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

There’s a word for some ‘traditional’ dishes

Every culture has dishes that offer a problematic appeal to the human palate. In the U.S., you might put Rocky Mountains oysters on the list. Or rattlesnake. Chef Andrew Zimmern has built a whole career out of eating such things as cow placenta, bull penis and salted tuna sperm.

Iceland, for its part, has built a whole tourist industry around serving a few such dishes. Atop the list would be hákarl, the raw, fermented shark (some would say) delicacy that famously made Gordon Ramsey vomit. You can find it on the menu of virtually any Icelandic restaurant that bills itself as an outlet for traditional Icelandic fare.

So … we stopped into one of those kinds of restaurants earlier today during our stay in Reykjavik, called Prir Frakkar (which Eyewitness Travel guide translates as Three Overcoats). And there it was, hákarl. And I debated for five seconds before deciding … no freaking way. Likewise, we passed on horse tenderloin, whale steak and panfried guillemot (if we can't recognize it, we tend to avoid it). But we did opt for another local dish, which was identified as “reyktur Lundi með sinnepssósu, or smoked puffin breast with mustard sauce.

I mean, a puffin is a bird (as, we later discovered, is a guillemot). How bad can a bird taste? That's a photo of the dish up above there as it arrived at our table.

Well, some people are adventurous. Others have a taste for the exotic. My wife ordered “Heilsteikt Rauðsprettuflök með rækjum 'gratin,' ” which is panfried fillet of plaice with shrimp “gratin,“ without even knowing that plaice is a white flatfish. And even though the sauce made the whole thing a little rich, she did a good job of eating over half.

I ate the other half, along with a bowl of creamy mushroom soup and several pieces of bread. Why? To get the taste of smoked puffin out of my mouth, actually. That stuff tastes like worm sushi.

So glad I passed on the shark.

The film fan finds a home in Rejkjavik

No matter where I go, I seem to be haunted by film. I write this in a hotel room in Reykjavik, Iceland, where I am on a week-long stay with my wife. This country, which is just slightly smaller than the state of Ohio, claims a population — about 320,000 — that is less than Spokane County. Yet it boasts a film festival that is as varied as it is impressive.

We arrived in Reykjavik at about 6 a.m. Sunday morning. And after busing from Keflavik Airport to the capital, we dropped our bags off at our hotel (the Hotel Holt), and walked around. Reykjavik is relatively small and, not unlike Spokane, has a central area that each to navigate on foot. (The above photo is my attempt to show just how different the Icelandic language is to English.)

In the late afternoon, we headed to the Bio Paradis theater where, with no problem at all, we were able to see three documentary features on the final day of the Reykjavik International Film Festival. “Evaporating Borders,” which explores the immigration problem facing Cyprus (but that has implications for the entire world). “Ballet Boys,” which explores the world of youth ballet in Oslo, Norway. And “Waiting for August,” a study of family life in contemporary Romania.

And that's how we spent our first day in Reykjavik. No film festival today. Guess we'll have to hit a few museums.

Wonder if we can find one devoted to movies?

‘The Equalizer’ is a tad bit … too, too much

I like to say that I sit through movies so that others don't have to. And I've been doing it professionally since 1984. Last week I sat through “The Equalizer,” which I … well, let me explain in the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In 1970, the average price of a U.S. movie ticket was $1.55. Today, that price is closer to $8.15, some five times more expensive.

Of course, ticket prices aren’t the only thing about movies that have grown. Budgets have, also. And while the size of theaters has decreased, and then increased, depending on industry trends, the use of special effects has grown perhaps most of all. Furthermore, the tendency for CGI clutter mirrors the very way movies unfold their plots.

Take “The Equalizer,” Antoine Fuqua’s latest big-screen teaming with two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington. It has its roots in a series that hit American television nearly 30 years ago. Starring Edward Woodward, an actor as British as Earl Grey tea, TV’s “The Equalizer” focused on Robert McCall, a former intelligence – likely CIA – agent. Similar to many retirees, Woodward’s McCall took the odd job here and there, though with a difference: He used his special skills, and a variety of weapons when needed, to “help” out often powerless individuals – abused wives, for example. And he had a quiet kind of force that made bad guys listen.

Boasting Washington in the lead, Fuqua’s version of “The Equalizer” plays like a pilot for a potential series reboot. This new McCall works days at a Home Depot-type business, joking with customers, mentoring a young coworker, and skillfully dodging queries about his past. We see that his sparely furnished apartment is filled with books belonging to the Modern Library and that, often unable to sleep, he spends nights at a diner straight out of a Production Design 101 class, drinking tea and reading, among other novels, Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

It is here, in this diner that resembles an Edward Hopper painting, that McCall meets Teri (real name Alina), a teenage streetwalker played by Chloe Grace Moretz. It is through Teri that McCall gets his first glimpse of the Russian-speaking mobsters who control her. And it is about this time that McCall begins feeling an old pull, one that he apparently had promised his recently deceased wife he would fight. That pull concerns his tendency to draw upon his agency experience to set the world right. Problem is, that pull inevitably results in violence.

For the first half hour of “The Equalizer,” Fuqua – whose 2001 film “Training Day” won Washington his second Oscar – gives us a film that works as a slow, stylistic reveal. Even when that reveal comes, the style continues – slo-mo shots mingled with close-ups, effective use of shadows, dark colors and gimmickry involving McCall’s stopwatch.

But then, unaccountably, McCall transforms into a combination Jason Bourne and Frank Castle – aka “The Punisher” – whose expertise transforms his warehouse workplace into a tool-laden killing field. And unlike Woodward’s McCall, who might have used a corkscrew to open a good claret, Washington’s character wields the implement in ways that would make even Charles Manson blush.

All things considered, Fuqua’s “Equalizer” might not be bigger. But more brutal, more bloody? Mmmmm, about five times as much.

From myth to truth: Native American Film Festival

From almost the beginning of the U.S. film industry, mainstream America has been portraying — in most cases inventing portrayals — of its indigenous population. In recent years, though, artists representing that population — painters, photographers, poets, novelists and filmmakers — have been reworking their images. And, in the process, searching for something much closer to a truth.

That's likely what you can expect to find Oct. 11 at Sandpoint's Panida Theater when the Idaho Mythweaver will present its American Indian Film Festival. The event, which begins at 6 p.m., will include four films written and directed by native filmmakers: ”Injunuity,” “Indian Relay,” “Grab” and the documentary feature “This May Be the Last Time.”

In his review for Variety, film critic Guy Lodge wrote this about “This May Be the Last Time”: “An Oklahoma-based son of the Seminole tribe himself, (filmmaker Sterlin) Harjo begins by matter-of-factly relating the story of his grandfather’s mysterious death in 1962 — a sincere pretext for a probing examination of the singular-sounding spiritual music that nursed his family through their grief.” 

Tickets to the four-film program run $12 and are available in advance online, at various locations around Sandpoint and at the door. 

Nothing Trivial about this game of Pursuit

Way back when, during the years my daughter would come home from New York for the Christmas holidays, our house would typically be the site of a Trivial Pursuit tournament. Most time it would be parents against college-age students, and often the students — flush with all the new information their professors were attempting to cram into their heads — would lose.

The quickness of youth can't always handle the facility of experience.

Anyway, trivia has always been a good game to play, especially for those of us who know a little about a lot but a lot about very little (with the exception, in my case maybe, of movies). And so I'm particularly interested in the Spokane Trivia Championship, which will be held at 7 on Thursday at the Bing Crosby Theater.

Sponsored by the Spokane Public Library Foundation, the event costs $12 (with ages 12 and under admitted free), and will be emceed by Mark Robbins. For further information, click here.

BTW, my own Trivial Pursuit days are long over. When you can't pull up the name of Akira … mmm, Akira … mmm, that famous Japanese filmmaker, Akira … Kurosawa, yeah, yeah, Kurosawa .. on your first try, the game is clearly up.

Friday’s openings: Get Gone (Girl) or be Left Behind

From the religious to the satanic, comic to mysterious, the week's movies offer a range of experiences. Some might even be worth seeing. The week's openings are as follows:

“Left Behind”: Nicolas Cage plays a man who, when his wife and child mysteriously disappear, tries to discover what happened — and why. Based on the religious novels. Warning: Don't text while driving. 

“Annabelle”: A family gets haunted by a vintage doll possessed by … satan? Or is it … Chucky?

“Hector and the Search for Happiness”: Simon Pegg plays a psychiatrist who embarks on a round-the-world trip to see what makes people happy. Hint: It's not a PS4.

“Gone Girl”: David Fincher directed this adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel, which tells the story of a man (Ben Affleck) who is accused of murdering his wife (Rosamund Pike). And, no, he does not play in the NFL.

“Love Is Strange”: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play an aging couple who, when one loses his teaching job, are forced to live with family members until their finances get settled. Remember what they say about friends, family and visits that last longer than three days.

The Magic Lantern is opening nothing new, but “The Trip to Italy,” “Alive Inside,” “A Most Wanted Man” and “Magic in the Moonlight” continue.

Head to Greenbluff for some tasty baked treats

Even if it weren't clear that the autumnal equinox has passed, it would still be obvious that fall is here. You can feel it in the air. And the fall season means … time to visit Green Bluff.

My wife and I drove north on Sunday afternoon, and we stopped by High Country Orchards. We passed on the espresso, the gifts and the antiques, which remind me of your friendly Cracker Barrel. We even passed on the scones pictured above. But we did pick up some fruit, a few peaches and apples, and I just couldn't resist buying a peach pie — which we consumed with some frozen yogurt later after dinner.

So while the weather holds, we'll be heading back north. And maybe next time? I'll try one of those huckleberry scones.

Luna beignets are a small slice of New Orleans

Anyone who has ever visited New Orleans knows about the Cafe Du Monde. It's always been a tourist haunt, and the crowds can be irritating, but I remember spending a pleasant afternoon there a decade and a half ago eating beignets, drinking cafe au lait and reading the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Times have changed. The newspaper is a shadow of its former self. And I haven't been able to score a table, much less a table for one, my last two visits. But I bought my beignets to go. Yes, they will shorten my life, but I can't resist them.

Which is why when my wife, our friends Gerry and Layne and I ate brunch at Luna on Sunday, I had to — had to, I say — order their beignets as an appetizer. And, yes, our regular meals were delicious — a range of the Lucca Salad (eggs and bacon on a bed of greens), Eggs Florentine (poached eggs on English muffins with tomato and Hollandaise sauce), a butternut squash soup and a special chorizo-egg filled burrito.

But the beignets were heavenly. A bit small, about the size and shape of doughnut holes. But prepared just right, with whipped cream (not necessary), what I remember as raspberry jam (appreciated) and powdered sugar (obligatory).

Made me think I was back in New Orleans. Now if I can only find a place in Spokane that serves muffulettas like Central Grocery.

Famed Santa Fe artist comes to Spokane

Dodson's Jewelers in downtown Spokane is hosting a show opening tonight featuring noted Santa Fe, New Mexico artist Estella Loretto.

Loretto, who grew up in New Mexico's Jemez pueblo, spent some time in Spokane during the 1980s, teaching Southwestern cooking and pottery. Now, she has larger, monumental bronze sculptures on display across the country, including Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Indian, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Native American Center in Niagara Falls, New York, and the State Capitol Building in Santa Fe. Her most famous sculpture, of the only Native American saint, Blessed Kateri, stands outside the Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe. In addition to her large sculptures, she also paints, and makes masks and jewelry.

She is returning to Spokane for the first time in more than two decades to attend the opening reception of her show tonight at Dodson's, 516 W. Riverside Ave. The reception will run from 5 to 8 p.m., and the Loretto show will continue through October.

Interested in learning more? Visit Loretto's website here.

‘This Is Where I Leave You’ … meh

Some of the best shows on television revolve around family life. “Modern Family,” for example. And movies have tackled the same topic with originality and skill. “Ordinary People,” for example. Or my wife's favorite, “Home for the Holidays.”

Unfortunately, “This Is Where I Leave You,” which is in theaters now, doesn't quite live up to those standards, despite having a first-rate cast. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

If you were to look the term “family dysfunction” up in a dictionary, you might see a picture of the central characters from “This Is Where I Leave You.” In adapting his own novel, screenwriter Jonathan Tropper places great emphasis on the notion that this is one screwed-up family.

Being screwed-up, of course, is a relative condition. All these characters are troubled. Depressed even. Unable, or unwilling to relate as a family might.  All, then, are definitely unhappy. But only in what we call a first-world fashion.

Yes, middle son Judd (played by Jason Bateman), is having a particularly hard time. We’ve barely opened our Milk Duds before Judd discovers, one, that his wife is having an affair with his boss and, two, that his father has died. But guess what? His siblings are all facing some sort of crisis, too. Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is married to a jerk and still pines for her former lover. Brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is desperately – even grimly, but vainly – trying to impregnate his wife. Baby brother Philip (Adam Driver) may be the happiest of the bunch: manifesting his Peter Pan syndrome by carrying on an affair with a woman a good 15 years his elder.

One thing is clear: Each sibling feels no need to connect with any other family member. Which is why, following dad’s death, Mom Altman (Jane Fonda) calls them all home and expects them to sit Shiva – the traditional Jewish manner of grieving – for seven long days. Her intent is clear: Forced intimacy.

Of course, as Tropper’s screenplay makes clear – as clear as director Shawn Levy can make it make anything – Mom idea of intimacy is part of the problem. She wrote a best-selling book on child-rearing, a tell-all tome centered on her own family, that made her kids – to their ever-lasting shame – mini-celebrities. Not only does she seem to not realize the effect this has had on her family, Mom gushes to anyone willing to listen the juicy details of the great sex she had with her dead hubby – all while displaying the ample charms of her augmented breasts. Fonda, a two-time Oscar winner, eats her dialogue as if they were bites of kugel.

And Fonda is hardly the movie’s only skilled actor. Bateman has become one of the most reliable straight men in TV or movies. Fey’s “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” credentials make clear her comic appeal. And so with the others: Stoll (who played Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”), Driver (best known for the HBO show “Girls”) and various others, from Kathryn Hahn to Rose Byrne, Dax Shepard to Timothy Olyphant.

No, the problem with “This Is Where I Leave You” isn’t due to the cast. Nor does director Levy do much that is noticeably wrong. The movie just plays off-key from the start, with sitcom situations subbing for real emotional entanglements and subsequent resolutions feeling about as deep as – speaking of the First World – a 20-second ad for Geico car insurance.

Trivia geeks to take the stage

Trivia geeks unite.

Next Thursday, Spokane’s “best and the brightest” – and I use that term very loosely – will converge at the Bing Crosby Theater to reveal just how much useless knowledge is rattling around the old noggin.

That’s right. It’s the first Spokane Trivia Championship, to benefit STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs at the Spokane Public Library.

The event, sponsored by the Spokane Public Library Foundation, will feature teams showing off their cultural, historical and geographical knowledge. The teams represent such august organizations as Witherspoon Kelley attorneys at law, Avista, the Inlander, Lewis & Clark High School and The Spokesman-Review.

Yes, The Spokesman-Review. Yours truly is on the team, having beaten Shawn Vestal in extra innings of the newsroom tryouts for the privilege. Taking the stage with me are copy editor Michael McGarr and The Slice’s Paul Turner. And I’m warning you, we all know a lot of useless stuff.

The fun begins at 7 p.m. at the Bing, 901 W. Sprague Ave. Tickets are $12, available through TicketsWest. Children 12 and younger can enjoy this family-friendly event free of charge.

Mark Robbins, the guy from those Northern Quest commercials, is the emcee. For more information, visit the library foundation website.

Butterworth to inaugurate 2014-15 GU literary series

For the past several years, fans of literary readings have enjoyed an ongoing, annual event sponsored by Gonzaga University. The GU Visiting Writers series, which is free and open to the public, has brought such authors as Denis Johnson, Bharati Mukherjee and Jane Hirshfield.

The 2014-15 version of the series kicks off at 7:30 tonight at GU's Cataldo Hall with a reading by GU faculty member Dan Butterworth. Butterworth's latest collection of poetry is titled “The Clouds of Lucca.”

The rest of the series schedule: Oct. 21, poet Brenda Hillman; Nov. 20, writer Joanna Luloff; Feb. 18, writer Marilynne Robinson; March 25, poet Douglas Kearney; April 15, writer Michael Gurian.

For further information, click here.

Tuck & Patti rescheduled

The Tuck & Patti concert originally set for Oct. 17 at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Coeur d'Alene has been rescheduled for May 30.

Those who hold tickets for the Oct. 17 concert are invited to exchange their tickets prior to Sept. 29, which is when tickets for the May 30 concert will go on sale to the public. Refunds for the Oct. 17 show also are available.

To trade in existing tickets, to seek a refund, or for more information, call the Kroc theater manager,  Zak Adams, at (208) 763-0606.

Friday’s openings: Trolls, comedy and bad Denzel

Another coming Friday and another lineup of movie offerings. And imagine that, we actually have a few choices to work with. The week's openings are as follows:

“The Equalizer” (also IMAX): Denzel Washington stars in Antoine Fuqua's update of the 1980s-era television show about a vigilante loner who seeks justice for the powerless. Question: When did Denzel Washington transform into Wesley Snipes?

“The Skeleton Twins”: Former “Saturday Night Live” cast members Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as estranged twins who try to mend their relationship. Is it just me, or has Wiig been making some fairly great career choices?

“My Old Lady”: An American (Kevin Kline) takes possession of a Parisian apartment — and its unexpected inhabitant (Maggie Smith), who foils his plan of making a quick score.

“The Song”: An aspiring singer-songwriter finds success ain't what he thought it was. Here's a line from one critic's review: “There are many hurdles to overcome here, including headlines, gossip and someone who has lost his way and must find it with religion.”

“The Boxtrolls” (3D/2D): Based on the children's novel “Here Be Monsters,” this animated feature explores the underground world of creatures who come out at night. Between the creatures and their human foes, two guesses as to who the real monsters are.

And at the Magic Lantern:

“Tale Me to the River”: When a few recording stars from Memphis team up to record a new album, the whole of American music is examined. Terence Howard narrates the documentary,

“A Most Wanted Man”: Don't miss the second-run showing of this adaptation of John Le Carre's novel, featuring the last great performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And don't forget to enjoy.

Take ‘The Trip to Italy’ this weekend

I've spent a bit of time in Italy. From Trentino-Alto Adige in the north to Sicily in the south, from Sardegna to the west to Le Marche to the east, I've driven the main autostradas and back roads to big cities and mountain villages alike. So two of the last several movies I have seen struck me as something special. The first was “Five Star Life,” which I reviewed last week.”

This week the movie is “The Trip to Italy,” Michael Winterbottom's sequel to his 2010 movie “The Trip,” which stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon engaged in a kind of comic competition as they drive through Italy. The film opens today at the Magic Lantern, and following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Travel documentaries can be deadly dull. My version of hell would be any hour spent listening to some talking head warble on about the joys of visiting Oslo, Norway, lutefisk eateries. Give me Anthony Bourdain, and his knowledge of good food and drink accompanied by those trademark cynical asides.

This shows you why I am such a fan of Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Winterbottom, if you don’t know, is an English director of such films as “24 Hour Party People” and “The Killer Inside Me.” Coogan is an English movie and television performer, known for his “Alan Partridge” character and films such as “Night at the Museum” and “Philomena.” The Welsh-born writer and actor Brydon is less familiar this side of the Atlantic, though he did appear in Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.”

What’s important is that in 2010, the trio – with Winterbottom directing, Coogan and Brydon mostly improvising – released a mockumentary titled “The Trip” (which evolved from a BBC series). The film boasts a simple set-up: Coogan and Brydon play fictional versions of themselves, touring England’s finest dining establishments so that Coogan can write a story for the newspaper The Observer.

At the last moment, Coogan’s girlfriend had backed out, leading him to invite Brydon – with whom he shares a nettlesome friendship based, largely it seems, on their continuing comedy one-up-manship (revolving around, among other things,  their respective abilities to impersonate Michael Caine). What the film becomes, then, is a study of the two characters, engaged in an mostly friendly road-trip competition, with fictional – we assume – details slowly being revealed as the English countryside whizzes by and, gradually, a series of gourmet meals are shown prepared and devoured.

Sounds boring, right? Far from it. Coogan and Brydon are brilliant performers. And Winterbottom is so skilled at keeping their talents at the center of his film, all while surrounding them with natural and gastronomic beauty, that it’s hard to appreciate that beauty when the movie offers up so many ongoing invitations to laugh.

“The Trip to Italy,” which opens this week at the Magic Lantern, is a perfect sequel. This time it is Brydon who has been approached by The Observer, and he calls Coogan – living in Los Angeles and on hiatus from his U.S. television series – and invites him to come along. In the first film, an arrogant, restless Coogan was the more dominant of the two. Here, though, their roles slowly reverse. It becomes clear that Brydon, and not Coogan, had ended up writing the Observer stories. And it is the very-married Brydon who finds himself tempted into bad behavior. A subdued Coogan, meanwhile, attempts to bond with his estranged teenage son while fighting with Brydon over his musical tastes: Alanis Morrisette, anyone? And the impersonation competition now involves Al Pacino.

The result is a deeper, richer comedy, still filled with laughs but underscored by a sense of real life. And this time the background is la bella Italia. Really, now. What’s not to like?

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