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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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Review: Les Misérables

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, May 1, 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.

As fodder for film, Victor Hugo’s mammoth 19th-century novel Les Misérables has rarely been out of style. Filmed as early as 1909, this saga of injustice, revolution, and redemption has been reincarnated in celluloid several times every decade since (except, oddly, the Sixties, when injustice and revolution—though not redemption—were much on people’s minds). Only a miniseries or “long form” version could hope to encompass all of Hugo’s saga, but the core narrative—the decades-long pursuit of reformed ex-convict Jean Valjean by the legality-obsessed police officer Javert—is wellnigh foolproof as religious allegory, psychological study, and bedrock suspense story.

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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: Out of Sight

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, August 7, 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.

After years of mishandling by Hollywood, crime novelist Elmore Leonard has been on a roll. Get Shorty, Barry Sonnenfeld’s larky look behind the scenes of Tinseltown itself, reaffirmed the second coming of John Travolta and also, by the novelist’s own testimony, made Leonard aware that his books are funny. (He writes them straight, which is how his characters live them.) Quentin Tarantino turned Rum Punch into Jackie Brown and enhanced both Tarantino and Leonard in the process. Now comes Out of Sight—for sheer snap, verve, and professionalism, arguably the best of the bunch.

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Review: First Reformed

Anyone who has followed the career of Paul Schrader could fall into the trap of simply cataloguing the ways in which First Reformed (2018) is a summation of his themes and inspirations. Imagine the promotional possibilities: “From the author of “Transcendental Cinema” and “Notes on Film Noir” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ.” First Reformed leans on the former but, as so many of his past films, he puts his search for grace in an American context where violence is too often an answer, or at least an impulse.

Lionsgate

A gaunt and drawn Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former Army Chaplain who has found his place as the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, an historical landmark with a dwindling congregation about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. In denial of an unnamed, possibly fatal affliction and spiking his spare meals with splash or two of whiskey, Toller could be an American answer to the idealistic cleric of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (he even keeps a handwritten journal), embracing the simplicity of faith and the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a loyal congregant, asks Toller to counsel her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ecological activist giving in to despair and desperations. When Mary discovers explosives hidden in their garage, seeds of violent action take root in Toller’s mind as he obsesses over images of our polluted and poisoned planet.

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Review: A Price Above Rubies

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, March 27, 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 was a distant early warning sign that A Price Above Rubies began life as A Price Below Rubies. Did its makers suffer a change of mind, or did somebody belatedly check the Old Testament and discover, “Hey, we got it wrong: it’s ‘A woman of fortitude, who can find? For her price is far above rubies’”? The answer is lost in the sands of time, along with the hope that this wishfully feminist fable might achieve anything resembling power, mystery, or dramatic conviction.

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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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Blu-ray: ‘Dragon Inn’ / ‘Legend of the Mountain’ – King Hu on Criterion and Kino

Dragon Inn (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Legend of the Mountain (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)

After the success of Come Drink With Me, the pioneering wuxia pian (“martial chivalry”) adventure that mixed martial arts, romance, comic action, and historical settings, Hong Kong director King Hu went to Taiwan for the opportunity to make films with greater freedom. Dragon Inn (also known as Dragon Gate Inn, Taiwan, 1967), his first film in Taiwan, pits a group of enigmatic strangers against soldiers sent by a power-hungry Eunuch in the court of the Chinese Emperor to murder the children of a popular government official. They all converge on a the lonely inn of the title, an isolated, windscoured building in the middle of the desert near the Dragon Gate military outpost, where they play out games of social civility between sneak attacks and martial arts skirmishes that build from clever little displays of skill within the inn to sweeping battles against the rocky backdrop of the desert and the lush mountain forests and peaks nearby.

Criterion Collection

Shih Chun, Hu’s favorite leading man, is the wily, grinning loner who swats aside arrows without spilling a drop of wine and catches daggers with chopsticks, and Shangkuan Ling-fung is a warrior woman traveling in the guise of a young man, and they team up to protect the children from the hordes of soldiers sent by the villainous eunuch (Bai Ying under a flamboyant head of white hair). Given his large cast of characters, he effectively gives the primary players distinctive (if broadly drawn) personalities and body language, making them stand out even in busy battle scenes, and his impeccable compositions keeps the film centered on our heroes even in the heat of battle.

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