The Seasoned Ticket #31

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

That naughty scamp Lars von Trier is back in the game, with his scandalous new film The House That Jack Built prompting a certain amount of hand-wringing at film festivals earlier this year (not easy to do, with a crowded field of provocateurs out there), and occupying the screen at the Grand Illusion for a second weekend just now.

I haven’t seen von Trier’s reportedly bloody account of a serial killer (Matt Dillon) plying his trade, but I hope to soon. I sympathize with anyone who finds the director’s bad-boy persona tiresome, but I continue to think that von Trier’s stage-managed image is separate from the things he actually puts into his films; it’s in his art that his seriousness of purpose comes out, something he doesn’t seem inclined to disclose while acting like a jackass in interviews. We live in a time when people (and too many film critics) find it easier to review the artist than the art, so this complicates the reception of von Trier’s movies. But I’m still interested.

A few years ago, I threw a lot of my writing about von Trier into a blog post; it includes an introduction I wrote for an online site (maybe the old, original Film.com) that looked at LVT’s career up to that point. Here’s that longish post.

And, more recently, a piece from the Herald on the 2011 Melancholia, one of the director’s best:

 

If Melancholia hadn’t turned out to be one of the most arresting and exciting movies of the year, the film’s main claim to fame might’ve been director Lars von Trier’s joking comments at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Von Trier is a full-time mischief-maker and put-on artist, who blabbed something at the Melancholia press conference about sympathizing with Hitler (the implication being, what movie director doesn’t identify with a tyrannical dictator, at some point?). Of course this comment became an immediate scandal, and von Trier was banned from the festival, and blah blah blah.

So, yes, Lars von Trier can be a jackass at times. He also happens to be a prodigiously talented artist who makes movies nobody else could make, Melancholia being a vivid case in point.

The film is divided into two parts: The first surveys a fancy wedding reception at a country house, where the bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), appears to be slowly and surely losing it. This part is a black comedy of manners. The second section also is set at the house, shortly thereafter, when the clinically depressed Justine returns to stay with her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg, late of von Trier’s Antichrist) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland).

But we left out something important. The movie begins with a spellbinding set of slow-motion images, which appear to herald a natural catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. After that, there are references to an asteroid, or possibly a planet, that is on a collision course with Earth. From this setting, von Trier weaves an ominous experience, part psychological study, part science fiction. And it is an “experience,” more than it is a conventional three-act movie: Melancholia moves at its own very odd, elongated stride, like someone trying to walk underwater, and it presents images that vary from the curious (the bride pauses to relieve herself on a golf course at night) to the spectacular (a horse keels over beneath a sky full of northern lights).

Kristen Dunst won the best actress prize at Cannes, and she’s very convincingly haunted. Alexander Skarsgard plays her groom, and Charlotte Rampling and Udo Kier contribute deft humor in the movie’s wickedly funny first section.

The actors are all part of von Trier’s conception, which includes lush samplings of Richard Wagner music. Melancholia is the kind of movie that used to settle into a nice long arthouse run, drawing audiences interested in tripping on its imagery or deciphering its puzzle. I hope that happens here, because this is bold, tightrope-walking movie-making of the most vertiginous kind.

 

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

Ego vs. Ego: THE ROOM and THE DISASTER ARTIST

by Rita Amer

Cult-hit film The Room (2003) perfectly balances the elements of a So-Bad-It’s-Good Movie: gross miscalculation and naive sincerity with a huge, heaping helping of the optional element: incompetence.

Writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau’s egotism is so monstrous that he can’t see through it or around it. Wiseau’s complete immersion in his own fantasy world and lack of self-reflection are what make The Room so funny. It sounds mean to say it but that’s why showings of The Room sell out.

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The Seasoned Ticket #30

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

For this week’s Seasoned Ticket, I planned to dig up an interview I did with then-little-known Emily Blunt in 2004, when she came to the Seattle International Film Festival with Pawel Pawlikowski to promote their film My Summer of Love. The director went on to win an Oscar for Ida, and his film Cold War will be Oscar-nominated this year for Best Foreign Language Film. Blunt, of course, went on to become an international star, and is everywhere this week (and delightfully so) in Mary Poppins Returns.

I remember the interview being a good one, including the part where Emily Blunt fixed my tape recorder, which I couldn’t figure out how to do. A fine actress, and also handy.

However, I can’t find the interview, so forget that. Instead, I found an interview I did with Viggo Mortensen, currently starring (and, it must be said, delightfully so) in Green Book, where the actor is transformed into a beefy goombah from the early 1960s. It’s a terrific comic performance in a film that was always destined to be widely debated for its racial politics. But Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are splendid.

Anyway. I talked to Mortensen in 2004 for the release of his post-LOTR starring vehicle, Hidalgo, a movie that should have been a hit but, curiously, wasn’t. The actor proved as thoughtful as rumored, and I share some of those thoughts in the interview below—an interview that concludes with a citation from the Mr. Ed theme song.

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The Seasoned Ticket #29

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

I hope to be seeing Clint Eastwood’s new film as director and actor, The Mule, as soon as possible; the film opens this weekend but was not screened in advance for the press. This raises the odd possibility that there’s someone at Warner Bros. who thinks that critics aren’t generally pretty interested if not downright enthusiastic about what Eastwood is up to. Or maybe the Clintmeister himself decided to take a pass this time. Whatever – it’s odd.

The opening coincides with the news that Eastwood’s longtime onscreen and offscreen partner Sondra Locke died, age 74. I don’t have my copy of David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film handy, but if I’m remembering correctly that’s where Thomson writes a keen assessment of the Eastwood-Locke collaboration, which resulted in a few pretty fine movies, such as The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Gauntlet, and a few that are not so good. I reviewed one of the latter titles in my first months as the film critic for the Herald, a little number called Sudden Impact, the wildly popular Dirty Harry episode that featured a catchphrase subsequently appropriated by the President of the United States at the time. Here’s that review, from 35 years ago to the day, Dec. 14, 1983, in which I venture the argument that as a film director, Eastwood doesn’t seem entirely awful.

 

Sudden Impact

Clint Eastwood, who has directed eight films since 1971’s Play Misty for Me, has shown an interest in making smaller, more personal movies lately. And since he still reigns as one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, if he wants to make a small, personal movie, he can make it.

But some of his pet projects have fizzled with audiences accustomed to Eastwood’s gunslinging or his comedic partnerships with orangutans. Bronco Billy died in the summer of ’81, and Honkytonk Man disappeared last Christmas. Eastwood—who has displayed competency behind the camera—is no dummy (even though some of his critics have accused him of being as animated as the average ventriloquist’s prop). He knows his fans love to see him stalking the streets of San Francisco in the guise of Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan.

Just in time for the lucrative Christmas season, then, arrives Sudden Impact, the new “Dirty Harry” installment, the first one since


 in 1977. Eastwood produced and directed this entry, as well as essaying the role of Harry Callahan once again. Clint’s hair may be a little thinner on top these days, but he still has the steely gaze and the steady walk that embody Callahan’s brutal code of justice—a code that doesn’t always sit too well with Harry’s superiors at the San Francisco Police Department.

Sudden Impact isn’t 10 minutes old before Harry’s wiped the floor with a whole bushelful of assorted Bay Area punks, psychos, and culturally backward types. But he doesn’t look for trouble, he says; it just seems to follow him around. The bloodletting gets so bad that the department sends Harry off to the sleepy coastal town of San Paulo, to check up on a lead in a murder case, and mostly just to get him out of San Francisco. He doesn’t know—although the audience does—that the murderer is in San Paulo, right under his nose. We learn early that the strange series of murders is being perpetrated by a painter (played by longtime Eastwood leading lady Sondra Locke) who is avenging the 10-year-old rape and beating of her younger sister and herself. So she’s got her code of justice, too; clearly a woman after Harry’s heart. And sure enough, the two find themselves in a tentative romantic involvement.

But there can’t be too much time devoted to the mushy stuff in an action movie such as this one, and Eastwood shrewdly piles on the gun play. He’s done a pretty good job of it, considering the fact that the script is a fairly old-hat series of showdowns. As usual, the bad guys aren’t just bad, they’re vermin, engaging in every kind of animalistic behavior. By the end of the movie, the audience was cheering each extermination.

It’s a good finale—a whirring, spinning shoot-out at a carnival. Eastwood may not be Alfred Hitchcock, but he knows how to stage a fight. And Sudden Impact may not be great cinema. But Eastwood fans are going to like it.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

BETTER WATCH OUT for an all new SHRIEK

by Evan Peterson

This Sunday, SHRIEK: Women of Horror presents our annual holiday party with Better Watch Out, a Christmastime killer thriller!

Some thoughts on the film and spoilers below.

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