For the past several years, I've been reviewing audiobooks for Audible.com. One of the finalists in last year' science fiction category for the Audie Awards was "The Martian," written by Andy Weir and read by R.C. Bray. (The overall winner was "Captain Vorpatril's Alliance," by Lois McMaster Bujold, read by Grover Gardener.)
The audiobook was how I was introduced to Weir's story, which involves a crew member of a NASA Mars mission who ends up, following a series of unfortunate circumstances, marooned on the planet. Facing a situation that would challenge the skills of Mister Wizard, the crew member — botanist Mark Watney — must find a way to survive until the next mission crew can come get him. Four long years later.
Now Weir's novel has come to the big screen, courtesy of director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard. And while the movie has its qualities, it's not appreciably better than what Weir put on paper. Or what Bray reads out loud.
So, by all means, go and see the movie. Especially in 3D. But don't forget the original formats.
In 2006, Mexican-born filmmaker Guillermo del Toro presented a nearly perfect blend of fantasy horror and political history. Titled "Pan's Labyrinth," it included many of del Toro's previous themes — fantastic creatures and other-worldly scenarios — along with a terrifying storyline set during Spain's Civil War.
Before and since, del Toro has been content to keep politics out of his films. And that practice likely will continue with this week's opening, "Crimson Peak," which my brother describes as a cross between Edgar Allan Poe and Charlotte Bronte.
Friday's openings are as follows:
"Crimson Peak" (IMAX): A young woman (Mia Wasikowska) marries a mysterious man (Tom Hiddleston) and finds herself living in a creepy mansion that harbors murderous secrets. That's what happens when you marry Loki.
"Goosebumps" (3D and standard): Jack Black stars as writer R.L. Stine who must team up with children to save the day when his character come alive and threaten their town. Think "School of Rock" without the music.
"Bridge of Spies": Steven Spielberg's latest features Tom Hanks playing a lawyer in this "inspired-by-real-life" drama involving a Cold War spy swap. And everyone comes in from the cold.
"Woodlawn": From IMDB: "A gifted high school football player must learn to embrace his talent and his faith as he battles racial tensions on and off the field." Another "based-on-a-true-story" feature, this one dating back to 1973 and set in newly segregated Woodlawn, Ala.
And at the Magic Lantern:
"Pawn Sacrifice": Still another story taken from real life, the 1972 showdown between American chess master Bobby Fischer and Russian champion Boris Spassky.
You may know the name Philippe Petit. He’s the French-born wire-walker whose most famous exploit was, in 1974, to string a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and pull off what is often referred to as "the artistic crime of the century."
Fans of documentary film should be particularly well versed in all things Petit. Besides the many news stories about what Petit himself referred to as “le coup,” James Marsh’s 2008 documentary "Man on Wire" about the Twin Towers feat – which, the walk itself aside, required an incredible amount of planning, coordination and subterfuge – won the 2009 Documentary Feature Oscar.
And now we have “The Walk,” a film by Robert Zemeckis, that tells the same familiar story but with actors filling in for the real-life Petit and posse. So why should anyone go? Well, let me offer a few reasons.
One, there’s something hypnotic about watching a movie on the big screen – especially a movie formatted in IMAX 3-D – that portrays what it’s like to stand on a ledge 110 stories above the street. If you’re sensitive to heights, “The Walk” is bound to cause your stomach to flutter.
Two, Zemeckis tends to make entertaining movies. From the “Back to the Future” trilogy, to more adult fare such as “Cast Away” and “Flight,” Zemeckis – like James Cameron – specializes in films that feature both accessible storylines and envelope-pushing visual effects.
Three, Zemeckis had the good sense to cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. Affecting a French accent that passes mainstream muster, Gordon-Levitt serves not only as the film’s protagonist but also, in effect, as its very ringmaster. Petit himself was loath to limit his talents to the circus life, but Zemeckis uses that three-ring cheerleading conceit as his chief narrative device.
So, we see Petit from his teenage beginnings as a Paris street performer, to his first interests in wire-walking, through his apprenticeship with a circus star (played by Ben Kingsley) and his first public performance – walking a cable strung between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral – on to his first fantasies of tackling the World Trade Center, then still under construction.
We see him develop a series of relationships, from the obligatory romantic ideal – the French heartthrob Annie, played by Charlotte Le Bon – to the rest of the crew that would help him pull off his biggest artistic “crime.” And all the while, Zemeckis – relying both on Gordon-Levitt’s energy and regular glimpses of Manhattan streets from more than 400 meters in the air – manages to maintain a sense of tension. Even for those of us who know full well what happens.
Sure, on occasion Zemeckis panders to the melodramatic. And like any biopic, his film – which he co-adapted with Christopher Browne from Petit’s memoir “To Reach the Clouds” – alters facts and time-sequencing for dramatic effect.
But the taking of such dramatic license to tell this true story barely matters. “The Walk” works as entertainment, but it also stands as a testament to the Towers themselves – Towers whose loss a quarter century after Petit’s artistic “coup” would change the world.
Do you remember the first time you saw the film "Alien"? I do. I was living in Eugene, Ore., during the summer of 1979, and my then-wife and I went to a theater with another couple. And if nothing else, I remember emerging from the theater feeling … well, a whole range of emotions. But mostly the kind of excitement that comes from seeing something truly memorable.
And I knew this was why I went to movies. Director Ridley Scott and his team had taken a simple story — one, by the way, had been done 21 years before under the title of "It! The Terror Beyond Space" — and made a sci-fi classic. It was a blend of slasher/horror and some of the best rendered sci-fi effects since maybe "2001: A Space Odyssey."
"Alien" has spawned three sequels so far: "Aliens," "Alien3" and "Alien: Resurrection," and was the inspiration for what is really a companion series, "Prometheus" (and its two planned sequels). And while "Aliens" certainly has its qualities, nothing quite matches Scott's original for mood, setting and sheer terror.
So, Spokane Public Radio will screen Scott's "Alien" tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater at 7:30. Movies 101, the show that Mary Pat Treuthart, Nathan Weinbender and I do for SPR, will do a live taping focusing on Scott and "Alien" beginning at 6:30. Tickets are $12 (which includes a $2 service charge).
If you show up, remember: In space, no one can hear you scream.
We've reached that point in the fall movie season when we can expect only one mainstream opening. That's "Pan," the prequel to the "Peter Pan" story that stars Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard — who knew he was in the story? — and Garrett Hedlund as a young Hook. Peter is played by relative unknown named Levi Miller.
So Friday's openings are as follows:
"Pan" (3D and standard): Here's what IMDB has to say: "12-year-old orphan Peter is spirited away to the magical world of Neverland, where he finds both fun and dangers, and ultimately discovers his destiny — to become the hero who will be forever known as Peter Pan." That sound is J.M. Barrie rolling over in his grave … because he doesn't have points.
And at the Magic Lantern:
"Goodnight Mommy": This Austrian-made horror films features twin 9-year-old boys who, when their mother has facial-reconstruction surgery, discover someone under the bandages they don't recognize. Entertainment Weekly calls it "brilliantly sinister." Wonder if the boys insist on playing with wire hangers?
"Rosenwald": This documentary portrays the work of Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago philanthropist who, during the early 20th century, helped fund the building of thousands of schools in African-American communities. Long before Common Core, of course.
Above: Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling star in "45 Years."
After seeing eight films in two days at the 34th Vancouver International Film Festival, we saw a ninth — Andrew Haigh's "45 Years" — on Saturday before driving home. Yes, our 2015 VIFF sojourn was brief.
But maybe more satisfying than any short festival venture we've every undertaken. I've already written my impressions of the first eight. But "45 Years" was as good as any of them.
The movie involves an elderly couple (Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling), likely in their 70s, who are approaching their 45th anniversary. Days before the big event, the husband receives a letter from Germany. Seems the woman he was engaged to 1962, who disappeared on a Swiss mountain during an afternoon hike, has been found. Rather, her body — perfectly preserved in a glacier — has been found.
And that simple scenario sets up a procession of events that ends up causing a disruption of everything the two had long before accepted about each other. Not only is the story, which writer-director Haigh adapted from a short story by the British writer David Constantine, full of inherent tension. But the way Haigh films it, continually filling the frame with images that speak of threat, certainly adds to the film's power.
"45 Years" won't have a mainstream release until Dec. 23. But it will play once more time, Tuesday night, at VIFF. OK, it's doubtful that anyone is going to drive eight-plus hours to see the film. And, sooner or later, it's likely to open in Spokane, if not at AMC River Park Square then at the Magic Lantern.
But the quality of "45 Years" does go to show just how good our trek to VIFF 2015 was. The festival runs through Friday, so it's still possible for Spokane movie fans to head on over to see for themselves.
For one thing, most of the nine theaters that the festival uses are within walking distance of one another. And the other can be reached by mass transit (just take the SkyTrain). For another, tickets are easy to purchase, either online or by going to any of the festival ticket sites (access their locations here).
Of course, if you're picky about the movies you want to see, you may find yourself sometimes run-walking between theaters to get from one spot to the next before the curtain goes up. That happens at any festival. (I usually avoid that by picking a couple of closely located venues and just see what's playing at those sites.)
You might not have a lot of time to do sightseeing. We just happened to see that a special exhibit was showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and so we stopped in between movies. I’m not saying we gave the exhibit, "Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums," proper appraisal in the half hour we spent there. But we did cruise through the whole thing and found the experience well worth it.
The other thing you might have to do without is food. At least the kind of food that Vancouver is famous for. We started our day Thursday by taking in breakfast at a restaurant that was just down from Sutton Place, the festival headquarters. Bellagio offers a fairly cheap, but tasty breakfast, that had both of us eating eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast — plus coffee and tea — for just over $20 Canadian (a little over $15 U.S.).
Digression: Note that exchange rate. Visit Canada now!
On Friday, we made time during the day to check out a Chinese restaurant that my wife found online (and that boasted good recommendations). Gain Wah got us in fast, and despite getting our order initially wrong served us the daily special — giant prawns in black bean sauce, plus General Tso's Chicken (an inside joke), both of which we downed in about 10 minutes (plus a side of garlic broccoli). Price: $32.50 (less than $25 U.S.)
We made it back, even though we did have to stand in the rush line to get into our next movie. But we did make it.
The rest of the time? We ate popcorn, some mediocre noodles at the food court in the shopping mall where the Cineplex Odeon theaters sit. Oh, and some M&Ms.
But the movies? Ah, VIFF seems to be always worth the sacrifice.
Above: "Accused" is a Dutch-made film based on a real story.
So, day two of this short — it ends tomorrow — trek to the 34th Vancouver International Film Festival was more successful than day one. Which is saying something because a 50 percent success rate is always something to be envied.
Today's, though, was far better. In fact, I like pretty much all four films we saw. And I might even have liked the fifth, which we planned on seeing, but the festival managers could never get the subtitles to read correctly — and our French is nowhere near good enough to make sense of characters speaking Quebecois.
But that left four films, which were as follows:
"3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets": With all the recent gun violence in the U.S., this documentary proved to be particularly relevant. It involves a 2012 case in Florida in which four black teenagers got into an argument with a middle-age white guy at a gas station. The white guy pulled out a pistol and put 10 rounds into the kids' car, even though they were — witnesseses and police testified — unarmed. One of the boys died. Following the George Zimmerman case, the shooter cited Florida's "Stand Your Ground" statute. And the movie, which depends on good access to the whole judicial proceeding, uses that statute as the basis for its exploration of current U.S. law.
"Embrace of the Serpent": Based on two actual Amazon expeditions, this narrative study focuses on a white explorer in 1909 and a second white explorer who follows in his footsteps some 40 years later. Shot in black-and-white, which gives the whole project a newsreel feel, the film deals with a range of issues: rape of the Amazon, disruption of indigenious tribal life, the effects of missionary work, culture clash and individual ambition played out against scientific investigation. The film may be a bit less successful than it intends, but it is an intriguing effort.
"600 Miles": News of violence below the border hits the headlines on a regular basis. This narrative film takes us into the front lines, keying on a young Mexican man who thinks he has what it takes to be part of the cartel trade. But when he runs into a U.S. ATF agent (played by Tim Roth, who also executive-produced), he discovers that the world is a far more dangerous place than he ever imagined. Scenes of almost glacial slowness are disrupted by sudden and imposing violence. And the ultimate effect is as wrenching as a punch to the gut.
"Accused": Based on a real case, this narrative study tells the story of a woman — a nurse with a complicated emotional makeup — who gets accused of murdering a baby under her care. Then from that case, the woman is accused of several more similar murders, and eventually she is sentenced to life in prison. The film is a powerful study of the unjustly accused woman, and her struggle to overturn her conviction, and an indictment of what we've come to think of as the progressive legal system of The Netherlands.
That makes eight films in two days, six of which I would recommend to most anyone — but mostly to fans who share our desire not just to see good cinema but to spend days on end watching those glorious images dancing across the big screen.
VIFF 2015 still has a week to run. And not a single showing that we attended was sold out completely. So my suggestion would be, take a few days, drive to this beautiful city and take in some movies.
It’s a great day for a movie fan when, after watching four movies over a 10-hour period, you can look back with fondness for two of them.
Two hits out of four viewings? That’s a pretty good average for those of us addicted to film festivals. And I’ve attended such movie fiestas all over the world, from the island of Sicily to Park City, Utah.
Today my wife and I spent our first day at the 34thVancouver International Film Festival. Any day I spend in Vancouver, British Columbia’s gem of a city, is a good one. But since the early ’90s, I’ve been coming here on occasion as a member of the press.
For several years I did so as a staff writer for The Spokesman-Review. These days I do so for Spokane Public Radio. Either way, my press pass gets me into pretty much any film I want.
And today I wanted to see four films that my wife picked out. They were as follows:
“Maravigiloso Boccaccio”: This Italian-made adaptation of Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” has all the feel of a made-for-TV production. Set in Florence during the 14th-century’s plague years, it follows the story of 10 too-pretty-to-die youngsters who flee the city and its streets full of corpses. Over the course of a fortnight they run and play (but not make love), telling each other stories that run the gamut of dark comedy to forlorn love. And then they decide to return. That’s about it.
“Taxi”: Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is known for such films as “The White Balloon,” “The Circle” and “Offside,” each of which has, in a progressive manner, been critical of his home country’s ruling faction. “Taxi” – which is being called various titles such as “Jafar Panahi’s Taxi” or “Taxi Tehran” – is a curiosity. It features Panahi himself, driving around Tehran as if he were a cab driver, picking up fares and using his customers to make statements about what’s going on in Iran. It’s unusual to the max and a brave stand made by a courageous and talented filmmaker.
“Palio”: Anyone who has ever visited Siena, Italy, knows about the horse races that are held in that city’s main square, Piazza del Campo. This documentary gives us the back-story to that race, which is held twice a summer (July and August) every year. Not only does director Cosima Spender takes us behind the scenes, not only does she get some of the principals to explain the machinations behind the races themselves, but she also manages to portray two of one summer’s races in about as exciting a way as possible.
“Ville-Marie”: Ville-Marie is the name of the Montreal hospital that becomes the central setting for this multi-cast melodrama. Monica Bellucci is the movie star who, while filming a weepy, tries to reconnect with her estranged son. But we also find ourselves mired in the stories of the son himself, an overworked nurse, a PTSD-afflicted ambulance driver and the incident that brings them all together. The only thing more melodramatic than this film is the movie-within-a-movie that Bellucci’s character stars in.
That’s what today offered us. Maybe we’ll do even better tomorrow. If not, no problem. Just walking the streets of Vancouver is enjoyable all on its own.
For information on how you can get VIFF tickets, click here.
It appears the dry spell is over. This week offers three high-profile and highly-anticipated mainstream releases, all of which have already been garnering positive notices from critics. It’s going to be a busy weekend – after all, Terrain and Neil Young are taking over downtown on the same night – but it might not be a bad idea to carve out two hours for a little cinematic entertainment.
“Sicario” – Acclaimed French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Enemy”) takes on the intricacies of the U.S.-Mexico drug trade, focusing on an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) whose involvement with a top secret government task force turns violent.
At the Magic Lantern:
“Paul Taylor: Creative Domain” – This documentary explores the life and career of dancer and choreographer Paul Taylor, whose avant-garde interpretation of ballet made him an enfant terrible in 1950s art circles.
Lily Tomlin is a comic treasure. She's been one since the days she starred in one of the most popular comedy television shows of all time. Following is my review of "Grandma," the movie — written and directed by Paul Weitz — which features Tomlin in one of her rare starring roles. I wrote the review for Spokane Public Radio.
Those of us who recall the TV comedy-variety show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which ran on NBC from 1968 to 1973, remember our introduction to Lily Tomlin. She was famous for two of her most enduring characters: Ernestine the telephone operator and the precocious 5-and-a-half-year-old Edith Ann. And that, as Edith Ann would say, is the truth.
It’s the movies, though, that have posed Tomlin the most difficulties, probably because of Hollywood’s tendency to force stars – no matter how different their talents might be – into the same kinds of mainstream roles. Just look at the 1978 film “Moment By Moment,” which featured a then-nearly-40-year-old Tomlin engaging in a love affair with John Travolta, then in his mid-20s.
Tomlin has fared far better in supporting roles where she’s typically provided comic relief. So it’s both surprising and satisfying that writer-director Paul Weitz cast Tomlin as the lead in his movie “Grandma.”
Tomlin stars as Elle, a 70-something woman who is struggling. Her female partner of 38 years has recently died, she’s just broken up with a much-younger replacement – a “footnote,” she acidly calls the woman in a cruel goodbye – she’s cut up her credit cards in a fit of pique and seems, overall, to be at an emotional crossroads.
This is the moment when her high-school-age granddaughter Sage (played by Julia Garner) comes calling in search of help. Seems Sage is pregnant, doesn’t want the baby and is looking for the $630 she needs to pay for an abortion she has scheduled for later that same afternoon. She could, of course, turn to her own mother – Elle’s daughter, the brittle over-achiever Judy (played by Marcia Gay Harden). But Sage is too afraid of what mom will say.
She thinks, strangely enough, that going to acerbic Grandma is a better option. Which, of course, it turns out to be. Because the need to help Sage forces Elle out of her doldrums, pushing her to find a way to raise the money. And she gradually gains energy, first confronting the surly teenage sperm-donor, deciding to sell her prized first-edition copies of such feminist manifestos as Betty Freidan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” and seeking help from a former male lover who, even years later, still feels the pain caused by their ancient break-up.
Some of this works. Tomlin’s scenes with the male lover (played by Sam Elliott) are among the most effective that Weitz puts on screen. And the movie is effective at dancing around the ticklish issue of abortion while never completely ignoring it. Some of what occurs, though, seems simply TV-sitcom silly.
Weitz may not end up making us like this hard-nosed “Grandma.” Some of us, though, manage to end up understanding her. And that may be all that’s needed.
"Best-of" lists are always fun to read, even those that are clearly one person's opinion and — often — just wrong. I can never resist reading them, especially when they include links to the movies (or movie scenes) in question.
That's why I'm posting a link to this Tasteofcinema.com story that purports to list — rather pompously — "The 20 Greatest Movie Opening Scenes in Film History." Talk about click bait.
But it does start the kind of conversation that I used to have as an undergraduate with my fellow movie-minded friends. Over beers and cigarettes, usually after having watched something by Kurosawa or Fassbinder or even Andy Warhol.
And at least this "best-of" list — which I spotted on John Waite's Facebook page — is something that everyone can enjoy because it doesn't involve spoilers. That's not something could say of a "best-of" list of Greatest Movie Endings.
BTW, the movie "Phoenix" — which continues its run at the Magic Lantern — has one of the best endings I've ever seen. But don't take my word for it. Go and see yourself.
And VIFF? That stands for the Vancouver International Film Festival. Vancouver as in British Columbia. As in Canada. And, for my money, the most beautiful city on the west coast of North America.
Founded in 1982, VIFF — which begins its 16-day 2015 run on Thursday — is regularly one of the biggest film festivals on the continent. In 2014, some 144,000 movie fans watched 349 movies on 10 different screens. And most of those screens sit within easy walking distance of each other.
If you're interested in attending VIFF 2015 (and why wouldn't you be?), you can get all the information you need by clicking here. And the good news? You can catch SpIFF in late winter and SIFF in late spring.
Those movie fans who receive emails from the Spokane International Film Festival know something that the average movie fan perhaps does not: "Wildlike," one of the award-winning movies to play the 2015 SpIFF event will soon be available for popular viewing.
Soon as in (or on) Friday. Popular viewing as in On Demand.
As the SpIFF website points out, " 'Wildlike,' a film by Frank Hall Green, was a SpIFF 2015 favorite. Winner of the 2015 Audience Award and Silver SpIFFy Award for Best of the NW Feature, this film was celebrated by all." All who saw it, that is.
You can check out the film's Facebook page here. And you can pre-order the film through iTunes here.
And make sure to make down the dates Jan. 29-Feb. 6. That's when the 2016 version of SpIFF will be held.
From the melodrama of Nancy Myers to the horror offered up by Eli Roth, the coming week will offer just about as wide a variety of movies to see as is imaginable. In addition, the outdoor death-trek "Everest" goes wider, expanding beyond IMAX 3D to regular screens.
Friday's openings are as follows:
"Hotel Transylvania 2" (in 3D and regular): More animated yuks from Dracula and the crew of the monster-operated hotel. Voice of Dracula: Adam Sandler.
"The Green Inferno": When a group of do-gooder students tries to save the Amazon rain forest, the forest denizens bite back. Literally. From Eli Roth, the director of "Hostel" and "Cabin Fever."
"The Intern": Robert De Niro plays a 70-year-old retiree who scores a gig as an intern at a fashion company. Expect lots of isn't-the-old-guy-cute quotes.
"Pawn Sacrifice": Inspired by true events, the brilliant but troubled chess whiz Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) plays Russian chess champion Boris Spassky (Live Schreiber) for the world title. Remember: Queen always goes on its own color.
And at the Magic Lantern:
"The Second Mother": A live-in housekeeper greets her estranged daughter and the world tips on its side. Que pena, no?
Looking ahead: "The Walk" is scheduled to open in IMAX 3D on Wednesday, Sept. 30. Acrophobes need not apply.