Category Archives: Drama

Thieves Like Us (1974, Robert Altman)

Altman never does a film half-assed. Either it’s great or it’s shit. How one of his films can be shit is varied, but the shitty ones are always just plain… shitty. There’s no formula to figuring out how an Altman film is going to be–usually, if Altman thinks it’s shit, it’s good (M*A*S*H, The Player). Thieves Like Us is small, the big cast doesn’t occupy the running time. The main characters really are the main characters. I’ve been dreading Thieves for a few weeks now and I’m sorry I did. I probably should have checked the screenwriters. I would have felt better. Calder Willingham wrote Little Big Man, The Graduate, and Paths of Glory. I don’t know how you can get safer than him….

It’s not just the writing or the direction–Altman really likes setting a film in the 1930s, it lets him use radio programs instead of a score. That method seems very Altman-like. The cast, as they used to be in Altman films, is impeccable. Keith Carradine means little to me except his 1990s schlock work and Shelley Duvall has always just meant bad. Their romance holds the film together and it’s a wonderful little gem of a movie romance. You enjoy watching them fall in love. John Schuck and Bert Remsen are the other titular thieves and both are excellent. A pre-Cuckoo’s Nest Louise Fletcher shows up… It’s just a fantastic cast, great acting.

Of course, Thieves Like Us is not available on DVD in the US. I rented it from Nicheflix. It’s another title waiting for the rock stars at Sony to decide what to do with it (however, if they cancelled special editions of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, how high a priority is Thieves going to be?). It’s no fair, of course, since there should be at least six good Altman films available on DVD and I doubt there are….

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Calder Willingham, Joan Tewkesbury and Altman, based on the novel by Edward Anderson; director of photography, Jean Bouffety; edited by Lou Lombardo; produced by Jerry Bick; distributed by United Artists.

Starring Keith Carradine (Bowie), Shelley Duvall (Keechie), John Schuck (Chicamaw), Bert Remsen (T-Dub), Louise Fletcher (Mattie), Ann Latham (Lula) and Tom Skerritt (Dee Mobley).


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Matewan (1987, John Sayles)

What was that? Did anyone else see that? (Probably not, I’m watching the Canadian widescreen DVD).

Sayles actually ripped off the looking at the camera bit from The 400 Blows. He actually did it–while having the character’s future self narrate the epilogue. I’ve been dreading watching Matewan for over a year, since April 2004 in fact. I thought the dread came from my having only seen Matewan in school, but I guess I was just being smart. Matewan is easily Sayles’ worst film. It’s also one of his only “bad” ones. Matewan isn’t that bad, of course (get to that in a second), it’s just propaganda. Sure, it’s historically accurate, but it’s also propaganda. Management abusing labor is a fact and it’s a crime and Matewan is accurate in its depiction of it. But. Sayles presents one agent of management as a human being. The rest are not. The rest are villains. So, if there’s a shoot out with the villains, it’s impossible to care about them, impossible to think their deaths are at all a tragedy. Their deaths are weightless. Even Lethal Weapon 2 made excuses about its level of violence. It’s a disappointment, but Matewan is also Sayles’ first “big” film and it obviously got away from him.

There are signs of the Sayles goodness, of course. There are lots of interesting characters, but he doesn’t know what to do with them. There’s still too much of a story, instead of all the little stories that usually propel his films. There’s the Sayles cast, Chris Cooper and David Straithairn and Mary McDonnell are all excellent, Cooper the most. It’s hard to believe he didn’t become a vanilla leading man after Matewan.

I’m incredibly upset about this film… I was off movies because Stripes was so shitty, because an Ivan Reitman/Bill Murray picture was so painfully mediocre (and unfunny). What is a bad John Sayles movie going to do to me?

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Sayles; director of photography, Haskell Wexler; edited by Sonya Polonsky; music by Mason Daring; production designer, Nora Chavooshian; produced by Maggie Renzi and Peggy Rajski; released by Cinecom Pictures.

Starring Chris Cooper (Joe Kenehan), James Earl Jones (‘Few Clothes’ Johnson), Mary McDonnell (Elma Radnor), Will Oldham (Danny Radnor), David Strathairn (Police Chief Sid Hatfield), Ken Jenkins (Sephus Purcell), Gordon Clapp (Griggs), Kevin Tighe (Hickey), John Sayles (Hardshell Preacher), Bob Gunton (C.E. Lively), Josh Mostel (Mayor Cabell Testerman), Nancy Mette (Bridey Mae), Jace Alexander (Hillard Elkins), Joe Grifasi (Fausto), Gary McCleery (Ludie), Jo Henderson (Mrs. Elkins), Maggie Renzi (Rosaria), Tom Wright (Tom), Michael B. Preston (Ellix), Tom Carlin (Turley) and Jenni Cline (Luann).


Clean (2004, Olivier Assayas)

Clean answers a number of burning questions. Burning to someone, just not me.

  1. Olivier Assayas is an excellent director.
  2. Olivier Assayas is a terrible writer.
  3. Maggie Cheung cannot act in English.
  4. Maggie Cheung cannot sing in English.
  5. Nick Nolte can survive anything.

I was surprised by numbers 1 and 3. Not so much by the rest.

After creating such a beautiful visual experience, you’d think Assayas would know something about directing actors. He does not. His direction, specifically, of the little kid in the film is astounding. It’s the worst performance of a child actor I’ve witnessed as a reasoning human being. Watching the film, you can see the kid getting direction like: be precocious. It’s awful.

I’ve seen another Assayas film, also starring Cheung (his wife), Irma Vep, but she doesn’t speak English in that one. Assayas seems obsessed with the idea of his wife in a lesbian relationship, introducing the possibility in both these films, but never following through. It’s peculiar, nothing else, and the relationship’s introduced in this film as another of its tangents.

Clean runs about 110 minutes and is filled with needless fade outs (read my recent review of Olga’s Chignon for how transitions ought to be done) and these title cards, telling us the location and the time past. There’s actually one that says “London. A few days later.” Like we couldn’t figure it out.

As a film about someone overcoming drug addiction, Clean is probably the worst. Comparing it to the standards, Clean and Sober and Trainspotting, it’s so ineffective, the drug addiction aspect could be removed and replaced by something and it wouldn’t change a thing. The lead is not a flake because she’s a drug addict. She’s a flake because she’s a flake. The drugs are wholly incidental–my favorite scene, actually, is when she explains why people need to do drugs to her five-year old son.

Cheung actually won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this film and… well, it makes me wonder. What the kind of drugs do the voters at Cannes get? I want some.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Olivier Assayas; director of photography, Éric Gautier; edited by Luc Barnier; produced by Édouard Weil, Xavier Giannoli, Xavier Marchand and Niv Fichman; released by Palm Pictures.

Starring Maggie Cheung (Emily Wang), Nick Nolte (Albrecht Hauser), James Dennis (Jay), Béatrice Dalle (Elena), Jeanne Balibar (Irène Paolini), Don McKellar (Vernon) and Martha Henry (Rosemary Hauser).


White Dog (1982, Samuel Fuller)

I kept getting sad during White Dog, probably for a few reasons. First, the film is effective: it’s about people faced with a reality (a racist training his dog to attack black people) they can’t fix, but they’re going to try. I have a bootleg from Denmark (everyone’s bootleg is from Denmark), but hadn’t watched it. Only the end.

Second, because White Dog is a different Sam Fuller. It’s an early 1980s Fuller telling a contemporary story, using more advanced filming technology (location cranes and steadycam), with an Ennio Morricone score. I kept getting sad because White Dog‘s Fuller had a lot of interesting films in him and folks ran him out of the country without even seeing his film.

And White Dog has a lot going for it. The only Paul Winfield-lead I’m aware of–he’s so good. Unless black guys star in action movies, they never get any recognition… Kristy MacNichol proves cutesy actress icons used to be able to act. Burl Ives is good. White Dog is a good film. It’s not a great film, however, because it’s too short. It runs about ninety minutes and there are two ideas never developed on–MacNichol’s boyfriend, played by “Simon and Simon” star Jameson Parker–yeah, he’s good too–was supposed to write something about her and the dog and some tranquilizers got replaced with regular darts but never showed up again. The tranquilizer scene probably was lost when Fuller absconded with a print over to France. With the writer part, I’m just correcting it in my head–ol’ boy writes an article, brings out the dog’s proud owner (who shows up in the third act for a second, letting MacNichol show why “son of a bitch” can be a great descriptor), and lets the characters get some sort of closure. I made up all of the parts past the darts. Fuller never intended of those–that I know of. Maybe I’m sitting here eating chocolate cake, drinking soymilk and channeling him, but I doubt it.

Before the film started, the college kid introduced White Dog as criminally under-seen and criminally unreleased on DVD. He was right on both parts, even though they’re really the same thing. I always hate seeing films about race in America and realizing that things have gotten worse. No one talks about it anymore, but there’s more division than there was when I was a kid. White Dog tries to talk about it. In contrast, Crash tries to tell you about it….

As for White Dog and you good people getting to see it–there’s always shitty Danish bootlegs and there’s always a chance the French will save it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Samuel Fuller; screenplay by Fuller and Curtis Hanson, based on a story by Romain Gary; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Bernard Gribble; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Brian Eatwell; produced by Jon Davison; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kristy McNichol (Julie Sawyer), Paul Winfield (Keys), Burl Ives (Carruthers) and Jameson Parker (Roland Gray).