Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Body Double



Body Double (1984)
Starring Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry, Deborah Shelton

This film wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Vertigo and Rear Window. Once again, de Palma returns to his filmmaking mentor, Alfred Hitchcock to inform his own work. However, coming off of the stylistically redefining Scarface, Body Double feels like a Cinemax softcore porn with a creative cinematographer’s flourish lain over the top. For all the moviemaking love put into this film there’s just something off about it the whole time that taints it from living up to de Palma’s previous Hitchcock homages.

Jake is an actor working on a B-horror film, Vampire’s Kiss. He experiences a moment of claustrophobia during a scene in a coffin and the director tells him to take the week off. Jake arrives home to find his girlfriend in bed with another man and ends up homeless. Things are not going so well. He meets a fellow actor, Sam who needs a replacement for a house sitting gig in the Hollywood Hills. Jake happily takes the job and Sam lets him know about the woman across the street who nightly stands naked right in front of the large windows. Jake begins watching her obsessively and begins to realize she is in danger as a menacing figure stalks her. There are lots of twists and turns, but if you are an observant film goer you will probably figure out the picture’s twist early on.

What hurts the film about as equally as the lackluster script are the uncharismatic actors. Craig Wasson is so incredibly bland his performance comes across as comically bad. His interactions with Gregg Henry, who plays Sam, feel incredibly odd and unnatural, and this never comes across as intentional. Beyond Jake, there isn’t much acting going on in the film. All of the other characters, particularly female characters are flat props used simply to create peril and have violence rained down upon them.

The picture definitely feels like a film only the 1980s could have produced. It is full of excess and gratuitous sex that is put in the film merely to satisfy de Palma’s proclivities as well as to make Hollywood execs happy. Jake is eventually pulled into the harsh world of pornography to track down a woman that has a connection to the mystery he has become involved in. This gives de Palma the opportunity to shows lots of naked ladies (something he enjoys doing a little too much). At the end this will feel like de Palma’s cheapest film, a sidetrack back to Hitchcock country and a strange work to bridge the gap between Scarface and his later entrance into Hollywood big budget movies.

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Scarface



Scarface (1983)
Starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfieffer, Robert Loggia, F. Murray Abraham, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Certain films permeate the pop culture consciousness so deeply that you never have to see them to know them. I was 13 and watching an episode of The Simpsons where Homer ends up in possession of a large pile of sugar. He becomes power hungry as the episode progresses and at one point says. “First you get the sugar. Then you get the money. Then you get…the women.” At the time I found the line hilarious and filed it away as simply something those clever Simpsons writers came up with. Years later I would learn it was reference to Brian De Palma’s trend setting foray into big budget Hollywood movies.

Its 1980 and Fidel Castro has opened up Cuba temporarily to send away those unwilling to conform to his particular brand of Communism as well as a large number of convicts. One of these convicts is Antonio Montana, a small time thug. Very quickly Tony and his pal, Manny come into the employ of Miami druglord Frank Lopez. Tony proves himself a tenacious and ambitious figure and it comes as no surprise that any gangster that crosses his path is in danger of his life. Tony weds his rival’s woman, sets his sister up with beauty salon of her own, and establishes strong ties to a Columbian cocaine grower. However, this film is based on the style of a Greek tragedy, meaning for every rung Tony climbs on the ladder of power he has that hard of a fall waiting for him when it all goes bad.

It’s incredibly interesting watching Scarface in the context of twenty-seven years after its release. Stylistically it bleeds the 1980s. It’s separated by De Palma’s last film, Blow Out, by only three years but the distance between the films feels like a decade. While Blow Out owed much to the paranoiac anti-establishment pictures of the mid to late 1970s, Scarface is a trailblazing film, inventing its own style as it goes. This is an even bigger accomplishment after De Palma was basically tagged as “the new Hitchcock” and produced films that were highly derivative of classic cinema. The choices De Palma makes firmly entrench this picture in a very specific time and place, and there is no way it could ever be called “timeless”. Choices of music and cinematography here basically invent the 80s aesthetic. Everything is neon and harsh and brutal, and underneath it all driven by greed.

The screenplay was penned by a 36 year old Oliver Stone (pre-directorial debut) and reflects a lot of themes he would further explore in his own films. Greed is the driving force here, just as in Wall Street. While Stone hits his criticism of American capitalism right on the nose in that picture, the commentary is much more disguised in Scarface. Tony’s story is the immigrant story; he comes to our shores and works his way up the ladder to become a rich and powerful man. Yet, that classic immigrant story is soaked with corruption and acts of vile depravity. While this picture is very much surreal in how it deals with its characters, its themes lie in utter truth. It’s interesting to note that Tony’s story, while very apropos looking back at the Miami drug trade going on in the 1980s, was also reflective of the Hollywood system and Wall Street, where cocaine was a daily part of life.

It’s not a surprise that this picture was incredibly divisive. The main character is a man who is a danger not because he is a physical threat, but because he is frustratingly stubborn. The power of his personality was bound to turn off audiences expecting their title figure in a mainstream film to be a protagonist to root for. Not once did I find myself wanting Tony to succeed. Instead, I found a character to root for in Manny and Tony’s sister, Gina. For De Palma, this film changed everything. The days of Hitchcock-ian pastiche were coming to a close, and now he was a golden boy amongst the Hollywood studios. However, he has one last major nod to his beloved influence in the form of Body Double.

Director in Focus will be back in two week with Body Double. Next week, get ready for a birthday surprise!

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Blow Out



Blow Out (1981)
Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz

Alfred Hitchcock passed away in 1980 and with him ended De Palma’s rather blatant homage/ripoffs of his work. With Blow Out, De Palma attempted an American remake of Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blowup. The picture leans much more in the direction of the big Hollywood pictures De Palma would go on to make in the 1980s and 1990s, yet it also marks his move away from the psycho thriller. Here the murders going on are linked to political conspiracy, not a mentally disturbed individual working on their own, though the murderer is definitely mentally disturbed.

Set in Philadelphia during the 100th anniversary of the Liberty Bell’s last ringing, the film follows Jack (Travolta) a sound editor for B-horror/slash nudie pictures. Jack was once in the military and worked as a cop wiring informants to crack down on the mob. The end of his career came when one of the informants was caught and killed because Jack couldn’t get to him in time. One night as Jack is out at a local park recording some samples he sees and ends up recording the audio of a car accident. He rescues the girl inside, who is still alive, and finds the driver dead. Later, at the hospital he learns the driver was a presidential candidate and the police are very eager to make Jack and the girl, Sally (Allen) forget what they saw. Using the photos of a private eye, that happened to be at the park, and his own audio recordings, Jack makes his own film of the incident. What he discovers is that the car’s tire didn’t blow out as the police are claiming but that someone fired from the bushes and shot it out. However, there is a man (Lithgow) who has been hired to kill any and all witnesses to the incident.

The film is chock full of references to other pictures and while it is not one of de Palma’s best it still has those individual sequences that are amazingly put together. The opening of the film is a blatant reference to the popular slasher flicks of the time, in particular Halloween. One long take from the POV of a killer stalking a sorority is slowly zoomed out to reveal Jack and his employer working on the sound for their newest picture. The entire conspiracy set-up is a hodgepodge of real life historical assassination and plot elements from the mid-20th century. The film Jack puts together is a parallel to the Zapruder film. The car crash with the drowning girl inside a direct reference to Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. And the desperation of the powers that be to cover everything up is deeply linked to the still linger negative sentiments manifested by Watergate in the 1970s.

One of the best parts of the film is that de Palma keeps it simple. When dealing with political conspiracy it could be very easy for the story to spiral out of control as more twists and sinister figures are added. Instead we never really get the specifics of why this potential candidate was killed, we just keep focused on Jack and Sally and really only know as much as they do about what is going on. The cast is fairly small and its only Jack that we learn any real background about. The mysterious hired killer played by John Lithgow is given all the character development we need. His precision and adherence to duty hint at his past as a military man or a member of the CIA but we never need that spelled out to us. There’s no great speech at the end either where everything is spelled out to make sure the audience got it. De Palma seems to trust our intelligence that we picked up on the things he was saying.

While not my favorite of what I’ve seen so far, Blow Out is definitely one of the tightest, leanest pictures of De Palma’s. He delivers just enough of every element that it never sags in the middle. It’s definitely not something you haven’t seen before in terms of the plot but its those elements that have been retread presented by a master filmmaker. It’s also a perfect example of how to remake a film without copying it beat for beat. De Palma takes the almost wordless Blowup, where the murder is kept completely obscured and vague, and makes a truly American version that reflected the current mood towards the upper echelons of power at the time.

Wild Card Tuesday – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)



A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, dir. Wes Craven)
Starring Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Johnny Depp, Ronee Blakely

I remember the first time I ever heard about Freddy Krueger. I was 8 or 9 year old and sitting in my backyard in Smyrna where a neighbor kid was describing the R-rated horror films his parents had let him watch. Nothing stood out about Freddy that was too frightening to me, I do remember the description of the glove sounding creepy. Now it is twenty years later and I am finally seeing the film that was described to me all those years ago. So how does Wes Craven’s 1980s horror classic stack up?

It takes barely any time for us to jump right into the thick of the plot. Nancy and her friends, Tina, Glen, and Rod are all suffering from nightmares about the same evil figure. He’s a man with a burnt face, in a fedora and striped sweater who wears a glove with blades on each finger. All four spend the night at Tina’s house and their slumber is interrupted by Tina’s brutal disemboweling by an invisible force. Tina’s thug boyfriend Rod is the only suspect and ends up in jail. But Nancy thinks otherwise and has her own face to face encounter with the man who calls himself Freddy. Nancy chooses to forgo sleep as she searches for answers about why this man has targeted her and her friends. But how long can she go without giving in to her exhaustion?

One of the things I noticed right away was how muted Freddy was. I was so used to the personality later films had developed of him as a wisecracking murderer that it was off putting to see him only have a few pieces of dialogue in the picture. Craven also chooses to keep Krueger’s face in the shadows most of the time and the make up effects are fairly simply, just a face damaged by fire and turned to scar tissue. I could also see the novelty of how Freddy kills. Figures like Jason and Michael Meyers are fairly one note. They stalk you and stab you. The added twist that you are in danger in your dreams does come across as a greater threat. There’s no authorities to go to that can save you in this instance.

Overall, the film doesn’t feel very frightening. I think having so many of its scenes used in specials detailing iconic horror and the Freddy Krueger character having been milked for all of its worth harms the ability of the film to still be affecting. I really liked Heather Langenkamp as Nancy, she felt like a real teenage girl who wasn’t a huge breasted pin up. The normality of Nancy definitely made her a much more sympathetic character than your typical horror scream queen. The acting was weak for the most part but the film is based on the premise that you will see gruesome kills, not great performances.

I was left with the desire to go back in time and see this film in the theater with an audience who was unaware of what they were getting. I have a feeling it would have been extremely fun. Now horror has become so clich├ęd and trite that its hard to have that jump in your seat experience anymore. Hoping the remake of Nightmare can find some way to reintroduce Freddy and give us surprises rather than a retread.

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Dressed to Kill



Dressed to Kill (1980)
Starring Angie Dickinson, Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, Keith Gordon

I have said it many times about de Palma already, but the man was obsessed with emulating Hitchcock. Here in his blatant nod to Psycho, we have a film that stays above water simply because of its stylistic flourishes. While much more entertaining and better at keeping my attention than Obsession, it lacks some of the depth of a picture like Sisters or Carrie. And there are moments that trend uncomfortably into homophobic territory as well as scenes that could be interpreted as heavily misogynistic. While I don’t think De Palma hates women (they feature heavily in all the features I’ve seen so far), I do think is highly attuned to the traditional portrayal of women in cinema as constant victims.

The film opens with a heavily “porn-y” shower scene featuring Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller. The heavily erotic scene ends up being a dream sequence and we learn Kate is a housewife who frequents the office of Dr. Robert Elliott (Caine), a psychiatrist attempting to help her through her psycho-sexual hang ups. After a visit which ends in Kate attempting to seduce Elliott, she travels to a local museum where she and a stranger flirt and end up in bed together. It’s at his point a catalytic murder occurs that brings a high priced call girl (Allen) and Kate’s son (Gordon) into the film. At the same time, Elliott is receiving threatening phone calls from a transsexual patient who is threatening to murder. All of these elements intertwine into a very over the top psycho thriller.

While there is a lot lacking in the structure of the film’s story, it can never be said that De Palma is incapable of filming a tightly crafted scene. The pursuit and withdraw flirtation scene in the art museum is a perfect example of how the director can create a scene without a single line of dialogue that tells the a complete story. The scene continues into a discovery Kate makes that sends her running from her lover’s apartment and once again contains zero dialogue. The movie is filmed through a sensual haze and has some moments that stand out from others, such a scene late in the film that takes place in a mental asylum. The lighting is a schizophrenic blue that seems to accentuate the twisted nature of what takes place there.

Yet, the film is more a style over substance endeavor. Nancy Allen lacks the skill to make her role sympathetic or interesting. Her line delivery can be truly excruciating at times. But she was sleeping with the director (they were married) at the time so how she got the role was by default. Michael Caine keeps things stoic and nonreactive throughout the film and because that is part of the character its hard to say if this was a poor performance or not. Angie Dickinson is definitely the standout in the picture, and her role consists of very little dialogue. She is a picture of class and is able to provide the perfect amount of information without speaking a word.

Dressed to Kill was certainly entertaining and is viewed best as a campy thriller in the vein of Hitchcock. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if most people guess the film’s twist fairly early on. The story is fairly transparent and de Palma does cheat a little in an effort to cover it up.

Next up: Blow Out

Hypothetical Film Festival #12 – 80s Comedies for Grown-Ups

A major part of 1980s cinema were high school comedies. From Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Ferris Bueller, teens were a prominent element of the successful comedy films. However, there are a lot of comedies, often overlooked, from the 1980s that stand as some of the best ever made. This film festival is devoted those movies:



All of Me (1984, dir. Carl Reiner)
Starring Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Victoria Tennant

Roger Cobb (Martin) is a successful lawyer who is called in to help with the final arrangements of the eccentric, dying heiress Edwina (Tomlin). Through a mystic mix-up Edwina’s dying soul ends up taking over the right side of Roger’s body. The rest of the film hinges on Martin’s excellent physical comedy chops. While Tomlin provides the voice in Roger’s head, there are moments where Martin must switch back and forth between Edwina and Roger in an argument, and then have them physically fight. All of this takes place with just Martin on screen. It was also the fourth teaming of Martin and director Carl Reiner, and the two work wonderfully together.



Lost in America (1985, dir. Albert Brooks)
Starring Albert Brooks, Julie Hagerty

In my opinion, one of the best comedies ever made! Brooks doesn’t always succeed with his very specific style of humor, but all the elements come together here. David Howard (Brooks) has crunched the numbers and found that he and his wife Linda (Hagerty) can quit their jobs, buy an RV, and travel the country, with plenty of money to start them up where ever they decide to settle. However, one night in a casino and things go downhill. Brooks is absolutely hysterical in this film, but Hagerty matches him as well. Julie Hagerty has always been one of the most overlooked female comedy talents and this film showcases why is right up there at the top.



Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987, dir. John Hughes)
Starring Steve Martin, John Candy

John Hughes, most well known for his high school comedies, employed the talents of John Candy in many of his late 80s films. This picture, set around Thanksgiving, follows Neal Page (Martin) and Del Griffith (Candy) as two business whose fates become entangled as they try to make their way home for the holiday. The conceptual nature of the humor isn’t revolutionary, its basically the Odd Couple formula, but its the chops of its leads that make it good. This is also the first film I can recall where we are introduced to the curmudgeonly Martin persona. Typically he played the goofball, but here we get the easily irritated character to play off of Candy’s happy go lucky everyman.



Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988, dir. Frank Oz)
Starring Michael Caine, Steve Martin, Glenne Headly

Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) is a con man who has full control of his territory, the French Riviera. That is until brash and crude American Freddie Benson (Martin) shows up in town. At first, Lawrence tries to scare him out of town, then volunteers to teach him what he knows. They partner for awhile till an incredibly wealthy mark hits the scene and then its every man for himself. Martin definitely gets the bigger comedy bits in the film, but don’t underestimate Caine. He is forced to be more subtle, but delivers huge laughs of his own. Frank Oz, is a director with major ups and downs in his career but this is definitely the high point of all his work. The comedy feels classy, yet not pretentious. And I’ve always been surprised that no one thought to team Caine and Martin together in at least one more picture after this.



A Fish Called Wanda (1988, dir. Charles Crichton)
Starring John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin

The greatest thing this film did was was introduce us to the comedy power of Kevin Kline. Kline plays Otto, a parody of American arrogance who is helping mob moll Wanda (Curtis) plot against her criminal boyfriend, abscond with the cash he stole, and flee the UK. Her boyfriend’s attorney, Archie Leach (Cleese) proves to be a nuisance and she attempts to seduce him. There’s also Michael Palin as chronic stutterer Ken Pile, a man who loves his exotic fish more than life itself. All of these characters mingle in a film that reaches the thresholds of great farce. The script was penned by Cleese and works on the same level of intelligence as Monty Python, yet grounds itself in a real world that is slightly off. The highlight is Kline though, who typifies the way Americans come off to their British cousins.

Hypothetical Film Festival #11 – Ernest Saves the Film Festival

Yes, it’s a film festival dedicated to one of the greatest thespians of the late 20th century: Mr. Jim Varney aka Ernest P. Worrell. KnowhutImean?



Ernest Goes to Camp (1987, dir. John R. Cherry III)
Starring Jim Varney, John Vernon, Iron Eyes Cody, Gailard Sartain

The Ernest character got his start as a pitchman for various local businesses in the Middle Tennessee and Kentucky areas. Eventually there were a series of straight to video skit compilation films that made way for this first theatrical endeavor. Ernest is a camp handyman, who wants to be a counselor. He gets his chance with a group of juvenile delinquents which leads to a series of slapstick sight gags. Meanwhile, an evil mining corporation wants to buy and shut down the camp to get to a rich vein of the fictional petrocite underneath it. Ernest rallies the juvies together for a big showdown with the corporate head, where our hero displays the Native American combat skills he learned along the way. A great start to the Ernest franchise.



Ernest Saves Christmas (1988, dir. John R. Cherry III)
Starring Jim Varney, Gailard Sartain, Billy Byrge, Douglas Seale, Oliver Clark

Arguably the high point of the entire Ernest franchise. In the same way The Godfather, Part II outshines its predecessor, so too does the first Ernest sequel trump the original. A jack of all trades, Ernest is now a cabbie working in Orlando, Florida who happens to pick up an old man from the airport claiming to be Santa Claus. It appears Santa is in town to name local children’s television host Joe Curruthers as his replacement. Joe of course doesn’t believe and is duped into starring in a Xmas themed film which betrays his ethics as a role model for children. The film actually has a very interesting meta-commentary on what Hollywood producers try to do to children’s films like this one, by interjecting foul language or gory violence to appeal to older audiences. The one thing about the Ernest films is they never sold out on their trademark live action Looney Toons feel.



Ernest Goes To Jail (1990, dir. John R. Cherry III)
Starring Jim Varney, Gailard Sartain, Billy Byrge

This is my personal favorite out of all the Ernest films. Here our protagonist works as a bank janitor who is a double for death row inmate Felix Nash (also played by Varney). Ernest ends up in prison with Nash on the outside with plans to rob the bank. Two things makes this film phenomenal: Gailard Sartain and Billy Byrge as Chuck and Bobby, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Ernest’s doofy Hamlet, and Ernest gaining magnetic superpowers during the jailbreak sequence. The Ernest franchise amped up the similarities to Pee Wee Herman in this film as well, with Ernest owning a home filled with Rube Goldberg-like devices.



Ernest Scared Stupid (1991, dir. John R. Cherry III)
Starring Jim Varney, Eartha Kitt, Billy Byrge

Meant to be a Halloween companion piece, Scared Stupid was shot in the Nashville, Tennessee like all the previous films (except for Saves Christmas). Ernest is a garbageman tasked with cleaning up the land owned by a strange old woman. Through a series of mishaps, Ernest releases a group of trolls that have cursed the land and finds out the old lady is a sorceress. The film’s plot gets a lot more complicated than it deserves to be and makes it one of the weaker entries in the Greater Ernest Oeuvre. It is also hurt by the absence of Gailard Sartain as Chuck, yet keeps Bobby and gives him a new partner. They needn’t have bothered. The series goes downhill from here…



Slam Dunk Ernest (1995, dir. John R. Cherry III)
Starring Jim Varney, Kareem Abdul Jabbar

Two films were released before this one (Rides Again, Goes To School) and they were lackluster. This picture isn’t great compared to the first few films but was one of the last highlights in a dying franchise. Ernest is laundry worker, employed by the Charlotte Hornets, who dreams of becoming a pro-basketball player. He’s visited by an angel (Jabbar) who gives him magic shoes that make Ernest a phenom. Of course Ernest dominates with the shoes, realizes the importance of teamwork and ends up scoring without the magic shoes. Hoorah! This was to be followed by the woefully racist Ernest Goes to Africa and the final Ernest in the Army.

DocuMondays – The Nomi Song



The Nomi Song (2004, dir. Andrew Horn)

In 1963, author Walter Tevis wrote the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and 13 years later David Bowie starred in the film adaptation. Little did anyone realize that the premise of the story: an alien being appears out of nowhere and goes on to achieve fame before dying prematurely was to be copied by a fellow Earthling who would lose his identity in the alien persona. Nomi’s story was much like the operas he loved, very beautiful at its heights, but destined to end in tragedy.

Born Klaus Sperber in Bavaria in 1944, the film really only focuses on his days in New York City in the late 1970s when his career as a New Wave artist occurred and ultimately ended in death. There is wonderful archival footage provided, albeit very low quality, but have footage of performances in the East Village at its cultural height is a treat. The Nomi persona came from the mind of Klaus who combined elements of his native German cabaret, classical opera, Japanese kabuki makeup, and retro 50s futurism. This melange of concepts worked together perfectly, and his set lists would consist of 1930s pop songs, 1960s pop, and his own otherworldly inspired tunes. But what truly made him such a unique act was the mastery of his voice, singing in both a tenor and counter-tenor/falsetto.

The man behind the cleverly designed persona was a conflicting mix and seemed to become much colder and distant as he became more popular. Nomi possessed an androgyny that one interviewee describes as more than sexual, but a removal from normal human emotion. He truly behaved like the alien or robot he pretended to be. There are candid moments caught on film when that fades away. On particular scene involves his appearance in a local access music show in NYC where, instead of singing, he showed off his second talent, making cakes and pies. There are also stories from his back up band and friends of how he hungered for fame, at his heart he wanted to be an opera diva.

Nomi also hungered for companionship, but even his persona was viewed as outsider one to the gay community in the late 1970s. They loved what he did but it seemed that his alien nature made it hard for any man to find him sexually attractive. Friends report in the documentary about his proclivity to go “cruising” and they warned him about the potential for disease by doing this. In the early 1980s, after beginning to compromise his work to be able to put out a marketable album, Nomi discovered strange lesions on his arm and was taking an increasing amount of antibiotics to stay healthy. He was eventually diagnosed with what was called at the time “gay cancer”, more commonly known as AIDs. His final months were sad, as he had turned his back on bandmates earlier and sought out any one who would show him compassion.

While the documentary does an excellent job of telling the story of Nomi’s musical career. However, I found myself wanting to know more about Klaus Sperber and how this young man from Germany developed this psychological mindset. What was the appeal of the idea of retreating into the alien persona? It seems that a lack of companionship fueled but how did it begin. This is an excellent documentary and can be viewed for free on Hulu.

The Nomi Song (Hulu)

Robert Altman: Chorus of Voices Part Three

1980s, 1990 – 1992


Popeye (1980)

Starring Robin Williams, Shelly Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley
This film is a perfect example of what happened when Altman was tapped to do a studio project. At the end of the day, Altman got the movie he wanted and the studio lost. It was his bullheadedness that made such a thing possible. The studio wanted a film based on the Popeye cartoons, with Popeye wolfing down spinach mixed with Hollywood style musicals. Altman said no and based the film on the original Popeye comic strip where the character was born. The original Popeye had no taste for spinach and the series of populated with all sorts of odd characters. Altman agreed to make it musical but hired singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, famous for his incredibly quirky music and infamous for his alcoholism. Altman also had a crew build the city of Sweethaven over the course of seven months and both cast and crew actually lived in the set where the film was made. Popeye was met with a terrible reception; most critics and most audiences hated it. Even though I am a big Altman fan, I understand why they hated it. Altman doesn’t like following traditionally narratives and character arcs and if that’s what you expect when you go to see a film it can be frustrating. Needless to say, Altman never really did a studio developed picture like this again.


Secret Honor (1984)

Starring Phillip Baker Hall
In a major depature, Altman sold his studio, Lion’s Gate and became a film professor at the University of Michigan. It was only a short tenure, but while he was there he and his class filmed what is basically a one-man play about Richard Nixon. The setting of the film is contemporary (1980s) with Nixon in his home office late a night recording his memoirs. Playing into stories of his paranoia, he has a display of closed circuit monitors in front of him, helping keep an eye on his home. The film consists of Nixon rambling on about events in his presidency, his contempt of JFK; Kissinger; and Eisenhower, and about the vast conspiracy at work against him. As Nixon drinks and rambles, his monologues trail off into the mutterings of a mad man. This madness is the focal point of the film, with the cinematography and score accentuating it. While not remembered as a major achievement in Altman’s career, it is one of the most unique of his films.


Vincent & Theo (1990)

Starring Tim Roth, Paul Rhys
Altman came out of a lull in the 1980s swinging. The 1990s became his renaissance which would lead to finally get major recognition from his peers in the 2000s. It began here with a biopic of the painter Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo. Theo was an art dealer who encouraged Vincent’s madness somewhat because he saw the great work it produced. The film focuses mostly on Theo and his guilt at living a life of such wealth and prominence in the community while his brother falls further into dementia. Their family has a history of mental illness and as the brother’s parallel lives continue, Theo begins to show signs himself. There are few films that capture painting better than this one. The modernist score highlights the dissonance in Vincent’s mind as he’s effected by medicines and failed relationships. The final sequences of the film almost raise into the horror category.


The Player (1992)

Starring Tim Robbins, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Stockwell, Sydney Pollack, Lyle Lovett
Altman returned to prominence with this film which skewers the self-involved and self-interested motivation of Hollywood executives. Based on the novel by Michael Tolkin, follows producer Griffin Mill (Robbins) finds his job deciding which scripts get made into films threatened when a young hot shot 20th Century Fox exec (Gallagher) shows up. At the same time, Mill is receiving threatening postcards and learns they are from a screenwriter whose work he has rejected. Mill and the screenwriter meet up, a scuffle ensues, and Mill accidentally kills the man. From there things go downhill, with starstruck detectives visiting the lot and Mill’s girlfriend becoming increasingly suspicious about what he’s been up to. The Player is definitely a dark comedy and afforded Altman the opportunity to poke fun at a lot of the absurdity he encountered in the studio world. The opening sequence is a 8 minute, one take shot of the camera following one pair of execs then switching to another as they discuss scripts, all of which are real and include a sequel to Casablanca. The film also includes over 60 cameos of actors and actresses as themselves.
Next: 1993 – 2006

Film 2010 #32 – Ragtime


Ragtime (1981, dir. Milos Forman)

Starring Elizabeth McGovern, Mary Steenburgen, Brad Dourif, James Cagney, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer, Moses Gunn, Debbie Allen, Donald O’Conner, Howard Rollins Jr.
I first became familiar with the story of Ragtime from the 1996 Broadway musical, script written by the talented Terrence McNally and based on the novel by E.L. Doctrow. The story (in all mediums) is an attempt to create a slice of life in America right before World War I broke out. Milos Forman was an interesting choice to helm this project; he doesn’t really take on historical epics, instead when he does period pieces he chooses to focus on specific individuals and analyze them down to the grain. In Ragtime, we get broad painted strokes that only give us glimpses.
The interwoven plots contain a mix of fictional characters given vague names like Father, Mother, Younger Brother and historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and Evelyn Nesbit (the focal point of what was called the Scandal of the Century at the time). The novel and musical version contain even more historical figures including Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Admiral Peary, and Emma Goldman, but I assume they were cut for the sake of time.
In the core plot of the film an upper middle class family in New Rochelle, New York discovers an African-American infant crying in their garden. The police bring a young woman to their house who admits the child is hers and that the father abandoned them. Mother decides to take Sarah, the girl into their home against the wishes of Father. Eventually, piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. arrives on their doorstep revealed to be the father of the child and stating that now that he has a job he is willing to ready to provide for his family. However, tragedy occurs that sets the characters down a path where they witness a change in the entire world. Alongside this plot, Mother’s Younger Brother falls in love with former dance hall girl Evelyn Nesbit and is played for a fool. There’s also Tateh, a Jewish immigrant talented in making silhouettes who eventually makes it big as an early silent filmmaker.
The film presents the world of New York in 1917 with amazing accuracy. Clothing and vehicles and set dressing are spot on and anachronisms are non-existent. However, the broad nature of the film left me feeling indifferent about every character on screen. Every thing feels like it is played towards cliche rather than reality. Part of me feels that uber-producer Dino de Laurentiis played a part in the films broad, flat nature. It’s an interesting film, most notable for the costume design and art direction, but definitely a weaker entry into Milos Forman’s work.