I remember May 18, 1980, as if it were … well, maybe not yesterday, but certainly last year. It was a Sunday afternoon, and my wife and I, and then-baby daughter, were visiting some friends in North Spokane. We were on a rural property, with a lot of open space, and I remember looking up from a croquet match at the dark cloud coming quickly from the west.
“That is one serious storm,” I thought.
Just then, someone yelled out that the TV was reporting that Mount St. Helens had erupted. And what we were seeing was the ash cloud. So we quickly packed up the baby and headed home. I remember driving home through a snowstorm of volcanic ash and worrying that the stuff was going to ruin my car’s engine.
That began our ordeal. The next morning we awoke to a gray world, one that was as eerie as it proved enduring. Weeks to months later we could still find patches of gray along the highways.
Mark Damsker, USA Today: “As Steve Olson reminds us in his vividly reported new history … what happened on May 18, 1980, in the primordial thickets of the Pacific Northwest, was an enormous, multi-faceted event. … This engaging book maneuvers deftly along the way toward impact.”
Michael O’Donnell, Wall Street Journal: “In Mr. Olson’s telling, [the survivors’] stories read like urgent fiction. … These vignettes lend a human face to an event that has become associated largely with geology.”
Randy Dotinga, Christian Science Monitor: “In his evocative and convincing new book, author Steve Olson reveals that the eruption – the most powerful natural disaster to ever strike the US – is much more than a horror show. … He has a bigger picture in mind, one of the eruption’s role as a touchstone for an evolving society and natural world.”
The story that Olson tells is an indelible part of Pacific Northwest history. It’s well worth revisiting.
Note: This blog post has been updated to reflect a change in the Magic Lantern's schedule. The theater will NOT be open during the week of Jun 23-29.
Turns out Michael Bay's final directorial turn with the "Transformers" series is only one of three films openings Friday in Spokane. The others are:
"Tubelight": A man living in the hills of northern India faces challenges when a car accident leaves him with a curious disability — he can process information he hears only after a short (five or so seconds) delay.
"Beatriz at Dinner": Salma Hayek plays a holistic healer who, having been invited to dinner at a wealthy client's home, proceeds to challenge her host's conservative views.
And at the Magic Lantern: The theater will be closed during the week of Jun 23-29. On June 30, the Lantern will open:
"Neither Wolf Nor Dog": When a writer stumbles when trying to write a book about the life of a Lakota elder, he is taken on a road trip that serves as an Indian life lesson. Based a novel by Kent Nerburn.
Such lists are basically click bait, even those compiled by the likes of A.S. Scott and Manohla Dargis. But movie fans tend to fall for them, and Nathan and I are no different. Nathan, who is the movie and music editor for The Inlander, wrote about his own list in the most recent edition. So I thought I would respond with the list that I came up with, which is considerably different.
1. The Tree of Life (2011): Terrence Malick looks at a father, a mother and three sons. In the process, he explores the very meaning of life itself.
2. There Will Be Blood (2007): Paul Thomas Anderson adapts the Upton Sinclair novel about a ruthless oil man (Daniel Day Lewis) who gets rich in early California.
3. Amores Perros (2000): Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu overpowers the screen with three interlocking stories of life in contemporary Mexico.
4. Pan's Labyrinth (2006): Guillermo del Toro combines his love for creatures with the savagery of the Spanish Civil War to make a superbly crafted political statement.
5. Mulholland Drive (2001): David Lynch gives his trademark weirdness just enough of a straight storyline to make this mystery story one of his most intriguing achievements.
6. Dancer in the Dark (2000): Dogma co-founder Lars von Trier makes a musical that doubles as a powerful anti-death-penalty statement.
7. Spirited Away (2001): Anime master Hayao Miyazaki won an Oscar for this film about a young girl who must find a way to save her parents.
8. The Dark Knight (2008): With the aid of an Oscar-winning performance by the late Heath Ledger, Christopher Nolan crafted a superhero blockbuster for the ages.
9. A Prophet (2009): French filmmaker Jacques Audiard follows a young man's evolution from newly jailed prisoner to a budding Michael Corleone.
10. Before Midnight (2013): The third in a trilogy that includes "Before Sunrise" (1995) and "Before Sunset" (2004), Richard Linklater's studies the birth, growth and possible end of a relationship.
Other films that made my also-ran list: And Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000), Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tennenbaums (2001), Gasper Noé's "Irreversible" (2002), Pedro Almódover's "Talk to Her" (2002), Alfonso Cuarón's "Children of Men" (2006), Richard's Stanton's Pixar production "Wall-E" (2008), Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" (2013), Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" (2014), Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu's "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" (2014), Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Leviathan" (2014), Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu's "The Revenant" (2015), László Nemes' "Son of Saul" (2015), Sean Baker's "Tangerine" (2015) and Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight."
Any way you look at it, there are some pretty good films in all the lists … though to be honest, neither Nathan nor I have seen all the film listed by the NYT critics. So, clearly, we have to get busy.
If two words could capture the coming week, those words would be: Michael Bay.
Bay's latest addition to his "Transformers" series, "The Last Knight," is the fifth in the series (with two still on the design board). And it is the single major release on Friday's national schedule. Here is the skinny:
"Transformers: The Last Knight": In what is said to be Bay's final turn as director, and Mark Wahlberg's final turn as lead actor, humans struggle to save themselves by seeking out "secrets of the past and the hidden history of Transformers on Earth." Oh, and Anthony Hopkins co-stars … which may be why this looks like Bay's attempt to make a "Citizen Kane" lite.
I'll update as the local theaters finalize their bookings.
By now, we’re all familiar with the various settings of a post-apocalyptic world. Some disease or disaster, either naturally occurring or the product of science gone awry, causes widespread death – often causing the undead to rise up and stalk the still living. In most cases this means zombies.
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults uses a version of this familiar trope as the backdrop to his film titled “It Comes at Night,” though what Shults offers up is a twist on the standard dystopian study. It’s far more an exploration of what people are capable of doing when they suspect their lives are at stake.
Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo play Paul and Sarah, a couple who, along with their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), have holed up in a large, creaky house set in a remote, wooded location. They’ve boarded up most of the windows, leaving just a sole doorway that is always – always – locked at night. They go out only during the day, and they always wear gas masks, hoping against hope that they can protect themselves against whatever is killing the world.
And the killing is real. This we know from the very first scene, which has Paul and Travis carrying Travis’ grandfather – who is obviously seriously ill – out to the woods where Paul burns his body … though not before putting a bullet through the old man’s brain.
All this has a disturbing effect on Travis, a teenager who is just coming into maturity, physically and emotionally. We see the effects through his dreams, which are as dark as the Bruegel painting on his bedroom wall or the sketches he draws of stark stick figures.
So imagine his discomfort when, late one night, someone comes knocking at the locked door. It turns out not to be a monster, but just a man – Will (played by Christopher Abbott) who says he is just looking for a safe place to stash his own wife and young son. And after a few safety precautions, which include tying Will to a tree for a day or so, Paul decides that it might be a good idea to invite the newcomers to join their family unit.
This turns out to be a good idea, at least at first, as the new energy makes everyone think that life is returning almost to normal. The key word there, though, is “almost” because in a dystopian world a sense of mistrust is never completely erased. And when strange things occur – like a simple confused use of words, or more important a mysteriously unlocked door – paranoia and fear return on steroids.
Much is what Shults does is admirable, from his refusal to offer only the barest of exposition to his camera-work, in which he haunts the house’s hallways, making it feel near-claustrophobic. What’s lacking is a larger sense of purpose, especially as Travis’ nightmares and budding sexual needs cloud Shults’ intentions even more.
“It Comes at Night” announces the presence of a young, new filmmaker with blazing talent for visuals (his first film, "Krisha" was released in 2015). Next time, though, he needs to hire a better story editor, one who can recognize an effective ending.
If you look hard enough — or, which is more often the case, you wait long enough — films outside the mainstream end up playing at otherwise mainstream theaters. And this is the case this week.
In addition to the films that I listed below, three other movies will open Friday in Spokane:
"Paris Can Wait": The third member of the film-directing Coppola family, Eleanor Coppola, wrote and directed this film about the wife (Diane Lane) of a major filmmaker (Alec Baldwin) who takes a self-realizing journey to Paris with a business associate (Arnaud Viard) of her husband's. Shot in France, so bring an appetite — and go to dinner afterward.
"The Book of Henry": Naomi Watts plays a single mother who gets involved in her young son's plan to help the abused girl next door. Warning for concerned parents: Rated PG-13 for "thematic elements and brief strong language."
"The Wedding Plan": Michal is in a bind. Her fiancé backed out of their scheduled wedding, but she refuses to cancel, believing that God will bring her a suitable substitute. In Hebrew with English subtitles.
Life is full of success stories. And we tend to applaud all those innovators, from the inventor of the wheel to Steve Jobs, who changed the arc of history.
But what about those among us who fail? Well, it turns out that Sweden has a museum that is dedicated to that very proposition. From fat-free Pringles to Google Glass, the Museum of Failure documents all the would-be steps forward that ended up being miserable failures.
“We know that 80 to 90 percent of innovation projects, they fail and you never read about them, you don’t see them, people don’t talk about them,” says museum founder Samuel West. “And if there’s anything we can do from these failures, is learn from them.”
One of my favorite failures: The 2004 board game called “I’m Back And You’re Fired” in which players use game pieces branded with a "T" and money adorned with the image of Donald Trump.
“It’s a boring version of Monopoly," West said. "It’s simplified so stupid people can play it, but it’s also horribly boring,”
We've got four movies on Friday's national release schedule, though none are among the summer season's most anticipated openings. Friday's lineup (for the moment) looks like this:
"47 Meters Down": Two young women are trapped deep underwater and must struggle to get free even as their air tanks slowly empty and a school of great white sharks swim between them and escape. Did I mention the girls are wearing bikinis? (Just kidding. They're wearing skintight wetsuits.)
"All Eyez on Me": Demetrius Shipp Jr. portrays the one and only Tupac Shakur, whose 1996 death at age 25 only enhanced his status as a Thug Life hiphop legend.
Cars 3": Lightning McQueen is back at the races, this time trying to prove to a new generation that he is still the best race car ever. Yes, that is Owen Wilson as the voice of our protagonist.
"Rough Night": Four friends go on a wild night, which goes a bit haywire when the male stripper they hired ends up dead. Talk about too much of a good thing.
That's the mainstream movie news for the moment. I'll update when the local bookings get finalized.
Oh, man, the advance reviews are out for "The Mummy" and they are … well, read for yourself.
Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: "The movie is a pain in the sarcophagus. I fear that it will anger the gods."
Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "How meh is The Mummy? Let me count the ways. For all the digital desperation from overworked computers, this Tom Cruise reboot lands onscreen with a resounding thud. Epic fail."
Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service: "Falls apart at the end, rattling its bones through a series of shockingly violent clashes with Ahmanet. Ultimately, despite her awesome powers, this goddess is reduced to participating in a love triangle with mere mortals. How pedestrian."
David Erlich, Indiewire: "Obviously the worst movie that Tom Cruise has ever made."
Below: Listen to the filmmakers explain what they tried to do.
Some stories just won't go away. Same with famous people. Winston Churchill is a prime combination of both and, as such, is the feature of a film that is opening Friday at the Magic Lantern.
"Churchill": Brian Cox stars as the title character in this study of his life as British prime minister during the 96 hours leading the the June 6, 1944, Normany invasion of World War II.
The lantern will also pick up a second-run screening of "The Lovers."
Some critical comments about "Churchill":
Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune: "Anglophiles and history-loving filmgoers will adore 'Churchill,' an extremely well made film that is the best example of British heroic portraiture since 'The King's Speech.' "
Glenn Kenny, The New York Times: "The movie's ambition is the good news. The bad news is that it is a hash, choosing to jumble the historical record and frame a Churchill bout with depression against the D-Day invasion of France by Allied forces."
Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times: "A superb look at iconic statesman Winston Churchill's torturous days leading up to the pivotal D-Day landings of June 6, 1944."
Sometimes it pays to be late. Thanks to my tardiness, I have a more definitive list of Friday's movie openings to offer. They include the usual mix of pop and art:
"The Mummy": How do you re-energize a familiar story? Hire a familiar star in a new role, I guess. Tom Cruise takes over as the lead in this CGI-rich study of a team that uncovers and ancient, Egyptian evil. But is it an impossible mission?
"Megan Leavey": Kate Mara stars in this based-on-a-true-story as a Marine whose work in the canine corps save lives, though the main life she wants to save is that of her beloved dog partner. This must be what they mean by a dog's purpose.
Looks as if the Magic Lantern will be opening not just one but two movies on Friday. One, "Norman," is a pickup from AMC River Park Square. The other is a film that is enjoying a theatrical release after premiering at last year's Los Angeles Film Festival.
"Lowriders": Demián Bichir (who also is among the cast of "Alien: Covenant") plays the father of a young man who doesn't share his obsession with their community's car culture. Los carros, sí!
Some critical comments:
Christy Lemire, RogerEbert.com: "There's an earnestness and a fundamental truth to this familial saga-as well as an appealing, low-budget scrappiness-that consistently make it hum."
Neil Genzlinger, New York Times: "A mix of strong scenes and shopworn ones punctuated by clichés."
Andrew Barker, Variety: "A peek under the hood reveals a rather shopworn story that doesn't completely sell its more melodramatic narrative strands, but [also] to a trio of finely calibrated performances, an authentic sense of place and one gorgeously designed red '36 Chevy."
By now we should know not to expect too much, but advance word on the new DC superhero flick "Wonder Woman" is pretty good. That movie, which stars the stunning Gal Gadot, is one of two releases on Friday's national schedule. The menu is:
"Wonder Woman": Gadot stars as the Amazon princess who decides to intervene in the affairs of men, which — as usual — involve war. Only to paraphrase the line from "Pulp Fiction," "That's how you're gonna beat 'em, Diana. They keep underestimating you."
Update on the Magic Lantern: The theater will continue running its current lineup — "A Quiet Passion," "David Lynch: The Art of Life," "The Zookeeper's Wife," "The Lost City of Z" — and will add the second-run pickup "Their Finest" on Friday.
That's today's news. Now for something somewhat different: a commentary on "Alien: Covenant." (Attention: spoilers ahead.)
First, I watched it at The Odeon, a classic, art-deco theater in the heart of Florence, Italy. Though the floor isn’t raked, the seats are old-school plush and they offer a good view of the raised screen.
And nothing quite beats watching a film in Italy, which typically feature an Intervallo, or intermission, which comes roughly in the middle of the film and gives you time to hit the restroom or purchase a refreshing beverage. At The Odeon, that includes what my wife calls the most delicious gin and tonic served in the city.
Oh, and did I say the screening allows you to practice your Italian, since the original-language production carries Italian subtitles?
I admit, those last two traits of the Odeon don’t much aid your efforts at film appreciation. But in the case of “Alien: Covenant,” I’m not sure it mattered all that much.
Not that I didn’t like the film. I just didn’t like everything about it.
First, let’s make this clear: “Alien: Covenant” is an improvement on its immediate predecessor “Prometheus,” which posed so many questions that I left the theater more confused than disappointed.
In fact, “Alien: Covenant” – which, again, was directed by Ridley Scott, this time from a script by John Logan (“Gladiator”) and Dante Harper – goes a way toward answering some of the questions posed by “Prometheus,” especially when paired with the "prologue" (see embed below). Then, though, it poses more that, presumably, we’ll have to wait for the proposed sequel (or sequels) to answer.
And those further additions to the series are, apparently, coming. Scott – who directed the first (and arguably best) film in the series, 1979’s “Alien” – reportedly told The Sydney Morning Herald, “If you really want a franchise, I can keep cranking it for another six. I'm not going to close it down again. No way."
Second, the special effects of “Alien: Covenant” are astounding. From capturing the interior of the spaceship in which our hardy crew is traveling, to portraying both space walks and the obligatory births of the murderous alien creatures, Scott’s crews of computer-graphic nerds have created effects that feel more real than actual reality.
And, third, the acting is uniformly good, whether we’re talking about Katherine Waterston, who is this film’s pale version of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, Billy Crudup as a rather weak-kneed substitute captain, or Danny McBride doing a rare serious turn.
The film overall, though, belongs to Michael Fassbender, who plays a dual role as twin androids, Walter and David. Fassbender is one of those actors who could make reading the dictionary seem interesting, and he makes his two characters – different versions of the same AI system – feel as different as an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy 7: one being all business and the other prone to catching fire (if only virtually).
All that said, most of the human characters – especially those mentioned – make some of the most moronic decisions in the history of film. From falling for the same trap that lured Ripley and crew to a strange world, to exploring that seemingly friendly world without the safety of space suits, to splitting up so that they can get picked off one by one, to risking everything (and everyone) to save a couple of already-doomed souls … well, the fatal mistakes seem endless.
And by fatal, I mean the same old alien versus human finale in which humans, for the most part, fail miserably.
OK, so I know everyone has an opinion. The Internet is full of suggestions, etc. But it looks as if we’re going to have to wait at least a couple of years to get the final answers to the overall questions, which include: Who is behind all this? What part did the Weyland corporation play in what happens? Are David and Walter modern Frankenstein monsters who will, one day, kill their creators?
And so on. As for that last question, it looks as if the answer is yes. And considering just how stupid this particular crew acts, who can blame them?
As for me, I'm waiting for Adam Harum to come up with a Done Better sequence. Harum at least makes me laugh.
Below: The "prologue" to "Alien: Covenant" was released some three weeks before the full film's release. It acts as a bridge between that film and its prequel, "Prometheus."