One of the best collections available on the Criterion Channel is one called Film Plays Itself, a self-reflexive assemblage of movies about movies. Here you’ve got your classics, like Sunset Boulevard and 8½. You’ve got your “out-there” stuff, like the experimental Symbiopsychotaxiplasm or Godard’s New-Wave Contempt. And you’ve got some modern triumphs like The Player and Adaptation. Each of these sort of screams CINEMA! in a not-so-subtle way, which is not a knock against them so much as a bit of a prerequisite for inclusion on the Criterion Channel in the first place. But the highbrow reek of such an overly-academic, carefully-cultivated program of thinkfilms threatens to become overbearing without any deviance — or at least it would, if not for Hollywood Shuffle.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Townsend saw the same problem that every black actor saw in Tinseltown: you either play a criminal, a convict, a slave or some combination of the three. Moreover, depictions of those figures were by and large stereotyped approximations rather than actual characters. Shuffle sparked when a white casting director turned Townsend down for a role because he “wasn’t black enough,” and Townsend recognized this as a brand of systematic racism baked into Hollywood itself. He only had to look to the local cinema at the time for evidence: the sole major studio production with black leads in the 1985-’86 movie season was The Color Purple, written and directed and produced by white men and a clear-cut case of overly-sentimental, stereotypical depictions of black men and women on the silver screen.
Continue reading Hollywood Shuffle (1987)
1973 was a hell of a year at the movies. Bruce Lee kicked ass in Enter the Dragon, Roger Moore debuted as Bond in Live and Let Die, and smalltown California got its romantic due in American Graffiti. There was Sydney Pollack‘s The Way We Were, Sam Peckinpah‘s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye. Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick announced themselves as filmmakers to be reckoned with upon the respective releases of Mean Streets and Badlands, and Michael Crichton made cinematic history with technological advances in Westworld. Then there’s The Sting, which I’m always willing to defend in a battle to the death as Greatest Film Ever. But these are more than just great movies — these are unique and fresh-seeming efforts, influential to this day because they all pushed the envelope.
And though the horror genre received more than a few landmark films that year — The Exorcist, The Wicker Man, etc. — Nicholas Roeg’s grief-stricken terror Don’t Look Now might be the scariest. It’s certainly the most engrossing. Envelope-pushing apparently wouldn’t cut it for Roeg and Company, as the incredibly intense Venice-set thriller does more to explode the envelope into a zillion tiny bloodstained pieces. The story follows John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) in the months following the accidental drowning of their daughter Christine. Paralyzed by anguish, the couple retreat to Venice. Soon, they encounter a pair of women claiming to have a connection to the deceased Christine.
Continue reading Don’t Look Now (1973)
I wanted to love Nightingale unconditionally. We’ve written about one-man-show films here before, from Locke to Buried to Redford‘s All Is Lost to Altman‘s Secret Honor, and Nightingale certainly stands with those true one-man-shows rather than with, say, Cast Away or Gravity or 127 Hours or any other single-character flick that actually has a small supporting cast. Nightingale has no supporting cast, no strange premise wherein the hero is trapped underground or trapped on the high seas or trapped in space. Nightingale‘s Peter Snowden is trapped in his mind, and that’s scarier than any of the aforementioned scenarios.
David Oyelowo is the single actor in question here, and to say he delivers a great performance would be a pathetic understatement. Oyelowo is an absolute force of nature from the first frame of Nightingale to the last. The storyline is unsettling, sure, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but shorn of that Oyelowo’s performance is unsettling in and of itself for the sheer velocity of it all. Not only are Peter’s highs and lows very very high and very very low, but they’re backed up into each other and jumbled up in such a way that Peter switches like a lightbulb from on to off, from calm to manic, from contemplative to downright inconsolable. It’s impressive, but before that it’s incredibly disturbing.
Continue reading Nightingale (2015)
Doc Sportello ain’t a do-gooder, as one of the trailer lines for Inherent Vice sings, but he’s done good. Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh movie doesn’t seem to match up with anything else he’s done, tempting though it may be to shove it in the same category with Boogie Nights simply because they’re both comedies. There’s a little Boogie in there, for sure – there’s also mid-’80s Leslie Nielsen zaniness, a bit of Robert Altman, a bit of early Guy Ritchie, a bit of everything. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a sofa-riding P.I. suddenly embroiled in a kidnapping/murder case that’s way, way over his head. The moving parts of the case are as perplexing to Doc as those of the film proper might be to us, and when Doc gives up trying to make sense of it all is about the time we do the same.
So, yeah: Inherent Vice has Jewish real estate moguls, ex-convicts, flat-topped cops, Japanese drug cartels, the Aryan Brotherhood, doped-up dentists, maritime lawyers and an increasingly large cross-section of people known from San Fran to San Diego with clear disdain or clear indifference as hippies. There are loan sharks, FBI agents, tenor sax players. There’s a big boat which might be called The Golden Fang, might not. How could these disparate agencies possibly be connected?
Continue reading Inherent Vice (2014)
Among plenty of other achievements, MASH is (allegedly) the first major studio film to make use of the word “fuck”. While not necessarily a proven fact depending on your definition of “major studio”, the employment of the word is the perfect illustration of the important and innovative way MASH used dialogue. A large portion of Robert Altman’s filmography is made up of movies that are filled to the brim with sharp wit and fast banter, and MASH is arguably the finest example.
Donald Sutherland stars as Hawkeye Pierce, surgeon in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, prankster and goofball extraordinaire. Hawkeye, along with cohorts that include characters played by Tom Skerritt and Elliot Gould, is a lover of all things mischievous and manages to cause trouble even when he is blissfully unaware of doing so. This is war, of course, so people lose good friends and die themselves during the endless futilities of battle – in a Catch-22 sort of way, MASH uses its relentless humor as a way to illustrate this futility in highly satirical fashion, with Hawkeye and Co. essentially laughing in the face of meaningless death because what else can you do? In a Catch-22 sort of way, it works like a charm.
Continue reading MASH (1970)
Our Director Series on Robert Altman is partially responsible for a look at The Big Sleep, as the overlapping rapid-fire back-and-forth dialogue characteristic of Altman’s films was first characteristic of the films of Howard Hawks. Toss in the fact that the source material is by Raymond Chandler and the fact that William Faulkner himself helped write the screenplay, and The Big Sleep is still one of the finest American film scripts ever committed to celluloid.
Private eye Philip Marlowe has appeared in a few films – notably portrayed by Elliott Gould in 1973’s The Long Goodbye (also Altman) and then by Robert Mitchum in both 1975 and 1978 – but Humphrey Bogart’s time in the role is the most valuable. He’s Marlowe in the way that Sean Connery is Bond: it’s not the only portrayal of the character…but yeah, it’s the only portrayal of the character. Marlowe’s investigation into a whole host of strange occurrences rolled out one after another, starting with the disappearance of one Sean Regan, provides the drive for the film. But one solution inevitably leads to two more problems in The Big Sleep, and there’s little hope of piecing everything together into a neat little answer to “so what actually happened?”
Continue reading The Big Sleep (1946)
James Caan and Robert Duvall starred in quite a few films together in their early careers. In 1969 Francis Ford Coppola would cast them both in The Rain People, and the director would go on to give them each one of their finest roles as Sonny Corleone and Tom Hagen in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. The pair would reunite in 1975 for Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, and the fact of that film failing shouldn’t be faulted to either actor. But their first collaboration was on one of the earliest feature films of the great Robert Altman: the man-on-the-moon drama Countdown.
Altman had years of television and film experience prior to Countdown. His first feature The Delinquents appeared in 1957, around the same time as his James Dean documentary The James Dean Story, both of which led to television gigs on the likes of Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was Countdown, though, that seemed to herald Altman’s career as a film director – he would basically direct a film every single year for the next two decades, which is pretty unheard of in this day and age.
Continue reading Countdown (1968)