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by Robert Horton

Contributor

Review: Loving Vincent

Vincent Van Gogh’s life has been fodder for many movies, and it’s easy to understand the appeal: The painter embodies the romantic ideal of the tortured artist, and the subject offers meaty visual possibilities. Plus, the drama! How many biopics build to a scene where the hero slices off part of his own ear? Not many actors can pass up the chance to play that, and the role has served strong performers such as Kirk Douglas (in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life) and Tim Roth (in Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo). I will argue that the cinema’s best Van Gogh was not seen but heard; in Paul Cox’s lovely 1987 film Vincent, John Hurt recites Vincent’s letters while images of the paintings fill the screen. Yes, everybody’s letters would sound magnificent read aloud by Hurt, but he really brings out the intelligence and sensitivity within Vincent’s raging spirit.

The painter is again little-seen in the animated Loving Vincent, which attempts a unique approach.

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Review: Lucky

Every character actor should get a send-off like Lucky. But then not every character actor is Harry Dean Stanton. In recent years, Stanton, who died on Sept. 15 at 91, became almost as well known for his charismatic offscreen personality as for his decades of work in film (usually as an arresting supporting player, occasionally as a sublime leading man). If you’ve seen the 2014 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, you know that the grizzled actor created an aura of Zen philosophy and hard-bitten life lessons, all woven together with Mexican songs (he was a superb singer), tequila, and cigarette haze. The makers of Lucky clearly incorporated many of Stanton’s own attitudes into their film, and the result—though completely fictionalized—feels like a tribute to a singular friend.

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Review: Ex Libris: New York Public Library

No documentary is objective. Even when a nonfiction film lacks narration, a storyline, or Michael Moore, someone has to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. That’s what any kind of art is: deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. The particular art of the fly-on-the-wall documentary has been practiced and perfected for a half-century now by Frederick Wiseman, the wizened octogenarian who won an honorary Oscar last year (a very hip choice on the Academy’s part). In an age when documentaries continue to push for telling stories—easily digested, preferably with a theme of redemption, and accompanied by an insistent musical score, because the goal is to uplift and energize you—Wiseman stubbornly disdains all that. His new film, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, is like an old card catalog organized according to the Dewey Decimal System: calm, useful, elegant.

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Review: American Made

American Made doesn’t entirely stand on its own as a movie, but it provides some kick for two reasons. One is the project’s based-on-fact nature: Its cavalcade of unlikely encounters and officially sanctioned malfeasance—peopled by a cast of historical figures that includes future jailbirds Oliver North and Manuel Noriega and future president George W. Bush—is truly incredible. This is the story of Barry Seal, a former TWA (Trans World Airlines) pilot who flew drug shipments for the Medellín cartel and managed to get involved in the Iran-Contra scandal (and, the movie strongly suggests, was working at the behest of the CIA, too).

The other reason American Made is frequently lively is the presence of the actor who plays Seal, one Thomas Cruise Mapother IV. It may have snuck up on us, but Tom Cruise has now been a major movie star for almost 35 years (Risky Business came out in ’83), a longer run at the top than many legendary stars. Cruise is good in American Made, throwing himself into the film’s gonzo narrative with his usual gung-ho energy. This is a black comedy, and irony isn’t Cruise’s most natural mode, yet by playing Seal as a slightly dimwitted cheeseball on the make, he gets into the movie’s you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff spirit.

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Review: Friend Request

Friend Request is all about the dangers of Facebook and social media, so maybe it could have gotten a pass in 2011. The alarm—which has nothing to do with Facebook’s controversial algorithms or alleged biases—seems a little outdated now. Do college students still use Facebook? If so, they will find the sorts of lessons here that a 1959 movie might have noted about the barbaric allure of rock and roll.

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Review: Rebel in the Rye

Rebel in the Rye is not as terrible as its title, so we can say that for it. Given that its subject had a razor-sharp ear for titles himself—I mean, who can top For Esmé–With Love and Squalor or A Perfect Day for Bananafish?—you might expect a little better from a movie that purports to tell the story of J.D. Salinger. Alas, the title is just the first misstep in a well-meaning but ham-handed attempt to get at Salinger’s mystery, an attempt made fitfully bearable by an intriguing central performance and the tweedy atmosphere of mid-20th-century literary America.

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Review: Crown Heights

Crown Heights won the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Feature at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. That’s a pretty good call, given that the movie shirks the kind of feel-good uplift that often marks such awards. Granted, it does have a redemption arc built into it—one many viewers will already know, especially if they heard the This American Life episode that recounted this true tale of a warped legal system—but for the most part this is a lean, terse telling of a nightmarish American story.

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Review: The Trip to Spain

Forty years ago the Best Song Oscar took a catastrophic turn—“You Light Up My Life” was the 1977 victor—and the category has never really been the same. Tepid pop songs and the occasional Disney original tend to scoop up the award, albeit with notable exceptions. But before that year, the list of Oscar Best Songs is littered with classics, none more haunting than 1968’s “The Windmills of Your Mind.” With its mournful melody and existentially despairing lyrics, the song is an inducement to sit in a hole and cover yourself with nice cold earth.

So there’s something perfect about the fact that two of Britain’s top comedic talents adopt “Windmills” as their traveling theme song in The Trip to Spain. The film’s predecessors, The Trip and The Trip to Italy, have neatly balanced big laughs with an unexpected current of melancholy.

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Review: Good Time

Future teen heartthrobs seeking to change their images would do well to consider the example of Robert Pattinson. Cast in the first Twilight movie in 2008, playing a sparkly-skinned vampire with a romantically morose attitude, Pattinson exploded into dreamboat status overnight. Perhaps understandably, he moved through the sequels like a man who’d been sentenced to them as punishment. He endured the grind of those movies and the glare of a media machine fascinated by his romance with co-star Kristen Stewart (in case you missed it, I’m sorry to report the union is kaput). Then Pattinson got to pick his follow-up projects, and the results have been promising.

He’s done two pictures for David Cronenberg, including a confident lead turn in the wickedly sardonic Cosmopolis, plus a handful of supporting roles that allowed him to escape the vampire’s kiss (including the bookish explorer in The Lost City of Z and Lawrence of Arabia in Queen of the Desert). He became the unlikely toast of the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year when his performance in the Safdie brothers’ Good Time wowed the Riviera. For good reason: Pattinson carries the movie, elbowing his way through a series of increasingly frantic situations during a long, freezing night in Queens. He has gone full sleazeball, sporting a scuzzy goatee and a wounded animal’s impulses.

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Video: Framing Pictures for August 2017

Film critics and Seattle film mavens Robert Horton, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy and Bruce Reid dive into two new films: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Then, Jeanne Moreau’s recent passing sparks a conversation about the love of film, the love of talking about film, and why cinema captivates us.

You can also watch it on the Seattle Channel website.

Keep up with the discussion at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.

Review: Logan Lucky

The Logan brothers list their family’s dismal relationship to luck, ticking through some of the calamities that have befallen the clan. One piece of evidence is “Uncle Stickley’s electrocution,” a colorful citation. Who was this Uncle Stickley? How did he get electrocuted? Why was he named Stickley? These questions remain unanswered and Uncle Stickley is never referred to again. Part of the pleasure of Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky is its flair for throwaway lines and little character beats. This movie does not aspire to greatness or significance; being extremely clever and thoroughly competent is the goal here.

The film borrows the shape of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven series in its devotion to the old formula of the heist picture. But the setting is the opposite: Instead of sophisticated thieves plotting to knock over a Las Vegas casino, the conspirators here are a bumbling collection of blue-collar West Virginians whose dubious plan is to rob Charlotte Motor Raceway during a NASCAR event.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Video: Framing Pictures for July 2017

Film critics and Seattle film mavens Robert Horton, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy and Bruce Reid discuss the “B” movies–Baby DriverThe Bad Batch, and The Beguiled–and the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock (spurred by the release of Hitchcock’s breakthrough film The Lodger on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD).

These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend. The Seattle Channel records and presents many of these a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.

The next conversation convenes at 7pm on Friday, August 11.

You can also watch it on the Seattle Channel website.

Keep up with the discussion at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.

Review: Wind River (1)

I’m not sure when the phrase “the dialogue sounds written” became a put-down when we talk about movies. It’s good that people are hip to cinema as a visual medium and all, but smart, sculpted dialogue—from Shakespeare to Billy Wilder—is something to celebrate. In a movie age when words are meant to sound improvised by the actors (and often are), Taylor Sheridan’s talk is crafted to a degree that sometimes rings theatrical by comparison. Sheridan copped a well-justified Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination last year for Hell or High Water, a modern-day Western rife with carefully shaped, literate dialogue. You bet the dialogue sounds “written.” For this we give thanks.

A well-traveled actor before his writing breakthrough on Sicario (2015), Sheridan obviously understands the kind of material with which actors make hay: revelations, confessions, pauses, subtle shifts in power. Sicario and Hell or High Water were ably directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively, but Sheridan directs his own material in the new film Wind River, which premiered at SIFF earlier this year.

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Review: Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win the Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker), and her reputation is largely associated with the formidable kinetic skills she brings to action pictures such as Strange Days and Point Break. What’s less known about her is that she came of age in the conceptual-art scene in New York in the 1970s, and that her MFA thesis film for Columbia University consisted of two men pummeling each other while a professorial observer spouted French theory about the nature of violence.

In short, Bigelow brings a lot to the table. This is truer than ever in Detroit, a hot-button horror show that returns Bigelow to her roots in a way that is both fascinating and difficult to watch.

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Review: Landline

Jenny Slate’s opening monologue in Obvious Child is the kind of thing that weeds out the uptight among us. Its indecorous references to bodily emissions and the gunky realities of sex are meant to set up her character as a truth-telling stand-up comic, but also serve notice that the movie itself will take no prisoners when engaging taboos and uncomfortable subjects. Fair enough, as Obvious Child is a romantic comedy about abortion. But I also suspect that Obvious Child wants to keep pace with the tone of 21st-century comedy, an explicit style (usually R-rated, as in pictures like Neighbors and Baywatch) that puts sex and scatology at the crude center of the joke. It’s the comedy of poop and genitalia, the sort of thing that would send Wes Anderson to his fainting couch.

Slate and Obvious Child writer/director Gillian Robespierre have reunited for Landline, and while it’s a much less adventurous film than their first collaboration, the urge to be smutty is still in place.

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