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Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Alien: Covenant’: Morons in space

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."

Friday’s openings redux: Love strikes the long-married

Looks as if at least one film is being added to the Friday movie openings menu. It should appeal to the art crowd:

"The Lovers": Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play a disaffected couple who step away from their respective affairs to once again enjoy a passionate tussle. Does Letts look like an officer and a gentleman?

Following are some critical comments:

Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune: "It's the kind of thinking person's relationship comedy that you don't exactly laugh at but admire for its brutal honesty."

Moira MacDonald, Sattle Times: "Letts has some fine moments, but it's Winger who really brings the color to this movie, creating a woman filled with disappointment and passion and wit, taking a small-scale comedy of manners to a darker, richer place."

Melissa Anderson, Village Voice: "(Director Azazel) Jacobs lets casually observed details and offhand humor advance the story. There are no grand pronouncements in The Lovers, which smartly communicates its ideas about relationships during its long stretches of silence."

And just for contrast:

Richard Brody, The New Yorker: "The movie exhausts itself in its conception and sits inert on the screen like an undigested mass of script pages."

Friday’s openings: Dead pirates and buff lifeguards

This is blockbuster week, apparently, with two major openings scheduled for Friday (or Thursday night in some cases). The national release list is as follows:

"Baywatch": Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron star as dueling members of the lifeguard team who attempt to foil the actions of a local crime boss. Question: Do they do it in slo-mo?

"Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales": Johnny Depp returns as Captain Jack Sparrow, with a band of dead pirates (led by Javier Bardem) bent on doing him harm. Has this series jumped the shark yet?

The Magic Lantern has no scheduled openings as of yet. I'll update as needed.

Check the Stranger guide to SIFF 2017

Above: A scene from the documentary film "The Reagan Show."

Life continues to be full of good news/bad news situations.

The good news: I am spending a couple of weeks in Florence, Italy. The bad news: I won't be attending this year's Seattle International Film Festival.

Whatever the joys of Italy, and the country has many, I do regret that latter situation. I've attended SIFF more or less regularly since 1993. Some of the top moments I've enjoyed have included watching Kevin Smith talk about a little film he was hawking called "Clerks," sitting in a packed Egyptian Theater to see Danny Boyle's "Trainspotting," feeling as confounded as anyone else following the screening of Michael Haneke's original production (the German-language one) of "Funny Games," watching Sean Penn skulk and sulk onstage while being peppered with questions by critics. And so on.

I'm thankful, though, that The Stranger — Seattle's alternative newspaper — is there to report what those lucky enough to attend this year's festival should see. Click here to see their "don't miss list."

The film I most regret not being able to see: The documentary "The Reagan Show." As The Stranger says, ""There is no narrator in this documentary, no talking heads, no experts, no direct analysis. The entire thing consists of archival footage from network news and the machinery that manufactured the images of America’s 40th president. Ronald Reagan and his team changed the whole game of American politics by transforming the White House into a movie studio."

Guess I'lll have to wait for its June 30 theatrical release. Or its July 4 video on demand availability. Or even its eventual screening on CNN.

Until then, I'll continue to enjoy la dolce vita.

‘Norman’ is Gere’s time to shine

Another movie opening on Friday is titled "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer." It stars Richard Gere is the title character. The film scored an 87 percent positive rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

Following are a few of the critical comments:

Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times: "Gere, who somehow seems to make himself physically smaller here, creates a character both infuriating and endearing."

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "Is Norman a macher, a schnorrer or a mensch? Thanks to the filmmaker's sensitive touch and Gere's sympathetic performance, he gets to be all three. And that calls for mazel tovs all around."

Christy Lemire, RogerEbert.com: "In Richard Gere's deft, veteran hands, Norman Oppenheimer is consistently, completely fascinating. You may not be able to root for him, but you can't help but feel for him."

Clearly, some people are Gere heads.

Step into the weird world of David Lynch

Watching a David Lynch film is bound to mark you.

Notice I didn’t say harm you. It might do that. In fact, I imagine many moviegoers with tender sensibilities have felt harmed by certain scenes in such films as “Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet” or “Mulholland Drive” among many others.

But even if you were immune to such harm, some sort of mark likely remains. Some sort of lingering attitude, or feeling that the world has shifted just the slightest bit.

That’s the effect that Lynch can have. He’s one of those filmmakers about whom one can safely say that there’s life before seeing his work, and then there’s life after.

A life that may be worse (harm) or better (film appreciation) but is certainly different. With or without Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Lynch and his films are the subject of a documentary that will open Friday at the Magic Lantern. That documentary, “David Lynch: The Art Life,” was directed by Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes and delves deeply into the man and his views on art by letting the man explain everything himself. Following are some critical comments:

Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times: “No one else weighs in on Lynch here - it's all him, all the time. And, although chatty, he's not the warmest or most engaging presence. Still, Lynch devotees should dig this respectful, offbeat portrait.”

Christina Newland, RogerEbert.com: “This cockeyed, oblique attempt to get closer to the worldview of David Lynch – one of American cinema's finest oddities – is a compelling slice of cinephile inquiry.”

Scott Marks, San Diego Reader: “Is there a more rewarding way of spending 90 minutes than watching Lynch putter, reminisce, and work on a sculpture? Maybe, but you'd need to give Lynch the budget to produce another feature to find out.”

Lynch talking is the next best thing to Lynch directing. Either way, he’s a filmmaer who certainly has – wait for it – made his mark.

Friday’s openings: Aliens and alienation

It was way back in 1979 when Ridley Scott saw the release of his first "Alien" feature. Though the story was somewhat familiar, Scott – a filmmaker with a particular talent for creating visuals – gave it new life.

Since then, several other filmmakers have taken their turns working the “Alien” storyline, which always tends to end the same way – with a standoff between humans and one of the most fearsome extraterrestrials even conceived.

Those other filmmakers, by the way, include such notable names as James Cameron and David Fincher.

Then Scott got back into the series, extending it with 2012’s “Prometheus,” taking the original idea and expanding it. Now comes another along the new line, “Alien: Covenant,” with Scott again directing.

“Alien: Covenant” is the top national release set for Friday. The week’s major releases are as follows:

“Alien: Convenant”: A band of space colonists discover what seems to be a perfect planet home, only to discover … well, this is an “Alien” movie, so you can guess what happens.

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul”: The Heffley family does a family vacation, and things go predictably awry. The Griswolds they are not.

“Everything, Everything”: A girl allergic to the world at large finds love with the boy next door. Life in a bubble?

That’s the list so far. I’ll update when I can.

‘A Quiet Passion’: moments of pure visual poetry

Of the films opening in Spokane today, only one is aimed at a truly arts-oriented audience. And that film, "A Quiet Passion," is opening — no surprise — at the Magic Lantern. Following is the review of "A Quiet Passion" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Capturing a writer’s life isn’t the easiest task for a filmmaker. Make a movie about an artist, and you can just show paintings. Or sculptures. Whatever. With musicians, you can rely on the magic of sound. Boom-shakalaka. Boom.

But writing? Most movies about writers tend to be filled with scenes of characters scribbling with a pen or pounding a keyboard, squinting as they struggle to find the right turns of phrase.

Of course, good films have been made about writers, even if most are as different from one another as a sonnet is from a limerick. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman gave us “Adaptation,” Bennett Miller “Capote,” the Coen Brothers “Barton Fink.” And no three films on the same topic are more dissimilar.

Clearly, then, British filmmaker Terence Davies took on a difficult task when he decided to write and direct “A Quiet Passion,” which concerns the poet Emily Dickinson. It’s one thing to delve into the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter, as Jonze, Kaufman and the Coens did, or even the world of literary gossip as Miller did. It’s quite another to dissect the life of a poet whose best works radiate with meanings that go far deeper than the words used to convey them.

Davies follows the basic chronology of Dickinson’s life, beginning several years after her birth in 1830 through her death in 1886. We first see Dickinson (played by Emma Bell) as a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, refusing to identify herself as a Christian. This nonconformist attitude toward religion, as well as her anger and frustration at the limitations placed on women of her day, is a big part of what comprises “A Quiet Passion.”

After leaving school, Dickinson returns home to Amherst, Mass., to live with her father, a lawyer (played by Keith Carradine), her mother, older brother and younger sister. The house is a strict patriarchy, if a somewhat compassionate one. Dickinson’s father does grant her request to stay up at night to write, even though he thinks Dickinson an unbecoming young woman in other ways.

As the film goes on – and older actors take over the roles of Dickinson (now played by Cynthia Nixon) and her siblings – the pressure of living under such constraints begins to show, especially on the women. One early scene is especially telling: a 360-degree pan of a candle- and firelit room, capturing first Dickinson, her father and brother all reading, her sister crocheting, her mother staring silently, then returning to Dickinson who wears an expression of what might be horror, suggesting that she sees her future. Bleak. And lonely.

Such scenes are the best of what Davies’ film has to offer. Some of his other artistic choices are more problematic. Much of the dialogue feels stilted, and the obligatory voiceovers are likely to make sense more to Dickinson scholars than the general public.

If nothing else, “A Quiet Passion” does succeed in portraying the ultimate irony: that a woman whose life was filled with so much anguish could leave behind such a rich legacy of literary beauty.

Friday’s openings redux: a small game of sniping

Turns out, other than a couple of "Surfs: The Lost Village" second-run screenings, only one other national release is coming to the area on Friday. The additional screening is as follows:

"The Wall": Doug Liman directed this films about two U.S. soldiers (John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) getting pinned down by an unseen sniper and struggling to survive. Not a video game (though someone is probably working on a version for gamers to play on their phones).

Some critical comments:

David Erlich, IndieWire: "Smaller than the sum of its stones, this taut psychological thriller is still sturdy enough, and every bit as compelling as some studio fare 10 times its size."

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice: "Liman, for all his action acuity, struggles to make lying behind a wall exciting."

Peter Debruge, Variety: "Taylor-Johnson … gives a terrific performance under extreme conditions, totally convincing as a man alternating between panic and trust in the practical discipline of his training."

That's it for Friday. For the moment, at least.

Friday’s openings: Round tables and R-rated jokes

Of the several possible national movie openings set for Friday, only two are guaranteed a wide-spread release. Those two films are:

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”: Charlie Hunnam stars as the title character, a man whose eventual gang was a sort of Middle Ages equivalent of the “Sons of Anarchy.”

“Snatched”: Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn star as a daughter-mother couple who get kidnapped while on vacation and have to use their basic skills to get free. As the MPAA advertises, “Rated R for crude sexual content, brief nudity, and language throughout.”

And at the Magic Lantern? In addition to picking up “The Zookeeper’s Wife” for a second-run screening, the Lantern will open one first-run feature:

“A Quiet Passion”: British filmmaker Terence Davies tackles the life and works of the reclusive 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson. She had no use for Longfellow.

That’s it for now. I’ll update when the final local bookings become available.

Two unique documentaries deal with death

As part of our ongoing efforts on the Spokane Public Radio show "Movies 101," my partner Nathan Weinbender and I reviewed a couple of unique documentary films that we saw online. Following is the review that I wrote of both films:

Who among us hasn’t, at one time or another, gaped at some catastrophic event with – what? – fascination? A feeling of guilt? Thankfulness that whatever was going on didn’t involve us?

Maybe all we did was stare through the flashing lights beaming from a road-side car accident as we drove slowly past. Or paid closer attention to some TV reporter standing in front of a burning house. Certainly we all paid as much attention as we could 17 years ago to the news clips that were broadcast ad nauseam of planes flying into the towers of the World Trade Center.

How could we not? In this experience we call the human condition, bad things do happen. And like wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti, we watch as the lions pick off the unlucky, maybe cross ourselves, then get on with our own lives.

That basic human quality is what two recent documentaries, both of which can be found online, use to explore stories that made national headlines. And in both cases, that quality is both examined – and exploited.

The first documentary is the Netflix offering “Casting JonBenet,” which tells the sad story of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty pageant queen who on the day after Christmas, 1996, was found murdered in her Boulder, Colorado, home. As the 20-year anniversary of the crime passed with no break in the case – even though over the years suspicion has fallen on the girl’s father, mother, brother and even all three at once – TV news reports again trotted out all the principals, and even offered new suggestions as to what really happened.

But this strange documentary, written and directed by Australian-born filmmaker Kitty Green, takes a different tack. Using actual Boulder residents, Green constructs her film as an ongoing casting process – with multiple actors up for various roles, from family members to police officers and even, believe it or not, Santa Claus.

Many of the actors do offer their opinions on what happened, though their views are far less interesting than they are themselves – one of whom flails a whip while describing himself as a professional quote-unquote sex educator.

In similar fashion, the 2016 documentary “Kate Plays Christine” – which I watched courtesy of iTunes –  revolves around Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota, Florida, television reporter who committed suicide onscreen in 1974.

Written and directed by Robert Greene – no relation to Kitty Green – “Kate Plays Christine” follows New York actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she auditions for Greene’s movie, is hired and then begin the long process of figuring out who Chubbuck was. Her intent, she explains, is to immerse herself into Chubbuck’s character so that she can give a believable portrayal.

Both these documentaries prove to be fascinating projects, delving as they do not just on the central topics – incidents involving pain and anguish familiar to us all – but on our ongoing fascination with them. They are exploitation, something that both films suggest, if not actually state, is largely their underlying point.

Whether that point manages to be anything more than mere voyeurism, though, is a question viewers will have to answer all on their own.

SIFF 2017: paradise for movie lovers

One of the best times of year for Northwest moviegoers comes sometime in the middle of May through the first several days of June. This is when the Seattle International Film Festival is held.

This year's SIFF, the 43rd edition, begins on May 18 and runs through June 11. It annually screen more than 400 films from 80-odd countries and attracts some 155,000 attendees.

You can — and should — be among their number. Tickets to SIFF 2017 are now on sale.

I've been attending SIFF on and offer since the early '90s. No festival in the. country offers a better viewing experience.

Below: SIFF 2017's opening-night movie is "The Big Sick."

Friday’s openings redux: Time for ‘Dinner’

And so what is the only movie willing to go up against one of the year's most anticipated blockbusters? A taut little mystery-drama, of course. And that's the only kind of film that is opening locally against "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." The title:

"The Dinner": Two couples meet to discuss what to do about their not-so-saintly children. Written and directed by Oren Moverman, based on the novel by the Dutch writer Herman Koch. Probably not about food.

Note: For fans of Dutch cinema, director Menno Meyjes did his own adaptation of Koch's novel in 2013. Fans of Italian cinema might want to know that director Ivano De Matteo did his own adaptation in 2014.

I'll update if needed.

Friday’s openings: Save the Galaxy - again

So, any number of movies might be opening on Friday. That's the game that both distributors and exhibitors play each week, often not announcing their weekly lineups until the last moment.

One thing is sure about this coming Friday, though. "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2" is opening. And no other blockbuster wannabes are going to want to compete with it. So far, the single announced opening going wide is:

"Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2": The principals from the first film (2014) return, one as a baby, to keep fighting for galactic justice. And Star-Lord meets his Daddy.

And at the Magic Lantern?

"Colossal": Though the Lantern is picking up this quirky film as a second run, it's where it should have opened in the first place. The story involves a self-destructive woman who, returning home, discovers that — for some strange reason — her actions in a playground play out as a monster threatening the citizens of Seoul, Korea. Yeah, seriously.

The official listings from the area chain theaters should be available in a day or two. I'll update then.

‘Frantz’: a fresh twist on a familiar story

The Magic Lantern is screening the French-German film "Frantz," which was written and directed by François Ozon. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

For fully half its running time, writer-director François Ozon’s World War I-era film “Frantz” goes in a predictable direction. Based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 anti-war film “Broken Lullaby,” itself an adaptation of a Maurice Rostand stage play, “Frantz” starts out as a simple story of a man trying to make up for something he can’t forgive himself for doing.

But then, just when you expect Ozon to head into familiar territory, he swerves. Not hugely, and not in any fantastical way. He simply does so in a manner that, while it might have surprised audiences of Lubitsch’s era, feels perfectly attuned to 21st-century sensibilities.

The Frantz of the film’s title is a young German soldier who, when the film begins, is revealed to have been killed at the front. In fact, Frantz exists mostly as a McGuffin, seen only in flashbacks, his ghostly presence haunting the other characters. That includes his fiancée, Anna, as well as Frantz’s parents, with whom she lives. All plod through their days, burdened by loss.

Then one afternoon, while heading to Frantz’s grave – a symbolic site because Frantz’s actual body was buried where he fell – Anna, well played by the German actress Paula Beer, spots a stranger laying flowers on the dead man’s headstone. When asked for an explanation, the man – who turns out to be French – explains that he had been Frantz’s friend. That they had shared experiences in Paris before the war.

And so, slowly, the man – who introduces himself as Adrien Rivoire (played by Pierre Niney) – becomes a comfort both to Anna and to Frantz’s parents. Not at first because, one, he is French and resentment toward the enemy is still strong in Germany and, two, because their grief is just too raw. But he wins them over, finally, with tales of his and Frantz’s visiting museums and dancing in Paris nightclubs.

There is, of course, something a little too convenient about Pierre’s stories, and that’s where Ozon changes course. To be more specific would give too much away, but I will say that circumstances ultimately convince Anna that she must go in search of answers to questions she doesn’t even know how to ask.

Anyone who has seen other Ozon films, particularly “Under the Sand” or “Swimming Pool,” knows that he likes mysteries. And that’s how “Frantz” plays out, with our wondering where the story will go next. And Ozon plays with our expectations both thematically and visually, filming most scenes in a soft-focus black and white, while inserting various flashbacks, memories and what might even be fantasies in color.

The acting is good across the board, with Ernst Stötzner a gruff presence as Frantz’s father, Marie Gruber a far more gracious but no less heartbroken mother. Niney has sharp facial feature that give him a naturally screen-classic air, as if he were John Gilbert reincarnated.

It is Beer, though, on whom Ozon most dotes. Her final scene, which is revealed in full color, may be wishful thinking. But she plays it perfectly, a woman courting independence, coming finally into her own.