7 Blog

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

Hughes’ ghost looms large in McMinnville, OR

On a recent trip to McMInnville, OR, I was surprised to learn that a bit of Howard Hughes existed in the town.

Hughes, if you'll recall, was the reclusive rich guy who at one time was an aviator. In fact, the 2004 film "The Aviator" told his story, ending with his final years living as a shut-in in a Las Vegas hotel.

But the film isn't titled "The Aviator" lightly. And one incident in Hughes' long career was the creation of a monstrous airplane known as The Spruce Goose (proper name: Hughes H-4 Hercules). A massive seaplane, the aircraft boasts wings that span some 320 feet — which is 20 feet longer than the field football players compete on.

I'd known that the plane was somewhere in the Northwest. But it wasn't until I was approaching McMinnville (en route to a wedding event) that I realized where the Goose was exactly. And so I had to visit it.

The plane sits in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, a nonprofit that is dedicated both to preserving the history of aviation and space and to honoring veterans. My wife and I toured the building that houses dozens of airplanes, both civilian and military, listening to a former Air Force pilot talk about each one (in distinctly nonpolitical terms that thrilled me; he called one former Air Force chief "a jerk").

And the whole time we walked around the one building (a separate building is dedicated to the space program), the wings of the Goose loomed over us. The thing is that big and more.

We finally went inside the plane and felt even more dwarfed by its size. Going inside the fuselage is free, though access to the cockpit needs a special tour (and costs nearly $30 for up to four people to climb in there for just 15 minutes, so we passed).

But just walking around the behemoth is an experience — especially when you consider that the plane (which is made of birch, not spruce) flew only once, and then cleared the water for only 70 feet during its mile-long trek.

That it got up in the air at all feels like a miracle.

Friday’s releases: a Joker, a farmer and fiddlers

The character of the Joker has been around as long as his arch-nemesis, the Batman, though both of them have gone through a range of changes in both appearance and temperament. The latest version of the makeup-wearing psychopath comes to the big screen on Friday, according to the national movie-release schedule:

"Joker": Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a man tortured by his inability to fit into Gotham society — and who turns his sense of humor into a violent avocation. Written and co-directed by Todd Phillips, who definitely knows his way around humor.

"Joker" is the only film listed on the national scene. But Spokane should have a couple of other offerings:

"Farmer of the Year": This independent film about a retired farmer (Barry Corbin) going on a road trip with his granddaughter, will play exclusively at the Village Center Cinemas at Wandermere. Directed by Metaline Falls filmmakers Vince O'Connell and Kathy Swanson, from Swanson's screenplay, the film won the Audience Choice Award at the 2018 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Fiddlin' ": Sister filmmakers Julie Simone and Vicki Vlasic capture the energy at the at the World's Oldest Fiddler's Convention in the Appalachian Mountains.

As always, I'll update when the area theaters finalize their bookings.

‘Downton Abbey’ movie: just what the fans ordered

For "Downton Abbey" fans, the recent opening of the post-series movie was clearly a special event, as evidenced by the several moviegoers — women, mostly — who showed up for an advance screening dressed in costume. Following is the review of the movie that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Beginning in 2010, and continuing over the next six seasons, Public Television aired a series that achieved immense popularity. It was called “Downton Abbey.”

The show – created and written by British screenwriter Julian Fellowes – was something of a spinoff of “Gosford Park,” the 2001 Robert Altman feature film for which Fellowes won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

But while “Gosford Park” is more or less a mystery – in the sense that Altman made anything that fit into a particular genre – “Downton Abbey” was designed as something different. Though it had the same basic setup, an exploration of life in a British country estate as it unfolds both for the aristocrats who live there and the staff members who serve them, it set that life against the historical events that occurred between 1912 and 1926.

Events that included the sinking of the Titanic, World War I and Ireland’s ongoing struggle for independence.

And the collective groan that was heard on March 6th, 2016, when the last episode was aired in the U.S. was matched only by the cheers that greeted the announcement two years later that a movie version was in the works.

Now that movie, directed by Michael Engler from a Fellowes-written screenplay, has debuted. And it’s breaking box-office records for its Distributor, Focus Features, in addition to out-earning the two other main releases it opened against, James Gray’s “Ad Astra” and “Rambo: Last Blood.” 

All the chief characters from the series have returned, headed by Robert Crawley (the Earl of Grantham, who is played by Hugh Bonneville) and his American-born wife Cora Crawley (played by Elizabeth McGovern). Other notable figures include the Earl’s daughter Lady Mary Crawley (played by Michelle Dockery), the Earl’s mother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by two-time Oscar winner Maggie Smith) and her main foil Lady Merton (played by Penelope Wilton).

As for the staff, the house butler Mr. Carson (played by Jim Carter) is called back into service, while the others – particularly the butler Carson ends up replacing, Barrow (played by Robert James-Collier) – have their own intrigues to play out.

All this is set in motion by the main plotline, which involves a surprise visit by King George the Fifth and Queen Mary – an event that puts everyone on edge and adds every conceivable melodramatic touch to the mix, from a disagreement over inheritance to an attempted assassination.

It’s not as if “Downton Abbey” explores original territory. Between 1967 and ’69, the BBC ran a 26-part serial of John Galsworthy’s “Forsyte Saga” novels (with a reprise in 2002). And between 1971 and ’75, fans couldn’t get enough of the British television series “Upstairs Downstairs.”

Both took viewers behind the scenes of the British upper and/or monied classes, and – at least with the latter series – contrasted the experiences of those who owned money with those who worked for it.

Yet in his “Downton Abbey” movie, Fellows adds in a few contemporary issues – among them women’s rights and the plight of gay men. And though welcome, neither changes the overall template.

Which is just what the series fans ordered.

Friday’s openings redux: The power of water

Although "Judy," the Judy Garland biopic starring Rene Zellweger, sits prominently on the national movie-release list, it doesn't appear to be opening in Spokane on Friday. In any event, the coming week's adjusted lineup includes the following films:

"Aquarela": Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky documents the power of water in its many shapes and forms around the globe. ImdieWire critic Anne Thompson wrote, "The effect is hypnotic, haunting, and terrifying."

"Dream Big, Princess: The Princess and the Frog": Disney continues its "Dream Big, Princess" series with the 2009 animated feature "The Princess and the Frog," featuring the voice talents of Anika Noni Rose, Keith David and Oprah Winfrey.

"Friends 25th Anniversary": Three Regal Cinemas theaters — Northtown Mall, Spokane Valley Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium — will screen this special event featuring the popular former TV sitcom at 7 p.m. Saturday and Wednesday.

For your "Friends" freaks, tell Ross, Rachel and the others we said hi.

‘Turnadot’ to open ‘The Met: Live’ opera season

Opera fans can expect a rousing experience when "The Met: Live in HD" series returns, beginning Oct. 12 and 16, with a production of Puccini's "Turnadot."

Staged by Franco Zeffirelli, and with Yannick Nézet-Séguin directing, the production will screen at 9:55 a.m. on Oct. 12, and then at 1 and then 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 16, at the Regal Cinemas locations at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium.

Featured performers include soprano Christine Goerke, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, soprano Eleonora Buratto and bass-baritone James Morris.

Though left unfinished when Puccini died in 1924, "Turnadot" was completed by Franco Alfano and premiered in 1926 in Milan, with Arturo Toscanini directing. As explained on The Metropolitan Opera's website, "Puccini’s final opera is an epic fairy tale set in a China of legend, loosely based on a play by 18th-century Italian dramatist Carlo Gozzi."

"The Met: Live in HD" season will continue as follows:

Oct. 26, 30: "Manon"

Nov. 9, 13, 16: "Madame Butterfly"

Nov. 23, Dec. 4: "Akhnaten"

Dec. 7: "The Magic Flute"

Jan. 11, 15: "Wozzeck"

Feb. 1, 5, 8: "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess"

Feb. 29, March 4: "Agrippina"

March 14, 18: "Der Fliegende Holländer"

April 11, 15, 18: "Tosca"

May 9, 13: "Maria Stuarda"

Tickets are on sale now.

Studio Ghibli Fest features secret world of ‘Arrietty’

One of the events that I look forward to each year is the Studio Ghibli Fest, a collection of the best animated films from the vaunted Japanese production company.

The 2019 edition of the festival began in April with "Howl's Moving Castle," and it continues Sunday and Monday with Hiromasa Yonebayashi's 2010 film "The Secret World of Arrietty."

The film will screen in two different versions at three area locations: Regal Cinemas Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium, and AMC River Park Square. Sunday's 12:55 p.m. screenings will be dubbed, while Monday's 7 p.m. screenings will be in the original Japanese with English subtitles.

The dubbed North American version features the voices of Bridget Mendler as Arrietty and David Henrie as the boy, with other actors such as Will Arnett, Amy Poehler and Carol Burnett filling various other roles.

Originally titled in Japan "The Borrower Arrietty," the film was Yonebayashi's first as director. He has gone on to direct two other features, 2014's "When Marnie Was There" and 2017's "Mary and the Witch's Flower" — along with a segment of the 2018 compilation "Modest Heroes."

Adapted in part by the great filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki from the novel "The Borrowers" by English author Mary Norton, "The Secret World of Arrietty" tells the story of the little people who live inside the walls of a house, apart from the humans who are unaware of their existence. One of the little people, the title character Arrietty, becomes friends with a human boy and the film explores their story as the little people struggle to survive and the boy faces a serious operation.

Amy Biancolli of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "What unfolds is part adventure, part fairy tale, part star-crossed romance (she fits in his palm; can it get more doomed?). And the overall sum is enchantment."

We could all use a bit of enchantment these days.

Friday’s openings: Cuddly monster go home

After a couple of multiple movie openings, only a single film is showing on the national release schedule for this coming Friday. That film is:

"Abominable": A mysteriously magical Yeti appears on the roof of a young Shanghai teen's apartment building, and she must find a way to get it home (to the Himalayas, no less) before an conniving rich guy can capture it. Look for the cuddly toys to buy for your rugrats.

The film, a Dreamworks animated production (duh), is getting mostly good reviews, such as the following:

Sandra Hall, Sydney Morning Herald: "Jill Culton, who conceived the story and co-directed the film, was trained at Pixar and her work displays the Pixar trademark, a seamless blending of farce, wit, melancholy and the kind of reflectiveness that traverses the generational divide."

Katie Erbland, IndieWire: "The winning, warm nature of this China-set family film can't be denied, and for all its predictable elements, 'Abominable' is still well worth the trip."

But my favorite line is this observation:

Amy Nicholson, Variety: "In the film's most moving scene, Yi plays a solo so powerful it summons rain, flowers, and the Coldplay hit 'Fix You.' For an aspiring blockbuster, that culture clash is the cash-grab holy trinity."

And at the Magic Lantern, two documentaries are tentatively set:

"Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins": The late Texas-based syndicated columnist is profiled. Yee-haw.

"Miles Davis: Birth of Cool": The late jazz trumpeter is profiled. Bring sunglasses.

That's all for now. As always I'll update when the area theaters finalize their lineups.

‘Hustlers’ more serious than you might think

On a week when most adult viewers will be going to see the "Downton Abbey" movie, I decided to review "Hustlers," a film that many of those same viewers might have misjudged. I wrote the review for Spokane Public Radio:

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis occurred, people have been pointing fingers at who was responsible.

The characters in Lorene Scafaria’s film “Hustlers” offer up a simple target: men. Specifically, the kind of money men – stock brokers, venture capitalists, etc., – who love to throw thousands of dollars at women working in strip clubs.

Written and directed by Scafaria, “Hustlers” is based on a 2015 New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler. Taking the basic story, which involved a group of women who sought out rich guys, drugged them and then maxed out their credit cards – and who ultimately got caught, prosecuted and punished – Scafaria merged identities to create characters played most prominently by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez.

Wu, the star of last year’s romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” plays Destiny, a single woman from a hard-scrabble background who works as an exotic dancer. Struggling to make enough money both to pay her rent and to provide for her grandmother, Destiny finds a way out when she meets Lopez’s Ramona.

Strikingly beautiful, but more important aggressively sexy, Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, showing her how to spot the richest marks, the best way to woo them and the most effective ways to get at their credit-card accounts. And pretty soon, Destiny is making more money than she’d ever imagined.

But then comes 2008 and just that quickly, the money dries up. Destiny finds herself struggling once again, as does – we discover – Ramona. But Ramona, at least, has a plan. Returning to the clubs this time, they decide the best way to get at the newly available money is to use drugs to more easily manipulate the men. And that’s the point at which the women evolve from being those who merely target the perverse and/or weak-minded into becoming actual criminals.

Scafaria’s previous features are 2012’s “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” and 2015’s “The Meddler.” Those, along with a couple of made-for-TV projects, put women squarely at their story’s center. “Hustlers,” in fact, was described by critic Katie Walsh as a “girlie ‘Goodfellas’ ” – a reference to Martin Scorsese’s masterful 1990 mob flick.

Like Scorsese, Scafaria employs a number of skillful directorial touches, including beginning her film with a single-take look at Destiny entering a strip club as if she were a commodity on display – which, in effect, she is. And then there’s the music, with songs by the likes of Usher and Cardi B (both of whom make appearances) and Lorde being intertwined with specific sequences.

Besides Wu and co-stars Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer, Scafaria gets perhaps the best performance out of Lopez, who put in her best performance since Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film “Out of Sight.” Scafaria also uses Julia Stiles as a version of magazine writer Pressler, which allows her to relate the whole story as an as-told-to study.

And while she never downplays the crimes her characters commit, Scafaria does pose a valid question: When the prey turns tables on the predator, isn’t that some sort of fitting justice?

In the "Me, Too" era, the answer has to be yes.

‘Shawshank Redemption’ gets 25th-anniversary release

Known mostly for exploring themes of horror and the paranormal, Stephen King at times relates stories that have more to do with the simply human experience of existence.

His novella "The Body," for example, is part of the 1982 four-part collection "Different Seasons." It tells the story of four young boys who seek out the body of a young man who is missing and presumed dead. The novella, which was adapted into Rob Reiner's 1986 film "Stand By Me," explores the boys' reaction to various forms of abuse they have each endured … and to the ultimate specter of death.

Then there is his novella from the same collection, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," which director Frank Darabont adapted into the 1994 film "The Shawshank Redemption," which stars Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Both the novella and movie deal with life in prison, with corruption in the legal system and with the notion of justice.

Now in its 25th year, "The Shawshank Redemption" is being re-released in a series of special screenings. The film will show at two area Regal Cinemas theaters, at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium, beginning on Sunday.

Screening times: 4 p.m. on Sunday, 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.

New York Times critic Janet Maslin had this to say about Darabont's film (which was nominated for seven Academy Awards): "Without a single riot scene or horrific effect, it tells a slow, gentle story of camaraderie and growth, with an ending that abruptly finds poetic justice in what has come before."

King, as his many fans know, is all about poetic justice — whether in this world or any of the possible alternatives.

See Disney’s ‘Dream Big, Princess: Tangled’ on Friday

Friday will see the continuation of the Disney "Dream Big, Princess" movie series with the opening of "Dream Big, Princess: Tangled," the studio's reworking of the classic fairly tale "Rapunzel."

Co-directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, and based on an updated idea for a screenplay by Dan Fogelman, 2010's "Tangled" involves a young woman — this case a princess — who is trapped in a tower by an evil woman who covet the girl's hair, which has magical qualities.

Mandy Moore provides the girl's voice, as does Zachary Levi as the young man with whom she ultimately falls in love.

Wrote Richard Corliss for Time Magazine, "This is your basic, and very enjoyable, Disney princess musical, an empowerment tale to teach bright, dreamy girls how to grow to maturity — and outgrow the adults in charge."

So your kids, especially your young girls, should love it.

Catch a bit of ‘Promare” on Tuesday, Wednesday

Studio Ghibli may not be the only Japanese animation studio. But boasting a range of popular features film including the 2003 Oscar winner "Spirited Away," it's probably the best known.

Now Studio Trigger has entered the animated feature film market. Developer of several television series, Studio Trigger has now released its first feature. And that feature, "Promare," will screen at 7 p.m. Tuesday (dubbed) and Wednesday (subtitled) at AMC River Park Square.

The plot of "Promare" is simple enough: Following a cataclysmic global fire, some humans battle the surviving majority with the help of a charismatic leader. But the movie explores topical themes, too, such as climate change.

As critic Carlos Aguilar wrote, "Injecting an intoxicating shot of frantic energy and sleek color directly into your pupils, the postapocalyptic sci-fi action saga 'Promare' plays like an anime-induced euphoric trip."

Who doesn't want a bit of euphoria?

Friday’s openings: Britroyals and space mysteries

One of the most popular Public Television series in recent years makes its big-screen debut on Friday, highlighting the coming week's movie releases. According to the national schedule, Friday's openings look like this:

"Downton Abbey": The king and queen come to stay a night at Downton Abbey, and the household is thrown into turmoil. Tea and crumpets, what?

"Ad Astra": Brad Pitt plays an astronaut who is sent on a mission to figure out what happened to his father — and to possibly save the universe. Lotta space out there.

"Rambo: Last Blood": Our titular hero (played, as ever, by Sylvester Stallone) goes on one last mission of revenge. Last? Promises, promises.

As always, I'll update as the area theaters finalize their bookings.

Ronstadt: She ‘could sing literally anything’

Amid the many music biographical studies that have been released of late, one — "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice" — tackles the life and legacy of a noted woman singer. Following is the review of the documentary that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

As lead singer of The Doors, the late Jim Morrison holds a distinct spot in rock history. And he was popular with the group’s fans, especially during the days in which he could still fit into a pair of skinny leather pants.

Yet he didn’t have the same effect on some of his more notable contemporaries.

As is made clear in two recent rock documentaries, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” and “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” neither Ronstadt nor Crosby had much use for the self-styled Lizard King.

Crosby tells a story of Morrison once pulling off the sunglasses that Crosby was wearing indoors. “You can’t hide in there,” Morrison told him. In response, Crosby says, “I teleported to the other side of the room. I never liked him much after that.”

Ronstadt is far more direct. The Doors, she declares, would have been better without him.

Arguable as that point might be, it says something about Ronstadt: Despite her pin-up girl looks, she was no pushover. Her will to succeed in the male-dominated music business was every bit as intense as her voice was strong.

Notice I say “was strong.” Now 73 and with a voice weakened by Parkinson’s disease, Ronstadt has been retired since 2011. Co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman make that point poignantly by, near the end of their documentary, including a scene of her attempting to sing a Mexican “canción” with a couple of her relatives.

The voice that comes out is only a pale reflection of the one that once powerfully rendered such hits as “First Cut Is the Deepest,” “When Will I Be Loved” and that foot-stomping No. 1 hit from 1975 “You’re No Good.”  Ronstadt’s career, by the way, ultimately comprised some 45 albums and 38 Billboard Hot 100 singles, 21 of which made the top 40, 10 that broke into the top 10, three that made number 2, and the No. 1 “You're No Good.”

And she did it after coming as an unknown to Los Angeles at age 18, vying with thousands of other hopefuls to achieve success. She managed that first with the Stone Poneys, then later on her own, backed by a number of first-rate musicians, including at times multi-instrumentalist Andrew Gold and two of the founding members of The Eagles, Don Henley and Glenn Frey.

Epstein and Friedman, who earlier teamed up for the 1995 documentary “The Celluloid Closet” – which followed Epstein’s two Oscar-winning documentary features, 1985’s “The Times of Harvey Milk” and 1990’s “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt” – cover the essentials of Ronstadt’s life.

Of her learning about music from her father – who was of both German and Mexican heritage – of her earning the title of Top Female Pop Singer of the 1970s, of her romances with the likes of then-California Gov. Jerry Brown and of her desire to explore every musical form from pop to country to opera and even Mexican ballads.

As Dolly Parton tells the filmmakers, “Linda could literally sing anything.”

Which is something, Ronstadt might say, that Jim Morrison couldn’t do.

Catch ‘Downton Abbey’ advance screening tonight

All you "Downton Abbey" Fans — and it's clear you're out there — are waiting more or less patiently for the movie version of the long-running Public Television show to premiere on Sept. 20.

But wait no more. Several area theaters will be screening the film in special advance events beginning tonight. Following is a list of the theaters and respective screening times:

Regal Cinemas theaters at Northtown Mall (7 and 9:50 p.m.), Spokane Valley (7 p.m.) and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium (7 p.m.)

Village Center Cinemas Wandermere (7 and 9 p.m.)

AMC River Park Square (7 pm)

Movie and a Dinner, Northern Quest Casino (7 p.m.)

In addition to all the above, KSPS Public Television will host a special advance screening of the film at AMC at 3:15 p.m. on Sunday.

At the AMC event, at least, those attending "will be treated to bonus content and receive a collectible snow globe." And especially note this: At all events, seats will be limited, so fans should grab them up as soon as possible.

‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ on screen again

Since "Star Trek" debuted on U.S. television on Sept. 8, 1966, the show that Gene Roddenberry created has fascinated its fans.

And whether you call them Trekkies or Trekkers doesn't really matter (except, maybe, to them). Because though they weren't able to keep the original series (TOS) in production, they've kept it in syndication for the past five-plus decades.

Not to mention the various spinoff series, both live-action and animated, the merchandise and the movies.

Speaking of those big-screen events, the 40th anniversary of the first picture — "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" — is coming to two area Regal Cinemas theaters for screenings on Sunday and the following Wednesday. The film will screen at 1 and 4 p.m. Sunday at Northtown Mall and Coeur d'Alene's Riverstone Stadium, and at 4 and 7 p.m. the following Wednesday.

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was directed by Robert Wise, a two-time Best Director Oscar winner, and stars all of the original cast, including William Shatner as James Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock, DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy — and so on.

The plot, which is credited to Harold Livingston (and based on a story idea by Alan Dean Foster), features Kirk and crew cruising to intercept an alien object heading toward Earth and the problems that ensue, first between Kirk and his first officer (played by Stephen Collins) and then with the object itself.

The film premiered on Dec. 7, 1979, and received mostly mixed reviews. Among those was this comment from Variety: "The expensive effects (under supervision of Douglas Trumbull) are the secret of this film, and the amazing wizardry throughout would appear to justify the whopping budget."

That budget, by the way, is officially reported as $35 million. That's peanuts by today's standards but was fairly pricey for the time. As a comparison,  Ridley Scott's "Alien," which premiered on the previous May 25th, boasted a budget of $11 million.  

Yet fans could care less about such things. One more opportunity to see Kirk, Spock and the rest in action — even muted action — should suffice.