Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Brewster McCloud

Directed by
Robert Altman
Written by Doran William Cannon
Starring Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, John Schuck,  Shelley Duvall, Margaret Hamilton, Rene Auberjonois, Michael Murphy, William Windom, Stacy Keach, Bert Remsen
IMDB Entry

The late Robert Altman is one of my favorite directors, one of the few in the past 30 years that deserves to be among Andrew Sarris's Pantheon directors.  But he could be somewhat hit or miss.  For every M*A*S*H or Nashville or The Player, there were things like Indians or Quintet or Pret a Porter.  And hidden within his output were a few gems that have gotten lost in the shuffle.

One is Brewster McCloud.  This was Altaman's first film after his breakthrough in M*A*S*H.  It had a large cast of newcomers (it was Shelley Duvall's first screen role) and veterans (Margaret Hamilton, best know as the Wicked Witch of the West) and an antiestablishment bent.  But ultimately, it was a fable about dreams.

Bud Cort (a year before Harold and Maude) plays Brewster McCloud, a man obsessed with building a flying machine and taking flight in the Houston Astrodome.  Sally Kellerman is Louise, his muse, helper, and hit man, and who just might be a fallen angel.  People in his way are found dead and covered in bird crap:  Margaret Hamilton's Daphne Heap (whose corpse wears a pair of ruby slippers), Stacy Keach's Abraham Wright (Wilbur and Orville's brother).

Detective John Shaft (Michael Murphy) is out to find the killer, abetted by John Schuck as Officer Johnson (one of the vastly underrated actor's best roles).  Shelly Duvall plays Brewster's love interest, and the entire show is presided over by the Lecturer (Rene Auberjonois), who, as he talks about the habits of birds, becomes one himself.

The movie is funny, with some clever in-jokes and parodies in addition to telling the fable.  Cort is wonderful, earnest and weird as he single-mindedly go about trying to fulfill his dream. Auberjonois as the lecturer is unforgettably weird. 

The movie isn't for everyone (few Altman films are), but it is among one of his best. Altman made a very large number of films for someone directing in the 60s and beyond, a number that's even more surprising because he had so few hits.  But he could attract big name actors who loved to work with him, and, while sometimes hit or miss, they could produce gems like this one.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Onion Field

The Onion Field(1979)
Directed by Harold Becker
Written by Joseph Wambaugh
Starring John Savage, James Woods, Franklyn Seales, Ted Danson, Ronnie Cox
IMDB Entry

Joseph Wambaugh was a cop who started writing best selling novels.  He was unhappy with what Hollywood did with his first two, so, when his third book came out, a nonfiction account of what was then the longest-lasting case in California history, he refused to sell the rights.  Instead, he raised money and produced it himself to make sure it was done the way he wanted.  The result was The Onion Field

In the movie, small-time crooks Gregory Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy Lee Smith (Franklyn Seales) teamed up to commit a bunch of low-level but violent crimes.  When they are pulled over by policemen Karl Hettinger (John Savage) and Ian Campbell (Ted Danson), they panic, taking the two cops hostage.  One of the cops is killed and the results affect all of the others.

This movie brought James Woods front and center as an actor.  He had been in a few films before, but this was his first standout role and his performance as Powell really leapt off the screen.  Powell is a charismatic and cold-blooded criminal, and the most dangerous part of him is that he thinks he's much smarter than he is.  Woods ignites the screen in every scene he's in.

It may be surprising that Ted Danson plays a dramatic role, but it wasn't surprising at the time, mostly because Danson was unknown.  This was his first film role, so there were no expectations.  I sometimes wonder if one reason he used the name Beckeryears later was to thank the director who gave him one of his best roles.

The rest of the cast is also excellent.  Savage and Seales never made it big, but they are also terrific as men trapped in a situation not entirely of their making and trying to survive it. Savage has had a successful career, but rarely the spotlight, while Seales never got the roles he deserved after this.

This is one of the best cop movies made -- Wambaugh's background and control made sure that the details were right -- but it's primarily the story of a bad situation that became worse.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Lost in La Mancha

Directed by: Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
Starring Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort
IMDB Entry

Jean Rochefort as Don QuixoteTerry Gilliam is one of the most visually inventive of film directors.  Ever since his Monty Python days, he's been the master of arresting images and off-beat films.  So that was probably why Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe decided to make a documentary of one of his projects.  The result, Lost is La Mancha, is certainly nothing like any one of them ever anticipated.

Gilliam was doing something extremely tricky on all levels.  First, he was putting together a film based on Don Quixote, a work that has not worked all that well on the screen.  There was a pretty good Russian version in the early 70s, and, of course Man of La Mancha on Broadway (the movie version was a notable turkey), but the story of Quixote is hard to put into film terms.  In this case, the hook of the movie -- to be called The Man who Killed Don Quixote -- was that a person from current times (Johnny Depp) finds himself in the middle of the novel.

Gilliam's big problem was that he is not trusted in Hollywood.  It probably stems from Brazil, a film sabotaged by the studio, which then turned around and blamed Gilliam when it flopped.  He has had a few hits (Time Bandits, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys), but none of the type of blockbusters that allow a director the leeway to be more creative.  So, in order to do the film, he went to a shaky consortium of European financiers, which created the need to do it on the cheap.

The movie would have succeeded if everything went off perfectly.  And the fact that The Man who Killed Don Quixote has never appeared in theaters is testament to the fact that it did not.

Lost in La Mancha documents the entire process.  It's a fascinating look at a filmmaker at work, about the compromises, triumphs, and failures that we never know about.  Gilliam is great as he tries to work his way around a series of disasters that would discourage even the most optimistic of people.  It is a testament to just how hard it is to put together a film.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (Le Grand blond avec une chaussure noire)

The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe(1972)
Directed by
Yves Robert
Written by Yves Robert, Francis Veber
Starring Pierre Richard, Bernard Blier, Jean Rochefort, Alphonse Toulouse, Mireille Darc, Colette Castel, Jean Carmet
IMDB Entry

Foreign comedies all tend to be forgotten.  If they are any good, an inferior US version is rushed into place and no one sees the original.  Another part of this is the culture gap:  what is funny to a Frenchman may not seem that way in the US.  The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe is funny in any language.

I think it’s because of the wide range of humor.  There’s the very European reaction comedy, where the humor is in the character’s very human reactions to situations.  There’s also some bawdy comedy and out-and-out slapstick.

I suppose this could best be categorized as a spy spoof.  Toulouse (Jean Rochfort), the head of a spy agency, discovers his second in command, Milan (Benard Blier) is plotting against him.  In order to ferret out the plot, Toulouse pretends he has a super secret investigator coming, and Francois (Pierre Richard) is chosen to be the decoy solely on the basis of his footwear.

Francois is a classical violinist, and, of course, is oblivious.  Milan’s men get on the case, bugging his apartment, watching his every move, sending a beautiful female spy (Marielle Darc) to seduce him (so it isn’t all bad for him).

Pierre Richard is wonderful as Francois.  He is a tall, gawky actor, with wild blond hair and a perpetually bemused look (he reminds me visually of an older, gawkier version of Napoleon Dynamite).  He is the eye of the hurricane of plots going around him, as the two groups of spies keep trying to turn the tables on each other.

Especially good is Jean Carmet as Maurice, Francois’s best friend.  Maurice keeps stumbling upon the spies and their work:  corpses disappear, he hears his wife having sex in a flower van (actually, the spies' listening post) Carmet’s reaction to the goings on is one of the high points.

There was the inevitable US remake: The Man with One Red Shoe with Tom Hanks -- not a film that Hanks points to with pride on his resume.  There was also a sequel The Return of the Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, which I haven't seen, but which seems to be well regarded.

Other than the sequel, none of Robert's movies were particularly well known in the US.  Richard had a comedy success with Les Comperes, which also spawned an inferior US version (Father's Day).  Jean Rochefort was a major European star, and, unfortunately, didn’t star in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

So don't let the subtitles put you off:  this is a film worth seeking out.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Return to Oz

Directed by Walter Murch
Starring Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, and Piper Laurie
IMDB Entry

When you come right down to it, making Return to Oz was an act of madness.  Why do a sequel to one of the most beloved films of all time, 46 years after it comes out?  How in the world did anyone ever think it would be a success?

And it wasn't.  But it deserved to be.

It's not truly a sequel, first of all.  Oh, sure, there are references to the MGM film (notably the ruby slippers, which didn't exist in the L. Frank Baum novels), but, really, this is an entirely different film based primarily on a couple of other Oz books.  The intention was the film the books, but the script added references to elements of The Wizard of Oz, probably to keep the audiences from being confused (though it probably just increased the confusion).

Tik Tok and Dorothy from Return to OzReturn to Oz is the dark image of the Judy Garland film.  In it, Dorothy is considered mentally ill for insisting that Oz exists.  When she finally makes it there, Oz is a desolate wasteland.  The main villain (Jean Marsh) is a witch with no head of her own, but who keeps the heads of beautiful women in jars for her own use.  Dorothy meets Tik-Tok, a clockwork man, who has two keys to wind him up:  one that makes him move, the other that makes him think. 

The bizarre imagery comes from L. Frank Baum, and director Walter Murch (his only film; he remains busy as an editor and sound technician) chose to highlight the darkness of Baum's vision of Oz. There are no songs, and parts of the film are truly frightening.

Fairuza Balk was 9 at the time she played Dorothy, about the same age as Dorothy was in the books.  Unlike Garland, who plays Dorothy as being younger than her own age, Balk plays the role as though she were a bit older.  She has a great deal of gravity in the role, and is very believable as the heroine.  Balk is still acting today, one of the few child actresses who go on to a successful adult career.

The film opened to horrendous reviews and audience apathy.  People went into it -- if they went at all -- expecting a duplication of the charming wonders of the original.  No film would have been able to have matched that, but when people saw it was an entirely different and darker direction (and in a Disney film, at that), the knives came out.  I remember seeing Siskel and Ebert bemoaning the darkness of the film without understanding that was the point.  Disney's head of film production said at the time, "The most difficult marketing problem will be to get audiences to come in with an open mind."  That problem turned out to be insurmountable (There also may have been some studio politics in play, and film was set up to fail).

But, in many ways, it was ahead of its time, a dark journey through the nightmares of youth.  It does appear that the film is getting a critical rediscovery as people learn it is . . . well, Great but Forgotten.