Thursday, February 08, 2007

More Jodorowsky, more Altman

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With these films, I'm at 13 Brattle films seen and 11 elsewhere, which means 37 "points" total (or 18.5, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

I could have seen more, but Saturday was the day Red Sox tickets go on sale, so it was time to spend the entire day either in line, on hold, or in the "Virtual Waiting Room". I opted for the latter and thus wound up spending the whole day watching computer monitors and doing laundry. I got tickets, but they were mostly pretty crappy seats. I did better than my brother Dan, though, who didn't get through until almost eight o'clock and then couldn't get anything but standing room - which I suppose isn't practical when you're looking to bring your little baby.

I wound up missing McCabe and Mrs. Miller because of it, which was a bummer. I tried to make up for it on Sunday by rushing from Smokin' Aces to the double feature of The Long Goodbye and California Split, and I think I felt pretty bad by the end. I know I got through the last purely via ice cream.

A final note: The Brattle got a pretty crappy print of The Long Goodbye. A real shame, because I would be getting into the movie only to have the picture go black and white (and really crappy-looking B&W at that), and a bunch in the audience were complaining about the end being cut off. I hate when that happens. 3 Women was a little beat up, too, but nothing like The Long Goodbye

The Holy Mountain

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Special Engagements) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I think I may be at a disadvantage in appreciating Alejandro Jodoworsky's film because I have never dabbled in illicit drugs. I am thus stuck trying to comprehend them with little frame of reference other than objective reality, which isn't going to get you very far. At least The Holy Mountain has the advantage of looking nice, which was more than could be said for El Topo.

The film opens with a thief (Horacio Salinas) being tied to a cross by a throng of naked prepubescent boys who throw stones at him. He soon makes it to a city, where he and his quadruple amputee sidekick are hired by street performers who re-enact the conquest of Mexico with toads and iguanas, after which a nun decides to make a plaster cast of him with which to make statues of Jesus.. It's no wonder he soon ascends the gigantic obelisk in the middle of the town, inside of which he finds The Alchemist (Jodoworsky) who helps him to see his potential and join him and a group of rich industrialists (each represented by a planet) on a journey to the holy mountain, where they will learn the secret of immortality from the wise men who live there.

This, you must understand, only begins to hint at the strange imagery and outright bizarre sequences that occur between the film's opening and closing credits. I would guess that something like a third of the movie, if not more, is spent introducing us to the powerful men and women who will go on the quest with the Thief and Alchemist, and I'd guess that only about half of these vignettes really work. Some are just strange for the sake of being strange, and there's nothing wrong with that; Jodorowsky is making Art, pop art though it may be, and I suspect that any emotional reaction to his work is considered a positive. That section in the middle spends some time going for shock value, but mostly thinking in terms of satire. Heavy-handed satire, to be sure, but something that broad tends to still be relevant thirty years later.

Read the rest at HBS.

Smokin' Aces

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2007 at Regal Fenway #13 (First-Run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

As soon as I saw the guy creating a rubber mask on the fly, I wondered how much of Smokin' Aces came from Joe Carnahan's aborted run at Mission: Impossible 3. Probably not a whole lot, but you might as well be thrifty. Waste not, want not, after all.

The film's main story is fairly silly, especially when it tries too hard to get into plot twists as opposed to sticking with its strength - an elegant set-up that allows Carnahan to throw a bunch of outsize characters at us and let action unfold within a known environment. Even though there are really too many characters, there's some excitement once the movie gets down to business about having them converge on the hotel and start leaving dead bodies in their wake. Once the action gets started, Carnahan really shows his stuff: The gunfights have enough bullets flying to remind you of John Woo and Chow-yun Fat, and the time spent establishing locations really pays off in terms of tension.

I have to admit, though, I snickered a bit during one gunfight when characters were being pelted with what may as well have been naval artillery from a hotel across the street. Once you've ascertained where the bullets were coming from, what's the point of returning fire with your pistols? Does a 9mm pistol even have the range to reach the target?

The Long Goodbye

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Altman in the 1970s) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

Even in 1973, Elliot Gould must have seemed an odd choice to play a private eye most famously portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. But that's sort of the point - Robert Altman's Los Angeles may be a different place than the city that was home to so many excellent film noir tales thirty years earlier, but some things are still the same, even if people go about things a bit differently.

There's something unsavory going on at the Malibu Colony, an expensive gated community: Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) makes a late exit, asking his old friend Philip Marlowe (Gould) to give him a ride to the border. He does, but when Marlowe gets back home, he learns that Lennox's wife has been murdered, and spends three days in jail for accessory after the fact. When the private investigator is released, he learns that Lennox is dead. But his business at the Malibu Colony isn't done - Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) hires him to help find her husband Roger (Sterling Hayden). This is easy enough, and it gives him an in to poke around the complex to find out who really killed Lennox's wife. Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) looks good for it - the gangster claims Lennox owes him money, and thinks Marlowe might know where it is.

Rather than film The Long Goodbye as a period piece, Altman opts to set it in then-present-day (1973) Los Angeles. Marlowe's neighbors are a bunch of blissed-out hippie girls who spend a lot of time topless, establishing exterior shots are more likely to show the freeway than a densely populated town, and everybody talks in movie references - Marlowe refers to calling Ronald Reagan, rather than just the governor, both to nail down the time frame and to point out how Hollywood has taken over.

Full review at HBS.

California Split

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Altman in the 1970s) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I imagine that gambling is like any other addiction, whether it be narcotics, alcohol, or anything else - it initially gives you a rush of excitement, making the rest of one's time seem boring, and in many cases it's not the addicting act itself that causes the addict's downfall - it's how it impinges upon his time and other resources. And yet, as it becomes a destructive activity, the pleasure drains out of it, so that an outsider wonders why people continue.

California Split starts with the excitement - Charlie Walters (Elliott Could) and Bill Denny (George Segal) meet when they share a table at a California poker parlor, then bump into each other later in a bar. It seems to be the first time Bill has found a kindred spirit who enjoys gambling as much as he does, and they spend the next few weeks gambling wherever they can - card games, the racetrack, making random bets in bars. As much fun as they're initially having, things aren't necessarily going well: They spend a night in jail, getting bailed out the call girls Charlie is staying with; Bill is separated from his wife, starting to miss work, and racking up debt; and one morning Charlie just disappears. Bill thinks he sees a way to get back even, though, with a high-stakes poker game in Reno.

Director Robert Altman and writer Joseph Walsh don't overload California Split with too much story or too many characters, and they're certainly not looking to make gambling glamorous in any way. The poker club where the film opens is crowded and despite its tidiness feels like a gambling sweatshop, discouraging any sort of socialization between the players and packing the tables in tight. The other gamblers don't have colorful nicknames like in Rounders and aren't admired celebrities; they're just other guys at the table or at the track. At best they're other addicts, but often enough they're just common thugs (and Bill and Charlie aren't necessarily exempted from that).

Full review at HBS.

3 Women

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Altman in the 1970s) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

It's a funny thing. Normally when someone says that it feels like someone made a movie up as he or she went along, it's because the end result feels disorganized, like random scenes shot with no idea how they connect. Then, there's things like 3 Women, which were shot without an ending and just a vague outline of the rest, but feel tight.

Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) takes a job at a rehabilitation center in California, having just moved there from Texas. The manager asks Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) to train her, and Pinky's immediately taken with the other girl, eventually moving in when Millie's roommate leaves. Millie talks constantly but the only one who listens is Pinky, though of course Millie doesn't appreciate it; she's too busy trying to try to find a boyfriend without having any real grasp on her desirability (or lack thereof). They live in an apartment complex owned by pregnant Willie and Edgar Hart (Janice Rule and Robert Fortier), who also own the bar they stop at on the way home. Things continue like that for weeks until a broken date leads Millie to do something which shakes Pinky's adoration, leaving things very different in the aftermath.

Three actresses are listed immediately after the title, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Pinky, Millie, and Willie are the title characters; certain individuals change enough over the course of the movie to potentially be counted twice. It's difficult to describe how this can happen without getting into spoiler territory; suffice it to say that Pinky and Millie, at least, are not quite the same people at the end of the film that they are at the start.

Full review at HBS.

Brewster McCloud

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Altman in the 1970s) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I suppose it's for the best that respected filmmakers get things like Brewster McCloud out of their system early. Robert Altman's career would feature no small amount of unusual projects and head-scratching decisions, and he'd rightly be celebrated as an independent voice making his kind of movie. But would he ever again, in three and a half more decades of making movies, give us a narrator who appears to changing into a bird while lecturing a class on the topic? I think not. Brewster is one of a kind in that respect.

Birds and flight are recurrent themes in Brewster McCloud. Rene Auberjonois's professor occasionally pops up to describe some bird whose behavior is relevant to the story going on. Their waste product appears on every one of the bodies that out of town detective Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) arrives in Houston to investigate. There's an avian theme to each of the rest and retirement homes that Abraham Wright (Stacy Keach) visits with his driver, the titular McCloud (Bud Cort). And, once that job ends badly, we see that Brewster, with the help of free-spirited Louise (Sally Kellerman), is trying to build himself a pair of wings in the Astrodome's fallout shelter.

Doran William Cannon's script is chock full of characters too eccentric to simply be called "quirky", and Altman seems to be having a great deal of fun throwing them together. An early sequence, in which McCloud drives Wright around town, collecting profits from his rest homes plays like a running gag that we join at precisely the right time - Cort and Keach have got their banter down pat, and Keach's scenery-chewing as the vulgar old man is just about to wear out its welcome. Michael Murphy feels like he's just stepped out of a TV cop show with his clipped, cool demeanor and impeccable clothes, and it's a completely different type of show than the one that the traffic officer assigned to assist him (John Schuck) and the no-nonsense captain (G Wood) would appear in. Shelley Duvall's tour guide Suzanne is weird from first sight, but she and McCloud work well together.

Full review at HBS.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Altman in the 1970s) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

Images is an unreliable-narrator movie, even though the narration is for another story entirely. It's a pretty good one, compelling the audience to watch in an attempt to figure out what's real and what's in the character's head. I suspect that unlike the jigsaw puzzle that features prominently in the story, there are more pieces than needed to get the full picture, but I'll take that over too few.

In real life, a stay in the country is probably just the thing for someone on the edge of a nervous breakdown more often than not, although it tends to have just the opposite effect on film (to be fair, someone who is hanging on by a thread is going to snap wherever a movie puts them, or else there's no movie). Cathryn (Susannah York) is probably already slightly over the edge when she convinces her husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) to take her out to the manse where she grew up, and it doesn't help - she finds herself visited by the ghost of Rene, a former lover dead a year in a plane crash (Marcel Bozzuffi); Marcel, a handsome friend of the couple (Hugh Millais); and his daughter Susannah, who has a disquieting similarity to Cathryn in both appearance and temperament (Cathryn Harrison). Fortunately, there are knives and rifles in the house that can be used to fight off these apparitions, although Cathryn's judgment probably shouldn't be trusted vis-a-vis which are actually hallucinations.

I just realized, upon looking up the actors' names, that each character has the name of one of the other cast members. Cute, considering one of the ways Cathryn exhibits being crazy is by actually seeing one character as another. Further blurring the line between madness and fiction and reality, Susannah York wrote the children's book attributed to her character.

Full review at HBS.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Altman in the 1970s) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

Not a bad little movie at all, as Altman does a quite frankly amazing job of juggling dozens of characters without marginalizing many. It's the template for this kind of a movie, and deserves to be considered a classic.

Still, the end... What the heck? It's one of the biggest "this movie doesn't end, it just stops" deals I've ever seen.

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