Review: Honeysuckle Rose

Here’s a contemporaneous review of a movie little remembered now, but as it chanced, the film marked the late Robby Müller’s first encounter with the American land and its light. —RTJ

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 23, 1980]

Honeysuckle Rose is the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg, a modestly intelligent filmmaker who specializes in probing the esoteric fringes of the U.S. scene, locating sources of peculiar vitality and distinctiveness, and then watching contentment bleed away. Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), starring Schatzberg’s former lover Faye Dunaway, studied the neuroses of a high-fashion model; Panic in Needle Park (1971), which introduced Al Pacino to the screen, dealt with the lifestyle of druggies; Scarecrow (1973) hit the road with a couple of bums (Pacino and Gene Hackman), Sweet Revenge (1977) sampled the criminal career of a car freak, and last year’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan forsook the fringe areas for the no-less-esoteric center of things, the private life—and private side of the public life—of a U.S. Senator.

Honeysuckle Rose hitches a monthlong ride with a middleaged country-western singer-musician-composer named Buck Bonham (Willie Nelson), who drolly allows as how he and his band are going to break into the really big time any day now, “on accounta we’re about the only ones they haven’t got around to yet.” Making It Big isn’t even a sideline concern of the film’s, though. Buck already appears eminently popular on the Southwest concert circuit and no one is hurting for money. The big problem—quiet, insistent, constant—is Buck’s inability to work out a life formula that will satisfy his manly need for rootlessness and his family’s (wife and son) desire to have him around the home more often. Keep Reading

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 13

“Clocking in at almost twenty minutes, this sequence unfolds within the confines of the inn, showcasing what the director can accomplish in such a stage-bound setting. Without sacrificing precision, Hu switches up his approach, alternating between stretches of languor and frantic motion, between long shots that map out zones of brewing tension and close-ups that relay the information being exchanged in the characters’ gazes. But it is Shih, with his spooky saucer eyes, who gives the section its steady pulse. His inner stillness is a blank slate onto which any mood can be projected, allowing a scene to pivot nimbly between levity and dread. Playing a character on whom nothing is lost, he’s the on-screen embodiment of what Hu sets out to create with the nuts and bolts of his film grammar: a heightened watchfulness operating underneath a tightly controlled surface.” Andrew Chan offers an introduction to the rigorous, restrained King Hu masterpiece Dragon Inn.

At Cinema Scope, a pair of looks back to interesting oddities and the times that made them. Kelly Dong recounts the bizarre intertwining of sex and death—and the incessant censorship troubles that followed—in the ‘70s collaborations of director Kim Ki-young and actress Lee Hwa-si. (“Like the women in the Housemaid trilogy, Lee’s characters are consumed by the contradictory urges to destroy men and to attain security by becoming their wives or lovers. But while those earlier films (each of which concludes with the housemaid’s murder-suicide) suggest that women’s inability to reconcile these paradoxical impulses accelerates their self-destruction as a social class, Lee’s characters constitute a rebuttal: here, opacity becomes a tool for women’s survival.”) And Adam Nayman remembers the marvelous thriller The Silent Partner—along with the Canadian tax laws that both enabled its making and seem to be mocked by the skim-from-the-robber scheme of the film’s protagonist. (“The Silent Partner makes less of an overt fuss about its setting  [than contemporary Toronto thriller The Kidnapping of the President], but nevertheless gets at something truer and more ominous about Toronto circa the late ’70s— specifically, the covetous late-capitalist mentality building up in the skyscraping shadow of the CN Tower. “Money, money, money…stacks of bills…handfuls of coins.” So reads the first line of Hanson’s screenplay, which craftily adapts Anders Bodelsen’s novel about a bank robbery that ends up resulting in two simultaneous heists, one deftly obscured by the other.”)

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Review: On the Seventh Day

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

The first thing you notice about On the Seventh Day (En el Séptimo Día) is that it doesn’t sound like a sports movie. In the opening sequence we watch a soccer game in a Brooklyn neighborhood park, and it takes a moment to adjust to the realism: There’s no inspirational music swelling or digital thudding of the ball colliding with a foot. Nobody’s doing “the wave.” (Note to self: Find out if people still do “the wave.” Editor’s note: They do.) It sounds exactly like what you’d hear if you walked past a game in progress at your local park on a quiet Sunday afternoon and decided to lean against the fence to watch for a while.

Writer/director Jim McKay is clearly gifted at capturing authentic places and faces, and that’s what gives On the Seventh Day its everyday enchantment.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 7

“Film is a collaborative medium, or so people say, unless by “people” we mean Josef von Sternberg. To become a director is, more often than not, to reveal yourself as a control freak, but von Sternberg was the original micromanager, and his arrogance was legendary. Even long after his career was over, he was reluctant to discuss colleagues. Screenwriter Jules Furthman was responsible for much of the script of Shanghai Express, but von Sternberg always maintained that the entire treatment was one page written by story creator Harry Hervey. Von Sternberg biographer John Baxter cites the gifted Paramount art director Hans Dreier as a major stylistic influence, taking the director from a realistic approach to the “veiled sensuality” he would develop over the course of his career—and adds drily, “It goes without saying that [Dreier] receives no mention in Fun in a Chinese Laundry,” von Sternberg’s notoriously cranky memoir.” Farran Smith Nehme rectifies some of the oversights that von Sternberg’s own ego helped fuel, citing crucial contributions to the director’s Paramount masterpieces by studio mainstays, reminding you that for a director with such a monstrously exacting and domineering vision, von Sternberg could sometimes glance over found objects and imperiously claim them as his own.

“In La première nuit, shadows, rather than obscuring or blocking our vision, often allow us to see further. The metro becomes a site of enhanced visibility, prone to projections, hallucinations, lyrical associations. In a remarkable series of shots, the hero’s highly contrasted shadow is casted over a map of the Parisian metro; the black shape raises its head, following the blinking lights that signal the different stations, as if trying to decipher a treasure map. Under the boy’s enchanted gaze, the successively flashing paths traced by the various metro lines remind us of wondrous constellations of stars flickering in the firmament.” Cristina Álvarez López explores Franju’s short film La première nuit, finding a marvelous confection of documentary and oneiric fantasy, and one of the cinema’s finest portraits of first love.

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Unforced Perspective: ‘Ant-Man and The Wasp’

At a time when comic book movies were steadily cranking up the Sturm und Drang, 2015’s Ant-Man served as an amiably slouching alternative, gently snarking at superheroic conventions while still staying within the Marvel mandated lines. What’s more, it was one of the rare blockbusters that actually got better as it went along, with a third act that felt like it was beginning to fully grasp the scale-shifting possibilities of its hero. All this, plus a pretty sweet joke involving The Cure, to boot.

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Review: The King

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Almost 20 years ago I took off to Memphis by myself and stayed in a motel with a small, guitar-shaped swimming pool. It was across Highway 51 from Graceland.

The first thing I did was take the tour at Elvis Presley’s mansion. It seemed natural at the time, but in recent years I have wondered: Why did I want to see Graceland? I like Elvis, and I like Americana, and Graceland’s blend of excess, tragedy, and kitsch was right up my alley. People of every variety, from all over the world, were on the tour. But really: Why were we there? Surely it’s partly because the life of Elvis—an age-old story of innocence, success, decline, and exaltation—resonates in ways that go beyond his music, enough that we all performed a pilgrimage to this secular shrine. But that still doesn’t quite explain it.

Documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) explores the Elvis mythology in The King, but he’s not so interested in the why.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of June 29

The new Senses of Cinema features, alongside its other pleasures, a dossier on the giallo and further genre deconstructions of filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. An interview with Anton Bitel captures the pair’s humor, practicality, and intellectual ambitions (“We had a lot of pleasure when we have watched these movies as an audience, we had a very big cinematic pleasure, and we too want to create a kind of little orgasm for the audience, you know, to give pleasure. We like to take that grammar to tell our own stories, and not do, like, a fan film about giallo or western, but to take this oneiric grammar, in fact—because there is a big oneirism in this genre about eros and thanatos – and to talk about desire.”); Kat Ellinger traces their acknowledged debt to Sergio Martino (“Martino wasn’t without his own subversions when it came to giallo. Like Cattet and Forzani, he reintepreteted specific conventions which, through this re-rendering, belonged to him and him alone.”), while Clare Nina Norelli explores some of their creative resettings of famous giallo scores (“Cattet and Forzani’s recontextualisation of Morricone’s Maddalena score has transmogrified the images on screen, elevating their murder mystery narrative into the realm of the spiritual.”). Aside from his interview duties, Bitel also contributes a piece on gender viewed through Cattet and Forzani’s dual gaze (“A couple (like Argento and Nicolodi) in real life as well as joint writers and directors of all their films, they regender the grammar of their adopted genres by articulating them in a creative exchange between the sexes.”); Martyn Contario extends consideration of the genres explored by the couple to the Freudian thrillers of classic Hollywood (“[Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears] share tortured male protagonists searching for the answer to a repressed memory, hinged upon depictions of troubled minds as architectural spaces to wander.”); and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas praises the slippery role memory and association plays in their casting with a tribute to Elina Löwensohn’s starring turn in their latest, Let the Corpses Tan (“A man can be seen behind the gun, but it is a woman’s face in extreme close-up that catches our breath: her eyes, her pores, her lines, the moisture on her tongue, the gaps in her teeth, her mouth in general as she gnaws on a cigarette.”). And just when you might be wondering how Cattet and Forzani’s approach to filmmaking is economically viable, Jeremi Szaniawski chats with their producer Ève Commenge to get a sense of their very pragmatic approach to filming (“The production design of Amer and Let the Corpses Tan was similar: in both cases we were dealing with old places in ruins, threatening to collapse, we had to know exactly which places to redo. The set designer knew she had to do a fake wall in a designated place, and that it had to be 2.5 metres tall, and not an inch more. Pre-production was clear and precise, and there was no improvisation on the set.”)

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Review: Leave No Trace

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

The first thing that strikes you in Leave No Trace is the density of the Pacific Northwest forest—all that enveloping greenness. People live in these woods, swallowed up by the choking undergrowth. And that’s the way they want it. The movie’s title, usually employed as an anti-littering motto, refers to a main character’s desire to vanish from society, to exist on his own terms and then disappear.

The forest in question is actually a park just outside Portland; it’s close enough to walk into the city for supplies. The disappearing man is Will (Ben Foster), a veteran with some degree of PTSD. What complicates his retreat from the world is his fierce bond with his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a New Zealander), who lives with him in the woods. They hunker down in their tent, build fires when they need to, and stay out of sight. The end of this idyll coincides with Tom’s wistful desire to have a more normal, settled life—a life that would be unbearable for her father.

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Review: They Only Kill Their Masters

[Originally published in Movietone News 21, February 1973]

Winning, Red Sky at Morning, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Each one more atrocious than the one that went before. Which tends to raise the question: how does James Goldstone, the most conspicuously untalented director of the past ten years, get financed (Ernest Lehman of Portnoy’s Complaint is exempt, being very talented—as a writer)?

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of June 24

Criterion offers three looks at collaborations, fruitful but strained, frustrated by external forces, and consummate. Stephen Prince reflects on screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto’s career, which was stimulated by Kurosawa’s unique method of setting his screenwriters off against one another, though Hashimoto ultimately focused his complicated relationship with Japan’s military history on screenplays for other directors. (“Hashimoto had joined the front rank of screenwriters with the flashback structure of Rashomon and had surpassed that design in Harakiri. Though a screenplay furnishes a film with its scaffolding and a completed film necessarily goes beyond the script, it remains true, as Mansaku Itami and Kurosawa knew, that to make a good film one must have a good script. Hashimoto’s passionate writing helped burnish Japanese cinema with the golden luster it enjoyed for two decades after the war. He believed that a good script was self-sufficient, that it was like a musical score in its written form, and he felt when writing as if he was composing a symphony. Although he grew rueful about the possibility that his collaborative training in Kurosawa’s inner circle of writers might have inhibited him from developing a robust and distinctive authorial voice, the wonderful movies that resulted from his writing give us the best measure of his literary talent and its enduring contributions.”) Elvira Lindo’s acknowledgement of how central to Spanish culture Victor Erice’s El Sur has remained can’t help but compare the director’s ambitions for the film to the final product, whose producer pulled the financing, thereby truncating the film before the ending found in its source material (written by Erice’s then-wife Adelaida García Morales). (“Some of the aura of mystery surrounding the film might have been dispelled if the production had lasted the agreed-upon eighty-one days, instead of the forty-eight days of shooting that actually took place. Even knowing how consistently Erice has expressed frustration over the truncation of his project (and in fact, those who have had the opportunity to read the script in its entirety have proclaimed it a jewel of screenwriting), the reality is that the viewer does not experience the film as incomplete, because the South, so different from the North of Spain, is contained in El Sur as though it were a dream, inside the boxes where the girl keeps the postcards she has received from that region, signed by her grandmother and the woman who was her father’s nanny, Milagros.”) And even if you’re convinced there’s nothing new to be said about the von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaboration, Imogen Sara Smith manages to say it beautifully. (“Over the course of the six films they made together in Hollywood, von Sternberg took Dietrich out of the smoke and sweat of The Blue Angel’s waterfront dive and put her in ever more exotic and lavish settings—his versions of Morocco, China, Russia, Spain, with a single detour to contemporary America (Blonde Venus). Between angel and devil, he cast her as goddess, empress, adventuress. The amoral, blithely destructive Lola Lola made way for romantic martyrs in their first four American films, then fatal temptresses in the last two. But the impassivity and cool insolence remained throughout and beyond the von Sternberg films, from the nonchalant poise with which Dietrich faces a firing squad in her second American film with him, Dishonored (1931), to her seen-it-all, sibylline detachment in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). With these qualities lingers an ambiguity distilled by that dressing-room scene from Morocco: she seems above and beyond caring yet takes infinite care with everything she does.”)

“To see him in his early roles is to know that those demons were at least part of his appeal; his working-class bravado was underpinned by vulnerability. He seemed both masculine and feminine in the mold of most of the great screen idols—Rudolph Valentino, James Dean. Stardom demands actors to be broad enough for the audience’s projections, but also to be startlingly specific in their humanity. Mickey’s combination of the sensitively effeminate and the pointedly macho opened him up to all kinds of readings. Over the years, he has phoned it in and loused it up, and the quality of the films he’s starred in have ebbed and flowed. But when it’s right—as in Rumble FishAngel HeartDinerBarflyThe Pope of Greenwich Village—it’s very right.” Christina Newland traces Mickey Rourke’s inability to capitalize on the comeback The Wrestler afforded him partly on his self-destructive streak and partly, and more intriguingly, on how feminine the hulked-out actor can read to audiences. Via Mubi.

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Method, Madness, and Metaphysical Mysteries

If you’re reading this you’re one of us. You see the patterns that no one else does. You find the answers to questions too bewildering for others to comprehend. But the deeper you dig, the more confusing things get. And then there are the shady characters who keep weaving through your journey. It’s a conspiracy, but you’re the only one who can see it! That path can lead only to madness. Or a movie. We all love a good conspiracy thriller, but we are mesmerized by a conspiracy plot where the answers one seeks may not exist in the material realm.

Under the Silver Lake, the latest film to explore a mystery that seems to defy the logic of science and reason, has been pushed back from its original June release date to December. Ostensibly it’s to give filmmaker David Robert Mitchell time to recut the movie. But could there be another, more sinister reason behind this delay? What exactly aren’t they telling us? Just who is really pulling the strings here?

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Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Twice during Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character enters a scene with the camera focused on her shoes. Maybe this is the director’s foot fetish, but more likely it’s a comment on one of the criticisms of 2015’s huge-grossing predecessor Jurassic World: that Howard’s character, theme-park corporate lackey Claire Dearing, was so retrograde she spent an entire film wearing high heels while being chased by dinosaurs. That criticism was actually slightly unfair—Claire wore heels because her stupid job forced her to—but rest assured that in Fallen Kingdom, Claire is kitted out with a set of badass military-grade boots. And they’re ready for their close-up.

Fallen Kingdom reunites Claire and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) when a volcano threatens to destroy the remaining dinosaur population on Isla Nublar.

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Review: Innocent Bystanders

[Originally published in Movietone News 21, February 1973]

The Italian Job got past me but, from what I can tell from descriptions thereof, it set in motion a trend in Peter Collinson’s work that is continued in Innocent Bystanders. The potentially portentous title notwithstanding, this latest Collinson takes us far from the significance-laden likes of The Penthouse, Up the Junction, and A Long Day’s Dying into the region of closeup slambang for (commercially if not morally) pure purposes of entertainment. The government arms that manipulate poor, physically unsexed Stanley Baker and his fellow/rival espionage agents are unrelentingly portrayed as cold, inhumane entities staffed by inhuman types like Donald Pleasence (who manages to be amusing about it) and Dana Andrews, but this has simply become a convention of the genre these days and no longer counts as the subversive gesture it once was in the black and white morality plays of Fritz Lang and the crimefighting semidocumentaries of Anthony Mann.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of June 15

“Snyder and Gray would fold under questioning, ratting on one another, and subsequently go to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing; Tom Howard, a New York Daily News photographer who’d smuggled a camera into the death chamber strapped to his ankle, captured an image of Snyder’s body dancing in the grip of the fatal current. Their trial had been a phenomenon, bringing journalists and rubberneckers from all over to pack the benches in the Long Island City Courthouse. Among the spectators who passed through over the course of the proceedings were D.W. Griffith, Aimee Semple McPherson, Damon Runyon, and a 34-year-old crime reporter with an insurance background that gave him insight into the ins and outs of the case, James M. Cain.” A sensational trial that inspired Cain to write The Postman Always Rings Twice, the many film adaptations of which Nick Pinkerton traces, from Pierre Chenel’s 1939 French film, through Hollywood’s two big, flawed stabs at the material, to, from Hungary, “the bleakest version,” courtesy of director György Fehér and cowriter Bela Tarr.

“Let’s assume that in the ’70s, Ludwig was a film out of its time—sober yet lavishly appointed, forbiddingly old guard to the point of appearing laboriously academic. Today, it is still an anachronism—one can’t imagine a historical art film even again being made on such a lavish scale—and yet the very fact that it now seems so alien to us seems likely to give the film a new lease of life and attract a new audience more eager for this kind of measured pensiveness.” Of course one of the most successful adaptations of Cain’s novel was Visconti’s debut; one of his later films, Ludwig, receives some rehabilitation from Jonathan Romney, who doesn’t deny the film’s sometimes wearying pomp but finds it a striking portrait of history as a series of self-aware theatrical poses.

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Review: ‘2001’ in 2018

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

The greatest movie mind-blower of them all turns 50 this year—a wildly imaginative, influential, psychedelic riddle.

But I know what you’re thinking: What about its algorithms?

I checked Rotten Tomatoes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey sits with an 89 percent audience score. From critics, it has a comfortable 92 percent “Fresh” rating. That’s a mere eight percentage points behind Paddington 2. Sweet.

But Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic has been an official classic for decades. That tends to skew the vote. How would audiences rank 2001 on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb if the film were unleashed as a new thing today? Even in 1968, critics argued over its slow pace, its violation of storytelling conventions, its baffling ending. Given the recent low audience scores for arty horror movies such as Hereditary and Annihilation, and the online tantrums thrown by Star Wars true believers who can’t abide variations on the formula (the faithful deliberately tanked online ratings for The Last Jedi and Solo), I wonder how the perversity of 2001 would go over now. The Internet-era urge to “solve” enigmatic movies might also work against Kubrick’s masterpiece. What’s the deal with that black slab? Who begins a movie with 20 minutes of monkeys? Why the giant baby?

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