Sunday, 28 April 2013

Vincent and Theo (1990)


Let me explain. From my experience, Altman has always had the perfect view point of the kind of hazy, satirical, sprawling film few strive to create, and even fewer get right. Vincent and Theo is a completely different film from any Altman I have seen before. It is simply a suffocating, unwavering portrait of madness. And boredom. Good god, this movie is boring! But similarly to Andrei Rublev, the film is a visual treat, it just isn't very interesting. There are ten minute long scenes of Tim Roth painting in a field, then getting mad, and painting again. 

However, this is part of it's style. It seeps around the viewer, and then recedes as if nothing of much importance had occurred at all. There are moments of absolutely brilliant work. Some scenes jump out of the screen and look almost exactly like a painting. In a visual respect, it rivals the unadulterated beauty of Days of Heaven. In any other respect, it lacks. Perhaps I should explain a little. This movie is about Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo. And yes, at one point you get to see someone cut part of their ear off. 

What I said above is true, but there is another aspect to it. This film has two main noticeable strengths. The cinematography, and the performances. That is where the word suffocating comes into play. Both Tim Roth and Paul Rhys are terrific in the roles of Vincent and Theo van Gogh. The problem is, they are too good. They are so good, that they get really tiring after a while. Roth brings an untapped intensity to his role, and this kind of ferocious portrayal of a man with so many demons makes it hard to keep watching after a while. Rhys, is the exact opposite. He is incredibly introverted, yet he possess the same anger as Vincent. It comes out in bursts, before he comes back to his senses. 

Both Roth and Rhys help make the film into some more watchable. Perhaps I was not the right kind of person for this film. I don't love Van Gogh, and I don't care much for 140 minutes of painting. Yet I can most definitely appreciate all that the film has to offer. I love "Starry Night" as much as the next man, unless the next man is a 19th century art critic (Guffaw), but watching a tortured man paint is not my idea of fun. Although, if you like watching paint dry, this is the film for you. (No, literally. Paint. Drying.)

There is more than enough in this film to call it a masterpiece, but there is not enough to support such a claim. Eventually, this film collapses under the weight of it's own heft. We are left feeling not much, and this does not harm us as we did not care enough in the first place. In our review for Secret Honor, we compared Phillip Baker Hall to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. This film is trying to be There Will Be Blood, but it can't quite make it. It is most certainly not the fault of it's director, nor it's cast. It's kind of like that painting in the back of the museum. It's beautiful to look at, and you may even call it a masterpiece, but if you stare long enough you begin to notice it has cracks. And the more you stare, the bigger they get.

Now, when I think of it, the film is slowly settling into my mind. I am realizing, slowly, how I feel about it. And my feeling is this. It's gorgeous, but as thin as a sheet of paper. Both Roth and Rhys are the paint of the paper, and Altman is the painter. But even a master can't work when his canvas is bad. The problem is, this isn't a very interesting story. It just isn't. And Altman does nothing to liven it up. The lead actors are terrific, and in the supporting roles Johanna Ter Steege is terrific as Rhys's troubled wife and Wladamir Yordanoff as Paul Gauguin. Ter Steege, who was excellent in The Vanishing, gives a similarly troubled performance. She cares, perhaps too much, for her husband and he is part of her downfall. She is excellent. Yordanoff plays well against Roth, being the silent type as opposed to Van Gogh's troubled artist. Roth, who at one point gives us a much closer look into Van Gogh when he pins down Gauguin and kisses him passionately. Gauguin runs away from Vincent after this encounter and this marks the point when Roth begins to spiral downwards.

Also excellent is Jean-Pierre Cassal as the last doctor who visits van Gogh. He is overprotective with his daughter and his social facade thinly masks his inner self. These performances help give the film it's edge. Without them, the film would most certainly suffer. The script, written by Julian Fellows does nothing much in particular to give the film a special edge. He instead choose to remain obtuse and ponderous. He documents van Gogh's life, instead of inhabiting it. The brothers van Gogh are held at arms length. We never get close enough to form an opinion.

The score is really good, but it is not suited to this film at all. It sounds like the score to a horror film, or some kind of thriller. Not a movie about Van Gogh. This brings me to the film's major strong point: It's visuals. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Some shots take one's breath away, and you can just stare at them for a long time. I compared this film to Days of Heaven in such a respect (I love that film), but this is truly something special. It looks like a Van Gogh at points. The beauty of the outdoors contrasts the cramped, cold interiors. A field of flowers isn't the most obvious choice for madness, but here it works beautifully. If you are going to see this film, this would be your reason.

Finally, we arrive at Altman's direction. To speak plainly, he doesn't do much of it. And this makes the film boring, and gives it a reflective quality that  it would have lost through a more invigorating approach. However Altman's lax approach also makes the film drag; something that makes someone check their watch more than once. However, if you like Van Gogh, than this is a film for you. It feels at points like a Van Gogh painting. Perhaps next week I will wake up and realize that this film is amazing, but right now, it is good, but it isn't great.

Vincent and Theo,
Starring: Tim Roth, Paul Rhys and Johanna Ter Steege
Directed by Robert Altman
6.5/10 (C+)

1. 3 Women
10. Vincent and Theo
11. Streamers

16. Popeye

Secret Honor (1984)

One Man, One Room, One Overly-Extended Scene, One Great Performance

It is proof of brilliant film making when a director is able to sustain a film for ninety minutes, when everything that happens in it is a man talking. I cannot deny that at times Secret Honor feels as though it is dragging, but it always manages to lift up and take us out of our boredom. I cannot believe that this film only has one actor and one character. It is a completely innovative concept that is well executed. Just the fact that Secret Honor works is enough to congratulate it for.

The film’s plot is fairly basic. It is the story of Richard M. Nixon who has just resigned from his presidency. He proceeds to dictate the exploits of his life. This becomes increasingly dramatic as his alcohol supply slowly lowers.

At the very core of this film is the great portrayal of Richard Nixon by the very underrated Philip Baker Hall. If this performance had been at all “bad”, then the film would certainly suffer. Yet, Baker Hall is masterful in his acting as he manages to maintain an enigmatic amount of energy as his character runs around the room, screaming out curse words at the top of his lungs. I suppose the leading flaw in Baker Hall’s acting in this film, is most likely the fact that he is not particularly realistic in his performances. I don’t believe anyone would run around the room screaming at the walls like this character does, since this character has a need to express himself towards the audience. In reality, it goes without saying, that there is no audience when we are in privacy. But, perhaps that was the point. After all, this is a fictional accounting of the resignation of Richard Nixon, not what actually happened. Baker Hall’s brilliance as Richard Nixon is very much on the same level as Daniel Day Lewis’ brilliance with the character of Daniel Plainview. They share a similar capacity of exuberance and in the end of the film, they both seem to be in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

I cannot say I truly consider Secret Honor to be a great film because in the end, not even Altman knows what he’s going for. Unless he’s trying to same something about where power lands (which would make Secret Honor all too simple, and therefore very disappointing), I do not believe anyone can even begin to express the commentary which Altman intended for people to hear from his film. I have the same problem with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is a film I am very fond of. There is the simple concept of evolution which it is clear Kubrick was attempting to tackle, but what on Earth was the rest of the film actually supposed to say? 2001 is an incredible experience with the most dazzling cinematic scenes I have possibly ever seen, but in the end, I fail to comprehend what exactly it was that Kubrick wanted to say. In fact, I doubt that Kubrick even knew exactly what 2001 was really about. He knew if he made a lot of flashing lights and confusing sequences, people would bow down to him and accept him as the genius he was. But here’s how I see it: if a director doesn’t know what the film’s purpose is, or at least if they don’t have an idea of what the purpose is for them, it is not an example of genius symbolism and metaphorical value. That is what I feel Secret Honor suffers from as well.

Perhaps Altman wanted us to step into the shoes of one of America’s most hated men, Richard Nixon and begin to understand him. I’ve heard from other people that by the time the film was over, they were sympathizing with Nixon, and for that reason, they considered Secret Honor to be a masterpiece. When the film was over, I did not sympathize with Richard Nixon. I think that is the reason that separates me from being one of those people who consider it as one of the most underrated cinematic achievements of all time. I think the people who love the film are the people who understand what Nixon has gone through, and the people who just like it somewhat were annoyed by the character. I found that I was part of the group who were annoyed by Richard Nixon in the end. I wish I could begin to quite understand how Altman’s magic works so that he can change the opinion of a political topic for his audience. I wish I could step into the shoes of someone who this film works for, but I cannot. Therefore, I will never see it the same way as some other people manage to.

There are moments in Secret Honor when Nixon will shout out some bizarre phrase, and we can hear in the background the soundtrack of what seems to be a patriotic marching band. Such sounds continued to echo through the film as I watched it. This was a wasted effect that brought me nothing but aggravation. I fail to comprehend Altman’s intentions (once more) with the soundtrack. At first I thought it was a marching band - to symbolize the great American army, but later on the instruments changed and they contradicted such an idea. Secret Honor is filled with lots of bizarre little things in it that make you raise an eyebrow at Altman’s direction. Some people love it because it is bizarre, and others, such as myself, criticize it for it’s seeming randomness in connection with the rest of the film.

Again, I’m rating this film on my experience watching it. For the reason, Secret Honor is not the masterpiece many people consider it to be, but it certainly is a decent film. I intend to revisit it sometime down the road. I hope you give it a watching, so you can tell me what you think!

Secret Honor,
Directed by Robert Altman,
Starring: Philip Baker Hall

★★★ /★★★★★

1. 3 Women
8. The Company
9. Secret Honor
10. Streamers
15. Popeye

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Streamers (1983)

Slow And Very Un-Subtle, But To Some Degree, Streamers Works

I think Robert Altman’s goal with Streamers was to show a completely different side to the military; and in some way, he succeeded. These are not the Frank Sinatra “he-men” who we used to see in all of the old war films where the army was presented as some kind of heroism. Although this was not the first anti-Vietnam war film, it was the first one to depict the people in the war in such a way. He wanted present the fact that many of the soldier had no desire to be there, and that they were not the masculine heartless figures that they were presented as. But Altman does not focus on the action on the battlefield, he is much more preoccupied with the tension between the soldiers. One could easily make a point that the “tension” between characters is overly melodramatic and just an overt vehicle for Altman to make a film with a good message. Anyone who would have said that, would be very accurate with such a statement. But Altman did not care about that at all, he did not care about making a subtle film because his entire objective was to make a film where we can all see the struggles the soldiers were having among each other. You simply cannot show this kind of stuff in a subtle sort of film. I won’t just let the fact that Streamers is so melodramatic pass me by, but I think it does deserve some degree of forgiveness.

Streamers was one of the film that Altman did as play adaptations in the 1980s. The others were Fool For Live, Secret Honor and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. This film does film somewhat stagey, and for that, the effect of the film stays as staged as the film itself. The film stops working a little as it progresses and it seems as though the characters are being altered for the sake of the film. Think of it like this, all of these char
acters are in a small room completely sealed off from the great outdoors. At the beginning of the film, everything is perfectly fine - but in the end, they’re choking for oxygen.

The acting in Streamers is superb, and it is rather disappointing that none of the stars are big names. Although Mathew Modine is relatively well known, he is the only cast members with a bigger name. To start us off, he is quite good in the film as the leading character who it seems to me, Altman was able to identify with. You see, Roger Ebert once remarked they he always thought Robert Altman had a character in his films that resembled Altman. In Streamers, I think that character would happen to be the character Mathew Modine played, Billy. I don’t know if Altman had been in the midst of witnessing some form of racial prejudice but I think Billy represented a younger Robert Altman. Michael Wright and David Alan Grier were also quite good in this film. It was partially their acting that helped make Streamers feel like less a play and more like a film. They took it into a stage of realism that helped me forget how truly stagey it was.

Sadly, Altman doesn’t try anything knew with his camera and cinematography with this film. He uses a very dull and boring colour palette and your typical blend of Robert Altman camera shots (without his signature tracking shots, which I think would have helped Streamers).  Everything looks very dull (which could have been the effect Altman intended for, but somehow I doubt it). The reason I bring up such a subject is this: Streamers is a film. It needs a reason to be a film, and not stay a play. But Robert Altman gives it no reason for being a film, he just shoots it with the camera positioned in mid-shots and close-ups. The camera is the greatest tool a film could possibly have, and yet Altman neglected to use it for his benefit. His work with Streamers feels very amateur.

I consider what Streamers did, to be quite innovative. As much a
s I consider it, I cannot possibly begin to imagine how exactly Robert Altman was able to succeed to bring us into it’s setting. It feels distant in it’s message, but not in it’s realism of the characters. As I watch Streamers, I feel like I sit in the corner, in silence watching the events unfold. No, I am not interacting with the character, Streamers isn’t able to go to that level, but I am certainly sitting there with them. I can feel the heat of the tension igniting the room. That is what Altman attempted, and that is how Altman succeeded.

Directed by Robert Altman,
Starring: Mathew Modine, Michael Wright and David Alan Grier
★★★ /★★★★★

1. 3 Women

8. The Company
9. Streamers
14. Popeye

Friday, 26 April 2013

Popeye (1980)

Robert Altman Punches You In The Face (And It Hurts)

Robert Altman seems to have a serious hatred towards his audience in order to put us through this. I cannot stand this film, and I hope you never watch it. I personally would have never seen this if it weren’t for a little project called Cinema Stripped Down. I beg you not to watch this film. I didn’t know pain could be so... painful.

Popeye is the story of a sailor, named Popeye, who one day arrives in a large peninsula filled with tax laws. As he settles in, we learn Popeye has come here in search of his long lost father. Our sailor decides to stay in a small house as a lodger. It is here he meets Olive Oyl, a woman who is in the process of marrying Captain Bluto (who as Olive Oyl would say “he’s large”). After discovering a baby lying on the road, Popeye and Olive Oyl decide to raise this child together. Bluto does not approve of this, and after a very short battle with Popeye, Bluto is faced with defeat. After this fight, Popeye discovers a knack of his own. He has biceps of thunder, and he enjoys engaging other men with biceps of thunder in boxing matches. Just as we think this whole boxing thing will have something to do with the film, it takes a turn and they discover their baby, who they named Sweet Pee, is psychic. After the child is used to win horse races somebody abducts the baby. Can Popeye save the child before it is too late? All I know, is that I couldn’t possibly care less.

Where do I start to inform you how utterly awful Popeye is? Let me start here, at the worst part: Shelley Duvall. I was never a fan of the women - but never did I think it was possible to hate her half as much as I do know. I am one of the few people who completely hate The Shining, and the main aspect of my hatred from that film was Shelley Duvall’s terrible acting. However, she was fabulously casted in Robert Altman’s 1977 masterpiece, 3 Women. The main point in Popeye to hate Shelley Duvall, was her singing (here is the worst example of it). Her high pitched voice manages to to crack several times during each musical number. She honestly sounds like a chipmunk having a seizure. However, usually if I were to see a chipmunk close to death, I would spring to my feet in order to provide as much assistance as possible. Yet, for some reason I have no desire whatsoever to assist this chipmunk. Shelley Duvall plays Olive Oyl, the love interest of Popeye, and the character itself was written annoyingly enough - but she takes it to a brand new level. Perhaps it is her terrible voice, her scrunched up face, or perhaps it was Shelley Duvall’s aggravating and dull acting that put me through such pain and agony, but it certainly was the worst part of the film.

Time to mention the greatest part of the film. Robin Williams’ performance as Popeye certainly had it’s ups and downs, which resulted in it being very average. To start, I had to watch the film with subtitles in order to understand what he was saying. Her Popeye voice stayed true to the cartoons I believe, but I feel very poorly for anyone who would have seen this in theatres (it would have been the biggest waste of money imaginable, anyway), because I know that I would have no idea what he was saying. The main argument for why this is actually is a good film (trust me, it is not) is because the film resembles very much the actual comics and cartoons. But Robin Williams’ Popeye looks nothing like the way he was originally depicted. However, Williams was not all bad. I was very much amused by his vocal ability. Unlike Shelley Duvall, Robin Williams has a decent voice that suits the style of the film.

Has a film ever been as annoying as Popeye? I will have to seriously consider that question. Let me give you a sample of the utter stupidity of this film (I’m going to go ahead and “spoil” the ending. But I have such hatred towards this film that I want you to keep reading to understand what you are not missing). In the end of the film Olive Oyl is stuck in a small barrel as Bluto proceeds to cackle with evil and hysterical laughter while searching for a treasure chest. Suddenly Popeye, his father and Sweet Pee run in and Popeye seriously yells out these exact words: “Even though you're bigger than me, you can't win, 'cause you're bad, and the good always wins over the bad.” That is honestly one of the worst lines of dialogue I could ever imagine. Bluto and Popeye proceed to have the worst fight scene I’ve ever seen choreographed, and then Popeye’s father throws him a can of spinach and says “POPEYE! EAT YOUR SPINACH!”. Popeye disputes this, and Bluto says something along the lines of “So... you hate spinach then...?”. He then breaks into hysterical laughter while shaking the can down Popeye’s throat. Then a much more muscular Popeye jumps out of the water and swings his fist at Bluto - sending him flying into a upward direction. Maybe it is just me, but that sounds like the opposite of a really good film.

I cannot stand what Altman did stylistical with this film. It takes place in a massive city which seems to be a four year old trying to re-create the artistic style of Dr. Seus. Everything is shown in clashing colours - except it seems as if they have all been faded, and therefore this effect is a direct failure. If there’s one thing that I learned from this film, it is that there’s a new definition for failure: Robert Altman’s Popeye.

Directed by Robert Altman,
Starring: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall and Ray Walston
★½ /★★★★★

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Short Cuts (1993)

Robert Altman was, if anything, an actor's director. He just clicked with them, and through them he created magic. It seemed like the more actors he had, the more he could express himself. Films like Nashville and The Player thrived on their actors, and how Altman was able to convey his own feeling and ideas through them. In Short Cuts, however, it seemed like Altman was using actors for a higher purpose. He had a story this time around, instead more of a group of mini-stories, about many different people, woven onto the same canvas.

His actors here served more than just a blank slate. It almost felt as if they came prepackaged already in their characters, ready for Altman to just turn his camera on and videotape them. They meet and drift apart, as they all hold the one thing that binds them together within Altman's vision, the city of Los Angeles. Angeles seems to be perhaps the greatest character in this film, although it serves more like an extra, until the end, when it delivers a great performance. Which isn't to say the film is plotless, although the breezy feel makes it almost seem as if this is so. There's dead bodies, car accidents, jazz singers, news reporters, lonely fathers, uninterested husbands and disappointed wives, but there is no one person who can tie it all together, but I have a feeling that's exactly how Altman wanted it.

I cannot quite describe to you what this film feels like. I want to say it feels like Altman, but unless you've seen any of his films (you should), you will have no idea what I mean. This film may be perhaps the perfect example of Altman, indeed it is him at top notch. But that's because he had an amazing cast to back him up, and they all turn in amazing performances. I'll probably spend half of this review talking about them, so here goes nothing.

Andie MacDowall isn't a very good actress, but she has been excellent in two movies. These two are Sex, Lies and Videotape and Short Cuts. Her southern accent is a bit annoying at first, but as soon as her story settles, so does she. We really begin to feel for her and her husband when their son has an accident, and MacDowall is absolutely terrific playing a woman in a constant state of sorrow. Bruce Davison, playing her husband is also similarly excellent, torn between his job and his obligations and his family, accentuated when his estranged father shows up out of the blue.

His father is played by Jack Lemmon. I'm going to be honest, I love Jack Lemmon. He's my favourite actor, so I obviously held some anticipation for him. At the start, I didn't notice anything special, but then, out of the blue, Altman gives him a six minute monologue about how he cheated on his wife. At first, he seems incredibly self confident, but then he basically breaks down in front of our eyes. I was blown away, once again, by Lemmon's acting, and I was incredibly moved by the scene. I was sad to see him go, but there are much more great performances in here to.

Next, we move on to the vignette starring Julianne Moore and Matthew Modine. Modine is quite good in the film, but Moore is the better of the two. She is not afraid to expose us to her character's most basic (female) elements, and then use that very distraction to enhance her character. She also acts very well in it. Intersecting with this storyline is that of the Kane's played by Fred Ward and Anne Archer. There is something about Ward's face that has always intrigued me, and his character is very good, albeit a little odd. Archer is the better of the two and she delivers a great scene with Ward.

Next we have Robert Downey Jr. Lili Taylor, Chris Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh. This is one of my favourite sections, as all the actors inhabit their characters with an element of mystery (well, maybe not Downey Jr.), but Penn in particular has a really shocking end, that serves as the climax to the film, brutal in subject and execution. Leigh, as his phone sex worker wife also gives us a really ugly character, whose flaws become increasingly apparent the more the film goes on.

Moving on, we have Madeline Stowe and Tim Robbins playing bickering husband and wife. Robbins may give the most interesting performance in the film, certainly one of the best. He gives us the definition of a slimy husband, cheating, lying, stealing and then going home and expecting his wife to take it. He is absolutely brutal. Stowe plays another ugly character. She could be call a victim, but she knows exactly what her husband is doing, and she doesn't care. She appears to, on the surface, but it is revealed that she is just as evil as her husband, feeding on his darkness.

Now we have Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits. Waits and Tomlin are some of the least interesting characters, but they inhabit their roles with great zest and love. Both are good actors, but here they can't quite save eh blandness of their characters. Moving on, we find Peter Gallagher and Frances McDormand. They are kind of like the lighter version of Robbins and Stowe, one is obsessed with his divorced wife and the other is obsessed with other men. Their son lands somewhere in the middle, and he is used as a pawn in both of their games. Both are very entertaining, and do a great job in their roles.

Moving on again (I'm almost done), we have Lori Singer and Annie Ross. Ross plays a washed up old singer, and Singer plays her cello playing daughter. One is an extrovert, while the other is an introvert. They both inspire feelings of great pity, especially Ross during her last scene. She refuses to accept that her golden days are over, and rejects the only person who loves her. Their story is particularly sad and dark, one of the darkest of  all. Finally, we have Fred Ward's fishing buddies. Both Buck Henry and Lyle Lovett are good, and the light-hearted murder mystery is a nice contrast to the scenes from later on. Both actors are serviceable, but nothing to write home about.

There we go, I'm done talking about the actors. I'm going to move on now. The score is brilliantly jazzy, and doesn't intrude upon the story much, and serves as a nice supplement to what's going on. The cinematography is nothing special, but it is perfectly good at portraying what is going on. The screenplay is brilliant. I haven't read many of Carver's stories, but I am not sure whether he managed to overlap just the right amount, as in this film. Not all the characters have to connect, but just enough of them do to make this feel woven, and the final natural resolution ties all the stories up just as well as Magnolia, and trust me, if you are getting compared to that film, than you've gotta be good.

As I said earlier, it is really Los Angeles that provides the film that extra level of uniqueness. By the end you feel that this could only have happened in that city, and that no other place on earth could hold together such a mixed group of people. Does this film show everyone in L.A? No, but it feels like a snapshot, distinctly 90s and distinctly Los Angeles. But then again, Altman always had an eye for place. Whether it was the western town from McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or the ballet in The Company, Altman has always sunk into his surroundings and really made them feel as if they were a character to.

Many directors can showcase a city, but few can turn it into a central character. With Altman you feel like his films could have only happened in certain places. This is most definitely one of them. I guess that's as good a segue as I'll get, so on to Altman's direction! This is Altman at his best. You feel as if he is so confident in his abilities that he gives us an epic in the most intimate way possible. His relaxed, fluid direction helped him to create a world that only he could have orchestrated and conducted, and one that comes off as terrific.

Short Cuts may lack certain things, and it's length may be daunting, but for anyone who has any interest in Altman or Los Angeles whatsoever, I recommend you jump right in. And don't look back.

Short Cuts,
Starring: Julianne Moore, Tim Robbins and Andie McDowall,
Directed by Robert Altman,
7.5/10 (B+)

1. 3 Women
2. The Player
3. Nashville
4. Short Cuts
5. Brewster McCloud
6. Gosford Park
7. A Prairie Home Companion
8. The Company
9. Cookie's Fortune
10. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson11. Fool For Love
12. Dr. T and the Women

Friday, 5 April 2013

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is a film that sounds utterly stupid, looks utterly stupid and is utterly stupid. This is every single Robert Altman ensemble film we've ever seen - except, what makes Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson unique, is it takes all of the crap off these ensemble films Altman makes, and combines them into one film. It was hated upon original release, but over time it has become more respected over time.

This film was intended to be a repairing of George Roy Hill, the director of The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Paul Newman. As time passed, Roy Hill decided to drop out of the film, but Paul Newman liked the film - and so he stayed in. Altman was soon hired to fill Roy Hill's shoes, and that's how Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson came to be.

Where does Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson stand today? It's not a well known film, nor is it a beloved film. Critics have come to terms with it generally, but it is still not very well liked. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson holds a 6.1 on IMDb and a 83% on Rotten Tomatoes. I can assure you now... Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is certainly one to skip!

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is the story of the cowboy myth. Buffalo Bill is not the man everyone around him apparently seem to consider him to be. All of the stories of his bravery and heroism have been faked by a writer, Bill's producer and finally Bill's producer. As a giant Wild West showing to promote Buffalo Bill begins, an evil Indian named Sitting Bull comes to Buffalo Bill, with nothing by threats.

Sometimes, complete craziness can be great for the background of great comedies (take the three Monty Python films (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python's Meaning of Life and Monty Python's Life of Brian), but sometimes, sheer craziness can act as stupidity, and give in no way benefit your film (I Heart Huckabees, every Adam Sandler film with the exception of Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, and finally, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson). Filled with 500 character you could care less about, bizarre colours that make you want to close your eyes and finally, people acting strange in an excuse for jokes.

There is no good acting in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson. There are great actors, but they all give the worst performances of their careers (for the most part). Paul Newman is emotionless and dull. He is a great actor and if you want to see him in a great performance, see The Hustler. But in this film, he stands in front of the camera and speaks his dialogue  Burt Lancaster falls into exactly the same category of acting as Paul Newman. Harvey Keitel is completely unmemorable, I saw the film three or so days ago... and I can barely remember his role in the film. Finally, Geraldine Chaplin is a great actress, but what was she doing here? It's as though she's acting as some upper class  British woman... but saying the lines of a fairly trashy American. Overall, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson biggest weakness could very easily be the horrendous acting.

I put Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson into the DVD player, and in the end, I feel as though 123 minutes of my life had been wasted. All of the redeeming qualities are very minor aspects, where as the film is boring. We view several acts of the Wild West showings. If we wanted to see Altman direct musical numbers, for goodness sake - we'd watch Nashville.

Is Altman trying to show us something with this? Perhaps his attempt was to shatter the image of the modern cowboy and show the true nature of the Wild West, but I can't seem to find anything whatsoever. Altman's best films searched for meaning in life, but not only can I not find any meaning in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, but I have never heard anyone say they themselves have been able to find something in it.

The excessive array of colours used in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson are distracting, but if they had not been so pointlessly used in this film, they would have been impressive. We get to see a great orange-ish vintage tint in every scene that reminds us of every classic Technicolor western. However, there's actually a generally interesting usage of oranges and reds in the backgrounds especially during the musical numbers. But I would come right out and say Altman had no idea what he was to do with Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is a complete waste of your time. Don't watch it.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson,
Directed by Robert Altman,
Starring: Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster and Geraldine Chaplin
5/10 (D-)

1. 3 Women
2. The Player
3. Nashville
4. Brewster McCloud
5. Gosford Park
6. A Prairie Home Companion
7. The Company
8. Cookie's Fortune
9. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson
10. Fool For Love
11. Dr. T and the Women

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Company (2003)

Robert Altman was fresh off the success of his last film, Gosford Park. He wasn't particularly looking for a new movie, but he found one anyways. Neve Campbell, star of the slasher film Scream, approached Altman to direct the script of a ballet film she wrote with friend Barbara Turner. The script was about ballet, and initially Altman had no desire whatsoever to direct a ballet film. However, Campbell eventually persuaded him to. Both Malcolm McDowell and James Franco were eager to sign on once it was announced that Altman was to direct the film.

The film utilized many members of the Robert Joffrey Ballet in the dance sequences, and Campbell trained hard in order to get ready for the role. The film was shot uneventfully, and on release it did little business. Now, ten years later, the film is still generally unknown, despite the star power involved. It was a 6.1 on IMDb, and 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, evidently critics liked it more than audiences. Still, it was a pretty Altman-esqe film albeit in a more low-key way than most.

Ry is an aspiring dancer working at the Robert Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, run by the perfectionist artistic director Alberto Antonelli. She works nights as a club waitress, to pay the bills. One day, during rehearsals, she gets her chance to shine. She replaces another dancer with a shoulder sprain, and goes on to preform a terrific dance during a thunderstorm outdoors. He dance marks the beginning of her eventual ascension to fame within the company.

She has also recently suffered a breakup from her former dance partner, and this is when she meets Josh. Josh is an aspiring chef working at a classy restaurant in Chicago. They begin a slight romance, which soon blossoms into a great relationship. All the while, the company prepares for a new ballet.

If ever there was a film that defined Altman's style, it is most likely this film. Perhaps the best way to describe it, would be as a series of episodes. Time fades, and ballet's go, while Altman briefly captures images of the whole affair. The whole thing feels like a collection of snapshots, a quality reflected in the ballet's. They kind of act as placeholders, the glue that holds the film together. I do confess, however, that being largely ignorant of the world of ballet, I cannot comment intelligently on the ballet's themselves.

At the risk of sounding like an imbecile, I will say that I found the ballet to be very beautiful, if a bit odd. Campbell proves to be a more than adequate dancer, and her first dance in the rain is indeed beautiful. To be fair, she has a troupe of professional dancers to back her up, and they do well too. I have only seen a few ballet films, only Black Swan and The Red Shoes spring to mind. This seems like the most realistic display of ballet I've seen on film. The ballet's themselves do not feel surrealistic and overblown as in The Red Shoes, nor do they play second fiddle to the camera, as in Black Swan.

I love the way Altman shot the sequences, often from far away and with the backs of audience member's heads in the foreground. This kind of cinematography, really helped make it feel almost like you were part of the performance. Although the ballet itself is very nice and quite pretty, the part which I really enjoyed was what happened in between. Altman really integrates us in Ry's world. It feels like a fantasy world of sorts, a place where you can just fall back and relax. The El train that runs by Ry's apartment makes the whole thing look like a set, and this layers the film, giving it a fantastic edge.

Perhaps a better explanation for how I feel is the romance between Ry and Josh. In no time at all, they are living together like a married couple, and they seem to have suddenly become incredibly intimate together. This kind of fantasy romance, coupled with the film's episodic nature makes you wish that this world was real, but knowing that it is not is enough to make it seem trite. It however, does feel like one is submerging in a warm bath, sliding in until you are completely immersed.

Part of this are the performances by the main cast. I have not seen Neve Campbell in many things, but she fits the glove perfectly in this role. None of the roles require much acting, instead they serve as gateways to a kind of inner character that one sees only after a day or two after watching the film. Campbell, in this respect, is terrific. Her character serves as a kind of blank slate, onto which we can transpose our own feelings. I hope it does not sound as if I am saying that she is not good, for she is. Her character just seems to be the kind that you wish you knew.

Malcolm McDowall is the zealous artistic director of the company, and he is very different here from the other character I've seen him play (I speak of his astounding performance in A Clockwork Orange). I read one review that described him as pompous, but I found no such trait in his portrayal. Similar to Campbell, he serves as a kind of blank slate, and he is quite good in his role again. James Franco, who plays Josh, is a similarly open ended character (with the added bonus of the fact that he looks perpetually high), and he too serves as a good character.

Special mention must of course go to the set designer. The ballet sets are terrific, and as I mentioned above, I love Ry's home set. As well, the room in which the ballerina's practice is used in many scenes and feels incredibly realistic. The score is great in the ballet scenes, and it goes quite well with the terrific imagery and dances on stage. To her credit, Barbara Turner, who wrote the film, gives the film a great structure, which Altman capitalizes on. We are given fleeting snapshots of Ry's life, so we never get to involved, but we never get too bored either.

The cinematography is good, but during the ballet scenes it shines especially. It has a great immersive quality to these scenes, making it seem as if you are part of the audience. Otherwise, the camera mainly stays in the background, where we can absorb the film's events nonchalantly. Thus, we arrive at Altman's direction. At a glance, it appears almost as if he does nothing special with the film. But the more you look at it, the more you realize exactly how great his direction is.

He takes a film that is basically a series of episodes, and transforms it into a flowing, relaxed and confident motion picture. This works both ways, it shuts us out from the character's on the inside, but it allows us to transplant out own inner thoughts into them. To be fair, this is minor Altman, but it is still Altman. While far from perfect, The Company is a very effective "slice of life" kind of experience. Altman may have been on his last legs (this was his penultimate film), but you wouldn't know to look at it. It feels as alive as his great films from the 70s, albeit with a more mature tone, and yet above all it is one thing: A film by Robert Altman.

The Company,
Starring: Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowall and James Franco,
Directed by Robert Altman,
7/10 (B)

1. 3 Women
2. The Player
3. Nashville
4. Brewster McCloud
5. Gosford Park
6. A Prairie Home Companion
7. The Company
8. Cookie's Fortune
9. Fool For Love
10. Dr. T and the Women