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Review: Manhunt

“For a better tomorrow,” remarks one character in a rare moment of downtime in John Woo’s Manhunt, drawing a direct connection to Woo’s 1986 break-out hit. Not that he needed to drop so blatant a callback. Released in 2017 across Asian cinemas but debuting on Netflix in the U.S., Manhunt is a self-conscious throwback to the Hong Kong films that made Woo’s reputation among action movie fans around the world––a gleefully overstuffed thriller that races through the greatest-hits-of-Woo trademarks, right down to a hardboiled cop who bonds with his nemesis as he pursues him across the city.

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Review: Anon

Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) strolls down a city street, the anonymous faces in the crowds streaming past him instantly tagged with pop-up IDs. Frieland’s a cop in a future where every brain is connected to a central server, his hardwired Google Glass eyeballs giving him access not just to individuals’ data but everything they’ve seen and heard, all of it recorded for posterity and occasionally self-incrimination. Then, he’s called to a murder scene and finds the mind of the victim has been hacked––the culprit gone without leaving a digital footprint of any kind. Is this ghost in the machine a serial killer, an assassin, or something else?

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Review: Deadpool 2

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

How deep do the pop culture references go in Deadpool 2? Let’s dive. In an early scene, our sardonic titular superhero (Ryan Reynolds) and his very special lady friend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) are chilling after a long day of crimefighting, watching Yentl on TV, like you do. A few minutes later, after a traumatic incident that allegedly shapes Deadpool’s behavior for the rest of the film, we find him dazedly worrying about whether the song “Papa Can You Hear Me” from Yentl is suspiciously similar to a tune from Disney’s Frozen. (Deadpool 2, released by Twentieth Century Fox, is full of jabs at Disney.) This would be an amusing enough throwaway joke, but of course it will resurface at a later point in the movie. And this might be some kind of meta-trolling of this movie’s villain, Josh Brolin, whose real-life stepmother is Barbra Streisand, the star of Yentl. Brolin’s casting is almost certainly an in-joke itself, as he also currently does villain duty in Disney’s much more serious Marvel blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War.

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Review: Tully

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Marlo, Charlize Theron’s lead character in Tully, fends off small talk with barrages of acid-dipped put-downs, and dismisses anything sentimental as corny. So you wonder what she would think of her own film, which conceals a tender heart within an outer skin of sandpaper.

That’s not a knock; Tully makes hipster sincerity look good. Its approach is the modus operandi of screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman. Their 2007 film Juno also used pregnancy as its jumping-off point, before coasting along on its cutesy one-liners and very conventional resolution. Thankfully, Tully is thornier and wearier, with an authentic sense of both dejection and hope.

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Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2)

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Young Peter Parker, still a newcomer to his role as Spider-Man, asks his mentor Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) to explain why a villain is pummeling New York. “He’s from space,” says Tony. “He came here to steal a necklace from a wizard.” End of explanation. Back to saving the universe.

If only snarky Stark could have been in charge of telling the Marvel Comics saga, it might not have taken 18 movies to set up Avengers: Infinity War—which itself is only the first half of the series’ climactic opus. In a way, of course, Stark’s voice (in the invaluable person of Robert Downey, Jr) has been telling the Marvel story; these movies have usually taken a sarcastic squint at their own ludicrousness, while at the same time expecting us to stay emotionally invested in their gallery of superheroes.

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Review: Avengers: Infinity War (1)

Reviewed by Andrew Wright for The Stranger

So it’s finally here, and it’s goddamned enormous. Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel’s attempt to put an exploding bow on 10 years of corporate synergy, is a lurching, ungainly colossus of a blockbuster, with far too many characters and storylines stretching across a series of planets that resemble 1970s prog-rock album covers. The thing is, though, while you’re watching it? None of these elements feel like debits. Sometimes, excess hits the spot.

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Review: Zama

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

A man stands beside a South American river, striking a distinguished pose in his 18th-century Spanish finery. You can guess his thoughts: Aren’t my boots impressive? See how my cocked hat radiates authority? Am I not the picture of a New World conquistador? But the longer we watch the opening sequence of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, the less grand he seems. Within a minute, he’ll be crawling above the riverbank to spy on the women bathing below, until they chase him away with angry shouts of “Voyeur!” Behold the hapless Don Diego de Zama (played by Daniel Gimenez Gacho), a mid-level flunky in Spain’s colonial government. He wants success, he wants women, but most of all he wants to get out of this humid backwater.

Zamaa terrific film that plays like a fever dream—will deny him all of these.

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Blu-ray: ‘Basket Case,’ ‘Ichi the Killer,’ ‘Macon County’ justice, and ‘The Hidden’ with Kyle Maclachlan

Basket Case (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Ichi the Killer (Well Go, Blu-ray)
Macon County Line (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)
The Hidden (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)

Arrow Films

Basket Case (1982), the debut feature of filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, is a gruesome little cult indie-horror drama of brotherly love and righteous vengeance shot on location in the seedier sections of New York City.

Henenlotter was reared on the cheap horror films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and other independent exploitation directors of the 1960s and 1970s and this is in many ways his tribute to the grindhouse horror films he loves, a low-budget monster movie with a creative twists and an embrace of the grotesque. The monster effects, a mix of puppets, models, and stop-motion animation, may look amateur today but there’s a loving B-movie attitude and a genuine sense of character and tragedy to the misshapen, fleshy, snaggle-toothed Belial, who sees Duane’s growing guilt and desire to connect to other people (notably a girl he’s fallen for) as a betrayal of their bond. A cult classic with an inspired twist on Cain and Abel.Kevin VanHentenryck shuffles through the low budget exercise in grotesquery and gore as Duane, the “normal” brother sent by his deformed, formerly-conjoined twin Belial to take revenge on the doctors who separated the two and left the blobby, grotesquely misshapen brother to die. Most of the effects are shrewdly just off screen, with spurts of blood and gnarly hand dragging the character out of view to feed our imaginations, and a few bloody corpses left in the aftermath (an exception is a pre-Freddy multiple impalement with scalpels).

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Review: You Were Never Really Here

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

In You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix continues his dogged campaign to be our crustiest actor. Nothing tops his disheveled turn as “Joaquin Phoenix” in the similarly titled pseudo-documentary I’m Not Here—ever the gold standard for an actor trashing his own good looks—but Phoenix looks remarkably awful in this new thriller, which earned him the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. His hired killer is a pot-bellied, nest-haired wreck, raising the question: Is cultivating the “gutter-sleeping hobo” look really the best way for a hit man to slip in and out of dicey situations? Director Lynne Ramsay has suggested that her goal was to upend our expectations of the smooth, sleek professional assassin. If so, she and Phoenix have succeeded.

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Review: Thoroughbreds

Heathers meets American Psycho” reads the drop quote on the poster of Thoroughbreds, the debut feature from writer/director Cory Finley. It’s a tasty little tag and accurate enough, in its way. There’s a wicked satire under the cultivated surfaces and carefully groomed front, but a chilly alienation sets this teen-killer thriller apart from the flamboyant films of the quote.

Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The WitchSplit) star as Amanda and Lily, estranged childhood friends who reconnect in unusual circumstances.

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Blu-ray: ‘Liquid Sky’ on Vinegar Syndrome

Vinegar Syndrome

Liquid Sky (Vinegar Syndrome, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)

An avant-garde artifact straddling the eighties movie underground and the growing American independent movement, Liquid Sky (1982) broke into the college film circuit thanks to a trippy mix of drug culture, sexual androgyny, and indie sci-fi weirdness playing out in the New York eighties bohemian scene. Director Slava Tsukerman was a Russian émigré who studied at the Moscow Film Institute and worked in the Israeli film industry before moving to New York and immersing himself in youth culture to make his American film debut. He really is a true stranger in a land and he embraces it, observing his New Wave melodrama from the alien perspective of a sensation-seeking UFO in search of the human heroin high and discovering something better: the chemical blast of orgasms.

Anne Carlisle, a model and actress in the New York underground, co-wrote the script with Tsukerman and producer Nina V. Kerova and plays two roles: the jaded Margaret, a bisexual model who lives with performance artist and heroin dealer Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), and her male model nemesis Jimmy, a sneering, preening would-be celebrity and drug addict. While they provide a tour of the underground clubs and rebel fashion culture, freelance German scientist Johann (Otto von Wernherr) tracks the alien invasion to Margaret’s apartment (where a tiny flying saucer feeds off the chemical euphoria unleashed by her lifestyle) and provides the exposition to his new landlady. The fact that he’s right (and still sounds like he’s off his meds) doesn’t give us any more confidence in him, perhaps because he’s kind of alien himself, utterly baffled by American culture and clueless to the flirtations of his landlady, who is as subtle as a stripper at a bachelor party.

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Review: The People vs. Larry Flynt

[Originally published on Mr. Showbiz December 20, 1996]

From Disraeli and The Life of Emile Zola, through Madame Curie, Lawrence of Arabia, and Funny Girl, to Gandhi and Michael Collins, the biopic has been among Hollywood’s most venerated genres — the means of conferring cinematic immortality on history’s superstars and, more often than not, Oscar glory on the enshriners. Also more often than not, the filmmaking has tended to be as stodgy as the subjects were august.

The People vs. Larry Flynt knocks both of those traditions for a loop (we nearly said “into a cocked hat” but, in the present context, that might have been in poor taste). No one could pretend that Larry Flynt — ex-moonshiner, ex–strip-club operator, and owner-publisher of the encyclopedically raunchy Hustler magazine — is a candidate for respectability. And no way would Milos Forman — who previously made the vibrant Amadeus — adopt a conventional, reverential style or tone in bringing Flynt’s life and often dubious achievements to the screen. Yet the surprising, deliciously problematical, and finally exhilarating truth is that Forman’s boisterous serio-comedy attains complexity and, yes, nobility beyond the grasp of most hagiographies. It also ends up persuading us that its outrageous subject has, too.

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Amadeus

[Originally published in The Weekly, September 19, 1984]

A dark street; equally dark Panavision screen. Snow falling; offcenter, a street lamp. The cry “Mozart!” and a startling chord of music. Somewhere behind a door in Vienna, a forgotten old man named Antonio Salieri lifts a razor to his throat because, he maintains, many years ago he murdered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Servants burst in, find him bloodied, bundle him off to a combination hospital and asylum. As he is bounced through the wind-whipped night streets, Salieri hears the music of his long-dead victim, brighter than the bright upper-story windows behind which a party of revelers dance and dance and dance.

The first thing to be said about Milos Forman’s new film Amadeus is that if you didn’t already know it was derived from a stageplay, you’d never guess it from watching the movie. It’s a vibrant, supple, splendidly cinematic thing—intimate, concrete, fluid, and wide-ranging in time and space as Peter Shaffer’s clever play could never have been in the most dexterous of stagings. At the same time, we must insist—since we are, after all, in such heavy-duty cultural territory—that the film goes about its business with a grace and assurance that seems cheeky only in seeming so effortless, so spontaneous, so … Mozartean?

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Review: Submergence

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

I interviewed director Wim Wenders in the mid-’90s, and a sizable part of the conversation focused on an element of filmmaking he found supremely important: the sense of place. One can’t just parachute in somewhere and shoot a film; you need to know a location and understand it.

Well … hmmm. Wenders’ new film, Submergence, travels to a terrorist encampment in Somalia and a deep-diving submarine at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Compared to Wenders’ explorations of his native Germany in Wings of Desire and The American Friend or his deep drilling of the American landscape in Paris, Texas, this is a tourist’s visit. It might explain why Submergence—though sincere and sometimes woozily affecting—feels like a skim over the surface.

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Review: Rogers Park

Reviewed by Andrew Wright for The Stranger

The smaller the scale of a portrait, the more the individual brush strokes tend to matter. The finely tuned relationship drama Rogers Park successfully captures a compelling slice of life where there are no clear-cut heroes or villains, just normal everyday folks with some recognizably unlovely facets to their personalities. Within its determinedly narrow scope, there are very few false moves to be found.

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