Tag: Robert Altman

MOVIE REVIEW | Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)

In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “It has a message, it has things to say, and it never makes any bones about saying them openly and directly.”

Bill 1.jpg
“The difference between a white man and an injun in all situations is that an injun is red. And an injun is red for a very good reason. So we can tell us apart.”

For a long time, westerns always seemed to me like a genre for old men.  Sure, when you watch old sitcoms from the 50s, or even in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, young boys are always portrayed as being obsessed with cowboys.  But in my lifetime, westerns have always been watched by old blokes.  A baseless theory that none the less gets more validity as I get older and like them more and more.  As I increasingly seek westerns out, I generally only ever found further examples of the standard clichés that define the genre in its broadest terms.  But today, I stumbled across a real anti western, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson.

William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Paul Newman) was once a frontier conquering, buffalo killing, man of the range.  But when this movie picks up, he’s a cheap huckster, leading a cheesy troupe of performers in ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’.  A kind of arena show for late 19th century rubes, notorious names of the day, like Cody and Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) pimp out their once good names, and resort to performing re-enactments of recent cowboy versus Indian events. (more…)

MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #54. M*A*S*H (1970)

“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.


“How many nurses do we have on the base, sir?”

This countdown has made me re-watch movies I know for a fact I hate.  It’s given me a great excuse to re-watch movies I know I love.  It’s even made me change my opinion slightly on movies where I mistakenly thought I knew exactly how I felt.  It’s also forcing me to watch movies that I just don’t get.  It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s that I don’t understand why they’re considered classics.  And in a way, those movies are even more frustrating to watch than the ones I hate.  At least the ones I hate give me something to rant about.  But today was one of those ones I just don’t get, and with it fresh in my mind, I still just don’t get M*A*S*H.

It’s the Korean War and conscription means that even peace loving hippies and happy go lucky slackers populate the army.  Two arrive fresh from the States, to work as doctors in an army hospital just three miles from the front lines.  There’s slacker and womaniser Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), and good ol’ boy and womaniser, Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt).  They like to drink and joke and generally dick around in their off hours, but in the hospital, they’re true professionals. (more…)

MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #59. Nashville (1975)

“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.


“You look like a guy I was in the navy with. He wouldn’t bathe, so we had to pee in his bed to get him discharged.”

Robert Altman loved a rambling story.  The kind that is more like real life than a tidy movie structure.  Maybe things will build to a big payoff, maybe they won’t.  He’s more interested in the journey than the destination.  Robert Altman also loved a sprawling, ensemble cast.  Maybe their lives will intertwine, maybe they won’t.  But you can count on there being at least a few scenes where so many characters are talking over each other, you won’t be able to discern much of the actual dialogue.  He made a lot of these kinds of movies like M*A*S*H and Short Cuts, but none had more characters or less narrative, than Nashville.

It’s the week before an election in the titular city, and as a van plastered in placards for candidate Hal Phillip Walker makes its way around town, blaring his stump speech out of loud speakers, all sorts of musicians are experiencing the city in their own way.  There’s Havin Hamilton (Henry Gibson) the old guard conservative, wearing rhinestone covered suits while singing about being a proud patriot.  There’s Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), the white gospel singer and her husband, Delbert (Ned Beatty).

There’s country music sweetheart Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), recently returned to the public from some sort of accident.  There’s smouldering singer Tom Frank (Keith Caradine) and the other two members of his folk trio.  There’s a BBC documentary maker named Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), and just as many more people I haven’t named yet who could all be classed as main characters.

Apparently, every song we see and hear in Nashville is being performed live, by the actors, never lip synced.  And that makes a huge difference.  It even helps that some actors, mainly Tomlin and Gibson aren’t all that strong as singers.  Their shaky voices never made me question their legitimacy as singers in the world of the movie.  Instead, they made me believe them more.  I automatically filled in a back story in my head that they had succeeded despite their shortcomings, because their music was just that good.

Apparently, the screenplay by Altman and Joan Tewksbury was only used as a rough guide, with the actors adlibbing most of the actual dialogue.  And like the not so perfect singing voices, the not so perfect line readings work here as well.  Sometimes, characters repeat themselves awkwardly, or flub a line, or don’t really make perfect grammatical sense.  Without meticulously written monologues and speeches, every emotional exchange comes alive in such a genuine way.  Because they were genuine, I guess.

I’m breaking one of my major film watching rules by letting all of this behind the scenes, making of stuff effect my opinion of the movie.  Generally, I’m a big believer that the circumstances in making a movie, or a film maker’s intentions should have absolutely no bearing on how people judge the finished product.  What’s on the screen is all that matters.  Or at least, I usually think that’s the case.  But there’s something about Nashville, where picturing the making of it, made me enjoy every scene and every performance that little bit more.

Directed By – Robert Altman
Written By – Joan Tewkesbury

Best Picture (nominated, lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Best Director (Altman nominated, lost to Milos Forman for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Best Supporting Actress (Blakely nominated, lost to Lee Grant for Shampoo)
Best Supporting Actress (Tomlin nominated, lost to Lee Grant for Shampoo)
Best Original Song

MOVIE REVIEW | The Long Goodbye (1973)

Long Goodbye

“Let me tell you something else. It’s a minor crime, to kill your wife. The major crime is that he stole my money. Your friend stole my money, and the penalty for that is capital punishment.”

When Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice came out, a few movies kept popping up in reviews, The Big Lebowski, and two film adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s super sleuth, Philip Marlow, The Big Sleep and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.  Now, I was a teenager in the 90s, so I’ve seen The Big Lebowski.  A lot.  And a few years ago, I went through a Bogart phase, catching The Big Sleep.  But The Long Goodbye had until now passed me by.  And it’s one of those late discoveries that makes me angry that it’s taken me so long to catch up with it, while at the same time also being stoked to have had this awesome discovery be so fresh and new.

Philip Marlow (Elliot Gould) is a 40s noir gumshoe archetype, living in 70s LA.  When a friend (Jim Bouton as Terry Lennox ) asks him for a lift  south of the border, down Mexico way, Marlow is more than happy to help.  But once home, he’s immediately arrested.  It turns out that Terry’s wife is dead, Terry is the prime suspect, and Marlow is in the clink charged with conspiracy.  Once Terry is found dead of an apparent suicide, it should be back to normal for Marlow.  But he’s not convinced it’s as cut and dry as all that. (more…)

MOVIE REVIEW | Secret Honor (1984)

I have no idea where to start with Secret Honor, so I’ll start with the Wikipedia plot synopsis…
“A disgraced Richard Nixon is restlessly pacing in the study at his New Jersey home, in the late 1970s. Armed with a loaded revolver, a bottle of Scotch whisky and a running tape recorder, while surrounded by closed circuit television cameras, he spends the next 90 minutes recalling, with rage, suspicion, sadness and disappointment, his controversial life and career in a long monologue”.

Directed by Robert Altman, this is a little bit a departure from his higher profile movies like M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park and Short Cuts. A little bit of a departure in the way that those films all boasted ensemble casts of sometimes more than a dozen main characters, while Secret Honor has just one. That’s it. For the entire movie, there is only one single character on screen, Richard Nixon, played by Philip Baker Hall.

A disclaimer in the opening credits goes to great lengths to make sure you know what you’re about to watch is not a true story, or even based on fact. It is described as a “A Political Myth”, an imagining of what might have been going through Nixon’s head as he reflected back on his life and career.

Maybe I’m ignorant to the intricacies of Nixon’s life and political career, or maybe this move has simply lost a little something as the world moves further and further away from the years of its subject, but there were a few times when I had absolutely no idea what Nixon was talking / ranting about. I know the broad strokes of his rivalry with the Kennedy clan, I know the basic story of Watergate, I knew about the giant chip on his shoulder when it came to people he saw as rich and privileged. But a lot of his references, grievances and obsessions went right over my head. Again, I’m not sure if that’s because it all happened more than a decade before I was born and Nixon’s greatest hits have become lesser known pop culture general knowledge, or if I’m just stupid.

Philip Baker Hall is pretty fantastic. His growing manic mannerisms, fuelled by a perpetually refilled glass of scotch and escalating bitterness, are at different times sad, hilarious, frightening ad tragic. The only problem with Hall though, is that I think as long as I live, I’ll always see him as Lt. Bookman, the no bullshit library cop from Seinfeld who tracks down Jerry for a book he borrowed decades ago and never returned.

I think I can safely say that Secret Honor is like nothing else you’ve seen recently, if ever. A 90 minute monologue with one character and nothing to interact with but a tape recorder. I’m sure if you have even the slightest interest in Nixon, you would find this riveting. Even if you’ve never heard of him or just don’t care, Secret Honor is worth seeing just as a curiosity of film making.

Secret Honor
Directed By – Robert Altman
Written By – Donald Freed, Arnold M Stone

MOVIE REVIEW | California Split (1974)

Movies about gambling are rarely fun romps where someone knows when to stop after a big win, cash in their chips and live happily ever after.   Based on the hand full I’ve seen, Robert Altman movies are also rarely fun romps with happily ever after endings.   So when I decided to watch a gambling movie directed by Robert Altman, I was ready for darkness, but California Split delivers a kind of darkness I wasn’t expecting.

Opening in a weird poker hall like nothing I’ve ever seen in a movie before, Altman uses the venue to give the audience a quick lesson in such establishments and setup the world this movie is set in.  A room full of small time gamblers playing relatively low stakes poker, who are willing to physically fight over the meager pots being wagered.  George Segal is William Denny, a seemingly moderate gambler, quiet and unassuming.  Opposite him at a card table is Elliot Gould’s Charlie Waters, a loud mouthed, joke cracking, full blown degenerate gambler.

After forming an almost immediate bond, the two embark on a binge of gambling on cards, horses, boxing and whatever other contests they come across.  Through Gould, Segal meets a couple of broads and also falls deeper and deeper into gambling, until he’s seriously in debt to a local bookie.  He neglects his work and finally hocks almost all of his possessions to fund a trip to Reno.  This is where California Split really surprised me.  What happens in Reno and how Segal reacts to it, would have been a happy ending in any other movie.  But the way Altman treats it, the result is somehow tragic.

Segal and Gould are both great comic actors, and California Split exploits that more than once.  In fact, it’s the light, funny moments between these characters that makes the downers hit even harder.  Despite their many short comings, Segal and Gould are just so likeable and watchable, that you still really want William and Charlie to catch that big win they’re chasing for most of the movie.

Because this is a Robert Altman movie, you need to be prepared to have at least half a dozen people talking over each other at almost all times.  Sure, it ads to the reality and often helps enhance the hyper world they’re in and pressures they feel when money is on the line, but like all Altman movies, he can over do it at times.

Apart from the great performances of the two leads, the other upside to California Split is its pace.  This thing hits the ground running and never really lets up.  They live in a world where split second decision making can be the difference between fortune and failure, and Altman keeps everything moving at a speed to make that even more visceral.

California Split
Directed By – Robert Altman
Written By – Joseph Walsh