Rating: The Good – 87.4 Genre: Satire, War Duration: 116 mins Director: Robert Altman Stars: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt
Robert Altman unfolds his broad interpersonal canvas to stunning effect in this classic piece of American cinema. Bold, hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, there are few statements on war as focused as what he serves up here. Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerrit, and Elliot Gould are at their unorthodox best as the ragtag bunch of draftee surgeons working three miles from the front line of the Korean War to keep their spirits high and the endless wounded alive. Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall are a hoot as the stiff career officers whom they pester unmercifully both intentionally and unintentionally. As with most of Altman’s films, the plot isn’t what drives M.A.S.H but rather the satirical vignettes which loosely coalesce around the personal conflicts. Whether it’s Hot Lips and Major Burns’ infamous broadcast or the gleeful irreverence of that “Last Supper”, Altman’s dry script and impeccable distance, not to mention the immense craft of his actors ensured they became immortal moments of humour. The result is an iconic piece of film making and one of the few movies that helps to definitively mark a moment in time and culture without ever feeling dated. “Hot Lips you incredible nincompoop, it’s the end of the quarter!”
Rating: The Good – 85.2 Genre: Crime Duration: 112 mins Director: Robert Altman Stars: Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden
Stunning, audacious, daring, provocative, ingenious are only some of the adjectives one could aptly use to describe Robert Altman’s affectionate parody of the Raymond Chandler novel. Elliott Gould is in the form of his career as the famous P.I. Phillip Marlowe but his isn’t the type of portrayal we saw from Bogart, Powell, or even Mitchum. His is a scruffy, wearily bemused, mischievous, and ultimately more complicated Marlowe. In fact, some may argue that this last similarity makes him more akin to Chandler’s notion. As as is typical for any of the Marlowes though, this one gets embroiled in a couple of cases that may or may not be related to the apparent suicide of his friend who was on the run for the murder of his wife. And as Marlowe carries out his own investigation he discovers some dark secrets that ultimately lead to a spectacular conclusion that brings this beloved character full circle from the point at which he was first created on paper.
There are no two ways about it – Gould is just sensational as the mumbling detective who lives with his cat and across from a hippy commune of naked women. As we’d expect, he handles the satirical element of Altman’s project effortlessly but that he manages to channel the purest understanding of Marlowe while doing so is really quite stunning. For much of the time the world-weariness that defined Mitchum’s turn in Farewell My Lovely seems to determine everything Gould’s Marlowe does and is likely to do (albeit in a less pessimistic manner) but, at key moments, the unique sense of justice which defined the detective on paper can be felt simmering – until one exquisite moment when it explodes! The supporting cast is also fantastic from Sterling Hayden who improvised most his lines to Mark Rydell as the seriously eccentric and equally terrifying mobster (you know it’s a scary performance when it even manages to blot out a pre-stardom Arnold Schwarzenegger as his henchman).
As usual, Altman’s documentary-like style adds a captivating quality to the proceedings and there is much fun to be had as he repeatedly tips his hat to old and new Hollywood alike. It’s a daring piece of film-making that paints a rich picture of L.A. both seedy and romantic and makes intuitive use of Leigh Brackett’s marvelously attentive screenplay. Given it’s commentary on the genre, it might strike one as a curious film to include among the great noir works but, in actuality, The Long Goodbye stands alongside the great films-noirs regardless of (or perhaps even because of) its ability to step outside the genre and look in.
Richard Attenborough’s WWII epic counts as a spiritual sequel to The Longest Day by providing a sprawling account of Montgomery’s overambitious Operation Market Garden. The film moves forward at a beautiful pace taking its time to develop each of the several main characters. It eases between the various divisions and units that are responsible for leading the different elements of the attack and it’s a testament to Attenborough’s direction and William Goldman’s screenplay that it never loses the audience’s attention. The cast of A-listers are too numerous to account for but like any good military campaign they all do their bit. The action scenes are in the main sensational and on a scale rarely seen in even the biggest and most modern of films. In fact, in many ways A Bridge Too Far is a case of art imitating life as the logistics involved in the production of this film must have rivaled those that went into the actual battles themselves. It isn’t all perfect as some of the close-shots during the fighting come off a little rushed and a small few of the battle sequences are a tad uninspired. There are also a couple too many subplots crammed into the 175 minutes and dispensing with the weaker ones (such as James Caan’s attempts to protect his fragile young lieutenant) would have given the film a more streamlined feel. That said, what makes A Bridge Too Far so special are the moments in between the battles that don’t quite add up to subplots but just a series of vignettes that acknowledge the personal dimension to soldiering. And on that criteria, there are few that can rival it.
Rating: The Good – 67.3 Genre: Thriller, Disaster Duration: 106 mins Director: Steven Sodernergh Stars: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law
Steven Soderbergh has recently announced his intention to retire from directing and given the rate at which he has been churning them out over the last few years, one can understand his desire to step back. The calibre of these films is also impressive with every one of them proving interesting in their own way. Contagion is certainly no exception as it’s a uniquely sleek take on the “outbreak” movie. It follows the outbreak of a lethal hybrid strain of the swine and bird flus from “patient 0” to the point of near apocalypse with specific focus on the attempts of the various scientists and experts to culture, sequence, and kill the virus.
Contagion has many admirable qualities. Laurence Fishburn and Elliott Gould give standout performances as respectively a government and private scientist. Kate Winslet is even better as Fisburn’s “person on the ground” while Matt Damon as the beleaguered husband of Gwenneth Paltrow’s “patient 0” is strong despite the movie’s overall problem with personal subplots (more on this below). Soderbergh combines much of the exposition (of which the film has a lot) with Cliff Martinez’ energised score and overlaps the scenes with his usual verve. This gives the film a solid momentum despite the majority of the action being dialogue-based. Scott Z. Burns’ script is polished and technically informed which emphasises the authentic vibe which his director’s style naturally brings. The film is also full of striking imagery such as Jude Law’s subversive blogger wandering through the deserted streets tacking his propaganda flyers to walls and lamp posts while kitted out in an oxygen suit which evokes memories of Bruce Willis’ sample gathering expeditions in Twelve Monkeys.
Contagion tries its best to show snippets of the wider “outbreak” story. That is, it covers both the technical and medical efforts to contain the virus and the personal trials of the average Joe Citizen. The problem is that Soderbergh’s quasi-documentarian direction and Burns’ (the Bourne Ultimatum) slick writing style are both excellent at capturing the former but not always great at the latter. A better balance was needed on this project to prevent the sharp procedural and dispassionate quality of the scientific investigative scenes carrying over into the subjective drama thereby neutralising it. Thus, despite a considerable amount of time looking at the changes and stresses to the domestic life of many of its protagonists, there’s a distinctly impersonal feel to the story. This is particularly the case with Damon’s subplot which is almost entirely emotionally framed. The film would be better served if they had of discarded the personal stuff and focused exclusively on the technical and bureaucratic drama which in truth the film needed more of.
A second major issue concerns Law’s greedy blogger. Though there are some nice attempts to invert typical notions of conspiracy caricatures (including a nice nod to 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), such is the extent of his paranoia and his influence that it comes across as a little unbelievable. As such, this potentially fascinating subplot feels a little out of kilter with the rest of the film and only serves to distract from the extremely clear and even surgical focus of the main drama. Another subplot involving Marion Cotillard’s World Health Organisation agent and some Chinese kidnappers is equally daft.
Contagion is a laudable effort from a great director and top cast and it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Fukasaku’s Virus and maybe even Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. As it is, it will probably please most mature science fiction fans though it certainly feels like it tried to do too much and got caught between two stools. Thus, those with a broader interest in film appreciation will be frustrated by the missed opportunities.
Rating: The Ugly – 66.7 Genre: Thriller Duration: 123mins Director: Peter Hyams Stars: Elliott Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro
Capricorn One is a decent conspiracy thriller about NASA faking a mission to Mars, the reaction of the astronauts forced to take part in the charade, and the reporter who gets wind of it. Despite being made in the 1970’s, this film isn’t on the same level as the great conspiracy films of that era. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is the only aspect of the film that does reach that level. There are plot holes galore and who knows what Peter Hyams thought he was doing with that ending. However, for the most part this film works probably down to the interesting premise and the watchability of Elliott Gould as the reporter, James Brolin and Sam Waterstone as the astronauts, and the always excellent Hal Holbrook as the sinister NASA scientist.