Browse Author

Robert Horton

‘In the House’: Bad Teacher, Naughty Pupil

Luchini as a very bad teacher

François Ozon’s parents were schoolteachers. That could account for the slyly mixed feelings he shows toward the protagonist of his new film. Meet Germain, a high-school teacher whose commitment to his profession is tested by his boredom, his frustrated dreams of being a writer, and the seductive series of papers turned in by a precocious student.

Not “seductive” in the obvious sense—the movie’s got more on its mind than an inappropriate affair. What Germain (Fabrice Luchini) sees in the serial narrative written by Claude (Ernst Umhauer) is a spark of talent, a reason to invest himself in a student, and a string of cliffhangers that have him—and eventually his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas)—waiting breathlessly for each new installment.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

‘Graceland’: Crime and Parenthood in the Philippines

The device at the heart of Graceland is unsavory but gripping: A flunky for a crooked politician is driving his daughter and his boss’ daughter home from school when kidnappers pounce. The baddies immediately kill one of the girls and drive away with the other, a huge ransom demand trailing in their wake.

The twist? The kidnappers have killed the wrong girl, and the driver is the only person who knows that his daughter, not the rich guy’s kid, is the one held captive. As it happens, this is not the only twist waiting in Ron Morales’ Graceland, a Philippine suspense picture that puts the hammer down, hard.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

‘Midnight’s Children’: Salman Rushdie Helps Adapt His Own Novel

Saleem (Bhabha) in transit between identities and nations

When Midnight’s Children was published in 1981, one might have assumed that its promising author would become best known as a writer of magical realism and an observer of the divide between India and Pakistan. That’s not the way it worked out for Salman Rushdie. His 1988 novel The Satanic Verses was judged to be blasphemy against Islam by the world’s worst literary critic, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Rushdie has lived under threat of death ever since.

Midnight’s Children predates all that, yet its absurdities depict the maelstrom out of which such chaos comes. And when the new film adaptation was in production in Sri Lanka, it encountered lingering hassles related to Rushdie’s notoriety; at one point a forced shutdown was lifted after director Deepa Mehta made nice with the president of the island nation.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

‘Eden’: A Locally Made Tale of Sex Trafficking

Proposed: One of the basic concerns for a storyteller is what to put in and what to leave out. That sounds really obvious. But it’s a huge deal, and deciding what should go in—as opposed to all the other stuff that might, but shouldn’t—makes the difference between a spellbinding experience and a nap. It matters even more in movies than in literature: Ten pages of dull writing in a 400-page novel can be forgiven, but 10 off-key minutes in a movie will break an audience’s faith.

Eden (Jamie Chung) soon after capture

I thought about this principle while watching Eden, a harrowing film by Seattle director Megan Griffiths. Handled in middling fashion, the subject would have some punch: Eden is based on the true story of Chong Kim, a victim of the U.S. sex-trafficking trade, so horror and suspense are already built into it.

Even with that backbone in place, there are ways to mess this up, but Eden rarely sets a foot wrong. Given the potentially lurid material, Griffiths gives the film a sort of committed austerity—which comes to seem more horrifying for its calm approach.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’

Kate Hudson and Riz Ahmed

The 2010 film Four Lions is about a British cell of Islamic fundamentalists plotting to plant homemade explosive devices at—among other targets—the London marathon. It’s an uproarious comedy.

Too soon after the Boston bombings to recall this scathing movie? Maybe, but it shouldn’t be—Chris Morris’ prediction of stupid, self-styled jihadists looks even keener and more furious than it did three years ago.

In Four Lions, Oxford-educated actor and hip-hop artist Riz Ahmed played the leader of the hapless terrorists. That movie’s a better vehicle for the wunderkind artist Ahmed than this tepid new effort from director Mira Nair, which passes glumly over distantly related turf.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: ‘Renoir’

Michel Bouquet as Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Pretty pictures in a movie are sometimes dismissed as eye candy, the implication being that empty calories are no substitute for the sound nutrition of noble stories and thematic depth. That may be, although it would be difficult to deny the chocolate-box allure of Renoir, a lushly photographed gloss on a real-life moment in an artistic family.

The title identifies the family; the moment is 1915. As war rages on the other side of France, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), by now elderly and arthritic, paints at his sun-dappled estate on the Côte d’Azur. He employs a new model, Andrée (Christa Theret), a willful redhead who suits Renoir’s vision of glowing flesh and interior mystery.

Actually we have to take the mystery on faith, because Theret doesn’t suggest much beyond a handsome surface.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

‘Welcome to Doe Bay’

Last year when the jury members for the Reel NW prize at the Seattle International Film Festival got together, we were strongly agreed on Megan Griffiths’s film Eden as our top pick. But it would’ve been a short meeting if we hadn’t at least kicked around our next-favorites, and so we did.

‘Welcome to Doe Bay’ by Daniel Thornton, Nesib CB Shamah, and Sarah Crowe

I made a next-best case for Welcome to Doe Bay, a cheerful, hang-loose account of the annual Doe Bay musical festival on Orcas Island. I have never attended this weekend music fest, having been born between the hippies and the retro-hippies and thus slightly out of key demographic range, but this documentary conveys some of the vibe of being there.

The movie’s built around performances from the Head and the Heart, Pickwick, Damien Jurado, Maldives, and Lemolo, among others. Lots of performers are Northwest-based, and the setting for the festival is one of those green waterside perches in the San Juans that seem designed to entice outsiders to seek out this part of the country. There’s also a lot of conversation and explanation from the organizers of the event, whose entrepreneurial spirit is somehow both laid-back and savvy. In some ways the D-I-Y approach of the Doe Bay organizers and participants, emphasizing smallness and specialness over huge commercial ambitions, is like a mirror of the Northwest film scene: Don’t wait for someone else to give you permission, don’t go gigantic, and don’t worry about looking weird.

Continue reading at KCTS9 Reel NW blog

Like Dracula: David Thomson

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

No event exists without the process by which it is apprehended and understood. It is irrelevant and impossible to refer it to an absolute standard like realism because the means of measurement cannot be extricated from the observation. The relationship between the real and the surreal is not distinct but blurred
David Thomson, Movie Man

The cinemas alone stayed open, twinkling with lights and turning the night into dark velvet. The cinema comes to life with dark—like Dracula.
—David Thomson, America in the Dark

It all begins in the dark. This is a point of crucial poetic and philosophic importance for David Thomson; he is obsessed with the fact that the delicate interplay of light and dark images on the screen, as produced by film and projector, is possible only after a room has been completely darkened and a shaft of light sent streaking across that room to illuminate the screen. Illumination occurs elsewhere. For the adolescent David Thomson, sitting in a cinema in South London, it strikes him while watching and rewatching Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The realization that an intelligence guiding the camera was commenting on movie-viewing itself—a man sitting in the dark, watching people move in a box—was a stimulating experience, and Thomson works with the tangled mesh of art, life, observation, and participation in his three books Movie Man (1967), A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975), and America in the Dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality (1977). The very private relationship he maintains with films, even when he expands his notions to include theories and pronouncements on all society, is passionate and idiosyncratic (need I add, subjective?). Thomson refuses to be pinned down or to wear a label; humanist, auteurist, structuralist, whateverist, he remains doggedly an individual, exploring his personal contact with movies—with prejudices, usually acknowledged, but always with a real determination to get at the roots of the power that has hold of him: cinema.

Keep Reading

Andrew Sarris in Seattle

Andrew Sarris came to Seattle for a talk on the night of March 12, 1987. My friend Tom Keogh and I had recently founded a non-profit organization dedicated to showing movie repertory, the Seattle Filmhouse, at just exactly the wrong moment to found such a thing. But before that enterprise fell apart, we managed to get Sarris out to talk about what a film critic was, and what film criticism was for, and—oh, whatever he wanted to talk about.

Andrew Sarris

His arrival at the airport, and his presence over the next couple of days, somehow embodied every idea I had about a vintage New Yorker. The rumpled trenchcoat, the garrulous manner, the roving intellect, the way food would not stay in his mouth as he talked over some urgent subject at dinner—all these things seemed exactly from that classic world of the East Coast, so juiced-up in comparison to our laid-back Northwest ways. (In leaving a restaurant, he grabbed someone else’s raincoat, which we had to return the next day—a mix-up discovered when Andrew found parole papers in the guy’s pocket.)

The day of his lecture, Tom and I schlepped him around to radio stations for publicity interviews, and I got worried. He looked pretty exhausted, though gracious in beating the drum on our behalf. Then came the talk in Kane Hall at the University of Washington, and Sarris was on, gliding from autobiographical anecdote to concise recaps of the Kael rivalry to piercing quick takes on movies in release at that moment (the Oscars were imminent—Platoon was the odds-on favorite, but he said his favorite of the year was Eric Rohmer’s Summer). He could ramble, yes, but then yank back the train of thought with some arresting observation.

Continue  reading at Film Comment here. The transcript of Andrew Sarris’s appearance at the Seattle Filmhouse in 1987 is also at film comment in two parts, here and here.

House of Bamboo (The Cornfield #40)

CinemaScope was de rigueur at Fox at this moment (1955), so here is Samuel Fuller going widescreen for a bright-lit color-filled noir shot in Japan. Like Hell and High Water just before it, it feels as though Fuller is not yet happy about ‘Scope, and unless you have a giant TV it looks very tableau-heavy, with small figures moving around in large spaces.

However, Fuller does juice things up, rolling the camera through the midst of a traditional dance (a movement broken up by the blundering of the hero) and, especially, finding dynamic angles on a rooftop climax, where the final showdown plays out on a large, rickety globe that spins as it hangs out over Tokyo. Another gangster story where the boss thinks the world is his.

That story: American Robert Stack (nothing but voice and trenchcoat, already auditioning for Eliot Ness) is the blunderer, come to Japan to find a dead buddy and initiating contact with the buddy’s widow (Shirley Yamaguchi). After trying to lean on a few pachinko-parlor managers, Stack gets leaned on by the real local Ichiban, Robert Ryan, who runs protection (and the occasional bank robbery) with his loyal harem of flunkies. Ryan is introduced when Stack is sent flying through a screen wall in the back of the frame and we discover the boss perched here, amused at the crudeness of this newcomer.

Continue reading at The Crop Duster

Ride the High Country

This was written in 1990 for a film series called “Myth of the West” at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. As a program note, it’s a brief introduction to Ride the High Country; its references to Peckinpah beginning to fade from film history are even keener now that it’s been over a quarter-century since his death. – Robert Horton

John Ford made something like 125 films in his fifty-year career in Hollywood, and in that time he created a cohesive, wholecloth world, especially in films of the American West. Sam Peckinpah worked in feature films from The Deadly Companions (1961) to The Osterman Weekend (1983); a dozen or so films, as well as television beginning in the late 1950s—a little over twenty years of work. Yet Peckinpah’s legacy is as rich as any modern director’s, and as unmistakable; you always know when you’re watching a Peckinpah movie. And Peckinpah did his most important work in the Western.

But it may be more appropriate to say that Peckinpah made end-of-the-Westerns. His Western films are poised at the moment of death, the passing of one life, one era, to another (maybe that’s why he used slow-motion to show his characters getting killed—he was saving, examining that final moment). The Wild Bunch (1969) is one long last gasp; the American West is disappearing, to the extent that the outlaw heroes must go to Mexico, where they find a brief glimpse of Eden. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is explicitly constructed as an American folk ballad (Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan are among the actors), the stanzas of which describe two old friends who used to live a wild, wide-open life. Now, one of them has joined the side of the law, and has betrayed the other for the sake of employment and civilization. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), the hero, a man who has a waterhole in the middle of nowhere, is killed by… a motorcar.

Keep Reading

Review: The Rose

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

“You know, I’m so tired of the road,” sighs Bette Midler into a telephone near the end of the film. There’s a hesitation in her voice on the word ‘road’ as if she were going to say, “I’m so tired of The Rose” instead. This would not be unusual since the Rose consistently refers to herself in the third person. The film concerns her attempts to slip out from under that suffocating title, and the most intriguing tension within The Rose is that while wanting to make this escape the Rose nevertheless takes refuge behind her misleadingly flowery appellation whenever necessary. She has the ability to snap to brash, acid-tongued life, even from the depths of depression, when she is confronted by an audience: pursuing her sulking lover (Frederic Forrest) through a men’s steambath while keeping up an entertaining banter for the boys; being easily coaxed onstage at clubs she entered as a spectator; and finally, hopelessly drugged at her last concert appearance. This idea of the Rose being more at home while performing than at any other time is underscored by the way director Mark Rydell has filmed an early concert number. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” an exhausting ballad, is shot almost entirely in one long take—and the interesting thing about this song is that the closer we get to the Rose, the more we realize that she is making love with the microphone, her lips trailing over it, with a greater intimacy than we see in her contact with humans.

Keep Reading

Review: Cuba

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) is a British mercenary who arrives in Cuba to help train soldiers for Batista’s collapsing regime. When he checks in with the British embassy on his arrival, he is informed by an official (who gingerly supports Batista—until the prevailing winds blow from another direction) that if he gets into trouble he shouldn’t come to them: “You won’t be welcome, chum.” This is an attitude that the central character of Richard Lester’s Cuba runs into repeatedly: he is welcome almost nowhere. When he happens upon his former love Alexandra (Brooke Adams) playing tennis with her husband Juan (Chris Sarandon), she pretends not to recognize Dapes and tells Juan it was “Nobody.” Later, when she does confront Dapes, she can’t even remember his last name (though her husband remembers his face when introduced: “Juan, this is—” “Nobody?”). After they’ve rekindled the relationship and Dapes assumes she cherishes it as much as he does, Alex insists that it’s nothing and finally kisses him off by capsulizing the former affair: “I regard those as lost years. There was nothing—and I include you, Robert—nothing that made them memorable.” Shades of 10.

Keep Reading

Review: Star Trek – The Motion Picture

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Regarding the immense, murky, superintelligent cloud that threatens to destroy the planet Earth, one anonymous spaceperson remarks, “There must be something incredible inside generating it!” I wish the same could be said for the immense Star Trek—The Motion Picture, which disappoints by seeming to have no driving force at its center. The “something incredible” that the Enterprise goes up against during Old Home Week Among the Stars is a living machine wishing to collect all human knowledge and to link up with its Creator. It’s called … well, phonetically, Veejer—so that the cast sounds very silly when addressing this almost godlike entity. I wouldn’t dream of spelling out the explanation of that name, but it almost seems to have been suggested by the title gimmick of Zardoz (the name of an old book called The Wizard of Oz compressed into the futuristic word). It’s clever, anyway, and the whole Veejer episode is pretty engaging, just as the really good episodes of the old Star Trek TV series are.

Keep Reading

Review: Quadrophenia

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The movie starts out with a pretty good indication of what it’s going to be made of: A young man stares out over the golden ocean towards the sun, then turns and walks toward the camera, his silhouette remaining in the streak of sun on the waves. The camera tilts slightly so the sun is in the middle of the frame, and we cut suddenly to the front headlight of a motor scooter, charging forward at the reeling camera and driven by the same young man. Energy: that’s what Quadrophenia is about and what it is made up of. The characters in the story, British kids in the early-to-mid-Sixties, pour their energies into pills, violence, and sex, and into the collective search for self that found its expression in being part of a group—in this case, either of two extremist music factions: the rockers (getting behind Gene Vincent and traditional rock’n’roll) or the mods (The Who and the Kinks). We focus on one denizen of this world, a boy, Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), who finds a more important family within the mods than he does at home, and who is happiest when popping blues and starting fights. Director Franc Roddam manages to make Jimmy a sympathetic character as we examine his isolation amid the spurious togetherness of the mods, and his search for identity. Yet unlike the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause (which this film echoes occasionally), Jimmy doesn’t always seem to be aware of his own pathetic state. If he were a little more detached from his situation, we would at least have the feeling that there was a chance he’d break out of it. A shot of Jimmy sitting on his scooter, as we see his face reflected from four different angles in the rearview mirrors surrounding him, sums up his fragmentation: different sides, no center. His parents, who cannot understand (his father asks him “Who do yer think y’are, anyway?”—and Jimmy honestly does not know); the advertising agency for which he works, which manufactures images of phony-pretty reality; and his group, with their desperate/exultant dance after a riot, chanting “We are the mods!” repeatedly—they are all, as Rebel’s Jim had it, “tearing him apart.”

Keep Reading