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by Robert Horton

Contributor

‘Thérèse’: Audrey Tautou Turns to Crime

AudreyTautou as scheming bride

Back in the first dewy shine of Amélie (2001), I would not have anticipated beginning a review with the words “Audrey Tautou is frankly too old to [fill in the blank].” But the years pass. And so: Audrey Tautou is too old to play the early scenes here as a teenage bride in 1920s France. Thankfully, the movie advances in time, and the still-youthful Tautou (she’s 37) very effectively brings her eerie presence to bear on an enigmatic, controlled, supremely rational character. In this adaptation of the 1927 novel Thérèse Desqueyroux by the subsequently Nobel Prize-winning François Mauriac, Thérèse is very far from an old-fashioned lady of literature. She enters into marriage with the practical and uncharismatic Bernard (Gilles Lellouche); their families own vast swaths of adjoining pine forests, and their union will create a profitable dynasty. Poker-faced Thérèse seems all right with this, although she becomes troubled by news that Bernard’s sister (Anaïs Demoustier)—her lifelong bestie—has launched a torrid affair with a callow-yet-hunky young man. This is a prelude to the section that occupies much of the film, as Thérèse ponders the exact dosage of her husband’s anemia medicine, which contains arsenic. He trusts her to keep track of how much he’s ingested, and she begins to measure her future in spoonfuls of the stuff.

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‘The Grandmaster’: Wong Kar-wai’s Kung Fu Fantasia

His grace is a weapon for Tony Leung

The housekeeping part first: A film by a major international director is being released in the U.S. in a version that strongly differs from its original cut. We are told that scissor-happy producer Harvey Weinstein is not behind this particular reduction; Wong Kar-wai himself has fiddled with The Grandmaster, already having crafted different cuts of his film for the Asian and European markets.

That’s their story, and maybe it’s true. It would be consistent with Wong’s tendency to fuss over his projects—he’s on record as saying that if it weren’t for the deadlines imposed by major film festivals, he might never finish his movies. Whatever peculiar cultural emphasis the U.S. cut of The Grandmaster has, it is one odd picture, with too much kung fu for discriminating arthouse audiences and too many dreamy pauses for the grindhouse crowd.

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‘Austenland’: Keri Russell Is Trapped in a Theme Park

Keri Russell is cast as a blank

The premise sounds ripe for Christopher Guest: Let’s follow a naive young woman on her dream vacation to an immersive, role-playing theme park that brings alive the world of Jane Austen novels. Here be proud young men, haughty dowagers, and drawing rooms with tea—a Comic-Con for BBC addicts. But Guest isn’t doing this kind of projects anymore, and the actual execution of Austenland falls along much more conventional lines. Our heroine is Jane (the role’s a blank, but Keri Russell does her best with it), whose life-size cardboard cut-out of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy just isn’t enough to fill her Pride and Prejudice fantasy. She arrives at Austenland at the same time as a rich lady called Elizabeth Charming—the visitors all have vaguely Austenish names—played by the irrepressible Jennifer Coolidge, a veteran of Guest’s comedy troupe. I am grateful nobody repressed Coolidge, because her blowsy vocal delivery and unfiltered one-liners give Austenland its main source of oomph.

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‘Closed Circuit’: Rebecca Hall Deserves Better

Rebecca Hall is bound for better pictures than this

Woefully ill-equipped to compete with breaking news about Edward Snowden and Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning, Closed Circuit seems especially tired right now. Even if it functions for a while as a serviceable paranoid thriller, its premise is far too generic to compare with current headlines. Even the title’s misleading: This isn’t so much about the surveillance state as about government overreach for the sake of old-fashioned backside-covering.

The legalistic scenario rarely rises above the level of a British TV movie. We’re in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in London, for which a single alleged Islamic radical is held for trial.

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‘Museum Hours’: Looking for Connection in Austria

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s visitor learns how to look

All those nudes hanging on the walls of museums. All those clothed people standing around staring. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the spectators were naked as they looked upon the ample flesh hanging coyly on the walls?

Maybe you’ve had that daydream while wandering through a room of unabashed Titians. So, apparently, has writer/director Jem Cohen, whose Museum Hours contains such a scene, amusingly staged. The remainder of the film is quite chaste, as Cohen takes a wisp of plot and arranges it around two lonely strangers who meet at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, a stately repository of art.

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‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’: Imitation of Malick

There are many things to admire about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, from its controlled mood to its fine cast to its folkie-fiddle musical score. A great deal of care, and a lot of affection for movie history, went into this low-key Sundance success. So why am I unconvinced? Maybe everything’s just a little too right, a little too calculated in writer-director David Lowery’s neo-Western-noir. This movie always knows exactly what it’s doing, and that gets a little suffocating.

Ruth (Rooney Mara) reads her letters from the jailhouse

The ingenious opening reels introduce us to a desperate couple, Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck). Their criminal history is mostly left offscreen, but we witness a showdown with Texas cops that results in Bob taking the blame for a shot fired by the pregnant Ruth. Bob is hustled off to the pokey and four years pass, but the bullet remains lodged in the storyline: Small-town policeman Patrick (Ben Foster), the very officer wounded by Ruth’s gun, is now hanging around her and the baby.

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‘When Comedy Went to School’: Journey to the Borscht Belt

Sid Caesar, with fiancée Florence Levy, during his Catskills prime

If the name Shecky Greene does not ring a bell, you might not be the target audience for this new documentary. But there was once a time when someone with this unlikely name roamed the Earth, and this film chronicles the prehistoric, pre-TV age in which such comedians flourished. The doc proposes New York’s Catskill Mountains as the cradle of a couple of generations of comedy, and it is hard to argue with the assertion. A vast parade of stand-up comics, mostly Jewish, passed through the vacation resorts of the Borscht Belt, as the circuit was called. During the mid-20th century, the Catskills hummed with holiday-makers seeking escape from New York, in search of all-you-can-eat buffets and the latest variation on the mother-in-law joke.

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‘Prince Avalanche’: What’s With the Mustache, Paul Rudd?

Painting the road again: Emile Hirsch (left) and Paul Rudd

What makes Prince Avalanche a summer movie? Maybe it’s the aimlessness of its wandering story line, even more than the literal backdrop for the thing: two guys on a summer job sprucing up a lonely road in West Texas. A recent fire has burned the surrounding countryside, which gives the setting a pleasant, haven’t-quite-seen-this-before-in-a-movie quality.

The guys are Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch), and they really don’t get on. Alvin wears a mustache of self-satisfaction, as befits a man with a secure collection of platitudes and a condescending air to match. Lance is the brother of Alvin’s girlfriend (Seattle’s own Lynn Shelton, heard only on the phone), and Alvin tries manfully to impose his standards of behavior on his younger cohort. They putter along the blasted landscape, painting new yellow lines on the road and arguing about what constitutes mature behavior.

It’s to director David Gordon Green’s credit that the eventual revelation that Alvin’s life is not as together as he’d like to think is treated not as gotcha irony but as a natural piece of confused masculine existence.

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‘The Wall’: An Eerie Austrian Immersion in Nature

Martina Gedeck’s heroine is trapped in a bubble

Everybody bumps into an existential block now and again. They just don’t generally experience the literal THUNK encountered by the protagonist of The Wall. The unnamed character, played by Martina Gedeck, wakes up in her friends’ Alpine hunting cabin, only to discover the friends still absent from a hike the previous day. Accompanied by their dog, she walks along a pretty lakeside road and abruptly face-plants into a transparent, all-encompassing force field. She can’t go farther.

Don’t expect a sci-fi explanation for her roadblock. What we have here instead is pure, abject isolation, as Gedeck discovers her enclosed world includes a large swath of nature, a bevy of animals, but no other humans—and no way out. After her initial adjustment, she learns how to manage her food supply, hunt for deer, and shed her fierce I-ness in favor of a newly conscious connection to the world. If that description makes the movie’s theme sound as transparent as the all-encompassing wall, fair enough—but the execution is suitably lyrical.

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‘Persistence of Vision’: The Obsessive Animator Richard Williams

A still from Richard Williams’ uncompleted opus

Don’t make a masterpiece. Or at least don’t set out to make a masterpiece. That’s one of the lessons of this compulsively watchable documentary about celebrated animator Richard Williams and how he never finished his designated magnum opus.

Williams is a Canadian, now 80, who ran a profitable animation studio in London for decades. Expert at turning out brilliant short films and TV commercials, Williams began on his real work—the labor of love that all the other stuff was paying for—in the early ’60s. His original concept for the feature involved tales of the folkloric Middle Eastern character Nasrudin; and although the concept veered away from that character, the colorful Arabian Nights theme persisted throughout the decades. Yes, decades: The project lost backers, missed deadlines, underwent rewrites, and outlived some of its original animators.

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‘Elysium’: Matt Damon as Sci-Fi Spartacus

Matt Damon’s hero prepares a data dump (with Wagner Moura, left, as his programmer)

Elysium hangs in orbit, a giant spinning space station of deluxe McMansions and WASPy country clubs; it’s a brief supersonic ride from the filthy, overpopulated Earth of 2154.

Elysium looks like the most boring place imaginable. But every home has a healing machine (like the auto-surgery modules in Prometheus), which is handy if one has absorbed a lethal dose of radiation and has five days to live. In Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, such is the dilemma of Max (Matt Damon), a worker-drone on Earth who must find a way to get to Elysium and fix his decaying body.

Already you can see the outlines of Blomkamp’s allegory, a world divided between the haves and the have-nots (such a remarkably consistent vision in futuristic fiction, from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine through Metropolis and Avatar). If this lacks the startling originality of Blomkamp’s 2009 District 9, which shredded the imagery of apartheid in Blomkamp’s native South Africa through a savage and funny alien-invasion scenario, the Elysium setup is still workable enough to qualify as satisfying old-school science fiction.

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‘We’re the Millers’: Won’t Somebody Please Help Poor, Lost Jennifer Aniston?

Jason Sudekis and Jennifer Aniston as a fake couple heading a fake family

Jennifer Aniston gives every indication, onscreen and off, of being a hardworking and good-natured person; alas, her utter niceness has led to a dire series of post-Friends vehicles, films in which her capricious comic timing is squandered on very watered-down material.

Every now and then one of these movies tries to add some “edge,” which must be welcome to an actress stuck in the America’s Sweetheart loop. With the notable exception of The Good Girl, these attempts only remind us how nice Aniston is and how far short she falls of such knotted-up characters. Case in point: We’re the Millers, a predictably raunchy comedy with a farfetched but not impossible premise: Drug dealer David (Saturday Night Live veteran Jason Sudeikis) must make good a debt to his slick supplier (Ed Helms) by bringing a huge load of marijuana across the border from Mexico. David’s idea: Hire three strangers to pretend to be his nauseatingly clean-cut family, the better to escape detection while driving through customs in a motor home.

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‘Blackfish’: Why Do We Continue to Enslave the Orcas?

Tilikum the killer whale at SeaWorld

My childhood hero Namu was the second killer whale kept in captivity (he came to the Seattle waterfront on my birthday in 1965), and we owe him a lot. The world understood almost nothing about these fantastic creatures until Namu proved how bright, social, and instinctively friendly killer whales are. That was good. The problem was, everybody saw how the trainable and lovable animals could be used to make money. And that has led to a decades-long controversy that ought to have been settled by now.

Blackfish should be the final word on the subject, even if it probably won’t be. This relentless documentary circles around the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, a supremely experienced SeaWorld trainer who was killed in a performing tank by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound whale. But that death is the starting point for a film that makes a couple of general thrusts: Killer whales should not be kept in captivity, and the sea parks that own them have done a suspiciously incomplete job of informing their trainers and the public about how they operate their businesses.

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‘The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear’: Hollywood Dreams in the Former USSR

One of Tinatin Gurchiani’s young interviewees

If minimalism was an economic necessity for filmmaker Tinatin Gurchiani—she had a few thousand dollars to spend on her first feature—it also fits her purpose. Her documentary is a narrow-gauge look at a sliver of real life in small-town Georgia in the former USSR. Gurchiani visits a rural community in the Caucasus and puts out a call to young people who might want to appear on camera. The very first fellow we see onscreen is much older than that demographic, an early indication that curiosity about being in a movie trumps all other considerations. He admits he has never done a film, but has always thought he might be good for, say, Jean-Claude Van Damme sorts of roles; he’s got some of those moves. Can he do the midair splits, asks the offscreen director? In the past, yes, answers our modest-looking villager, who looks more like a figure from a 19th-century lithograph than from a chopsocky action picture. He’d have to start practicing again.

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‘I’m So Excited’: Almodóvar Takes Flight, Then Stalls

Cecilia Roth plays the diva onboard

The plane is in the air, and the coach passengers have been sedated for the duration of the flight. This is a wacky Pedro Almodóvar touch—especially the way the flight crew accepts this as standard procedure—and it fits the movie’s overall feeling of not quite existing within the known universe. (Actually, putting passengers to sleep during a long flight is not a terrible idea, even if the plane isn’t experiencing mechanical difficulties.) But this trip has gone wrong. The flight crew is panicked over the stuck landing gear and worried about keeping the first-class passengers distracted. On both points, there’s a great deal of tequila involved.

I’m So Excited has been touted as a return to Almodóvar’s zany early work such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and in some ways that’s true. It’s crammed with explicit sex jokes, suggested sex acts, and a brazen attitude toward hedonism at 30,000 feet. The members of the crew are tangled in illicit relationships; the conscious passengers are a roster of eccentrics and rogues. We lack only a guitar-playing nun and a teen needing a kidney transplant.

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