|by Peter Sobczynski
In which your faithful reviewer takes time out from the usual nonsense to offer up yet another tribute commemorating the passing of one of American's finest directors. (Don't worry--there is still a cheap and fairly obvious Michael Richards joke to be found in there somewhere.)
With the passing of Robert Altman, who died on Monday at the age of 81, the film world lost one of its greatest and most original practitioners. With his sprawling narratives, overlapping dialogue and carefree directorial approach, he forged a genuinely unique style that was utterly unlike anything that had been seen before and which would influence countless filmmakers in subsequent years. His long career had many ups and downs and not every film that he made was a masterpiece but even the worst of the bunch would have an energy and life to it that would make the proceedings at least somewhat intriguing. In honor of the man, I would like to use this space to highlight five of the more off-beat titles in his long filmography that are currently available on DVD for you to revisit.
After a couple of false starts, Altman made his critical and commercial breakthrough with his landmark 1970 military satire “MASH” and over the next five years, he would unleash a string of films that, in terms of sheer artistic quality and originality, remains unparalleled to this day, including the strange fantasy “Brewster McCloud” (1970), the revisionist western “McCabe & Mrs Miller” (1971), the strange psychological drama “Images” (1972), a trippy modern-day adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye” (1973), the Depression-era drama “Thieves Like Us” (1974), the off-beat gambling comedy-drama “California Split” (1974) and the landmark political and personal epic “Nashville” (1975). Although “Nashville” is probably the most impressive directorial achievement of the bunch, I’d have to give the nod to the utterly original “McCabe & Mrs Miller,” the haunting tale of a dandy (Warren Beatty) who wanders into a small frontier town to open a fancy bordello with local madam Julie Christie and finds his success to be his undoing when he runs afoul of big business interests that want to buy him out. Beautifully photographed, filled with great performances (Beatty and Christie have never been better than they were here) and ingeniously scored with the songs of Leonard Cohen, this is a film that weaves a spell on viewers that stays with you for days afterwards.
In the wake of “Nashville,” Altman spent the next few years working on a variety of decidedly off-beat projects at a time when the industry was leaning towards more simply conceived blockbusters. “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” was an inventive satire on the dangers of buying into the myths of America that made its ill-advised debut on July 4, 1976. 1977's “3 Women” was a dream-like film involving two women who may or may not have exchanged personalities. “A Wedding” (1978) attempted to recreate the multi-story approach of “Nashville” by following a large group of characters attending the merging of old and new money at an elaborate wedding. “Quintet” (1979) was a strange sci-fi allegory, hated by nearly all of the few who bothered to see it (though I have a strange fondness for it) involving the few doomed human survivors of a future ice age whiling away the end of mankind by playing a homicidal board game. “A Perfect Couple” (1979) was a slight romantic comedy centered on the then-unique idea of computer dating and “Health” (1980) was another stab at political satire that was timed to coincide with that year’s election (though 20th Century Fox was so down on it that they delayed the release for over a year and then dumped it.)
Of all the films that he made during this time, perhaps none was more unexpected than 1980's “Popeye,” a big-budget live-action musical film based on the beloved character. Although deemed a failure when it was released, mostly because it didn’t make as much money as the film version of “Superman,” "Popeye" was, and still is, an endlessly charming and inventive film that remains one of the very best adaptations of a comic-strip character. Instead of making a feature-length version of the famous Max Fleischer cartoons, Altman and screenwriter Jules Feiffer looked back to the original E.C. Segar comics, which consisted of rambling stories filled with social satire and an enormous cast of quirky characters (in other words, perfect material for an Altman film). As the one-eyed sailor, Robin Williams (in his first major film role) is amusing but he is completely overshadowed by Shelley Duvall’s pitch-perfect turn as Olive Oyl. Throw in a bunch of catchy songs by Harry Nilsson and you have a film that has held up far better than the history books would have you believe.
After the relative failure of “Popeye” (ironically, in terms of box-office dollars, it would become his second-most-successful film after “MASH”), Altman spent the 1980's as an industry exile directing projects for television (including a 1988 adaptation of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” and the acclaimed HBO miniseries “Tanner ‘88")), some weird off-the-cuff projects that barely (including the 1986 teen-movie satire “OC and Stiggs” and the abysmal 1987 effort “Beyond Therapy”) and some interesting screen adaptations of such stage plays as “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” (1982), “Streamers” 1983) and “Fool For Love” (1984). Of his works during this period, the standout by far was “Secret Honor,” his powerhouse 1984 adaptation of a one-man show that speculated on Richard Nixon’s final days in the White House. As Nixon, Philip Baker Hall delivered a stunning and intense depiction of a Nixon who decidedly not going gentle into the night. And yet, despite what you might have expected from such a famously liberal filmmaker, the most interesting thing about the film is the strange sort of sympathy that Altman clearly shows towards Nixon–instead of treating him like some kind of one-dimensional monster, he portrays the fallen president as a flawed human being who achieved the pinnacle of power with his desire to succeed at all costs and who was brought down to earth by those same desires.
By the end of the decade, Altman was largely written off by most people and it was at that precise moment that he staged one of the most audacious comebacks in recent film history. After “Vincent & Theo,” a flawed-but-intriguing 1990 biopic of the Van Gogh brothers, he returned to the limelight with the hilarious 1992 Hollywood satire “The Player” and used the heat he generated from that to launch 1993's “Short Cuts,” a long-planned epic that tied together nine Raymond Carver short stories using a “Nashville”-style narrative and an all-star cast. Although the rest of his films in the 1990's wouldn’t match that one-two punch, they nearly always offered something of interest for viewers. “Ready to Wear” (1994) was an amiably sloppy goof on the fashion industry that is funnier that its reputation would otherwise suggest. “Kansas City” (1996) had a central story that didn’t work–something involving Depression-era floozy Jennifer Jason Leigh kidnapping political wife Miranda Richardson–but contained some incredible jazz music performances and a menacing supporting turn from Harry Belafonte as a crime boss. 1998's “The Gingerbread Man” was based on a John Grisham screenplay and the match of Altman and Grisham was not an ideal one–you can almost feel Altman chafing against the constraints of Grisham’s lockstep plotting–but it is easily the most cinematically interesting film made to date of a Grisham work. Happily, the decade ended on a winning note with the charming “Cookie’s Fortune,” a funny and touching look at life in a small Southern town where the suicide of a local matriarch (Patricia Neal) has been made to look like a murder by her status-conscious daughter (Glenn Close) and the woman’s best friend (Charles S. Dutton) is implicated in the crime that no one thinks that he committed.
Of this era, the masterwork remains “Short Cuts.” In this insanely ambitious work, he managed to juggle multiple narratives and an eclectic cast (including Tim Robbins, Robert Downey Jr, Julianne Moore, Jack Lemmon, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Huey Lewis, Buck Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits) into a jumbo-sized meditation on contemporary America was by turns funny, angry, tragic, grotesque and heart-breaking while maintaining a hold on viewers for more than three solid hours without a single dull moment or bum scene. Not only was it the highlight of the decade for Altman, it could well be the high-water mark of his entire career.
Even in what proved to be his final years (and despite a 1996 heart transplant that he only publicly acknowledged a decade later while receiving his honorary Oscar to assuage the Academy’s guilt over nominating him for Best Director five times without ever giving him the prize), Altman continued to plug away on a variety of projects. (He even staged an opera adaptation of “A Wedding” in Chicago in 2004.) 2000's gynecologist comedy “Dr T and the Women” is usually written off as an off-putting failure but contains some gentle good humor, one of the most sheerly likable performances of Richard Gere’s career as Dr. T and a screwball climax that has to be seen to be believed. “Gosford Park” (2001), an inventive riff on the likes of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” was a take on British class consciousness and drawing-room mysteries that proved to be an unexpected critical and commercial hit. “The Company” (2003), a dance film that was a pet project for star Neve Campbell, saw him embracing digital video in order to shoot a fly-on-the-wall look at a year in the life of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. 2004's cable miniseries “Tanner on Tanner” saw him revisiting his 1988 triumph for another election-year satire. Finally, his career ended on a high note with this year’s wonderful “A Prairie Home Companion,” a wonderful adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio series that turned out to be, ironically enough, a cheerful meditation on the inevitability of death that offered a lot of laughs, a few introspective moments and tons of great music. It would be tempting to pick that film as the highlight–it may well prove to be the best of the batch–but I would give the nod to the amazing “Gosford Park” instead. At an age when most filmmakers would be content to retire gracefully to the Lifetime Achievement Award circuit, he was still out there taking chances on new and unique material and the result was an utterly surprising treasure.
It was that sense of the unexpected–you really never knew what to expect from him with each new effort–that made Altman’s career so fascinating to observe for anyone interested in film. There will never be another filmmaker like Robert Altman–though many have tried to step in his shoes with varying results (ranging from the brilliant works Paul Thomas Anderson and Tim Robbins to the ponderous hackwork of Paul Haggis and Emilio Estevez)–but it is comforting to know that for as long as people continue to show interest in the art of film, his works will live on.
MCCABE & MRS MILLER: Written by Robert Altman and Brian McKay. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois and Shelley Duvall. 1971. Rated R. 121 minutes. A Warner Home Video release. $19.95
POPEYE: Written by Jules Feiffer. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith and Ray Walston. 1980. Rated PG. 113 minutes. A Paramount Home Video release. $14.95.
SECRET HONOR: Written by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Philip Baker Hall. 1984. Unrated. 90 minutes. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95
SHORT CUTS: Written by Robert Altman & Frank Barhydt. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr, Madeline Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry and Huey Lewis. 1993. Rated R. 183 minutes. A Criterion Collection released. $49.95.
GOSFORD PARK: Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly MacDonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Philippe, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas and Emily Watson. 2001. Rated R. 138 minutes. A Universal Home Video release. $14.98.
NEW AND NOTABLE
ALIAS: THE COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON (Buena Vista Home Video. $39.95): Although the final season of this cult favorite spy series was the most uneven of the bunch–mostly because creator J.J. Abrams was off working on “Mission: Impossible III” and Jennifer Garner’s ass-kicking abilities were severely curtailed because of her gestation of Ben Affleck’s foul drop–it did finally begin to click in the final episodes (new baddie Amy Acker nonchalantly bringing down a helicopter with one shot beat anything seen on “24") and led to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. In addition to this stand-alone set, Buena Vista has also released a mega-set that collects all five seasons and dozens of new extras and houses them in a replica of one of the Rambaldi artifacts–of course, if you are the kind of dedicated fan who already bought the previous sets, you’re kind of screwed.
BEST OF THE MATCH GAME (Brentwood Home Video. $34.95): I tell you, I just don’t get these kids today with their complicated game shows with their portentous music and their evil bankers and their Howie Mandels or William Shatners. As this four-disc set ably demonstrates, all you need to create a great game show are dozens of amiably smutty double-entendres, a host with the grisly demeanor of an undead Vegas lounge performer, the world’s thinnest microphone, a panel of celebrity guests so amiably addled that Richard Dawson was considered the intellectual of the group and the greatest theme music in the history of television. This invaluable set also includes an interview with perennial panelist Brett Somers, a copy of the original 1962 pilot and an episode featuring Kirstie Alley as a contestant.
CLASSIC COMEDY TEAMS (Warner Home Video. $28.95): This three-disc set presents two lesser-known films each from three of the most famous comedy teams of all time: Laurel & Hardy screw things up on the home front in 1943's “Air Raid Wardens” and portray a couple of servants trying to protect a boy king from harm in 1944's “Nothing But Trouble,” Abbott and Costello goof off in the desert in 1944's “Lost in a Harem” and become talent agents in 1945's “Abbott and Costello in Hollywood” and The Three Stooges (with Curly) work as janitors in a girl’s college in 1933's “Meet the Baron” (that is Baron Munchausen, by the way) and later (with Shemp) head out west in 1951's “Gold Raiders.” While I wouldn’t recommend using these films to introduce the teams to those unfamiliar with them, these titles should prove to be entertaining for their loyal fans.
THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): In between his two masterworks–the ten-part miniseries “The Decalogue” (1988) and his “Three Colors” trilogy (1993-94), the late Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski came up with this 1991 gem, in which Irene Jacob portrays two different women in two different countries who seem to share a mysterious bond despite never meeting each other, which just may be the most lovely and haunting work of his entire career. Long unavailable on video in America, Criterion makes up for lost time with a two-disc set featuring a commentary from Kieslowski scholar Annette Insdorf, three documentary shorts directed by Kieslowski, a pair of documentaries about Kieslowski and his work and a new interview with Jacob. A must-have.
A FISH CALLED WANDA (MGM Home Video. $26.98): The movie that taught an entire generation that the London Underground is not a political movement gets a long-awaited DVD upgrade that includes a commentary from John Cleese, interviews with co-stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin and Kevin Kline (who won his Oscar for playing the decidedly stupid Otto) and deleted scenes.
GRAND THEFT AUTO (Buena Vista Home Video. $19.99): Like many other filmmakers before him, Ron Howard made his directorial debut helming a low-budget programmer for the legendary Roger Corman. Unlike most of those other directors, I would easily take this goofy car-crash comedy (in which Howard and his girlfriend find themselves the target of a manhunt when they try to elope to Vegas in a stolen Rolls-Royce, over something like “The Da Vinci Code” in a heartbeat. Apparently, so would he–while he did not provide a commentary for “The Da Vinci Code,” he did team up for a track with Corman.
HOME ALONE–FAMILY FUN EDITION (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–if I want to see a film that concludes with an extended sequence in which Joe Pesci is brutally tortured, I’ll put on my DVD of “Casino.”
HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98): I mention this only because I firmly believe that if one is provided with an opportunity to mention a name like Cobie Smulders in print, one should seize it.
ICE AGE 2: THE MELTDOWN (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Perhaps the dullest animated film of 2006–this merely replicated all the favorite bits of the 2002 original with all the verve and energy of a cheapo direct-to-video title. Of course, it wound up making about a gazillion dollars in the process, no doubt because viewers of all ages sparked to the romantic chemistry of a pair of mastodons with the voices of Ray Romano and Queen Latifah.
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Is it mere coincidence that this acclaimed documentary, a film version of Al Gore’s multi-media lecture on the perils of global warning, appears on this list right after “Ice Age 2"? I think not.
MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): “There is a swing!”–Best Holiday Movie Ending Ever.
O HENRY’S FULL HOUSE (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98): This 1952 curiosity, co-directed be Henry Hathaway and Howard Hawks, is an anthology film that adapts five of O Henry’s most popular short stories with such performers as Charles Laughton, Anne Baxter, Fred Allen, Richard Widmark and Marilyn Monroe.
PANDORA’S BOX (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): One of the all-time great silent films, this 1928 drama from G.W. Pabst follows the sexy-but-innocent Lulu (Louise Brooks in one of the most iconic performances in the history of cinema) who becomes an object of obsession to nearly everyone she meets and whose life takes a downward spiral that culminates with a bitterly ironic finale. This two-disc edition contain four different musical scores–each of which adds a different perspective to the proceedings–a 1998 documentary on Brooks hosted by Shirley MacLaine and, best of all, a one-hour 1984 interview with Brooks herself.
THE PRESTON STURGES FILMMAKER COLLECTION (Universal Home Entertainment. $59.98): One of the first writer-directors to really achieve stardom in Hollywood without also being an actor, Sturges deftly mixed brash satire, wild slapstick, serious theme and fully-drawn characters and came up with some of the best American comedies of the 1940's. This set contains seven classic films that he cranked out at an astonishing rate between 1940-1944: “The Great McGinty” (1940), “Christmas In July” (1940), “The Lady Eve” (1941), “Sullivan’s Travels”(1941), “The Palm Beach Story” (1942), “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944) and “The Great Moment” (1944). Alas, this is a bare-bones set so those of you who already own the loaded Criterion editions of “Sullivan’s Travels” and “The Lady Eve” should probably hold on to them.
THE PUNISHER–EXTENDED CUT (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $19.98): This new version of the largely unsuccessful 2004 film adaptation of the Marvel comic book, in which an embittered vigilante (Thomas Jane) seeks revenge on the mobster (John Travolta) who murdered his family using such tools as torture and a spare fire hydrant, is supposed to contain 17 extra minutes of previously unseen footage put back into the story proper. Watch it turn out to consist entire of stuff involving Samantha Mathis instead of bloodshed. (Not that I’d mind that so much–I still hold a place in my heart for the “Pump Up the Volume” hottie–but others may feel differently.)
SCOOP (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): So how do you try to sell a failed Woody Allen film, such as this effort about a naive journalism student (Scarlett Johansson) who teams up with a shabby magician (Allen) in order to investigate a hunky guy (Hugh Jackman) who may be a serial killer, to an audience that throughly rejected it when it played in theaters this past summer? Easy–plaster a photo of Johansson in a bathing suit (the film’s only memorable aspect) on the back cover. Hell, I hated the movie–it was another one of those tedious trifles that “Match Point” was supposed to have put an end to–but seeing that picture almost made me want to put it on again.
SEINFELD–SEASON SEVEN (Sony Home Entertainment. $49.95): I know that Jerry is doing some bee movie and Elaine has her own show–does anyone know what is going on with that delightful Kramer these days?
STAR TREK–THE ANIMATED SERIES (Paramount Home Video. $54.98): The idea of an animated version of “Star Trek”–especially one featuring the voices of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and many of the other original cast members–must have seemed like a promising idea when it debuted back in 1973. Unfortunately, despite the theoretically expanded horizons brought on by animation, few of the 22 episodes really took advantage of the medium and the results were the usual Saturday morning schlock. However, I suspect that this won’t matter much to hard-core “Trek” fanatics and at least it is better than “Star Trek V.”
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS–THE MUSICAL (Platinum Disc. $19.95): Val Kilmer is Moses–do I need to go on?
WASSUP ROCKERS (First Look. $24.95): Part documentary, part social satire and part homage to “The Warriors,” the film may look like another bit of sleazy artsploitation from Larry Clark Clark, the man behind the thoroughly repellent likes of “Kids” (a.k.a. “HIV School Confidential”) and “Bully” (a.k.a. “Be Bijou Philips’s Gynecologist For A Day”) but it is easily the most entertaining and enjoyable work that he has turned in since 1998's “Another Day in Paradise.” Instead of training his camera on a group of utterly hateful dolts and forcing us to follow them around without providing any reason as to why we should care about them, Clark has instead given us here a group of likably goofy and good-natured kids who only want to skate and play punk music in peace and throws them into a bizarre odyssey home that is alternately thoughtful, terrifying and blackly funny with every stop along the way.
YOU, ME AND DUPREE (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): I understand that if you watch this movie while playing Steely Dan, the visuals and the lyrics match up in the same manner as “Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Other than that, this lame-ass comedy does absolutely nothing other than remind us that Kate Hudson looks cute in her underwear.
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originally posted: 11/23/06 23:26:48
last updated: 11/24/06 10:14:48