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Robert Horton

Review: Submission

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

In Submission, Stanley Tucci has this little chuckle he deploys in a variety of situations. He plays a creative-writing professor at a second-rank college, and his automatic laugh comes in handy when placating inquisitive students, attending faculty parties with pedantic colleagues, or shrugging off incessant questions about when he’s going to finish his new novel. I swear Tucci delivers it so that it expresses a dozen different meanings and feelings, all appropriate to the position in which he’s trapped at that moment. Acting is a precise craft but also a mysterious alchemy, and when you’ve gotten as good as Tucci has, a seamless performance like this can transform a so-so movie into a pleasure, merely for watching a veteran at the top of his game. The professor’s practiced chuckle also proves useful when navigating conversations with an attractive student who idolizes him, a case of sexual boundary-trampling that becomes the crux of the movie.

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Review: The Party

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

As we applaud the wave of women making (still far from equitable) inroads into film directing, let’s pause to appreciate a veteran in the field. Primarily a choreographer, songwriter, and performance artist in the early part of her career, Sally Potter began making experimental films in the 1960s. Her cinematic breakthrough was the surprise 1992 arthouse hit Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, with Tilda Swinton as the gender-hopping protagonist. Since then Potter has sometimes hit the mark, as with her hothouse coming-of-age picture Ginger & Rosa, but more often I’ve found her work insufferable. If you’ve seen the relentlessly politically correct Yes, in which all the dialogue is rhyming iambic pentameter, you know the desperate wish for large wads of ear-stuffable cotton.

It’s a pleasure to report that Potter’s newest, The Party, is a nasty little gem.

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Chimes at Midnight (1965 France/Spain/Switzerland) aka Campanadas a medianoche Directed by Orson Welles Shown: Orson Welles

An American in King Henry’s Court: Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’

Originally published in Linguaculture, Volume 8, Number 2, 2017

Orson Welles, a boy from Kenosha, Wisconsin, was one of the most audacious Shakespearians who ever lived. He recited soliloquies as a child, wrote a book on the plays as a teenager, and at age 17 roamed across Ireland before brazenly (and successfully) presenting himself at the Abbey Theatre as a distinguished American actor. Welles also created three of the most ambitious Shakespeare films. As an American pretender, a colonial presuming to re-interpret the greatest British writer, Welles approached Shakespeare with a mix of bravado and insecurity. This paper explores how Welles’ American nature informs these roles and, especially, his final Shakespeare film, Chimes at Midnight (1965). In this production, Welles plays Falstaff and is understandably identified with the role, but it could be argued that he speaks more directly through Prince Hal, whose anxiety about inheriting the throne might be reflected in the way an American Shakespearian seeks to be accepted by the British keepers of the text. The words of Hal’s father, Henry IV— Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown —might apply to Welles’ American-inflected depictions of kings and princes who do not entirely believe in their own royal agency. The tension between Welles‘ brashness and his fretfulness created some of the most memorable Shakespeare in the cinema.

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Review: A Fantastic Woman

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

At one point in her stressful week, Marina (Daniela Vega) encounters a stiff wind while walking along a Santiago sidewalk. She stops for a moment, planting her high heels against the ground and leaning forward into the current—and then she just keeps tilting, to a degree not possible in physics, but eminently believable within the emotional framework of the movie draped around her sturdy shoulders. A Fantastic Woman is the Chilean Oscar nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film, and if voters are swayed at all by the old-school attractions of underdog characters or indomitable heroines, this terrific movie should win in a walk.

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Review: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Gloria Grahame might well have been concocted in a lab experiment to create a classic Hollywood star. She had not only the looks and talent, but also the haunted arc of a screen goddess: early success, an Oscar (1952 Best Supporting Actress for The Bad and the Beautiful), a string of marriages, struggles with body image, scandal, and — after a certain age — a vanishing act.

Watch her movies today, and you can still be amazed at the smart, impudent, altogether new presence she conveys in the noir worlds of Crossfire and In a Lonely Place, to say nothing of her disruptive presence as the bad girl of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life.

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Review: Black Panther

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

In 2017, the Marvel comic book conglomerate took a wackadoodle turn that coughed up two of its most fluid, playful movies yet: the sprightly Spider-Man: Homecoming and the irreverent Thor: Ragnarok. Those films suggested how frisky space might be carved out within the crushing sameness of the superhero formula and the larger universe-building of Marvel’s mega-plotline. And they did it largely with humor. In that sense, Black Panther is something of a course correction. Burdened with establishing a superhero whose distinguishing characteristics are dignity and his royal duties to his people (whatever his problems, Hulk never had to send a balanced-budget bill to congress) and world-building an entire African civilization, Black Panther can’t spend much time on fripperies. This is serious superhero business.

That gravity is the movie’s strength and weakness.

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Review: The Insult

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

The most surprising inclusion among this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees was The Insult (L’insulte), a Lebanese drama. It nabbed a slot over the highly touted German film In the Fade, which earned Diane Kruger the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, and edged out critical favorites from Israel (Foxtrot) and Senegal (Felicite). Still, it’s easy to see how The Insult made the list. This is an issue movie that deals very directly—at times extremely bluntly—with the subject of political discord.

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Review: Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Even as an octogenarian, Fred Beckey tried to climb mountains along routes nobody had mastered. We’re not speaking metaphorically here: Beckey—one of America’s most proficient climbers and a fixture in the Pacific Northwest mountaineering scene—continued to lug his gear up precipitous inclines when he was in his late eighties. We learn this in the documentary Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey, a lively portrait of a crank. Late in the film, as Beckey painfully climbs another hillside and a successful ascent looks increasingly unlikely, his friend tries to philosophize. “The main thing is that you get up high,” the friend says, “it doesn’t matter how you get there.” Beckey immediately says, “Yeah it does.” How you interpret Beckey’s response will determine how you feel about him: Either his pursuit of new climbing routes is a measure of his integrity or a symptom of his off-putting monomania. We can make up our own minds about that, because the film, directed by Dave O’Leske, is appreciative without being worshipful.

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Review: The Final Year

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

High on my list of “moviemaking don’ts” is the use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Nothing against the song, it’s a true anthem by the Nobel laureate with 1963-penned lyrics that remain applicable to any era. But plop it in a movie and heavy-handedness abounds (go directly to the particularly cringe-worthy moment in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July for confirmation). However, I am suspending my decree for the new documentary, The Final Year. By the time this chronicle of 2016 politics reaches its climax, Dylan’s words (not sung by him, in this case) sound more perceptive than ever.

The Final Year follows the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team, with a focus on three main players: Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.

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Review: Phantom Thread

The main character in Phantom Thread is a 1950s fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock, a meticulous craftsman and a godlike giant of his industry. Early in the film he prepares for the day’s work, and you know he’s enacting the same rituals he does every morning: the careful brushing of hair, the measured buttering of toast. It’s a terrific introduction to a character, but I suspect writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is also paying tribute to his leading man. The actor we’re watching is Daniel Day-Lewis, the three-time Oscar winner who previously worked with Anderson on There Will Be Blood. Godlike in his own profession, Day-Lewis is famous for his pickiness and obsessive research. Woodcock’s fussiness must be partly a portrayal of this remarkable and very controlled actor.

If Phantom Thread is an excellent portrait of an artist, it is not a predictable or conventional one.

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Review: Paddington 2

If marmalade sandwiches are back on the menu, it can only mean the Paddington sequel has arrived. The 2014 original, a live-action film with a computer-generated bear, was as warm ‘n fuzzy as its main character. If the sequel has a few odd ideas—Paddington spends almost half the movie in jail?—it still supplies a happy ration of kid-friendly slapstick, grown-up jokes, and a batch of the most recognizable actors in Britain.

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Review: I, Tonya

Surely Tonya Harding was one of the last great pre-internet tabloid sensations, an unlikely headliner in a tacky saga of criminal intentions and bad taste. Before the internet, a jaw-dropping scandal like Harding’s could linger for a while, instead of being instantly elbowed aside by Twitter outrage or the latest meme. The drama unfolded in 1994, when an assailant hit figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in the leg with an iron bar; rumors flew that Harding, Kerrigan’s rival, had something to do with the attack. At the Olympics a few weeks later, both Kerrigan (bruised but not broken) and Harding competed amid a swirl of bizarre headlines about Harding’s fantastically trashy ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and his beefy, sage-like sidekick Shawn Eckhardt. Gillooly and Eckhardt did jail time for planning the attack; Harding has always maintained she wasn’t in on it. The crime was lurid enough, but the story had multiple levels, including economic: Harding was a blue-collar kid who sewed her own costumes out of financial necessity, a contrast to Kerrigan’s movie-star looks and classy commercial endorsements.

The movie version of this tale, I, Tonya, works hard to suggest why we might sympathize with Harding: her poverty, the abuse she suffered from her husband and her mother, the snooty condescension of skating’s top brass.

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Review: Darkest Hour

So you know all the stuff that was going on offscreen during Dunkirk? That’s centerstage in Darkest Hour, a historical drama that observes British higher-ups during a decisive moment in 1940. Most especially, it focuses on Winston Churchill, who had been Prime Minister less than a month when the evacuation of Dunkirk was executed. But that unlikely event—300,000 trapped British troops ferried across the English Channel from France—is merely one piece of Darkest Hour.

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Review: Downsizing

Alexander Payne has become known for directing bittersweet comedies rooted in recognizable—you might say warts and all—humanity. Movies like NebraskaAbout Schmidt, and Sideways are not always easy on their characters, but they sometimes crackle with lightning bolts of insight. Payne’s latest, written with his frequent writing partner Jim Taylor, adds a sci-fi framing device to his work. But ultimately Downsizing looks a lot like his previous films—and I think that’s a good thing.

The gimmick here is that Norwegian scientists have discovered a way to shrink people, a breakthrough that will lead to enormous environmental and financial benefits for the planet.

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Review: Call Me by Your Name

Since it premiered at film festivals earlier this year, Call Me by Your Name has inspired reviews that sound as though they were written in mid-swoon. Frankly, the movie itself encourages this: It’s a lush wallow at an Italian villa, a coming-of-age story that presents sensual adventure and a warm portrait of a functional family. Everything’s ideal, even the angst. It also features sex with a piece of fruit, although this is rendered cute and endearing; nothing too weird disturbs this movie’s handsome surface.

If I sound a little skeptical, I am—but the film is certainly pleasant to be seduced by.

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