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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.

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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.

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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

Review: On the Seventh Day

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

The first thing you notice about On the Seventh Day (En el Séptimo Día) is that it doesn’t sound like a sports movie. In the opening sequence we watch a soccer game in a Brooklyn neighborhood park, and it takes a moment to adjust to the realism: There’s no inspirational music swelling or digital thudding of the ball colliding with a foot. Nobody’s doing “the wave.” (Note to self: Find out if people still do “the wave.” Editor’s note: They do.) It sounds exactly like what you’d hear if you walked past a game in progress at your local park on a quiet Sunday afternoon and decided to lean against the fence to watch for a while.

Writer/director Jim McKay is clearly gifted at capturing authentic places and faces, and that’s what gives On the Seventh Day its everyday enchantment.

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Unforced Perspective: ‘Ant-Man and The Wasp’

At a time when comic book movies were steadily cranking up the Sturm und Drang, 2015’s Ant-Man served as an amiably slouching alternative, gently snarking at superheroic conventions while still staying within the Marvel mandated lines. What’s more, it was one of the rare blockbusters that actually got better as it went along, with a third act that felt like it was beginning to fully grasp the scale-shifting possibilities of its hero. All this, plus a pretty sweet joke involving The Cure, to boot.

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Review: The King

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Almost 20 years ago I took off to Memphis by myself and stayed in a motel with a small, guitar-shaped swimming pool. It was across Highway 51 from Graceland.

The first thing I did was take the tour at Elvis Presley’s mansion. It seemed natural at the time, but in recent years I have wondered: Why did I want to see Graceland? I like Elvis, and I like Americana, and Graceland’s blend of excess, tragedy, and kitsch was right up my alley. People of every variety, from all over the world, were on the tour. But really: Why were we there? Surely it’s partly because the life of Elvis—an age-old story of innocence, success, decline, and exaltation—resonates in ways that go beyond his music, enough that we all performed a pilgrimage to this secular shrine. But that still doesn’t quite explain it.

Documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) explores the Elvis mythology in The King, but he’s not so interested in the why.

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Review: Leave No Trace

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

The first thing that strikes you in Leave No Trace is the density of the Pacific Northwest forest—all that enveloping greenness. People live in these woods, swallowed up by the choking undergrowth. And that’s the way they want it. The movie’s title, usually employed as an anti-littering motto, refers to a main character’s desire to vanish from society, to exist on his own terms and then disappear.

The forest in question is actually a park just outside Portland; it’s close enough to walk into the city for supplies. The disappearing man is Will (Ben Foster), a veteran with some degree of PTSD. What complicates his retreat from the world is his fierce bond with his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a New Zealander), who lives with him in the woods. They hunker down in their tent, build fires when they need to, and stay out of sight. The end of this idyll coincides with Tom’s wistful desire to have a more normal, settled life—a life that would be unbearable for her father.

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Review: They Only Kill Their Masters

[Originally published in Movietone News 21, February 1973]

Winning, Red Sky at Morning, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Each one more atrocious than the one that went before. Which tends to raise the question: how does James Goldstone, the most conspicuously untalented director of the past ten years, get financed (Ernest Lehman of Portnoy’s Complaint is exempt, being very talented—as a writer)?

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Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Twice during Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character enters a scene with the camera focused on her shoes. Maybe this is the director’s foot fetish, but more likely it’s a comment on one of the criticisms of 2015’s huge-grossing predecessor Jurassic World: that Howard’s character, theme-park corporate lackey Claire Dearing, was so retrograde she spent an entire film wearing high heels while being chased by dinosaurs. That criticism was actually slightly unfair—Claire wore heels because her stupid job forced her to—but rest assured that in Fallen Kingdom, Claire is kitted out with a set of badass military-grade boots. And they’re ready for their close-up.

Fallen Kingdom reunites Claire and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) when a volcano threatens to destroy the remaining dinosaur population on Isla Nublar.

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Review: Innocent Bystanders

[Originally published in Movietone News 21, February 1973]

The Italian Job got past me but, from what I can tell from descriptions thereof, it set in motion a trend in Peter Collinson’s work that is continued in Innocent Bystanders. The potentially portentous title notwithstanding, this latest Collinson takes us far from the significance-laden likes of The Penthouse, Up the Junction, and A Long Day’s Dying into the region of closeup slambang for (commercially if not morally) pure purposes of entertainment. The government arms that manipulate poor, physically unsexed Stanley Baker and his fellow/rival espionage agents are unrelentingly portrayed as cold, inhumane entities staffed by inhuman types like Donald Pleasence (who manages to be amusing about it) and Dana Andrews, but this has simply become a convention of the genre these days and no longer counts as the subversive gesture it once was in the black and white morality plays of Fritz Lang and the crimefighting semidocumentaries of Anthony Mann.

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Review: ‘2001’ in 2018

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

The greatest movie mind-blower of them all turns 50 this year—a wildly imaginative, influential, psychedelic riddle.

But I know what you’re thinking: What about its algorithms?

I checked Rotten Tomatoes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey sits with an 89 percent audience score. From critics, it has a comfortable 92 percent “Fresh” rating. That’s a mere eight percentage points behind Paddington 2. Sweet.

But Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic has been an official classic for decades. That tends to skew the vote. How would audiences rank 2001 on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb if the film were unleashed as a new thing today? Even in 1968, critics argued over its slow pace, its violation of storytelling conventions, its baffling ending. Given the recent low audience scores for arty horror movies such as Hereditary and Annihilation, and the online tantrums thrown by Star Wars true believers who can’t abide variations on the formula (the faithful deliberately tanked online ratings for The Last Jedi and Solo), I wonder how the perversity of 2001 would go over now. The Internet-era urge to “solve” enigmatic movies might also work against Kubrick’s masterpiece. What’s the deal with that black slab? Who begins a movie with 20 minutes of monkeys? Why the giant baby?

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Review: American Animals

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Until last weekend, I had a pretty simple opinion of MoviePass. It was obviously insane.

The service, which has been hemorrhaging money for months, sounded way too easy: For a low fee, you sign up and see a huge number of movies at participating theaters. How can this be good for theaters or distributors? How can it be good for MoviePass? Of course it works out nicely for frequent moviegoers, but the business model seems completely unsustainable, an example of the Amazonian lose-money-before-we-make-money philosophy gone mad.

The profit-making plan still eludes me, but something interesting happened a few days ago. The indie film American Animalsacquired at Sundance in a shared deal by distributor The Orchard and MoviePass (not heretofore a distributor)—scored fabulous box-office returns at four theaters in L.A. and New York.

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