The Long Goodbye (1973, Robert Altman)

From the first scene in The Long Goodbye, it’s obvious Robert Altman was on to something with casting Elliott Gould as a character (Philip Marlowe) most famously personified by Humphrey Bogart. It isn’t just Gould not being Bogart and Gould not being a traditional noir detective in any way (Gould’s Marlowe is more concerned with his cat), it’s also very simple–it’s Elliott Gould. Gould’s performance in Long Goodbye is certainly the most different from his traditional performances (the ones he still does today); the most actorly, even though “actorly” isn’t a word. But part of Gould’s initial effectiveness–before the mystery aspect takes off (and it’s Chandler, so it’s never about who done it but about the detective trying to find out who done it)–is seeing Gould play this role and not give that traditional performance. For the first few minutes, it creates some disturbance, but Gould’s almost immediately successful in his part. Altman waits a little while–giving Gould the initial adventures–to ease the audience into it, but then he runs with it.

The Long Goodbye is most stunning through its sound. Though Altman’s got an almost constantly moving (even if it’s just slightly panning) camera, the sound design sets it apart from everything else. The mystery aspect is, like I said before, not so mysterious, but the rest of the film is convoluted in that Chandler way and Altman will bring up the sounds of the waves to further confound understanding. Much of the Philip Marlowe commentary on the human situation is kept, but it’s lowered in volume–Gould mutters it when he walks along, the people he encounters either asking him to repeat it or to explain it.

Of all Altman’s films, certainly those he made after Nashville, The Long Goodbye seems to be the one he’s most visibly excited about. Even when it’s a film he loves, he’s always slightly bored with the filmmaking processes–even when he’s doing his famous (self-loathing) crane shots or when he’s doing interesting sound work. The Long Goodbye is the least Altman-esque film I’ve seen and probably his best.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; written by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Lou Lombardo; music by John Williams; produced by Jerry Bick; released by United Artists.

Starring Elliott Gould (Philip Marlowe), Nina Van Pallandt (Eileen Wade), Sterling Hayden (Roger Wade), Mark Rydell (Marty Augustine), Henry Gibson (Dr. Verringer), David Arkin (Harry), Jim Bouton (Terry Lennox) and Stephen Coit (Farmer).


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8 Million Ways to Die (1986, Hal Ashby)

About halfway through 8 Million Ways to Die, I realized–thanks to a boom mike–my twenty year-old laserdisc was open matte, not pan and scan. The widescreen zoomed suddenly made the shots tighter and crisper, regaining Ashby’s usually calmness. I suppose I should have stopped and went back to the beginning to see if it made any difference, but I doubt it. The first forty minutes of 8 Million Ways to Die suffer multiple plagues–summary storytelling, sometimes good but Jeff Bridges’s wife in the movie doesn’t even have a line when she’s on screen it’s all so fast; Alexandra Paul, who’s supposed to be playing a “wuss,” so maybe her crappy performance is intentional; and Rosanna Arquette. At the halfway point, moments after I saw that boom mike (it actually was a mike for Arquette), she changes. Goes from being bad to being good (sometimes great) in the rest of the film.

8 Million Ways to Die is a Chandler-esq “mystery” where the detective forces his way through the case instead of actually detecting anything. It’s solved because the bad guy comes shooting for the detective. But once the film gets going, the problems with the story fall away. Throughout, Jeff Bridges is absolutely amazing. It’s probably his best performance. Watching it, I wanted to rewind and watch him think about what to say next again. Amazing performance. And once Arquette takes off, Bridges is in good company. Supporting suspect slash good guy Randy Brooks is good and has some nice moments, but Andy Garcia’s great as the bad guy. It’s a wild, eccentric performance and Garcia doesn’t do these things anymore. He’s crazy; he’s great.

So Bridges and some Ashby’s real nice stuff in here–the studio the movie away from him but whoever cut it did a nice job fitting the music and sound (some shoddy cuts here and there though, lack of coverage and such)–but the really amazing thing about 8 Million Ways to Die is this five minute scene between Arquette and Bridges when they talk. They have coffee and wash dishes but they mostly talk and very naturalistic and it’s unlike most scenes in every other movie ever made. To say there aren’t scenes like it enough doesn’t go far enough, because seeing it suggests maybe all scenes should be like it. It’s beautiful.

I actually found 8 Million Ways to Die in a box of other unreleased-on-DVD laserdiscs I didn’t know I still had. It’s a shame it’s not out, but I can’t control Lionsgate or whatever likely lousy company owns the rights. But I did lose track of this film somewhere in the last eight or nine years and I really shouldn’t have.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Hal Ashby; screenplay by Oliver Stone and David Lee Henry, from a novel by Lawrence Block; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Robert Lawrence and Stuart H. Pappé; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Michael D. Haller; produced by Stephen J. Roth; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Matthew Scudder), Rosanna Arquette (Sarah), Alexandra Paul (Sunny), Randy Brooks (Chance), Andy Garcia (Angel Maldonado), Lisa Sloan (Linda Scudder), Christa Denton (Laurie Scudder), Vance Valencia (Quintero), Vyto Ruginis (Joe Durkin) and Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister (Nose Guard).


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The Godfather: Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)

Francis Ford Coppola created the modern film sequel with The Godfather: Part II. I wonder how people who’ve never seen the first one understand the second one. I was talking to a friend about it and he described it as the best filmic account of “the darkening of a man’s heart.” I hadn’t seen it in ten years and while that description is perfect, I found it interesting without knowledge of the original, it’d wouldn’t really work. One might figure out something was a little off, since Michael’s not exactly a person to spend 140 minutes with. Even the last scene moves away from giving any context to the character’s tragedy, instead going further–adding an unexpected layer to the character, reversing some of the viewer’s assumptions (ones the same scene had initially–and this scene is at most four minutes–reestablished).

In many ways, it’s a more depressing version of Citizen Kane, one where it never occurs to Kane to keep the snow globe (which is a good reason there’s no possible sequel, not one with Michael anyway). The juxtaposing of the two stories, father and son… I’m sure there’s been a lot said about how they work but I’m going for a more cynical approach. Robert De Niro’s story is in there as a reward for the viewer. The first film is not a tragedy, tragedy being a soft word for what goes on in this film, and it provides a release valve. Characters with known futures appear and there’s no need for actual concern for the characters. The scenes do offer a singular look at the Don’s marriage, giving Francesca De Sapio more to do as young Mama Corleone than Morgana King ever has.

The scenes also have action, something the Pacino parts of the film lack after the first half. While the opening Michael scenes resemble the first film–both in style and content–it quickly becomes about his relationships with his family. The first half of the last scene speaks directly to that focus, while the second half suggests something different, something more tragic, something about the relationship with Kay. That suggestion requires having seen the first film and it’s an example of this thing Coppola does in Part II. He gently forces the viewer into situations the viewer may not be looking for, but Coppola is interesting in exploring. When the film started, in Sicily, with the exposition text onscreen, I thought Coppola had some incredible affection for his characters, then quickly realized he didn’t… he was utilizing the viewer’s affection for the characters to create an atmosphere in which he could tell the story.

It’s a great film. It also has that moment Gene Siskel once wrote about, discussing The Bridges of Madison County, when the viewer knows something is going to happen, but believes his or her hope might change the characters’ minds. I’m paraphrasing. I’d never seen it in anything other than Madison County and thought about it, but watching Part II, I didn’t remember until halfway through the scene Michael closes the door and, for that second half, I kept hoping I was wrong.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by Mario Puzo and Coppola, based on the novel by Puzo; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Barry Malkin, Richard Marks and Peter Zinner; music by Nino Rota; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Al Pacino (Michael), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Diane Keaton (Kay), Robert De Niro (Vito Corleone), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone), Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth), Michael V. Gazzo (Frankie Pentangeli), G.D. Spradlin (Senator Geary) and Richard Bright (Al Neri).


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The Dead Girl (2006, Karen Moncrieff)

I had assumed, just because of the large cast, a Nashville approach for this film. However, frighteningly, I think it might have been inspired by Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity (the film, not the short story collection). The stories are all independent, more about their central characters than about the event tying them together, in this case, a dead girl. The stories range in quality from terrible to mediocre. Even if they’re mediocre, they don’t have a decent conclusion. The most interesting part of these stories is what is going to happen next. In fact, in most cases, the only important thing is what is going to happen next and the film makes no assumptions. In some ways, it creates unsolvable cliffhangers for the characters… baiting the viewer with an ominous promise (the possible killer, the suicide attempt) then delivering on nothing.

There are five stories. The first two are traditional romances. The third is an awful, dumb thriller, which creates an impossible situation then cheats its way out with the end of the section. The fourth has the most promise but only in terms of what happens immediately after the story ends and then at some point in the future in those characters’ stories. The last story, which finally gets around to revealing the dead girl, is terrible, but not the worst. The way Karen Moncrieff ends it, syrupy, tragic sweet… is an offense to the good work a lot of her actors put in.

The most amazing performance in the film is easily James Franco, just because he not only doesn’t suck, he’s actually really good. He’s in the second story with Rose Byrne (Byrne being the whole reason I had any interest in the film in the first place). She’s good, but her role’s so simple, it’d be hard for her not to be good. Other good performances include Marcia Gay Harden, Josh Brolin, and Giovanni Ribisi. Terrible, unspeakable ones… well, just Mary Steenburgen, who plays a stereotypical role (just like everyone else in the film except maybe Brolin and Ribisi) and does a really bad job of it. Kerry Washington’s good when she’s not doing her Mexican accent. I guess her eyes emote well. Mary Beth Hurt and Nick Searcy have the dumbest roles in the film and there’s really nothing for them to do with them.

The Dead Girl offers absolutely nothing new to… anything. It’s a useless film, filled with decent and good performances. Moncrieff’s an adequate director in parts, but usually not. There’s nothing distinctive about her composition (something I realized in the first five minutes, never a good sign). I guess her dialogue’s okay, but the film’s a bunch of Oprah episodes strung together, which might be fine if there were some artistry or competence involved.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Karen Moncrieff; director of photography, Michael Grady; edited by Toby Yates; music by Adam Gorgoni; produced by Eric Karten, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Kevin Turen and Henry Winterstern; released by First Look International.

Starring Josh Brolin (Tarlow), Rose Byrne (Leah), Toni Collette (Arden), Bruce Davison (Bill), James Franco (Derek), Marcia Gay Harden (Melora), Mary Beth Hurt (Ruth), Piper Laurie (Arden’s Mother), Brittany Murphy (Krista), Giovanni Ribisi (Rudy), Nick Searcy (Carl), Mary Steenburgen (Beverly) and Kerry Washington (Rosetta).


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