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by Robert Horton

Contributor

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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Fall Movie Preview 2018

You know the summer movie season is over when people start talking about Melissa McCarthy winning an Oscar for a true-life drama and not about her languishing through a much-derided adult puppet comedy.

That’s right—it’s fall. Bring on the earnest biopics about figures as different as Neil Armstrong and Freddie Mercury, and movies about drug addiction and war correspondents. Robert Redford’s acting career ends, Tiffany Haddish’s stardom takes off, and we get a Lady Gaga version of a classic Hollywood tragedy.

Of course there are aliens and supervillains too (mixed in with the Oscar bait). The awards contenders often have their release dates shift around, but here’s a sampling of what the landscape looks like from now until the holiday season.

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Review: Searching

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Back when Hollywood discovered the internet as a plot device—ushering in a period of movies about people frantically tapping on their keyboards—one major annoyance was the depiction of the internet itself.

They almost always got it wrong.

In movies like The Net (1995) or Sneakers (1992), the internet resembled a Hollywood art director’s idea of what this newfangled World Wide Web must look like. There was usually something a little bogus about it. So I’ll give credit to Searching, a new suspense film told entirely on a computer screen. The sites visited during the story are the real deal: YouTube, Facebook, and Gmail all flash by with believable functionality. The tech aspects of the film would’ve warmed Steve Jobs’ heart, if he’d had one. (Too soon?)

I wish Searching was believable beyond its gimmick.

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Review: Support the Girls

Review by Robert Horton of Seattle Weekly

As mid-career rewards go, Support the Girls is a well-deserved gift for Regina Hall. Long appreciated as a comic performer (her loyalty to the Scary Movie franchise was above and beyond the call of duty) but too often underused as a leading man’s wife or girlfriend, Hall assumes full ownership of this warm and funny film. Her triumph is all the more impressive because the setting suggests a very different kind of movie.

Most of the action unfolds at a suburban Texas sports bar that bears a strong resemblance to Hooters. Lisa (Hall) is the ultra-professional manager of Double Whammies, one of those places where the quality of the food has an inverse relationship to the amount of cleavage on display. 

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Review: Puzzle

August is not too early to start the Oscar guessing game, especially when the Academy itself is already teasing big changes for next year. A few days ago they breathlessly—and idiotically—announced the creation of a new award, for “Achievement in Popular Film,” details to be hammered out later. It’s Hollywood admitting they make a lot of dumb movies that will never win awards—an admission that won’t sit well with people making popular movies that are actually smart. The move also stems from panic over declining ratings for the Oscar telecast, allegedly because the audience hasn’t seen winners such as BirdmanSpotlight, or La La Land (sorry, I mean Moonlight). If the idea goes forward, it will likely mean that a superhero picture like Black Panther is relegated to the kiddie table of Best Popular Film, instead of getting nominated for Best Picture, which it probably would have anyway.

You may be thinking, “Haven’t the Oscars always been absurd?” Well, sure. For instance, actors generally win not for giving the best performances, but the showiest. This year an appropriately low-key sort of Oscar buzz is gathering around a genuinely deserving performance: Kelly Macdonald’s understated lead turn in Puzzle. The Scottish actress has bounced around agreeably since her 1996 debut in Trainspotting, nailing the occasional supporting appearance in a big movie (No Country for Old Men) and doing duty on TV (Boardwalk Empire). But this is the first time she’s ever really carried a film, and she’s frankly wonderful.

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Review: You’ve Got Mail

[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.

I saw You’ve Got Mail in a spanking-new multiplex located in a spanking-new downtown development, a place with an atrium and coffeeshop and Tiffany’s and J. Peterman. It’s the kind of gleaming, upscale mall that drove out (or will drive out) all the little shops and longtime dives that used to define the downtown of a city. It doesn’t really matter what city I’m talking about, because the downtown of my city could now be the downtown of AnyCity, blessed as it is with Planet Hollywood and Old Navy and a Starbucks on every corner.

The new development also has a Barnes & Noble at ground level. Well, gee, how ironic. You’ve Got Mail is about the owner of Barnes & Noble – er, “Fox Books” – opening a new megastore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is untroubled by the fact that his new store will drive the little booksellers out of business, including The Shop Around the Corner, a funky children’s book nook. It’s owned by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), who declares war on Fox and his heartless methods.

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