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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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Chained for life: Bertolucci regrets rien in ‘The Dreamers’

[Originally written for Queen Anne/Magnolia News, 2004]

There is a moment in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution when the protagonist, the scion of an Italian noble family, learns that a friend has taken his own life. He had been speaking with the young man only hours before and declined his fervent proposal that they go again to see Howard Hawks’s Red River. Bertolucci cranes up and backs off from his hero; then his camera pivots on the young man’s figure, slowly describing 90 degrees of arc around him as he looks out at a changed world.

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Review: Luna

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), October 30, 1979]

Cinema comes so naturally to some filmmakers. Bernardo Bertolucci once revealed that he dreamed camera movements years before laying hands on a camera. But even without this confessional nudge, his aptitude for the medium, his kinesthetic thrall with luminosity, surfaces, colors, trajectories, is apparent in the films he has made. Opera has been a frequent touchstone in his work, existentially and aesthetically, but he doesn’t need it as a brief for grandiosity or vividness of style: it is as natural for Bertolucci to soar as it is for others to walk.

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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: Firelight

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, September 4, 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.

 “What is it about this house? The moment I walk in, I want to kill myself.” The speaker (that entertaining old blusterer Joss Ackland) is not an important character in Firelight, and he’s half-kidding, but we take his point. The Goodwin estate, somewhere in the mid-nineteenth-century English countryside, is a pretty glum place. Nobody ever looks comfortable, or even at home there. The master of the house (Stephen Dillane) even hazards a joke about it: “All these huge rooms and we live our lives within three feet of the fire.” But then, that’s because screenwriter and first-time director William Nicholson has determined that no scene in the movie should lack a visual—and almost always verbally underscored—reference to his movie’s title and wishfully poetic central image. 

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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: Primary Colors

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, March 20, 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.

It will be fascinating to see what Primary Colors, Mike Nichols’s smart, creepy, scrupulously ambivalent movie inspired by a certain 1992 campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination, plays like in two months. And six months. And next year. Likewise, it wouldn’t have seemed quite the same movie if it had been released two months ago, before l’affaire Lewinsky. And surely it’s not quite the same film that Nichols, screenwriter Elaine May, et al. thought they were going to make after buying the screen rights to the 1996 roman à clef by veteran political reporter Joe Klein—even if it’s still, word for word and shot for shot, the movie they envisioned at the time.

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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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Review: The Spanish Prisoner

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, April 3, 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.

Put aside any thought of the Inquisition, or revolutionary political cabals, or Spanish Civil War martyrs rotting in a Fascist jail. “The Spanish Prisoner” is the name for a classic confidence game. Once you know that, you’ll have little trouble appreciating why it’s an apt title for the latest movie written and directed by David Mamet, whose fascination with brazen bluffs and seductive scams has dominated House of Games and Glengarry Glen Ross and glancingly energized such screenplays as The Untouchables and last year’s The Edge.

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Review: Gods and Monsters

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, November 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.

In Bill Condon’s God and Monsters the ghost of Frankenstein’s monster haunts James Whale (Ian McKellan) even in retirement. Whale, the debonair, openly gay British director who came to Hollywood from the London stage to make “art” and had his greatest success with a string of “monster movies,” maintained a love-hate relationship with Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein almost all his life. Condon weaves the lumbering image of the misunderstood monster into the fabric of the film like a haunting memory that won’t go away.

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