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Blu-ray: ‘Liquid Sky’ on Vinegar Syndrome

Vinegar Syndrome

Liquid Sky (Vinegar Syndrome, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)

An avant-garde artifact straddling the eighties movie underground and the growing American independent movement, Liquid Sky (1982) broke into the college film circuit thanks to a trippy mix of drug culture, sexual androgyny, and indie sci-fi weirdness playing out in the New York eighties bohemian scene. Director Slava Tsukerman was a Russian émigré who studied at the Moscow Film Institute and worked in the Israeli film industry before moving to New York and immersing himself in youth culture to make his American film debut. He really is a true stranger in a land and he embraces it, observing his New Wave melodrama from the alien perspective of a sensation-seeking UFO in search of the human heroin high and discovering something better: the chemical blast of orgasms.

Anne Carlisle, a model and actress in the New York underground, co-wrote the script with Tsukerman and producer Nina V. Kerova and plays two roles: the jaded Margaret, a bisexual model who lives with performance artist and heroin dealer Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), and her male model nemesis Jimmy, a sneering, preening would-be celebrity and drug addict. While they provide a tour of the underground clubs and rebel fashion culture, freelance German scientist Johann (Otto von Wernherr) tracks the alien invasion to Margaret’s apartment (where a tiny flying saucer feeds off the chemical euphoria unleashed by her lifestyle) and provides the exposition to his new landlady. The fact that he’s right (and still sounds like he’s off his meds) doesn’t give us any more confidence in him, perhaps because he’s kind of alien himself, utterly baffled by American culture and clueless to the flirtations of his landlady, who is as subtle as a stripper at a bachelor party.

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Review: The People vs. Larry Flynt

[Originally published on Mr. Showbiz December 20, 1996]

From Disraeli and The Life of Emile Zola, through Madame Curie, Lawrence of Arabia, and Funny Girl, to Gandhi and Michael Collins, the biopic has been among Hollywood’s most venerated genres — the means of conferring cinematic immortality on history’s superstars and, more often than not, Oscar glory on the enshriners. Also more often than not, the filmmaking has tended to be as stodgy as the subjects were august.

The People vs. Larry Flynt knocks both of those traditions for a loop (we nearly said “into a cocked hat” but, in the present context, that might have been in poor taste). No one could pretend that Larry Flynt — ex-moonshiner, ex–strip-club operator, and owner-publisher of the encyclopedically raunchy Hustler magazine — is a candidate for respectability. And no way would Milos Forman — who previously made the vibrant Amadeus — adopt a conventional, reverential style or tone in bringing Flynt’s life and often dubious achievements to the screen. Yet the surprising, deliciously problematical, and finally exhilarating truth is that Forman’s boisterous serio-comedy attains complexity and, yes, nobility beyond the grasp of most hagiographies. It also ends up persuading us that its outrageous subject has, too.

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Amadeus

[Originally published in The Weekly, September 19, 1984]

A dark street; equally dark Panavision screen. Snow falling; offcenter, a street lamp. The cry “Mozart!” and a startling chord of music. Somewhere behind a door in Vienna, a forgotten old man named Antonio Salieri lifts a razor to his throat because, he maintains, many years ago he murdered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Servants burst in, find him bloodied, bundle him off to a combination hospital and asylum. As he is bounced through the wind-whipped night streets, Salieri hears the music of his long-dead victim, brighter than the bright upper-story windows behind which a party of revelers dance and dance and dance.

The first thing to be said about Milos Forman’s new film Amadeus is that if you didn’t already know it was derived from a stageplay, you’d never guess it from watching the movie. It’s a vibrant, supple, splendidly cinematic thing—intimate, concrete, fluid, and wide-ranging in time and space as Peter Shaffer’s clever play could never have been in the most dexterous of stagings. At the same time, we must insist—since we are, after all, in such heavy-duty cultural territory—that the film goes about its business with a grace and assurance that seems cheeky only in seeming so effortless, so spontaneous, so … Mozartean?

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Review: Submergence

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

I interviewed director Wim Wenders in the mid-’90s, and a sizable part of the conversation focused on an element of filmmaking he found supremely important: the sense of place. One can’t just parachute in somewhere and shoot a film; you need to know a location and understand it.

Well … hmmm. Wenders’ new film, Submergence, travels to a terrorist encampment in Somalia and a deep-diving submarine at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Compared to Wenders’ explorations of his native Germany in Wings of Desire and The American Friend or his deep drilling of the American landscape in Paris, Texas, this is a tourist’s visit. It might explain why Submergence—though sincere and sometimes woozily affecting—feels like a skim over the surface.

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Review: Rogers Park

Reviewed by Andrew Wright for The Stranger

The smaller the scale of a portrait, the more the individual brush strokes tend to matter. The finely tuned relationship drama Rogers Park successfully captures a compelling slice of life where there are no clear-cut heroes or villains, just normal everyday folks with some recognizably unlovely facets to their personalities. Within its determinedly narrow scope, there are very few false moves to be found.

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Blu-ray: Dario Argento’s ‘Suspira,’ ‘Cat O’ Nine Tails,’ ‘Deep Red,’ ‘Opera,’ and ‘The Church’

Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray)
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)

Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.

Synapse Films

Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.

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Review: A Quiet Place

The horror films that linger into the wee small hours after watching are often the simplest ones. A Quiet Place, director/co-writer/actor John Krasinski’s startlingly good monster movie, quickly establishes a lean, mean scenario and then cranks up the tension. This is a ruthlessly efficient primal scream generator that somehow doesn’t leave the viewer feeling ill-used, and audiences are going to go bananas.

Continue reading at The Portland Mercury

Review: Outside In

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

“You are to stay within Snohomish County,” the man says sternly. These words—not often uttered in the cinema—are spoken by a parole officer to a newly released ex-con in Outside In.

They are also taken to heart by the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, who creates a beguiling mood piece by staying close to her local roots. This film is especially evocative in its sense of place: There’s an unmistakable familiarity in the way the camera sees the evergreen-lined byroads east of Everett and the homey storefronts of Granite Falls. I spotted the little smear of green mold that develops around car windows when they haven’t been cared for during a Northwest winter (something I might possibly have some experience with). Outside In is about feeling like an outsider on your own home turf, but it’s been made with a native’s view of the landscape.

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Blu-ray: A pair of ‘Ringo’s and ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’

A Pistol for Ringo/The Return of Ringo: Two Films by Dessario Tessari (Arrow, Blu-ray)
A Fistful of Dynamite (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray)

Duccio Tessari is not one of the directors known for spaghetti westerns. In fact, he only directed two in his long and successful career, both with Giuliano Gemma (billed as Montgomery Wood) playing against the mercenary expectations of the defining spaghetti western anti-hero. Both make their American home video debut as Blu-ray double feature.

Arrow Films

In A Pistol for Ringo (Italy, 1965), Gemma is a wily gunfighter known to all as Angel Face who is released from jail to infiltrate a gang of Mexican bank robbers holding a rancher’s family hostage in their manor home, which they’ve guarded like fortress. Sancho (Fernando Sancho) plays the jolly bandit king who acts like he’d prefer to let everyone live and then has his men drop anyone who gets out of line, but he isn’t shy about executing his hostages as the stand-off drags on, and he targets the lowly Mexican laborers, hardly the actions of the Robin Hood he pretends to be.

Tessario was an uncredited writer on A Fistful of Dollars and the high body count, ruthless killers, double crosses and calculated ambushes seem to be informed, if not outright inspired, by Leone’s film. But while Ringo appears to be a classic heartless mercenary bidding up his services, he turns out to be more of a lovable rogue with a soft spot for women and kids and a loyalty to the good guys.

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Review: Isle of Dogs

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Wes Anderson returns to the world of stop-motion animation with his latest feature, Isle of Dogs. If you’re familiar with Anderson’s rigidly arranged chocolate-box technique, you can guess why animation appeals to him. For starters, it allows total control over the image, with nary a lock of hair (or piece of fur) out of place. Anderson’s fondness for squared-off, symmetrical compositions looks less strange in a cartoon (see 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) than it sometimes does in live action. And with animation, Anderson can fully indulge his decidedly non-realistic style (stretched to its live-action limit in the dazzling Grand Budapest Hotel): he can exaggerate color, design, and behavior without literalists howling.

Here’s another theory about why Anderson returns to animation in Isle of Dogs: It gives him cover for making his most dramatic film yet.

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Review: They Remain

Flip through a few recent Best of Horror collections at random, and you’re likely to hit a healthy smattering of Laird Barron. Barron, who sets many of his stories in the Northwest, is a ferocious talent, specializing in an upsetting, lysergic melding of two-fisted adventure scenarios and slithering Lovecraftian remnants. They Remain, the first filmed take on the author’s work, manages to replicate a gratifying amount of that distinctive vibe, infusing the story with large doses of free-form agoraphobic anxiety. It lingers.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Blu-ray: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Age of Innocence’

The Age of Innocence (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Criterion Collection

The Age of Innocence (1993) is not the only costume drama or historical picture that Martin Scorsese made but it is his only classical literary adaptation from the filmmaker that, all these years later, we still remember for edgy violence and cinematic energy. But even from the director of The Last Temptation of ChristKundun, and Silence, this film stands out for its grace and nuance in its portrait of social intercourse as formal ritual.

Adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel by Jay Cocks and Scorsese and set in 19th century New York City, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, a respected lawyer and respectable member of elite society who is engaged to the beautiful young May (Winona Ryder) but falls in love with her cousin, the worldly Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). The American-born Ellen has spent the best years of her life in the social straightjacket of the European aristocracy and arrives home a stranger under the shadow of scandal, fleeing a bad marriage to a philandering European Count. At first Newland extends his friendship out of duty to May but soon finds Ellen’s honesty and insight refreshing and exciting. As he observes how his own society marks her as outcast he starts to see his own complicity in a social world just as petty and judgmental as the one Ellen has fled. That very complicity puts him at odds with his passions when he’s instructed to talk Ellen out of divorcing her husband and into returning to a loveless marriage to avoid tarnishing the family name. The same contract that he realizes he too will be entering.

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Review: Love, Simon

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Early in Love, Simon, the hero jokes about getting together with friends and watching bad ’90s teen movies—the real joke being that Love, Simon essentially is a ’90s teen movie … with a few tweaks. Already acclaimed for being the first wide multiplex release with a gay high-schooler as its protagonist, Love, Simon dutifully follows the outline of other groundbreaking movies since at least the time of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Put another way, it’s as bland as vanilla pudding. But unless you’re completely vanilla-phobic, the movie’s unforced good feelings are easy to enjoy.

You’re probably wondering: Hasn’t this ground been broken? There have been plenty of gay teens in TV and indie movies, but let’s allow Love, Simon its distinction in opening in 2,400 theaters at once.

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Review: The Death of Stalin

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

If satire doesn’t draw blood, what’s the point? For years that was the problem with Saturday Night Live, which tended to make its political caricatures into lovable clods, figures of fun rather than fury. (Things have been more barbed around there lately.) In Britain, there’s a long tradition of going for the jugular rather than the jocular, and Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci wields the scalpel with cutting precision. His Oscar-nominated 2009 comedy In the Loop was a scathing look inside UK politics, and he co-created Steve Coogan’s long-running character Alan Partridge, an acidly sketched broadcaster whose first TV talk show was canceled when Partridge accidentally fatally shot a guest. More recently, Iannucci created Veep, HBO’s Emmy-winning political satire.

For his latest big-screen project, Iannucci comes close to perfectly balancing comedy and savagery.

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Review: Submission

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

In Submission, Stanley Tucci has this little chuckle he deploys in a variety of situations. He plays a creative-writing professor at a second-rank college, and his automatic laugh comes in handy when placating inquisitive students, attending faculty parties with pedantic colleagues, or shrugging off incessant questions about when he’s going to finish his new novel. I swear Tucci delivers it so that it expresses a dozen different meanings and feelings, all appropriate to the position in which he’s trapped at that moment. Acting is a precise craft but also a mysterious alchemy, and when you’ve gotten as good as Tucci has, a seamless performance like this can transform a so-so movie into a pleasure, merely for watching a veteran at the top of his game. The professor’s practiced chuckle also proves useful when navigating conversations with an attractive student who idolizes him, a case of sexual boundary-trampling that becomes the crux of the movie.

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