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by Robert Horton

Contributor

Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The new Spider-Man movie opens with an apology about being yet another Spider-Man movie, which pretty much sets the tone: This is a flip, oh-so-postmodern take on a franchise that won’t stop rebooting itself. An animated Marvel saga, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tips its hat to the existing Spider-Man movie thread while introducing the idea that multiple universes hold different Spider-Men.

That convoluted concept must be fun for some people, because Into the Spider-Verse has been winning rave reviews (and a nod for Best Animated Film from the New York Film Critics). I’m not raving, but the film is certainly different.

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Review: Roma

The opening shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a self-contained masterpiece—no surprise, considering the mind-boggling opening shots of Children of Men and Gravity, the Oscar-winning director’s two previous features. Here, our focus on a section of elegant floor tiles is interrupted by a wash of water that flows in waves across the floor, a mysterious image that turns out to be a housemaid washing up the exposed entryway at a Mexico City house, a favorite spot for the family dog to do its (apparently prodigious) pooping. As the water accumulates, the image changes, and we can now see the reflection of the sky above the entryway.

The water, the sky, the dog poop—everything will play a role in this intimate yet somehow epic film, which Cuarón has said is based on his childhood memories of Mexico in the early 1970s. 

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Review: ‘The Favourite’

Along with its other wicked attractions, The Favourite serves as a corrective to all those fluffy period movies where pretty costumes and set design function as the cinematic equivalent of a bubble bath. The art direction is plenty handsome here, too, and the film will likely collect a few Oscars for its physical production. But The Favourite uses its lavish backdrops in order to show off the nastiest sides of human behavior—this is a beautiful dinner spread with a rat as its centerpiece.

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Review: Green Book

You know an actor’s in the groove when a simple grunt conveys not only an entire character arc, but a movie’s essential meaning. Such a moment comes late in Green Book, and it’s one of a thousand things to savor about the performances in this film.

The groan emerges from the beefed-up body of Viggo Mortensen, playing a Bronx wiseguy named Tony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip). It’s 1962, and Tony has been hired by a black jazz pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), to act as chauffeur during a concert tour. But Tony’s duties are not merely to drive a car; as a nightclub bouncer and a guy who knows his way around a brawl, it’s understood that Tony may have to provide protection for Shirley when the trip ventures into the American South.

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Review: Robin Hood (2018)

The Sheriff of Nottingham is throwing a big party, and Maid Marian asks Robin Hood if he’ll be attending. She tells Robin she “got an invite” to the party, and at that point I think I mentally checked out of the new Robin Hood. It’s bad enough that people use “invite” as a noun in 2018. But unless this is a Mel Brooks version of ye olde tale, using current slang to tell the Robin Hood story qualifies as an automatic tune-out.

The saga of Robin Hood has been around for almost a thousand years, and if it can withstand Kevin Costner’s accent, it can withstand this haphazard new film. The emphasis here is on a youthful Robin, an origin story that shows us how he came to be the legendary robber. 

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Holiday Movie Streaming Picks

The holiday season is already arranged around rituals, so it makes sense that we come back to the same movies every year. In certain households annual showings of A Christmas Story or Elf or It’s a Wonderful Life are as rigorously observed as the lighting of Advent or Hanukkah candles. I’m not necessarily comparing religious belief with the secular comforts of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, but let’s just say there are different kinds of gospel.

A scan of the streaming services reveals a collection of acceptable films, but I’d like to point out how thin the tree is. Netflix has a scattering of bona fide holiday classics, for instance, but after that you’ve got a whole lot of chintzy-sounding movies with “Christmas” in the title. Given the recently announced demise of the classic-film service Filmstruck, it would be nice if someone reminded these providers that movies existed before 1980.

Nevertheless, here are a few titles for the Christmas stocking, and maybe a couple of lumps of coal.

White Christmas

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play entertainers who put on a show for their former military commander at a snow-less winter resort. Definitely a time capsule from a vanished era (1954), this Irving Berlin musical has great production numbers, eye-popping color, and the enduring fascination (for me, anyway) of Crosby’s hepcat patter. Netflix

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Reviews: Widows

Widows probably works best as a three-minute trailer (punchy and funny) or a longform miniseries (deep and complicated). It’s a movie, though, which means we’re stuck with a fitfully engaging, 129-minute feature that only occasionally gets out of gear. The film is actually based on a miniseries, broadcast in England in the 1980s. Adapted here by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn and director Steve McQueen, Widows tries to be a lot of different things: heist thriller, feminist statement, social-issue diagnosis. That’s a lot to bite off, and 129 minutes isn’t enough time for proper chewing.

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Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Too bad the title of the new multi-story Coen brothers film is taken from the first of its episodes. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has the ring of a cartoon spoof, and it’s a perfectly suitable title for the film’s first segment, a Western sendup so broad it reminds us that every Coen brothers film has a little Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner spinning around inside it.

But this movie, taken as a whole, is no spoof, nor a cartoon. Its first two sections are very funny, but gradually the project moves from comedy into something else, something kind of amazing. Exquisitely crafted and relentlessly bleak, Buster Scruggs is a glorious wagon train of dark mischief, a strangely entertaining autopsy on the human condition. Like Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, it pretends to be silly while it slips you the needle.

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Review: Love and Death on Long Island

[Originally written for The Herald in 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

Its title and subject matter may suggest a heavy arthouse experience. But make no mistake: Love and Death on Long Island is one of the most thoroughly entertaining movies of the year.

This funny, graceful British film features a marvelous central character and one of the best scenes of revelation in years. We spend the first reel of the film meeting Giles De’Ath (he takes some pains to pronounce his name correctly: Day-awth). As played by the splendid John Hurt, De’Ath is a brainy academic writer, a man of large reputation even if nobody actually reads his books. Widowed and isolated in his regimented life, he has quite happily ignored the modern world for his entire adult life. He’s heard the vague rumor that some of E.M. Forster’s novels have been made into films, and one day he tries to see one of these respectable pictures. The confusions of the multiplex result in his buying a ticket for something called Hotpants College 2, an insipid teen sex comedy.

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Review: Outlaw King

The opening sequence of Outlaw King screams out one thing loud and clear: Forget about Netflix! Yes, we’ve just seen the corporate logo onscreen, but director David Mackenzie immediately launches into a bravura sequence that bombards us with big-screen movie-ness: In one complicated, unbroken shot—maybe seven or eight minutes long?—we watch political allegiances forged, hand-to-hand combat between crown princes unleashed, and the apparatus of war (a gigantic catapult that tosses flaming bombs at a faraway castle) fully engaged. This movie was produced for Netflix, but Mackenzie trumpets the largeness of its scope in no uncertain terms.

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Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

It occupies only a small part of the movie, but Mike Myers’ casting as a skeptical record executive in Bohemian Rhapsody is a masterstroke. Haloed by a 1970s perm and growling with philistine contempt for the arty band in his office, Myers gives the movie audience something tangible to root against. He thinks the members of Queen are all wrong about their approach to rock, insisting the operatic six-minute single (which gives the movie its title) won’t get played on the radio. Myers revels in the character’s boorishness, and we chuckle, knowing how wrong he is. The capper is an inside joke: Myers declares that “Bohemian Rhapsody” will never be the kind of song kids rock out to in their cars, exactly describing a famous scene from his own Wayne’s World.

If only the rest of this movie had this kind of loose, wacky vibe. Most of Bohemian Rhapsody plods ever-so-seriously through the saga of Queen and, more specifically, the band’s flamboyant front man, Freddie Mercury.

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Screaming and Streaming

If I had to trace the origins of my compulsion to seek scary movies for Halloween, I might picture myself in childhood, horrified by a TV broadcast of Disney’s cartoon adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I can still picture the Headless Horseman heaving that flaming jack-o’-lantern right at me. Countless nights spent enthralled by KIRO’s Nightmare Theatrelibrary of old movies didn’t help, either.

On Halloween, one must have horror—which, thanks to streaming, is now at everybody’s fingertips via popular streaming services and more niche ones (the horror-based Shudder or the free-with-a-library-card Kanopy). (Although plenty of great movies aren’t available through streaming—so long live physical media.)

Here are some recommended titles—some brand new, some classic, all currently available streaming or on demand.

New Releases Available for Streaming Rental

Mandy

If it’s still playing in a theater near you, go see it there. Otherwise, this gorgeous movie—your basic psychedelic-backwoods-revenge picture—has been on demand for a few weeks already. If the Oscars ever noticed movies at the grindhouse level, Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough would be nominated for their otherworldly performances, as two recluses whose lives are interrupted by a Manson-like cult. Amazon, YouTube, Google Play

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Review: Meet Joe Black

[Originally written for Film.com in 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

Martin Brest is one of Hollywood’s choosier directors, a man whose output in the last ten years consists of 1988’s deft comedy Midnight Run and 1992’s slice of inspirational hokum Scent of a Woman. The aroma of the latter film—deep-dish philosophy served up with a generous helping of fried baloney—returns in Brest’s Meet Joe Black, a sideways remake of the oddball fantasy Death Takes a Holiday. That property, filmed in 1934 and (as a TV-movie) in 1971, had the figure of Death coming down to earth to observe how people live. During his vacation, Death claims no victims anywhere in the world, a plot point this new film has jettisoned.

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Review: Halloween (2018)

Michael Myers has been coming home for decades now, ever since he rampaged through the town of Haddonfield, Ill., in the 1978 horror masterpiece Halloween. The masked killer was supposed to be locked securely within a psychiatric hospital, but he escaped through many sequels and spin-offs. We’re supposed to forget all about those for the new Halloween, which is designed as a direct sequel to the original. (Then why is the new film titled simply Halloween? I worry about these things.) The creepy opening sequence depicts a Michael who’s been safely imprisoned for 40 years. Someone’s had the brilliant idea to transfer him to a new facility, which of course means putting him out into the world, which of course cannot be healthy for the world.

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Review: Sadie

At the beginning of a movie, you look for little indicators that you’re in good hands. It could be a neatly-choreographed action scene, an actor’s brilliant monologue, or a fantastic “How did they do that?” camera move.

In Sadie, I got that feeling from a plate of Ritz crackers. We’ve just met the 13-year-old title character (played by Sophia Mitri Schloss) in the trailer park where she lives, along with her school chum Francis (the wonderfully deadpan Keith L. Williams) and his laid-back grandfather (Tee Dennard). Francis disappears into a trailer and reappears a minute later carrying the tray of crackers (can’t swear it’s Ritz, could possibly be Cheez-Its), which he offers to his pals. No one calls attention to this, or makes a joke of it; it stays in the background, and it tells you something about Francis, and the community in the park, and that somebody behind the camera has an eye for details.

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