Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Father to son

It seems apropos to write about The Road (2009) immediately after Wild Boys of the Road. They share mood and setting--males traveling through a hostile environment, fighting for survival, forced to keep moving, struggling to preserve relationships.

The natural comparisons are to Children of Men or even Zombieland, road movies of survival in a burnt-out, post-apocalyptic world. Director John Coghill spoke of avoiding Mad Max references in the film's iconography. But by one-third of the way through the film, the comparisons I was thinking of were Chaplin's The Kid and De Sica's Bicycle Thieves.

All three films are stories of flawed and desper men trying to convey what they know of life to their sons under terrible conditions. All of them want their sons to know that, no matter what is going on now, life is good, and that you were brought into this world to enjoy it and to bring joy and goodness to others. I think that might be a description of what it is to be a man.

Viggo Mortensen and his scene-partner Kobi Smit-McPhee are astonishingly convincing. Mortensen's progress and degeneration provide a structure for what could have been a meandering or relentless film, and his commitment to the story is unquestioned. After A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, is there any doubt that Mortensen who can be the linchpin of important and difficult projects?

A few other random observations. The title, The Road is shared with Fellini's early masterpiece about circus life, known here by its Italian name, La Strada. "The Road" in show business means the hinterlands, traveling to entertain the rubes. "Hit the road" also means to get away from the routine of modern daily life. "The road" used to be associated with romance and adventure. Was that an intentional irony by McCarthy? Or is this another Road to Perdition?

The film is sad, but what is even sadder is that its vision of a destroyed world was achieved without a lot of special effects. The landscapes in the first part of the film are those of Mt. St. Helens, and much of the film was shot in the Rust Belt, especially parts of Pennsylvania devastated by the loss of America's industrial might. Giant plumes of smoke in the background were taken from footage of the World Trade Center collapse and a ruined landscape with large ships beached on land was taken from post-Katrina footage. It's sad that the entire end of the world could be staged using the world as it appeared in 2007, without tricks or effects?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Living history

To take off my dispassionate-film-blogger hat and put on my educator hat, Wild Boys of the Road (1933) should be required viewing in every high school class studying the Great Depression in America.
First of all, it was recording the events as they unfolded, without any knowledge of the outcome or assurance that everything would turn out all right. (I also marvel at WWII-era films that way--what faith we had as a people!) Second, it reflects, very powerfully and plausibly, exactly the effect this depression had on young people exactly the age of our high school students today. In other words--if you want students to sense exactly how it would feel for them to have lived through the Great Depression as people their own age--Wild Boys of the Road spells it out.

It is obviously a deeply felt film by director William Wellman, employing speed, trials and tribulations, rain, deep bonding and loyalty among young men--and in this case, one young woman is added to "the club." But it is rendered with a focus and an intensity that shows Wellman gathering his powers.

As with its predecessor, Heroes for Sale, Wild Boys begins by showing the fall from the middle class. These are not the undeserving poor--these are the children of workers and middle managers whom the System has failed. At first, it seems as though the downturn is something that families can weather with a little belt-tightening and a healthy dose of patience. But it becomes apparent that there are no jobs and that none are coming. Our hero, played by Frankie Darro like a small dark Cagney, sells off his beloved jalopy, symbol of carefree times--teenage freedom and emerging sexuality. It becomes evident that sacrifice will not be enough and the boys forge a plan to leave home and go on the bum to relieve their families of the burden of supporting them. So strong is the middle class ethos of optimism, that Darro's parting note to his parents is based on a blatant lie about work waiting for him out of town, a lie his parents are happy to accept for their own peace of mind.

There follows a section with little sugar coating. They ride in empty box cars, receiving regular beatings from railroad thugs. They meet a girl dressed as a boy, and although it is not stated as such, it is presumably her defense against rape. This is brought home by the rape of another girl by that all-purpose movie thug, Ward Bond, who perishes at the hands of an angry mob of kids seeking revenge. It feels so refreshing to reach back to before the decades of antiseptic lies about the world as found in films in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Something about that crisis in the early 30s gave them courage to speak--and to hear--the ugly truth about what was going on. There is feeling, yes, even sentiment, but not forced or falsified, shoehorned to make some kind of point or moral lesson.

The most famous moment in the film is that of the boy who, lacking the strength to pull his body out of harm's way, loses his foot under an oncoming train. It's still shocking, and technically impeccable-the effect work is seamless. But the strength of the sequence comes later, when the kids have browbeaten a local doctor into caring for the boy. An amputation takes place in the train yard, almost a precursor of the similar sequence in Gone With The Wind. But what makes Wild Boy's amputation sequence powerful is how Frankie Darro stays with his friend, comforting him, bucking him up, lying to him a little bit, completely giving himself to this other person for their sake. At that moment, you know it is that feeling of belonging to each other and mutual sacrifice that will ensure the nation's survival.

Wellman wanted a completely pessimistic ending, which the studio rejected. And this time, I believe the studio was right. First of all, it would be too much to endure 75 minutes of misery and end with an outlook of more misery. Second, it is truthful and natural that the good things in our lives are generally not delivered by systems and institutions, but by individuals stepping out of their predetermined roles, perhaps even bucking the system and giving others a chance, as the kindly FDR-like judge does at the end of this film. Moreover, it's been established that these children, damaged as they are, have the spirit and will to survive and thrive--and, as we now know with hindsight, defeat mankind's most dangerous enemies in the second World War. What a crucible those children passed through.

And Wild Boys has its own movie-movie satisfactions--the snatching of a cake as the boys run from the police, Frankie Darro's neat leap into a handy ashcan, disappearing completely. And most satisfying is the final film appearance of former chorus girl Dorothy Coonan. She had already retired from the screen when she married director William Wellman. But Wellman pressured into acting one more time, convincingly playing a tough and resourceful teenage girl, though she was already 30. Best of all, she cadges spare change on the street by dancing to the song "42nd Street" and performing exactly the same tap dance steps she performed in that film only a few months before. Put the sequences side by side--you'll see she remembered the routine step for step. Though unintended, that correspondence between films creates an irony that virtually encapsulates the Great Depression in itself. "Good times and bum times, I've seen them all and, my dear, I'm still here..."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Under the definition "sophomoric"

I haven't seen many films by Godard, but I've stumbled over a lot of writing about him. Godard is a filmmaker about whose films it's better to write and analyze than to actually see. The fact that self-identifying intellectuals see them as important and ground-breaking speaks to the bankruptcy of modern intellectual life.

Godard is whining about the same banalities of the petit-bougeois life that his ancestors were doing 250 years earlier. And none of it is remarkably different than what most adolescents spew between the ages of 16 and 19. It's just that the rest of us grow up and develop a more balanced life (the adolescents would say we "sold out"--I should only have been so lucky as to have sold out), while intellectuals like Godard stay frozen.

Here are the themes laid out in Godard's best-known polemical film, Weekend (1967) (Breathless is better known and more popular, but it does not have a coherent political program): capitalism and the middle class worship possessions; materialism is soul-destroying; consumerism is death-obsessed; all of the above destroy relationships between people; we need to recognize our common interests in the class struggle; collective action may not work because of human needs and jealousies.

Is any of this news to you? It was to me when I was a teenager. And I still deplore the emptiness of capitalism and materialism to deliver true happiness, peace or understanding, but I'm no longer indignant about it, nor convinced that I have made an utterly unique discovery. This is the journey every generation makes, and how we accomodate those discoveries defines our era. I suppose in 1967, this was au courant, but it seems especially juvenile today.

Nonetheless, Weekend is mostly arresting to look at, until its last third when it dissolves into a series of long Marxist monologues that seem at first to be satirizing left-wing extremism, until it dawns on the viewer that Godard means it, and that he is just another crank on the corner, spewing that 9/11 was a goverment hoax, like the moon landing. But before that, there is the famous traffic jam, the casual and unexplained burning wrecks, the nursery rhyme characters, the burlesque murders, one of which seems to be burlesquing Psycho and a lot of fun collegiate nihilistic hijinks. As a prank, Weekend can be enjoyed as a bit of juvenalia. But as an art object to be enjoyed, savored and delved for its depth of expression--I leave that to the most trite and shallow people in our society today--college professors and film reviewers.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Journalism vs. Narrative

Heroes for Sale (1933) is more important to American history today than to cinema history. It began filming just before FDR's inauguration and concluded at the end of the first month. It is packed with ideas and controversies of the day, including morphine addiction, class, automation, capital vs. labor, communism and the Bonus Army, in the ripped-from-the-headlines mode of Warner Bros under production chief Darryl Zanuck.

The hero, played by D.W. Griffith repertory company member Richard Barthelmess, in one of his few successful performances in a leading role in a talking picture. As is often surprising for silent film stars, his manner and style are a bit stagy, but his sincerity wins over anything. Still, one has to accept a father who abandons his adopted son in order to tramp around the country being a fugitive/philanthropist. Makes sense from the studio that brought you the harrowing I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang.

Makes sense for a script co-written by sometime con man, journalist and adventure Wilson Mizner. Direction is by William Wellman, so you can count on speed--so much speed that a lot of story tropes are dropped before they're done in order to pick up a new thread--rain, and male camaraderie. The hero and the man who wronged him meet in a muddy shelter under a bridge (which resembles a foxhole), and acknowledge that, as former comrades-in-arms, they must reconcile, even though it does them no good, since the sheriff is ready to run them out of town anyway.

As for the Communist who turns into an oppressive exploiter--is that a comment about Communists, about capitalism, or is he just a convenient story catalyst?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Damme straight

JCVD (2008) will deserve to be remembered for this six-minute monologue, reportedly improvised by Jean-Claude Van Damme on the set of this meta-satire on celebrity, success and the nature of reality. The film belongs to the genre of the aging successful person contemplating their loss of powers and death beyond it. Westerns had the aging gunfighter movie, sports films do it all the time, musicals had films like The Bandwagon, in which Fred Astaire wonders if he is washed up. You can trace it back to Ibsen's Master Builder, or even, in a way, to King Lear. They are all about the idea that you can't be the king forever.

JCVD has some cinematic merits of its own, although few of them are utterly unique. It is processed in an interesting desaturated look (which is, at least, fair warning to the audience that this should be taken as reality). It occasionally uses overlapping and paralleled timelines in an interesting but not unprecedented manner (e.g., Vantage Point.) It is novel in that the character played by Jean-Claude Van Damme is named Jean-Claude Van Damme and that they have some aspects of their biography in common. This is not unique in the history of movies--many stars have played satires on their own personas; the only novelty is the use of Van Damme's own name. (Think of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in the Jay and Silent Bob movies, Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger, or nearly every episode of Entourage and Extras.) The central irony is that Van Damme's onscreen fighting skills are of little use in extricating himself from a real-life dangerous situation, which is the central conceit of The Last Action Hero.

The film starts with an amusing satirical touch in which a snotty punk of a director wants a complex action sequence to be done in a single take, as in Welles's Touch of Evil. (Jean-Claude protests that he is too old to do multiple takes of the sequence.) As the director in this sequence is Asian and the film is an action film, I suspect the reference really should be the scene in The Protector in which Tony Jaa runs up three or four flights of a large round staircase, battling and defeating several opponents (more often than not throwing them off the staircase) in an uncut sequence lasting more than four minutes.

So although the combination of elements may be new, most of these ingredients have been seen before. What has never been seen is the self-revelatory, poetic, expressionistic, meta-real monologue shown above, which is smartly abetted by the way Van Damme is lifted about the realistic setting as you can see here.

For myself, I will never compare Van Damme to Stephen Seagal again.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Frisky in Frisco

One aspect of early talkies that doesn't get enough comment is the amount of drama and life experience they could cram into 70 minutes or less. In Frisco Jenny (1932), Ruth Chatterton goes from hard-boiled youngster keeping the books in her dad's San Francisco saloon, through the 1906 earthquake (in an impressive sequence for a program picture), becomes the city's leading madam-of-madams and political fixer and self-sacrificing (secret) mother of the crusading district attorney who not only wants to put her kind out of business, but has her sentenced to death for murder--a murder she committed in order to prevent the son from finding out she is his mother. This is Madame X stripped down and short of sentiment, and Chatterton's just the gal that can deliver the story straight from the shoulder with the support of the breezy William Wellman directing.

A few Wellman tropes turn up here--rain; a corrupt power system; and most notably action which is partially obscured, usually hiding the most essential moment. In Frisco Jenny, that moment comes when Louis Calhern, crooked lawyer pal of Jenny, is wrestling with degenerate gambler J. Carroll Naish. They disappear behind the round top of a large table and a gun goes off. Calhern straightens up suddenly and staggers and we think he is the victim until we see the pistol in his hand. Then we realize Naish is the one who has bought the farm. There is a very entertaining gavotte as Calhern and Chatterton hide the pistol from the police who have just shown up, transferring it from one location to another. It spends the greatest time in an ice cream log/cake; is this meant to be an image of death and corruption buried in sweetness?

The conclusion of the film raises the question as to what one considers sentimental. Yes, our heroine is self-sacrificing for her son. But the real sentimental ending would have been for her identity to have been revealed at the last possible moment and for her son to have prevented her execution, as they fall, grateful and weeping into each other's arms. This film has no tears to spare, no pity for characters or audience. Chatterton continues straight along the path she set out on many years before, without complaint, explanation or a demand for understanding. Aside from the great Stanwyck, I can't think of another female actor whose characters conducted their lives more like a man. We really need a Chatterton renaissance.


The A Team (2010) should be commended for truth in advertising. From the title (given some familiarity with the 80's TV series) you are expecting a dumb, loud, fist-and-explosion packed testosterone-fest, and that is exactly what you get. Remember in Die Hard or Live Free, when Bruce Willis went surfing on a missile, or a jet or some crazy thing that you can't possibly stand up on top of and live? That would have been somewhere in the middle of the crazy-scale for The A-Team.

So there are only a few questions for a big summer film based on a known property like this: Enough loud & noisy action? Yes; Reasonably decent story? Yes, a sort-of origin story, as the Team is exonerating themselves, not yet set up as a team for hire; How's the casting? Pretty darn good. Liam Neeson doesn't break a sweat, I'm starting to get the Bradley Cooper (although he still seems more like a parody of a sexy leading man than a real leading man, especially with that greasy hair and those jug handle ears), and the real triumph of casting is Sharlton Copley, the unexpected lead of District 9, who plays a cheerful lunatic that is reminiscent of Harry Dean Stanton in his salad days. (The young athlete hired to cover Mr. T's role is perfectly adequate, although as yet lacking a focused screen persona or any projection of charisma, but then he is traveling in fast company.)

Only a few other things to be said: In the final action sequence there is a close action mano-a-mano fight in which they do that fast "where are they-what is happening" sort of editing that has become popular. I don't object to that tool merely because it violates classical canons of editing--those canons can be violated for good reason whenever necessary. What I dislike about that superrapid editing is that it abandons narrative. It stops telling a story. One can no longer tell who is up, who is down, and--most importantly--denies the audience the chance to guess what will happen next, because they don't understand what's happening now. (This is not limited to me because I am a 54-year-old geezer. I saw the movie with my 22-year-old daughter, and she couldn't understand that part either. In fact, she brought the problem up.)

Empathy and identification is lost, and one is reminded that one is watching a movie. Moreover, there is nothing for the spectator to do in such a sequence but wait until it is over and then pick up the story again. "But I want to create the sense of being inside the fight, of sharing the disorientation that the character feels," says the action director. "Then, Mr. Director," say I, the experienced filmgoer, "you need a reaction shot of the disoriented character to convey that information. Otherwise I merely suspect that the editor is trying to disguise the fact that you, Mr. Director, didn't get the coverage." (By coverage, I mean the director failed to complete all the shots needed to tell the story of the sequence.)

Second, the ascendancy of Sharlto Copley suggests that screen acting is more of a knack than a profession like stage acting, and that you can have the skill innately without having to develop through years of training. That's not to denigrate the art; but it seems one can be a fairly skilled artisan in fairly rapid order if you are the right kind of person. None of this is a putdown of Copley. I love the guy and can't wait to see where he pops up next.

The final "switch" revealed by Cooper in his last close-up was probably done in films around 1912 in a film starring Harry Houdini. (Did you know Houdini made movies?) After some reasonably good twists and turnarounds in the body of the film, that last twist should have been more original. However, kudos to the producers and director for keeping the romance and sex angle otherwise under wraps, as the real audience is composed of 11-year-old boys and the Inner Eleven Year Old Boy that many of us harbor inside.

Finally, what's wrong with 20th Century Fox's publicity department? They seem to have released only about a half-dozen photos for use in connection with the movie. (The official site literally has about 25 shots, most of them close-ups of individual performers.) I've never had such little to choose from to illustrate a post about a contemporary film (hence the excerpt posted above). Did the set photographer screw up? There should be a lot more cool shots from this movie available as stills. Like stuff blowing up. Heaven knows--they blow a lot of stuff up!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Keeping us up

I am just old enough to remember Loretta Young as a nice TV lady who whirled around her TV living room and introduced some boring stories that didn't have any space aliens or spies.

Later, I learned that my wife was very fond of a Christmas movie she starred in, The Bishop's Wife. This sounded sort of spicy until you found out that Episcopalian and Methodist bishops are allowed to marry. Despite the temptations of Cary Grant, Loretta remained a good church wife.

Now as film scholars and buffs are exhuming that interesting period from the dawn of talkies until July 1, 1934, when the Production Code began to be enforced by the MPAA, we can recognize that Loretta Young was definitely one hot cookie. In Midnight Mary (1933) she is abetted by a story by the racy Anita Loos and high-energy direction by William Wellman, who had already torn off Night Nurse and The Public Enemy among the more than 20 films he made between 1931 and 1933.

We think of Wellman in terms of friendships among men and amid their physical adventures. But the evidence indicates that Wellman liked women just as well, provided they were just as adventurous. Maybe it was not as firmly canonized as the "Hawks woman," but any man who makes seven pictures with Barbara Stanwyck and showcases the saucer-eyed Loretta Young as the hardbitten broad that she is in Midnight Mary is definitely not afraid of women.

I would love to see David Bordwell or someone like him analyze why nearly all early sound films feel so breezy. Late-period silent films had plenty of slow fade-outs and languidly paced movies, but early talkies all seem to be bitten off at the end of each scene, in a hurry to get to the next. Midnight Mary uses swift horizontal wipes to introduce each new segment of the film, as if a crossfade would just be wasting time.

Wellman and Young made this at MGM, on loan from Warner, where Darryl Zanuck had set the rapid editing tempo. Who set this tempo, and did production chief Thalberg consent? The long shadow of L.B. Mayer, who took over operations over Thalberg's death seems to have colored the record, but clearly Thalberg was open to representing a wider range of human behavior than the bourgeois Mayer (purveyor of the Andy Hardy series and other Wholesome Entertainments). Most of the theaters MGM owned were in major downtown venues (which made it very profitable through World War II, but left it vulnerable after the war, when the audience left for the suburbs) -- surely they were more receptive to a fun gangsters-and-murder trials romp than they would be to Mickey and Judy in a barn?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika

One of the hallmarks of 80's cinema was the well-meaning drama scolding South Africa about what terrible and unjust meanies they were with their bad apartheid. As if the US had never fostered racially-based injustice. It was a good thing we had limited communications with the old South Africa, or they would probably have jumped up and punched us in the nose for lecturing them.

Now that the new South Africa is almost 20 years old, it does seem to make sense to assess what has been happening there. (I had to look this up, but although Mandela was released in 1990, he did not become president until 1994.)

Disgrace (2008) has, at least, a partially South African perspective, although the filmmakers are Australian and the star is American. It is a very dark, perhaps pessimistic work. I choose to read it as a metaphor for the position of minority whites in the new South Africa. Malkovich is morally compromised (he sexually abuses a black student--sort of colonialism in minature), and retreats from the city to land he owns in the country, to become, literally, a Boer, the Dutch word for farmer which is the black South African word for "white" or specifically "white oppressor." He is at the mercy of his black neighbor, Petrus, who begins as a tenant and eventually becomes the owner. His daughter Lucy, is sexually assaulted by three black ruffians while he is helplessly locked in the bathroom (and briefly set on fire). She will not report the assault, and Petrus turns out to be the patron of the principal villain. Lucy even decides to go ahead and bear the child conceived in the assault. The only useful work Malkovich can find is to help the local shelter euthanize unwanted animals. As Malkovich holds one poor dog as its life ebbs away, one can't help wondering if he doesn't seem himself fading away and becoming nothing in this South Africa.

It seems there is nothing left for the whites but acquiescence, due to their pre-existing guilt. I have read various places that the film ends on a note of tentative hope, but I don't see it. It seems to be muddling-through, South-Africa style.

The filmmaking is similarly bleak. South Africa looks bleached and parched, the countryside a barely habitable desert, the city a collection of walled-in spaces. Malkovich's accent is very insecure, but his arrogance and lack of empathy is solidly in place. As usual he asks neither for pity nor sympathy. Is there an American star who cares less about whether the audience likes him? That attitude pays off at the end, since one can grudgingly admire his fortitude at carrying on in spite of his trials.

Disgrace is a hard movie to watch It is uncompromising, unsentimental, unsparing to its characters and its audience. But it is never dull and it is often rewarding.

Invictus (2009) comes off as a feel-good picture by contrast. Much of it is of the "sports overcomes racism" vein, like Remember The Titans and going back all the way to The Jackie Robinson Story. It frequently takes time to repeat its ideas (Mandela is a healer--he wants to preserve white dignity to ensure their participation in the new South Africa) and to congratulate itself for its noble mindedness. I am left with these questions as I watch it?

1. Why Clint Eastwood to direct and why was Eastwood's work so anonymous? On the plus side, it omitted some of the langours of Eastwood's personal projects, but it never gave much scope to the acting, which is Eastwood's hallmark. There were really only two pieces of virtuoso filmmaking, and I wonder to what extent they were scripted. One comes in the sequence when Damon's rugby team visits the prison Mandela inhabited for more than 20 years, and we see the ghosts of the former inmates. This is particularly moving as it is coupled with the words of "Invictus," a poem for which I have a soft spot. (I have recommended it to many students, especially athletes, as a credo, and it is never not been embraced by them.)

The other striking sequence is the one picture here, in which the predominantly white players conduct a rugby clinic in a township, where the game is not familiar, and we literally see the spirit of play transcend other human boundaries. There was nothing new, but it was exhilarating all the same, especially in contrast with the noble talk.

2. Why Matt Damon if he was not going to be given a character to play? If wonder if the plan wasn't, "Hey, there's no character here! No problem--we'll get a well-liked American star and nobody will notice!"

3. If South Africa has a bright future, why does the film look blasted and whitened like a post-apocalyptic film?

4. Why cast Leleti Kuhmalo (the original Sarafina on stage and screen) and not give her a chance to shine? It was lovely to see her again, and she is lit from within, like she swallowed a small star, but it is way past due to feature her in another film.

5. Why the whole subplot about integrating the white and black bodyguard teams? The problem was stated in seconds, and then they kept repeating the trope over and over. It never even really resolved. It was all okay at the end, but not a real resolution.

6. Why no twists or turns after the first 45 minutes or so, when the move to abolish white rugby is turned back by Mandela and he sets the course to win the World Cup? We know they're going to win, or there is no movie, but they seemed to win by becoming the Little Rugby Team That Could.

7. Why not an African music score? Somewhere after the one-hour mark we got a little taste of African music, but up until then, we had the standard generic Hollywood movie cues. (Hint--the first composer listed is named Kyle Eastwood. I don't mind hiring family--it's good to work with people you are familiar with, it saves time and you are often sympatico, but Kyle's imdb page indicates he has not worked for Any Other Director Ever. Might make you think that the rest of the industry doesn't think he can cut it.

8. Why not teach us something about rugby? All games look slightly ridiculous to everyone who doesn't know how they work--there's always some arbitrary and irrational element that looks silly. One could have gotten past that by creating a character who provides a

9. Point of view! There are so many foreign and historical elements to the backstory of this movie than an American journalist or attache or some such character would have been much more useful to the story than the boring security detail subplot. They could have been our eyes, our explainer.

The result is a kind of uncommitted, detached feeling to the film, as if to tip us off at the outset that everything is going to turn out fine, so there's no reason to get worried or upset.

All it needed was Bobby McFerrin singing, "Don't Worry, Be Happy." (And that would have been better music than what was on the track...)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The little heist that wouldn't

Flawless (2007) is a movie that doesn't want to be what it is, and that is its distinguishing flaw. (Don't mean to be a smart-aleck, but the fact is unavoidable.)

Making a con or a heist movie about a person with moral qualms is like making a race car movie about someone who is worried about fossil fuels and global warming. You're trying to drive in forward and reverse at once.

The planned-crime movie has certain set and very enjoyable tropes--assembling the team, revealing the plan, things that go awry that are planned-for, things that go awry that the team has to scramble to cover. We enjoy these as much as a shoot-out in a western or when all the mix-ups are untangled and the lovers fall in each other's arms. If you are going to experiment with these tropes, you had better have something good to replace them with.

The brittle uptight character Demi Moore plays in Flawless might have been a good idea for a foil for Michael Caine's calm confidence, but Moore manages to be not just irritable, but irritating. I can't help thinking a more charismatic actor could have maintained sympathy. It's hard to have fun in a team-crime movie when you like some members of the team and don't like some of the others.

The central twist is so out of proportion to what has gone before as to destroy the thin thread of plausibility the film had been dangling on. Nonetheless, my interest and engagement in the film kept wavering in and out--roughly in direct proportion to the amount of exposure the film gave to Sir Michael Caine.

But can we give the down-and-out sad-sack Michael Caine a rest now and put him in a sharp suit with a cool crew like the Oceans Eleven guys and have him pull off one more great unpredictable crazy flim-flam before he leaves the stage forever? Somebody, somewhere, please!!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Maybe too true

This is how respected Mark Ruffalo is among actors: Ethan Hawke, who is an actual movie star, gracefully plays second banana to Ruffalo in What Doesn't Kill You (2008). (I am reminded of Jude Law content to play straightman to Robert Downey, Jr. in Sherlock Holmes.) What Doesn't Kill You (2008) is as much of a showcase for Ruffalo as it is for its first-time director and co-writer, Brian Goodman. It rises and travels on Ruffalo's performance, but that work cannot overcome the story's basic lack of true drama.

The story is reportedly based on the events of Goodman's life, which is both the film's strength and its fatal flaw. Strength, because of the exciting events and difficult choices of the protagonist's life. Fatal, because Goodman does not have the craft or the distance to shape those events into a truly dramatic shape. It is all bits and pieces, incidents and scraps. It begins with a hold-up scene reminiscent of Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, then turns into a Boston-tough-guy movie like Gone, Baby, Gone; both of which are superior to the present film.

The use of the opening scene followed by flashbacks almost disguises the fact that the film has no real structure. Ruffalo and Hawke are errand boys for some gangsters, Ruffalo has a wife and a family--Hawke does not, they take on some "projects" of their own, they excite the enmity of their bosses, they get arrested, they go to jail, they come out. Hawke wants to rob an armored truck, and--here is the dramatic crux; after Ruffalo talks with his son and realizes he doesn't want to risk jail, he decides not to go.

That's right, the central dramatic event of the movie is a guy who decides not to do a risky thing. Now that's laudable, it's praiseworthy, but it's not story-telling. Quick--name a classical dramatic narrative which turns on the hero's decision not to act. No, Bogart not leaving with Bergman in Casablanca doesn't count, because he then shoots the Nazi captain and goes on the run. And Hamlet doesn't count just because it takes him 4 out of 5 acts to do something. He does, at last, take action against his sea of troubles.

I'm not saying this couldn't be dramatized, but I don't think novice writer-director Brian Goodman has the skill or experience to do it. Having the work based on his own experience, which I'm sure made him reluctant to over-dramatize the events didn't help either. The dramatist must be ruthless with facts to create narrative pull.

One minor note--the film doesn't make criminal life look any better than being a working stiff (good) but doesn't make prison look worse than a time-out for adults (bad). Yeah, your room is a little small, but you get to walk around and talk with your friends, and you don't have to decide what to wear in the morning. Prison looks like no big deal, which I am sure was not the intention.

One thing's sure, though: Mark Ruffalo is one of our master actors, in a class with Kevin Spacey, Robert Downey, Jr. , Liev Schreiber and Johnny Depp, and let's hope he gets a chance to demonstrate his powers in a mainstream film which gains him the recognition among the general public that he already has with his peers.

Waiting in the wings

There are three reasons to see Other's Men Women (1931) now in the 21st century: three great talents gaining experience and developing confidence and about to explode on the screen.

One is director William Wellman, whose legendary impatience always lends energy and speed to all his films, but not always narrative or thematic cohesion. His best film prior to this was the silent World War I flying epic, Wings, which no longer looks as good to us as it did to its audiences in 1927 (it is both rambling and repetitive, but unquestionably sincere). Talkies seemed to sap his confidence for a few years, but shortly after this he was to shoot the garter-snapping Night Nurse and the landmark Public Enemy, to which we will return in a moment.

The second is Joan Blondell, seen in this illustration trying to work her wiles on the stolid and rather lumpy Grant Withers. (This guy got a 17-year-old Loretta Young to elope with him? No wonder she got it annulled in less than a year!) Joan was never not sexy and fun, which had the handicap of making her too useful for those qualities. She was a perennial second lead, and only managed to get meatier roles beginning in the mid-1940s. (See her work in Nightmare Alley and as Aunt Sissie in The Tree Grows in Brooklyn.) She doesn't get the guy here--she rarely did, but with Joan, we always enjoy the ride.

Finally, in the smallest role of the three, is James Cagney, who ignores the fact that he is supposed be playing a railroad engineer and interprets the part as if he was playing a tap dancer--he even executes a brief buck and wing as he picks up his date to take her to a dance hall. It is hard to figure why Wellman, in his next picture with Cagney, The Public Enemy, continued to miscast him. In the latter film, he was cast as the dutiful older brother and Eddie Woods as the mad dog gangster, and it was only after filming began that Wellman realized he had to swap actors. It is impossible to understand how Cagney could keep getting cast as the simple, decent button-down fella, when every frame reveals how ready he is to tear off that regular-guy straitjacket and show how special he really is.

Highlight in Other Men's Women: Cagney and Withers are standing on top of a moving train. Cagney is describing a prize fight he has seen the night before. We see an overhead obstruction coming. Nimbly, without forcing it, Cagney demonstrates the fighter's crouch (and Withers follows him) just as steel bars pass inches over their heads, while the conversation never skips a beat. The guy can't stop dancing!

The film really belongs to a past era, and not just because it's all about guys who work on trains. Hero Withers is boarding with his best pal, Regis Toomey, who is married to Mary Astor. When Withers falls in love with Astor (and who wouldn't--she always looked like she had just gotten out of bed and was planning to get back in soon), he not only refuses to put the moves on his best friend's wife--he completely moves out of the house so that no hanky-panky can go on. Naturally, since Withers has been as good and decent as he could be, his best friend gets mad at him and much strife and head trauma ensues.

If Withers had had the sense to stay with Blondell and Wellman had let Cagney either tap dance or shoot somebody--then we would have a picture!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

HEAVEN is transcendent

The heroine is a would-be murderer who inadvertently becomes a terrorist and is overcome with grief and shame, the hero is a policeman who loves and pities her for her anger and shame, they hide and run and shave their heads and when they are hopelessly cornered, they disappear into a dot in the sky and it is impossible to describe the terrible loveliness of the strange film called Heaven (2002).

Heaven is directed by Tom Twyker, known to me for Run, Lola Run, which I have long highlighted in my own film courses for its alternate timelines (including flash-forwards) and its brilliant use of a pounding, relentless music score (not to mention crazy animation and some insanely red hair on the heroine which always helps).

Heaven is conventional chronologically speaking, and yet it feels even more like a fable than Lola. In place of Lola's relentless techno, there's the ethereal sound of Arvo Part. Where Lola pounded through the streets, Twyker's camera seems to float high above the characters and the story. (It doesn't--it only seems to.) The illustration above, of the two lovers in their first and perhaps only bout of lovemaking, illustrates the lengths to which Twyker's team went to achieve the pictorialism of the film.

One commenter described it as a love story disguised as a thriller, one of those pieces where you can't seek justice from the authorities because they are the source of the injustice (in this case, a policeman who runs a drug ring). Yet it surrenders potential thrills (though not surprises) almost at once. It starts with cold hard facts of where and when and who and how and gradually sheds them like a lover joining her partner in a warm bath. It's one of the those films that doesn't always tell you what it's doing and where it's going, but because you sense its sureness, you're content to go with it. And the last 10 or 15 minutes of the film are practically speaking, probably impossible--the final image literally is. The narrative is not so much a matter of "what would happen if..." as it is "what happens to love, to loyalty, to space and time when..."

It reminds me of Ford's Wagon Master in that narrative takes second place to contemplation and reflection, to image juxtaposed with image, to what film historians call "poetry." This might seem like a contradiction to my post about The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Let me clarify--it's not that narrative is the prime value of film. But it is a significant device to draw the audience into the shop so they can see your other goods. A little while back I wrote a play in which I wanted to make some satirical points about our schools and the testing and accountability ethos today. I found the way to make it engaging to the audience was to build a romantic triangle on top of a con-man story, with the satire peeping through. That romance was not central, but it was the engine that maintained the attention of my auditors. Heaven has just enough of "what will happen now" to keep the audience with it all the way to its very metaphysical end, as contrasted with Imaginarium which appears to flaunt a complete lack of interest in events in favor of a rococo pictorialism.

If this post seems more vague and less analytical than usual, Heaven is a hard film to analyze on a single pass. I will need to revisit it. You could do worse than one pass yourself.

Half off

The only explanation for a bifurcated hodgepodge like The Purchase Price (1932) is that director William Wellman started shooting one of his typical gangster-and-moll movies, took the script home, lost it under the sofa, and the next morning, on his way to the set, picked up some kind of corny city-girl-goes-to-the-farm script from 1922 and began shooting that.

Luckily, Barbara Stanwyck was just as much at home in Westerns (check out Forty Guns) as she was playing broads off the street. She simply applied the same approach to both genres: she was tougher than anything or anyone you could throw at her. So the genre switch is hardly more of an impediment to her than is having lumpy George Brent as her leading man. But it sure makes the viewer's head spin. What happened to slick gangster Lyle Talbot? What happened to the sexy evening gowns? (In one of which Stanwyck sings the only complete song from beginning to end in her own, undubbed voice that I can ever remember.)

Interesting, strange highlight: she visits a destitute, fatherless farm family, helps the 12-year-old girl there to deliver her mother's baby, sets up a few meals and generally gets these poor folks squared away. It's a terrific sequence, but it begs the question: when did she learn all this country-type know-how while she was being a nightclub chantoozie?

The film is being revived as one of those produced between 1929 and July 1934, when the Production Code was effective, but unenforced, and Hollywood films boasted more sex, violence, adult themes and frank talk (conveyed by innuendo rather than blunt language) than was the case afterward. Divorce, adultery, out-of-wedlock pregnancy were part of the storyline and even abortion was alluded to. Purchase Price, for all you fans of old-time salaciousness, has barely a whisper of this sort of material, unless you consider it racy that Stanwyck keeps her mail-order farmer husband out of her marriage bed until she falls for him, or you're excited about some chatter from other mail-order brides about their prospective husband's big noses or bushy eyebrows (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

In any event, both Stanwyck and Wellman did much better in other outings of this era.

Hard, hard

You can't complain that the title is misleading. The Stoning of Soraya M (2008) is about just that. It's not about her hard life, or the whispering campaign against her or the treachery of her husband or the powerless of women in post-revolutionary Iran, although all those elements are touched in the first hour of the film, which might be considered a preamble to the main event.

Because at around the one-hour mark of the film, we know that Soraya is going to be stoned to death in just a few minutes and nothing can change that. And that fact may make this film the hardest film to watch in many years. Not hard because it is not engaging, but hard like watching videos of 9/11 is hard.

Viewed purely as aesthetics, the film is an admirable example of literary adaptation, simply because what it does in its second hour can only be done on film. I have not read the novel the film is based on--it is certainly widely and highly praised. But writer Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh and director and co-writer Cyrus Nowrasteh have lit upon purely cinematic story-telling solution to the central problem of the story: the pivotal event is sickening, horrifying and susceptible to melodrama.

Whereas other filmmakers focus on melodrama and suspense (and this is what I had expected in this case) as to whether and how Soraya will be found guilty on trumped-up charges, Soraya M reveals the plot at once and establishes its inevitability. There is no question that this woman's husband is in too great a hurry to marry his blond girlfriend, and that it is far easier to get a married woman publicly executed than to obtain a divorce.

Finally, the film gets to the heart of the matter and does what only film can do. If you have seen stonings as staged in other films, you have no idea what happens. I thought, as I saw the men digging a hole, that she will stand in the hole, dodging the stones until she can no longer do so. No. The victim is placed in the hole, and buried from the waist up (see illustration above). The arms are bound, so the victim is completely immobilized, body and arms and helpless to defend herself from the rocks, so eagerly gathered by small boys seeking excitement. In Soraya's case, the first stone is to be thrown by her father, who fails not for lack of will, but lack of arm. The effort wavers, and then the "aggrieved" husband takes up a stone, and the onslaught begins.

You think the camera will turn away--it will play out the scene on the faces of the witnesses, or of the women listening to it all from a safe distance. No again. Nowrasteh stays there, right there, as we see every rock hit face and head. This is, of course, a fiction film with actors and there was some film trickery involved, but you don't think of that as the scene unfolds. You apparently see a woman stoned to death from beginning to end.

There is a lot of idiotic criticism of the film, calling it heavy-handed, propagandistic and one-sided. These critics are all American men, mostly from the South and Middle West. None of them suggest what the "other" side, the "fair and balanced" side of a story of a person being stoned to death would be. The facts of Soraya's case ultimately don't matter, which is why I grateful the filmmakers didn't dwell on them. What matters is this. It's the 21st century and stoning people to death--by ordinary citizens--is still a legal punishment.

My write-up here will probably discourage a lot of people from seeing the film. I hope not. There is a lot of good filmmaking, and a great deal of courage from everyone involved. The pivotal scene is very hard to watch, but not physically nauseating as in a cheap horror film; it is horrifying to the mind and spirit, but ultimately edifying. One can no longer say about such practices, "Well, that's just their way there." It is better to be forced to know the truth.

Leavening the film is the action of the women as a community. Early in the story, we see Soraya protecting the property of a widower whose wife's possessions are snatched up by greedy neighbors (a choice which brings her trouble later). Later, we see Soraya's aunt (who did her best to protect her) taking charge of Soraya's daughters (the sons will go with the father) and the circle of women drawing around them to shield the from the horror. Over and over, every society tells the story; how men enter the wilderness and women bring the family, and with it decency, kindness and moral order.

Just not enough moral order, evidently.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Meander is not just a river in Turkey

Co-writer director Terry Gilliam, when asked about the genesis of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) said something to the effect of "I wasn't really thinking about telling a story." In that goal--not telling a story--Gilliam succeeded admirably. (The comment was made during a Q&A sponsored by Creative Screenwriting Magazine, which can be heard here. It's a great podcast series, incidentally, which you really should check out for yourself.)

It's natural enough for Gilliam, a visual artist by training, to begin with images; but eventually there needs to be something else; if not narrative, character, if not narrative or character, a clear thematic or philosophic center. But something, please something, more than a whole lot of pretty pictures. Gilliam does seem to be saying something about making choices between sort-of evil and sort-of good, and there is a severely anemic conflict between a sort-of devil and a sort-of Prospero-type wizard. But Gilliam makes movies like an old man telling a complicated story, wandering down numberless dead ends and then saying, "What was I talking about?" and doing it so frequently that none of us can remember what he was talking about.

I am prejudiced toward Gilliam: Monty Python's emergence in the US was a central part of my college cultural experience. And Gilliam nobly upheld the group ethic to defy, or rather to eschew, logic, explanations and anything that resembled a point. But Python was stringing together brief segments into a 30-minute entertainment. This is no way to approach a full-length work that is meant to have some resonance for the audience.

Gilliam has always worked better with collaborators with complementary talents--Tom Stoppard for Brazil, Richard LaGravenese for Fisher King (the latter project also having been initiated and produced by a very disciplined team, Debra Hill and Linda Obst) . Left alone with pets and pals like Charles McKeown (who co-authored Baron Munchausen--didn't anyone see disaster looming again?) Gilliam feels free to dally and ramble among fantastic visual elements and effects, leaving the audience behind. We are engaged with no character, nothing is at stake, nothing much happens.

There is a widespread notion that the forced re-casting of the central role after Heath Ledger's premature death, by which the part is now shared with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, saved the film. If by "saved" you mean "made more incomprehensible," then yes, the film was saved. At least when Bunuel double-cast a role in That Obscure Object of Desire he was deliberately setting out to confuse and annoy the audience. Here, that's just an added bonus.

Also, will somebody tell me when Christopher Plummer became the go-to old guy for animation, fantasy and generally weird film projects? The problem with Plummer is that he does have a wonderfully fruity voice and a highbridged nose, but not much more than that. When Gilliam cast Ralph Richardson as God in Time Bandits, you had a wonderful character--the fussy old London-club-armchair Colonel Blimp type that could really run a universe. Plummer's performance in Imaginarium suggests that God (or goodness or poetry or whatever his character is meant to represent) is nothing but a ham actor, all paint and feathers and fancy verse. No real competition with Tom Waits's more focused and charismatic Mr. Nick.

With a solid script and a firm production hand, Gilliam is a strong individual voice in film, an important if secondary director. But no director, even the visually decorative ones such as Vincent Minnelli or Tim Burton, can make the pantheon without a real commitment and adherence to character and narrative.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Real jaws

It is time to stop arguing about whether Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934) is an accurate depiction of life on the Western Isles in the early 1930's. It's not, and it wasn't meant to be. Although Flaherty is one of the founding fathers of film documentary, his practices and aims are utterly at odds with the documentary movement's mainstream today.

Flaherty was a film poet as surely as John Ford or F.W. Murnau. (Some call Griffith a poet, but he was a Victorian novelist.) His poetry was built on the stuff of real life, but it was not intended to reproduce real life, but distill its essence. The people of the Western Isles didn't live quite as starkly as the film shows, but in comparison with the way the rest of us live, the ruggedness of eking an existence out of this harsh environment is clear. Which brings the joys of home and hearth into even starker relief.

The excerpt above illustrates just how intimately the people of Aran live with the natural world. It brings life and takes it, and Flaherty's use of long lens blurs the great distances and puts small, fragile man into greater proximity with the dangerous world than perhaps he was in real life. So, the cinematography's tools are used to make a point, much of the action is staged, and modern objects and tools are banned from the camera's view. The larger point is served, and what we see is not lies, but the truth edited into poetry. (You'll notice that the sound is all post-synched, with varying success. I don't think Flaherty cared much about the soundtrack, he was such a creature of silent film. But the powerful score is an important first for him, and he commissioned a first rate score from Virgil Thomson for Louisiana Story in 1948.)

What I didn't expect about the film is that 34 minutes or so in, it turns into one of the all-time great shark movies, better in ways than Jaws. For one thing, you don't see the shark coming. In fact, you can't even recognize it when you first see it, as it hovers just below the surface of rippling waves. Then the small boy who has first spotted it recognizes what it is, and then we do. And it is big. Really big. And it is swimming along with its mouth open, ready to indiscriminately swallow whatever comes into its range. There is no malice from this shark, just hunger.

And then these crazy Irishmen go out to get it. Talk about needing a bigger boat! Their boat is about the same length as the shark, and the combined weight of the fisherman is probably the same as the fish. If you have a friend who doesn't think they would like 1930's docs, show them this shark hunt, and see if this isn't some of the most exciting film footage ever.

As I've learned with Nanook of the North and the power it exerts over the young students of my film classes, Flaherty still weaves his magic, bumpy editing and abrupt transitions and all, and draws the audience into his exotic worlds, through the power of image upon image.

Tempus fidgets

In 1927, George O'Brien co-starred with Janet Gaynor in one of the greatest films of all time and co-winner of the first Best Picture Academy Award, Sunrise. In 1951, he played a cowboy hero named George O'Brien, co-starring with The Three Stooges in a low-budget indie made for the Saturday matinee audience called Gold Raiders. It's an odd coupling of a not-bad Stooges movie with a severely undernourished western. (The movie even starts with the kind of Western action that made me hate Westerns when I was a little kid and my older siblings watched them non-stop: a bunch of guys riding around Bronson Canyon for no discernible reason, firing guns at nothing in particular at regular, clock-like intervals. So boring!)

As I've discussed before, I'm coming to appreciate the Stooges as all-purpose showbiz pros. Ask them to sing, they sing well. Need some dancing? They acquit themselves acceptably. Sell a few corny old jokes, they'll do that. Their trademark is, of course, the eyepokes, face slaps and conks to the noggin, and they don't even need those patented Columbia Pictures sound effects to sell them, as those tricks predated their film years. (Gold Raiders is directed by Edward Bernds, who started as a sound cutter at Columbia before becoming a short subject director there, and he seems to have smuggled some of the Columbia sound effects with him to this independent production.) In Gold Raiders, if you need itinerant Jewish shyster peddlers (in Westerns, the term "Easterner" is code for (a) white shoe WASP; or (b) Jew) they'll do that. Need them to prop up a fading, pot-bellied George O'Brien and make the kids in the audience believe he's still a rootin'-tootin' Western hero? They'll do that, too.

What the Stooges were mostly called upon to do was carry a long series of short subjects, and most people feel they do that well. Personally, I don't think the Stooges are best left to their own devices, as were, for instance Laurel & Hardy or W.C. Fields, or in jazz, Art Tatum. The three last-named sometimes worked in support of others, but they were not at their best in that setting. They needed to freedom to explore, to wander down cul-de-sacs, to be their idiosyncratic selves. The Stooges characters were not of sufficient depth or resonance to be explored, so they necessarily repeated themselves. But placed in context with other people and perhaps even a larger story, and they acquit themselves well. In fact Gold Raiders is at its bleakest in the last 25 minutes when the Stooges virtually disappear and the story is being carried by the extremely minor character actor, Clem Bevans.

Incidentally, Clem is protecting his beloved granddaughter, Sheila Ryan, who has the distinction of co-starring with both the Stooges and Laurel and Hardy (twice!). Wish she'd been my grandma!

Behavior, compulsive and otherwise

During that blessed interregnum of the late 1960's and early 1970's when the grand pooh-bahs of the movie business admitted they had no idea what kind of movie to make, filmmakers were permitted to control the filmmaking process. Then came Jaws and Star Wars and concept films and guys like Syd Field started analyzing the scripts of gazillion-dollar films in order to duplicate them precisely and we have been living for the past 35 years in the era of highly structured narrative. "I'm a storyteller," says every maker of the next whiz-bang toy-based action film, "I love interesting characters and interesting stories." Bleeah. What they like is exactly what the distribution machine cranks out--noisy movies and high salaries...and formulaic stories.

Movies didn't have to go that way. Not until D.W. Griffith began to develop a brilliant grammar for narrative during 1910-1914 did American film become primarily storytelling. Displaying scenery, historic events, rare performing skills--all these held equal sway in film until Griffith (and perhaps the Europeans who preceded him slightly). John Cassavetes was widely feted in the late 50s and early 60s when he rediscovered the fascination of mere human interaction in his improvised actor-fests. Personally, I find Cassavetes's stuff hard to watch because I have no idea where we're going and therefore no idea what to pay attention to. But Cassavetes was an actor and seemed to think everything actors did was inherently interesting.

Robert Altman is to me, arguably, the king of the filmmaking era of the 70s, rejecting everything about the sausage-making studio style. It's not that he didn't know how to do that. He had spent 15 years toiling in television, tying up all the plot strands in 26 or 52 minutes (it was a long time ago) and leaving everyone unchanged, except the villains who went to jail. Maybe it was because of that long apprenticeship that Altman started tearing up the script, rounding up wonderful improvisatory actors, setting up an environment and a few simple goals and more or less seeing what happened. But the result was not accidental, unplanned or unstructured. Altman worked it all minutely, leaving himself open to the happy mishap. But the structure was deeply buried under a rich tapestry of real, recognizable human behavior.

You might guess I'm an Altman fan, so it's a little surprising that I didn't get around to his study of two compulsive gamblers, California Split (1974) until now. It immediately preceded his masterpiece, Nashville (1975) and parts of it seem to be rehearsing aspects of the latter film, especially the characters played by Gwen Welles in both films. Everything you read about this film mentions the cutting-edge sound design, but that is merely historical now, as the procedures used in the film are universal today, and so no longer remarkable.

What is remarkable is how little this film judges or condemns its characters. Yeah, they're compulsive, so what? A scene between George Segal and one of his creditors begins with all the usual cliches, but doesn't end with them, like Segal getting beat up or his fingers broken or his apartment trashed. He promises to pay and his loan shark is exasperated, but walks away exasperated. Segal and his pal Elliot Gould become enamored of two hookers, but none of the obligatory hooker-and-drunk-gambler scenes follow. In fact, the hookers aren't even present for the big gambling climax.

And what is the big climax? [SPOILER ALERT] They finally have good luck. A lot of good luck. They run up a big win. Then you know what happens next--they lose it all. But they are happy because they still have their friendship. Except they don't lose. They take their big win, walk into another room, split up the money, admit it doesn't feel that special (although they're glad to have a lot of money), take the money and walk away in two different directions, never to see each other again. Oh, and they settle their debts.

There is not one story conference that would sign off on an ending like that. But I can't tell you how satisfying it is. You gotta be there. That's true for all Altman films. There's no logical explanation for most of them. You just gotta be there.