7 Blog

Archive: Movies / Spokane and North Idaho

movie review archive

Pixar’s ‘Coco’ is for the whole family

It's likely that most moviegoers will be fighting lines to see "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" this weekend. But those who are still looking for a good family film to see, one that doesn't involve lasers, you might want to try "Coco."

Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Founded in 1979, Pixar Animation Studios became a subsidiary of Disney in 2006. Over the decades, Pixar has released 19 feature films, including the “Toy Story” trilogy, “Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E” and “Monsters, Inc.,” earned in the process eight Best Animation Oscars (and a grand total of 16 Oscars overall).

So the studio’s latest release, “Coco,” has some pretty big shoes to fill. Or maybe a more appropriate word would be “zapatos,” which is Spanish for shoes.

That’s because “Coco,” though an English-language film, tells the story of a 12-year-old Mexican boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who, during the annual festivities of Dia de Muertos – or Day of the Dead – discovers both a secret involving his past and what appears to be an unlikely path for his future.

I say “unlikely” mainly because that path is tied to music, something that Miguel’s family has forbid ever since his great-great-great grandfather ran off to follow his musical dreams. Spurning music, Miguel’s great-great-great grandmother founded a shoemaking business, which has become the family legacy.

I say “unlikely” also because despite his family’s wishes for him to also become a shoemaker –  a special desire of his grandmother Elena – Miguel is obsessed by music. He is particularly taken by the music of Ernesto de la Cruz, a famous Mexican singer/songwriter/movie star who died in a freak onstage accident and whose guitar sits in a tomb set in Miguel’s village.

So when Elena, learning that Miguel is about to enter a local talent contest, smashes his guitar in a rage, he breaks into the tomb and steals de la Cruz’s instrument. That act, though, brings with it a curse that casts Miguel into a netherworld where he is invisible to those still alive yet where he can see, and talk to, the dead – all of whom are portrayed as, prepare the youngest audience members here, embodied skeletons.

From this point on, the plot of “Coco” gets a little complicated. What’s pertinent is that Miguel faces a deadline: It he doesn’t return to the land of the living before sunrise, he will be forced to stay among the dead. But to return he must seek a blessing. His great-great-great grandmother agrees to bless him, though she insists – true to the family tradition she herself instituted – that he give up music.

Refusing to do so, Miguel seeks out de la Cruz. And to find him, he befriends a character named Hector who claims to have once performed with the musical legend. And so proceeds the story, which ends somewhat predictably but, true to form, happily.

Predictability aside, the biggest flaw with “Coco” is the main song, “I Remember.” Unlike the tunes in such films as “Toy Story 2” or in Disney’s “Frozen,” “I Remember” is immensely forgettable.

Yet the vocal talents – especially Gonzalez as Miguel and Gael García Bernal as Hector – are perfectly appropriate. And the animation itself is superb, its renderings of the land of the dead even more vibrant than that of the living.

That’s ironic. Pero también es interesante, no?

‘The Square’: a fable for the 21st century

Magic Lantern fans will have the chance to see "The Square," the latest film by Swedish director Ruben Östlund, when it opens today. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

One of the more interesting films to come out of 2014 was a Swedish gem titled “Force Majeure” – a dark tale, written and directed by Ruben Östlund, that explores what happens when a man lies not just to his wife and children but, maybe worst of all, to himself.

Östlund’s new project – which opens today at the Magic Lantern Theatre – is equally fascinating. Darkly comic and anxiety-inducing, to be sure, but fascinating.

Titled “The Square,” Östlund’s film focuses on Christian (Claes Bang), the Nordically urbane curator of a Stockholm modern art museum. Well-versed in talking to crowds, a number of whom are likely wealthy potential patrons, Christian can say all the right things – even while addressing the vagaries of artistic double-speak – in support of the kind of art that would beg the indulgence of Jackson Pollock.

Christian, then, makes the perfect agent for Östlund as the filmmaker satirizes not only art, artists and those whose job it is to market it, but the faux sanctimony of Swedish society – though we in the U.S. shouldn’t begin to celebrate our superiority anytime soon. What Östlund focuses on is society’s claim to value humanity even as that society looks down on individual humans.

The very concept trumpeted by the work of art from which the movie takes its title comes across as less naïve than wantonly ignorant. The installation, which is basically a square-shaped lit tube placed in the middle of a brick courtyard, comes with an inscription that reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

Right. Yet throughout Östlund’s movie, people walk past those in need. And even when they do stop to help, bad things tend to happen. Ingratitude at the least. Robbery at the worst. Both happen to Christian, though the latter is more important because it’s what propels the movie’s narrative.

After being tricked into acting as any good citizen might, Christian finds that he has lost both his phone and wallet. In an attempt to get his possessions back, he posts a threatening letter to every resident of a dodgy apartment complex. And his scheme works. But his actions also attract the attention of someone he has inadvertently wrongly accused, a young boy who promises to bring “chaos” on Christian if he doesn’t apologize.

Meanwhile, the museum is amping up its marketing campaign for the new exhibit, one recommendation being so ludicrous that two characters – playing the chorus to our greater conscience – actually snicker during its presentation. But Christian, involved in dealing with the chaos that is slowly taking over his life – including the robbery, the actions of the unjustly accused kid, and the woman (played by Elizabeth Moss) with whom he performs perhaps the most discomfiting sex scene in film history – offhandedly OKs the campaign. And in doing so, he seals his fate.

Östlund fills his film with uncomfortable moments – off-screen noises, crying babies, and one confounding sequence involving an artiste impersonating an ape – but it’s all in service of an idea: Hypocrisy, thy name is the 21st century.

‘Lady Bird’: not your typical teen comedy

One of the films you should consider seeing over this weekend is "Lady Bird," which is playing at AMC River Park Square. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

If you’ve been following independent American film for the past few years, you know who Greta Gerwig is. Like a lot of young movie stars – Brie Larson, Carey Mulligan and Jennifer Lawrence come to mind – Gerwig brings a fresh presence to the big screen. Yet while all these actresses boast an undeniable level of talent, the presence that Gerwig presents is singular.

Think of her in “Frances Ha,” a film she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, which Baumbach directed. Her character in that film defines the model of a character she has since played in various versions. As Chicago-based critic Ray Pride described it, “Gerwig draws upon her well of previously-demonstrated charisma, her ample capacity for twerpitude refined, honed, elevated.”

What a word: “twerpitude.” But it fits, just as it would have had anyone applied it to Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.” And let’s be clear: It’s not an insult. I agree with Pride that Gerwig’s character is “precious,” causing you to laugh, to gasp and even to love.

The same can be true, both more and less, in such films as “Greenberg,” “Mistress America” and “Maggie’s Plan.” And now, in her first attempt at being a writer-director, it applies as well to the title character in her film “Lady Bird.”

Played by the Irish actress Saiorse Ronan – displaying, it must be pointed out, an impeccable American accent – Lady Bird is a high school senior attending a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. It’s worth pointing out, too, that the school is Catholic, which Lady Bird attends on scholarship, both because of the school’s continual referrals to priests, nuns and regular mass and because of Lady Bird’s antipathy to anything religious.

The Sacramento reference is important because the film ultimately becomes a love letter to that central California city, a place that Lady Bird expresses a yearning to leave most of the way through.

Lady Bird isn’t even her real name. It’s Christine. But as she explains while auditioning for a school play, “I gave it to myself. It was given to me by me.”

And there it is: Lady Bird’s particular self-focus, a characteristic that puts her at odds, at one time or another, with everyone she comes in contact with: her adopted brother, her teachers, her best friend and especially her mother, played by an actress too long missing from film, Laurie Metcalf.

As an aside, she does NOT come in conflict with her father, played with uncommon compassion by the stage actor/director Tracy Letts. Letts’ character, who has his own back story, is the link between mother and daughter who, from the opening frames, are at each other’s throats.

Mom displays that kind of clinging, critical kind of love that the insistently independent Lady Bird bridles against. And their ongoing conflict, especially over Lady Bird’s desire to go to an eastern college, is the basis on which writer-director Gerwig bases her film.

Told in brief passages, with many sequences being rendered in a kind of cinematic shorthand – the kinds of cut-cut-cuts that give a sense of context without feeling the need for further explanation – “Lady Bird” the movie feels both busy and economical at once.

What Gerwig has done is skillfully create a world where her characters can fully develop, whether they be dad struggling with late-career disappointment, one of Lady Bird’s friends struggling with his sexual orientation, mom regularly working two shifts as a psychiatric nurse just to keep the family afloat – or Lady Bird herself, perfectly portrayed by Ronan, feeling the need to discover a self that knows life has more to it than Sacramento can ever offer.

Her stumbling efforts to fulfill that need bring to mind a word that I used earlier in this review: Those effort may be awkward and, at times, maddeningly frustrating. But they are, in the end … precious.

One of the best 2017 films: ‘Florida Project’

One of the best films of the year opens today at the Magic Lantern. My review of "The Florida Project," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, follows:

You could be forgiven for thinking that filmmaker Sean Baker’s last two feature projects smack of gimmickry. After all, his 2015 release “Tangerine” was famously shot on an iPhone equipped with a special lens. And his new film, “The Florida Project,” follows a meandering storyline that is conveyed primarily through the eyes of the children who reside in a Kissimmee, Florida, budget motel.

Baker’s work, though, rises far above mere gimmickry. “Tangerine” is a surprisingly poignant study of the transgender characters who live on, and off, the brightly lit streets of Los Angeles. And “The Florida Project” uses the very innocence of childhood as a backdrop to gauge the desperation of the adults whose job it is to raise them.

Both films, then, grasp for greater meaning by detailing the difficult lives of those who exist on the hard edge of the American dream. And in both, Baker’s grasp is as great as it is assured.

“The Florida Project” revolves around 6-year-old Moonee (played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince). Moonee lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in a motel, garishly painted purple and called, somewhat ironically, the Magic Castle.

Run by Bobby (played by Willem Dafoe in a career-defining role), this Magic Castle is the kind of place that attracts people on the brink of homelessness, people who struggle to pay week to week by working at service jobs. Halley, whose defensive attitude may be a reflection of her hopelessness but certainly doesn’t work in her favor, hustles for every buck she can – mostly, but not exclusively, by obtaining things on the cheap, bottles of perfume for example, and selling them to tourists for whatever prices she can get.

Moonee, meanwhile, when she isn’t accompanying her mother, roams over the motel grounds, getting into the kinds of trouble that seem to come naturally to children left to run wild. With her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), she puts a dead fish in the motel swimming pool (“We were trying to get it back alive,” she says), she spits on a neighbor’s car, she cages quarters from patrons at a nearby ice-cream shop, she makes fun of an elderly motel guest who likes to sunbathe in the nude. Mostly, she makes life difficult for Bobby, a well-meaning guy who is far nicer – and protective of both the motel’s children and their parents – than he has any obligation to be.

Throughout “The Florida Project,” which Baker directed from a script he co-wrote with Chris Bergoch, the young actress Prince capably captures Moonee’s sense of play, which comes across as her childish attempt to explore, and exert some control over, a world that clearly confounds her mother. It is only when she goes too far that she begins to discover the kinds of societal limits that Hallee should have been teaching her all along.

That discovery comes slowly, but inexorably, and in Baker’s talented hands, ends up feeling – at the film’s end – both like an act of love … and a punch to the heart.

‘Loving Vincent’ lives up to its title

If you haven't yet seen "Loving Vincent," and you're an art-lover, you might be interested in the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In their 2011 biography of the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, titled simply “Van Gogh: The Life,” co-authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith proposed an intriguing theory concerning the artist’s 1890 death.

Long thought to have committed suicide, van Gogh – Naifeh and Smith claimed – was actually shot by someone else. And even though the artist, on his deathbed, said that he indeed did attempt suicide, Naifeh and Smith – pointing to the position of the wound and other circumstantial evidence – insisted that he must have been covering up for someone.

Other van Gogh scholars have ridiculed the story, maintaining that van Gogh’s history of mental illness was in itself enough of an explanation for the suicide verdict, much less van Gogh’s own confession. Whatever the truth of the matter, the theory aroused the interest of Polish filmmaker Dorota Kobiela. And in an effort to explore the story, Kobiela had an idea intriguing in its own right: She would immerse viewers in van Gogh’s very art.

Teaming with British filmmaker Hugh Welchman, Kobiela hired a team of skilled artists to re-create 94 of van Gogh’s works. From those re-creations, which numbered by one estimate to some 66,960 individual oil renderings, the co-directors cast actors who resembled van Gogh’s subjects, filmed them in live-action sequences and, with the aid of computer graphics, translated the story into film.

That story commences a year following van Gogh’s death, at the age of 37 in a small village some 17 miles northwest of Paris. Armand Roulin (voiced by Douglas Booth) is a young man who spends much of his time drinking and fighting. He is asked by his father to carry a letter, written by the late van Gogh, to the artist’s brother Theo. The letter is two years old – yet the elder Roulin, a postman who admired van Gogh, feels obligated that it be delivered.

Thus starts Armand’s sojourn, a trek that takes him to the village – Auvers-sur-Oise – where he meets a range of characters who knew van Gogh, each of whom has a different story to tell. Sometimes openly, sometimes reluctantly.

Those characters are voiced by a cast of talented actors, from a suspicious servant (played by Helen McRory) to van Gogh’s doctor (Jerome Flynn), a sympathetic waitress (Eleanor Tomlinson) to the doctor’s alluring daughter (Saoirse Ronan).

In effect, “Loving Vincent” is more about Armand than it is about van Gogh, who is seen only in flashback – in sequences that contrast sharply with the rest of the film’s vibrant colors. Armand initially wonders why anyone could be interested in an obviously deranged man. But by the film’s end, he wonders why no one seems to care about the mysterious way – in his mind, at least – that van Gogh died.

Yet the artist is present in every frame, his unique style represented throughout in the way that Kobiela and Welchman add movement to otherwise familiar individual works.

It is those works, flowing with life, that set “Loving Vincent” apart from your standard life study. And they are what underscores that film title’s very meaning.

‘Lucky’ is Stanton’s great last movie gift

If you get a chance to see the film "Lucky," you may walk out with a lot of questions. In the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I attempt to answer some of the more obvious:

When I think of the late Harry Dean Stanton, who died at the age of 91 on Sept. 15, I tend to recall a scene from one particular movie: Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Stanton, cast as the crewman Brett, is alone, searching for the cat Jonesy. He walks through a large, warehouse-type room, occasionally calling out the cat’s name

At one point, he stops under a stream of water. He doffs his cap, allowing the water to wash over his face. Stanton stands there for a long minute, the camera capturing the contours of his angular features. Then he turns and …

Well, if you’ve seen Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror masterpiece, you know what happens next. And other than the need to suspend a massive amount of disbelief about the scene – that huge room and dripping water in a spaceship? – the biggest take-away is Stanton’s ability to hold your attention while seemingly doing nothing.

But, then, Stanton had been doing exactly that in movies and television since the mid-1950s. And if you don’t remember him in “Alien,” how about “Paris, Texas”? Or “Repo Man”? Or “Escape From New York”?

Or, getting to the point, the recently released independent film “Lucky”? Directed by the actor John Carroll Lynch, from an original script by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, “Lucky” is one of Stanton’s final roles – and serves as a fitting capper on his career.

The character Stanton plays is exactly that: a town character in a small Southwestern burg full of colorful types. Lucky is 90, a guy set in his ways, who is far healthier than a lifelong smoker has any right to be. In fact, his doctor – played in a cameo by Ed Begley Jr. – says he might as well continue to smoke because stopping would likely do him more harm.

Lynch’s movie has a small focus – Lucky’s day-to-day existence – but never loses sight of larger issues. So while we accompany our elderly protagonist as he goes through his day (rising, walking to town, doing crossword puzzles at a diner counter, watching old TV shows, having drinks with the town’s other mostly quirky residents), we are invited to mull over the meaning of it all.

Sometimes, those invitations are obvious, as in when Lucky’s friend Howard – played by none other than filmmaker David Lynch – expresses grief over losing his pet tortoise, President Roosevelt. Or when a lawyer played by Ron Livingston tells Lucky about a near-miss auto accident that shook him to his core.

Other times, they are as subtle as the two guys waiting for Godot. Such as the moment when Lucky, attending a Mexican-themed birthday party, breaks into an impromptu version of the song “Volver, Volver.” Or when he walks into an alleyway with a lit-up door marked “Exit.” These are the moments when “Lucky” the movie most resembles something David Lynch – no relation to John Carroll Lynch – might direct. Only with more heart.

A heart and soul – though his character here would deny that last part – provided by the inimitable Stanton, one of cinema’s most unforgettable presences.

‘The Foreigner’ offers a new kind of Chan

Jackie Chan fans will see a different kind of Chan in "The Foreigner" than they're accustomed to. Following is my review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

We all know revenge flicks. They focus on men – because most revenge stories do feature men at their center – usually placed in impossible situations that threaten both them and their loved ones. And when things go bad, as they invariably do, our protagonists spend the rest of the movie looking for those who did them wrong. And exacting some personal justice, usually with, as they say, extreme prejudice.

Think “Death Wish.” Think “Get Carter.” Think Rambo.

Revenge is rage. And rage is perhaps the last emotion you would associate with Jackie Chan. Even when he was first earning fame as a Hong Kong martial-arts star in the 1970s, Chan was known for his blend of comedy and action in such films as “Drunken Master” and “Half a Loaf of Kung Fu.”

And that continued as he, over time, became an international star, especially after 1995’s “Rumble in the Bronx” and on through the “Rush Hour” and “Shanghai Noon” films. In addition to his comic stylings, Chan was famous for attempting dangerous stunts, some of which ended up injuring him and the making of which were often added in post-film-credit sequences.

Revenge, Chan style, was almost always done with an eye more for Buster Keaton than Sylvester Stallone.

All of which makes “The Foreigner” something unique. Directed by Martin Campbell, and adapted from a 1992 novel by British writer Stephen Leather called “The Chinaman,” “The Foreigner” focuses on a man named Ngoc Minh Quan (played by Chan), who owns and runs a London restaurant. Proud of his young daughter, he is devastated when she is killed, along with several other victims, in a terrorist bombing.

So, who takes credit? Not ISIS or Al Qaeda, as you might expect. Straight from Leather’s novel, which was written during the height of the IRA’s bombing campaign of the 1990s, the guilty party is a group calling itself the “Authentic IRA.” Quan, sleepwalking through grief, begins to quietly but persistently hound the authorities, looking for the bombers’ identities. But he is turned away.

That’s when Quan’s other side emerges. His past, we discover, includes Special Forces training and a horrific ordeal fleeing Communist Vietnam. He will not be denied his requests, which then turn into demands – and which end up being directed at Irish deputy minister Liam Hennessy (played by the former James Bond, Pierce Brosnan).

Throughout all this, Chan plays a character we’ve seldom seen. A quiet man, his Quan is at first composed and careful, then grief-stricken and finally grimly determined. Even then, he is no Rambo. He kills only when he has to, though for a time he is given little choice.

And Campbell, a veteran filmmaker whose resume includes the Bond films “GoldenEye” (with Brosnan) and “Casino Royale,” skillfully follows a script that is as involved in the various subterfuges and betrayals among the IRA principals as it is Quan’s quest for justice.

As for Chan, now 63, he’s not the action star he once was. But in “The Foreigner,” he does manage to give a richer meaning to the act of revenge.

‘Victoria and Abdul’: The hidden story

If your movie preferences run to historical drama, then you might appreciate Stephen Frears' new film, "Victoria and Abdul." Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The Buddha supposedly once said that three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth. Whether he did say it is far less important than what it’s supposed to mean – which, of course, is that sooner later, no matter the obstacle, the truth will out.

That’s especially true today, when charges of fakery on the political scene are as common as Seattle rain clouds. It’s always been true in Hollywood, where historical depictions take liberties with actual fact for the sake of dramatic effect.

And, to be honest, many movie fans believe that Hollywood, at least, can be forgiven. After all, as Hedy Lamarr once said, “I can excuse everything but boredom.” And who, really, wants to sit through a boring movie?

This brings us to “Victoria & Abdul,” the latest film by the great Stephen Frears. Seventy-six years old and still directing, Frears is known for such films as “My Beautiful Launderette,” “The Grifters,” “High Fidelity,” “The Queen” and last year’s “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Through it all, he has proven to be one of the great filmmaker of the past three decades.

Written by Lee Hall, adapted from the book by Shrabani Basu, “Victoria and Abdul” reveals the unusual, real-life friendship between Queen Victoria – who ruled the British empire for 63 years – and Abdul Karim, a lowly clerk who rose to heights unprecedented for an Indian-born commoner.

Chosen to present a medal to the queen for her 1887 Golden Jubilee, Abdul attracts her attention with his heights and good looks (to underscore this, we are told least twice that he is a handsome man). Whatever the reasons, Victoria soon has Abdul appointed her Munshi – or teacher – and guiding her through lessons in the Hindustani language Urdu.

If this isn’t enough to worry her son, Bertie – the Prince of Wales and future King Edward the 7th – it gets worse. The queen houses Abdul and his family in what is little more than a mini-mansion. She has his portrait painted. She and Abdul go on holiday by themselves, scandalizing the whole of Windsor Castle.

It is only when Victoria expresses a desire to confer a knighthood on Abdul that the royal household rebels. And though she backs down, regretfully, she does so in a way that reminds everyone what royal power truly is and just who it is who wields it.

Much of what occurs in Frears’ movie has a basis in fact, though most of the official records were purposely burned by Bertie’s royal decree following Victoria’s death in 1901. Author Basu based his book largely on the real Abdul’s diary – which, of course, was likely a bit self-serving.

Whatever the truth, “Victoria and Abdul” is powered not just by Frears’ steady hand but by the performances both of the Oscar-winning Judi Dench as Victoria and Bollywood star Ali Fazal as Abdul.

And it represents a version of the truth that was hidden for a century but, finally, did manage to find its way into the light. Turns out, not for the first time, the Buddha was right.

‘Brad’s Status’ is one of insatiable self-doubt

"Brad's Status" is writer-director Mike White's look into the life of a guy who seemingly has everything — but can't escape the feeling that it simply isn't enough. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

It’s hard to empathize with Brad Sloan. He seems to have pretty much everything – a career that stresses goodwill over mere financial reward, a loving and supportive wife, and a son smart and talented enough to quality for admission to Harvard.

Yet Brad is troubled. While accompanying his son on a visit to Harvard, among other potential colleges, he struggles to sleep. As happens to many of us, particularly when we hit middle age, Brad has regrets. Plagued by thoughts of his college buddies, at least three of whom seem to have more fame and riches than the average person can even imagine possessing, Brad wonders if he hasn’t sold himself short.

Was his wife too accepting of him, tempting him to settle for mediocrity? Will he be able to handle his son’s success if it somehow outshines his own accomplishments? What is wrong with him, anyway?

Good questions all. As for that last one, most of us would say nothing, except for his anguish over emotions that are little more than self-absorbed, ultimately self-defeating fantasies. Fantasies, by the way – as one of his son’s former schoolmates tells him – that are more a reflection of his privileged place in the world than anything else.

After all, what he has is better than the vast majority of the world’s population. His truly are, to use a popular term, first-world problems.

But, he insists, “This is my life.” Right, we might agree. So why not appreciate it?

That seems to be the point that writer-director Mike White is trying to emphasize with his film, which h titles simply enough, “Brad’s Status.” White, whose screenwriting career betrays a wide range of themes and tones – from the merely entertaining “School of Rock” to the issue-oriented “Beatriz at Dinner” – is inordinately kind to Brad. In any event, he doesn’t mock him. Maybe that’s because White himself is the exact age, 47, as that of his protagonist. And, maybe, he has come to understand that age – sometimes in the middle of the night – brings with it a nearly insistent sense that things could have, might have, been better had we made different choices. If we had, as Thoreau wrote, stepped to the beat of a different drummer.

What is clear is that White understands someone like Brad, captured so well by the actor Ben Stiller who himself has portrayed a range of characters, from the farcically outlandish Derek Zoolander to the self-destructive Jerry Stahl of the 1998 film “Permanent Midnight.” White also understands Brad’s son Troy, underplayed to perfection by newcomer Austin Abrams, whose obvious love for his father adds just another complicated layer to Brad’s emotional crisis.

And, too, White understands that such feelings are, for most of us, fleeting – the kinds of emotions that we entertain, then either ignore, forget or simply laugh off.

It takes Brad a while longer. And he puts himself, his son and us – the movie audience – through more than a bit of emotional torment along the way. Until he, in White’s capable filmmaking hands, finds a way to resolutely update his status.

Jolie’s ‘First They Killed My Father’ a powerful film

If you have a Netflix account, one of the movies worth screening was co-written and directed by none other than Angelina Jolie. Following is my review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Angelina Jolie was born to be a movie star. The daughter of Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight, Jolie has starred in 40-odd movies and been the face of the “Lara Croft” and “Maleficent” franchises. She even won an Oscar of her own, Best Supporting Actress for 2000’s “Girl, Interrupted.”

But that’s only part of the story. Next time you go shopping, study the tabloids lining the check-out stands. The lead story is likely to be about Jolie’s divorce from Brad Pitt, or her Mia Farrow-like relationship with her six kids, just as in year’s past the headlines were about her breaking up Pitt’s marriage to Jennifer Aniston. Or even before that her wild time with previous husband Billy Bob Thornton, whose blood she reportedly wore in a vial around her neck.

And let’s not even get into her lip-locking relationship with her brother.

Since 2007, though, Jolie has been crafting an alternative life story, that of serious filmmaker. That year her documentary “A Place in Time” was released. Then came her first feature, 2011’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” her 2014 big-budget adaptation of the Louis Zamperini story “Unbroken” and her 2015 art film (with soon-to-be-ex Pitt) “By the Sea.”

Now we have “First They Killed My Father,” a film that opened both on Netflix and in a small number of theaters in the top movie markets. Based on a memoir by the Cambodian author/activist Luong Ung, “First They Killed My Father” tells the story of Luong’s family and its struggle to survive following the fall of Cambodia’s government to the Khmer Rouge.

Luong, her parents and her siblings were among the thousands of residents of Cambodia’s capital, Phmon Penh, who were forced to leave the city. Told that they were in danger of being bombed, but that they would be gone for only three days, the city-dwellers headed for the country side. It was only then that, inexorably, they discovered that this was to be their new life – scrambling for shelter and food, working in the fields, being indoctrinated into Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s new society and watching as, gradually but with extreme prejudice, anyone other than mere workers were taken away, never to be seen again.

And the first one of Luong’s family to be taken was her father.

Director Jolie documents all this with inordinate skill. She has been criticized for how she portrays the beauty of the Cambodian countryside, but that merely underscores the irony of war: As in the scene in “All Quiet on the Western Front” when Lew Ayrds reaches for a butterfly, horror can’t expunge natural beauty. In a weird way, it often enhances it.

Jolie’s best effect, though, is how she tells Loung’s story in a slow reveal, avoiding any overly dramatic moments until nearly the end. Instead, she keys on her cast – especially on young Sreymoch Sareum, who plays Luong – and in doing so gives the characters more meaning than mere headlines could ever express.

Which is something that Jolie herself is all too familiar with.

‘I Called Him Morgan’: a tale of jazz and irony

If you're searching Netflix for a decent documentary to watch, you could do worse than "I Called Him Morgan." Directed by Kasper Collin, it tells the story of an ill-fated jazz musician. But as I try to explain in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, it rises above what might otherwise have been a mere headline-grabbing storyline:

It isn’t easy to reach a wide audience when making a movie about an artist who works in a limited arena. And let’s be honest here: Jazz is a limited arena.

Especially the kind of jazz that became popular in New York clubs from the 1950s on, the kind that was being defined by performers such as Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and the lesser known trumpet player Lee Morgan.

Lesser known, of course, only to the mainstream. Jazz aficionados are well aware of Morgan, the wunderkind trumpet player who by his mid-teens was already impressing the likes of Gillespie and Blakey with his musical abilities. If Morgan is remembered at all by the general public it’s likely because of the sordid nature of his 1972 death, shot by his common-law wife Helen between sets at a jazz club called, appropriately enough, Slug’s Saloon. He was just 33.

Credit filmmaker Kasper Collin, then, for seeing beyond the sad circumstances of Morgan’s demise and attempting to capture the larger world that Morgan, his fellow musicians – and, yes, his wife – populated with such vigor.

Collin, who is Swedish, got interested in Morgan some 10 years after completing a documentary about another musician, the sax player Albert Ayler. And while searching for a way to tell Morgan’s story, he got lucky. He found a trove of photographs, taken by at least three people during both recording sessions and less formal gatherings. The pristine quality of many of these black-and-white photos could comprise a museum collection in and of themselves.

Even more important, Collin found a recording – maybe the only one ever made – of an interview that Morgan’s wife gave just before her death in 1996. The very basis of Collin’s film – including its title, “I Called Him Morgan” – is built on that tape, which reveals not only the back story but the pain and regret that Helen Morgan carried with her for the remainder of her life.

Add the photos and the tape to the interviews that Collin conducted – most notably members of Morgan’s group – and underscore all that with a taste of the music that was produced, and you have a film that is more than just another story about a flawed artist who dies young. You have something that is far closer to a work of art.

Not the least of which is the irony that colors everything. Like many of his peers, Charlie Parker included, Morgan fell prey to heroin. And it was Helen, an independent older woman, who came to his rescue. Not only did Helen save Morgan’s life, she helped him resurrect his career. And the two became so close, so interconnected, that it was hard for their friends to think of one without the other.

Which was why what developed – another woman, a jealous rage, a loaded handgun and sudden death – came as such as shock. And loss.

You can hear the loss in the voices that Collin captures on camera. And that Helen Morgan left on a single audiotape.

‘Trip to Spain’ is a comic study of male vanity

If you're going to see "The Trip to Spain," or even if you have seen it, you may want to check out the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio

For the third time now, British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has taken us with him as he follows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on their various “Trips” though the world of good food, posh lodgings and the fragile male ego.

We’ve experienced their exploits in England, in Italy and now on the Iberian Peninsula in “The Trip to Spain.” The experience involves watching Coogan and Brydon’s ongoing attempts both to weather the uncertain currents of their respective careers while attempting to one-up each other by comparing their personal lives and, professionally, by offering competing celebrity impressions.

 That may not sound like a good recipe for humor, but in the hands of Winterbottom et al, it often is. Especially when the two comic actors perform their usual spot-on impressions of such celebrities as Mick Jagger, Roger Moore and, of course, Michael Caine.

 At the same time, each of the trips – and especially “The Trip to Spain” – provides a sobering look at what often happens when male vanity hits that stage in life when looks forward are laced with limitation and looks back are colored by regret.

 In terms of art, such a film project is a delicate balancing act, one that won’t appeal to everyone – especially since it’s been going on since the BBC aired its first Winterbottom-directed television series in 2010. Titled simply “The Trip,” the six-part series was edited into a two-hour feature. “The Trip to Italy” followed a similar creative path in 2014, as did this year’s Spanish venture.

 As in the past films, Coogan and Brydon – both playing, as the actors have explained in interviews, exaggerated versions of themselves – are in somewhat different places.

 Coogan is still vainly attempting to find the kind of love that lasts more than one night, though this time he is involved with a married woman. He wants to connect with his son, but that isn’t going the way he’d hoped. And he is dealing with a stalled career in the form of a new agent and a studio that wants to rewrite a screenplay he is trying to sell.

 Brydon, meanwhile, is caught up in a domestic swirl that seems to be marked mostly by crying children. No wonder he is eager to hit the road, even with a guy who is his frenemy. Professionally, he is being targeted by Coogan’s former agent, who is now in a position to help him become more than Sancho Panza to Coogan’s Don Quixote.

 That Cervantes reference, by the way, is no mere metaphor. Owing to the actual purpose of the Spanish trip, Coogan and Brydon do at one point dress up as the literary duo for a photo shoot. It’s also a focal point of Coogan’s imperious intentions, a quest for more adventure in a life that – despite two, count them, two – Oscar nominations has become more than slightly stale.

 It’s all a tad sad, though to me at least that makes “The Trip to Spain” a richer experience. Comic and enlightening. Imagine Coogan saying that – in the voice, of course, of Mick Jagger.

When ‘Good Time’ means more than one thing

It's hard to think that an actual actor could emerge from the "Twilight" series. But at least two have. One is Kristen Stewart, and the other is Robert Pattinson.

Pattinson is highlighted in the review of "Good Time" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Connie Nikas is desperate. He’s short of money, which is one reason he decides to rob a bank in a manner so crazy that it just might work – until he makes one in a series of stupid errors.

But that’s Connie, the principal character in the Safdie Brothers’ half-ironically titled film “Good Time.” He veers from crazy-smart to crazy-stupid during a night-long frenzy in which the bank heist is only the beginning.

Connie has already broken his mentally challenged brother, Nick, out of a treatment center. His excuse: Nick doesn’t like the place. But then he brings clueless Nick along on the robbery scheme, so as with pretty much everything he does, Connie’s motives are more than a bit self-serving.

And not to press the point, but this is just the beginning. Connie is forced to deal with the bank-job aftermath, which includes Nick getting pinched by the cops. Connie first tries to get bail money for his brother by taking advantage of the obviously troubled woman he has been seeing (a bedraggled Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Then, learning that Nick has been transferred from jail to a hospital, he haunts the building’s corridors, looking for a chance to sneak Nick out. This scheme, too, ends up having its drawbacks.

From there, Connie – played, surprisingly well, by former “Twilight” heartthrob Robert Pattinson – uses his charm and good looks to inveigle his way into a woman’s home. And yet the night is far from over, as it involves both his seducing the woman’s impressionable daughter and then taking her along as he breaks into an amusement park, looking for what promises to be a bundle of stolen loot.

And the “Good Time” doesn’t stop there. Not even close.

The Safdie brothers, Benny and Josh, have been making films since they were both in high school, even if only now is their work getting national attention. Josh and Ronald Bronstein wrote the script, Josh and Benny co-directed and Benny stars along with Pattinson, making an impression as the often confused Nick.

The directing style they use is a blend of the breathless and the claustrophobic. Their camera closes in on the actors’ faces so much you may feel the need to pull away from the screen. Meanwhile, watching Connie’s headlong sprint from one insane plan to the next is likely to leave you dizzy.

In terms of context, “Good Time” doesn’t have much to offer. It’s not as if, when Connie’s sojourn comes to an end, the Safdies have any real life lessons to impart – unless you need a reason NOT to lie, cheat and steal. They’re content to just let the energy of their film speak for itself.

Much of that energy is generated by their cast. Benny Safdie makes Nick into something far more than mere caricature. Buddy Duress shows up as one of Connie’s biggest mix-ups and adds a bit of “Mean Streets” to the mix.

But it is Pattinson who shines. Once a vampire hunk, he has grown into the kind of actor the camera loves – even if preteen girls no longer will.

‘Wind River’ has a number of problems

Note: In the original version of this review, I wrote that the Wind River Indian Reservation was in Colorado. Wrong. And I even misidentified the actress who played Jeremy Renner's wife. I'm not sure what was going on in my brain as I posted this review. As more than one reader pointed out, the reservation is in Wyoming. Not Colorado. Stupid, stupid error. And I apologize. Now corrected. As for my take on the film, which several readers disagreed with, I stand my ground.

The movie "Wind River" is getting a number of good reviews. But it had a different effect on me, a fact I tried to explain in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

One question critics tend to get is, “Hey, I read your review. But I never could figure out whether you liked the movie or not. Well, did you?”

It’s a fair question, I guess, even if – sometimes – there is no easy answer. And a good case in point is Taylor Sheridan’s film “Wind River.”

On the surface, what Sheridan has given us is a well-made, standard murder mystery. Set on the Wind River Indian Reservation of West-central Wyoming – but filmed in the scenic mountains just outside Park City, Utah – “Wind River” begins with a haunting scene: As a female narrator recites a poem, we watch a young woman running, as if for her life, barefoot across a snowy landscape.

Later, a character named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the woman’s frozen corpse. And so the investigation into her death begins. Since the incident has occurred on federal land, an FBI agent is called in. But as a sign of either bureau budget restrictions, lack of available personnel, lack of interest or a blend of all three, the agent who shows up is young Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen).

Though woefully unprepared, Banner is smart enough to ask Lambert – a hunter/tracker employed by the wildlife service – for help. And pretty soon, the two of them – assisted by the tribal police chief (played by the always dependable Graham Greene) – are on the trail.

Sheridan, the screenwriter-turned-director who wrote the scripts for the movies “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water,” doesn’t clutter his plotline with a lot of digressions. Once Banner starts paying attention to Lambert, who can see what the land has to tell him, they fairly quickly stumble onto what happened.

Sheridan deserves credit for how he uses the landscape to underscore both the beauty, and the desolation, felt by the characters who live on the reservation. He proves capable of portraying sharp scenes of quick violence, of which the movie has two. And the role he has provided for Renner is the kind of meaty opportunity that an actor of Renner’s talent can make into something particularly special.

But there are two big problems here. One is that Sheridan, for all his good intentions, shuffles the Indian characters – from Greene as the sheriff, to Gil Birmingham as a grieving father, to Julia Jones as Lambert’s estranged native wife – off to the side. Wind River may be their home, but this is Lambert’s story. He, in the end, is the great white savior – which is a plot device Hollywood has been using since well before the days of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

And Sheridan is his own worst enemy. In a film postscript, he notes that young women have been disappearing off reservations at an alarming rate. This, he has said in interviews, is what inspired him to write and direct his movie.

And certainly, that’s an admirable aim. But how is a murder mystery centered on white characters the right way to address that particular problem?

So, did I like “Wind River.” Well, yes. And yet no. I really can’t be any clearer than that.    

Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ tackles American racism

If you haven't yet see the film "Detroit," you might have questions about it. I try to address some of them in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The riots that occurred in Detroit over five days in July 1967 were hardly the first such incidents in American history. Major cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles had seen similar outbreaks, and Detroit itself had been the site of a major three-day riot that took place in 1943.

Based on incidents such as those that happened a couple of years ago in Ferguson, Missouri, and more recently in Charlottesville, Virginia, racial strife in the United States is not going away anytime soon.

That overarching sense of history, as dark as it is, underscores everything in Kathryn Bigelow’s film “Detroit.” Written by Mark Boal, who teamed with Bigelow previously on “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Detroit” is a riveting, near-minute-by-minute look at both the beginnings of the turmoil and, even more closely, at one particular episode that occurred at a place called the Algiers Motel.

Just as Bigelow’s film overall can be seen as a larger statement about race relations in today’s America, her look at what happened at the Algiers is both her and Boal’s attempt to capture the worst of what happened in the city itself over those turbulent five days.

The filmmakers do so by keying on a number of individuals, some of whom are composites of actual historical figures, others of whom – including a trio of white Detroit police officers – have had their names changed. We follow the three officers as they patrol the burning streets, their resentment slowly growing. And we are introduced to a private black security guard whose intent is both to protect property and to act as peace-maker.

The racially mixed group congregating at the motel – which at first seems like an oasis separate from the fear and violence plaguing the adjacent streets – includes two black friends, Fred and Larry, who flirt with two young white women from Ohio, Karen and Julie.

The four join a larger group of people looking for a good time. Pretty soon, though, because of a mix of fear and adrenalin-induced rage, inflamed by a stupid if inherently harmless act, the Algiers becomes the place where all our principals end up. And the motel itself evolves into a cell of nothing less than torture and death.

Bigelow’s use of her cast is impressive, even if limited screen time means that no one actor has what amounts to a starring role. John Boyega, best known for his part in the latest “Star Wars” reboot, plays the security guard. But Will Poulter as the cop in command and Algee Smith as Larry are arguably more important in how Boal’s script plays out.

For his part, Boal has admitted that he used what he calls "poetic license" to dramatize the real story. But he insists that his script is "built on a sturdy base of journalism and history." As for Bigelow, she keeps things moving well enough, even if her trademark stylisms are lacking and the animated intro that provides a historical backdrop is fairly confounding.

Not nearly as confounding, though, as the ongoing fact of racism itself.