(On Cable TV, July 2019) No matter how much you know (or think you know) about movies, there’s always another one you don’t know, and today’s discovery for me is 1967’s Countdown, a pre-moon landing techno-thriller about a desperate backup plan to land a single American on the moon before the Soviets do. What was speculative fiction back in 1967 is now a fascinating bit of alternate history, especially considering the care taken in ensuring that the film is grounded in reality—NASA collaborated with the film, and the filmmakers went to painstaking detail to ensure that the film felt plausible. Perhaps the biggest surprise in discovering Countdown (which doesn’t even rank among IMDB’s 100 top seen movies of 1967) is finding out that not only it was director Robert Altman’s first film, but that it starred none other than a very young James Caan and Robert Duvall as astronauts competing to be the first humans on the moon. Altman’s touch can be seen most clearly in his typical (but rarely seen at the time) overlapping dialogue—otherwise, this straightforward tightly-plotted thriller is as far removed from his other movies as it’s possible to be. Caan and Duvall are nearly unrecognizable as younger men, but give quite a bit of gravitas to their ongoing squabble through the film. Compared to other films of the period and later renditions of the space program, Countdown scores highly when it comes to verisimilitude—the spirit, sets, perceived danger and technical details all ring true. Special-effects-wise, the biggest issues come toward the end, as the sequences set on the surface of the Moon don’t have the characteristic harshness that real-life footage has shown us. But for a film released 18 months before the Apollo 11 moon landing, it’s a pretty good effort. Story-wise, I do feel as if the film (or the novel on which it’s based) is missing an entire third act—we leave the protagonist at the earliest possible moment, whereas I feel there was a much stronger and longer story to tell about his return back home. Still, I quite liked Countdown: its techno-thriller aesthetics and narrative drive fall squarely in one of my favourite kinds of fiction, and I think that it’s a splendid period piece to illustrate the suspense of the moon program back in the mid-1960s, before we saw it all culminate with a successful moon landing. I have a feeling I’ll be singing the praises of this less-known film for years to come.
(Popcornflix streaming, September 2018) I grew up on Popeye cartoons (in French, mind you), but somehow hadn’t seen the live-action adaptation until now. I can’t say I missed much, because for all of director Robert Altman’s skill in recreating a cartoon-inspired seashore village, much of Popeye simply falls flat with simplistic character motivations, too-long musical numbers and an overall impression of … dullness. It’s not all bad: Robin Williams is good as Popeye, but Shelley Duvall is terrific as Olive Oyl and Paul L. Smith is remarkable as Bluto. The sets are splendid (almost too good, in fact—we don’t really want to spend any more time there) and there is some occasional good staging for the physical comedy. But otherwise, Popeye remains surprisingly boring: The film feel self-satisfied, prone to excessive sentimentalism and unwilling to make its narrative advance. Williams’ constant mumbling of malapropisms as Popeye in in-character, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less annoying. In some ways, Popeye also seems made for those who already know Popeye—I’m among those, but we’re literally a dying breed and I wonder what audiences new to the character would make of the film. I certainly had to pause and think a bit about those Saturday morning cartoons to be reminded of why the film followed a certain path, who those annoying people were and why it was so stylized. Overall, I’m disappointed at the result.
(On TV, June 2018) Some films are so successful that they sabotage their own legacy, and if MASH doesn’t feel quite as fresh or new or daring as it must have felt in 1970, it’s largely because it was followed by a massively successful TV series and embodied a new cynical way of thinking that would come to dominate (North-) American culture in the following decades. Obviously commenting on the Vietnam War by using the Korean War, MASH shows us disaffected doctors treating the war, and the entire military institution, with obvious contempt. They’ve been drafted, they belong elsewhere and their attitude encapsulates what many Americans had come to think about the military by 1970. Such things are, to put it bluntly, not exactly new these days—and you could easily build a mini-filmography of films in which military heroes behave badly. MASH also suffers from an episodic, largely disconnected plot—there’s a new episode every ten minutes, and it doesn’t build upon those adventures as much as it decides to end at some arbitrary point. Director Robert Altman’s shooting style is also far more similar to newer films than those of 1970—inadvertently scoring another point against itself. It’s not quite as interesting as it was, not as innovative as it was, not as shocking as it was. As a result, it does feel more inert than it should. It’s still worth a watch largely as a historical piece, but also as a showcase for an impressive number of actors—starting with Donald Sutherland, alongside Elliott Gould and a smaller role for Robert Duvall. The metafictional ending works well, but it still leaves things unfinished.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, March 2018) I first saw The Player sometime in the mid-nineties and fondly remembered it as a good satire of the Hollywood system. Seeing today, now that I’m venomously better-informed about moviemaking, is almost better than a first viewing. Tim Robbins stars as a studio executive who, harassed by an unknown person, comes to accidentally kill a screenwriter. The rest of the film is about avoiding detection even in the face of persistent investigators. Writer/director Robert Altman has rarely been funnier as he (somewhat gently) skewers the Hollywood machine, portraying nearly everyone as self-absorbed jerks capable of the worst. Back in 1992, much was made of The Player’s nonstop parade of cameos—twenty-five years later, it’s turned into a game to spot people whose fame has considerably waned a quarter of a century later, or non-actors Hollywood royalty whose face were never that well-known in the first place. The film does begin on a very high note with a complex seven-minute shot that neatly introduces a bunch of narrative threads and characters. It spends a remarkable portion of its first half-hour lining up joke after joke even as it gradually builds up its premise. The rest of the film isn’t as constantly funny—The Player does take its plot seriously after a while, and the detective subplot isn’t particularly high on satire. The last few minutes, however, do go back to the satire, with an amusing movie-in-a-movie and a killer last few lines in which, well, “forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” While I don’t think I’m quite as bullish about the movie as when I first saw it, I still like it quite a bit.
(In theaters, December 2000) This might be a rather impressive misfire, but at least Dr. T & the Women can boast one of the most descriptive title of the year. There’s the plot in a nutshell, how a gynaecologist (Richard Gere, in a fairly good role) deals with the woman in both his professional and personal lives. I’m not sure if the screenwriter actually lives on this planet (Woman looking forward to their visit to the gynecologist? I’m no expert on the subject, but that’s news to me.) but it’s clear that s/he’s got no skill writing comedy: Despite the potential of the film’s elements, it falls singularly short of exploiting its own quirkiness. (At one point, I kept hoping for Dr. T. to say “My wife’s a nut, my sister-in-law’s an alcoholic, my lesbian daughter is getting married to a guy, my secretary’s hitting on me and the most normal member of my family is a conspiracy theorist!”) lot of missed opportunities, slow pacing, implausible situations (even for a Robert Altman film) and a truly awful ending which doesn’t resolve anything. But don’t think that I didn’t enjoy the film, flaws and all. The star-studded cast is impressive in itself, there’s some welcome female nudity and if you don’t know the ending you can kid yourself in being interested in how worse the plot threads can get for the intrepid Dr. T. Kudos to my sister for uncovering a subtle interpretation of the film, as she maintains that it’s Dr. T. himself who’s responsible for the nuttiness of the women around him. All in all, a film that’s worthwhile almost despite itself.