyond death. And since this is the case, life holds no, well, magic for him. (A magician who doesn’t believe in magic; Allen clearly hasn’t lost his ability to portray irony.)

And along with magic, Stanley doesn’t believe in love. Until, when he begins to believe that Sophie is the real thing, he finds himself falling for her. Never mind that he has a fiancé, played ever-so-briefly by Catherine McCormack, who is his perfect egotistical match. And never mind that Sophie, a poor young American, is being courted by a ukelele-playing millionaire (Hamish Linklater) who offers her a life beyond her wildest dreams. And never mind that no hint of a mutual affection passes between Stanley and Sophie ever. As Allen has said, “The heart wants what it wants.” And so, clearly, does his screenplay.

But if all that isn’t bad enough, “Magic in the Moonlight” is technically sloppy. Simon McBurney, who plays Stanley’s friend, has a hairstyle that changes in virtually every frame – and it drew my eye to it every single time. In another scene, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji allows a shadow to fall over an actress’ face. In yet another, the principals go out of focus.

The totality of this – thematic, structural and technical sloppiness – stands in direct contrast to the 78-year-old Allen who, in other recent films such as “Blue Jasmine” and “Midnight in Paris,” had been demonstrating a creative renaissance.

I won’t blame the flaws of “Magic in the Moonlight” on age, though. More likely, Allen — at least here — just stopped caring.

Don’t miss ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

I'm not a big fan of self-promotion, which is ironic considering I've spent a career providing promotion for most everyone I've written about. That said, I want to post a reminder here that Spokane Public Radio is sponsoring a 50th-anniversary screening of “A Hard Day's Night” tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater.

The self-promotional part of this announcement concerns the live taping of “Movies 101,” the show I do with Mary Pat Treuthart and Nathan Weinbender for SPR. We will begin a live taping the show, focusing on “A Hard Day's Night,” at The Bing at 6:40 p.m. Doors to The Bing will open at 6, and the movie itself is scheduled to begin at 7:35.

Tickets are $10 and will be available at the door. My advice: Arrive early. Last I heard more than 550 tickets had already been given out.

Friday’s openings: From sin to the afterlife

From Frank Miller grim to sports-flick inspiration and spiritual exploration, the coming week of movies offers a wide range of themes and styles. Friday's movie openings are as follows:

“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (3D and standard): Co-directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez, this graphic-novel adaptation follows in the tone and style of Rodriguez's 2005 original, blending stark black-and-white imagery with spot color and neo-noir themes of sexuality and violence. In other words, something for everyone.

“When the Game Stands Tall”: Based on the real story of a California high school's 151-game winning streak, how that streak gets broken and what the coach (Jim Caviezel) does to return the team to its winning ways. Inspiration, thy name is sports flick.

“If I Stay”: When a teen's family is involved in serious car accident, she (Chloe Grace Moretz) lapses into a coma and hovers between life and death. Her spirit watches what goes on around her as she debates whether to live or die. Based on a 2009 novel by Gayle Forman. 

“Calvary”: Brendan Gleeson plays a priest whose goodness makes him the perfect target for a man angry at the Catholic Church. I confess, I want to see it.

Also reopening, “Earth to Echo,” the “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” variation.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Alive Inside”: A documentary exploring the work of a man who uses music to treat the effects of memory loss. Considering all the problems associated with contemporary health care, his experience must involve a hard day's night.

“K2: Siren of the Himalayas”: A hit at February's Spokane International Film Festival, winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary, this feature film blends historical coverage of a 1909 attempt to summit the Himalayan peak and another expedition that set out to do the same thing a century later.

So now go. Watch. Enjoy.

HBO’s ‘Cheshire Murders’ a real-life horror story

I saw a number of movies in theaters last week. But nothing affected me more than a movie I just happened to catch on my television. So that movie, titled “The Cheshire Murders,” is what I decided to review for Spokane Public Radio.

Why? Well that is the operative word, in more ways than one. The main reason has to do with just how scary the movie is. It is a documentary that examines a horrible, deranged act committed by two men who victimize an unsuspecting family. In other words, as I try to explain in my review, the movie is a study of something that is the real-life equivalent of the bogeyman.

An edited version of my review follows:

Horror movies thrive on our innate fears. Fears of creatures bearing sharp teeth, of bloodsucking vampires and mindless zombies, of extraterrestrials wielding anal probes, of weapon-wielding sociopaths – anything, in short, that lurks in the dark zones of our imagination and threatens to pounce on us with murderous intent.

Chances of our being confronted by anything other than our fears are actually remote. Reality has no room for vampires or zombies, much less curious beings from other galaxies. And sharp-toothed animals pose no real danger to anyone who stays out of the woods, the ocean or the jungle. Even the threat posed by psychopathic killers is so low as to be virtually nil.

Yet our fears persist. And moviemakers keep playing to them. And we continue to sit in the dark, chewing on our popcorn as blends of these imagined threats haunt us on screens both big and small.

Sometimes, though, sometimes … horror is real. And as the HBO documentary feature “The Cheshire Murders” proves, when such a danger does manifest itself, it can prove senselessly, mercilessly fatal.

Released a year ago, and available both through HBO On Demand and on DVD, “The Cheshire Murders” explores a heinous crime that occurred in July 2007 when two men, Steven Hayes and Josh Komisarjevsky, broke into the suburban home of Cheshire, Connecticut, doctor William Petit. The day before, Hayes and Komisarjevsky had spotted Petit’s wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their daughter, 11-year-old Michaela, at a local store. When they showed up at the house, the men beat Petit with a baseball bat and left him tied up in the basement. They then restrained Hawke-Petit, Michaela and the couple’s other daughter, 17-year-old Hayley.

Over the next several hours, they mulled their options before, the following morning, deciding to take Hawke-Petit to the bank and force her to withdraw some $15,000. Upon returning to the house, Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted Michaela, Hayes raped and – when it became clear that William Petit had escaped – murdered Hawke-Petit. The two then doused the house with gasoline, set everything on fire and attempted to escape.

They didn’t get far. Notified by bank officials, who had called 9-1-1, police officers were waiting outside. They arrested Hayes and Komisarjevsky but were unable to save either of the daughters, both of whom died from smoke inhalation. Petit alone survived.

The crime made national headlines, as much for its senseless nature as for the ferocity with which it was carried out. And even though co-directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner do a comprehensive job of exploring the case, that aura of senselessness pervades everything.

We learn of the defendants’ past histories, which involved sexual abuse. We hear from police officers, lawyers, prosecutors and family members. We listen to Hayes’ taped confession. The film questions the actions of Cheshire police, who were sitting outside as the three women were being murdered. It argues the effectiveness, even worth, of the death penalty. We gets lots of theories and opinions and rants both quiet and angry. But “The Cheshire Murders” never satisfactorily answers the most basic question of all: Why?

The sound of that silence is more frightening than even Hollywood could conceive.

Aersomith show is on

Rumors have been roiling the past couple days about this weekend's show at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George by rock legends Aerosmith.

Live Nation, the concert's promoter, has confirmed that the show will go on.

The band was forced to cancel a show in California this week, citing drummer Joey Kramer's illness. TMZ reported that Kramer is suffering from heart problems. That TMZ report, however, also indicated the band's weekend show in Washington was canceled. Turn out that part of their report was incorrect.

The show is Saturday night and will feature Slash and Spokane's own Myles Kennedy. Look for an interview with Kennedy tomorrow in 7. 

For tickets and information, click here.

Some Seattle spots need to be avoided

Seattle is what drew me to the Northwest in the first place. I'd flown up in 1973 to meet my then-girlfriend, Lyn, who was working a summer job as a camp counselor on Orcas Island. I was living in San Diego at the time, and as a Navy brat I had lived all over the country — on the Texas Gulf, Tidewater Virginia, coastal Rhode Island, in two different parts of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. And other than Florida, the tip of New England and Alaska — places I've since experienced as an adult — I'd visited pretty much every other part of the U.S.

Except the Northwest. And if the view of all that green and the feel of that cool Puget Sound air didn't hit me when I first rode in on Greyhound, it certainly did as I flew in a small airplane to Orcas. I vowed that, one day, I would live in Seattle.

That never happened, and I don't regret it. Living in Spokane, which is far more inexpensive and manageable than anything in or around Seattle, is more to my liking. And besides, anytime I want to enjoy what Seattle has to offer, I just have to make the four-and-a-half-hour trek west. Instant gratification, and then I get to return home. And to sanity.

The question is, what does Seattle have to offer? For me, it's the opportunity to see first-run films that might never play a Spokane theater. It's the chance to see major-league baseball and NFL football. And it's the chance to eat at some world-class restaurants.

But it's not as if everything about our state's biggest city is great. A recent posting on Zagat makes this point well enough as it rates the “8 Most Overrated Seattle Food Icons.” If you've spent any time there, you've likely eaten at one or another.

See if you agree. Then think of your own choices and share them.

We'll start our own list of overrated Spokane eateries some other time.

Author Nestor will take you into the ‘Deep’

Assuming you aren't going to see “Book of Mormon” tonight, you might be interested in learning a little something about the ocean. That's what author James Nestor will offer at 7 tonight at Auntie's Bookstore. Nestor will read from, and answer questions about, his book “Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves.”

Nestor's book works as a trek to the depths and back, an experience the New York Times called “a journey well worth taking,” If you have the time, not to mention the interest, you just might agree.

Click here for more information.

Movie openings: Allen’s latest and others

I remember when Woody Allen films never received a first-run release in Spokane. Or, rather, their Spokane first runs occurred long after the rest of the country had screened them. And sometimes they never opened here at all. Let's be thankful that era has passed, since it gives us the opportunity to see “Magic in the Moonlight” when it opens on Friday.

Allen's newest work is only one of eight films that open this week (the comedy “Let's Be Cops” opens Wednesday), which makes the second week of multi-movie premieres.

The week's openings are as follows:  

“Let's Be Cops” (opens Wednesday): The trailers for this offbeat comedy, which has two guys (Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr.) getting off by pretending to be police officers, seem hilarious. But director Luke Greenfield gave us Rob Schneider's 2001 comedy “The Animal.” So muting your expectations met be a safe bet.

“The Giver”: It's taken more than 20 years for Hollywood to bring Lois Lowry's Newbery Award-winning 1993 novel to the big screen. It will be interesting to see whether director Philip Noyce (“Rabbit-proof Fence”) is able to avoid Hollywood's cookie-cutter stylistic tendencies. The trailer, which is full of pretty young faces (including Taylor Swift), would seem to say not.

“The Expendables 3”: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, etc., return. Question: How many times can an “expendable” survive before becoming labeled “intrinsic”?

“Magic in the Moonlight”: Allen's newest has Colin Firth playing a magician charged with unmasking a spiritualist fake (Emma Stone). Reviews are mixed to good for what is a blend of the downbeat with romantic fluff. But beware: Rex Reed gives it a top rating.

“What If”: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan play friends who mull over whether it's possible to blend friendship and love. Based on a stage play by T.J. Dawe, so you know there'll be lots of talking.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Rich Hill”: This hard-hitting documentary focuses on three teen boys who cope with all the trappings of poverty — anger, frustration, want, a lack of good parenting, etc. Stylistic but ever-so depressing.

“Mood Indigo”: Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) gives us this love story (based on a novel) about a wealthy guy (Romain Duris) who wants to cure his lover (Audrey Tautou) from a curious ailment involving a flower growing in her lungs. Is this death by whimsy?

Enjoy. 

Robin Williams: A mighty talent is gone

Like a lot of kids growing up in the late 1970s, I loved “Mork and Mindy.”

Can't help it. Still do. (Especially since I'm safe in the knowledge that photographic evidence of myself wearing rainbow suspenders and a T-shirt that said “Nanu Nanu” is long gone.)

That I'd gone on to love “Mork” star Robin Williams in so many films (“Moscow on the Hudson,” “The World According to Garp,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Dead Again”) I thought was proof that he was supremely talented - and I had good taste.

So when Robin Williams' office called me at the appointed time on Jan. 8, 2013 for a 10-minute interview with the Oscar winner, I was a bit nervous. What do you ask Robin Williams? Especially when you only have 10 minutes? We stuck to the script - he was calling to talk about his tour with fellow comedian David Steinberg, in which the two longtime friends got on stage and just talked. I can only imagine the show at the Martin Woldson Theatre at the Fox was amazing - I couldn't make it. But I hung on to the recording of our brief telephone conversation. Listening to it again today, I'm reminded of what a funny guy he was. His death this morning at age 63 is a real loss.

Below are some excerpts from that 2013 interview. In this first one, he talks about getting back to his standup roots:


In this clip, he talks about traveling around to smaller venues in smaller markets:



Here, he recounts the time he met Marlon Brando. Really:



Finally, I ask the “What can people expect?” question. Craziness, if his answer is any indication.



You can find a link to the story I wrote back then right here. And finally, here's a clip from “Aladdin,” the reason my kids know the name Robin Williams:

Nanu nanu.

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