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Film Reviews

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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Blu-ray: Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection

Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection (Universal, Blu-ray)

Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy have traversed the trail from horror icon to camp figure and back again and sparked the imaginations of readers and moviegoers for decades. Yet call forth the images nestled in the public consciousness and you’ll find that the figures created by Universal Studios, the home of Hollywood nightmares during the great gothic horror cycle of the 1930s and 1940s, have becomes the definitive versions of the great horror movie monsters.


Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Universal has been upgrading and repackaging its library of classic monster movies and the franchises they launched through the 1930s-1950s on disc for almost 20 years. This new collection is the ultimate compilation. Previously released on DVD, it offers 4K restorations of all 30 films for Blu-ray, some for the first time. That means not just the bona fide Gothic horror masterpieces and monster movie landmarks previously on Blu-ray individually or in the “Legacy Collection” sets—Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy(1932), and The Bride of Frankenstein(1935) with Boris Karloff, The Invisible Man (1933) with Claude Rains, The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr., the Technicolor Phantom of the Opera(1943) with Claude Rains, and the post-Gothic, atomic-era Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) in standard and 3D versions, plus the Spanish language Dracula (1931)—but stand-out sequels such as Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), the pre-Wolf Man The Werewolf of London(1935), Vincent Price in The Invisible Man Returns (1940), the mad monster parties Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945), and the surprisingly creepy horror comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) among others, with all the commentary tracks, featurettes, and other supplements from earlier DVD and Blu-ray releases.

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Review: Vampires

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, November 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.

John Carpenter has wanted to make a western for years. Now he’s finally made it—as a vampire film. It’s not simply the dusty, dusky southwestern setting or the Ry Cooder twinged country blues score. Carpenter turns John Steakley’s novel “Vampire$” into a perverse remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo by way of Sergio Leone, with James Woods as a foul mouthed, hard drinking, whore-mongering John Wayne leading a wild bunch of vampire hunters. It’s machismo run amuck and Carpenter loves it.

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Review: Psycho (1998)

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, December 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.

Is there anybody on this planet who doesn’t know Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror-suspense classic Psycho? Or hasn’t been exposed to its sundry bastard offspring (name any slasher movie), hommage-y imitations (the collected works of Brian De Palma), and sequels (none of them Hitch’s); or the hundreds of jokes it has inspired; or the earnest insistence of any number of aunts, neighbors, or co-workers that, no sirree, they haven’t felt comfortable taking a shower ever since. So there won’t be lots of folks who’ll wander innocently into a theater where Gus Van Sant’s virtually line-for-line, shot-for-shot remake is playing, experience the story of Marion Crane, Norman Bates, and the dark doings at the Bates Motel as something brand-new, and say, “Heavens to Betsy, that took me by surprise!”

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Review: Meet Joe Black

[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.

Martin Brest is one of Hollywood’s choosier directors, a man whose output in the last ten years consists of 1988’s deft comedy Midnight Run and 1992’s slice of inspirational hokum Scent of a Woman. The aroma of the latter film—deep-dish philosophy served up with a generous helping of fried baloney—returns in Brest’s Meet Joe Black, a sideways remake of the oddball fantasy Death Takes a Holiday. That property, filmed in 1934 and (as a TV-movie) in 1971, had the figure of Death coming down to earth to observe how people live. During his vacation, Death claims no victims anywhere in the world, a plot point this new film has jettisoned.

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Review: Halloween (2018)

Michael Myers has been coming home for decades now, ever since he rampaged through the town of Haddonfield, Ill., in the 1978 horror masterpiece Halloween. The masked killer was supposed to be locked securely within a psychiatric hospital, but he escaped through many sequels and spin-offs. We’re supposed to forget all about those for the new Halloween, which is designed as a direct sequel to the original. (Then why is the new film titled simply Halloween? I worry about these things.) The creepy opening sequence depicts a Michael who’s been safely imprisoned for 40 years. Someone’s had the brilliant idea to transfer him to a new facility, which of course means putting him out into the world, which of course cannot be healthy for the world.

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Review: Sadie

At the beginning of a movie, you look for little indicators that you’re in good hands. It could be a neatly-choreographed action scene, an actor’s brilliant monologue, or a fantastic “How did they do that?” camera move.

In Sadie, I got that feeling from a plate of Ritz crackers. We’ve just met the 13-year-old title character (played by Sophia Mitri Schloss) in the trailer park where she lives, along with her school chum Francis (the wonderfully deadpan Keith L. Williams) and his laid-back grandfather (Tee Dennard). Francis disappears into a trailer and reappears a minute later carrying the tray of crackers (can’t swear it’s Ritz, could possibly be Cheez-Its), which he offers to his pals. No one calls attention to this, or makes a joke of it; it stays in the background, and it tells you something about Francis, and the community in the park, and that somebody behind the camera has an eye for details.

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Review: Small Soldiers

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, 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.

About halfway through Small Soldiersit struck me: just who is this film’s audience? On the surface it’s an adolescent boy’s fantasy turned nightmare, a “War Toy Story” with a pair of spunky teenage heroes in the line of fire. But there’s another film here too, a consumer satire crammed with pop culture references and movie quotes aimed at much bigger kids – well, adults actually.

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Review: The General (1998)

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, December 18, 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.

John Boorman has been a great filmmaker for more than thirty years now, but also a most unpredictable one. He’s made such classics as Point Blank, Excalibur, and Hope and Glory, only to turn right around and perpetrate fiascoes like Exorcist II: The Heretic and Where the Heart Is—though all those films have their admirers, and even Boorman’s sappiest endeavors reflect the fervor and grandeur of a true visionary. Following the (undeserved) commercial and critical failure of Beyond Rangoon and the long, fatal illness of a daughter, Boorman reestablished himself with a new, Dublin-based production company and a new family. The General, which he financed himself, is one of Boorman’s winners. Indeed, it won him the Best Director award this year at Cannes.

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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.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly