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

Hawkeye: The most honest Avenger of all

By the time you read this, "Avengers: The Age of Ultron" will likely make another million or so dollars (not to mention euros, yuan, kroner, pesos, goobers, etc.). Unlike some past superhero movies, this one actually overcomes its hero-operatic tendencies with a viable villain, an intelligible narrative and number of clever quips.

Most of those quips are delivered by the great Robert Downey Jr., whose Tony Stark/Ironman persona is the perfect arrogant-but-likable snark-master. But my favorite, delivered deadpan by Jeremy Renner's Clint Barton/Hawkeye character, is the movie's most knowing and self-referential, which is why this is my favorite of the "Avengers" flicks.

In a moment of crisis, Barton/Hawkeye addresses not just the essential ridiculousness of his character but also the importance of suspension of disbelief: "The city is flying. We’re fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense."

He goes on to make his statement into an inspirational speech: "But I’m going back out there because it’s my job." Whatever, nothing changes the fact that, for one single moment, the movie's silliest character has delivered a giant — and much appreciated — wink to the audience.

Sunday dreaming of Mars and beyond

It's a bright Sunday morning, and thousands of runners are mingling around downtown Spokane after completing — or, in some cases, witnessing — the 39th Bloomsday Run.

I'm doing neither, thank you, being allergic to crowds — and having, years ago, done my duty by completing a dozen or so Bloomsday pilgrimages. Knees don't work forever.

Instead, I'm thinking of the stars. Or at least our solar system. In particular, I'm thinking about the planet Mars — which, thanks to an app on my smartphone, I can easily pick out when it's visible in our Northwestern skies.

I don't own a telescope (yet), and so I'm limited to stargazing through binoculars. But even through a telescope, I wouldn't be able to see the landscape of Mars as well as is provided in this panoramic view courtesy of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Lab and the Mars Curiosity Rover. Check it out and see just how barren the Martian landscape is.

And then imagine the task facing those astronauts who have volunteered to be the first to colonize the Red Planet. Those in the video embedded below are getting just a taste.

Seek the truth with ‘An Honest Liar’

Along with opening a new movie, "Seymour: An Introduction," and picking up the Noah Baumbach feature "While We're Young," the Magic Lantern is continuing a number of decent films — including the documentary "An Honest Liar." Following as a transcription of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

If you want to start an argument, one good way would be to spout off about the relative nature of truth. Say you admitted that some truths seem absolute – that seven and seven always equals 14, for example, or that nothing can exceed the speed of light. You could then point out that many astrophysicists no longer consider Pluto a planet, and that concepts of a deity called God shift according to the religion defining them. Cognitive relativism, indeed.

The fact is, people believe something because they want – sometimes desperately – for that something to be true. All con artists know this. As do magicians.

Certainly The Amazing Randi does, something that the documentary “An Honest Liar” makes abundantly clear. The 86-year-old James Randi is a magician-slash-escape artist, now retired, whose resume includes numerous appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show. But Randi may be even better known for his work challenging so-called psychics and others claiming to possess mental powers.

As co-directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein point out, Randi has always copped to the fact that magic is an illusion, a clever trick. And he’s deeply suspicious of those who claim their powers are real and who make money off the gullible. Two of Randi’s most prominent targets have been Uri Geller, whose spoon-bending telekinesis act was all the rage during the 1970s, and the evangelist Peter Popoff, whose fake psychic readings Randi unveiled in 1986.

In fact, one of the most intriguing sequences of “An Honest Liar” is the detailed explanation of how Randi and an electronics expert discovered Popoff’s secret – involving a hidden earpiece through which Popoff’s wife fed him his alleged revelations – and revealed it to Carson on national television.

But charlatans haven’t been Randi’s only targets. He’s also scammed bona-fide researchers, such as those working for the Stanford Research Institute, all – or at least mostly – in an effort to seek out truth. At least two of Randi’s confederates show regret over tricking the researchers, whose careers couldn’t have been helped by the resulting embarrassment.

The movie enters even more shaky ethical territory when it reveals an aspect of Randi’s life that seemed to develop even as the filmmakers were still figuring out what kind of documentary they wanted to make. It involves Randi’s sexual orientation and some illegal actions committed by a man Randi had cohabited with for some 25 years.

And while such a news flash couldn’t be ignored, the way it’s presented – amid self-justifying statements by both Popoff and Geller – makes it seem as if the actions of the charlatans and those of Randi’s well-meaning companion enjoy moral equivalency. Which is hardly the case.

That aside, “An Honest Liar” relies on the charisma of its engaging central figure. Measom and Weinstein trot out a host of witnesses, including the likes of Penn Gillette, rock star Alive Cooper and even the buoyant Geller himself to give talking-head tributes and/or rebuttals to Randi and his feats.

But Randi himself remains the star, honest trickster to the end.

Saturday’s the night for Spokane shorts

One of the added benefits of attending the 50 Hour Slam screenings, which occurs annually, is that it represents some of the best work done by local filmmakers. The latest edition of the Slam will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at The Bing Crosby Theater.

The event comprises 16 films, each of which was juried from nearly twice that number. (Full disclosure: I was one of seven jurors.)

Each filmmaking team was tasked with … well, let's quote the Slam's website: "The filmmakers will have exactly 50 hours to complete a 3 to 6 minute movie; starting from the writing and development process all the way to the final editing stage."

Furthermore, they were obligated to use one of several historic Spokane landmark buildings, working in a theme representing a dish prepared by a local restaurant and somehow incorporate the Slam's trailer into the final film.

As in years past, the evening will include recitations by a number of local poets and a performance by a local band — this year Pine League.

The Bing seats some 750. But the best seats will no doubt disappear early. The doors open at 5:30, so get there early.

Below: One of the cleverest shorts from the 2014 50 Hour Slam, "Gravitee."

Enjoy the great outdoors indoors, tonight at the Garland

We think of the Garland Theater mostly as a good, inexpensive place to see second-run movies. On occasion, though, the facility plays host to special events.

Which is the case tonight when the Garland will present the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, a touring selection of 12 environmental short films. Begun in 2003, the festival plays annually in Nevada City, Calif., and then embarks on a nationwide tour of some 140 cities. Its organizers call it "the largest environmental film festival in the nation."

The festival screened at the Garland is sponsored by a range of local groups, primarily Spokane Riverkeeper, Patagonia and Mountain Gear. Tickets at this point are $15 and available at the door, which opens at 6 p.m. with the screening at 6:30.

For more information, call the Garland at (509) 327-1050.

SIFF 2015: The 41st edition is nearly here

When it comes to film festivals, my attention goes first to that annual orgy of cinema we call the Spokane International Film Festival. Co-founded by the Contemporary Arts Alliance and the late Bob Glatzer, and headed over the past several years by Pete Porter, SpIFF — like the Magic Lantern — is the Inland Northwest's best reservoir of independent film.

Ah, but the region's biggest, longest and most massive film festival dates back to the 1980s and is set some 280 miles to the west. The Seattle International Film Festival may not be the most distinguished film event in the country, but it is easily top 10 in terms of offerings and navigational ease.

The 41st edition of SIFF, which opens May 14 and runs through June 7, will be open for ticket purchases tomorrow. That includes tickets both to the May 14 Gala Opening, which features the Melissa McCarthy offering "Spy," and to any of the 400-odd features and shorts that follow over the festival's 25-day run.

Click here for the SIFF box office. Or call (206) 324-9996. 

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!

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