Robert Altman

Robert Altman

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Altman Review


This isn't a tell-all doc about the iconic filmmaker: it's a love letter from his friends and family. With a terrific range of film clips, home movies, behind-the-scenes footage and never-seen stills, this movie explores how Robert Altman's work has forever changed the way Hollywood makes movies, simply because his inventive filmmaking style forced everyone else to try and keep up.

After getting his start directing industrial films in Kansas City, Altman made the jump to Hollywood in the late 1950s, annoying a range of studio executives with his preference for naturalistic, overlapping dialogue in television programmes. Then he made the jump to cinema and took the world by storm with M.A.S.H. In 1970, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes and introducing the "Altmanesque" combination of earthy interaction, ensemble casts and political subtext. In his documentary, filmmaker Ron Mann cleverly asks many of Altman's actors to define the word Altmanesque, not as it relates to the movies but as it relates to the man himself.

Altman was a rare filmmaker who was loved by his casts and crews as well as the critics. Notoriously picky film journalist Pauline Kael famously wrote that "he can make film fireworks out of next to nothing", and this documentary demonstrates this with clips and backstage moments from his classics, ranging from McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) and Popeye (1980) to The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001). The film's focus is on his movies, although it's narrated through personal interviews with Altman and his widow Kathryn Reed and features some superb footage of his sons. It also traces his ongoing health issues, from his heart transplant to his death from leukaemia in 2006. But there's little mention of his lifelong anti-war efforts or his controversial efforts to legalise marijuana.

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Lynda Carter - Palm Springs Walk of Stars

Lynda Carter and Robert Altman - Lynda Carter accepts her star on on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars at Café Europa - Palm Springs, California, United States - Sunday 11th May 2014

Lynda Carter, Frank Ewing and Sabastian Reich
Lynda Carter and Robert Altman
Lynda Carter
Lynda Carter
Lynda Carter

Picture - Crew of Margin Call poses... , Saturday 25th February 2012

Robert Altman and Independent Spirit Awards - Crew of Margin Call poses with Robert Altman Saturday 25th February 2012 27th Annual Independent Spirit Awards at Santa Monica Beach - Press Room

Robert Altman and Independent Spirit Awards

Picture - Clifton Collins Jr and Guest Los Angeles, California, Friday 30th September 2011

Clifton Collins Jr. and Robert Altman - Clifton Collins Jr and Guest Los Angeles, California - Official Launch Party for the most anticipated video game of the year Rage held at Chinatown's Historical Central Plaza Friday 30th September 2011

Picture - Lynda Carter with husband Robert... Los Angeles, California, Friday 30th September 2011

Lynda Carter and Robert Altman - Lynda Carter with husband Robert Altman and son Los Angeles, California - Official Launch Party for the most anticipated video game of the year Rage held at Chinatown's Historical Central Plaza Friday 30th September 2011

Picture - Linda Carter with husband Robert... Los Angeles, California, Friday 30th September 2011

Robert Altman - Linda Carter with husband Robert Altman and son Los Angeles, California - Official Launch Party for the most anticipated video game of the year Rage held at Chinatown's Historical Central Plaza Friday 30th September 2011

Robert Altman
Robert Altman

Thieves Like Us Review

Those watching Robert Altman's 1974 Depression-era robbers-on-the-run film Thieves Like Us and looking for a Bonnie and Clyde-style antiheroic odyssey -- charismatic young lovers, blaze of glory, the whole deal -- will come away severely disappointed. Altman, fortunately, has other things on his mind than building up legends and stoking the coals of nostalgia. His robbers aren't savage animals, but they're far from dashing; opportunistic, venal, and unable to plan their lives more than five minutes into the future is a more apt description.

A languorous single take opens the film, sweeping across verdant Mississippi countryside being traversed by a railcar carrying a chain gang and armed guards, before spying a couple of other prisoners rowing their way across a pond, chatting about things inconsequential. A third accomplice shows up with a car and some civilian clothes. The car breaks down, they take off on foot. Eventually the trio -- a couple of hard cases, T-Dub (Bert Remsen) and Chickamaw (John Schuck), and one fresh-faced young Ozark farmboy, Bowie (Keith Carradine) previously serving life for a murder committed at 16 -- wind up at a relative's place, where they hide out and plan their first robbery. Because the three, who continually refer to themselves as "thieves," never seem to consider even for a moment to do anything but just keeping on robbing and running. And so they do.

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Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle Review

Alan Rudolph's loving portrayal of Dorothy Parker (a spot-on yet frequently incomprehensible Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a film for historians and literary fans alike, with a cast featuring more art-house favorites than any other movie in recent memory (just look at the cast list!). The film drips into treacle with its treatment of the love triangle among Parker, her husband (Matthew Broderick), and Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott). It's the primary focus of the movie but also its weakest link. The film is at its heights when the ensemble is in full force as Parker plies her wit around the Algonquin Round Table and various social affairs (all during the age of Prohibition). Leigh was snubbed on an Oscar nomination here despite a strong performance in a very weak year (Jessica Lange won for the tepid Blue Sky).

A Prairie Home Companion Review

Even among NPR fans - already a rather specific group - there is somewhat of a rift when it comes to the weekly program, A Prairie Home Companion. It's the sort of corny jokes and quaint folk singing that went out of fashion a half-century ago, and to listeners it can be a soothing throwback -- unbearably, cloyingly sweet -- or, to folks who drink Tab cola and wear Reading Rainbow screen-print tees, so uncool it's hip.The film of the same name is really just a barely fictionalized version of the radio show - the content is the same, the gentle, homey sensibility certainly is the same; the only real difference is the parts are played by superstar talent. So it has precisely the same appeal and built-in fans of the program. Fans of director Robert Altman will be most pleased. If you aren't a follower already, well, there is precisely nothing here to win you over. It's A Mighty Wind without the irony.Despite decades of popularity, it's the end of the road for A Prairie Home Companion, because the radio station was sold to a Texas corporation (undoubtedly one in the oil business) that sent someone north to fire the cast and raze the theatre. Flitting between onstage and off are the cast and crew, now abuzz at the thought of a looming axe: a pair of floopy, scattered singing sisters; two ribald cowpokes; a stage manager harried by the performers' eccentricities; a tritely rebellious teenager; a weepy sandwich lady and her lover; a blonde in a white trench coat acting as a ham-fisted filmic device; and a house detective so trapped in the dames-and-private dick era that he's named Guy Noir. At the center of it all is Garrison Keillor, playing himself as the unflappable, vaguely bewildered host of the program.The manic energy, overlapping scenes, and meandering (and often unresolved) storylines are all Altman trademarks, to be sure, but as scripted by Keillor, they all fit in nicely with this cozy brand of Americana. Also, the setting falls in with Altman's affinity for setting films amid the controlled chaos that goes into creating art, which has led him to making some masterpieces (The Player) and some majestic flops (Ready to Wear). Companion, it must be said, is neither.It does hop with rapid-fire wit, and the cast is enviable, if occasionally baffling. The standouts are hardly surprising - Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are charming as the flighty Johnson sisters; Kevin Kline embraces anachronism as the hapless Noir; and though it seems unfair to commend him for playing himself, Keillor is a delightful center to the storm. And though she may appear incongruous on the list of heavy-hitters and accomplished character players, Lindsay Lohan, playing Streep's sulky daughter, is either quite sweet or not intolerable, depending on how tired you are of her tabloid persona.The missteps are unmistakable, though, glaring despite the frantic pace and mishmash of characters and stories. Plot points are picked up and promptly dropped, which is simply ambiance when it is a running joke about how Keillor got into radio, but feels inappropriate when it is the death of one of the show's regulars. Including a luminescent angel of death worked well in All That Jazz, but here, poor Virginia Madsen is saddled with a clunky, useless, monotone role that is utterly pointless. And the unevenness of the Noir character is aggressively irritating - fart humor and slapstick who's-on-first routines? Really? That's beneath this film, or it should be.Perhaps the stylings of Keillor and Altman are oddly too well-suited. For rabid Companion fans - and perhaps avid Altman followers as well - the film is like watching something you have seen and loved a hundred times already, but in some new way. If you are outside the built-in audience, however, the entire film is an inside joke: someone can explain it to you, but it will never be as fun as if you just... got it.Can I get an Amen?

Quintet Review

Wow. If you've ever wanted proof that goiod filmmakers are capable of turning out junk from time to time, look no further than Quintet, Robert Altman's existentialist story about a game that the remaining survivors of an unspecified holocaust are forced to play. It's like Chinese Checkers, sort of, only it features real people who lose their lives when their piece is eliminated.

Alas, if you're expecting a taut thriller of who'll-survive-the-madness, think again. This is messy, roundabout filmmaking, full of cryptic dialogue, pregnant pauses, and symbolic imagery, all of which end up signifying absolutely nothing.

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Short Cuts Review

While one could argue that Robert Altman's 1993 film Short Cuts was simply an updating of his 1975 classic Nashville, with a much higher quotient of star power and slightly more prurient subject matter - an attempt to keep the once iconic filmmaker from straying into the shadowy irrelevance like so many of his '70s peers - and while that argument could very well be true, that doesn't deprive Short Cuts of any of its power, or disprove the fact that it's ultimately a better film.

Spinning together a series of short stories from the master of the form, Raymond Carver, Altman takes some 20-odd Los Angelenos and twists their lives together seemingly just for the fun of how their individual little lives play out and connect up, like a puppetmaster who can't stop adding new puppets to his repertoire. To flesh out his tapestry of early '90s Southern California life, Altman has a fine batch of actors and actresses, including everyone from the best of their generation (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr) to the solidly respectable but not terribly exciting choices (Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Madeleine Stowe) to oddly effective musician stunt casting (Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, Huey Lewis) to one lordly presence (Jack Lemmon).

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Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession Review

Z Channel was one of the first pay cable stations ever. It's "magnificent obsession" was movies, as Z Channel became known for being the definitive place to go for those obsessed with film -- snobs, cineastes, and plain old cinema junkies.

And then its programming chief killed his wife and himself.

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Secret Honor Review

Described in its opening credits as a "political myth," 1984's Secret Honor brings a legendary bit of American theater to the screen: Philip Baker Hall's tour de force turn as President Richard Nixon, originally staged for the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre, here filmed by Robert Altman as part of a filmmaking class he was then teaching at the University of Michigan. Although Altman is known as a director likely to stray from a script, his film version is faithful to the Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone play, and Hall reportedly reprises closely the performance he developed with the play's director, Robert Harders. (Altman bills Harders as "associate director.") If the project sounds unlikely, a reminder may be needed that Altman developed a few more plays for the screen around that time, such as Streamers and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. And for those who have come to associate Altman with well-populated films, a surprise: Secret Honor boasts a cast of exactly one.

It's a great cast just the same. Today we see Philip Baker Hall everywhere - his filmography for the past two years includes eight titles - but in 1984 he was largely known for his TV work and, for a lucky few, Secret Honor. His performance, obviously, is central to the film's success, and it's a doozie. But a quick look at the material will help to show why.

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Afterglow Review

It's hard to keep up with writer-director Alan Rudolph. He's put out almost a movie a year for the past 25 years without shortchanging his personal style and vision, and he keeps getting great casts along with production money from Robert Altman. Yet, he barely registers at the box office, so his movies get limited distribution and short theatrical runs. To see an Alan Rudolph movie you have to go find one.

Rudolph makes movies about characters living out their fates in ways we often understand and see in ourselves. And though his characters come off as real, his movies seem contrived, sliding between the edges of sweet and biting, while running off on tangents that both intrigue and bore. All at the same time. It's a disorientation he relishes: his view of life and how people really behave. With movies like Choose Me, Trixie, Investigating Sex, and The Secret Lives of Dentists, Rudolph's career is a living, breathing embodiment of quixotic variability.

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Cookie's Fortune Review

Quick: Name Robert Altman's last movie.

Nope, it's not Short Cuts. It's not The Player. It was The Gingerbread Man. Before that it was Kansas City. And before that, Ready to Wear. It's been six years since Altman's last decent picture. And he's got a lot to redeem himself for.

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Robert Altman

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