7 Blog

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

‘Viaggio Sola’: the examined traveler’s life

Anyone who loves international travel, especially those who travel first class, should appreciate “A Five Star Life,” which opens at the Magic Lantern Theater today. I have been around the world during the past couple of decades, though not first class. But I can dream, as I did when I previewed “A Five Star Life.”

Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

To Hollywood’s way of thinking, contemporary adult life is a maze of Seth Rogen romantic comedy, Nicholas Spark melodrama and E.L. James sexual heat.

Throw in a bit of “South Park” sentimentality and I just might consider signing up. Otherwise … mmm, no.

It would seem hard, if not impossible, to make a movie that captures the far more plausible view of life involving trying to find a way to live that speaks to your own personal sensibilities. A way that allows you to connect with other when you need to, and be on your own when that suits you, that provides you enough opportunity to live – simply stated – the way you want

That’s certainly true of Irene, the protagonist of Italian director Maria Sole Tognazzi’s film “A Five Star Life” played by Margherita Buy. That title, by the way, is an unfortunate alteration of the original, a point that I will return to in a moment. But while unfortunate, it’s not incorrect. Irene has, after all, what some people would consider a dream job: As an employee for a hotel-rating service, she travels the world, staying in five-star establishments, enjoying all their luxuries even as she judges their quality.

Does the attendant greet her with eye contact and a smile? Does he address her by name? Does her room come as advertised, the bed’s headboard dust-free, the view heavenly? Is the room-service wine served at the correct temperature? Are directions to the spa easy to follow, and are staff members at the ready to help confused guests, even those who appear not to be among the regular clientele?

Irene has a virtual manual full of such requirements, each of which she handles with a demanding eye that would cow Gordon Ramsay. And in between moments, she lounges in her bathrobe, sneaks a smoke on the veranda, maybe indulges in a flirtation but more typically makes calls to those she depends upon for intimacy.

Which is where the plot to “A Five Star” life could have gone wrong, but never does. Irene’s best friend is Andrea, former boyfriend and now best friend and confidante. In between her visits to Shanghai, Morocco and Berlin, Irene and Andrea eat meals, see movies but mostly just enjoy the comfort of each other’s presence. When she isn’t with Andrea, Irene spends time with her married sister, whose husband and two daughters give Irene a view of the life that she might have had – and, in the movie’s version of a crisis, provide her with a sense – though perhaps only momentarily – of fear and regret.

What “A Five Star Life” addresses is nothing less than an examination of a life, of the choices that woman makes and – more important – why she makes them. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that director Tognazzi, working from a script she co-wrote, finds an ending to Irene’s story that isn’t just happy but both authentic and adult.

As for that title, I prefer the Italian original, “Viaggio Sola” – or, as Irene might say, “I Travel Alone.”

‘Z Nation’ grim, gory, not much fun

You knew it wasn’t going to be great. Not “Downton Abbey” nor “The Walking Dead.”

Because a zombie show created by the folks responsible for “Sharknado” and airing on the SyFy channel is not going to win any Emmy awards.

Still, there was room for hope. The cast sports some real actors with solid résumés – Tom Everett Scott, Harold Perrineau and DJ Qualls among them.

So the answer to the question, “Is the Spokane-filmed series ‘Z Nation’ any good?” Not really.

The series opens two years after a zombie virus has taken hold in the U.S. The government and the military are in tatters, still hoping for a vaccine to halt the virus’ spread. One prisoner, Murphy (Keith Allan), has been given an experimental drug that seems to have worked. The challenge? To get him from New York to a lab in California, where they might be able to turn the antibodies coursing through his blood into a viable vaccine.

 Fast forward a year, and Murphy and the remaining solider tasked with guarding him, Hammond (Perrineau), are making their way west. They stumble on a band of survivors headed by an ex-National Guardsman named Garnett (Scott). When the survivors’ compound is overrun, the remaining few – including fellow guardsman Warren (Kellita Smith) and a self-described “amateur pharmacologist” nicknamed Doc (Russell Hodgkinson) – agree to help Hammond deliver Murphy west. They get radio assistance from Simon Cruller (Qualls), the last remaining soldier stationed at a remote NSA listening base who takes to the airwaves as Citizen Z.

The acting isn’t truly terrible, although Scott does utter one howler of a line (you’ll know it when you hear it). Still, the script is pretty cheesy. The problem with “Z Nation” is that it leans too much toward “The Walking Dead” rather than “Shaun of the Dead.” When the greatest zombie show ever made is already on the air and is widely praised as Great Television, regardless of subject matter, it’s going to be hard to compete. Had the creators of “Z Nation” incorporated more humor into their show, they might have had something. Instead, we’re left with is a show that’s pretty gory – the only way to kill a zombie is with a blow the head, so we’re treated to a lot of bloody skull-bashing – and pretty dour.

Still, for Spokane-area fans, it’ll be fun to play “find your friends” among the hundreds of local extras dressed in their finest zombie attire. Also, “name that location.” While many of the location shots early on in the premiere are nondescript woodlands, the big set piece is filmed at what appears to be the grounds of the Eastern State Hospital.

So, yeah. Check out “Z Nation.” Just keep your expectations in check.

Watch the season premiere of “Z Nation” on the big screen Friday at the Garland Theater, 924 W. Garland Ave. Doors open at 9:15 p.m. for a 10 p.m. screening to benefit the Spokane International Film Festival and the Washington Film Project. Admission is $10. For television viewers, the premiere episode, “Puppies and Kittens,” will be aired at 10 p.m. on the SyFy channel.

In the meantime, you can view the official trailer below, or visit the series website here.


Kir Royale lends a regal feel to this fading summer

My sister's wife and her husband are confirmed foodies. Wherever they go, they post Facebook photos of their food — and drink (shown above, a limoncello collins as served by Victor's Italian Restaurant of York, Pa). And this includes trips made to what are food festivals and cooking camps (or whatever the right word is). So they would appreciate my friend Delaney Mes, the New Zealand freelance writer, blogger and all-around food freak.

I link to Delaney's blog now and then, especially when she posts something that I find particularly interesting. Or delicious. The fact that she teamed up with an American musician and tandem-prepared a multi-course meal for 12 makes a nice read. But even more intriguing is the drink that they began with, something I'd never heard of called a Kir Royale.

Next hot day, maybe with luck this weekend, I'm going to try it out.

Oh summer, summer, please don't go. Not yet. Not just yet.

Grom gelato is great, but it’s un po costoso

As any international traveler knows, one of the joys of traveling in Italy is gelato. And maybe it's because you're eating it in la bella Italia, any kind you buy there tastes far better than anything ice cream labeled “gelato” on this side of the Atlantic.

Except for when the gelato you order comes from Grom, the company whose tagline claims that its product is “il gelato come una volta” (which doesn't translate literally but means something like “old-fashioned gelato”). I've ordered Grom gelato in Florence, which I've had the opportunity to visit a few times. And while it isn't my favorite gelateria (I prefer Gelateria dei Neri or Vivoli), it's pretty good.

As with Italian coffee, the worst gelato you've ever had is, in a single word, delizioso.

I mention Grom, however, because of a recent visit I made to New York City. We visited the Grom shop that is located just off Columbus Circle and couldn't resist ordering a post-dinner sampling. I had a large cup, while my wife ordered a smallish cone (stracciatella for me, pistacchio and stracciatella for her). And the results? Assolutamente delizioso.

Of course it had better measured up. Our combined bill came to more than $12.

For that price, I'll stick with good old American ice cream, thank you. In fact, I think I'll head for The Scoop after I post this.

No stracciatella there, I know. But maybe tonight they'll have Rocky Road. Speriamo, eh?

On Saturday, music, poetry will fill West Central porches

Everybody likes a party, and that's what the folks in Spokane's West Central neighborhood are going to be playing host to on Saturday. The event, modestly called Porchfest, was the dream child of Spokane photographer Marshall Peterson and friends. The inaugural fiesta will be held 3 to 7 p.m. and will feature 10 different acts (solo and group) performing at a like number of house porches owned by neighbors gracious enough to get involved.

Click here to get a complete roundup of hosts, performers and a map to the area.

And welcome to West Central.

Friday’s openings: Dolphins, abductions and womanly woes

The local movie scene improves somewhat this week, what with the Magic Lantern offering a trio of interesting offerings, while the mainstream theaters will stick with the standard Hollywood pap involving captive mammals, abused women, mob stories and corporate apologia.

Friday's openings are as follows:

“Dolphin Tale 2”: Remember the dolphin with an artificial tail? (Can you spell homonym?) This sequel involves that dolphin, now sad, being paired with a new female. Beware four of the scariest words in the English language: “Inspired by true events.” Starring Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman and some child actors.

“No Good Deed”: When a psychopathic killer escapes captivity, he threatens a lone woman and her young daughter. You can finish the saying suggested by the title on your own, right? Starring Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson.

“The Drop”: When a couple of guys rob a bar that is famous for handling mob money, focus narrows on the bar's owner. I'll take everything you got, pal, plus a Jack Daniels chaser. Starring James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy.

“Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt”: Third in the trilogy version of Ayn Rand's 1,000-plus-page famous fantasy about bad government and good rich guys. Paul Ryan-approved. Starring … never heard of them.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Starred Up”: When a young rebel is sentenced to prison, he rejects every attempt to help him — even when offered by the fellow inmate who happens to be his father. Brits behind bars. Starring Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn.

“A Five Star Life”: A 40-something Italian woman begins to question how happy she is with with her nomadic life as a hotel inspector. La vita non é bella? Vero? Starring Margherita Buy.

“Life of Crime”: Based on Elmore Leonard's 1978 novel “The Switch,” this comic caper follows a couple of bumbling kidnappers who abduct the wife of a man who doesn't want her back. A new twist on marriage counseling. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def, Tim Robbins. Isla Fisher and John Hawkes.

‘Calvary’ explores a dark, marginally comic Ireland

Note: An earlier version of this post misidentified the theater that “Calvary” is playing at. It is playing at the AMC River Park Square.

Love me some Brendan Gleeson. And who isn't awed by the wild Irish coastline? Still, neither was enough to keep me from scratching my head when the curtain rose after a screening of the film “Calvary.”

Following is a review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

It feels strange to criticize a film that, one, boasts good technique; two, features a number of good performances; and, three, follows a dramatic structure that feels both true to its intent and natural in its symmetry.

But what do you say, then, when even given all that, a film just leaves you shrugging your shoulders in dismay? That even as you’re accepting the ending as plausible, even inevitable, you think, “This is the best they could come up with?”

The “they” in this equation is one person, Anglo-Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh, writer-director of a film titled “Calvary.” And it is that film, which is playing at AMC River Park Square, that led to a shoulder shrug so intense I’m still feeling the resulting muscle pull a week later.

Let’s start with the plot: McDonagh’s film begins in a church confessional. Father James (played by the peerless Brendan Gleeson) is taking the confession of a man who starts out by describing the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy by a Catholic priest. “That’s certainly a startling opening line,” Father James says, revealing both screenwriter McDonagh’s proclivity for offbeat humor and what may be Father James’ single flaw: a sense of humor weighed down by irony.

Then something really startling happens: The confessor says that, in one week, he is going to kill the good Father. Not because the priest is bad but precisely because he is good. That, he claims, will make more of an impact.

McDonagh doesn’t identify the would-be killer, and the Father – after consulting his superior – doesn’t sound an alarm. The threat did occur, after all, during confession. And so McDonagh continues his movie, introducing us to a collection of strange characters, any one of whom might have good reason to off a priest. Or two. There’s the butcher with a penchant for hitting his wife, who is having an open affair with the African-born village mechanic. There’s the belligerent pub owner, the aging writer with a death wish, the hustler who talks like Ratso Rizzo, the doctor with the attitude of a morgue attendant and the rich guy who made millions during the recession that crippled the rest of Ireland and who loathes himself only moderately more than he loathes everyone else.

All of the cast is good, though none can quite match the Shakespeare-trained, gleefully shaggy Gleeson, who – as always – tends to steal any film he appears in.

As Father James walks through the village, which is set next to hills more emerald-green than Darby O’Gill’s eyes, we learn that his own past includes a marriage, a dead wife, bouts with alcoholism and a suicidal daughter – who shows up, apparently, to provide McDonagh the means to give us what he seems to think will provide a meaningful postscript to the follow-through promised by his film’s title.

It won’t work for everyone. It certainly didn’t for me. But then I’m not Irish, I’m not Catholic and my own skill at irony may be far less weighty than I’ve always feared.

Manhattan can bend your mind a bit

When you visit a big city, it's easy to fall into habits you would seldom — if ever — indulge in at home. Eating an inordinately expensive dinner, for example.

I spent last week in New York. Much of that time, I was with my family in a rented cabin located just outside Woodstock. And, no, before you even ask, I'll admit that we didn't set off in search of Max Yasgur's famous farm (too many hours spent poolside watching a 3- and a 6-year-old). And we certainly didn't spend a whole lot of money on the area's eateries, except for the Jackson and a half that we spent at a second-rate Mexican joint called Taco Juan's.

All that changed, though, when we left Woodstock and headed for a night in Manhattan. We'd planned to take in a Broadway show, but we learned that it had been cancelled. So we decided just to have dinner. Which took us to the Upper West Side. And to the exclusive restaurant Boulud Sud.

The menu looked pricey, sure. But we've had plenty of experience ordering down, finding deals and sharing plates, to make sure we were getting the best deal possible. So no worries.

Except this time we went a little crazy. No, we didn't order a high-end bottle of wine. But the bottle of Prosecco we requested did cost more than our total bill at the taco shop. And when we were informed about the night's special — a uniquely prepared whole Bronzino for two — we said a quick yes. We also ordered a couple of appetizers. Crazy.

And the experience was … good. The experience, you understand. The food was almost that. But here's the thing: Was it worth the, uh, two Franklins and more that we ended up paying? Before tip?

Short answer: No. Not at least for someone who typically orders his Saturday-morning breakfasts off the senior menu at Jenny's Diner. And who finds that as satisfying as anything costing 20 times as much.

Now I really regret not taking that extra day to haunt the pasture that Jimi Hendrix played in.

Friday’s openings: A run through the Forrest

Not for the first time, I have to question the wisdom of those who book movies for Spokane's theaters. In this case, the folks at AMC.

Now, I like the AMC. It's convenient to where I live, and the manager — Rob Holen — is one of the nicest, most gracious guys I've ever met, personally or professionally. But Rob doesn't book his movies. Somebody who works in the corporate office does. Which explains why this week, along with the new releases, AMC is featuring both a screening of the 1994 release “Forrest Gump” (in IMAX, no less) and a second run of “Magic in the Moonlight” — one of Woody Allen's lesser creations since at least the mid-'90s.

Guess they need to find something to fill those 20 screens in the lull between Labor Day weekend and the beginning of the fall season. But “Forrest Gump” and second-rate Woody Allen? Seriously?

“A Hard Day's Night” just showed in a 50th-anniversary special event at The Bing to a full house. Imagine watching that Beatles movie in IMAX with the AMC's sound system. Ah, well. AMC never consults with me.

Anyway, here is the new stuff the week will offer:

“The Identical”: A so-called “faith-based” look at what might have happened had the twin of an Elvis Presley-type singer not died at birth but been raised separately, with one boy becoming The King and the other a gospel preacher. Sounds like the devil in disguise.

“Innocence”: After losing her mom to a surfing accident, a teen girl moves with dad to Manhattan — only to discover that her exclusive prep school is home to a coven of witches. Bubble bubble, baby.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“The One I Love”: With their marriage falling slowly apart, a couple spends a weekend examining their relationship — and the experience becomes surreal. Because … of course. (Also, the Lantern is reopening the Polish feature “Ida” and the Korean-made/English-language feature “Snowpiercer.”)

So go. Enjoy. And … run, Forrest, run!

Roosevelt lived in a village called Hyde Park

A few years ago, when I stopped in Little Rock, Ark., to visit a friend, I took the occasion to stop by the William J. Clinton Presidential Center. Other than the fact that the building reminded me of a single-wide trailer stretching out over the Arkansas River, the facility is fairly impressive.

Anyway, I just finished a one-week stay in a cabin located about 100 miles north of New York City. On the way, we passed the town of Hyde Park, home of another presidential memorial facility — that of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And so along with the many hours spent with grandchildren lollygagging in the cabin's swimming pool, my wife and I managed to carve out one afternoon for ourselves in which we returned south to Hyde Park to see FDR's home.

Now run by the U.S. Park Service, the facility is the first presidential library. And as the guide who lectured to us as we toured Roosevelt's house explained, the building — and everything in it — sits exactly as it did when FDR died on April 12, 1945. This explains why it isn't as bright and shiny as, say, Clinton's.

Nevertheless, the place is well worth visiting. Love him or hate him, and as with some other notable presidents — from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama — there don't seem to be many stuck in the middle, Roosevelt deserves respect for having presided over one of the most difficult periods in U.S. history. He had to deal with the ongoing financial ruin that followed the stock market crash of 1929, the resulting Great Depression of the 1930s (which included the drought that nearly blew away the Great Plains) and most of World War II. No wonder Roosevelt was the only president elected more than twice (and, in fact, was elected four times).

Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park is a part, then, of our national history. If you're ever in the neighborhood, you should drop in.

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 authors with local ties: 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 by clicking here.

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.) 

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