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.

Keep Reading

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.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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.

Keep Reading

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.

Keep Reading

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 25

“Five years later, Lang’s obsession with the tribunal made its appearance, and he was able to launch a frontal assault upon the real world, by opposing to the idea of transcendent justice the actuality of the man-made laws determining our daily lives. For the first time Lang openly attacked the official representation of authority, and in particular, those officials who dispense justice—a justice, moreover, regimented by laws—and the laws themselves resting upon privilege, mindless tradition, and stupidity. For the courts, in Lang’s vision, are intrinsically human, and the right to judge others is shot through with private interests. Decrees, codes, and rules are revised to suit the moment and the result is often chaos, contention, and error. When this happens, those forces existing upon the margins of society—the pariahs, the cripples, the thieves—inherit the problem of constructing a new justice. Lang’s sympathies always lie with the little man, the man of low condition, who, by whatever means at his disposal, is willing to combat the dogmas of a stultified society.” Kino Slang makes available a translation of an article first written in 1937, then revised for a 1959 reprint in Cahiers du cinema, in which Georges Franju adduces the techniques of editing, mise-en-scène, and employment of actors that Fritz Lang used to make his “almost obsessional” films so precise and personal. Via Mubi.

“I was twenty when I ingested most of Cassavetes’s work. (It was a real heavy trip.) Like many young men first encountering his films, I felt like I was being exposed to the raw truth. There was no evidence of staging or phoniness, ingredients that until then I had assumed were necessary to narrative. It seemed that the camera lens had been caked with bullshit all along, and Cassavetes was the only filmmaker capable of scraping it clean. Maybe so. But his truth is no vérité. It’s taken me until middle age (wherein most of his films take place) to appreciate that he was, among other things, a top-notch surrealist. I don’t doubt that every artistic decision he made was deeply felt in his gut, but that gut frequently led him to dissociative fugues and dream logic that could make David Lynch blush.” Keeping with what turns out to be this week’s theme of directors functioning as critics, Andrew Bujalski breaks down the climax of Opening Night to expose how disassociated from reality John Cassavetes’s “realism” was.

Keep Reading

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. 

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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.

Keep Reading

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.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

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.

Keep Reading

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 18

“Oh yes, [The Blue Bird] is actually totally crazy if you ask me. In that regard it is Maurice’s most radical film. He even painted the intertitles himself and managed almost every stage of the production. I think this was the closest he came to his idea of creating a complete artwork. Which is also the reason we showed it together with I Walked with a Zombie. In many ways the latter is the most accomplished expression of Jacques’ total art, although I am sure ever-modest Jacques would have abhorred a term like this. In it Jacques goes furthest in liberating himself from narrative shackles. Both films could be seen as showcases on how to create poetry within the Hollywood system.” The Austrian Film Museum’s Christoph Huber has a fascinating conversation with Patrick Holzapfel about a program he curated that paired films of Maurice and Jacques Tourneur, and the commonalities and radical differences it exposed in the father and son auteurs. Via Film Comment.

“It was precisely this history of problematic representation that [producer] Esparza sought to upend with his films, and he and a few fellow filmmakers succeeded.In the early eighties, Mexican Americans were just beginning to fulfill their dream of making their own cinema, and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was one of the films that inaugurated the Chicano film movement, along with Young’s ¡Alambrista! and Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (1981). The next ten or so years saw the full flowering of Chicano cinema with the release of La Bamba (1987), Born in East L.A. (1987), Stand and Deliver (1988),and The Milagro Beanfield War(1988), and culminating with Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi in 1992.Charles Ramírez Berg traces the history of Young’s The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, from real-life incident to folk song, academic study, and finally a film at the forefront of not only the Latin American wave but the entire independent film movement. Elsewhere, at Filmmaker, star and producer Edward James Olmos talks with Jim Hemphill about the film. (“I gave Bob [Young] the script up at Sundance, and that same year Robert Duvall was there – he gave Bob Tender Mercies to read at the same time. Bob called me up and said, ‘Eddie, I just finished reading your script, and it’s the most horrific and unprofessional script I’ve ever read in my life.’ He couldn’t find one good thing to say about it. And then he said, ‘Tender Mercies is an extraordinary script. Just incredible.’ In my mind I’m thinking, well, he’s gonna do Tender Mercies. I mean, at this point in time I am no Robert Duvall, okay? […] And Bob asks me, ‘Do you have the money for your story?’ I said, ‘I have a million dollars.’ He goes, ‘Oh, that’s more than enough. I want to do your story. Duvall’s script is brilliant, but yours is the story I want to tell.’”)

Keep Reading

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.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

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.

Keep Reading

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.

Keep Reading