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Review: First Man

Does space travel, including a stroll on the Moon, change a person? In First Man, the answer to this question is, resoundingly: Eh, not so much.

This is the story of Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon. Director Damien Chazelle, who won an Oscar for La La Land, reunites with Ryan Gosling to paint a picture of an engineer/astronaut so composed and collected that he walks away from test-pilot crashes and domestic arguments with the same unruffled calm. Compare this to the raucous good times of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff or the earnestness of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, and you can see the originality of Chazelle’s approach to the space race.

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Scott Wilson and Maja Komorowska in the film by Krzysztof Zanussi

Review: A Year of the Quiet Sun

[Originally published in The Weekly, November 13, 1985]

Physicist/philosopher/filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi has told how he was once hired by a French couple to teach their children Russian. They assumed that, as a Pole, he would have to know the language of the nation in effective political control of his country. Zanussi knew Russian, to be sure (also French, English, German, Italian, Spanish), but the West Europeans’ presumption offended him: “It was very hard to forgive them their ignorance. I taught the children basic Polish, instead of basic Russian, using Russian pronunciation.”

That anecdote might well serve as the basis for a Zanussi film. It would be a wry parable of characters from disparate cultures meeting, misreading one another’s strengths and intentions, setting mutually convenient yet covertly opposed agendas. As the comedy unfolded, so would it quietly expand to take survey of how inadequate all social, political, historical, and ethical systems are to fixing the place and purpose of the individual human being in a vast, glacially beautiful cosmos. There’d be no winners in the perverse little game. Even the trickster hero’s victory would carry an aftertaste of bitterness and misdirected cruelty. As the heroine of A Year of the Quiet Sun remarks, “It’s not for us to judge. So you always say.” To which her mother crankily replies, “Oh really? And who is to be the judge of that?”

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Review: A Simple Favor

Stephanie Smothers, a suburban overachiever played by Anna Kendrick with spunky energy and self-effacing deflection, is the widowed mother of a son in elementary school. Into her life steps Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a sleek urban professional with no maternal instincts––like a high- society shark forcibly moved from her hunting ground to a tranquil aquarium tank. Their odd relationship is the core of A Simple Favor, a neo-noir of suburban pep and middle-class warmth meeting cool sophistication. Playdates, cocktails, and dark secrets are shared.

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Review: A Star Is Born

[Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly]

The new update of A Star Is Born almost—almost—makes the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version look like a coherent movie. And that, my friends, takes some doing.

You know A Star Is Born: fully ripened Hollywood melodrama, usually served with music. A well-established star, struggling with sobriety, romances an unknown talent and watches her career outrun his. Joy holds hands with tragedy, because as somebody once said, love is never as soft as an easy chair.

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Review: Blaze

Most musical biopics operate around a familiar set of scenes: the humble beginnings, the record deal, the first time the hero’s song is heard on the radio, the challenges from drugs/alcohol/success that are finally overcome. The one surefire part of the story is the rise to fame and the thrills associated with the big break.

What if you made a music biopic without the big break? This is the task director and co-writer Ethan Hawke sets himself in Blaze, a sad telling of the near-miss career of Blaze Foley. Born Michael Fuller in 1949, Foley was one of those songwriters admired by other musicians but denied even a modest level of stardom. His quick temper and alcoholic tendencies didn’t help him on the occasions when he did get opportunities to shine. Since his death in 1989, his status as a cult figure has slowly grown, and some of his songs (Merle Haggard’s cover of “If I Could Only Fly,” for instance) now stand as classics.

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Review: The Thin Red Line (SAx)

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, January 6, 1999]

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.

Terrence Malick’s breathlessly anticipated return to the director’s chair The Thin Red Line rewrites the World War II platoon genre much the same way his directorial debut, Badlands, drove the ‘outlaw couple road film’ onto rarely explored backroads of the American unconscious. As the second ambitious war epic to emerge in the last year it’s bound to comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s much-lauded Saving Private Ryan, which plunged audiences into the overwhelming carnage of D-Day before settling into a platoon film narrative.

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Review: The Thin Red Line (RTJ)

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, December 25, 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.

Few films have aroused higher expectations than The Thin Red Line, the first movie written and directed by Terrence Malick since he unveiled Days of Heaven twenty years ago. Days of Heaven contained some of the most rapturous and mysterious images ever to shimmer on-screen. What people have tended to forget is that it also featured characters who hovered between the inchoate and the opaque, and a narrative in which cause and effect were sometimes elusive even within the minimal plot. Those virtues and liabilities are both on abundant display in Malick’s latest.

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Review: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

[Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly]

The house contains skulls, mummified hands, and stained-glass windows that come alive. Secret panels lurk in the corners, and the dusty old books are full of spells for raising the dead. In short, this is my dream house when I was 11 years old. The place is the title character of The House With a Clock in Its Walls, and given its macabre bric-a-brac, I really should’ve liked this movie more. What went wrong?

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Review: Mandy

Let us assert that Nicolas Cage is at his most essential when you either love him or hate him. Think of his blood-drinking executive in Vampire’s Kiss, or his Wild at Heart outlaw, or his tragically flop-sweat-soaked screenwriter in Adaptation. Even his best romantic leads have a screw loose, as in Moonstruckor Peggy Sue Got Married. Just ask his Peggy Sue co-star Kathleen Turner, who stated in a recent (and hilariously candid) interview that “It was tough not to say ‘Cut it out’ ” when Cage gave his character a strangled voice only a mother could love.

Mandy returns Cage to his proper wildness. A candidate for future cult status and a film guaranteed to divide audiences, Mandy gives Cage an intriguing challenge: He must bury his busier mannerisms in service of a character who’s a quiet recluse, but the unfiltered 100-proof Nic Cage madness must glint from between the cracks. And this movie’s got plenty of cracks.

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Review: Bulworth

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, May 15, 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’s the 1996 primary season, and if the populace is unaroused, U.S. senator Jay Bulworth (longtime Democratic activist Warren Beatty) is downright unhinged. His marriage is a charade, his brain long since pickled by rhetoric, his soul in fealty to fat-cat lobbyists. His effort to pour his old liberal wine into a new conservative bottle may get him reelected, but will that help him live with himself? Not really. After taking out $10 million in life insurance for the sake of his daughter, he applies to a shady sort named Vinnie to arrange a “special research project”—a contract on … Jay Bulworth!

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Review: The Horse Whisperer

[Originally written for Film.com, 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.

Except for a final helicopter shot, our last glimpse of Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer finds the star enjoying a pensive moment of mixed emotions. It’s the kind of wordless, ambiguous grace note that real movie stars are so good at evoking, a look in the eyes that conveys a dozen different feelings tugging at the same brain pan.

There are other such moments in The Horse Whisperer, but they all belong to Kristin Scott Thomas; Redford, directing himself for the first time, retreats into a mythic Marlboro Man stance until that intriguing climactic shot. For most of his performance, he’s either perched loftily at the edge of a valley or the foot of a mountain peak, and as often as not the sun is catching the still-golden tones in his ageless hair. This approach turns the movie into a handsome still life, bloodless and schematic. It’s particularly odd because so much of the film is given over to an Ordinary People-style psychological excavation, which doesn’t jibe especially well with the old-fashioned stoicism of the traditional cowboy.

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Review: Twilight

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, March 6, 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.

Twilight is a pretty good movie that will give steady pleasure to some viewers while probably leaving others restless for more aggressive stimulation. Put it another way: the new collaboration between Robert Benton, Paul Newman, and Richard Russo—the team behind the excellent Nobody’s Fool—is less a movie than an idea for a movie, a meditation on ways in which movies have been soothing and satisfying in filmically better times. In particular, it is a meditation on the private-eye genre, on the codes of honor and human connection that that genre has explored, even defined, and on Paul Newman himself—a solid actor for more decades than many of today’s moviegoers have lived, and a beautiful man who has, at last and inevitably, grown old.

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Review: Affliction

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, February 18, 1999]

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.

The Whitehouse brothers, Wade (Nick Nolte) and Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) Whitehouse, chat together in their father’s garage about their father Glen (James Coburn), a bitter alcoholic who tormented them as children with a constant barrage of insults, taunts, and outbursts of violence.

“I was a careful child,” confesses Rolfe. “I became a careful adult. At least I was never afflicted by that man’s violence.”

Wade laughs his response: “That’s what you think.”

Paul Schrader’s Affliction, from the novel by Russell Banks, is ostensibly the story of Wade, an unambitious, jocular small town sheriff and odd job man to a small time entrepreneur. But the cold, objective narration of college professor Rolfe, who holds the story at arm’s length with his writerly diction and disconnected voice, refracts the tale through his own perspective. As he puts into words his clinical take on Wade’s affliction, he unwittingly reveals his own.

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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: Last Days of Disco

[Originally written for Film.com, 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.

Characters from Whit Stillman’s previous films, Metropolitan and Barcelona, turn up in cameo roles amongst the busy dance-floor scene-makers in The Last Days of Disco. Aside from stitching these movies together in the same milieu and class, these re-appearances have the effect of rounding off Stillman’s unofficial trilogy; as such, Last Days is an appropriately wry letting go, a sad-edged valentine to an endearingly absurd era in American culture.

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