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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.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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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Review: You’ve Got Mail

[Originally written for Film.com 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.

I saw You’ve Got Mail in a spanking-new multiplex located in a spanking-new downtown development, a place with an atrium and coffeeshop and Tiffany’s and J. Peterman. It’s the kind of gleaming, upscale mall that drove out (or will drive out) all the little shops and longtime dives that used to define the downtown of a city. It doesn’t really matter what city I’m talking about, because the downtown of my city could now be the downtown of AnyCity, blessed as it is with Planet Hollywood and Old Navy and a Starbucks on every corner.

The new development also has a Barnes & Noble at ground level. Well, gee, how ironic. You’ve Got Mail is about the owner of Barnes & Noble – er, “Fox Books” – opening a new megastore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is untroubled by the fact that his new store will drive the little booksellers out of business, including The Shop Around the Corner, a funky children’s book nook. It’s owned by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), who declares war on Fox and his heartless methods.

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Criterion Blu-ray: Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood

Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

At the dawn of the sound era, as German movie star Emil Jannings left Hollywood to return to Germany, the actor invited Austrian-born/American-raised director Josef von Sternberg (who directed Jannings in The Last Command, 1928) to Universum Film A.G. to direct him in that studio’s first sound film, The Blue Angel (1930). It was a worldwide smash and von Sternberg returned to Hollywood with an international hit and a new star: Marlene Dietrich. Not exactly what Jannings had in mind, but then how could he know that the theatrical thickness of his gesture-laden theatrics would come across as simply old-fashioned next to the brash, lazy, sensual quality of Dietrich’s easy screen presence and modern performance.

Criterion Collection

Von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together on six more films for Paramount Pictures through the early 1930s, all lavish, lush productions that bring Hollywood art and craft to stories of sexuality and power with exotic overtones and fetishistic undercurrents. Until Criterion’s long-awaited box set Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, none of them had ever been on Blu-ray and two had never even been released to DVD. They have all been remastered in either 4K or 2K for this amazing collection, easily one of the essential home video releases of 2018.

Dietrich made her American debut opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930), a French Foreign Legion melodrama that casts the exotic Dietrich as a sultry cabaret singer. Hollywood star Cooper got top billing and his brawny male beauty gets its own glamour treatment from von Sternberg’s camera but the director made Dietrich the most memorable scenes—notably an entrance wearing a man’s tuxedo and kissing a female a patron on the lips (an early suggestion of lesbian chic)—and the final image as she trudges through the desert after a departing soldier.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand.

Review: The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez

[Originally published in The Weekly, September 28, 1983]

I approached last week’s invitational screening of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez with a sense of grim duty. I’d had three chances to see the film over the past year or so—on PBS-TV, in the Eighth Seattle International Film Festival, and earlier this month at the Tenth Telluride Film Festival—and I’d breezily given it a miss every time. Too many danger signals were ringing in my ears: the threat of earnest boredom and laundered aestheticism implicit in the PBS sanctification, for one; and the frequency with which Third World indictments of Anglo injustice have substituted politicized rant for legitimate drama. Also, an independent, primarily documentary-oriented filmmaker had directed the picture, and filmmakers of this stripe often display a self-righteous contempt for narrative obligations—as though narrative were not the answer to a universal hunger for form and illumination, but merely something foisted on the cinema by that imperialist monster “Hollywood.” If The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was tainted by any of the aforementioned syndromes, I wasn’t anxious to sit down in front of it.

I rehearse these (well-founded) antipathies in a spirit of endorsement, for I suspect they are shared by more than a few discerning filmgoers, and I would urge such persons not to give Gregorio Cortez a miss this time around. It turns out to be a fine, powerful, superbly crafted movie, with a universal dramatic impact far beyond any narrowly ethnic or political reference. Even more surprisingly, though by no means incidentally, it’s also an exciting, original addition to the honor roll of that supposedly moribund genre, the Western.

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Review: Saving Private Ryan

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz in 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films originally published 20 years ago by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for many years.

There are moments in Saving Private Ryan when the warfare becomes so intense and all-consuming that the very air seems filled with battle. Shrapnel hangs there, every shard in razor-sharp focus, as if molecules of the film itself had been startled out of the emulsion. “Din of battle” ceases to be a cliché and becomes an implacable, immediate truth, until the senses, along with reason, give up attempting to process the assault of information and sensation and a lulling roar of water fills our ears. No mainstream American film has ever painted a more horrific or documentarily persuasive picture of modern combat. And no Hollywood film within recent memory has achieved such richness and originality of texture, such a compelling amalgam of passionate human drama and awesome technique.

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Blu-ray: ‘Curse of the Cat People’ from Shout! Factory

Curse of the Cat People (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)

The success of the original 1942 Cat People, a shadowy psychological horror film simmering with sexual repression, prompted RKO to request a sequel from producer Val Lewton. His solution was surprising and inventive: Curse of the Cat People (1944), a psychological drama with a child’s perspective and a twist of ghost story.

Shout! Factory

This story is centered on Amy (Ann Carter), the dreamy young daughter of hero (Kent Smith) of the original film and a young girl constantly in her own imagination, so distracted by butterflies and woodland creatures and stories of magic that the other children shun her. Left alone, she befriends the aged widow of the “haunted” manor in the neighborhood and conjures up a magical friend: the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon) from the first film.

More fairy tale than horror, this Irena is presented as a mix of imaginary friend (who materializes after Amy sees a photograph of Irena among her father’s things) in a gown fit for a storybook princess and benevolent spirit looking after a dreamy girl. It was a flop upon release, perhaps because audiences expected another horror film rather than a delicate fantasy, but is a tender and lovely tale of childhood innocence and imagination with poetic images created on a B-movie budget.

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Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Every kid at the gay-conversion-therapy center must draw an iceberg. If they can fill in the huge, below-water section of the iceberg with reasons for their homosexual activity, they will better understand how they could have slipped from the straight path. And then they will be “cured.”

In The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the iceberg is a running joke, born of despair. The teenagers trapped in the therapy center try to think of gay-causing explanations they can write on their icebergs—a childhood trauma? an overbearing parent?—and sometimes borrow other kids’ scrawlings (how well I remember being a Catholic schoolboy and trying to come up with two or three credible transgressions to offer up in the confessional every week, so I would sound believably sinful). You have to wonder whether the organizers of God’s Promise, the fictional gay-conversion school, have really thought through this iceberg metaphor. Are the teenagers the icebergs, or are they the ships steaming toward a collision?

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Generation Wealth

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

If you look at recent headlines and conclude that society is about to implode, the new documentary Generation Wealth is here to confirm your worst fears.

This movie is a mosaic of distorted values and conspicuous consumption. I would say it’s like being locked in a room showing a repeated loop of Keeping Up With the Kardashians episodes, except I’ve never sat through that show (which may explain the thin threads of innocence I have left). The Kardashians turn up in Generation Wealth, along with a roster of plastic-surgery fanatics and affluent men whose cigar-smoking evidently replaces some other primal need. I know Freud said “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar,” but he hadn’t seen this movie.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray: A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.

Criterion Collection

The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Review: Mission: Impossible — Fallout

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

The first Mission: Impossible movie came out in 1996, and its athletic star is now 56 years old. The numbers tell us this franchise really ought to be out of gas.

It seems Tom Cruise and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie are not good at math, because the tank is full in Mission: Impossible — Fallout, the sixth installment of the series. This hellzapoppin’ sequel delivers a string of unlikely but wonderfully executed stunts; it’s a summer movie that knows exactly what it’s doing.

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Perpetual Motion: ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’

The greatest action movies—the ones that can make you feel like simultaneously applauding and waving a lighter in the theater—tend to be those most adept at seemingly losing control, somehow maintaining a fluid anything-can-happen vibe while also sporting atomic clock choreography. The ecstatically touted Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an amazingly entertaining blockbuster in a whole lot of ways, but it never quite escapes the flowchart stage. Even at its most astounding, you’re still aware of just how much pre-planning must have been required at any given moment in order to keep Tom Cruise from enthusiastically shuffling off from this mortal coil. That said, if you’re in the mood for sheer kinetic oomph, this is really, really tough to beat. Oh my god, that bit with the helicopters.

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Review: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Portland’s resident filmmaking genius, Gus Van Sant, can go either way. Sometimes he’s mainstream (lest we forget Good Will Hunting) and sometimes he’s experimental (in the remarkable Elephant and Gerry). For his latest film, he wears both hats.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Van Sant’s tribute to fellow Portland legend John Callahan. You may remember Callahan: the carrot-haired quadriplegic cartoonist whose squiggly-lined drawings repeatedly crossed the borderline of good taste. The title refers to the caption of one of his most famous panels, a picture of some cowboys pondering an abandoned wheelchair in the middle of the desert. Before his death in 2010, Callahan worked with Van Sant on developing this biopic.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Cut to the Chaste – ‘sex, lies, and videotape’

[Originally published in 7 Days on August 9, 1989]

sex, lies and videotape was released this week in a Criterion special edition on Blu-ray and DVD. Parallax View republishes this archival piece to mark the occasion.

Steven Soderbergh wrote the screenplay for sex, lies, and videotape during an eight-day drive from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles, and the movie he made from it retains the hurtling urgency of its genesis. This is true despite the fact that it’s not a fast-moving film by any means. Its principal mode of action is conversation—people talking about sex, candor, responsibility, fidelity, contentment—and there’s no attempt to jazz things up with camera stunting. A little more limpidness in the cinematography, a little more attention to the piquant charms of place, and we might take it for an hommage to Eric Rohmer. Yet sex, lies, and videotape is an American original, beating a supple, nervy tattoo on the funny bone of contemporary values.

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Review: Honeysuckle Rose

Here’s a contemporaneous review of a movie little remembered now, but as it chanced, the film marked the late Robby Müller’s first encounter with the American land and its light. —RTJ

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 23, 1980]

Honeysuckle Rose is the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg, a modestly intelligent filmmaker who specializes in probing the esoteric fringes of the U.S. scene, locating sources of peculiar vitality and distinctiveness, and then watching contentment bleed away. Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), starring Schatzberg’s former lover Faye Dunaway, studied the neuroses of a high-fashion model; Panic in Needle Park (1971), which introduced Al Pacino to the screen, dealt with the lifestyle of druggies; Scarecrow (1973) hit the road with a couple of bums (Pacino and Gene Hackman), Sweet Revenge (1977) sampled the criminal career of a car freak, and last year’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan forsook the fringe areas for the no-less-esoteric center of things, the private life—and private side of the public life—of a U.S. Senator.

Honeysuckle Rose hitches a monthlong ride with a middleaged country-western singer-musician-composer named Buck Bonham (Willie Nelson), who drolly allows as how he and his band are going to break into the really big time any day now, “on accounta we’re about the only ones they haven’t got around to yet.” Making It Big isn’t even a sideline concern of the film’s, though. Buck already appears eminently popular on the Southwest concert circuit and no one is hurting for money. The big problem—quiet, insistent, constant—is Buck’s inability to work out a life formula that will satisfy his manly need for rootlessness and his family’s (wife and son) desire to have him around the home more often. Keep Reading