As the weather gets colder, Oscar season starts heating up, and studios begin dropping their heavy hitters into theaters at a relentless pace. This week’s major releases feature a couple titles you’ll likely be hearing more about as the next Academy Awards ceremony approaches.
At the AMC:
“The Eagle Huntress”: This G-rated nature documentary tracks a 13-year-old Mongolian girl’s intentions to become the first female eagle hunter in her family. Narrated by Daisy Ridley.
“Miss Sloane”: Jessica Chastain plays a ruthless D.C. lobbyist who finds her personal and corporate interests shifting after she aligns herself with gun control activists.
“Nocturnal Animals”: A novelist (Jake Gyllenhaal) explores his own troubled marriage in his latest book, which his ex-wife (Amy Adams) takes as a personal threat. Fashion designer Tom Ford’s second film as director, following 2009’s excellent “A Single Man.”
“Office Christmas Party”: An all-star cast of comic ringers (Jason Bateman, Kate McKinnon, T.J. Miller and, uh, Courtney B. Vance) behave badly for our amusement when a well-meaning holiday party hurtles out of control.
At the Magic Lantern:
“The Handmaiden”: A plan to defraud an heiress in 1930s Korea doesn’t go as expected in this twisty, kinky epic from South Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “Stoker”). Recommended for adults only.
If you're in the mood for a trip back in time, you might want to check out "Allied." If not, then … well, I try to explain why in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
Maybe a half hour into “Allied,” Robert Zemeckis’ World War II study of spies in love, I had a thought. What if, I wondered, this movie had been made in, say, 1947?
And instead of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard it starred Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman? And instead of Zemeckis it was directed by Michael Curtiz? Would the script, I asked myself, have required any major revisions?
Well no. Not really.
Oh, Curtiz – who worked in a Hollywood that held a stricter view of censorship – would have been forced to tone down the love scenes, especially one that features a brief side view of Cotillard’s bare breast. Same with the scene where Cotillard gives birth during an air raid.
But pretty much everything else? No changes necessary.
That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about “Allied,” the trailers for which have been playing in theaters for months. Based on an original idea from screenwriter Steven Knight – the British writer-producer whose previous work includes “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things” – “Allied” is a throwback project that feels every bit as old as World War II itself.
The film begins in 1942, in French Morocco. The Canadian operative Max Vatan (played by Pitt) has just parachuted into the desert and fairly quickly meets up with his partner, French resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (played by Cotillard). “Look for the hummingbird,” he is told. And so he does.
The couple’s mutual attraction is unmistakable, leading to a love scene set in a car during a desert sandstorm – which caused my brother to remark, “They share a nice big apartment, and they choose to make love in a cramped car?” Oh, but the sequence is so picturesque.
Flush from having successfully completed their mission, the two fall prey to biology and decide to continue their relationship in England. Marriage, pregnancy and the birth amid fire and bombs bursting in air ensue.
Then comes the complication: Max is told that Marianne may be a German spy. And he is given an ultimatum: Go along with a plan to trap her, or be executed as a traitor. Max is torn between duty and love, which leaves him only one option: Do what he can to prove Marianne’s innocence.
Having directed such films as “Forrest Gump,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “The Polar Express,” Zemeckis owns a well-earned reputation as a forward-thinking filmmaker. And when it comes to how “Allied” looks, he doesn’t disappoint. The effort is apparent in every frame.
Same with the performances. Pitt and Cotillard feel as if they have stepped out of the past, their emotional responses tied to an era when passion was a needed salve against the enduring threat of sudden death.
But until the final 15 minutes, nothing about “Allied” feels the slightest bit original. It’s as if the whole preceding hour and 50 minutes were merely a set-up for the finale.
Zemeckis has said in interviews that Hollywood doesn’t make this kind of movie anymore. Too true. And there’s an obvious reason why.
The Magic Lantern hasn't even reopened yet (that happens on Thursday) and already manager Jonathan Abramson is scheduling the kind of special events that Spokane's alternative moviehouse is known for.
For two straight Sunday nights at 7, on Jan. 1 and Jan. 8, the Lantern will screen the documentary "Seed: The Untold Story." Codirected by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel, the film is a look at the struggle over control of the world's seed inventory, many types of which are being hybridized — and patented — by multinational corporations.
Here are a few comments about the film:
Daphne Howland, The Village Voice: " 'Seed: The Untold Story' is the rare documentary from filmmakerswho are not just capable but also in love with their craft. It's a wonder of photography, animation, and sound, and it's a testament to its editors that the many interviews with activists and scientists are compelling and informative, sometimes even poetic."
John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: "After treating us to some lovely macro photography and time-lapse footage of seeds doing their thing in the soil, the directors introduce the well-known specter of genetically modified crops. There may be no one in the theater who doesn't already know of the troubles Monsanto has made for farmers who don't want to buy their engineered seeds, but Siegel and Betz package those stories up with a quick history of hybrid seeds and the Green Revolution."
Kimber Myers, Los Angeles Times: "Multiple people in the documentary compare seeds to jewels, both for their varied, colorful appearance as well as for their value. The film reveals the beauty present in the every day, and a variety of stunning animation styles further illustrate the wonder of nature."
Tickets for the screenings are $9 and are available at the Magic Lantern box-office.
More local movie news: After its long closure, the Magic Lantern Theatre is scheduled to reopen on Friday with a regular series of screenings. A special Thursday-night event will be held at 5:30, including a screening of a mystery short and a loop of upcoming trailers (refreshments will be served).
Beginning on Friday, the Lantern will show the following:
"A Man Called Ove": A retired Swedish guy badgers his neighbors, who keep interrupting his plans to commit suicide.
"Harry & Snowman": After buying a horse for $80, and saving him from the glue factory, Harry deLeyer and Snowman become champion show jumpers. A Ron Davis documentary.
Amid the many cinematic studies of war, William Wyler’s 1946 film “The Best Years of Our Lives” stands out. Winner of seven Academy Awards, Wyler’s film is a powerful portrayal of veterans of war struggling to reintegrate into civilian society.
Much the same can be said for “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Ang Lee’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel. Lee’s film does for U.S. veterans of the Iraq War what Wyler’s film did for veterans of World War II.
What both have in common is the split that often occurs between civilians and America’s military. That split involves the discord that commonly afflicts individuals – particularly veterans of wartime service – who, upon returning home, are encouraged both to relive their experiences and yet ignore – better yet, forget – the pain, buoyed by grief and regret, they might feel. Thank you for your service indeed.
Lee – best known for such films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Life of Pi,” for which he won a Best Director Oscar – is faithful to Fountain’s novel. Set in 2004, the film follows the eight members of Bravo Squad. Thanks to their having survived an intense firefight – much of which was captured on video – the soldiers, but particularly 19-year-old Silver Star winner Billy Lynn, have become American heroes.
As such, they find themselves being feted by the owner of a Texas NFL franchise (though fictional, the team is a clone of the Dallas Cowboys). While the men of Bravo wait to see if a movie producer can deliver on a promised film deal, they find themselves cast as heroes – a situation that causes them all, but especially Billy, to feel like phonies. By the time they get to the actual halftime show, in which they are made to act as props in support of Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child, things have become surreal. When the fireworks start, the exploitation of Bravo is near complete.
While many of Lee’s artistic decisions work well, a few seem strange. His use of a high-frame shooting format (120 frames per second versus the standard 24) is certainly groundbreaking; but since few theaters have the equipment to show films in that format, it makes little difference to the average moviegoer.
Also, the casting of Chris Tucker as the producer and Steve Martin as the NFL owner makes little sense at all. Actors with better range – or any range at all – are equipped to give line readings that add actual meaning to Fountain’s words.
As for what does work, Lee’s blending of Billy’s flashbacks – from his return home to the actual firefight itself – flows mostly effortlessly. Newcomer Joe Alwyn is convincing as the title character, especially during his tender moments with the cheerleader played by Makenzie Leigh. Meanwhile, the movie’s best moments belong to Garrett Hedlund as Bravo’s sergeant and Kristen Stewart as Billy’s guilt-ridden sister.
Their talents add poignancy to a movie that explores, nearly as well as “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the gap that divides actual warriors from those who merely wave flags in their honor.
We're getting close to the time of year where two holiday traditions coincide: a celebration of the coming Christmas and an honoring of Spokane icon Bing Crosby.
The 11th Annual Bing Crosby Film Festival will be held on Friday, Dec. 3, at (naturally) the Bing Crosby Theater. The all-day event begins at 10:30 a.m. with a screening of the 1953 classic film "White Christmas" and ends with a second screening of the film at 7:30 p.m.
2. An additional film is being added to those already listed:
"Loving": The year is 1958, and a marriage between a white man (Joel Edgerton) and a black woman (Ruth Negga) is ruled illegal in the state of Virginia. The case ends up being decided in a 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia. (Good thing, too, because how else would Kanye West and Kim Kardashian been able to get married?)
That's the list. So go, see a movie. Eat some turkey. And enjoy.
Note: This post has been updated to reflect different opening dates and an additional opening.
While many (if not most) of us will be scarfing down turkey on Thursday, others of us will be making our way to movie theaters for this week of holiday offerings. According to IMDB.com, the week's nationally scheduled openings are as follows:
"Bad Santa 2": This sequel to the 2003 dark comedy brings back the principal characters, including Billy Bob Thornton as a mean drunk with a heart of … well, certainly not gold.
"Rules Don't Apply": Featuring the return of Warren Beatty, who directed, wrote and stars in this study of an eccentric billionaire and the aspiring starlet and ambitious driver who work for him. (Can you say Howard Hughes?)
"Allied": A throwback to the 1940s, this World War II romance/thriller stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as spies caught in a web of intrigue and likely betrayal. Imagine Bogart and Bacall …
"Moana": Dwayne Johnson voices the title character, a cocksure demigod who is recruited by a young girl () to help save her people. Two words: Disney animation.
I'll update as the local theaters post their final schedules.
"Arrival" isn't likely to break box-office records, which is too bad. Then again, how much money a film makes is only one measure of quality — and, honestly, not a particularly good one. In the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I explain why Denis Villeneuve's film is so worth seeing:
Ted Chiang is one of those writers that science fiction fans adore. His short stories have won a cluster of awards – Hugos, Nebulas and more.
Now one of his most famous stories – titled simply “Story of Your Life” – has been adapted into a movie. Based on a screenplay by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival” is an example of hard science fiction that doubles as a meditation on time and relativity and that explores contrasting perceptions of existence.
Anyone who has paid attention to “Arrival’s” trailers, or even just the stand-alone ads, should be familiar with the film’s presumed set-up, if not the actual plotline.
The trailers make Villeneuve’s film seem like another version of either “War of the Worlds” or “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The stand-alone ads usually just show the character played by Amy Adams, mulling over some inner conflict as a some sort of UFO hovers in the background.
As effective as both campaigns might be, they give a wrong impression about what Heisserer and Villeneuve – much less Chiang – want to achieve. In short, “Arrival” is not about an alien invasion. It’s about, succinctly enough, how language affects the way we appreciate reality.
Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist recruited by the government – in the person of an Army officer played by Forest Whitaker – to help communicate with one of 12 alien spacecraft, and the so-called Heptapods inhabiting them, that one day suddenly emerge from space.
The government – as governments tend to do – wants to know what the aliens are after. To be specific, are they a threat? Banks, though, is after something more pure: She simply wants to decipher a complex language that has about as much in common with standard English as simple arithmetic does with advanced calculus.
In a departure from Chiang’s story, Heisserer – who reportedly wrote a hundred or so drafts of his screenplay – adds in a complicating factor: Afraid because of an early translated message that seems to indicate the Heptapods are offering use of, or threatening the use of, an unnamed “weapon,” the world’s governments – including factions in the U.S. itself – announce their intentions to attack the alien ships.
So Banks and her physicist colleague, played by Jeremy Renner, are tasked with doing an impossible job in an inordinately short amount of time.
This invented plot element, which might cause Chiang purists to roll their eyes, could have ruined an otherwise fascinating film. But in the hands of the talented Villeneuve, that doesn’t happen. Just as he skillfully used the talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins to film last year’s “Sicario,” Villeneuve gives Bradford Young leeway to create a series of haunting visuals that perfectly complement both the movie’s patient pacing and Adams’ poignant, bravura performance as a woman emerging from a waking dream.
The result is a wondrous achievement, one that combines mystery and meaning in a way so rarely found in mainstream movies. It’s a tribute to the work of Ted Chiang. And it’s one of the best films of 2016.
The theater is scheduled to reopen on Thursday, Dec. 1, with a 5:30 p.m. special showing of a an as-yet unnamed film.
According to a press release from Katy Sheehan, the director of the Community Building — which is the overall complex that includes the theater — the Lantern is reopening following "a resounding response from the community after the theater closed in August."
"The Magic Lantern Theatre is a vital connection point for arts and culture in our city," Sheehan's message said. "The theatre is a place for independent movies that make your head think and your heart grow and we are excited to continue this tradition."
Regular screenings of the Swedish film "A Man Called Ove" will commence on Dec. 2. (For a review of "A Man Called Ove," click here.) Other movies expected to be screened in future include "The Eagles Huntress," "Loving" and "Jackie."
Refreshments will be served during the Dec. 1 reopening event.
Big week for movies, what with seven scheduled to open. In addition to the ones listed below — "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," "Bleed for This," "The Edge of This" and, yes, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' — the others are as follows:
"Certain Women": Three women (Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams) live, love and learn in small-town America. Shot in and around Livingston, Mont. No cracks about sheep warranted.
"Moonlight": Two young men grow up struggling to discover what love is in a tough Miami neighborhood. No beach flick this.
"The Take": A former CIA agent (Idris Elba) recruits a young pickpocket to help him foil a terrorist plot. No chance against Luther.
Ready for a little J.K. Rowling? The "Harry Potter" author returns this week with the first of a new series of wizardry, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." All of Friday's scheduled openings are as follows:
"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them": Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, a wizard visiting New York some 70 years before Harry Potter was even born. Author Rowling tries again, this time with a more adult view.
"Bleed for This": Miles Teller stars as real-life boxer Vinny Pazienza, whose near-fatal accident proved only to be inspiration for his amazing comeback. He couldn't pronounce no más.
"The Edge of Seventeen": Hailee Seinfeld stars as a teen whose life gets difficult when her best friend begins dating her older brother. Talk about mean girls.
There's a chance that "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" will open, too. I'll have all the updates when the local theaters send out their final listings.
For the past seven decades, Hollywood has produced one film after the next that focused on World War II. The latest to hit local theaters was "Hacksaw Ridge," Mel Gibson's telling of a true story.
Since it's Veterans Day, it seemed only fitting that I would review it. Following is a transcription of the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
The biblical Commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill set up one of the great philosophical conflicts of human history. Taken strictly, it means exactly that: Do Not Kill. Yet most societies allow for exemptions, such as self defense, protecting those we love, and going to war.
The demands of war in particular have proven problematic. One astute statement about war came from the pen of the French free-thinker Voltaire, who wrote, “It is forbidden to kill, therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
The sound of those trumpets – especially when blown in support of a cause of presumed righteousness – can rouse an array of emotions, all of which serve as fuel both for acts of self-sacrifice and for wholesale slaughter … often both at once.
Desmond Doss, a devout young man from Lynchburg, Virginia, was among those of his generation who answered what he considered a call to duty during World War II. He wanted to serve, even though he could have sought a deferment because of his job at a shipyard.
When he was drafted, though, Doss faced the eternal clash between military service and his own conscience: Because of his religious convictions, he had sworn never to touch a weapon. His intent as a self-proclaimed “conscientious cooperator” was to serve as a combat medic, attempting to save lives, not take them.
Yet his stance was questioned, by his platoon sergeant, by his commanding officer, by his fellow soldiers and, in the end, by the Army itself. During his training he was marginalized, harassed and threatened with summary dismissal unless he agreed to carry a rifle. But he remained true to his convictions and, ultimately, won his case.
“Hacksaw Ridge,” which was directed by veteran actor/director Mel Gibson, portrays all of this over the first full half of its 131-minute running time – though, like most depictions of actual history, the script does take various liberties with the truth.
And if anything, the movie’s second half underplays Doss’ heroism. His own commanding officer, formerly one of Doss’ biggest critics, ended up crediting him for having saved 100 of his fellow soldiers during the battle portrayed in Gibson’s movie. The official record, meanwhile, listed his saving only 75.
Acted by a largely Australian cast, including Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a worthy honoring of the real-life Doss – portrayed by the British-raised Andrew Garfield – even if it does feel, at times, as traditionally melodramatic as your standard 1950s MGM big-screen release.
The difference is the violence. Gibson is known for depicting scenes of savagery graphically in such films as “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto.” Filled with lushly filmed scenes of fire, flame and dismembered corpses, Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” is as much a study in barbarity as it is a celebration of steadfast principle.
It’s almost as if by creating such beautifully rendered tableaus of horror, Gibson is sounding his own trumpet, one that prizes the nobility of suffering itself over a single man’s courage.
Not that I place any real credence in trailers or critical previews, but one film that is opening on Friday is receiving high marks for both.
I don't trust trailers because they so often don't end up reflecting what the final film is all about. Too many times they either give the whole film away or they give a mistaken impression of the respective film's tone.
I remember thinking that Joe Wright's 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement" was just another of your average stuffy Masterpiece Theatre productions. How wrong I was. "Atonement" turned out to be as poignant and passionate a study of love and loss as I've ever seen.
And critics? Even the best of them can make some outlandish pronouncements (though hardly among the best, I will plead guilty to having done the same). So, yes, I'm careful.
Stephen Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: "Arrival is at once majestic and melancholy. It's a grand endeavor, and (Amy) Adams, at the center of it all, brings pluck and smarts and a deep-seated sorrow to her role. This is her movie, no doubt."
Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: "So sure is the stride of the narrative, and so bracing the air of expectation, that you feel yourself, like Louise, beginning to spin, and barely able to catch your breath."
Mara Reinstein, US Weekly: "The sci-fi thriller not only subverts expectations in brilliant ways, it explores deeply felt themes of life, loss and love. In other words, it's light-years away from 'Independence Day 3.' "
Tony Hicks, San Jose Mercury News: "Arrival arrives at a good time, as something of a salve for the ugly discourse going on and a reminder to us that thinking big is really worthwhile."
So I'm excited. Let's hope my enthusiasm isn't, as often happens, misplaced.