Tag Archives: Robert Altman

Popeye (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: He doesn’t like spinach.

Popeye (Robin Williams) is a sailor who travels to the seaside village of Sweet Haven in search of his long lost father (Ray Walston). It is there that he moves into the upstairs room of the Oyl residence and becomes attracted to their daughter Olive (Shelley Duvall). Olive though is engaged to the gruff Bluto (Paul L. Smith) whose bullying ways is giving Olive second thoughts. When she tries to leave town in order to avoid the impending marriage she meets Popeye and they get into a relationship while also coming upon an orphaned baby that they name Swee’pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt), but Bluto becomes determined to destroy their union by kidnapping the child.

I remember watching the Popeye cartoons growing up and while I was never much of a fan this film version fails to replicate the original storylines. In the cartoons the relationship between Olive and Popeye seemed in constant flux and many times Olive would be ‘stolen away’ by Bluto’s courting and Popeye would have to win her back. Here the confrontations between Bluto and Popeye are played down significantly and there’s only two fight sequences between them and they last for only a few minutes.

The biggest difference though is that here Popeye doesn’t like spinach even though in the cartoons his spinach consumption was the whole reason he got his strength. Apparently when Popeye was introduced in 1929 he got his strength from rubbing the hairs on a magical whiffle hen named Bernice, but modern day audiences equate Popeye with spinach and changing this concept makes it seem like the film is not staying true to form. Kids who enjoyed the cartoons come to the movie expecting the same theme not watching something that’s going to take what they love into a completely different direction. What’s worse is that here there’s no explanation for how Popeye gets his amazing strength, which makes the already loopy storyline even dumber.

Williams gives a great performance, but his presence gets drowned out by the introduction of too many other characters including Paul Dooley as Wimpy who almost seems to have more screen time. Watching Walston play an older version of Popeye as the father is not funny, but instead incredibly annoying and again only helps to overshadow Williams’ great work.

I originally thought the casting of Duvall was inspired as I don’t think there’s any other actress living or dead who shares the physical traits of the Olive Oyl character quite as well as Duvall and in fact she admitted in interviews that she was nicknamed Olive Oyl by the school kids growing up. However, she overplays Olive’s nervous mannerisms which become repetitive and irritating while her attempts at singing are beyond bad.

The town of Sweet Haven, which took seven months to construct and consisted of 19 buildings built off the cost of Malta that still stands today, are the film’s strongest element, but everything else from its unfocused script evaporates into a mass sea of boredom. Robert Altman, who can be a great director at times, was the wrong choice for this type of production. He excels at doing existential adult dramas not kiddie flicks and children watching this thing will most assuredly become bored and the adults will too.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 12, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

COME BACK TO THE FIVE & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN, Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black, 1982, (c) Cinecom Pictures

COME BACK TO THE FIVE & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN, Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black, 1982, (c) Cinecom Pictures

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Disciples of James Dean.

Twenty years after his untimely death five women (Cher, Sandy Dennis, Karen Black, Kathy Bates, Marta Heflin), who were big fans of James Dean and called themselves his disciples, decide to hold a reunion at a thrift shop in a small town not far from Marfa, Texas where the film Giant was made. However, the reunion is not a happy one as old wounds and secrets come to light that forces the women to analyze themselves and their lives in uncomfortable and unpleasant ways.

One of the things that really annoyed me about this movie and at times just downright confused me is that the characters show no signs of aging at all as it shifts between 1955 and the present day of 1975. Twenty years is a significant period of time and most everyone will show some signs of age, or at least changes to their hairstyle and outfits and yet with the exception of the Joe character there is no distinguishable differences between the others from one period to the next. The Cher character was particularly perplexing as her hair remains jet black for two decades and even the same exact style. One could argue that maybe she dyed it, okay, but she also manages to somehow retain her same girlish figure, which is even less likely.

I also found it hard to believe that she could afford to make a living by working at little thrift store for 20 years, or that she would even be needed as the place was small enough for one person to run and through the course of the entire movie never once does a single customer even enter the place. Her character was attractive enough to find a man, get married and run off to another town or place that had more potential. We learn through the course of the movie that she was married at one point, but then dumped, however I would think she would’ve been able to find someone else in a 20 year time span especially since she was still quite good looking.

Keeping all of the action inside the thrift store makes the film seem almost claustrophobic. I realize this was based on a stage play, but most plays that get transferred to film will have certain scenes, or cutaways added in to avoid this feeling. Even having some outdoor shots done over the opening credits would’ve given it a little more of a visual variety.

The performances are the best thing about the movie and probably the only reason to see it. All three leads recreate their parts from the stage version. Cher is sensational and in my opinion gives the best performance. Dennis is solid doing her patented fragile caricature and who displays some interesting emotional eruptions at completely unexpected times. Black is excellent as well. Usually she plays flaky types, but here is more reserved and steely. Bates is good as a loud and abrasive woman and Sudie Bond lends fine support as the shop’s overtly religious owner.

The script is passable, but the revelations that come out are stuff you’d find on a second-rate soap opera. I also found it hard to believe that these women would get together after 20 years and not have other things to talk about. Usually when people meet after not seeing each other for an extended period of time there’s always a lot of ‘catching up’ to do where they talk about all the things that have happened to them since, but here there’s none of that. Instead they come off like people frozen in time clinging to bygone issues that just about anyone else would’ve moved on from long ago.

The film ends with several shots of the store shown in an abandoned and rundown state, but with no explanation of what time period it was taken in. At first I thought this meant that maybe the reunion had never occurred. That maybe it had just been imagined, which is a concept that I liked and would also have filled in some of the gaping plot holes that I’ve described above, but then I saw the reunion banner still hanging in a tattered state from the ceiling. Others on IMDb have debated that it may represent the reunion that they had planned for 1995 that never came about, which is a good guess, but with business being as slow as it  was at that place I think it would’ve been abandoned long before 1975 let alone 1995.

come back 1

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: November 12, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: Cinecom Pictures

Available: DVD

HealtH (1980)

health 4

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Altman’s take on politics.

Normally I’m a big proponent of the European and independent filmmaking system that allows the director to have complete creative control over their projects, which in Hollywood doesn’t always occur and many times the studios will meddle with the film until it becomes nothing like what the director had originally envisioned. However, this film is a great example of what can happen on the opposite end when a director and his ego are allowed too much leeway until their movies become self-indulgent exercises that appeals to no one except themselves and a few of their most ardent followers.

During the ‘70s director Robert Altman had achieved such heightened celebrity that 20th Century Fox studio head Alan Ladd Jr. gave him the green light on virtually any project or idea he wished to pursue. Ladd was such a big fan of Altman’s stuff that he didn’t even care if the film made money or not, which they usually didn’t. It was during this period that Altman was able to achieve some of his most bizarre onscreen creations like Brewster McCloud, which was brilliantly quirky, while others like this one petered out before they even began.

Here Altman was clearly borrowing from his own well particularly with the way he captured running conversations going on at the same time between different people that 10 years earlier had come off as being fresh and inventive, but by this time was now derivative and distracting. The film’s parade of eccentric characters is not interesting or relatable and Altman’s stab at political satire is too soft and unfocused with no connection at all to the political scene of today.

health 3

The threadbare plot, which deals with two political candidates played by Glenda Jackson and Lauren Bacall who compete for the presidency of a Florida health food convention, has too much dialogue and not enough action. It manages to be mildly amusing for the first 30 minutes, but then like with a tire suffering from a slow leak it starts to fizzle until it culminates with a dull and pointless conclusion.

It’s almost worth a look just to see Carol Burnett playing a more subdued type of character than she usually does although the part where she becomes ‘shocked’ at the rumor that her favorite candidate had a sex change operation now seems quite dated. Dick Cavett is also engaging playing himself and trying to corral all the nuttiness around him, but it’s Paul Dooley, who is also credited with co-writing the screenplay, that is the real scene stealer playing an independent candidate willing to do anything for attention.

I’m a big fan of Altman’s work, but I found this one to be slow going, uneventful and sloppy. The film’s concept could’ve used a lot more fleshing out as the whole thing plays like it was simply a lark done by a director that was coasting too much on his past successes while not throwing anything new into the mix.

health 1

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: September 12, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: None at this time.

3 Women (1977)

3 women 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Three women share bond.

Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is a young woman still searching for an identity who gets a job at a senior health spa. She becomes attracted to one of the trainers there named Mille (Shelley Duvall) and when Millie posts a notice that she is looking for a roommate Pinky is the first to respond. Since Millie is quite lonely she initially enjoys the attention that Pinky gives her and her still adolescent tendencies coincides with Millie’s paternal ones. Things though turn rocky and when Millie kicks Pinky out of the apartment in a rage Pinky responds by attempting to commit suicide by drowning herself. After she is saved the two begin to switch identities with Pinky becoming more aggressive and snarky while Millie becomes the passive one. Their merging identities also includes Willie (Janice Rule) a pregnant bar owner whose provocative murals hold an entrancing grip on Pinky.

This cerebral film, which was produced without any type of script and based solely on some of Robert Altman’s dreams was made during the director’s heyday when he could literally get just about anything he wanted financed by a movie studio. In fact it was while driving to catch a plane that Altman told his traveling partner to stop off at the studio so he could pitch this idea to the them, which he assured him would only take ‘a few minutes’, which it did. Even though it became a critical darling it did poorly at the box office and was in and out of the theaters in a matter of a few weeks.

Overall I’m a big fan of Altman’s work, but found this one to run longer than needed with what seemed like a lot of extraneous dialogue much of which was ad-libbed by the performers. The idea that people can shift between being passive or aggressive at any given time depending on the circumstances is an interesting one and I certainly enjoyed the murals, which were made specifically for the film, but the appropriated title should’ve been ‘2 women’ instead of 3 as Rule’s character barely says anything and is hardly seen at all.

Spacek gives the best performance and in my opinion she was the best thing about the movie. Duvall is good too and it was entertaining to see her playing more of the grounded one as usually she’s cast as the kooky types. I also thought it was cool that both Duvall’s and Spacek’s characters where from the same hometown’s in Texas as the actresses were with Duvall’s being Houston and Spacek’s was Quitman.

It is also fun seeing Dennis Christopher in an early career role appearing late in the film as a delivery man. Altman also casts real-life couple John Cromwell and Ruth Nelson as Pinky’s parents. Both Cromwell, who is also the father of actor James Cromwell, and Nelson were blacklisted in the 50’s during the McCarthy era and in fact this marked Nelson’s first film appearance in 29 years.

The dream sequence is cool, but everything else comes off like a weak version of Persona, which was far superior. The surreal ending leaves too much open to personal interpretation, which was frustrating. I also thought it was dumb that Millie reads Pinky’s diary entries out loud like she is a second grader and they really should’ve had her do it as a voice-over. It was also the first childbirth I had ever seen were the baby comes out of the womb without an umbilical cord.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: April 3, 1977

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Brewster McCloud (1970)

brewster mccloud 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Flying in the Astrodome.

Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) is a young man who lives and hides inside the giant Astrodome in Houston, Texas. He dreams of one day flying like a bird and secretly works on building a contraption that will help him do it while being aided by a mysterious guardian angel named Louise (Sally Kellerman). Meanwhile strangulations start occurring all over the city and the police become convinced that Brewster may have something to do with it. As he gets ready to ‘spread his wings’ and fly for the first time the police surround the place and try to arrest him.

This film is reportedly director Robert Altman’s favorite out of all the ones that he did and it is easy to see why. The quirky, offbeat script by Doran William Cannon nicely compliments Altman’s free-form, cerebral style. The film works on many different levels with every shot and scene being unique and a kind of story in itself. The dream-like quality is nicely balanced with harsh realities creating an interesting theme that touches a wide array of senses. Although this film is never mentioned in relation to car chases the one that is has is exciting and well photographed without any of the jump cuts that you normally see.

The city of Houston gets captured well and I liked the fact that Altman stayed away from the downtown and instead focused more on the neighborhoods and city streets. The filming of the inside of the Astrodome is the most impressive and the building becomes like a third character. It may seem hard to believe now, but at one time it was considered ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ and was the very first dome stadium in existence. Watching Cort fly around on the makeshift wings he creates gives off an exhilarating feeling especially with the way Altman captures it against the backdrop of the stadium’s ceiling filled with skylights. The best shot in my opinion though is the bird’s-eye view of seeing Kellerman walking the entire length of the field and out the exit.

The broad and amusing characterizations are fun and Altman gives his actors wide range to create them. Some of the best ones are Stacy Keach who is unrecognizable under heavy make-up as an elderly, cantankerous and greedy landlord who goes reeling down the city streets in nothing but a wheel chair. Bert Remsen is good as a corrupt and racist policeman who even beats and berates his own family. Michael Murphy is interesting as a narcissist, hotshot detective who ends up killing himself and Rene Auberjonois as the lecturer who slowly turns into a giant bird as the film progresses. There is even the aging Margaret Hamilton who says a few curse words and dies while wearing her ruby red slippers.

The film is one-of-a-kind and perfect fare for those looking for something offbeat and diverting. The kooky opening and ending title sequences alone make it worth it. My only real complaint would be the fact that supposedly a bird is committing all these strangulations, but we never see how. All the viewers see is the victims getting bird poop on them and nothing more. I realize this might have been technically difficult to film or visualize, but for such an otherwise creative movie this seems like a bit of a cop-out.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: December 5, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: MGM

Available: VHS, DVD

California Split (1974)

california split

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Guys addicted to gambling.

There is a scene in The Gambler, which is a similar movie to this one and came out around the same time, where actor James Caan’s character is on the beach with his mother. He writes in the sand $44,000. This is the amount he owes in gambling debt and the amount he needs from her. He can’t bring himself to ask her directly so he writes it instead. His mother gasps when she sees the amount and then asks “How is such a thing possible?!” It is for that reason that making a movie about someone with a gambling addiction is so intriguing. What exactly is it that could propel someone to act so foolishly with their money? Unfortunately both films promised a lot, but delivered little. Worse yet both are uninvolving and boring.

In this case the film fails to ever get inside the character’s heads. We have no idea what personality traits a gambler may have nor their background or relationships. We simply see two rather bland middle-aged men getting together and going through their gambling paces. Apparently the idea was to show a gambler doing his thing and hope to find some ‘truth’ from it. Well it doesn’t work. It’s tantamount to a novice writer scribbling out some rambling prose and hoping to get a story. It all just proves that the filmmakers have no more insight into this phenomenon than anyone else.

Director Robert Altman seems more interested in keeping things light and entertaining. Normally his eccentric touches help compliment the film, but here it gets in the way. For example there is a long drawn out scene featuring Bert Remsen’s character that likes to dress up like a woman that is completely unnecessary and bogs everything down.

Elliot Gould’s wise guy, wise cracking ways become obnoxious and never once does he come off as a man gripped by an addiction. George Segal shows a little more of an emotional downside, but it seems forced.

The film hits its mark only once and that is when it focuses on a big poker game, played in Reno, by the country’s top players. Listening to Gould describe to Segal all the traits of each player is interesting. It helps show what a psychological game poker really is, but unfortunately it doesn’t get to this part until the very end and then only for a short while.

In the category of ambiance Altman scores as usual. The faces of the people at the casinos are etched in character. You can almost smell the hanging second-hand-smoke and Dorothy Showalter’s brassy, slightly off-key singing gives the soundtrack a distinct flavor.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: August 7, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Images (1972)

images

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Demons of the mind.

This is the missing link for any Robert Altman fan or detractor as this is different from any of his other films and completely original from beginning to end. Not only was it way ahead of its time, but proves that he is deftly skilled at handling any directorial task or material.

The story involves a tormented and emotionally fragile woman named Cathryn (Susannah York) who starts to see strange visions. These visions seem so real that she can no longer tell if they are all just inside her head and decides the only way to get rid of them is to mentally ‘kill’ them, but this in turn only leads to further complications.

What really makes this a unique film is that you get inside this woman’s head and actually start to understand her logic and experience her torment. The film also makes terrific use of silence and uses it to accentuate the isolation that the character feels. The setting has a sort of surreal quality and the location of the house is impressively remote.

York has a knack for playing victimized and vulnerable women. In many ways her role here seems like an extension of her character from The Killing of Sister George. Although she makes you sympathetic to her predicament her screams are too screechy and fail to attain the shrillness that would create the startling effect that the filmmakers desired.

The real star may actually be Vilmos Zsigmond and his cinematography. His framing and composition is not only flawless, but breathtaking. He makes the wintertime Irish countryside look like a whole different world and the stillness of the lake that is shown seems almost unreal.

There are a few too many obvious and clichéd shots of mirrors and puzzles and it could also gone much further with its unusual premise. Still this is a unique and entertaining movie that should keep you guessing all the way to the end. The pace is slow, but deliberate with a payoff that is worth it.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1972

Runtime: 1Hour 41Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD

Countdown (1967)

countdown

By Richard Winters

My Rating:  7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Man lands on moon.

Lee (James Caan) and Chiz (Robert Duvall) are astronauts who are part of the Apollo 3 mission training to land on the moon. The liftoff date is still a year away when it is found that the Russians have already built a rocket ready for takeoff and plan on sending a man to the moon within the next few days. NASA decides to beat the Soviets by sending one of their men in an older style rocket and then having him live there for one year inside a shelter. Lee is chosen to go instead of Chiz much to his consternation and despite the fact that he had more training, but the project proves to be even more difficult than expected and Lee’s inexperience creates concerns that it might not succeed.

This is an unusual space drama in the fact that you see very little action that takes place in outer space or the moon. The main emphasis is on the human point-of-view both with the people directly involved with the project as well as their families and loved ones. The movie focuses on the behind-the-scenes competition and politics and in the process creates a realistic and vivid viewpoint. The story is engrossing and compelling wrapping the viewer in right away and never letting them go. Despite being over 40-years-old it doesn’t seem dated at all and I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching a 60’s movie.

Duvall is a standout as the very emotional and competitive Chiz. I enjoyed seeing the way he initially refuses to help Lee train for the mission when it is found that he was chosen instead of himself, but then reluctantly comes around and becomes both Lee’s mentor and biggest source of support. Caan’s more restrained performance is a nice contrast to Duvall’s volatile one and it is interesting to compare the work the two do here with The Godfather film that they both starred in 5 years later where they played the completely opposite characters.

Joanna Moore is also excellent as Lee’s wife Mickey who goes through a mixed bag of emotions during Lee’s tumultuous training and eventual flight. She’s the first wife of Ryan O’Neal and the mother of Tatum and Griffin who never achieved stardom due to her bouts with alcoholism and guest starred more in TV-shows than movies, but I have always found her to be impressive and unique in everything that I have seen her in. This is also a great chance to see up-and-coming actors in bit roles including Ted Knight, Mike Farrell, and Michael Murphy.

This was director Robert Altman’s first theatrical feature and he does great work here although you will not see any of his trademark ‘Altmanisisms’.  I did see it budding in certain small ways including a party scene that seemed like a real get together with people actually congregating and having lingering background conversations as the camera moves through the crowd versus the conventional way where the main characters stand directly in front of the camera and then only shows stand-ins in the background who are out-of-focus and moving their mouths, but not really saying anything. I also liked that when they are counting down for liftoff it gets paused when a technical issue is found.  This reminded me of the many times when I would watch on television in the 80’s the countdown for the Space Shuttle liftoff and how it would get paused in a similar way sometimes with just a few seconds to go because of certain similar glitches. Most films fail to show this, so it was nice to see it here.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: August 20, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD (Warner Archive)