L13FC: Director Robert Altman

Welcome back to Cindy’s Lucky 13 Film Club. This month, John Charet is my featured co-host. We discovered we shared a mutual like and respect for Robert Altman’s techniques. Please share your stories and comments. Don’t forget to check out John’s site CINEMATICCOFFEE for his passion and knowledge of the cinema. 

My Favorite Robert Altman Films

JOHN SAYS:

As with a handful of other great filmmakers who defined the New Hollywood era (1965-1983), director Robert Altman (read here) is often celebrated for his unique approach to cinematic storytelling. Though much older (he was born in 1925) than some of his contemporaries (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg), one could swear that his 1970 breakthrough anti-war comedy MASH was the work of a 24-year old than that of a then 44-year old. Altman’s trademarks rested on more than just his irreverent sense of humor though (read here), but also stemmed from his use of improvisation and overlapping dialogue (read here and here). As with MASH, Altman combines these two traits together when it comes to deconstructing a beloved genre like the western with McCabe & Mrs. Miller or the Neo-noir with The Long Goodbye. Other times, we find these same qualities in ensemble pieces as varied as NashvilleA WeddingShortCuts and Gosford Park to name just four examples. Now without further ado, I present to Cindy’s readers my top 3 favorite Robert Alman films starting with number 3.

3.) Short Cuts (1993)
On paper, adapting nine Raymond Carver short stories into a 188-minute episodic film, not to mention relocating it’s setting of the Pacific Northwest to that of the Central Valley, looks like a hit-and-miss undertaking with more examples of the latter than the former. Amazingly enough, Altman executed it all on the screen without a scratch present. Not unlike 1975’s NashvilleShort Cuts is an epic ensemble piece set against the backdrop of another iconic American city (Los Angeles, California) while exploring the lives of its many different characters – 22 as opposed to the 24 of that earlier film. Here, Altman (along with Frank Barhydt, who co-wrote the screenplay with him) delivers a sprawling human comedy-drama that also works as an insightful panoramic view of everyday people and the situations they face. The results are both humorous and poignant.

2.) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Produced during an era when the Revisionist Western was at the peak of its popularity, McCabe & Mrs. Miller continues to stand out for me as quite possibly my personal favorite of the aforementioned sub-genre, which I count myself as a huge fan of. MASH might have introduced us viewers to director Robert Altman’s unconventional filmmaking style, but it is in McCabe & Mrs. Miller that Altman finds himself perfecting it. In its entirety, Altman sprinkles his trademark use of overlapping dialogue so effortlessly that it feels more like his tenth feature film after MASH rather than his second (Brewster McCloud was sandwiched in between). As others have implied, the plot may sound straightforward, but in execution, it is anything but. For example, Warren Beatty’s entrepreneur/gunslinger John McCabe debatably ranks stronger at the former than he does at the latter regardless of its climactic shootout. As a business partner, Julie Christie’s brothel madam Constance Miller completes him. Speaking of which, the chemistry between Beatty and Christie (the best of their three on-screen collaborations) is as playful as it is ultimately poignant. Vilmos Zsigmond’s distinctive cinematography and Leonard Cohen’s poetic music (three of his songs are played here) shapes the form and content of this authentic American masterpiece.

1.) Nashville (1975)
How does one sum up an essential American classic like Nashville? Well If you adore the film like I do, then the answer to that question is simple. For me, Nashville is like watching 3 films for the price of one. Each is as similar as they are different. On the one hand, it is a comedy that (explicitly and implicitly) satirizes the title city’s political culture, not to mention it’s country music scene. Simultaneously, it is a thought-provoking drama that critiques celebrity worship. On the side, it also comes off as an exuberant musical filled with expressive songs. Director Robert Altman’s trademark use of overlapping dialogue (here courtesy of Joan Tewkesbury) is at it’s most memorable here – one of the sequences takes place during the aftermath of multiple-vehicle collision and another at a pre-show house party. All in all, Nashville stands out as Altman’s crowning achievement. In case any, if you readers are interested in reading my full-length review of the film, click here

Cindy Says:

I appreciate Robert Altman now more than I ever have because he is a director whose filming style became a personal stamp of distinction. His love for the actor, that is, giving them free-reign of ownership of the scene, was atypical. Elliott Gould‘s talent for improvisation made him a favorite of Altman. In MASH, Gould recalls in an interview (read the full Jon Zelazny article HERE) “I read the script, which was by Ring Lardner, Jr., but I didn’t think much of it. As far as I’m concerned, MASH is Robert Altman’s vision. I remember when we showed the picture to Lardner at the studio, he came up to me afterward and said, “How could you do this to me? There’s not a single word in there that I wrote!” And he went on to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay!” In The Last Goodbye (1973), Elliot Gould maximizes his ability to insert character snippets of dialogue to create memorable lines that forge a character, like his repetitious, “It’s okay with me”. Robert Altman wanted his actors to show him something new. He believed the artistic power of a scene rested in the lap of the actor, not the director.

His incorporation of music and his obsession with sound using multi-tracks created an experience similar to watching a beehive. MASH (1970) is a perfect example of this. The expansive ensemble casts and his love of wide-angle shots included everyone and everything showcasing their lives and mini-dramas. The character Radar (Gary Burghoff) births a whole career out his ability to create a character who talks over his commanding officer. A simple trick for making the grunt superior to his superior. A technique for flip-flopping what’s expected and revealing the satiric theme of the film. The result is a chaotic perspective, occasionally voyeuristic, like when Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) spies on June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) outside her window while having a flirty conversation in The Player (1992).  In a Richard Altman film, the audience is positioned far and high enough away to catch the buzz of sounds and movements. It’s an unusual perspective.

My favorite Altman technique is the long take, his famous example is the seven-plus minute opening shot in The Player which pays homage to Orson Welles long take, opening shot from Touch of Evil (1958). Many of Altman’s films combine the long take with overlapping dialogue. You see it beautifully executed in The Player and my personal favorite Altman film, Gosford Park (2001). I am a sucker for plots that focus on the “upstairs, downstairs” dynamic. Altman pays homage to classic Hollywood with a British location and a large, star-studded ensemble cast that is a joy to watch. We follow the camera around the halls overhearing, snooping, participating in the whodunit mystery. The music is perfect with a Cary-Grant-type star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) at the piano serenading the scheming elite while the servants silently migrate the periphery of the room. The acting, the aesthetics, the constant movement of dialogue and tracking shots are Altman at his best. I believe Robert Altman blended art and marketability better than most. What was his recipe for success?

Griffin Mill: It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully.

June Gudmundsdottir: What elements?

Griffin Mill: Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.

Well, maybe the happy endings didn’t happen, but I noticed I’m always happy after watching a Robert Altman film.

THANKS AGAIN, JOHN CHARET for co-hosting today! Please, everyone, tell us what you think about the technique of the late-great Robert Altman. 

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Yesterday, Rocket Man, Bohemian Rhapsody

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Yesterday directed by Danny Boyle is all the movie poster promises — it’s a feel-good movie of the summer. If, you are a Beatles fan. If you aren’t bothered by the preposterous premise, and if you enjoy the direction of Danny Boyle. I can say “yes” to all my ifs, so I enjoyed the movie. It’s a nostalgic, love story paying homage to The Beatles and that was Danny Boyle’s intent. The strength of the film owes to the performance of Himesh Patel who is the boy-next-door nowhere man, Jack Malik, who suffers a twelve-second bicycle accident and wakes up as the only one on the planet who knows who the Beatles are. He becomes the rock n roll star by passing himself off as the originator of the Beatles music. Feeling guilty for living a lie, he wins the girl, straightens things out, and they live happily ever after. First, when the script focused on the music — remembering the lyrics, the reactions to them — the music uplifts and is still timeless after all these years. I loved the scene where current pop star Ed Sheeran takes on Jack Malik in a song-writing contest at a party. “The Long and Winding Road” wins, what a surprise, and it’s Patel’s clear voice and emotion that sells it. Also, Jack Malik’s viper, L.A. manager Deborah, was played to perfection by Kate McKinnon. Finally, while it made no sense, I couldn’t help but gasp at the end of the movie where Jack Malik goes to a lone seaside house and knocks on the door. What a shock when the door opens. It would be a spoiler, so I’ll refrain from describing the scene except by saying it made me wish the scene were true. The weakest part of the movie was the love story. Poor Lily James, who could be Keira Knightley’s little sister, who played the one-dimensional girl-next-door, Ellie. Boring and predictable. I wanted Mr. Boyle to get back to the music. Favorite scene? “We all live in the Yellow Submarine.” Yes, a world without the songs of the Beatles would be a sad world, indeed. 3.7 of 5.

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I went to see Rocketman knowing it was more musical than a biopic. It has to be said that Elton grips my emotional heartstrings more than Queen or the Beatles. I vividly remember walking along dusty roads feeling lonely and uncomfortable with being twelve, and there was “Bennie and the Jets” playing on the radio. It cheered me up. I grew up listening to Elton. His over-the-top costumes and the sex, drugs, and rock and roll seemed “normal” for me living through the seventies and eighties. Therefore, little surprise, I enjoyed Rocketman very much. Taron Egerton possessed the talent to convince me he was Elton John. Director Dexter Fletcher took an audacious story and executed Elton’s life with some magical realism that worked for me. I enjoyed many of the dance numbers set to his songs to match the stage of his life. Two brilliant scenes stand out: “Pinball Wizard” choreographed to match Elton’s out of control lifestyle. The second when he announces on his swimming pool diving board that he is committing suicide. In he goes and he’s floating at the bottom of his pool looking up and singing “Rocketman”. Abused little Reggie (Matthew Illesley) accompanies the adult Elton (Taron Egerton) throughout the movie. The two learn how to forgive and survive. Melodramatic? Overplayed with the emotionally vacant father and condescending mother? You bet. The interesting parts of Elton’s life are not his sexual forays but his brotherly relationship with Bernie Taupin played perfectly by Jamie Bell. I was interested in the story of collaboration the most. It’s a film I could watch again if only for the outrageous costumes and dance numbers. I haven’t seen anything this crazy and fun since The Who’s Tommy. 4.2/5.

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Bohemian Rhapsody was released in November 2018, and I was surprised how much it affected my high school students. They were obsessed with Freddie Mercury and fell in love with Queen. I thought it amusing when I casually mentioned how they were from “my” generation and when I shared personal accounts about their songs from a person “who was there” (Live Aid Concert, televised) I held their attention. Anyway, the only thing really worth mentioning about is the fantastic performance by Rami Malek, who most are aware won the major awards. I was happy to see he got all his accolades. 4/5. 

Which one of the three did you like the best? There seems to be a trend, yes? What British star will we hail tomorrow? David Bowie must be curious about walking through that nostalgic turnstile. 

Anticipated 2019 Indie Films

I was reading the December 2018 article by David Ehrlich, et al,  “The 20 Most Anticipated Movies of 2019” on Indie Wire to stimulate my curiosity for films I might like to see this year.

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Ad Astra. James Gray leaves the jungle in The Lost City of Z and offers a science fiction drama in space. Starring Brad Pitt, Ruth Negga, Tommy Lee Jones, and Donald Sutherland, it will be a challenge to create a realistic space epic about a son who travels through the solar system to find his father and why his mission to Neptune failed. I am hopeful. Release date: May 24. 

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The Irishman. Martin Scorsese explores the hitman Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran’s possible involvement in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. If you like mobster movies, I don’t know how one could not be interested, when considering the cast: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. Scorsese signs up with Netflix for total creative control and resources. The CGI de-aging of DeNiro has caused rumblings. I’m hoping the chemistry and a well-written script keeps me captivated. It should be seen on the big screen, so I hope it makes it to the theaters. Release date: “Sometime in late Autumn.”

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Jojo Rabbit. New Zealand director Taika Waititi (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok, Two Cars One Night) whose mother was a Russian Jew, creates an unusual tale about a young German boy who searches for his identity in a fascist regime by creating his own version of Hitler as an imaginary friend. In reality, his mother is hiding a Jew in the basement. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Thomasin McKenzie, who was amazing in Leave No Trace, it sounds like a quirky, dark satire. I hope Waititi’s sensitive side adds compassion and irony to a potentially thought-provoking story. Release date:  November 27. 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Is this Quentin Tarantino’s final film before he retires? Whether you love him or hate him, this film intrigues me. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s goal at creating the historical climate of Hollywood in the early seventies. Will it be enough? As with most Tarantino films, I find the plots dubious and rambling — a lot of borrowed style but little content. I hope the script he took five years to create has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Yes, of course, I would love to see Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio together on screen. So, too, Margot Robbie and Al Pacino. It also helps that the Manson murders are a backdrop and not the central plot point of the movie. That Sharon Tate’s sister approved of the script and that Tarantino had the class to ask her for her blessing, helps the cause. Release date: July 26.

What are some films you are looking forward to watching this year?

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