OK, I know. John Sturges' 1960 western is itself a remake. It's an American version of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film "The Seven Samurai" (itself subject to a remake), which he directed from an original screenplay he co-wrote with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Despite being transplanted from Japan to Mexico, Sturges' movie carries but a single screenwriter: William Roberts.
And, yes, Sturges' film inspired at least three sequels and a television show as well. None, though, could touch the 1960 film. Certainly not for star power, what with the likes of Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and the great Steve McQueen in the cast. But not in quality either.
The problem is that, like many classic films, Sturges' "The Magnificent Seven" is a film of its time. Today's mores won't allow the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants to play a Mexican, the way Eli Wallach plays the bandit chief Calvera. And little made today won't at least attempt to capture diversity, which is why Denzel Washington is listed as central to the new production (set for a 2017 release).
Not that I begrudge Washington's casting. As he proved most in the 2012 film "Flight," where he played a drunken airline pilot, he's still as good an actor as is working today. And of course he can play a gunfighter, every bit as fittingly as Danny Glover played a trail hand in "Lonesome Dove."
It's just this: I have a short list of films that are I consider to be nearly perfect. "Casablanca" is one. And "The Magnificent Seven" is another. And just as I would hate to think of, say, Zack Snyder doing a "Casablanca" remake with, say, Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Lawrence — and don't laugh; some agent somewhere has definitely tried to sell that idea or something even more ridiculous — I can't stand the thought of Antoine Fuqua remaking Sturges' western masterpiece.
So I'm not looking forward to this new "Magnificent Seven." Not at all.
Note: This blog post originally misidentified the actor starring in "Good Kill." Duh. Since corrected.
If you decide to stay in Spokane this weekend — that is, instead of heading to Seattle to take in the 41st Seattle International Film Festival — you should have a couple of decent movie selection to choose from. Friday's openings are as follows:
"Far From the Madding Crowd": Thomas Vinterberg adapts Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel about an independent woman land-owner and her passionate relationships with three different men. Question: Is Carey Mulligan a suitable substitute for Julie Christie?
"Tomorrowland": Director and a team of screenwriters dream up a plot involving a teen actress, George Clooney and a Disney theme-park destination as backdrop for a summer release. Hope it's worth the price of an E-ticket.
I just returned home after spending much of the weekend in Seattle, attending the 41st Seattle International Film Festival. Unlike the old days, when I had the energy — not to mention desire — to see 20-odd movies in a weekend, I managed only five. But I saw at least a couple of winners. My moviegoing choices were, in order:
"Gemma Bovery" (Saturday at The Egyptian): The conceit here is interesting: When an English couple moves to rural Normandy, seeking a life in the French countryside, their neighbor (Fabrice Luchini) falls in lust with the wife (Gemma Arterton). Because her name is so close to Flaubert's titular character in "Madam Bovary," he fantasizes that she is living the same kind of life that Flaubert imagined — and will suffer the same kind of fate. Based on a graphic novel, and billed as as "a sexy, lighthearted take" on Flaubert's story, the film to me was anything but. Sexy, for sure, but lighthearted? Not to me.
"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" (Saturday at the Pacific Place): Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's second feature, which writer Jesse Andrews adapted from his own novel, won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Drama at January's Sundance International Film Festival. And Gomez-Rejon's film should do well when it gets a wide release on June 12. Much of the film, though, feels cutely made — as if Gomez-Rejon couldn't decide what to do with his camera and decided to throw it around like an obstreperous 2-year-old. When the movie does settle down, it evokes a fair amount of real emotion.
"The New Girlfriend" (Sunday at the Uptown): Francoise Ozon ("Swimming Pool") constructs a meditation on human relations that bends genders as much as anything I've ever seen. Two young French girls swear lifelong fealty, and when one dies the other, Claire, switches her feelings to her friend's widower and his baby girl. So far, so good. But then Claire discovers the widower's secret that, ultimately, gives her the opportunity to continue enjoying her friend's presence — even if only virtually — while exploring new heights of intimacy and sexual exploration. Not just gender- but mind-bending.
"Those People" (Sunday at the Uptown): A group of young, privileged New Yorkers see their lives take a turn for the worse when the central figure of their quintet finds himself involved in an investment scandal. Meanwhile, his best friend must figure out what loves means when he is seduced by an older classical pianist. A well-made study of people whose juvenile narcissism I grew tired of very quickly.
"I'll See You in My Dreams" (Sunday at the Uptown): Seventy-two-year-old Blythe Danner stars as a women, widowed for 20 years, who questions what to do with herself, especially after meeting a smart-if-underachieving pool cleaner (Martin Starr of "Silicon Valley") and a dreamy retired guy (Sam Elliott). If you can get past the "Golden Girls" sequences, which become quickly tiresome, you'll discover a sense of authenticity that makes this one special movie. You'll likely get to see soon, as the film earned a general release on May 15.
I may not make it over to enjoy this version of SIFF again until the final weekend. But as the festival lasts through June 7, you'll have lots of opportunities to see movies between now and then. So get in your car. And go.
All the information you'll need can be found at SIFF.net.
One of the films opening today at the Magic Lantern is a French-Canadian study in culture clash. I reviewed the film for Spokane Public Radio, and a transcription of that review follows:
The best cinema takes us places we’ve never been. Sometimes that means literally a place. In some cases, it means a time. In many instances, it may mean a mere emotion.
In his film “Felix and Meira,” French-Canadian filmmaker Maxime Giroux doesn’t plow any new ground in terms of plot. We’ve all seen movies that attempt to examine the clash of two very different cultures, especially when the clash involves two disaffected characters who risk everything to seek out solace in each other’s presence.
In Giroux’s case though, the quality of his work isn’t so much about where he takes us as how he arranges the virtual trek.
Giroux sets his film between two cultures that – though both are situated in Montreal – couldn’t be much more different. In one, Meira – married into an Orthodox Jewish community and the mother of a baby girl – is feeling isolated and suffocated by the strict rules under which she is forced to live – rules that dictate when and how electricity can be used, that forbid the playing of music that doesn’t fit her community’s mores and that demand, whatever her own wishes, she deliver her husband as many children as she can bear.
In the other, Felix is a 40-something Quebecois who, when we first meet him, greets the father he hasn’t seen in 10 years. A father who, on his deathbed, can’t even recognize his own son. Which explains a lot about Felix, about why he seems so footloose, dependent on his sister and uninterested in doing anything specific with the inheritance she promises to share with him.
The two meet, somewhat cute, and gradually – and not particularly plausibly – develop a relationship that threatens both her marriage and community identity. Yet Giroux isn’t interested in remaking Romeo and Juliet, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time and effort constructing that kind of doomed romance. What he does spend time and effort on is developing mood, setting and visual metaphor. And that makes all the difference.
Scenes develop patiently, whether we’re talking about Giroux’s camera moving down a dinner table or following Felix through an open doorway. Lighting is natural, underscoring the story’s somber tone. Sound is important, whether it involves Meira’s playing with a mousetrap or Leonard Cohen crooning his song “Famous Blue Raincoat,” but so are silences, whether they are used as backdrop to a hotel-room scene where Felix removes Meira’s wig or the two sharing a gondola ride in a Venetian canal with Meira’s baby.
Patience is Giroux’s key and his chief stylistic tool. He may throw in scenes that for whatever reason throw us off-balance – an African-American spiritual, for example, or a pair of secondary characters complaining that Felix “dances like a vacuum cleaner” – and he’s not above using irony: Felix is given his father’s last, moving message by the least likely character possible.
But, again, patience. Giroux doesn’t tie up all his story’s loose ends. And he doesn’t promise anything remotely mainstream as eternal happiness. All he does is suggest the possibility. And that’s more than enough.
Shot in various Alaska locations, from the Inland Passage to Denali National Park, Green's film tells the story of a young runaway — a victim of sexual abuse — who latches onto a stranger for comfort and safety. Newcomer Ella Purnell, a British 15-year-old, plays the runaway, veteran Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood the stranger.
One bit of "Wildlike" trivia, courtesy of IMDB: "Purnell spoke in her American English accent from the moment she got off the plane in Alaska, all during production, 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, until she got back on the plane to London 6 weeks later." And you'd never know she wasn't a typical U.S. teen.
Besides SpIFF, “Wildlike” has played in more than 85 festivals and has collected some 50 awards, among them the Silver SpIFFY for Best of the NW Feature and SpIFF's Audience Award in the same category.
“Wildlike” is scheduled to play May 29 in Los Angeles, June 4 and 6 in Greenwich, Conn., and June 7 in Brooklyn. A commercial release is said to be “in the works.”
Once again, SpIFF proves that it does screen quality cinema.
Below: Purnell and Greenwood are interviewed, and you can hear her actual accent.
It's been 36 years since George Miller presented us his original trilogy version of a world gone mad. As in "Mad Max" (1979), which was followed by "Mad Max: The Road Warrior" (1981) and "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" (1985). Now we have a new version, which headlines this week's movie openings.
Friday's openings are as follows:
"Mad Max: Fury Road": Miller returns with a remake (reimagining? reinvention? reconstruction?) of his classic "Mad Max" tale. Starring Tom Hardy and his sensuous lips. One question: Where's Mel Gibson?
"Pitch Perfect 2": One of the surprisingly funny comedies of 2012 was "Pitch Perfect," which follows the misadventures of a competitive, all-women college glee group. One question answered: Yes, Rebel Wilson returns.
"Where Hope Grows": A washed-up baseball player is rejuvenated by a "gregarious supermarket employee with Down Syndrome." Bring hankies.
And at the Magic Lantern:
"Felix et Meira": Set in Montreal, this Canadian entry explores the burgeoning relationship between a young atheist with few family ties and a young Hasidic woman burdened by the exact opposite circumstance. A whole variety of languages, including French and Yiddish, with English subtitles.
"Welcome to Me": Talented Kristen Wiig plays an emotionally disturbed woman who, after winning a lottery, starts her own television talk show. Hey, is this the female Conan O'Brien story?
So you know the drill by now. Go. See a movie, Enjoy.
Alex Garland may be best known for rebooting the zombie franchise, transforming what traditionally were shambling, mindless creatures into determined, quick-moving cannibals – a la Danny Boyle’s 2002 creature feature “28 Days Later.”
Now, in his first directorial effort, Garland is putting a new look on the story conceit of artificial intelligence. From Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” to Spike Jonze’s “Her,” moviemakers have explored the consequences of what it means to place human intelligence in mere machines. In the process, they’ve all gone beyond the basic concept to examine a range of cultural topics.
Just as writer-director Garland does in his movie “Ex Machina.” On the surface, Garland’s screenplay presents a simple sci-fi mystery. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder at the world’s most-used search-engine company, wins a lottery. The prize? The opportunity to spend a week with his billionaire boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), working on a secret project.
It’s only when he arrives, by helicopter, at Nathan’s estate – a thoroughly modern house set in a remote forested mountain area (“Ex Machina” was shot in Norway) – that Caleb discovers what the project is: Nathan is constructing a robot with enough human intelligence to, he hopes, be able to pass what’s known as the Turing Test. In other words, he’s pretty sure his creation – dubbed Ava (and played by Swedish newcomer Alicia Vikander) – will be able to pass for human. And Nathan wants Caleb to conduct the test.
This is quite an opportunity for a young man pulled from the ranks of anonymous coders, getting to hang with his manly boss, who seems so down to earth, in between his drinking bouts and lifting weights as a hangover cure. From the beginning, though, Caleb senses something strange about the set-up: The house is built more like a fortress than either a home or, as Nathan insists, a lab. Nathan himself is a bit off, a little too demanding, a little too ingratiating, a little too weird. And then there is Ava, whom Nathan keeps confined in a glass prison.
To Caleb, Ava is an enticing challenge. And soon he finds himself engaging with her in ways that make it seem as if she is testing him. And maybe she is. Which leads exactly to the questions that Garland wants us to ask: What is intelligence, who has the right to enslave it, and what lengths will that intelligence go to determine its own future?
Mixed up in Garland’s brew is the notion of sex. It’s no coincidence that Nathan, who uses and abuses his female servant Kyoko, has designed Ava in a woman’s body. In one sense, a subservient female slave – again, another time-worn sci-fi conceit – serves as the stereotype of all that a man supposedly desires. A man like Nathan, at least.
And this lends Garland’s film a certain gravitas. Yet in the end, for all its atmosphere, “Ex Machina” doesn’t really say anything profound. Garland doesn’t answer any questions. All he does is leave us with possibilities.
One of the most entertaining programs to play any film festival is a collection of shorts. For one thing, it takes far less effort — not to mention production costs — to make a short film. So the promise of quality is higher.
For another, if you don't like a particular short, no problem. It's likely to be over in a matter of mere minutes, with another taking its place.
It's mostly mainstream comedy time this weekend. Of the three films opening generally, two feature name stars acting in roles that seem suited for Melissa McCarthy. Or someone.
Anyway, Friday's movie openings are as follows:
"Hot Pursuit": Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara star as, respectively, a by-the-rule cop and a drug boss' widow who race through Texas with murderers on their tail. Sounds like a Tea Party recruiting video.
"The D Train": Jack Black stars as a nerdy guy who tries to attract a one-time high-school hotshot to their reunion. Who hasn't been in that position? (Nerd, I mean, not hotshot.)
"The Salt of the Earth": Wem Wenders co-directs this documentary that explores the work of photographer Sebastião Salgado, who's spent the last four decades capturing some of the world's biggest events and who now is attempting to capture the world's beauty. Surprise, surprise he manages to find some.
And at the Magic Lantern? Preliminary bookings are as follows:
"Dior and I": A fashion-house documentary centering on Raf Simons, since 2012 the creative director at Christian Dior. As David Bowie sings, "Oooh, fashion! We are the goon squad and we're coming to town. Beep-beep, beep-beep."
So go to the movies. Any of the movies. And enjoy.
By the time you read this, "Avengers: The Age of Ultron" will likely make another million or so dollars (not to mention euros, yuan, kroner, pesos, goobers, etc.). Unlike some past superhero movies, this one actually overcomes its hero-operatic tendencies with a viable villain, an intelligible narrative and number of clever quips.
Most of those quips are delivered by the great Robert Downey Jr., whose Tony Stark/Ironman persona is the perfect arrogant-but-likable snark-master. But my favorite, delivered deadpan by Jeremy Renner's Clint Barton/Hawkeye character, is the movie's most knowing and self-referential, which is why this is my favorite of the "Avengers" flicks.
In a moment of crisis, Barton/Hawkeye addresses not just the essential ridiculousness of his character but also the importance of suspension of disbelief: "The city is flying. We’re fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense."
He goes on to make his statement into an inspirational speech: "But I’m going back out there because it’s my job." Whatever, nothing changes the fact that, for one single moment, the movie's silliest character has delivered a giant — and much appreciated — wink to the audience.
Along with opening a new movie, "Seymour: An Introduction," and picking up the Noah Baumbach feature "While We're Young," the Magic Lantern is continuing a number of decent films — including the documentary "An Honest Liar." Following as a transcription of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
If you want to start an argument, one good way would be to spout off about the relative nature of truth. Say you admitted that some truths seem absolute – that seven and seven always equals 14, for example, or that nothing can exceed the speed of light. You could then point out that many astrophysicists no longer consider Pluto a planet, and that concepts of a deity called God shift according to the religion defining them. Cognitive relativism, indeed.
The fact is, people believe something because they want – sometimes desperately – for that something to be true. All con artists know this. As do magicians.
Certainly The Amazing Randi does, something that the documentary “An Honest Liar” makes abundantly clear. The 86-year-old James Randi is a magician-slash-escape artist, now retired, whose resume includes numerous appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show. But Randi may be even better known for his work challenging so-called psychics and others claiming to possess mental powers.
As co-directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein point out, Randi has always copped to the fact that magic is an illusion, a clever trick. And he’s deeply suspicious of those who claim their powers are real and who make money off the gullible. Two of Randi’s most prominent targets have been Uri Geller, whose spoon-bending telekinesis act was all the rage during the 1970s, and the evangelist Peter Popoff, whose fake psychic readings Randi unveiled in 1986.
In fact, one of the most intriguing sequences of “An Honest Liar” is the detailed explanation of how Randi and an electronics expert discovered Popoff’s secret – involving a hidden earpiece through which Popoff’s wife fed him his alleged revelations – and revealed it to Carson on national television.
But charlatans haven’t been Randi’s only targets. He’s also scammed bona-fide researchers, such as those working for the Stanford Research Institute, all – or at least mostly – in an effort to seek out truth. At least two of Randi’s confederates show regret over tricking the researchers, whose careers couldn’t have been helped by the resulting embarrassment.
The movie enters even more shaky ethical territory when it reveals an aspect of Randi’s life that seemed to develop even as the filmmakers were still figuring out what kind of documentary they wanted to make. It involves Randi’s sexual orientation and some illegal actions committed by a man Randi had cohabited with for some 25 years.
And while such a news flash couldn’t be ignored, the way it’s presented – amid self-justifying statements by both Popoff and Geller – makes it seem as if the actions of the charlatans and those of Randi’s well-meaning companion enjoy moral equivalency. Which is hardly the case.
That aside, “An Honest Liar” relies on the charisma of its engaging central figure. Measom and Weinstein trot out a host of witnesses, including the likes of Penn Gillette, rock star Alive Cooper and even the buoyant Geller himself to give talking-head tributes and/or rebuttals to Randi and his feats.
But Randi himself remains the star, honest trickster to the end.
One of the added benefits of attending the 50 Hour Slam screenings, which occurs annually, is that it represents some of the best work done by local filmmakers. The latest edition of the Slam will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at The Bing Crosby Theater.
The event comprises 16 films, each of which was juried from nearly twice that number. (Full disclosure: I was one of seven jurors.)
Each filmmaking team was tasked with … well, let's quote the Slam's website: "The filmmakers will have exactly 50 hours to complete a 3 to 6 minute movie; starting from the writing and development process all the way to the final editing stage."
Furthermore, they were obligated to use one of several historic Spokane landmark buildings, working in a theme representing a dish prepared by a local restaurant and somehow incorporate the Slam's trailer into the final film.
As in years past, the evening will include recitations by a number of local poets and a performance by a local band — this year Pine League.
The Bing seats some 750. But the best seats will no doubt disappear early. The doors open at 5:30, so get there early.
Below: One of the cleverest shorts from the 2014 50 Hour Slam, "Gravitee."
We think of the Garland Theater mostly as a good, inexpensive place to see second-run movies. On occasion, though, the facility plays host to special events.
Which is the case tonight when the Garland will present the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, a touring selection of 12 environmental short films. Begun in 2003, the festival plays annually in Nevada City, Calif., and then embarks on a nationwide tour of some 140 cities. Its organizers call it "the largest environmental film festival in the nation."
The festival screened at the Garland is sponsored by a range of local groups, primarily Spokane Riverkeeper, Patagonia and Mountain Gear. Tickets at this point are $15 and available at the door, which opens at 6 p.m. with the screening at 6:30.
For more information, call the Garland at (509) 327-1050.
When it comes to film festivals, my attention goes first to that annual orgy of cinema we call the Spokane International Film Festival. Co-founded by the Contemporary Arts Alliance and the late Bob Glatzer, and headed over the past several years by Pete Porter, SpIFF — like the Magic Lantern — is the Inland Northwest's best reservoir of independent film.
Ah, but the region's biggest, longest and most massive film festival dates back to the 1980s and is set some 280 miles to the west. The Seattle International Film Festival may not be the most distinguished film event in the country, but it is easily top 10 in terms of offerings and navigational ease.
The 41st edition of SIFF, which opens May 14 and runs through June 7, will be open for ticket purchases tomorrow. That includes tickets both to the May 14 Gala Opening, which features the Melissa McCarthy offering "Spy," and to any of the 400-odd features and shorts that follow over the festival's 25-day run.